I recently ran across an elaboration of a famous quote, to wit:
“Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”
I couldn’t immediately identify the author but it struck to the heart of the frustration I often feel when writing about Cold War history and even contemporary national security issues. This post and the one that follows will track back to those subjects and address some lessons which have clearly not been learned – some from bad experiences less than a decade old which are so fully documented and coldly factual that it seems almost impossible that we could be repeating them so quickly.
Several readers will no doubt be familiar with the “mad man” strategy introduced by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in the last years of the Vietnam conflict. Nixon very much wanted to bring an end to the fighting but both men wanted to do so while somehow appearing to preserve the international image of overwhelming American military strength. Not only was such an outcome virtually impossible, but in reality the years of focus on SE Asia had given the Soviets the time required to match and even exceed both the nuclear strike and defensive capabilities that America had possessed at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. At that point in time, the U.S. did indeed have an advantage which would have allowed it to conduct a terrifyingly decisive atomic strike on the Soviets. That advantage had given JFK the leverage he needed to force Khrushchev back from his intended covert effort to neutralize the American advantage by placing a nuclear striking force within decapitation range of both American command and control and SAC’s bomber and missile bases.
Nixon had no such advantage in the early 1970’s, mutual assured destruction was a fact. Yet given that conventional combat had obviously failed in the Vietnam conflict, the nuclear option was the only military alternative – but only a mad man would turn to it. Which led Nixon and Kissinger to develop the “mad man” strategy, portraying Nixon as so desperate and literally out of control that he was on the verge of using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. The strategy was intended to force negotiations and a viable peace settlement which would preserve an independent South Vietnam. Lesson one, that didn’t work.
A bit over a decade later something similar may – or may not – have happened. It involved a series of events that I explore in some detail in Surprise Attack, basically what happened was that President Reagan engaged in a massive American military buildup accompanied by a series of public statements which essentially convinced the Soviet military and civilian leadership that the West was intent on a preemptive atomic war. What remains unclear is whether or not Reagan actually knew details of some of the military exercises and activities that fueled the Russian fears. Whether he did and it was all part of some effectively hidden plan or whether some of his advisers were pursuing a strategy without his knowledge is open to debate. Regardless, it was effective enough that for a period of time the Soviets fully anticipated a preemptive strike, deployed a highly covert effort to detect preparations in time for warning and on one or more occasions were seriously panicked enough to consider a strike of their own in response to the threat. Lesson 2, perception can become reality. How that near crisis evolved to the first true reduction in nuclear weapons reads as nothing short of a miracle.
Forward to 2013/2014, at a time where relations between the West and the Russian Federation had moved to the point where Russia was being truly integrated into a global partnership and the Cold War had become a historical event. At that point Russian President Putin suddenly appears to have gone mad. In a course reversal almost impossible to grasp, within two years Russian returned to frequent public pronouncements regarding its nuclear weaponry, ceased its move to stockpile reductions and began to aggressively deploy new nuclear weapons systems. Russian moves in Eastern Europe, combined with showcasing what truly were awesome new weapons systems created a situation which forced America had to readdress its own nuclear force, which it had been quietly letting drift into history. Was Putin truly mad, locked into the Cold War paranoiac mindset in which he had reached power? Or was he, like other leaders before him, turning to the national security card for political purposes – at a time in which Russian oil production seemed not only capable of sustaining a military renewal but a point in which the U.S. could be driven into a level of spending that would generate the financial crisis that the Soviets faced in the early Reagan years. Lesson 3, playing the national security card for internal political gain is seductive, and dangerous to one and all.
Three presidents, two American and one Russian. Each seems to have toyed with the advantage of bringing extreme fear into play to pursue their international goals. One failed, one came close to triggering Armageddon and one is currently at risk of destroying his own nation’s economy and international credibility. However at the time, each decided that an image of strength and assertiveness was their tool of choice. Perhaps most frightening, for two of the three, their choices had immense popular appeal within their own nations, regardless of its risk.