The Cold War: Then and Now
An interview with Paul Nitze
Paul Nitze is presently the Special Adviser to the
President and Secretary of State on Arms Control Matters. During the decades
of the post-war period, Nitze has served nearly every Administration in
positions that included Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of
Defense. He was also a principal negotiator for the US on SALT(I) and
beaded the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Negotiations. During the
Carter Administration, Mr. Nitze was Chairman of Policy Studies for the
Committee for the Present Danger, a private group which was critical of
SALT II and argued for a massive military buildup of US forces in the
Recently, we went back to Paul Nitze to discuss his views on the history and evolution of US-Soviet relations almost forty years later
NPQ - In the opening section of NSC-68 (National Security Council Memorandum No. 68), written in 1950, it is argued that two factors had basically altered the historic distribution of power, leaving power to polarize in only two centers - the US and the Soviet Union.
The first factor was defeat of Germany and Japan as well as the decline of the French and British empires. The second factor was the "new fanatic faith" of Soviet communism seeking to impose its authority globally.
Later, the document argued that the Kremlin "is inescapably militant" because it "possesses and is possessed by a world wide revolutionary movement." It argued that the movement found particular receptivity in Asia because of social and economic turmoil, but also endangered Germany and Austria.
Now, in 1986, Western Europe is strong economically, Japan is an economic superpower, China is a quasi-ally of ours, the worldwide revolutionary movement is "no longer a reality of our time" (Kennan) and "the new fanatic faith" has exhausted its appeal (Debray).
The trend of history, the "correlation of forces," has shifted in our favor, from the new democracies of Latin America to the market flirtations of China.
Do you agree with this assessment? Does it alter your view of the US-Soviet conflict and the "polarization of power" from what it was in 1950?
PN - You quote George Kennan saying that the worldwide revolutionary movement is no longer a reality for our time. I don't believe that to be true. It's having its troubles. But it isn't by any means dead.
There are many people in the world who look upon the communist doctrine and the support of Moscow as their one road to power. Certainly that is true in Ethiopia, in Angola and Nicaragua.
The worldwide communist movement hasn't got the same broad public appeal that it once had, but it still has an appeal to those who would like to seize power.
I agree that communism doesn't have the same fanatic faith that it had before. It is now a more power-oriented faith.
You say that the trend of history, the "correlation of forces," has shifted in our favor. I don't believe that is accurate if you are using the term "correlation of forces" in the same sense in which the Soviets use it. They mean it to include all the relevant forces bearing upon a situation ideological, psychological and political forces. And, the economic forces to a minor extent. The Soviets place heavy emphasis on the military correlation of forces. And it is this military force combined with the political-ideological-psychological forces that are the principal elements they take into account.
Whether the relevant forces as the Soviets define them have shifted in our favor is very much in doubt. The forces you mention having moved in our favor, mostly economic, are not as important as the others in the Soviet mind.
I certainly welcome the new democracies of Latin America. And, I'd say that what is happening in China is more than a mere flirtation with the market. They really are trying to adapt to market forces while preserving complete party control.
You say that China is a quasi-ally. I'd say that China is an independent power. It makes up its own mind about what is in its interest. We have no way of knowing how China would react in a serious crisis, but in the past, they've looked upon the Soviet Union as a greater threat to their security than we. Therefore, to some extent, we share a common enemy.
There have been other changes. The Soviet Union itself has changed. There has been a change in attitudes and an enormous expansion in its organization. It is a tremendous and better organized apparatus now.
Back in the time of NSC-68, Mr. Stalin and a few advisers made all the important decisions. He was terrified to sub-delegate authority. You cannot run an organization as big and productive as the Soviet Union is today with the methods of Stalin. So, the Soviet Union has changed in its nature and in its attitudes. A lot has changed in the Soviet Union.
But some things remain unchanged. It is hard to see how they are going to change. The primacy of the party; the primacy of central authority; the primary emphasis upon military power; and the end objective of a world which is basically a communist world. Those things have not changed.
NPQ - The strategy of containment had several objectives it sought to achieve "short of war": to (a) block the expansion of Soviet power; (b) expose the falsities of Soviet pretensions; (c) induce a retraction of the Kremlin's control and influence; and (d) foster the seeds of destruction with the Soviet system so as to modify its behavior to conform with accepted international standards.
Have these objectives been achieved?
PN - We haven't gotten into a war. We succeeded there. By and large, though not entirely, we have blocked the expansion of Soviet power. Certainly, the rate of expansion has slowed. Expansion has been the exception. They now control Cuba, which they did not then control. They have strong influence in Ethiopia which they did not then have. They appear at last to have control in South Yemen. They've occupied Afghanistan. They have a position in Angola that they did not then have.
