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The Johns Hopkins University

A Comparison of
Cold War
National Security Strategies

Submitted to

Professor D. Robert Worley

in Partial Satisfaction of Requirements

for the Course

Methods of Social Inquiry


D. Robert Worley

Washington, District of Columbia

October 2, 2001

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Comparison Criteria 2

Kennan’s Containment Strategy under Truman 2

NSC-68 and the Korean Conflict under Truman 3

The New Look: Eisenhower and Dulles 5

Flexible Response: Kennedy and Johnson 6

Détente under Nixon-Ford and Kissinger 6

Détente under Carter 7

Rollback and Full Court Press under Reagan 8

Summary and Conclusions 9

References 10

List of Tables

Table 1. Administrations, Economics, and Responses 1

A comparison of Cold War
National Security Strategies


The Cold War is a period of history marked by competition between two great powers. Behind it was the Soviet Union expressly pursuing an expansionist policy through the spread of Marxist-Leninist ideology and its need to internally project an external threat. US national security policy in the years 1947 through 1989 is identified with a single term—containment—although there were obvious shifts in emphasis from administration to administration.1

One of the most notable shifts in the national security strategy of containment was in the perception of available means. Those presidents who believed their means were limited tended towards asymmetric responses to Soviet encroachments, that is, to select the place, time, magnitude and methods of competition. Presidents who believed the American economy could produce the necessary means on demand tended towards symmetric responses, countering Soviet adventurism wherever and whenever it occurred.

Correlated with the symmetry of response was the acceptance of Keynesian economics suggesting that increased government spending could produce an expansion in the economy. The belief that government could manage economic expansion without long term budget deficits, higher taxes, or inflation allowed those presidents so inclined to consider all interests vital, all threats dangerous, and all measures available.2

Table 1. Administrations, Economics, and Responses


Expansionist Economics

Response to Soviets

Truman (47-49)



Truman (49-53)






Kennedy, Johnson



Nixon, Ford



Carter (77-79)



Carter (79-81)





Symmetric (offensive)

Table 1 summarizes the Cold War administrations, their acceptance of Keynesian economics, and a characterization of their response to Soviet attempts at expansion. The Carter administration is the notable exception, being saddled with extreme inflation following high government expenditures during the Vietnam conflict. Supporting a policy of symmetric response, based on the belief in an expanding economy, was simply not an option. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pushed Carter toward a symmetric response nonetheless.

The objective of this paper is to identify the best and worst strategies of the Cold War administrations and the policy outcomes of each. The early days of the Truman administration showed promise of developing the best strategy, but its implementation fell short as the Korean Conflict and NSC-68 overcame it. The Nixon administration subsequently developed the best strategy. Both the Kennedy-Johnson and the Carter administrations showed signs of flawed strategy, but the cost of the Kennedy-Johnson failures were greater, earning them the dubious distinction of having the worst national security strategy of the period.

Comparison Criteria

What constitutes a good strategy? The dominant criteria used to judge the goodness of a strategy is that means are subordinated to ends. Put another way, clear objectives must be pursued and the resources applied judiciously. Second, the means must be adequate and appropriate to the ends. Large, expanding means do not equate to infinite or even adequate means for all objectives. Third, a strategy must be judged relative to the time, including international politics, military developments, available technology, and domestic attitudes. Fourth, a strategy is implemented through a mix of political, economic, psychological, and military instruments and should be judged accordingly. Finally, a strategy should be consistent with national philosophy.

Kennan’s Containment Strategy under Truman

In the middle 1940s, there were five countries with actual or potential industrial-military capability to qualify as world powers: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. Kennan’s assessment of Russia was that they were incapable of tolerating diversity and would attempt to impose their image on the world, and in so doing would expend huge amounts of energy. Such a policy, Kennan believed, would be consuming and could not be sustained indefinitely. Diversity within the existing world order, on the other hand, is more economical than hegemony, and should constitute US policy.

