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Cold War - DOD History

With the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, international politics and conditions affecting postwar American strategy changed radically. Even as the National Military Establishment came into being in 1947, the older Eurocentric order yielded to a bipolar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union became the centers of two contending blocs representing fundamentally opposed political ideologies. In this international setting, underdeveloped areas and emerging nations in the so-called Third World sought to broker their own independent futures, often with the superpower aid and assistance.

The end of the war with Japan also witnessed the dawn of the nuclear age with its subsequent stockpiles of weapons and delivery systems. The American monopoly on nuclear power was broken with the Soviet acquisition of an atomic weapon in 1949 and by the late 1960s, a deliberately contrived nuclear weapons parity existed between the two superpowers. Each was deterred from direct hostile acts against the other by the knowledge that in a general war, victory could only be Pyrrhic. Amid conditions of nuclear stalemate, the American defense establishment sought to contain an opponent perceived as implacably hostile and bent on constant aggrandizement. Several limited conflicts raged on the periphery of superpower influence in countries seen as client states of the respective superpowers. Yielding anywhere threatened to tumble local commitments and alliances like so many dominoes.

After nearly a half century punctuated by two major and protracted conflicts, several simmering ones, and constant tension over client state loyalties, the Cold War drew to a close with the collapse and dissolution of one of the principal contenders. The Soviet Union succumbed to the increasing internal contradictions of its sclerotic economic system and a political structure resistant to change and sustained in power by an elaborate police and propaganda network.

The Mission of the Department of Defense in the Cold War

The Secretary of Defense is the principal assistant to the President of the United States in all matters relating to defense. The Secretary exercises direction, authority, and control within the DoD. As a result of the Amendments to the National Security Act in August 1949, the powers of the Secretary expanded and DoD consolidated over the years.

The DoD's primary mission during the Cold War era was to deter general war by maintaining sufficient American forces to contest any overt Soviet expansion, principally along the demarcation lines in Europe and Asia established at the end of World War II. After the Korean conflict of 1950-1953, American defense policy sought to keep an ability to fight a "war and a half": one in the main theater of interest, central Europe, and a second, smaller one, elsewhere.

In the succeeding years of the massive retaliation policy under the Eisenhower Administration, the nation relied on Strategic Air Command-manned bombers and the forward-based, nuclear-capable aircraft of Navy aircraft carriers and Air Force tactical air forces as nuclear weapons platforms. These were to be supplemented with an intercontinental ballistic missile force and, by late 1960, by ballistic missile-firing submarines. Together, land- and sea-based missiles and manned bombers became known as the strategic "triad." Deliberate redundancy among these weapon systems guaranteed the survival of enough force to devastate any attacker. In addition, U.S. national policy sought to maintain sufficient force to counteract Soviet influence in the world's "gray areas," those developing localities where the Communist Bloc supported so-called wars of national liberation, usually against former colonial powers or client governments of the Western Alliance.

The United States acted in concert with its traditional allies and formed new alliances for the pursuit of common strategies. The nation underwrote three major regional coalitions. The most noteworthy of these, the Europe-based North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), comprising 12 original signatories in 1949, has survived the Cold War, although its clear adversary, the Warsaw Pact, formed in 1955, dissolved with the collapse of Soviet Communism. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) of 1955, with eight members, existed to offset the power of Communist China and deflect the Communist-controlled national liberation movements. The arrangement always suffered from conflicting political allegiances within the region, contributed little to the American effort during the Vietnam War, and was dissolved in 1977. Though not a signatory or member nation, the United States also endorsed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), originally the Baghdad Pact of 1955, and sought to influence political conditions in south Asia in favor of American policies.


Throughout the Cold War, American forces maintained the ability to project American power abroad in support of national foreign policy. Naval forces in particular were engaged in continuous patrol in the Mediterranean after a U.S. presence was established there as early as 1946. The Truman Doctrine, announced in 1947, pledged American help to legitimate governments battling insurgent forces. The doctrine was itself considered the first application of the evolving containment policy. The U.S. Navy also sailed in contested waters separating the Chinese Nationalist Government on Taiwan and its Communist counterpart on the mainland of China.

Containment came to be played out in a series of smaller, localized conflicts rather than in a direct confrontation between the two superpowers. The call-up of military and air reserve forces helped resolve the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Washington was also inclined to use force in the sensitive Caribbean basin, site of the strategic Panama Canal. The protection of American interests in this region and along the southern border of the United States included the quarantine of Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962, the intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the Grenada intervention of October 1983, and the Panama operation of 1989.

International Military Presence

The DoD maintained offensive and defensive forces as far as possible from American borders and vital possessions and, conversely, as close as possible to the potential adversary's territory. This strategy led to the establishment early in the post-World War II period of a worldwide base system far exceeding what had been thought necessary to protect American possessions in the Hawaii, Panama, and the Philippines, before 1941.