On the other hand, they have far less influence in China than they then had. I would say further expansion of Soviet power has been checked, but nothing more than checked.
"Expose the falsity of Soviet pretensions." You've quoted Debray to that effect and that has indeed taken place over time.
- Induce a retraction of Kremlin control and influence." That certainly has taken place in China. And, I would say it has probably taken place in Iran.
"And in general sow seeds of destruction within the Soviet System." I think we rather changed our view on this objective. Whatever destruction takes place in the Soviet system has to take place from within. We can't influence that. Most of our attempts to do this have been counterproductive.
Some of the more general factors which can modify the Soviet system have advanced. For example, the spreading influence of television by satellite is hardly compatible with what has been the Kremlin system.
Whether these general factors and our continuing effort to contain Soviet expansion will eventually cause them to "conform to generally accepted international standards," I'm not so sure. Let's say they will behave differently than in the past.
NPQ - Some have argued that today we no longer are engaged in a "total struggle" between two worldviews democracy and communism - but an old-fashioned, classic great power rivalry, not much different than that between England and Russia in the 19th Century, or England and France in the 18th Century.
What is your view?
PN - That is incorrect. That view suggests that Soviet ideology is no longer an important element affecting their behavior. I don't believe that to be true. Ideology is a strong element in their behavior, very strong. This is not just a great power rivalry. That analysis misses the point.
NPQ - Do the US and the Soviet Union have any common interests in the world order today?
PN - Certainly we have interests in common. Nonproliferation is one of them. We hope we can build a common interest for a non-nuclear world. In the past, they have always had the view that this would -come about when the world as a whole became communist, in which case there wouldn't be a struggle with the remnants of the capitalist world. Nuclear weapons would become unnecessary and the KGB could enforce the absence of nuclear weapons worldwide. With such total and complete verification there could be total and complete disarmament.
Today, this is one of the instances in which their point of view may be - we can't be sure of it yet - in the process of modification. Could they perhaps tolerate a non-nuclear free world without the prior worldwide victory of communism? We'll see. That's what we're testing with the current arms negotiations.
NPQ - Do you believe that the nature of the common interest - whether it is proliferation or strategic reductions - is strong enough to alter the basic "total struggle" character of the relationship between us and the Soviet Union?
PN - Alter is an indefinite word. The struggle will continue, but the boundaries and the intensity of it can vary.
NPQ - Should we hold strategic talks hostage to US-Soviet competition elsewhere in the world? Should Nicaragua or Afghanistan determine whether or not we and the Soviets reduce nuclear weapons?
PN - We saw that what happened in Afghanistan did have a bearing upon what President Carter thought was feasible, practical and desirable to do with respect to arms control. So, certainly these conflicts are all parts of a general problem.
In order to deal with problems, we try to break them down into specific parts-and try to deal with each part as effectively as we can. It is wise to try to break linkages. Of course, we can't wholly avoid linkages because they are real.
NPQ - Why is Afghanistan important to our strategic nuclear relationship with the Soviet Union? It's on the Soviet border. Why does it make any difference to our national security whether they control Afghanistan?
PN - Military security is not all that makes a difference to us. It was a totally improper invasion. We care about the Charter of the United Nations. We care about its principles. Therefore, it does make a difference to us.
NPQ - NSC-68 was the first policy document that incorporated Keynesian thinking into defense matters. It argued that we could finance a military buildup to fight global communism through deficit spending, thus generating additional economic activity, more tax revenues, and, eventually, returning the budget to balance.
Leon Keyserling, the Chairman of Truman's Council of Economic Advisers during the period of NSC-68, recently made a relevant observation in a conversation we had with him. He said the problem with fighting the Cold War through deficit spending was that it is a "demonstrative war" - a war that does not actually involve direct fighting between the US and USSR, but a strategy to demonstrate will, resolve and strength through buildup or proxy wars, such as Korea or Vietnam. Such a "demonstrative war" could not decisively be won or lost, and thus had the potential for the limitless need of resources to fight the Soviets at all times and in all places.
Forty years after NSC-68, in the period of another US military buildup, we have a paradoxical situation. Under a conservative President of anti-Keynesian lineage, we have a $200 billion deficit where two out of every five dollars of income tax now goes to servicing interest on the debt.
Haven't we reached the upper limits of Keynesian containment?
PN - Leon Keyserling was very helpful when we wrote NSC-68. He was my principal adviser on the economic parts.