Furthermore, Kennan believed that the Russians had no immediate intention of war. For the foreseeable future, the US could out produce the rest of the world, control the seas, and strike deep within the Soviet homeland with the atomic bomb.3 Kennan was willing to assume risks and to short change military force structure in favor of economic and political instruments. Balance of power was ultimately a psychological phenomenon.4

Kennan’s containment strategy, as articulated between 1947 and 1949, had three stages. The first was to restore the balance of power on the Eurasian landmass following the devastation of Germany and Japan. The second stage was to fragment the communist bloc. And the third stage was to modify Soviet behavior with respect to international relations.

Restoration of the balance of power, thus, required the reconstruction of Germany and Japan. The European Recovery Program was the major policy initiative of the period, and occupation efforts in both countries were shifted toward rehabilitation.5

In March of 1947, Truman spoke to Congress about providing aid to Turkey and Greece. Some interpreted that the Truman Doctrine promised aid to everyone, but by September the administration refined its position to include limits on US aid.6

By July of 1947, Kennan’s strategy evolved toward a strongpoint defense along the periphery of the Asian landmass rather than a strict perimeter defense all along the Soviet border.7 His defensive perimeter included Japan, Okinawa, and Philippines as strong points and excluded any presence on the Asian continent, specifically China, Korea, Indochina, and Afghanistan. If competition were to take place, then it would be on terrain and with instruments favorable to the US.

The Truman administration implemented the first stage of Kennan’s strategy somewhat faithfully. Implementation of the second stage, however, began to depart from the original. The Marshall Plan was consistent with the need to rebuild Western Europe and to help splinter the communist bloc. Truman’s rhetoric was oriented against totalitarianism, not communism, thus allowing separate relations with unaligned communist countries. Kennan opposed the creation of NATO fearing that Europe would rearm rather than focus on economic recovery. While Kennan believed the Soviets weren’t yet a military threat and was willing to accept the near-term risk, the Europeans were not so inclined.8 He feared that such a military alliance would serve to galvanize rather than splinter the communist bloc.

Several elements of the Truman administration’s strategy did not fit squarely with Kennan’s third stage objectives to change the Soviet concept of international relations without war and without appeasement. The creation of NATO and of Germany, the occupation of Japan, and initiating the H bomb project all worked against his strategy by building on Russia’s historical perception of being surrounded by hostile forces.9 However, the administration implemented Kennan’s recommendation to tie the level of US military activity in the eastern Mediterranean to Soviet activity in Italy and Greece.

NSC-68 and the Korean Conflict under Truman

One of Kennan’s failings was his inability to articulate his strategy in a form that could be followed uniformly across government. In fact, he felt that the strategy should remain flexible and the particulars left to a few well-qualified elite. NSC-68 was undertaken to overcome that weakness so that all elements of top government could understand and implement administration policy.

Paul Nitze replaced Kennan as director of the Policy Planning Staff in 1949, and Dean Acheson was appointed secretary of state. Nitze and Acheson were more concerned with measurable instruments of Soviet power than Kennan who was more interested in their immeasurable intentions. Kennan was willing to accept the risk; the new policy elite was not.10

NSC-68 contained several strong departures from Kennan’s formulation. First, it dropped strong point defense in favor of a perimeter defense. The underlying rationale was that if the US failed to stand by any country then its credibility would be damaged. Countries that lacked the power to defend themselves against Soviet aggression might find it more attractive to strike deals with the Soviet Union rather than risk invasion or a sustained communist insurgency. Even strong countries might doubt our resolve. US credibility became a vital interest. Second, military instruments became primary. This signaled two simultaneous changes: a dramatic increase in the area of US interests from a few strong points to every country along the perimeter and the increased need for forces that could be projected globally. NSC-68 called for a threefold increase in defense expenditures that may have been hard to sell to Congress and the public. The invasion of South Korea by the North helped overcome that obstacle.

The balance of power view survived, but Kennan’s focus on military-industrial strength was lost. NSC-68 stated, “any substantial further extension of the area under the domination of the Kremlin would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled.”11 No more strong points, all points along the perimeter were of equal importance. The logic of NSC-68 asserts that the balance of power could shift not just from economic or military developments, but also from intimidation, humiliation, or even loss of credibility.

Under Kennan’s strategy, Korea had been a peripheral interest. Keynesian economics suggested that the economy could grow to finance more military expenditures without long-term budget deficits, taxes, or inflation.12 Without this constraint, there was no need to distinguish between vital and peripheral interests.

