Assessing Early Cold War Overestimations of Soviet Capabilities and Intent and its Applicability to Current U.S.- China Relations

Major John Bolton is a U.S. Army officer and doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. He previously commanded Bravo Company, 209th Aviation Support Battalion, served as the Executive Officer for 2-25 Assault Helicopter Battalion, and the Brigade Aviation Officer for 4/25 IBCT (Airborne). He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program and holds degrees in military history and mechanical engineering. An AH-64D/E Aviator, he has deployed multiple times with Engineer, Aviation, and Infantry units. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing Early Cold War Overestimations of Soviet Capabilities and Intent and its Applicability to Current U.S.- China Relations

Date Originally Written:  January 5, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  February 22, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an Active Duty U.S. Army Officer attending a PhD program focused on American Foreign Policy. The author believes America tends to overestimate threat capabilities and too quickly resorts to military analysis or responses without considering better Whole of Government approaches. 

Summary:  Though it can illuminate adversaries’ worldview, when predicting actions, analyzing ideology is less effective than traditional balance of power frameworks. During the Cold War, American assumptions about a monolithic Communist block controlled by Moscow blinded American policymakers to opportunities (and challenges) from China to Vietnam. Even in ideological conflicts, states tend to act rationally in the international sphere.

Text:

“When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right[1].

– Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense

A paramount transferable Cold War lesson is the need to disconnect ideology from assessment of state behavior. During the initial stages of the Cold War (1947-1953), American administrations habitually overestimated Soviet military capability and viewed Soviet and Chinese actions through an East vs. West ideological lens that was often inaccurate. Moreover, American policymakers assumed ideological agreement easily translated into operational coordination, even when America and its allies could hardly manage to do so. As a result of this ideological focus, the United States expended resources and energy building far more nuclear weapons than balance required and unnecessarily shunned Communist China for over 20 years. Today this pattern is repeating as scholars and defense planners increasingly ascribe China’s actions to ideological, rather than geopolitical factors[2]. Or, failing to see the obvious, policymakers have coined new monikers such as “revisionist” toward normal, if aggressive, behavior. 

Ideology does far better in explaining a state’s domestic rather than international actions. Viewed using Waltz’s 3rd image (interstate interactions), states consider their interests and the balance of power, rather than what their domestic ideology demands[3]. As a result, interstate behavior is remarkably consistent with the balance of power. To be sure, some states are more aggressive than others due to ideology, governmental structure, or individual leaders. However, according to defense analysis geopolitical factors remain predominant as they have since the Peloponnesian War[4].

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Adolph Hitler’s demand at Munich in 1938 is widely considered to have contributed to the German invasion of Poland the following year. However, Chamberlain’s acquiesce to Hitler’s demands came as much from balance of power analysis based on British and French weakness as a desire for peace or pacifist leanings at home[5]. Had the Allies been better prepared for war; a more stable balance of power could have preempted, or at least stalled, Nazi aggression. 

American policy during the Cold War drew heavily from George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” and 1947 “X” article. Kennan, based on extensive personal experience, depicted the insular, paranoid nature of Soviet Stalinism. Such a state could not be changed but would eventually collapse as a result of a defunct government and sclerotic body politic[6]. As a result, Kennan recommended that the United States “contain” the Soviets within their current sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Though he stood by his description of Soviet society and his prognosis for the eventual demise of the Soviet System, Kennan would later distance himself from the aggressive form of containment adopted in his name[7].

Two brief examples illustrate the perils of assuming too much regarding an opponent’s ideology: the U.S.-Soviet “Missile Gap” and the American failure to foresee the Sino-Soviet Spilt. The “Missile Gap” was the alleged insufficiency of American nuclear forces relative to Soviet missiles that became a major talking point after the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik. Despite officials under U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower repeatedly providing intelligence demonstrating U.S.-Soviet parity, and a general qualitative and quantitative American superiority, then-senator John F. Kennedy and defense hawks lambasted the Eisenhower Administration as “weak” for the supposed failure to match Soviet arms[8]. The “gap,” however, never existed. Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense later called the missile gap a “myth…[created] by emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon[9].”

