Warrior Maven

How US Presidents Countered the Cold War Soviet Nuclear Threat

Ronald Reagan addresses the Nation from the oval office on National Security on March 23, 1983. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2017 former Dartmouth College professor and nuclear policy expert Tom Nichols wrote “The Mirage of Knowledge” about the apparent disregard or antipathy many Americans have for “experts.”. In an essay published by the Harvard Magazine in March-April 2018, Lydialyle Gibson followed up and reviewed Nichol’s book. She emphasized how the Trump administration epitomized the disdain for experts, noting the former President’s supposed nonchalant attitude about not having a “foreign policy” expert upon whom he relied as evidence that foreign policy expertise was being belittled and its necessity downplayed.

Professor Nichols was particularly worried that when it came to preserving nuclear deterrence, experts were needed, and the strong rhetoric he deemed reckless between the former President and North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un should not replace the calm diplomacy of nuclear experts necessary to preserve peace.

While experts have their place, the assumptions held by the experts need illumination but are often not revealed, let alone challenged. By their nature, assumptions go beyond facts. We can all agree current US oil production is at eleven million barrels a day. But there are no “facts” that can tell you for sure what oil production could be a decade hence and what impact that would have on US Middle East policy.

Part of the continued questioning of “experts” goes beyond the foreign policy sphere for sure. The media-designated covid vaccine experts over the past three years got much wrong. As is now understood, the pandemic was not one of the unvaccinated. Masks were not needed. Schools did not have to be closed. And society was gravely harmed, unnecessarily, by the shutdown—a shutdown the advocates are now (after the fact) fast running away from.

As noted, on foreign and security policy, including nuclear deterrence, there is not a mechanical or science right way to do things. Even those things we did successfully that in retrospect everyone now supports, were not automatic, such as the April 1948 Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO a year later in April 1949. Isolationist sentiment was strong in America, but with the Berlin blockade and the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, the Senate overcame those concerns and easily approved NATO 83-13.

But a short year later, after getting NATO and the Marshall Plan right, the experts failed miserably. On January 12, 1950, the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, just six months after signing the NATO Instrument of Accession, declared the ROK to be beyond our defense perimeter. To partially remedy US reticence about supporting the ROK, the administration instead sent a military assistance proposal to Congress. Alas, by a vote of 197-195 the House initially turned President Truman down. But in March, Congress thankfully reversed itself and approved $10.2 million in military assistance.

In a subsequent report to Truman in April, however, US intelligence “experts” assumed there was no urgency, as North Korea did not have the military capability to invade the South unless accompanied by massive Soviet forces, and they explained there was no indication of such Soviet forces in North Korea.

With the ROK totally unprepared, with the previously approved US military aid not yet available, the communist North sent 80,000 well-trained troops south in an invasion on June 25, starting a war that would eventually claim the lives of four million people, including 35,000 American soldiers.

Having learned this sad lesson in history from my year of studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, Republic of Korea, I looked forward to working in the US Senate where my national security background could be brought into the real world. What I did not know was over the next decade, United States would go off trolly on a host of important national security policy decisions.

Particularly important between 1970-80 were “arms control” deals amidst a slowed and truncated nuclear modernization; the misestimates of Soviet defense spending and the failure of the policy of containment; the unfortunate adoption of détente and peaceful coexistence; the creation of the what was termed the “Middle East peace process;” the oil embargo and diminished oil security; and the much-heralded US opening to China.

In all these areas, the experts adopted policies that failed or backfired. When examined carefully, such bad decisions had a common origin: the conventionally held assumptions of the credentialed “experts” turned out to be wrong. But because the assumptions remained largely opaque, the assumptions were rarely if ever examined, and thus not challenged, the misguided assumptions remained firmly imbedded in US security policy. When the assumptions were later jettisoned, policies that were adopted succeeded.

Arms Control and Nuclear Modernization

While the 1972 SALT I deal was routinely described as the first “arms control” agreement between the US and the USSR, more accurately the SALT agreements were deals that gave the good housekeeping seal of approval not to arms control but to a huge buildup of nuclear weapons by the Soviets.

