In the Shadow of the Garrison State
The force posture and strategy adopted by the United States were clearly sufficient to deter overt Soviet aggression. Despite the anxieties of the military planners, no direct attack on the U.S. or its allies was ever forthcoming. Unless one is inclined to believe that the Soviets did not at any time harbor aggressive intentions toward the West, some part of the credit for this outcome must go to the military strength of the United States. At the same time, it is certainly possible that the Soviet inclination toward risk-taking was far lower than American strategists feared, and that the same result could have been achieved at a much lower level of military capability.
Thankfully, what would have happened if deterrence had failed and conflict between the superpowers had actually broken out must remain forever a mystery. We cannot know with assurance whether American preparations for war with the Soviet Union would have been sufficient to achieve victory, or to avoid defeat, or even to prevent national disintegration. The outcome of a third world war would no doubt have been different depending on when it occurred. If the Soviets had themselves been able to generate the capacity for offensive operations, they might perhaps have been able to achieve quick victories during the period of comparative Western weakness that followed the end of the Second World War. The massive buildup that began during the Korean conflict, and especially the rapid accumulation of nuclear weapons that continued through the 1950s, might have permitted the United States to wreak terrible devastation on the Soviet Union while at the same time limiting damage to itself and perhaps to its allies as well. As Soviet power grew in the 1960s and 1970s, the likelihood that a superpower conflict could have been won in any meaningful sense of the word probably diminished. On the other hand, as American preparations for and thinking about actual large-scale warfighting dwindled in seriousness and intensity while Soviet capabilities continued to expand, it is at least conceivable that the United States and its allies could have suffered some stunning military setbacks. On these matters, the historian's puzzlement is the world's great good fortune.
What impact did the strategy and force posture into which the United States eventually settled have on the course and ultimate conclusion of its long-term competition with the Soviet Union? The answer to this question is knowable, at least in principle, although it cannot be said at this point to be known. A final judgment will depend not only on an analysis of American actions and intentions, but on an assessment of Soviet perceptions and behavior.
One aspect of American strategy deserves special attention: the persistent, deeply ingrained U.S. propensity for pursuing technological advantage gave the American defense effort a dynamism that it might otherwise have lacked and that seems, over time, to have imposed real and significant burdens on the Soviet Union. Even within the confines of the basic flexible response posture that it had adopted by the early 1960s, the United States continued to press ahead with qualitative improvements that the Soviets found increasingly difficult and costly to match or offset. The acceleration of progress in electronics and computing in the 1960s and the subsequent arrival of what Soviet analysts would label the 'third revolution in military affairs' appear to have been particularly stressful in this regard. There is some evidence to suggest that in their efforts to keep pace with the West, Soviet planners felt compelled in the 1960s and 1970s to shift an even greater share of scarce scientific and technological resources from the civilian to the military sector, thereby contributing to a continuing slowdown in productivity growth and in national economic expansion. And there are reasons for believing also that in the 1980s it was anxiety over the prospect of falling technologically ever further behind that impelled the Soviet military to acquiesce in Mikhail Gorbachev's disastrous efforts at economic and political reform.
The manner in which the Cold War ended suggests that the conventional wisdom about the qualitative arms race is badly in need of revision. The relentless American search for superiority was not as pointless or as dangerous as is commonly believed. To the contrary, it may be the well-intentioned efforts of Western diplomats and arms control experts to slow or stop the advance of military technology that were misguided and counterproductive. Perhaps if they had succeeded better at their task the Cold War would still be going on. The United States applied continuing technological pressure to the USSR, but it did not adopt a strategic stance that was so aggressive and threatening as to make the Soviet leadership believe that war was imminent, or to fear at any point that 'war now' might be preferable to 'war later.'