Kennan relied on political, economic, psychological, and military measures, and on natural forces of resistance, e.g., nationalism,13 whereas NSC-68 emphasized the military instrument. Kennan’s asymmetry pitted US strengths against Soviet weaknesses, and asymmetry could be sustained indefinitely. But a war by proxy in Korea pitted our weaknesses against their strengths. Furthermore, the US limited response highlighted its over reliance on atomic weapons.

Both Kennan’s strategy and NSC-68 contained an element of flexible response. To Kennan it meant acting only when vital interest were at stake, conditions were favorable, and the means accessible.14 To the authors of NSC-68, it meant the ability to escalate vertically, up and down the ladder (“calibration”) wherever communist aggression appeared.

NSC-68 did not favor Kennan’s third stage. Kennan thought the Soviets could be relied upon to uphold agreements that were in their interests and that the US should engage them diplomatically on those grounds. NSC-68 assumed that diplomacy would not work until the Soviet system had changed.

Gaddis closes by noting that the failure of the Truman administration was in understanding the near infinite demands this policy of containment could entail. “Beginning with a perception of implacable threat and expandable means, it derived a set of interests so vast as to be beyond the nation’s political will, if not theoretical capacity, to sustain.”15

The New Look: Eisenhower and Dulles

Eisenhower, a staunch fiscal conservative, was acutely aware of the debilitating effects a sustained war effort could have on the economy, destroying the thing we were attempting to defend.16

His administration reasserted asymmetry, stating that the US will respond at a time and place of its choosing. However, the essence of a perimeter defense remained with the perception that the balance of power was so precarious that any additional loss to communism would be unacceptable.17 The Domino Theory was predominant and the US undertook a host of new treaty obligations.

Eisenhower was not looking for a quick fix. Rather, he was prepared for a sustainable effort over the long haul. The military solution was a relatively cheap, active response with nuclear force, strategic (intercontinental) and tactical (battlefield). US force structure and defense spending was shifted toward strategic forces favoring the Air Force’s bombers and ICBMs and the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines over Army ground forces. Perhaps only Eisenhower had the political capital to impose this solution on the military, and the Army in particular, due to his stature as a military leader.

Secretary of State Dulles made strong, yet ambiguous, declarations that some interpreted to be the threat of massive retaliation—that later evolved into mutual assured destruction (MAD). Eisenhower correctly saw massive retaliation as insufficient to deter lesser aggressions.

Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the Eisenhower strategy was the return of synchronizing means and ends. During the administration, the heavy reliance on nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional forces risked either capitulation or nuclear retaliation. All administrations accept some risk, and in this time frame, it was a reasonable risk. However, the long-term legacy of the heavy reliance on nuclear weapons has several negative components. Most notable is that the Soviets were forced to intensify their missile building programs. A related policy failure was the preoccupation with an imagined bomber gap that prevented detection of a developing real missile gap.

Flexible Response: Kennedy and Johnson

Kennedy took office after a dozen years encompassing dramatic changes in international developments. Both the US and the Soviet Union had built hydrogen bombs and the Soviet Union had built long-range bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the continental United States. International events with implications for US foreign policy took place in the Suez, Straits of Formosa, Lebanon, Iraq, and Berlin. Fidel Castro and communism had established a foothold in the Western Hemisphere.

Massive retaliation was replaced by flexible response augmented by mutual assured destruction at the high end. In this context, flexible response meant a calibration of the US response to the Soviet offense. Eisenhower had little conventional capability with which to respond, thereby creating the risk of choosing between escalation and capitulation. Kennedy shifted emphasis to conventional and unconventional (counterinsurgency) forces to provide the US more options to meet Soviet expansion. While reducing the risk of capitulation or nuclear escalation, having a full range of options made it possible for the president to engage in more activities and making each step up the escalatory ladder easy. The Kennedy-Johnson administration continued the shift away from Kennan’s strongpoint defense toward perimeter defense.

