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Are U.S. -Soviet Relations Rational?
AUTHOR Major Larry W. Fivecoat, USMC
CSC 1988
SUBJECT AREA National Security
                        EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
I,    Purpose: To  better understand the foundations of irrational
U. S. -Soviet relationships  during the preceding four  decades.   To
dispel popular "myths" concerning our views of conflict to preclude  a
future of four more decades of irrational behavior.
II.  Thesis:  The U. S. has experienced distorted views creating four
decades of irrationality in U.S.-Soviet relations.
III. Data:  The confrontationist view of U.S. policy toward the Soviet
Union is based, upon false original assumptions and is inapplicable to
the  Soviet Union as it has changed over the  years.   International
conflict has  gone past the first or "heroic" phase  of good  people
versus  bad into the  second  "academic"  phase  where  we seek to
understand the motives of the other side.   Four decades ago there was
a  massive turnaround in U.S.  policy where the Soviet Union went from
being the  "gallant ally" to the "evil empire."   Truman's firing  of
General  MacArthur  symbolized   U.S.   leadership's   adoption  of
Clausewitz'  theory  of war being a continuation of policy by other
means;  breaking with the populace view of separate war and peace.  In
July 1947,  George F.  Kennan,  state department official, wrote under
the pseudonym "X" an article on containment.   It was roundly adopted
by  all U.S.  policy makers and many irrational decisions of the  Cold
War were drawn from it.   The notion of containment became military in
practice and global in scope.   It contributed to U.S.  militarization
and forced the pace of military  competition.   Kennan  rebuked the
application  of his article on containment by parochial interests in
the  spring of 1987 and expressed his displeasure and sorrow over the
misunderstanding that evolved from it.   His article helped create  a
military  aspect to the problem of containment in 1987 which  did  not
exist four decades ago.  The Soviet system has incorrectly been viewed
as  a  static entity.   Understanding the nature of both the  Soviet
system  and  its  people is important to  approaching international
solutions  with the Soviet Union vice monolithic stereotyping.   From
the political theories of conflict of Machiavelli,  Clausewitz, Lenin,
and Mao Tse-tung emerges what could be called a universal truth.  They
all shared the perception that war and politics exist as part of the
same process and thus are always interrelated.
IV.  Conclusions:   U.S. policy makers set the stage in 1947 for four
decades of irrational thought in U.S.-Soviet relations.  The misuse of
Kennan's theory of containment and the selective use of Clausewitz'
theory  on conflict created a disparity between U.S.  leaders and the
U.S. people.
V.   Summary:   U.S.  policy  makers  have  abused the theories  of
Clausewitz  and  applied  certain ones  at their convenience.    If
statesmen  and military leaders would educate the populace concerning
the theories  of conflict,  they can better serve both  nations  and
launch four  decades of unparalleled  rationality in   U.S.-Soviet
THESIS:  The  U.S   has  experienced  distorted views  creating four
         decades of irrationality in U.S.-Soviet relations.
I.   Trace current U.S.-Soviet relationship
     A.  "X" on containment theory of communism (1947)
     B.  "X" Kennan on containment (1987)
II.  American attitude
     A.  History
     B.  Evolution
III. Soviet attitude
     A.  History
     B.  Evolution
IV.  Comparison of political theories of conflict
     A.  Machiavelli
     B.  Clausewitz
     C.  Lenin
     D.  Mao Tse-tung
V.   Tie in U.S. view/adoption of Clausewitz' theory of conflict
VI.  Clausewitz' theory applied to U.S.-Soviet relations
     The  U.S.  has  maintained distorted views  of  reality
through   four  decades  of  irrationality  in   U.S.-Soviet
relations.   The  confrontationist  view that has  dominated
U.S.   policy   toward  the  Soviet  Union  is  based   upon
assumptions  that were questionable to start with,  and  are
increasingly  inapplicable  to the Soviet Union  as  it  has
changed over the years.
     International   conflict  has  characteristically  gone
through  two  phases.   In  the  first  or  "heroic"  phase,
historians  portray a struggle of right  against  wrong,  of
good  people  resisting  bad.   Then,  as  time  passes  and
emotions  subside,  historians  enter the second  "academic"
phase, when they seek to understand the motives of the other
side.  Historically, we move from melodrama to tragedy.