Likewise, American policy toward Communist China took a hard turn toward the ideological, isolating Communist China even more so than the Soviet Russia. Though a dedicated Marxist-Leninist, Chinese leader Chairman Mao Tse-tung was foremost a patriot, focused on restoring a strong, independent China. Soviet influence, much less command and control, was limited, especially when compared to communist movements in Europe. From the Chinese Communist (CCP) takeover in 1949 until the Korean War, many State Department officials believed that after 2-3 years the U.S. and China could renew relations – that Mao could function as an Asian counterpart to Tito’s relatively moderate communism in Yugoslavia[10]. After the Korean War, however, with Cold War frameworks hardened, American policymakers failed to see clear indications of the forthcoming Sino-Soviet split, despite ample evidence from as early as the end of WWII[11]. The net result was delaying for nearly forestalling for 20 years what became a highlight of American diplomacy, the U.S.-China rapprochement under Nixon.

For a nation so heavily committed to freedom, Americans have shown a strange persistent tendency to simplify other states to ideological stereotypes we discount for ourselves. This has terribly clouded the contemporary China debate. China as a competitor is a function of geopolitics, namely structural and geographic factors, more so than ideology[12]. This conclusion does not discount the importance of CCP ideology, but provides context. While Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CCP have espoused the “China Dream” and embraced a particularly aggressive form of Chinese Nationalism, this has not necessarily translated into China’s international actions, which are much better explained by balance of power analysis. As a growing state in a competitive environment, China’s actions make sense as it seeks to flex its power and establish regional supremacy. China’s history of foreign intrusion and suffering during the “Century of Humiliation” of course color its contemporary maneuvers, but they are not substantially different from what we would expect any emerging power to do. It is also worth considering that Xi’s use of nationalism is largely focused on domestic audiences as a means to consolidate CCP power[13].

Nothing in the previous paragraph discounts the very real challenge China presents to the United States and smaller states of Southeast Asia, two of which are American allies. However, Xi’s development of a Chinese sphere of influence, largely built on bilateral trade agreements is not necessarily about “freezing out” the United States. In short, China is not a Communist state focused on world domination; in fact, its xenophobic nationalism of late is detrimental to that end. China is focused on its own exceptionalism, not ending America’s[14]. 

A clear lesson of the Cold War is the danger of oversimplification. Doing so makes caricatures of real conflicts and leads to poor policy. In the examples above the United States lost 20 years of exploiting the Sino-Soviet Split and spent billions on arguably useless extra nuclear weapons. Moreover, a presumption that ideological coherence between disparate adversaries leads operational coordination is foolhardy without evidence. Even in the midst of an ideological conflict, it is best the United States detaches an overly simplistic ideological lens to properly respond with the most effective means at our disposal[15]. Analysis requires rationality. 


Endnotes:

[1] Zenko, Micah (October 12, 2012). 110% Right 0% of the Time, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/16/100-right-0-of-the-time.

[2] Huang, Yanzhong. (September 8, 2020). America’s Political Immune System Is Overreacting to China. From https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/08/america-overreacting-to-china-political-immune-system; Colby, Elbridge, discussion regarding State Department’s May 2020 China Policy Paper, from https://youtu.be/KyBVmSaua5I.

[3] Waltz, K. N. (2018). Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.159-170.

[4] Kaplan, R. D. (2013). The Revenge Of Geography: What The Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts And The Battle Against Fate.

[5] Munich Agreement, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Munich-Agreement.

[6] See https://www.trumanlibraryinstitute.org/this-day-in-history-2/; Kennan, (July 1947). The Sources of Soviet Conduct, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/1947-07-01/sources-soviet-conduct.

[7] Hogan, M. J. (1998). A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511664984

[8] Preble, Christopher (December 2003). “Who Ever Believed in the ‘Missile Gap’?”: John F. Kennedy and the Politics of National Security. Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, no. 4. 

[9] McNamara quoted in Ibid. 

[10] See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, The Far East: China, Volume VII, Documents 6, 270, 708, 617; Finkelstein, D. M. (1993). Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950: From Abandonment to Salvation. George Mason University Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=8RW7AAAAIAAJ

[11] Butterworth, Walton. (May 1950). China in Mid-Revolution, Speech at Lawrenteville, NJ, May 1950, Butterworth Papers, George Marshall Library, Lexington, VA. Box 3, Folder 13.

[12] Lester, Simon. (January 6, 2019). Talking Ourselves into a Cold War with China. From https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/talking-ourselves-cold-war-china; Wang, Z. (2012). Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. Columbia University Press.

[13] Colby, Elbridge, discussion regarding State Department’s May 2020 China Policy Paper, from https://youtu.be/KyBVmSaua5I.

[14] Bacevich, Andrew. (January 4, 2021). America’s Defining Problem In 2021 Isn’t China: It’s America, from https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/americas-defining-problem-in-2021-isnt-china-its-america.

[15] Herring, George. (2002). America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. McGraw-Hill, 225-235.

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