The highest-level policy failure of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations was the tenuous credibility of flexible response. Could the US afford to respond in kind to any local communist insurgency or Soviet direct or indirect act of aggression? By not responding after strong declaratory policy to the contrary, US credibility suffered. By committing everywhere, even when the possibility of a positive outcome was minimal, US energy was sapped, and the ability to withdraw made difficult. The administration lost sight of objectives instead focusing on military instruments. The result was allowing the enemy to pick the place and time of competition and US over extension.

US involvement in Vietnam is the strongest and most costly example of this policy failure. Insertion of unconventional “advisory” forces was an easy early step. Each escalation step followed with relative ease, each harder to reverse. While opposing communism was a just cause, siding with a corrupt and nonviable government, and overestimating the effectiveness of the military instrument, doomed the opposition to failure.

Early in his administration, Kennedy failed to deter deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba. Perhaps his perceived weakness invited the attempt. The crisis that followed resulted in recognition that better crisis communications were needed and reinforced anti-appeasement sentiments and the perception that all communists were allied. By supporting the illusion that communism was monolithic, the Cuban Missile Crisis obscured Kennan’s original strategy to splinter the communist world. Furthermore, Breshnev accelerated the Soviet long-range missile program. On the positive side, a treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was reached.

Détente under Nixon-Ford and Kissinger

Nixon and Kissinger created a centralized national security process concentrated in the NSC and freezing the State Department out of the process. The strategy employed resembled Kennan’s and was consistent with decades of Kissinger’s past thinking. It was based on balance of power theory and realpolitick. Under détente, the US recognized that there were good communists and bad communists and that wedges could be driven between them.

The Nixon White House, in response to the deep engagement in Vietnam, took steps to avoid involvement in those countries not vital to US interests, e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa. This marked a return to Kennan’s horizontal asymmetry. Another policy shift was the administration’s preference for economic instruments over the use of military force. Security assistance was offered to anti-Communists instead of advisors or combat forces. That backfired in at least one case. By helping to modernize Iran’s army, the US helped to undermine the Shah’s credibility at home.

Strategic coherence, major successes at the global policy level, and failures at the regional level mark this period. Perhaps paramount was the recognition of the growing split between China and the Soviet Union and the deliberate exploitation of it by opening diplomatic relations with China. Communism as a monolith was now exposed as myth. The ability to play Moscow off against Peking dramatically changed the balance of power equation on the Asian continent. Regional failures included Soviet adventures in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan encouraging detractors to equate détente with appeasement.

The enabling condition for the period of détente was the fact that the Soviet Union had reached nuclear parity with the United States. It was now possible to negotiate arms control. Again, the administration recognized the conditions and was able to exploit them. Policy successes include anti-ballistic missile and strategic arms limitation treaties with a freeze on offensive weapons. However, the Soviet nuclear program continued arming missiles with multiple warheads.

The Paris Peace Accords, withdrawing the US from a costly military commitment on the Asian continent, can be considered another success of this administration. However, the bombing of Cambodia during peace talks eventually caused the collapse of that country that continued to be the source of misery for years to come.

The strategic successes of this administration are often overshadowed by the loss of public trust in its government.

Détente under Carter

Carter’s national security strategy is divided into two phases, before and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His early days in office might be considered a short initial phase. In his first policy speech Carter encouraged the abandonment of containment, to move beyond the belief that Soviet expansionism is inevitable, and the fear of communism that led the US to embrace dictators who shared the same fear. Instead, the US should conduct foreign “policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.”18

Gaddis says that the Carter administration was marked by “surface innovation with subsurface continuity.”19 He goes further to say that there was no apparent foreign policy, no apparent priorities, and no dominant strategic thinker. Decision making was decentralized in contrast to the Nixon era.

“Carter retained an asymmetrical approach of differentiating between vital and peripheral interests, distinguishing between levels of threat, and of keeping responses commensurate with means.”20 After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter Doctrine was announced in a speech in January of 1980. In it, he said, “any outside force to gain control of Persian Gulf will be regarded a threat to US vital interests and will be repelled by any means, including military.”21 Carter appeared to “embrac[e] the undifferentiated view of interests and threats characteristic of symmetrical response.”22

Where Nixon demonstrated strategic coherence and global successes, Carter showed a lack of coherence and some regional successes including the Camp David Accords, reclaiming Egypt from the Soviet sphere, and the Panama Canal Treaty. The SALT II Treaty was withdrawn from the Senate after the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan. Other policy failures include his inability to prevent or recover the hostages in Tehran and support of a dictator in Nicaragua. Carter misspent his political capital killing an Air Force bomber early in office and was later unable to kill the MX missile program.