     Forty  years ago the United States went through one  of
the  most remarkable transformations in  American  politics
It  was  a  period  when  the matrix of  the  Cold  War  was
established--a  period  of  heroic  accomplishments  and  of
serious  mistakes.   Within the space of a few months  there
was a massive turnaround in U.S.  policy,  from a period  of
collaboration  with  the Soviet Union as the "gallant  ally"
that had contributed heroically and with great loss of  life
to the defeat of the Nazi armies,  to an alarmed and belated
response  to the problems of the postwar world--the emerging
Soviet  dominance in Eastern Europe and a  perceived  Soviet
threat to the Balkans and to Western Europe.
     In  March  1947  the  Truman  Doctrine  announced  the
commitment   to   resist   Soviet   expansionism   anywhere.
President Truman declared that it must be the policy of  the
United  States  to support free peoples who  were  resisting
attempted  subjugation  by  armed minorities or  by  outside
pressures   (8:831)  In June the Marshall Plan was  launched
to restore the economic vitality and political confidence of
Western Europe.   In July George Kennan published an article
in  Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X," since he was  a
state department employee at the time.
     "X" on containment (1947):
     It  must invariably be assumed in Moscow that the  aims
of  the  capitalist  world are antagonistic  to  the  Soviet
regime,  and  therefore  to the interests of the  people  it
controls....   In  these circumstances it is clear that  the
main  element of any United States policy toward the  Soviet
Union  must  be that of a long-term,  patient but  firm  and
vigilant   containment  of  Russian  expansive   tendencies.
     Stalin  perceived  the Marshall Plan as part of a  U.S.
effort to undermine Soviet efforts to establish a cordon  in
Eastern Europe against a revival of a German threat. (2:76)
     The  notion of containment became increasingly military
and  global.   By  overemphasizing the  military  aspect  of
containment   the   United   States   contributed   to   the
militarization  of its own economy and also forced the  pace
of  military competition    In extending containment to  the
Third  World,  the United States became preoccupied with the
military and East-West aspects of local conflicts, obscuring
its   understanding   of  the  local  causes   of   conflict
     In the effort to loosen congressional purse strings  to
fund military programs and the Maryshall Plan, U.S. officials
exaggerated  and over-simplified the Soviet challenge as  an
ideologically driven   effort   to  conquer   the   world.
Anticommunism  became  the  American  ideology--the  central
principle of U.S.  foreign policy.  Primitive stereotypes of
the  Soviet  Union,  which  took form  at  that  time,  have
continued  to dominate U.S.  thinking and discussion of  the
complex reality of the Soviet Union.
     It  is  inevitable  that  democratic  leader ships   are
impelled to resort to hyperbole in alerting their publics to
the dangers they face.  The consequences of these hyperboles
also  inevitably  become counterproductive and difficult  to
     George  Kennan  has  written  recently  that  when   he
published the "X" article he did not see the Soviet Union as
a  military  threat,  and thought the fears that the  Soviet
Union might overrun Western Europe were exaggerated
     What I was trying to say in the Foreign Affairs article
was   simply  this:    "Don't  make  any  more   unnecessary
concessions  to these people.   Make it clear to  them  that
they  are not going to be allowed to establish any  dominant
influence  in  Western  Europe  and in  Japan  if  there  is
anything  we can do to prevent it.   When we have stabilized
the situation in this way,  then perhaps we will be able  to
talk  with  them about some sort of a general political  and
military  disengagement  in  Europe and  the  Far  East--not
before."  This to my mind, was what was meant by the thought
of "containing communism" in 1947. (4:885)
     "X" Kennan on containment (1987):
     I  saw at that  ideological-political  threat
emanating  from  Moscow.  I see no  comparable  ideological-
political  threat emanating from Moscow at the present time.