Years later, during the 1991 Senate deliberations on the START I treaty, the extent of the Soviet buildup became clear. Senator Dan Coats explained that the Soviets during the SALT process, had built their arsenal of deployed strategic (long-range) nuclear weapons to 13,300 warheads, some six-fold more than when the SALT I treaty was signed in 1972.

Not only did SALT endorse a huge Soviet buildup, but the companion ABM Treaty (1972) eliminated defenses from deployment, defenses against China having been proposed by Secretary of Defense McNamara in 1967. This is why Brezhnev as the Communist Party General Secretary demanded of President-elect Nixon in late 1968 that all missile defenses had to be banned as they were highly destabilizing. With the ABM agreement, Brezhnev got what he wanted, giving future Soviet heavy, multi-warhead ICBMs an unimpeded free ride to their US targets, while SALT gave the Soviets breathing room and thus time to build heavy missiles with which to coerce the United States.

A key plank in Reagan’s campaigns in 1976 and 1980 was opposition to the buildup of Soviet arms the SALT process erroneously described as “arms control.” Reagan supported nuclear modernization, missile defense and marked reductions in nuclear weapons and a roll-back policy toward the Soviet Union. By the winter of 1980-1, the US still did not have a new B1 or B2 bomber, a new Ohio-class submarine, or a new Peacekeeper/MX ICBM. In almost every defense budget for the previous decade, nuclear modernization funds were cut, spindled or delayed, with the entire nuclear deterrent increasingly at risk.

Reagan’s agenda was embraced by the American people in a landslide election. This was apparently lost on the experts. As his first news conference as President, the first question was from the AP White House reporter who asked Reagan whether he would continue to support détente and peaceful coexistence. The second question was whether the President would continue to abide by the SALT II treaty, (which had not been ratified by the US Senate but withdrawn from consideration by then President Carter).

When President Reagan assumed office and pushed nuclear modernization, missile defense and nuclear weapon reductions, simultaneously, as he promised he would do, the White House was accused by the media and many in Congress of opposing arms control, “upsetting” détente and engaging in an unsettling “arms race.”

Subsequently Carl Sagan’s nuclear winter scenarios and the Catholic Bishops nuclear freeze campaign dominated much of the news coverage on nuclear forces. Based on studies of dust storms on Mars, Sagan predicted that even a limited use of nuclear weapons on earth would kill billions. He and the disarmament community were aided by the Catholic Bishops in particular who also argued for the freeze, while declaring in addition that nuclear deterrence itself was immoral.

The experts said reductions proposed by Reagan-- what would later be enshrined in the INF and START I treaties-- were not credible, as the Soviets would never accept such deals. Reagan’s proposals were thus described as a “trick.” As if Moscow was justified in deploying thousands of new SS-20 missiles armed with nuclear weapons aimed at Western Europe and the Western Pacific and that calling for their elimination was somehow unjust.

The Washington, D.C. disarmament community created “Sane-Freeze;” a constellation of “arms control” groups opposed to Reagan’s nuclear arms control proposals as well as the administration’s nuclear modernization efforts. While eventually Congress did support Reagan, the media, Hollywood, academia, and the experts in the professional so-called arms control community did not, buying into the expert narrative that Reagan’s nuclear policies were, by implication, not sane. [It should be explained that at the time of the nuclear freeze, the Soviet nuclear forces were nearly fully modernized while the US had not yet built its first Ohio-class submarine, B-2 or B-1 strategic bomber or Peacekeeper ICBM. That is why Moscow supported the freeze.]

Despite this opposition narrative, especially by the credentialed experts in nuclear policy, Reagan secured the support of Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands to deploy the Pershing and GLCMs in Europe, with the initial research and development funding put into the FY1982 defense budget for the first time by any President, in contrast to the previous weak rhetorical commitment to the missile deployments by previous administrations.