In Europe, the Allied occupation gave way in 1955 to a close relation with the Federal Republic of Germany, which regained sovereign status and a military force in that year. The nearly 50-year sojourn of an entire American field army and American air forces in peacetime Germany was a hallmark of the era. The American military presence, initially a constabulary force, continued to serve as a trip-wire in a confrontation that threatened to become a world war if the Soviet armored host facing them violated the border between the two Germanys that formed the original Iron Curtain. The stationing of American Service dependents in Germany symbolized American commitments overseas because the families of fighting men were placed in harm's way in the event of hostilities.

Similarly, the American line of defense in the Pacific placed deployed forces as far west as possible. U.S. forces operated from, and were stationed at, bases in Guam, Japan, Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, Thailand, and a number of other Pacific islands. The evidence of this presence-buildings, weapons systems and their associated facilities, intelligence-gathering functions, and equipment, and the ships and aircraft that sustained the forward elements-lie scattered across the Pacific. They provide testimony to the long logistical lifelines and intermediate bases that supported American forces abroad.

Social Issues

The effects of domestic social issues on DoD threaten to impinge on defense readiness. Aside from a belief in basic human rights, a reason for greater racial integration within the armed Services was the urge to deny American ideological opponents an exploitable human issue. Despite strains, the Services moved ahead of the rest of American society in guaranteeing equality of treatment for minorities after a Presidential Executive Order of 1948 directed the desegregation of the military. Later developments opened more opportunities to women as well. By the end of the Cold War the idea of women serving in combat roles was being given serious consideration.

During periods of the Cold War, the military establishment faced the pressures brought about by the extension or reinstatement of the Selective Service System, or draft. The draft, together with the construction of the entire North American Air Defense-Civil Defense effort, markedly affected the domestic intellectual and social consciousness of Americans during the Cold War, often serving as the flashpoint for violently opposing views.

Technological Change

Developments in communications, radar, aircraft, nuclear submarines and carriers, space, and nuclear energy were largely driven by military and intelligence imperatives during the Cold War. The American defense establishment was anxious to promote and to profit from these technological advances, yet struggled with the resulting financial impact of the rising costs of weapon systems. Although conventional weapons decreased in number, their individual lethality increased.

The Departments of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force

These departments, no longer at cabinet level after the passage of the 1949 Amendments to the National Security Act of 1947, were each responsible for raising, training, and equipping forces that operate on land, at sea, or in the air. These forces and their equipment came under operational control of commanders of unified and specified commands charged with actual combat missions and operations. The military Services provided the research, development, and procurement support necessary to keep combat- efficient forces.

The Department of the Army furnished forward-deployed ground troops to unified commands and maintained land forces at home for rapid commitment to areas of vital U.S. interests. It dominated the activities of military assistance advisory groups (MAAGs) who managed military assistance programs (MAPs) for signatories of defensive alliances and other clients. The Army maintained and administered a large reserve component base for overseas deployment. It also deployed shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

The Army's air-mobility concept was initially conceived in the 1950's. It was not developed and applied extensively until experiments in the early 1960's validated the utility of combat helicopters for an extensive role in Vietnam. During that conflict the Army operated more aircraft than the Air Force.

The Army maintained a ready-reaction force in the XVIII Airborne Corps, comprising two airborne divisions meant for rapid deployment to threatened areas of the world. In the "war-and-a-half" strategy, the airborne forces would have been committed as an advance force to any threatened area other than Europe and Korea.

The Army deployed the Jupiter intermediate ballistic missile (IRBM) until it transferred the system to the Air Force as a result of a decision in late 1956 that limited Army missiles to a 200-mile range. Army units continued to control some tactical nuclear weapons. Conventional artillery could also fire nuclear shells. Later deployments of medium-range Lance, Pershing, ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM), and nuclear missiles in Europe could be seen as , helping to destabilize Soviet planning and putting added pressure on the Communist regime as it approached its final crisis.

Army ground forces played direct roles in several crises and wars: the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Dominican Republic intervention, the Vietnam War, the Grenada intervention, and the successive Berlin crises.

Throughout the post-World War II period, the Army also supplied the administrative structure and usually the senior commander for occupation authorities in Germany, Japan, and, in one notably long-lasting case, Okinawa.

The Department of the Navy prepared to deter and fight war by developing sea forces to control distant waters, crisis points within reach of blue water, and lines of communications to forward deployed forces.

It contributed to the nuclear triad of forces by deploying nuclear-armed aircraft on forward-based carriers and missile submarines capable of striking strategic targets deep within a potential adversary's heartland and maintained control of the sea by deployment of antisubmarine forces and carrier battle groups. The development of the Navy's underwater-launched Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident nuclear ballistic missiles was among the major technical accomplishments of the era. Because of their mobility and invulnerability to attack, these submarines significantly bolstered the U.S. strategic deterrence capability.