The  Leninist-Stalinist  ideology has  almost  totally  lost
appeal  everywhere outside the Soviet orbit,  and  partially
within  that  orbit as well....  They are selling arms  and
sending military advisers--procedures not too different from
many  of our own.   They cannot translate  these  operations
into ideological enthusiasm or political loyalty on the part
of the recipient Third World no more, in my opinion, than we
     On the other hand,  whereas in 1947 the military aspect
of  our relationship with the Soviet Union hardly seemed  to
come into question at all, today that aspect is obviously of
prime importance.   It is not because I see the Soviet Union
as  threatening  the United States or its allies with  armed
force.   I see the weapons race in which we are and they are
now  involved  as a serious threat in  its  own  right,  not
because  of aggressive intentions on either side but because
of  the compulsions,  the suspicions,  the anxieties such  a
competition  engenders,  and  because of  the  very  serious
dangers  it carries with it  of unintended complications  by
error,  by  computer  failure,  by misread  signals,  or  by
mischief deliberately perpetrated by third parties.  For all
these reasons,  there is now indeed a military aspect to the
problem  of containment as there was not in 1947;  but  what
most needs to be contained,  as I see it, is not so much the
Soviet Union as the weapons race itself. (3:23)
     Whatever  Kennan's  intentions may have been,  then  or
later,  the  American people interpreted the "X" article  as
demonstrating the necessity for the military containment  of
a  Soviet  Union  ideologically  driven  to  seek  unlimited
expansion.   Here we see the "heroic" phase of the conflict.
Americans  were  seeing  the world in terms of  good  versus
evil;  and although some--including Kennan--have since  made
the  transition  to  a more  analytical  and  differentiated
understanding  of  the  conflict,  the dichotomy has  had  a
persistent   life,   re-emerging   in  our  own   day   with
considerable  political  force as the "evil  empire"  theme,
making for primitive analysis and irrational responses.   In
fact,  over the four decades since the end of World War  II,
this view has dominated U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
     The  central theme of our dominant view is that  Soviet
expansionistic  behavior  is inherent to the nature  of  the
Soviet system.   We further believe that the problems of the
Soviet  regime are of such magnitude that external  pressure
could  precipitate  a collapse or compel the  leadership  to
accept  fundamental  changes that would weaken it.   In  its
formative  period  40 years ago,  this view  was  shaped  by
arguments drawn from the "X" article that Soviet power bears
within itself the seeds of its own decay;  that the U.S. has
in  its power the ability to place pressure upon the Kremlin
with  a far greater degree of moderation and  circumspection
than is realistic.   We expect this pressure to break up  or
eventually  mellow Soviet power.   Throughout the  following
years the dominant view retained its fixation upon Stalinism
as the unchanging and unchangeable model of Soviet behavior,
intractably  hostile  and unlimited in its  aspirations  for
world dominance.
     Logically,  the  policy that derived from this view has
been directed toward forcing the Soviet system to change its
fundamental   character.    Since  the  Soviet  Union   only
understands  the  language of force,  we  could  compel  the
Soviet  leadership to capitulate,  to make  concessions,  to
contract from extended positions, or, ultimately collapse.
     It  followed  from this view that U.S.  security  could
only be assured by military  superiority;  that  productive
arms control agreements were not possible with a country of
such  character.   The  result has been  intensification  of
military competition in pursuit of military superiority.
     Given these policies,  there could not be expected  any
other   outcome   than  a  continuation  of   the   conflict
relationship    and   the   intensification   in    military
competition.   These  underlying assumptions have  dominated
American policy since the end of World War II.
     The  American policy toward the Soviet Union has tended
to  be less than rational.   The conflict appears below  the
conscious level "we--they" perceptions of good--bad, tending
to  make  conflicts of interests between the  U.S.  and  the
Soviet Union seem absolute and therefore  intractable.   The
conflict   is  intensified  by  the  conservative  swing  in
political thought and the rise in nationalism in  developing
foreign  policy.   Its  main theme is  anticommunism,  which
becomes  the main organizing principle for  foreign  policy.
The   military-industrial  complex  has  its  own  parochial
interests at heart.
     The  Soviets  have  also  been  far  from  rational  in
managing   relations   with   the   United   States.    Many
misperceptions of the U.S   and the outside world  generally
stem  from the same psychological mechanism operating in the
U.S.   These  misperceptions  are magnified  by  ideological
rigidities  and a strong sense of history.   They have  been
compounded  in  the past by unfamiliarity with  the  outside
     It  is,  however,  misleading to assign such weight  to
historical continuity that it obscures significant  elements
of change in the Soviet experience.  The Soviet Union is not
a  static  society.   In its own way,  it has  followed  the
normative life cycle of all revolutionary movements, and the
Soviet  political  culture is significantly  different  from
what it was during earlier periods.