Rollback and Full Court Press under Reagan

If Nixon and Kissinger are labeled geo-political strategists, and Carter labeled a values and decency president, then Reagan must be called an ideologue. 23 He turned the Cold War into an ideological crusade, a crusade for freedom. He proclaimed America’s support for freedom fighters. He was anti-détente, anti-arms control, and anti-Communist.

He saw a “Soviet strategy of wars of liberation rather than one of Soviet support for and exploitation for its own benefit of indigenous conflicts.”24 Reagan lacked a Kissinger to formulate strategy, and there was a growing concern as to the underlying strategic premise, the economic sustainability, and the military necessity of his strategy. Neither the CIA’s threat assessment nor the Scowcroft commission supported the assertion of a “window of vulnerability.”

Reagan sought a build up of both strategic and conventional forces.25 He felt that Carter and détente had shifted the balance of power to the Soviet Union. Containment rose in prominence over détente. The administration called for a full court press, an ideological counter offense, to roll back the Soviet Union and its influence.

There were four pillars to Reagan’s policies: developing American relations with the Soviet Union, strengthening US alliances, assisting development of third world countries, and building US economic and military strength. In practice, there was a strong emphasis on military power as the instrument of choice.

US support for Afghanistan without US troop deployments and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet forces can be considered a policy success of the Reagan administration. Spiritual and rhetorical support to movements in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe achieved desirable outcomes as well. On the nuclear arms front, an entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated and on-site verification procedures were implemented.

Stories of weapon system acquisitions run amok during the Reagan buildup are legion. US involvement in Lebanon and Grenada can be considered policy failures, as can the Iran-Contra episode. The Reagan administration failed to recognize strategic opportunities, unlike the Nixon administration. The most notable example was the failure to make greater progress on arms reductions while Gorbachev was in power to militate against later nuclear proliferation.

Summary and Conclusions

While the Carter administration may have been in greater disarray during its four-year tenure, the Kennedy-Johnson administration is considered to have the worst Cold War national security strategy, based on the costly involvement in Vietnam. The cost in lives, capital, and credibility—both internal and external to the US—were large and the effects still loom large on the national psyche. Means were not subordinated to ends. Vital national interests were not involved. The means were not adequate to the task. The effectiveness of military force to counter the threat was grossly misjudged. Involvement in the internal affairs of another country was not consistent with US philosophy.

The Eisenhower administration is given high marks for national security strategy. It clearly subordinated means to ends, and the strategy was demonstrated to be adequate during the Eisenhower tenure. Its long-term implications, however, included a backlash in the Kennedy-Johnson years focusing on conventional and unconventional forces that proved to be a costly trap. Therefore, the Nixon administration is considered to have the best national security strategy, achieving strategic coherence and a set of priorities that achieved global successes at the expense of regional failures.


Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Garthoff, Raymond L. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1994.

Jordan, Amos A., William J. Taylor, Jr., and Lawrence J. Korb. “The Evolution of American National Security Policy” in American National Security: Policy and Process, Fourth Edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

1 Shifts also took place within the Truman and Carter administrations.

2 John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 346.

3 Gaddis, 62.

4 Gaddis, 65.

5 Gaddis, 60.

6 Gaddis, 59.

7 Gaddis, 58.

8 Gaddis, 72-74.

9 Gaddis, 71.

10 Gaddis, 84.

11 Gaddis, 91.

12 Gaddis, 93.

13 Gaddis, 99.

14 Gaddis, 101.

15 Gaddis, 126.

16 Gaddis, 135.

17 Gaddis, 130.

18 Gaddis, 345.

19 Gaddis, 347.

20 Gaddis, 346-347.

21 Gaddis, 345-346.

22 Gaddis, 352.

23 Garthoff, 33.

24 Garthoff, 11.

25 Carter began the “Reagan buildup” after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

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