The Service remained capable of projecting American power and influence ashore by aircraft from Enterprise- and Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers and Forrestal-class conventional carriers, by amphibious operations, by fleet marine forces, naval gunfire, coastal and river operations, naval special warfare, and supporting sealift.

Navy ships maintained and supported larger overseas deployments of American combat forces, including those of the Army and the Air Force, by contributing to seaborne transport and resupply.

Marine forces landed in Korea, in Lebanon in 1958, and were among the first units committed in the Vietnam War. Forward deployment in these countries with naval forces and Marine aviation demonstrated quick response by Navy and Marine forces in these crises.

The Department of the Air Force maintained air elements for the control of national airspace and sustained the ability to project massive retaliatory force against a potential adversary's homeland by missiles and land-based manned bombers. Manned bombers were the Convair B-36; the North American B-45, B-57, and B-58 Hustler; the Martin B-57; the Douglas B-66; and the Boeing B-29, B-47 Stratojet, B-50, and B-52 Stratofortress. The latter was among the most enduring instruments of the period, the mainstay of the Air Force's Strategic Air Command for nearly 25 years. Its G- and H-models remained in service even after the introduction of the B-1A Lancer and the later B-2 Stealth bombers.

The Air Force deployed both intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs)-the Thor and Jupiter--and ICMBs-beginning with the Atlas series and followed by the Titans, Minutemen, and, last, the MX Peacekeeper. Technological advances perfected an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) that could be programmed to strike distant targets.

The Air Force maintained tactical air forces to seize air superiority from potential enemy air forces, to operate in support of U.S. Army forces engaged with an enemy on land, and to interdict enemy movements, forces, and lines of communications leading to areas in which friendly troops were engaged.

The Air Force provided air transport and airlift for deploying troops, cargo, and humanitarian aid in support of national policy. Perhaps the most notable example of how transport aircraft contributed to American resolve in the Cold War was the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949, in which allied aircraft brought nearly 2.5 million tons of food and supplies to the citizens of Berlin.

The Air Force shared with the CIA and NSA a focal activity of the Cold War: intelligence gathering. It concentrated on technical means, including the use of specially designed aircraft (U-2, SR-71) and earth-orbiting satellites that collected imagery for relay to ground stations. The Air Force supplied technical expertise, launch facilities, and rocket vehicles to place reconnaissance satellites in orbit.

The Department of Energy: Defense Programs of the Nuclear Weapons Complex

The DoE and its predecessor agencies, have contributed to the national security of the United States since 1942. The Manhattan Project of the U.S. Army, the Atomic Energy Commission and its successors, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and, since 1977, DoE, have had the mission of providing and maintaining safe, secure, reliable, and survivable nuclear weapons.

Responsibilities included the research, design, development, testing, manufacture, surveillance, and disposal of U.S. nuclear weapons. The mission broadened to include nuclear propulsion systems for the Navy and space power applications for DoD and NASA.

The end of the Cold War affected DoD's mission, leading to reconfiguration of weapon systems with major implications for national security, environmental restoration and waste management, and cultural resource management.

Summary: Cold War Imperatives

Facing an enemy with an apparently messianic mission, demanding global expansion by arms or subversion, American armed might during the Cold War remained proportionally greater than at any other time of nominal peace in American history. Whereas American military and naval deployments before 1941 had been confined to limited garrisons in Panama and the Philippines, military commitments now assumed a global defensive character. Defense appropriations were consistently the largest element of the annual budget and a large part of the nation's scientific genius and wherewithal went into weapon and other defense-related research. Direct defense outlays for 1989, the year that the Berlin Wall came down, amounted to $303.6 billion or 5.7 percent of the gross domestic product for the year.

The Soviet Union's successes in consolidating and controlling a bloc in eastern Europe in the early years of the Cold War and the victory of Chinese Communism in the same period contributed to a pervasive sense of danger and threat in the United States. During the 1950's, the nation witnessed years of hysteria over a presumed enemy infiltration of the government and its military departments.

Well after the abatement of McCarthyism, military manpower requirements touched the life of every young male in America, especially in time of conflict. Until 1973, registration with the Selective Service became a rite of passage for each 18 year-old man in the population. Attitudes toward conscript military service became noticeably hostile between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War. The latter conflict produced an abiding counterculture in the United States critical of previous Cold War assumptions about the use of military power against Communist interests. That sentiment did not, however, permanently cripple advances in military technologies and DoD spending through the end of the Cold War. The military departments trained their people to maintain a high state of combat readiness that positioned them to mobilize quickly in events that called for a non-nuclear military response across the globe.

The closing of the Cold War, defined in terms of the end of the bipolar strategic equation, finds the United States redefining its global commitments, reassessing its force structure, and restructuring DoD to adapt to a new and uncertain role in world affairs.



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Page last modified: 15-07-2011 15:40:18 ZULU