     Stalin   helped   transform   the   country   from   an
agricultural  society into an industrial society--a  process
which  had  actually  begun in the middle of  the  nineteeth
century.   He  forced  the  pace  of  industrialization  and
created  a  powerful  military  machine  which  enabled  the
country to survive the war with Nazi Germany.   He did so at
terrible human cost; and his rigid, ruthless totalitarianism
and     police-state     methods     became     increasingly
counterproductive, stifling initiative and innovation.
     Krushchev must be credited with a bold effort to  break
the  Stalinist  mold  and  to begin  a  process  of  reform.
Kosygin  and  Andropov  both sought  to  implement  domestic
modernization,   and  Brezhnev  attempted  to  continue  the
rationalization of foreign policy begun by Krushchev.
     This  background information is necessary to point  out
that  there  is  a  Soviet evolution  and  that    Gorbachev's
reforms  did not spring into existence suddenly,    as  if  by
some  form of immaculate conception.   This continuation and
maturation  of a process reflects a growing  awareness  that
the  system  developed  by Stalin   had  become   increasingly
    The   heart  of  Gorbachev's    program  is   designed  to
modernize the Soviet economy.   The  economy he  inherited was
marked by declining growth rates approaching stagnation, low
productivity, and widespread corruption.
     More  directly  relevant  is  the  political  side   of
Gorbachev's  program.    His  widening  of  the  limits  for
criticism, easing of censorship, release of some dissidents,
reform  of  legal  institutions,   discussion  of  forbidden
subjects  in Soviet history (including crimes of the  Stalin
era)  have  pronounced reverberations in the outside  world.
Perhaps  this is a sign of the "mellowing" to  which  Kennan
referred.   If  these  changes  should continue and  not  be
reversed by some upheaval in Soviet politics, they will have
a  bearing  on one of the central elements in  the  American
debates on the fundamental nature of the Soviet system.
     There is a general recognition in the Soviet Union that
the  activism  of the 1970s under  Brezhnev  proved  costly,
damaging relations with the U.S.  Gorbachev's "new thinking"
has placed emphasis on tranquility abroad in order to foster
domestic  programs  at home.   As he colorfully put  it,  we
should not be like "two dinosaurs circling each other in the
sands of nuclear confrontation." (13:75)  Emphasis is placed
upon mutual security,  and the breaking with the concept  of
capitalist   encirclement   to  justify  military   programs
suggest:  a  beginning of logic  creeping  into  U.S.-Soviet
relations.   We  could be experiencing a potential return to
the bipartisan spirit of internationalism that characterized
the immediate postwar years.
     It  is indeed ironic that two of the bitter enemies  of
World  War II are now friends,  and an ally is the  menacing
threat in the war of perceptions.
     Each  nation  approaches  solutions  to  its  perceived
security requirements differently.   This is not  surprising
since  many  terms  designed to convey  fundamental  ethical
concepts--"God," "democracy," "the people"--carry  different
connotations in the opposing culture.
     The  American  attitude  toward war  and  the  military
profession  is heavily colored by the nation's history as  a
young  developing society,  far from the perennial conflicts
of 18th and 19th-century Europe.   While Carl von Clausewitz
enjoys great esteem within the narrow readership of American
military  journals,  and while his bust occupies a  hallowed
niche at the U.S   Army War College,  his notion that war is
basically the pursuit of politics by other means has  little
coincidence with American public opinion.  War and peace are
mutually  exclusive  conditions by most American  standards;
the  former is something which occurs at the  initiation  of
others  when all efforts to preserve the latter break  down.
War  is  popularly viewed as a chaotic  condition  resulting
from   failed  policy,   not  as  an  alternative  of  equal
legitimacy   with  the  normal  stresses  and   strains   of
international  diplomacy  or of domestic political give  and
     This view was, ironically, portrayed by General Douglas
MacArthur in his farewell address to Congress in 1951, "Once
war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to
apply  every  available means to bring it to  a  swift  end.