Particularly important and central to Reagan’s success was the long fight in Congress over the deployment of the Peacekeeper ICBM. It was finally concluded in May 1985 when the US Senate by a vote of 55-45 unfenced the Air Force funding for the missile, but only after a legislative requirement that all 15 previous consecutive votes in the House and Senate had to also favor unlocking the Peacekeeper funding, including a 28-27 cliff-hanger vote in the full House Appropriations Committee. By October 1987, the Peacekeeper was initially deployed, remarkably at exactly the time (1974) projected by USAF General Aloysius Casey when as head of the Ballistic Missile Office he introduced the first research and development funds for the missile.

The successful arms control deals of the INF and START I upended Gorbachev’s plot to intimidate NATO in part through the SS-20 deployments, while the Peacekeeper deployment along with the rest of the US strategic Triad partially closed the window of vulnerability created by huge Soviet ICBMs. As Angelo Codevilla explained, and the historically close Houe vote demonstrated, winning the Cold War I and ending the Soviet empire were indeed a near thing.

Soviet Defense Spending and Containment

George Kennan’s 1946 Long Telegram from Moscow on the sources of Soviet behavior correctly noted the Soviet penchant for empire building and its totalitarian expansive measures seeking to defeat the United States. Kennan’s prescription to deal with the Soviets came to be known as “containment” where the US (it as assumed) would contain or stop Soviet aggression. Kennan explained in a subsequent 1947 Foreign Affairs essay that the key was to “contain Soviet expansive tendencies.”

If the US was in fact embracing containment, the post WWII period would be the first test. Stalin cleverly snookered the Western powers and ended up in control of all of eastern Europe, plus half the Korean peninsula, key Japanese islands and northern Manchuria.

Luckily, the US switched gears and in 1950 Truman secured the UN support for going to Korea and protecting the ROK. While Kennan had no illusions of rolling back the Soviet empire, [the first rollback of communist territory since 1917 was the 1983 liberation of Grenada]. In fact, Kennan would subsequently not even support the containment envisioned by his 1946 “long telegram” as he opposed Truman’s Korea “police action.”

While certainly the US fight to protect South Vietnam was definitely within the parameters of “containment,” the US withdrawal from Vietnam and the subsequent Congressional cutoff of all military assistance to South Vietnam, threw containment fully out the window. After Indochina fell to communism, Soviet led coups and wars of national liberation led to the collapse of nearly two dozen additional nations from Angola, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Grenada, Afghanistan, and Guinea Bassou, as they went over to the Soviet empire, many of them located on shipping routes critical to the economic lifeline of the western economies.

Add to that the Soviet failed attempts to flip Columbia, El Salvador, Indonesia and other key nations, the 1970s was indeed a decade where under the banner of détente and peaceful co-existence the Soviet empire expanded greatly and the US went into retreat. Critical to Soviet success was the creation of a hollow military force in the US as defense spending declined markedly.

Those seeking greater US military power created the Committee on the Present Danger, arguing as did Johnny Foster, the DDR&E Secretary of Defense, that Soviet military spending was nearly 30% of its GDP, not the paltry 4-6% estimated by the experts in the intelligence community. Foster finally convinced then CIA Director George Bush to review Soviet military spending, and only after great difficulty did the experts modestly adjust their estimates of Soviet defense spending, arguing that pushing up US defense spending in response would “imperil détente.”

With the US in retreat, Moscow itself believed “the correlation of forces” was bending dramatically in favor of the Soviet Union, and thus the idea that the US was successfully implementing any kind of “containment” policy was poppycock. Yet the media and academia are filled with homages to Kennan and containment as somehow the key to the eventual collapse of the USSR a full decade hence.

In reality, again against the recommendations of the “experts,” President Reagan jettisoned détente, and instead of containment adopted “roll back” of the Soviet empire. The US and its allies, particularly Great Britain, went after the Soviet empire on all fronts. As Warren Norquist detailed in his 2001 “How the United States Won the Cold War”, Reagan adopted a seven-point plan:

  • Supporting internal disruptions within the USSR, especially in Poland.
  • Promote freedom through public diplomacy.
  • Dry up Soviet sources of hard currency.
  • Overload the Soviet economy with a technology-based arms race.
  • Stop the flow of western technology.
  • Raise the cost of the wars the USSR was supporting; and
  • Demoralize the Soviets and generate pressure to change, which will eventually implode the rotten Soviet empire.