I disagree with Keyserling's approach here as you cite it. In the first place, I have a problem with this notion of "demonstrative war." It's not that at all. We have a very practical problem. The Soviets were, and are, trying to do certain things. We don't want them to do those things.
This idea of limitless need for resources to fight the Soviets at all times and in all places leaps ahead from NSC-68 to the Kennedy years of "pay any price, bear any burden." Ted Sorensen's words for Jack Kennedy make a great speech and marvelous politics, but they bear no relationship to practical planning.
Now, where does the $200 billion deficit come from? That deficit comes from the enormous increase in transfer payments. The percentage going to defense is only 6% of the GNP.
Back in the 1950s during the Eisenhower Administration, the military budget averaged 9% or thereabouts. During the Korean War and the period after NSC-68, it was nearly 14%.
The present deficit has not been caused by an increase in defense. It has been caused by an increase in transfer payments such as Medicare and Social Security without a corresponding increase in taxes.
In NSC-68, we argued we could afford increased defense spending but not without paying for it. 1, for one, never believed in the idea of unlimited deficit spending. During the Korean War I suggested that we put an excise tax on automobiles with more than 100 horsepower to help pay for the buildup. Unlimited Keynesian thinking is contrary to my thought and was not meant to be suggested in NSC-68.
I've never had any use for limitless obligations. But if we have a limitless threat from somebody who really does aspire to establish a new world order on his principles, which are antithetical to ours, then we've got a real problem.
We didn't get up one day and create the idea that limitless programs are worthwhile. They're not. But, we do need programs that are commensurate with what we're trying to check. That determines the size of the program.
NSC-68 said the US economy could generate enough assets to contain the Soviets. And it did. During the Korean War defense budgets went from $12 billion to $45 billion in one year. That didn't produce disaster and it would have produced less long-term problems like inflation if we had accompanied the increase with a tax structure that would have siphoned off the excess purchasing power.
I reject the idea that NSC-68 was the source of the inconsequent kind of behavior that we've seen from time to time with large deficits and inflation.
NPQ - The question today is still to define the nature of the conflict with the Soviet Union and the means available to fight that conflict. Gramm-Rudman exhibits the kind of Congressional ill-logic which results when there is no consensus either for a sustained military buildup or sustaining the social budget.
This relates to NSC-68 because decisions on how to distribute our resources are based on our strategy in world affairs - a strategy still framed by the assumptions of NSC-68.
PN - But we're not thinking in the framework of NSC-68, otherwise we wouldn't have Gramm-Rudman, which calls for automatic cuts in defense spending. Gramm-Rudman illustrates our inability to face up to taxes and transfer payments of a size and nature that will be difficult for the productive part of our society to sustain.
NPQ - Another new constraint on resources different from 1950 is economic competition with our allies, particularly Japan. As Sen. Gary Hart told us in a recent interview: "While defending the front door against the Soviets, we will lose our prosperity through the backdoor of economic competition with our allies."
PN - The Japanese only devote 1% of GNP to defense while we spend 6%. Germany spends about what we do.
The main difference with the Japanese today is savings. Our rate of savings is about 5% while the Japanese is 20%. That's where the problem is. We suffer from a "consume now" point of view in contrast to a "prepare for the future" point of view.
NPQ - Which is incompatible, in your view, with developing the resources we need to fight the Soviets as well as our ability to compete economically?
PN - That's right.
NPQ - If we accept that there are new constraints on our economy that there weren't in 1950 - competition and the unprecedented level of the deficit....
PN - These things can be dealt with. They are political questions that are hard to deal with and get elected, but that is the nature of the beast. It's not a "real problem."
If we look at it from the standpoint of a planning problem, apart from the politics, it is not a serious problem.
If we could get by this political impasse, we could put the economy back in shape and maintain an acceptable defense posture.
NPQ - If the defense budget had to be cut and a distinction had to be made between our vital interests and our peripheral interests, what would the vital interests be?
PN - We've always tried to make a distinction between those things which are more important and those which are less important.
This thing is like a chessboard. We can say that the rooks are more important than the knights and bishops, and the bishops more important than the pawns. But if you strip yourself of your pawns, you're lost!
Similarly with our strategy, if we strip ourselves of our pawns, we're lost. This is an integrated situation. It is all interrelated. The idea that somehow or other we can get out of difficulties by writing off this, that, or the other thing is the road to disaster. That line of simplification is for the birds.
NPQ - When will the Cold War be over? By what criteria will we define its end?
PN - We just try to improve the situation without having it deteriorate; that could go on for a long time.