War's very object is victory--not prolonged indecision.   In
war, indeed there can be no substitute for victory." (1:78)
Soviet  views are not only different,  but  differently
derived.  In 1915 Lenin spelled out the orthodox view in his
main thesis that war is simply the continuation of  politics
by other (i.e.  violent) means. (1:79)  This formula belongs
to Clausewitz. (11:30)
     Although  11 April,  1951 is not a bell-ringing day for
the  average  American it should well  be.   When  Harry  S.
Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur  on that day,  he not
only   discarded  the  General  but  more  importantly,   he
discarded the public's view on war.  (6:149)  It was at this
point  some  four  decades ago  that  our  public  officials
embraced  the  doctrinal  normalization  of  conflict.   Our
leaders  had come intellectually of age;  the naivity of the
American  public  could no longer be tolerated and  the  new
thinking embraced Clausewitz. an act of policy...a
continuation of political activity by other  means....   War
is simply a continuation of political intercourse,  with the
addition  of other means. (11:30)
     Our  leaders  had reached a level of sophistication  in
the  allocation of both intellectual and material  resources
to conflict and theoretical conflict development.   Securely
wrapped  in his Clausewitzian blanket  of  conflict,  Truman
fired MacArthur, and left a legacy for Johnson's approach to
the Vietnam War.   While we had adopted the enemy's creed at
our leader level,  however, the American public held fast to
its  basic  war and peace concept.   What followed was  four
decades  of  irrational  political  behavior  to  compromise
between the two views.
     The  causes of conflict have long been  studied.   Many
different viewpoints have been presented,  and diametrically
opposing  positions  have  been  taken.    Some  argue  that
conflict is basic to man's nature,  since man is by his very
instinct an aggressive,  warlike being.   Others argue  that
the  organizational or structural defects of the main social
groups   or  states  are  the  cause  of  conflict  in   the
international arena.   It is these defects  which often find
violent  expression in warfare.   A third viewpoint is  that
the  anarchy of the international system is an  irresistible
invitation to conflict among the state actors,  each seeking
to maximize his own benefits and achieve his own objectives,
often at the expense of the other states. (12:28)
     Whatever  position one chooses to take on the cause  of
conflict,  the relationship between politics and the  resort
to  warfare  is  so  closely interwoven that  it  is  nearly
impossible to separate the two.
     Machiavelli believed in the doctrine of imitation--that
man's  nature is unchangeable.   Since men are  alike,  they
tend to imitate each other,  and thus history simply repeats
itself.  History is a storehouse and man needs only to study
and   follow  the    proper   example   (especially  Rome).
Machiavelli  was the forerunner of Clausewitz;  he  realized
the  intimate  connection between  military  techniques  and
political  methods;    between  military  organizations  and
political institutions. (11:413)
     Clausewitz'  theories  are  most  often  misunderstood,
abused,  or  applied  incorrectly.  (11:547)  The  political
system of Carl von Clausewitz is derived from his belief  in
the  efficacy  of human reason and in the state as a  living
entity  which  is the sole actor in  international  poitics.
War  is  neither good nor evil;  it is either  necessary  or
unnecessary.   "If you want to overcome your enemy you  must
match your effort against his power of resistance,  which be
expressed  as the product of two inseparable  factors,  viz.
the  total  means at his disposal and the strengths  of  his
will." (11:57)
     Lenin   believed   that  the  course  of   history   is
predetermined  by changes in the economic mode of production
and  in  the  class  structure.   Competition  and  conflict
between  classes  are the motives that  generate  change  in
society.   War  and  conflict  find their roots  in  society
before the establishment of socialism.   Man is the pawn  of
social forces,  not the master of them.   Political conflict
is  a  vital ingredient of the struggle to bring society  to
its utopian end.   His theory of conflict is based upon  his
belief  that  the  struggle between classes  was  necessary.
Force  exerted  in any form to further progress  toward  the
Marxist goal of a classless society is legitimate and  just.
"Politics is the reason,  and war is only the tool,  not the
other  way  around.    Consequently,   it  remains  only  to
subordinate  the  military point of view to the  political."