Needless to say, the architects of this peace through strength strategy paid no attention to the credentialed experts descending on Washington urging such things as a nuclear freeze, a continuation of détente, an abandonment of SDI, and ending military assistance to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan democratic resistance.

Détente and Peaceful Co-Existence (1969-79)

Juliana Pilon explains that détente and peaceful coexistence were frauds perpetuated by the Soviet bloc to trick the West into making mass concessions. While pretending to adopt a less hostile approach to the United States, the Soviets actually funded and armed guerilla war throughout the Southern Hemisphere while also funding terrorist groups in Europe and the United States.

Throughout the 1970s, the Soviets brought forth a cascade of nations that flipped to the Soviet bloc, starting with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and culminating with the fall of Nicaragua and the invasion of Afghanistan. Overall, some 21 nations fell to communism, many through so-called “wars of national liberation.” And as an unexpected bonus, the fall of the Shah of Iran and the coming to power in Iran of what is now the government chiefly responsible for terrorism worldwide.

So thorough was Soviet détente propaganda, that the very first question President Reagan was asked at his first Presidential news conference was whether he was still in favor of détente and peaceful coexistence. That the new President had campaigned twice on a platform to jettison détente was apparently lost on the AP reporter that asked the question. Of course, President Reagan, to a collective gasp from the assembled reporters, said he was not in favor of détente and peaceful coexistence as his idea of the Cold War was “we win and they lose.” The new President explained he was never in favor of the détente policy to begin with and how could the US be in favor of a policy that was totally one-sided and simply a screen behind which the Soviet Union engaged in war against the West?

The second question asked was whether the President would abide by the SALT II nuclear treaty limits even though the agreement had never been approved by the US Senate, and in fact had been withdrawn from Senate consideration by former President Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even though there was already considerable Senate opposition to the treaty.

The President reiterated his call for major cuts and reductions in deployed nuclear forces, again characterizing the SALT process as a build-up of nuclear forces and certainly not a process of reductions or arms control.

Oslo and the Middle East Peace Process

The experts and conventional wisdom assured us that the conflicts in the Middle East were centrally about providing the Palestinians a state. As former President Clinton would claim in 2014, terrorism would largely disappear if the Palestinians received a state, and that to do so was simply a matter of securing enough Israeli concessions. The “Middle East peace process” was central to this goal, as even Israel went so far to embrace just such a paradigm in the Oslo process in 1993.

The result was not peace. Over time, the terrorists including those from the PLO gave us Intifada I, II, III and IV. In addition, came Taliban, Al Qaeda and Iranian sponsored terror attacks on the World Trade Center, 1993 and 2001, the 1983 terror bombing of our Marine Barracks and Embassy in Lebanon, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1976 in KSA, the US embassy bombings in 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and eventually 9-11.

This was followed by the military disaster in Libya initiated by terror attacks on US facilities, and then the subsequent creation of ISIS, all part of a mosaic of continued Iran terrorism in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, caried out by the Iran sponsored Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

On the other hand, when the Trump administration took the centrality of a Palestinian homeland off the table, defunded the PLO, waxed ISIS, and identified Iran as the source of terrorism in the Middle East, (and not Israel), the Abraham Accords resulted, precisely what the experts told us would not be possible. Iran was defunded with its foreign exchange holdings falling to $3 billion from over $100 billion, the head of the IRGC was killed, and the US was finally moving in the right direction along with its allies in the Middle East.

The assumption that the roots of terrorism were based on the lack of a Palestinian state was firmly linked to a blind spot among experts who refused to see terrorism as a state-directed enterprise chiefly with roots in the Soviet Union and their subsidiaries in Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Terrorism was directed towards achieving state objectives, one of which was to destroy the West and decouple the US from NATO. It had nothing to do with a Palestinian state. After all, the PLO and then the PA have never accepted any of the multitude of offers of a two-state solution.

This blindness came directly to light following Clare Sterling’s 1981 “The Terror Network” which convincingly portrayed the Soviet Union as the prime bank and armory for terrorism, a claim Secretary of State Alexander Haig repeated in early 1981 Hill testimony.

To settle the subsequent media and political uproar, as experts cited repeatedly by the media assured the public that Haig and Sterling were terribly mistaken, Congress required the intelligence community to determine whether the Soviet Union was in fact the prime sponsor of state directed terrorism or whether terrorism roots were not state directed but largely based on a legitimate grievance of there being no Palestinian state. As one former President argued, what else but terrorism could poor Palestinians use when they had no jets to match Israeli Phantoms or F-14s?

The CIA initiated a study and received word back in 1981 from agency “experts” that indeed the USSR was not a state sponsor of terrorism. To prove their case, the experts provided to the Director of the CIA (Casey) editorials from TASS and Pravda “proving” the USSR was not in support of terrorism. The report further emphasized that if Moscow was a terror sponsor, then détente would be in jeopardy and certainly Moscow would not risk that!

A stunned Casey put together a new team including intelligence official and future Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who using CIA staff, determined that indeed the Soviets were sponsors of terrorism, and as he explained in his book “Duty,” published in 2014, the Soviets were even greater terror sponsors than his assessment to DNI Casey reported.

The Oil Embargo and US. Energy Security

With the Iran created oil embargo of October 1973, the eventual adopted narrative by the experts was that the western world was too profligate in its use of energy and most particularly fossil fuels, that energy growth had to be severely limited, as environmentally sound energy policy required major reductions in US energy consumption and the adoption of a state of energy scarcity.

President Carter said that natural gas would be depleted by 1990, and enjoined utilities from using it. Reprocessing spent fuel was prohibited by the Energy Department as well and the nuclear power industry balance sheets went from black to red overnight.

While Middle East oil companies and producers were the bad guys, the key culprits were American consumers. Automobiles needed to get more miles per gallon, and homes needed to be better insulated. The expert narrative was that the US was simply running out of oil, so we had to use less, as imports climbed to 50% of US consumption.

Now experts often underscored US oil production had peaked. It was true that as petroleum geologist King Hubbard of Humble Oil had predicted, conventional oil and gas production had indeed peaked in 1970 at 10 million barrels per day. But little attention was paid to Hubbert’s other side of the story. Hubbert told me in 1975 that unconventional oil and gas was probably plentiful but at the time environmentally and economically prohibitive to produce.

As fracking proved, after three decades of decline, US oil production rose to 13 million barrels a day in November 2019, just before the pandemic induced economic turn-down, giving the US energy sector the role of the world’s swing producer of energy, an independence not enjoyed by the US for many decades.

But in 1979, global oil prices doubled due to the turmoil in Iran. In 1980, with the Iran-Iraq war taking another 4 million barrels of oil a day off the world market, prices continued to sharply climb, but President Carter only criticized Americans for “self-indulgent consumption” while urging everyone to wear a sweater.

In 1981, in one of his first acts, President Reagan fully decontrolled oil prices. With market prices now world-wide, non-OPEC petroleum production began to exceed that of OPEC and allowed offshore drilling and production increased US supply markedly, with imported oil falling to just 28% of consumption. Later in his Presidency got the KSA to markedly increase oil production, and contrary to expert opinion, the economy boomed and the price of gas dropped from $35 to $15 a barrel.

Eventually the technology of fracking would take hold in the United States, again to the surprise of “experts” to where now 70% of all oil and gas consumption in the US is from fracking produced oil and gas. Natural gas turned out to be plentiful, with upwards of 38% of all US electricity now produced from natural gas. From 1 million barrels a day in 2010 to 4 million barrels a day, fracking produced oil in 2015 exceeded the production of every OPEC member except KSA.

Overall, US production reached 13 million barrels per day in November 2019, but with production now lower at 11 million barrels a day, gasoline prices have now at least doubled, and the US is again heavily dependent on imported petroleum. Drill baby drill worked.

But now, unfortunately, we have gone back to the same experts who were decades ago proclaiming the moral virtue of energy scarcity and insecurity. And still beholden to legislation and energy policy from the 1970s, with an emphasis not on production but minimizing consumption, on top of which the country has appended a massive mis-directed multi-trillion-dollar campaign to end all fossil fuel use, which now accounts for 80% of all US energy use.

China’s Peaceful Rise

With President Nixon visiting China an opening was created for extensive US-China economic relations and eventually a diplomatic thaw. The expert conventional wisdom was two-fold: Nixon was seeking China’s help over time to offset the power of the Soviet Union, and more economic trade with China would create the middle class in China conducive to a more democratic and less authoritarian government.

In pursuit of that goal, the US government spent tens of billions over more than four decades in supporting entities throughout Chinese society and government. One trip of mining specialists from the Department of the Interior sought to help China better manage the safety of its underground coal mining, which even today provides 70% of the energy China consumes annually. When asked to describe the efforts made to rescue miners after a mine explosion, a serious problem in China, the Chinese hosts casually explained there were no efforts made, which dumbfounded the Interior experts.

This is a good metaphor for understanding nearly half a century later how wrong US assumptions were that the CCP does not seek a growing moderate middle class let alone democratic principles with which to adopt. Mike Pillsbury’s “100 Year Marathon” explains in detail the highly misleading US assumptions that led not to a moderating China in world affairs but the growth of what is now understood to be the most formidable military and economic threat to the United States.

Summary and Conclusion

The decade of the 1970’s has long been considered bad for US security policy. The United States lost in Indochina and Latin America. The Palestinians kept demanding a state from the “river to the sea,” while terrorism here at home and abroad climbed sharply. Two recessions occurred with long gas lines. Crime was rampant. The Chinese were paying elements of the Black Panthers to assassinate police according to an FBI report to the White House. Illegal immigration began to get the attention of the government, the military was “hollow,” and economic “stagflation” emerged, with 14% inflation and a 21% prime rate.

What changed? Well, US policy makers changed the assumptions under which they lived. Gas turned out to be plentiful as drillers went out and produced energy the country had repeatedly been assured did not exist. Crime was contained as petty and serious criminals were locked up, a novel idea! Starting in 1981, the tax and regulatory burden on Americans was dramatically lowered and over the next four decades, economic growth, job creation and the stock market reached highs not previously envisioned.

Terrorist groups got waxed, inflation and interest rates were tamed, and immigration laws were largely (although not completely) observed. The military received the resources it needed, drugs and alcohol were removed from the barracks, and a volunteer force was established and well-funded. The US military won extraordinary fights with the Iraqi army twice, and took down the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the latter with a combination of horse warriors, B-52s and JDAMS engaging in close combat support.

By the end of 2019, a record number of Americans (156 million) were employed, inflation was a little more than 1%, unemployment of certain minority groups and women, especially those with only a high school education, hit record lows, and the poverty rate reached a low level not seen since records have been kept.

Much that was successful over the past five decades was implemented and proposed to great criticism by the “experts,” while the policies and strategies pursued by the “experts” often did not work and even made things worse. The difference in policy choices was largely a matter of assumptions brought to the policy table by various policy makers. While often declared deplorables and clingers, cold-warriors and hawks, Amen corner friends and unsophisticated, the “expert deniers” turned out to be right, and the credentialed experts wrong.

Angelo Codevilla in “America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations” codified “the disarray resulting from the Progressive management” of US security beginning some 75 years ago. Although largely concerned that the US get back to the foreign policy principles espoused from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, the added assessment of what assumptions underlined the Progressive agenda was needed. That is why this essay was created, hopefully to guide the country back to sound and successful policies, whether overseas or here at home.

The media often leads with the “unexpected” whether job growth, energy prices, weapons deployed, that such experts did not foresee, or expert economists did not predict, or expert diplomats found surprising. No one ever asks why the media keep asking the same experts the same questions when the “experts” routinely don’t get things right!

There is much sense in the American people. They may not know how to physically design or construct a bridge, but they understand in the words of our founder George Washington, the need for “reflection and choice” and to place the nation’s policy on moral “immutable foundations.”

Otherwise known as common sense.

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