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Building Up Our Picture of the Cold War

J. Bradford DeLong

Marc Trachtenberg (1999), A Constructed Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 0691002738).

Why was the Cold War so hot?

Between 1945 and 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union danced toward the brink of nuclear war and back again with alarming frequency. Yet--or so Marc Trachtenberg argues--there ought to have been a stable, easily-attained Cold Peace in the twenty years after World War II instead of the Cold War that we in fact had.

Trachtenberg sees the Soviet Union's strategic interests in Europe as straightforward: hold what they had gained during and immediately after World War II for world communism, prevent the reemergence of an armed, aggressive, eastward-looking Germany, and wait until--as happened after World War I--inter-capitalist rivalries dissolved the western allies, their imperialist tensions led to yet a third round of wars between the imperialist capitalist powers, and only then move forward to consolidate world revolution.

Trachtenberg sees the western alliance's strategic interests in Europe as straightforward: deter the Soviet Union from military adventurism, prevent the emergence of a strong, aggressive, revanchist Germany, and wait--until the east bloc's internal contradictions led to a softening of its regime and an end to the totalitarian threat that Stalin posed.

Both of these strategic interests could, it seems, be easily obtained. Everyone should accept the division of Europe, the division of Germany, and the tight bonding of each piece of Germany to its own allies. And everyone should wait for social and economic competition--rather than war accompanied by nuclear devastation--to bring a decision as to which social and economic system was better for human progress. Such a Cold Peace would have been accompanied by speeches and debates and majority resolutions--but not by blood and iron--not by bombers with nuclear weapons loaded parked on runways on five-minute alert, not by repeated crises over access to west Berlin and the location of nuclear-tipped missiles.

So why didn't we have it?

Marc Trachtenberg's answer has two parts. The first is that the Eisenhower administration sought to get security on the cheap--to save money relative to what the Truman administration had planned. Thus Eisenhower wound up with a very destabilizing strategy for the defense of western Europe: that the moment war seemed imminent, the United States strategic nuclear arsenal would be launched to destroy Soviet combat formations, destroy Soviet logistical infrastructure, destroy Soviet industrial capacity, and in the process kill at least tens of millions of people. That the United States was following such a military strategy and had in fact sought and attained what looked from Moscow to be the capability to launch a sudden, surprise, devastating, and decisive first strike had to make leaders in the Kremlin very, very nervous.

The second part of Marc Trachtenberg's answer is that another part of the Eisenhower "security on the cheap" policy involved building up West German military capacity as fast and as far as they could, and involved binding West Germany to the rest of NATO by expressing great sympathy for German wishes for reunification, and perhaps for readjustment of a united Germany's eastern borders back to locations east of the Oder-Neisse line at the expense of Poland. This part of American policy posed a direct threat to the Soviet Union's vital strategic interests: it was too close to being the re-creation of the German-superpower-poised-to-strike-at-Russia to be acceptable, especially if West Germany were to acquire nuclear weapons.

So, according to Marc Trachtenberg, we did not get a Cold Peace until U.S. strategy changed so that it no longer posed direct and immediate threats to the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union's nuclear deterrent was large enough to have a second-strike capability NATO strategy had to shift from massive and immediate--perhaps preemptive--nuclear war to a more balanced force posture that contained less of an automatic runup of the ladder of escalation. Once it became clear that West Germany was not going to acquire nuclear weapons and that its forces were effectively contained in the force structures of the Atlantic alliance, then from Moscow's point of view the U.S. had done its principal job: keeping the Germans down. And there could be peace in Europe.

Now I think that there are two potential flaws in Trachtenberg's argument.

The first is that his picture of U.S. nuclear strategy in the 1950s seems to me to pick out one thread but one thread only of what was a confused muddle. It may well be that NATO force structures in the 1950s were such that a war against the Soviet Union could be won if and only if NATO struck hard, immediately, with both all tactical and strategic nuclear weapons before the Warsaw Pact's initial blows could land. But logical consistency is not a property of bureaucracies or even of generals and political leaders. Different people in the bureaucracy have different views--and advance their views in the documents they write as if they are settled policy. And people are conflicted.

Thus, for example, Trachtenberg writes--in his discussion of his argument that NATO strategy in the 1950s involved "massive preemption--certainly in operational terms, and to a considerable extent in fundamental strategic terms" (p. 162)--that "Western leaders, of course, thought of themselves as the kind of people who would never start a war, and in a number of documents a strategy of preemption was explicitly ruled out. But it is hard to take such statements at face value, given both the logic of the strategy and the many documents that point in the opposite direction" (p. 164). This seems to me to be possibly fallacious: Eisenhower and company wanted to win any war that began by making sure that they caught the Russian planes on the ground and that NATO planes were not caught on the ground; Eisenhower and company also did not want to be the ones to start a war. How this would have worked out in practice is anyone's guess, but it seems to me a significant overstatement to say that U.S. doctrine in the 1950s was a doctrine of strategic nuclear preemption rather than, as Solly Zuckerman called it, a "woolly and diffuse" muddle (p. 168).

The second is that the Cold War was an ideological war. Even had the German question and the defense-of-western-Europe question been solved to everyone's satisfaction in 1948, we still would have seen the Korean War, the Taiwan question, the East German riots of 1953, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and so on and so forth. Solving the German question would not have shifted east-west competition into social and economic and propaganda realms. It would just have eliminated one--albeit a big one--of the potential flashpoints.

Thus I conclude that Mar Trachtenberg's book is a very good book. But it is a very good book on the post-WWII German question and on the role of NATO--which was, as we all know, to keep "the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." It isn't a book on the broader Cold War as a whole.

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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