     Mao Tse-tung believed that conflict is  necessary,  and
violent conflict is creative.   Conflict is a disintegrative
force   of the international environment because it is aimed
at   the  destruction  of  the  existing  system   and   its
transformation  into  a new system;  first with  a  powerful
influential  China,  and  finally  into a  utopia  of  world
communism.  "The richest source of power to wage war lies in
the masses of the people." (11:803)
     There  emerges  from  the analysis of the  theories  of
conflict  what could be called a universal truth.   This  is
the shared perception that war and politics exist as part of
the  same  process and thus are  always  interrelated.   The
separation  of  the  study of war  and  politics  is  almost
impossible.   War is the upper spectrum of politics,  but it
is politics nevertheless.  Among the four theorists there is
agreement  that considerations of force remain ever  present
in  the formulation of political goals by the main actors in
the international political system.  Conflict is integral to
political  interaction;  if there is interaction,  there  is
conflict,  and some conflict could turn into warfare all too
easily.   Even  though the nuclear age makes  the  unlimited
application of force an unviable policy, Clausewitz is still
not outmoded.  The essence of Clausewitz' view on total war,
is that unrestrained conflict, with no object other than the
complete  annihilation of the enemy,  is not a viable policy
either.   He developed the abstract of total war, but he did
not suggest that such a war should be fought.   Wars  should
be  fought only if there is a political purpose;  the  means
must be matched to the ends.  If nuclear war has no rational
purpose  and  no goal can be achieved through total  nuclear
means,  Clausewitz' philosophy would not embrace it.   Other
forms  of  war  that  achieve  the  desired  goal  must   be
considered  as  possible  alternatives to  attain  political
     Perhaps  our  leadership will embrace  Clausewitz  more
completely and better understand his abstract model of total
war.   Some goals are believed vital to the survival of  the
community--a   common  perception  of  shared   ends.    The
leadership  should  share  the  same sense of  ends  as  the
general populace and act in their behalf.   Since the  sense
of community in different societies varies,  their goals are
different   and  there  is  competition  and  conflict  over
incompatible or overlapping goals.  Competition and conflict
in international politics over these goals are the substance
of international politics.  War is not the inevitable result
of this conflict; it is only one possible outcome.  Not  all
state  decision makers act according to the beliefs of their
populace.  War must have a purpose that goes beyond military
victory.   Political  goals  delineate a  desired  state  or
condition  to be achieved in the international  environment.
If   war   does  not  contribute  to  the   achievement   or
preservation  of these goals,  it is not a viable  political
strategy and should not become the selected policy.   At the
same time,  if the assessed costs of waging war to achieve a
vital  goal  are so high that they were inconsistent  or  in
conflict with the sense of community, then the goals must be
re-evaluated  and reformulated.   The theorists agreed  that
there  is  no  line that one can draw to  separate  war  and
politics;  to  attempt to study each in isolation is to miss
the   most   important   element   of   their    inescapable
interrelationship.  Hopefully, future statesmen and military
leaders  will understand this and attempt to set their goals
and to formulate their politics accordingly.
     The theories of Clausewitz have been misunderstood  and
abused  by U.S.  leaders,  who have chosen to apply  to  the
Soviets  only those principles expounded by Clausewitz  that
serve their interests.  The general populace still separates
the  theories  of  war and  peace.   The  misapplication  of
Clausewitz'  theories  of  politics and  war  has  increased
military buildups and misperceptions of both U.S. and Soviet
     Both the U.S. and Soviet leaderships have expounded the
theories  and  wisdom of Clausewitz.   Perhaps  sharing  the
proper   applications  of  Clausewitz'  theories  with   the
populace will better serve both nations in stabilizing U.S.-
Soviet relations; launching four decades of rationality.
     When  the theories of conflict applied by  U.S.  policy
makers  are more in synchronization with the  populace,  and
vice  versa,  a more rational U.S.-Soviet relationship  will
1.  Atkeson,  Edward B.  "Soviet Military Theory:  Relevant
      or Red Herring? "  Parameters:   Journal of  the  U.S.
      Army War College, XVII (Spring 1987) 77-88.
2.  Cooper, Nancy.  "The Ghost of an Old Bolshevik."
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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias