Waging Cold War: American Defense Policy for Extended Deterrence and Containment, 1953–1965

After the Korean War, the United States turned from a crisis-oriented military policy toward concepts and programs designed to last as long as the rivalry with the Soviet Union. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson adopted policies suited for “the long haul.” With Soviet-American competition accepted as the central fact in international relations, American policymakers regarded defense policy as a principal instrument for containing the parallel spread of Communism and Soviet imperialism. To check the extension of Soviet influence, the United States sought to reduce the chance that the Russians would threaten or use military force as a tool of international influence. For all the debate about the means and costs of defense, American policy rested upon consensual assumptions about the nature of the military challenge and the appropriate response. Supported by an activist coalition in Congress, the three Cold War presidents further refined containment, strategic deterrence, and forward, collective defense.

Nuclear weapons remained at the heart of American strategy. The era saw the extension of nuclear deterrence in both political and technological terms, for the changing nature of the Soviet threat, the requirements of alliance support, and the dazzling possibilities of technological change made the development of nuclear forces irresistible. By 1965 the United States and Soviet Union had both created the rudiments of the strategic “triad,” a force of intercontinental bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarines armed with intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These delivery systems bore warheads of increased destructive power, since they combined the explosive force of the hydrogen fusion process and improved missile accuracy. In raw numerical terms the United States enjoyed nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, largely because of its sizable bomber force. The Soviet Union sought to counter this potential advantage by building a thick air-defense system of interceptors and missiles and by creating its own ICBMs, manned by the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF). The direct threat to American nuclear forces and cities increased during the era. Acutely aware of this growing vulnerability, American policymakers tried to reduce the likelihood of general war by making deterrence more complex and awesome.

Another role of strategic deterrence was to extend it to America’s alliance system. From its creation, NATO had enjoyed the ultimate protection of America’s nuclear weapons, but the growing Soviet nuclear threat to the United States introduced doubt that SAC would come flying to Europe’s rescue if war occurred. To defend Western Europe—and South Korea and Japan as well—the United States developed nuclear forces for forward deployment: Intermediate-range missiles stationed in NATO countries, Air Force fighter-bombers with the ability to drop nuclear weapons, and carrier-based aircraft. The option of regional nuclear war proved a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it demonstrated the indivisibility of the American nuclear umbrella and created nuclear alternatives short of general war. On the other hand, it tied American strategy to the behavior of its allies and opened the question of whether American guarantees had any meaning when the survival of the United States was at risk.

The intricacies of nuclear diplomacy brought strains upon the Free World and Communist alliance systems, opening fissures between the United States and Soviet Union and their allies. Unhappy with American reluctance to assist its modest nuclear weapons program, the French government went ahead on its own force de frappe, exploded a warhead in 1960, and withdrew from the NATO military system in 1966. The Soviets, however, faced an even greater dilemma in Asia. Invoking its 1950 alliance with Russia, the People’s Republic of China demanded assistance with its nuclear program. When the Russians refused, the Chinese exploded their own nuclear device in 1964. Nuclear proliferation joined an ever-increasing set of international concerns.

The ominous shadow of nuclear war gave the United States and the Soviet Union an incentive to supplement their military programs with arms control negotiations. President Eisenhower appreciated the role arms control might play in preventing “the stupid starting of stupid war.” Nikita S. Khrushchev regarded U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms talks as a weapon of Soviet policy, for they bought time for Russian strategic programs, offered international recognition of Russia’s military strength, divided NATO, and encouraged the peace movement in the West.

As if the politics of strategic deterrence were not complex enough, the United States attempted to build a regional alliance system outside Europe that would contain Russian and Chinese intervention and subversion. The Korean War experience served as the model of what might be done and what should be avoided. “No more Koreas” served as a slogan for the deeply held belief that the United States should avoid another protracted land war for limited objectives. Instead, the NATO pattern of forward and collective defense, already extended to Latin America by the Rio Pact and applied on a bilateral basis in the Pacific, might work as well in Asia and the Middle East. In 1954 the United States decided not to use nuclear weapons or conventional forces to save French Indochina, but tried to salvage the anti-Communist position in Southeast Asia by forming the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). It extended SEATO’s military guarantees to the new states of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It sponsored a similar arrangement for the Middle East, the Baghdad Pact, in 1955. Much of American foreign policy found its stimulus in alliance reinforcement.

The United States did not rely solely upon its military alliances to contain Communist subversion. It also battled revolutionary insurgents with economic aid, military assistance, and covert action with success in Greece and the Philippines. The government then employed the CIA to topple governments with Communist participants in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). When similar techniques did not prove feasible in Lebanon in 1958, the Eisenhower administration sent a Marine Corps–Army task force to stop a civil war and deter Syrian intervention. The policy of countersubversion flowered in the early 1960s in Allen Dulles’s CIA, which mounted covert operations against Fidel Castro in Cuba and against Communist-influenced guerrillas in the Congo. Among the battlefields of covert action and military assistance, Laos and South Vietnam proved to be the most persistent problems.

American security policy required a high degree of presidential freedom of action. Although their successes varied, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson enjoyed relative freedom from congressional interference except in the annual budget process. Regardless of party, the presidents maintained the security policy initiative through the manipulation of a bipartisan, internationalist congressional coalition that included all the important floor leaders and committee members. When it came to a test of strength, the presidents prevailed. Eisenhower successfully beat back a congressional effort to curb his powers to make executive agreements with foreign governments. In 1954 he received congressional support to help the Chinese Nationalists defend the offshore islands of Quemoy, Matsu, and the Pescadores; the House vote was 410 to 3, the Senate vote 83 to 3. Copying Eisenhower’s effort a decade later, Johnson took a blank check from Congress to use military force in Southeast Asia. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution vote dramatized the president’s ability to drive the political process.

Congressional enthusiasm for collective security depended upon public support. Until the end of the 1960s the opinion polls and the elections sent a consistent message to Washington: Beware of the Soviets and maintain American military superiority. Defense spending did not distress the public, since its share of the federal budget and gross national product dropped in the decade after the post-Korea demobilization. Some defense spending, in fact, seemed to have benefits beyond military security: interstate highways; improved public education; high-technology research and development; and the support of the aviation, electronics, shipbuilding, and transportation industries. To some degree the sense of national purpose that flowered in World War II persisted for another twenty years. When John Kennedy vowed at his inauguration that the nation would “pay any price, bear any burden . . . for the success of liberty,” he expressed sentiments shared by his countrymen since 1941.

The “New Look”

In the year after his election President Dwight D. Eisenhower redirected American defense policy for the post-Korean era of neither war nor peace. Eisenhower’s policy, labeled the “New Look,” required redefinition of the Soviet threat. Essentially, Eisenhower believed that proxy wars like Korea and the pressure of defense spending would fatally weaken the American economy, and he pledged to cut the federal budget by $14 billion in his first two years in office. The major target for budget cutting was defense, and Harry Truman had already proposed similar cuts in 1952.

Announcing its intention to have “security with solvency,” the Eisenhower administration designed the New Look between December 1952 and October 1953. The new chairman of the JCS, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, assumed the task of turning fiscal guidance into strategy. The administration lopped $5 billion in authorizations from the fiscal year 1954 defense budget and then submitted a 1955 proposal for $35 billion, a figure well below the $42 billion requested by the JCS. Although the administration never reached its fiscal goals, it held defense expenditures around the $40 billion level. During the two Eisenhower administrations, the defense budget fell from 64 percent of federal spending to 47 percent and averaged about 10 percent of gross national product. Even pressured by inflation in the late 1950s and the escalating real cost of high-technology weapons, the administration held to its New Look fiscal assumptions.

To stabilize defense spending, the Eisenhower administration deemphasized conventional forces and stressed the deterrent and war-fighting potential of nuclear weapons. Inheriting a standing force of 3.5 million, the government reduced it to 2.47 million by 1960, well below levels the JCS thought safe. The manpower cuts forced the services to cancel their Korean era expansion plans and eliminate six Army divisions, 15 Air Force wings, and 300 Navy ships by 1960. Alarmed by the New Look, the JCS argued that it needed more insight on Ike’s strategic expectations. Assisted by ad hoc study groups and the newly established professional staff attached to the National Security Council, Eisenhower provided the guidance in NSC Memorandum 162/2 (October 1953), a study that directed the Department of Defense to arm all the services with nuclear weapons. Local wars of the Korean variety would have to be fought by America’s allies, who would use their own ground forces, backed by American air and sea forces.

Anxious to link the New Look to its foreign policy goals, the administration tied the exploitation of nuclear technology to the more aggressive containment of Communism. Impressed by the development of small nuclear warheads, Eisenhower believed they could be directed at more precise military targets “just as you would use a bullet or anything else.” Vice President Richard M. Nixon suggested that nuclear superiority gave the United States an exploitable edge over the Russians: “Rather than let the Communists nibble us to death all over the world in little wars we would rely in the future primarily on our mobile retaliatory power which we could use at our discretion against the major source of aggression at times and places that we chose.” Following the 1953 review of American defense policy, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced in January 1954 that the administration would rely upon the threat of nuclear escalation to deter or stop Communist-inspired local wars. Russian adventurism would put at risk the very existence of the Soviet Union, for the United States would “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.”

The New Look reflected the administration’s belief that the Russians would do everything within their power to weaken the United States, disrupt NATO, and draw newly independent Third World nations into the Communist orbit. In assessing Soviet military capability, the administration faced greater uncertainty. Its difficulties in collecting information took on greater importance after the Russians exploded a fusion device in 1953, since the New Look depended upon an accurate judgment of the Russians’ ability to destroy SAC’s bomber bases and America’s major cities. The administration made great strides in collecting information, but its problems allowed its critics to charge that Eisenhower was too optimistic. By 1960 the character of the Soviet threat had become a major political issue.

At the beginning of the Cold War, American intelligence experts, principally the Central Intelligence Agency, depended primarily upon human observers to report upon Russian scientific and military activities. Until the mid-1950s the flood of refugees, returning German prisoners, and Russian defectors provided reasonably good information, but improved Soviet internal security, directed by the ruthless KGB, soon made human intelligence scarce. The CIA tried to insert agents in Russia, exploit the network of spies run by the West Germans, and work with its British and French counterparts. The results were not altogether satisfactory, since the British, French, and German intelligence agencies had been penetrated by Russian agents. The CIA complicated its problems when it merged its intelligence collection and covert operations in a single Directorate of Plans, which was dominated by men who had more enthusiasm for covert action than information collection. The American government turned to technology rather than agents. Inheriting the new National Security Agency (NSA), created in 1952, the Eisenhower administration expanded its funding and staffing. NSA’s mission was to listen. Intercepting radio communications and eventually radio-transmitted phone calls, NSA stations tried to translate and analyze millions of encrypted messages, with limited success. The CIA was more successful in communications interception, tapping Russian phone lines in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, communications intelligence did not give the CIA much confidence that it had a good grip on Russian military developments. Its military collaborators, especially Air Force intelligence, shared its disquiet.

American intelligence agencies looked for other ways to peek at Russian programs. One technical means was to establish radar stations along the borders of the Soviet Union in order to monitor aircraft and missile test flights, and by the end of the 1950s such stations ranged from Europe through Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. There was no substitute for penetrating Soviet air space for a direct look, but the operational problems of such overflights proved difficult. In Operation SKYHOOK, the Air Force launched high-altitude balloons to transit the Soviet Union, but erratic wind currents limited their usefulness. Manned aircraft were far more reliable—and more vulnerable. In 1952–1953 Russian interceptors contested fly-around and modest overflight penetrations in Europe and Asia by the Air Force and Royal Air Force. Unless the CIA could find an aircraft that could fly above Soviet air defenses, overflights could not be made. Developed by Kelly Johnson of the Lockheed Corporation, the U-2, a thin, gull-like plane, answered the CIA’s needs, since it could fly across the Soviet Union above 70,000 feet. Making its first flight in 1956, the U-2 produced photographs from twenty to thirty flights in the next four years and gave intelligence analysts, according to one CIA official, about 90 percent of their hard data on Russian military developments. The National Photographic Interpretation Center became a key intelligence agency. In 1960 the Russians, outraged by the overflights, brought down a U-2 with an air-defense missile. Amid an international furor, Eisenhower canceled the overflights.

The administration had other collection means near at hand to replace the U-2. Eisenhower’s scientific advisers, especially James R. Killian Jr., and the Air Force’s research and development community joined forces with the CIA to win funding for reconnaissance satellites. Receiving high-priority funding after 1955, the satellite reconnaissance program produced an effective satellite equipped with high-resolution cameras from the Polaroid Corporation. Finding an adequate launch booster proved more difficult, in part because of bureaucratic competition within the armed forces, CIA, and the aerospace industry. To direct the satellite programs, Eisenhower authorized the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office in 1959 under the general supervision of the Air Force. By the end of 1960 the first satellite system was in operation. Through British intelligence, the CIA also in 1960 recruited a disaffected colonel in Soviet military intelligence, Oleg Penkovsky, who provided significant details about Soviet missile programs. In short, the administration’s technical means of intelligence collection, supplemented by Penkovsky, gave it a clearer picture of the Soviet threat than it could admit to its critics for fear of compromising its sources.

The slim flow of hard data on Soviet aviation and missile development in the 1950s encouraged the Air Force to exaggerate the growth of Russia’s strategic forces. The debate on the Soviet threat might have been contained to a dispute between the NSC staff, CIA, and the Air Force except for the fact that national security had become tempting partisan politics. Four Democratic senators with presidential ambitions—Lyndon B. Johnson, Henry Jackson, Stuart Symington, and John F. Kennedy—made sure that the New Look became a campaign issue. The first conflict was the “bomber gap” affair of 1954–1956. Using exaggerated assessments of Soviet aircraft productivity, supported by an alarmist count of an “Air Force Day” bomber flyover, Air Force experts projected that the Russian heavy-bomber force would grow from around 50 to 800 by 1961. Although this prediction receded by 1957 to a realistic prediction of around 200 bombers, the bomber gap affair left the impression that the United States faced a threat its air-defense system could not meet. The alarm became panic in 1957 when the Soviets used a liquid-fueled SS-6 missile to place a Sputnik satellite in earth orbit. Sputnik surprised intelligence experts, who did not expect the SS-6 to be operational before 1960. The next CIA estimate in 1958 was that the Soviets could deploy a force of 500 ICBMs by 1961. The “missile gap” set off another round of recrimination and criticism of “massive retaliation” and the New Look.

The Eisenhower administration pointed with pride to Strategic Air Command as the centerpiece of American defense. During the New Look, SAC adopted new aircraft and the nuclear weapons, expanded its base system, and improved its communications. In 1954 SAC’s bomber force numbered about 1,000 B-36s and B-47s. By 1960 this force had increased to almost 2,000 bombers. Although the B-47 remained the backbone of SAC despite its range limitations, SAC supplemented it with 500 new bombers—the Boeing B-52. Operational in 1955, the B-52, loved by its crews for its dependability and handling ease, gave SAC the intercontinental jet bomber it wanted. To reduce its vulnerability, SAC placed 20 percent of its bombers on strip alert (1957–1960), then extended this program to airborne alert. SAC also continued to expand its base system to confuse Russian planners. Its continental bases increased from thirty-seven (1954) to forty-six (1960); its overseas bases climbed in the same period from fourteen to twenty.

The deterrent monopoly of SAC’s bombers, however, eroded under the pressure of three developments: Soviet air defenses and ICBMs, civilian scrutiny of strategic deterrence and force structure, and interservice rivalry. The result was an acceleration of America’s own intercontinental missile program. Although all of the services had experimented with missiles since 1945, no service had given its program top priority. Within the Air Force, scientific committee investigations and RAND Corporation studies cast doubt upon the future of the bomber force. Additional studies recommended that guided missiles—ballistic and cruise—join America’s deterrent force, and this position received the strong approval of the Air Force’s two most influential scientific consultants, Theodore von Karman and John von Neumann. A handful of Air Force generals urged a more aggressive missile program, prodded in part by the knowledge that the Army had assembled its own missile development team under the aggressive Wernher von Braun. The strategic part of the pro-missile argument was critical. If the United States expected to have a portion of its nuclear forces survive a Russian first strike, it needed something to complement the bomber force.

In 1955 Eisenhower assigned missile development the highest priority in military research and development. In part, the president had been persuaded by the report of his own Technical Capabilities Panel, chaired by Dr. Killian, which emphasized the growing Soviet nuclear threat and recommended a major American effort. The Air Force had already anticipated the change by establishing a special office to develop two ICBMs, the Titan and Atlas. The key specifications for the missiles were that they have a 5,500-mile range and carry a 1-megaton warhead. With Defense Department approval, the Air Force also went ahead with its intermediate-range missile and intercontinental cruise missile programs. Technically these programs were more advanced than the ICBM program and produced the Thor IRBM for deployment in 1958 and the Snark cruise missile in 1957. The Army pressed ahead with its own IRBM, Jupiter, which also passed its tests in the same period. The Air Force was already at work on a second-generation ICBM, called Minuteman, which was designed to use solid fuel, have a fully developed inertial guidance system, and be built strongly enough to place in deep, survivable concrete silos. The first-generation ICBMs, IRBMs, and Snark had the same disadvantages as the bomber force: They took time to ready for firing, and they had to be launched above ground, making a tempting target for a first strike. By 1960 the Air Force had twelve Atlas ICBMs and thirty Snarks based in the United States and four Thor squadrons stationed in England. Work on the promising Minuteman continued with ample funding.

The Navy slipped into the nuclear deterrence mission by winning official approval of its own IRBM program in the 1955 decision to give missiles high priority. The Navy, of course, had demanded nuclear weapons in the late 1940s but had thought primarily in terms of arming its carrier aircraft. Its post-Korea carriers, six vessels of the Forrestal class and the nuclear-powered Enterprise, had been designed for a flight deck compatible with a new aircraft, the Douglas A 3 D Skywarrior, a true nuclear bomber. In 1954 all the Navy’s deployed carriers bore nuclear weapons to strike Soviet ports and naval forces.

In the mid-1950s the Navy changed course. For one thing, it had a launch platform that met the test of survivability—the nuclear-powered submarine. Driven by Hyman G. Rickover, an engineering officer of genius and irascibility, the Navy had built its first nuclear-powered submarine, Nautilus, operational in 1955. An expert at bureaucratic politics, Rickover had built a nuclear power coalition that included his own Navy staff, the Atomic Energy Commission (in which he also held office), Congress, and the Westinghouse and General Electric corporations. Rickover saw “his” nuclear submarines as weapons to attack ships, but a new chief of naval operations, Arleigh A. Burke, saw the nuclear submarine as a missile carrier for submerged strikes at land targets. The Navy, however, did not have a missile, since it had worked primarily on the Regulus cruise missile for both warships and surfaced submarines. In 1957 Burke redirected the Navy IRBM program toward a solid-fueled missile that could be launched from a submerged submarine. For the missile he followed the Air Force model and created a Special Projects Office, whose staff, the AEC, and the Lockheed Corporation produced the 1,500-mile Polaris missile by 1960. Because the missile had a limited payload and accuracy, its warhead could destroy only an area target. Nevertheless, the relative invulnerability of the launch platform made the fleet ballistic missile (FBM) an attractive addition to the deterrent force.

The White House and the Russians assisted Burke. To review the effectiveness of America’s nuclear posture, the Science Advisory Committee to the Office of Defense Mobilization had established a special “security resources panel” in April 1957. When this group, known as the Gaither Committee, made its report the following November, the Sputnik crisis gave its study special importance. The Gaither Committee report emphasized the nation’s vulnerability to a nuclear attack and the pitiable state of its air-defense and civil defense programs. The only thing that stood between the United States and atomic Armageddon was SAC’s bombers. The Gaither Committee did not think SAC should bear the burden alone. When the Navy in 1957 proposed that it develop three missile submarines, the administration authorized five submarines and moved the operational date forward from 1962 to 1960. Rickover cooperated in supporting the construction of fleet ballistic missile submarines, as long as they were nuclear-powered. In 1960 the first George Washington–class fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) went on patrol with sixteen Polaris sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

More military miracles occurred in the cloistered Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories of the Atomic Energy Commission. In less than a decade after the first fusion explosion, nuclear scientists and engineers discovered ways to reduce dramatically the size of nuclear weapons. The first fusion device had been 22 feet long; the nuclear warhead for the Army’s Davy Crockett mortar was only 2 feet long and 12 inches in diameter. The redesign of the gun-type trigger and the use of extremely dense metal alloys permitted chain reactions with diminishing amounts of radioactive material. At a time when the published minimal amount of radioactive material for a weapon was around 50 pounds, the real minimum was probably around 12 pounds of plutonium and 22 pounds of enriched uranium. Smaller warheads meant a wider variety of delivery vehicles—ground- and air-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, depth charges, torpedoes, artillery shells, rockets, and mines. Behind the imprecise rhetoric of “massive retaliation” rested an awesome fact: The United States could manufacture literally thousands of nuclear warheads for its armed forces. Between 1953 and 1959 the number of warheads soared from 1,161 to 12,305.

The flood of nuclear weapons into America’s arsenal did not exhaust the military efforts to blunt the Soviet threat, for both the Air Force and Army searched for ways to create an effective air-defense system. The search was expensive and frustrating. As one Air Force chief of staff mused, “active air defense is a can of worms.” No one knew precisely how much the Defense Department put into air defense, but the figure probably reached $40 billion for the 1950s. When the Russian threat appeared to be a bomber strike, the air-defense planners managed to win sufficient funds for a plausible system, but the bureaucratic battle between the services for the mission gave air defense a sour flavor. In 1956 Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson ruled that the Air Force would handle area air defense, the Army point air defense. The decision actually reversed the services’ interests, for the Air Force wanted point air defense of SAC bases, while the Army argued that sufficient numbers of its “Nike” family of conventional and nuclear surface-to-air missiles could provide effective area air defense if assisted by Air Force supersonic interceptors. The growth of the Air Force’s own air-defense missile program, Bomarc, complicated the issue, which was then further confused when it became apparent that the threat would come from ICBMs, not bombers. The Army argued that a new missile, Nike-Zeus, could intercept ballistic warheads. The Air Force, however, wanted rapid development of a satellite-based air-defense system. The only clear area of agreement was that the nation needed a better warning system, and the administration started work on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) in 1957.

As the nation’s nuclear forces proliferated, defense planners became increasingly aware that they had no single plan for using these forces should deterrence fail. More important, it had become difficult to judge the relative utility of SAC’s bombers and missiles compared to the Navy’s carrier aircraft and SLBMs against the targets they had to threaten to make deterrence credible. A gnawing sense of costly redundancy plagued defense analysts. In 1960 Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates created the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) and charged it with building one plan from SAC’s “Emergency War Plan” and the Navy’s comparable documents. In part the JSTPS had to reconcile two different visions of nuclear deterrence. The Navy stressed the importance of holding Soviet cities hostage; the Air Force argued that Soviet strategic forces should be the primary targets, a position that meant that warhead numbers and accuracies should expand in proportion to an ever-increasing number of Soviet military targets. When the JSTPS produced its first “Single Integrated Operational Plan” (SIOP) in 1961, the plan continued the Air Force emphasis on targeting Soviet nuclear forces. Russian war-related industry and its Warsaw Pact ground and air forces received lesser priority. In reality a SIOP strike would have also devastated many Soviet metropolitan areas, so “finite” or “countervalue” city-threatening deterrence might be assumed. No planner could predict what level of threat would really deter the Soviets.

The Eisenhower administration did not view the New Look’s deterrent programs as the only method to assure the nation’s security, for the United States might profit from international arms control agreements. The major issues the administration addressed were nuclear proliferation, surprise attack, and testing. In December 1953 Eisenhower proposed that the peaceful use of nuclear power be encouraged by international cooperation and monitored by an international organization, eventually created as the International Atomic Energy Agency (1957). While such an arrangement could encourage the construction of nuclear power plants, it might also inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons. The administration believed that nuclear power projects would absorb much of the world’s uranium supply; new uranium discoveries confounded this hope. Inhibited by its fear of international verification, the Soviet Union slowed the UN-sponsored talks. The same problems impeded Eisenhower’s second arms control initiative, the “Open Skies” proposal of July 1955. Concerned about the threat of a surprise first strike, Eisenhower proposed that reconnaissance overflights be protected by international agreement. When the United Nations proved uninterested in the proposal, the United States and the U.S.S.R. opened bilateral negotiations, which produced no agreement on aircraft overflights but tacitly accepted the future deployment of reconnaissance satellites.

The prospect of nuclear proliferation, plus growing evidence that atmospheric testing created health hazards, persuaded the administration to pursue UN talks on restricting nuclear tests. Once more the United States and the U.S.S.R. divided on the timing and extent of verification procedures. By 1958 the talks had shifted to international scientific meetings on the technical problems of detecting nuclear explosions. These meetings concluded that all but deep underground tests could be unambiguously identified, and seismograph experts believed they could soon tell the difference between an earthquake and even a small (20-kiloton) nuclear explosion. Frustrated by the complexities imposed by United Nations negotiations, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union pursued the talks on a trilateral basis in 1959 and within a year drafted a treaty banning atmospheric and water testing. The U-2 incident stalled the talks in 1960, but the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the threshold of their first major arms control agreement. As France and Communist China were quick to point out, the test ban imposed greater handicaps on the nonnuclear powers than the United States and Russia, but the limited test ban at least cleared the air of radioactivity, if not of international distrust. These negotiations introduced a new element in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms competition by suggesting that the risk of nuclear war might be reduced by agreement.

The growth and diversification of American and Russian strategic forces, paired with the administration’s cautious arms control initiatives, popularized deterrence theory, developed largely by civilian writers. The accumulated effect of the civilians’ analysis was to question the simple vision of deterrence by city-threatening retaliation inherent in massive retaliation. The Gaither Committee report was but one of a series of skeptical studies. Asked to examine SAC basing, the RAND Corporation questioned bombers’ survivability and stressed the importance of invulnerable, nonprovocative second-strike weapons capable, if necessary, of destroying Soviet strategic forces. The doctrine of “counterforce-no cities” emerged in additional RAND analyses, a report by the secretary of defense’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, some Air Force studies, and an open study of defense policy sponsored by the prestigious Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The president’s Scientific Advisory Committee became part of the coalition of strategic revisionists, and within the military Army Chief of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor found common cause with the scientist-engineers and social scientists who emerged as the principal theorists. Among the latter were Bernard Brodie, Albert J. Wohlstetter, William W. Kaufmann, Paul Nitze, Henry Kissinger, Charles Hitch, Henry S. Rowen, and Herman Kahn.

The civilian “defense intellectuals” of the 1950s created a body of thought that became politically influential among the Senate critics of the New Look. The appeal of deterrence theory rested in part on the academic credentials of the principal theorists, almost to a man Ph.D.s in the social sciences. Another factor was the persuasiveness of analytical techniques based on economic theory; numbers spoke louder than words. An additional influence was the growing belief that traditional strategic thought, as developed by military professionals, had no application in a world of nuclear weapons. Some of the new deterrence theory did, in fact, make traditional defense calculations appear obsolete. One concept was that only force survivability really counted and that the Soviets had to perceive that survivability to make deterrence work. Yet the prestrike force should not appear threatening, thus inviting a preemptive attack. Just how a force could be large enough to survive and attack Soviet military targets and not also appear threatening proved an elusive calculation. Another concept was that should deterrence fail, the goal of strategic forces should be to limit the war, thus providing negotiating time. Phrases like “escalation control” and “damage limitation” soon entered the strategic lexicon. Analysis by game theory, psychological modeling, and the measurement of marginal utility further brought strategic analysis by analogy to a high art form. It also provided the intellectual foundation for the dramatic expansion of American strategic forces in the 1960s.

Reorganization and Alliances

From its first days in office the Eisenhower administration believed it could organize away some of its defense problems. Even moderate Republicans thought the “failures” of FDR and Harry Truman were linked to their “unorganized” leadership styles. Another article of faith was that the greatest obstacle to economical defense planning was interservice rivalry. Angered that the JCS had supported Truman’s Korean War policies, congressional Republicans pressed Eisenhower to eliminate the “Democratic chiefs,” a policy the president followed by not reappointing the incumbents when their terms expired. The thrust of the New Look’s reorganizational efforts brought increased centralization to the office of the president, the office of the secretary of defense, and the Joint Staff that supported the JCS. But the reforms stopped well short of any true revolution in defense planning, for the Congress did not vote itself out of its shared constitutional responsibilities. The Eisenhower administration’s two fits of reorganization did not make the hard decisions easier. They only increased the number of voices in the process.

No stranger to organizational problems, Eisenhower struck swiftly in 1953 to strengthen interagency coordination in national security planning. Although he could not announce all his goals, the president sought to limit congressional interference with what he considered presidential business. Eisenhower first institutionalized the National Security Council by making weekly meetings a fixture. More important, he gave his special assistant for national security affairs the power to create a staff. Part of the staff’s function was to prepare weekly agendas and then manage the flow of NSC business through two interagency committees, the Policy Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board. The NSC staff in effect became a small, unofficial amalgam of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA, emboldened by its proximity to the president.

From his experiences as an Army elder statesman during the Truman administration, Eisenhower concluded that the service departments presented the major barrier to effective defense planning and management. His predispositions received sanction from a Rockefeller Commission study that subsequently served as the basis for Reorganization Plan No. 6, a mix of executive and congressional reforms enacted in 1953. The Rockefeller study urged reorganization in the name of “maximum security at minimum cost, and without danger to free institutions.” For the JCS the reform meant enhanced power for the chairman, who received control over the role of the enlarged Joint Staff. The office of the Secretary of Defense expanded its influence even more dramatically. Six new assistant secretaries of defense and a general counsel joined the secretary’s deputy and existing three assistant secretaries, thus giving the secretary a staff that could contend with the service departments in all defense functions.

In five years of testing the Eisenhower administration found the 1953 reforms wanting, and in 1958, once again supported by the findings of a Rockefeller-sponsored study, the administration proposed even more centralization. The reforms bore heavily upon the JCS. The chairman received formal authority to vote on JCS matters, and the individual chiefs found themselves outside the operational chain of command, which now ran from the president to the secretary of defense to the principal military commanders in the field. (The latter were the heads either of “unified” geographic commands or single-function “specified” commands like SAC.) Congress, however, refused to designate the chairman as the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary, and it allowed the service chiefs to retain their right as individuals to see the president and testify before Congress. Eisenhower called the latter power “legalized insubordination.” The assistant secretaries of defense, on the other hand, profited from the secretary’s new power to transfer and consolidate service functions and activities—except “major” operational missions—because they could now issue binding orders in their functional areas.

The secretary of defense could now establish new departmentwide agencies. The new agencies to a large degree replaced a host of interservice boards, abolished since the 1953 reform. The first order of reorganization—or “extended horizontal confederation”—stemmed the competition between strategic programs, an arena of intense interservice interest. The 1958 amendment of the National Security Act created a director of defense research and engineering, whose principal mission was to guide high-technology programs. The incumbent secretary, Thomas S. Gates, also established a new office, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, to assume the lead in research on space-based missile defense and other futuristic projects. As intended, the reforms drove the service departments deeper into the slough of subordination, but the reorganization did not save money, either by dampening service budget requests or bringing greater rigor to weapons procurement and material management.

In the absence of ruthless secretarial action, the reforms did not produce greater consensus because there were too many defense problems and too little money. In 1960 Secretary Gates began to meet with the JCS on a weekly basis to give it more immediate guidance. The greater personal rapport helped dampen disagreements, but the JCS still produced split recommendations, which forced the secretary and the president to make decisions they sometimes would rather have avoided. In statistical terms the chiefs showed great harmony, since they agreed on 99 percent of their recommendations in 1955–1959, but the 1 percent they disagreed upon included every major functional question they faced. Reorganization could not mask the fact that the JCS—with the exception of its Air Force members—did not think the New Look answered the nation’s military problems.

The reform of defense decision-making did not, for example, simplify the dilemmas of matching forward, collective defense with the nuclearization of America’s armed forces. Nowhere were the problems more perplexing than in NATO. When the Eisenhower administration took office, it inherited the negotiations to rearm West Germany within the existing alliance system. French intransigence upon the issue of a German national military force killed the first formula, the European Defense Community. The negotiations did secure approval for an eventual German army of twelve divisions and 500,000 men. In late 1954 another change in French governments improved the chances for rearming West Germany, and in December 1954 the French National Assembly approved a revised plan that would allow the Germans a national military establishment within the existing NATO system. The Federal Republic of Germany received full control over its internal and external affairs, softening its new status by promising not to arm itself with nuclear weapons unless so ordered by NATO.

In 1955 West Germany began to organize the Bundeswehr. At the politico-strategic level, the Christian Democrat governments of the 1950s, dominated by Konrad Adenauer, wanted to ensure that rearmament did not endanger economic recovery, divide West Germany, or weaken NATO’s tie to the American nuclear deterrent. Adenauer had no desire to go beyond a twelve-division army, a position that made the conventional force goals of the Lisbon Agreement even less obtainable. The West Germans also insisted that Bundeswehr divisions occupy positions along the entire border so that no Russian attack could strike only German troops.

West Germany’s NATO debut coincided with the New Look’s new emphasis on substituting nuclear weapons for conventional ground forces, a policy accepted by NATO in late 1954. Directed by the NATO Council to plan for the early and first use of nuclear weapons against a Soviet invasion, NATO military planners found that the concept of nuclear war fighting carried heavy liabilities. A full-scale NATO war game in 1955 discovered that West Germany could not be saved without being destroyed. During Operation CARTE BLANCHE the war gamers “used” 335 nuclear weapons, 268 of which “landed” on Soviet forces in West Germany. While the nuclear counter-blitzkrieg stopped the Russians, it also caused more than 5 million civilian casualties. Nevertheless, NATO’s political leaders adopted a European version of the New Look in 1957 when they approved a military planning document (MC 14/2) that committed NATO to using nuclear weapons to meet any threat. They planned to make the NATO standing force of thirty divisions nuclear-capable. The same principle applied to NATO’s tactical aircraft. The NATO Council agreed to stockpile nuclear warheads in Europe (many of the delivery systems were already there), and before the end of the decade SACEUR had probably 7,000 nuclear weapons at his disposal.

The NATO New Look had the advantage of clearly extending American nuclear deterrence to Europe, since the United States would presumably bear the risks of escalation equally with its allies. The lowered level of NATO’s conventional forces, however, might invite attack, and they appeared more as “plate glass” and “tripwire” hostage forces than usable fighting units. In fact, the planned use of tactical nuclear weapons enhanced their initial vulnerability, since NATO planners accepted the West German border with East Germany as the principal line of defense despite its geographic liabilities. Such forward defense ensured that the tactical nuclear weapons would land on Soviet forces in East Germany but made it unlikely that NATO’s divisions in Germany could fight a prolonged conventional war, which required inspired maneuvering between the inner German border and the Rhine River.

The dilemmas of NATO strategy did not pass unnoticed in the United States and Europe, since a series of crises made it impossible not to examine NATO’s military options. In 1956 the East Germans and Hungarians staged abortive revolts against their Soviet occupiers and native Communist governments; in Hungary the fighting threatened to spill over the Austrian border. In 1958 the Russians again challenged the Allies’ right to occupy part of Berlin. Two SACEURs, Generals Alfred M. Gruenther and Lauris Norstad, raised the issue of NATO’s conventional readiness, which had been further limited by the reduction of the British army and the deployment of French divisions to Algeria. Influential West German politicians questioned the wisdom of relying upon tactical nuclear weapons. In the United States NATO’s nuclear strategy came under determined attack from academics like Henry Kissinger and Robert E. Osgood, two gurus of limited war theory, and from Army leaders like Generals James M. Gavin and Maxwell D. Taylor. After Secretary Dulles’s death in 1959, the State Department turned restive about massive retaliation and NATO policy. Instead of strengthening the alliance, the adoption of theater nuclear weapons created new political problems.

The difficulty of reconciling strategic nuclear deterrence with forward, collective defense did not ease when the New Look came to Asia. To contain Russia and Communist China, the Eisenhower administration created a network of alliances that would presumably protect America’s base system in the western Pacific and strengthen the conventional forces of its Asian allies. The administration quickly concluded bilateral treaties with two natural collaborators: The authoritarian, anti-Communist governments of South Korea (1953) and Taiwan (1955). Both agreements stated that each party recognized “that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties . . . would be dangerous to its own peace and safety” and pledged each party to act in common to meet the danger. Rearming Japan proved more difficult. Although the Japanese allowed their national police to become the Self-Defense Force, they would not assume the economic and political burden of providing anything but minimal air, naval, and ground forces of 231,000 men. Even more important, the Japanese government refused to assume any regional military leadership, and before it signed a comprehensive security treaty in 1960, it extracted a promise from the United States not to introduce nuclear weapons into Japan.

The broadened commitment to north Asia carried substantial risks, since both South Korea and Taiwan had no reluctance to host American nuclear forces or to do battle with their Communist neighbors. The wisdom of the treaties with South Korea and Taiwan came under criticism from outside the Eisenhower administration when the Chinese Communists and Nationalists conducted a small war against each other along the Chinese coast. Working from bases on the islands of Quemoy, Matsu, and the Pescadores, the Nationalists in 1953–1954 conducted naval raids against the mainland and infiltrated agents there. The Communists retaliated with threats of invasion and long-range artillery bombardments. While persuading Chiang Kai-shek to abandon his most indefensible islands and to curb his operations, the administration paid for its influence by increasing aid to Chiang and deploying part of the 7th Fleet in the Formosa Strait. It also placed aircraft and artillery with nuclear capability on Taiwan. Another Quemoy-Matsu crisis in 1958 produced a similar commitment. With border incident piling upon border incident along the DMZ, the defense of South Korea did not appear risk-free, even with the presence of American troops and tactical nuclear weapons. As with the Chinese Nationalists, the alliance with South Korea committed the United States to a situation in which either its enemies or its allies could force the political action, including military escalation.

The Eisenhower administration understood the risks in Asia, for it had faced its worst crisis in 1954 when the French military effort in Indochina collapsed. Examining his military options, including a nuclear strike against the Viet Minh army investing Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower found little taste for massive retaliation among his civilian and military advisers or NATO allies. Although Admiral Radford urged military action, Army Chief of Staff Matthew B. Ridgway feared that only a ground force commitment would halt the Viet Minh. Uncertain that air strikes alone would reverse the French defeat, Eisenhower encouraged the French to accept a negotiated settlement. At Geneva in July 1954, the French and the Vietnamese Communists agreed to the temporary partition of Vietnam and the independence of Laos and Cambodia. With the future of Vietnam still at stake, the administration hurried to repair the non-Communist position in Southeast Asia. While it extended assistance to South Vietnam and conducted covert action against the Communists, the administration patched together the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1954). The only new allies were Pakistan and Thailand, for the United States already had treaties with Great Britain, France, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia. The organization did not provide the same binding guarantees of collective military action that characterized NATO. A protocol to the treaty in September 1954 extended SEATO’s protection to Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam, a provision in effect when the Senate approved the treaty (82 to 1) the following February.

The Middle East also received Dulles’s pact-making attention. Under American pressure and the promise of increased military assistance, the traditional regimes of Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan joined Turkey and Great Britain in the Baghdad Pact (1955). The principal rationale for the agreement was to deter Soviet military pressure against the unstable, oil-rich Middle East, where British influence was on the wane. The Eisenhower administration thought it could use surrogates, including Israel, to curb Russian influence and Arab nationalism, but it learned the following year that nuclear weapons, alliance politics, and oil did not mix well. When the radical president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized control of the Suez Canal, the British, French, and Israelis conspired to invade Egypt and retake the canal. Although the Israeli army and air force dealt the Egyptians a crushing defeat in the Sinai, the United States pressured its NATO allies to give up the expedition against the canal, even moving the 6th Fleet into position for military action. Part of Eisenhower’s concern came from indistinct noises from Moscow suggesting that the Russians would enter the Middle East cauldron, which raised the specter of a nuclear confrontation.

Dissatisfied with the role of the Baghdad Pact, Eisenhower and Dulles announced a new American commitment in 1957 to assist any Middle Eastern state threatened by aggression from any other state “controlled by international communism.” The President received sanction for the “Eisenhower Doctrine” from Congress, which approved his $200 million aid request. Outside the Baghdad Pact nations, only Lebanon and Israel approved the statement. In 1957–1958 the administration found its Middle East version of containment sorely tested. A group of radical army officers destroyed the Iraqi monarchy, and other pan-Arabist radicals with Syrian and Egyptian assistance menaced the Jordanian monarchy and the fragile communal government in Lebanon. The Eisenhower administration saw the Soviets’ fine hand in the upheaval, since the Russians had extended military assistance to Egypt and Syria. Although American financial aid and British troops stabilized King Hussein’s regime in Jordan, the situation in Lebanon deteriorated into civil war. In order to prevent a coup and arrange a negotiated settlement, Eisenhower occupied Beirut with 15,000 American troops in July 1958. Once again nuclear deterrence had proved largely irrelevant to regional rivalries and American interests. And military assistance alone ($4.3 billion to the Middle East in 1950–1963) did not fully substitute for an American military presence.

The anti-Communist situation in Latin America in the 1950s deteriorated despite American nuclear power. When military dictatorships collapsed in Colombia and Venezuela, the Communists did not immediately profit, but they joined other radicals to keep rural insurrection and terrorism alive. In Cuba the adherents of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara orchestrated their rhetorical and military attacks with an urban guerrilla movement not under their control. The combined internal pressure, coupled with the suspension of American military assistance, sent Fulgencio Batista into exile in January 1959. During the next year Castro turned his revolutionary government toward the Soviet Union, thus galvanizing the Eisenhower administration to impose economic sanctions and to order the CIA to mount an invasion by anti-Castro exiles. Castro’s success on America’s doorstep made massive retaliation appear bankrupt as a deterrent to Communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere.

Its foreign policy crises did not force the Eisenhower administration to change the New Look, for the president held fast to his de facto ceiling on defense spending. In the face of an economic recession, cascading foreign problems, unbalanced budgets, a restive Congress, uncontrollable increases in domestic spending, and upward pressures upon the defense budget, Eisenhower increased his pressure on the services’ priority programs during his second administration. The Navy lost the money for its second nuclear carrier, and its new shipbuilding program met only two-thirds of its estimates. The favored Air Force saved its 137-wing program—the force goals of the 1950s—but received funding only by reducing its manpower. The emphasis on SAC reduced the number of wings in the Tactical Air Command, Air Defense Command, and Military Air Transport Command. The Army and the Marine Corps lost manpower and programs for increased firepower and mobility.

The Eisenhower administration argued that a robust reserve program would meet any likely conventional war contingency and at a more bearable cost, since ten reservists cost roughly the same as one full-time serviceman. Quite properly, the Defense Department focused on the readiness of reserve units and found them undermanned. Although the legislation of 1952 provided a reserve force of 2.5 million, only 700,000 reservists trained with units. The administration proposed a reserve draft and the involuntary assignment of veterans to the National Guard, but Congress instead tried its hand at reserve reform. In the Reserve Forces Act of 1955 Congress raised the reserve ceiling to 2.9 million and liberalized the road into the reserves. Men could enlist directly into the services’ reserve components provided they then spent two years on active duty and returned to a reserve unit for three years’ training. Others could enlist directly into a unit, spend three to six months on active duty, and then serve out the rest of an eight-year obligation in a unit. The Army extended the requirement for initial active-duty training to the National Guard in 1957. Although the draft had limited influence, the new program worked, for by 1960 the number of drill-pay reservists had climbed to nearly a million.

Depending upon reserves did not give the Army a “New Look,” for the Army and the Marine Corps sought greater battlefield mobility and firepower for their reduced numbers of fighting men. The anticipated demands of the nuclear battlefield made dispersion and mobility essential. By modernizing its armored divisions and mounting its infantry in armored personnel carriers, the Army found one solution. Another came from adopting troop-carrying helicopters. Within the Army and Marine Corps aviation establishments, fixed-wing pilots held sway, so the helo pioneers fought against the weight of institutional inertia. Using helos to ferry troops did not cause any great controversy except in the battles for developmental money. The Marine Corps reorganized its infantry battalions for helo transportability after 1956, and the Army had twelve helo battalions by 1960.

The helo advocates also saw the helicopter’s potential as a close fire support weapon, especially as a tank killer. In the Marine Corps fixed-wing aviators saw no reason to substitute helos for the close air support planes already available and halted gunship development. In the Army, however, the helo enthusiasts convinced their patrons that the Air Force would not give the transport helos adequate support, and by the mid-1950s the Army’s infantry and aviation training centers had created “sky cavalry” helo units. Reassured by a 1956 decision by the office of the secretary of defense that the Army would not develop fixed-wing transports and attack aircraft, the Air Force did not press the doctrinal issue. In 1960 the Army Staff convened a high-level board to review aviation doctrine and organization, and the board reported that the Army should make a major test of the concept of helicopter vertical assaults, complete with gunships. Both the Marine Corps and Army pressed their budget requests for helo development with growing certainty that air-mobile units would be the spearhead of the nation’s conventional forces.

The foreign policy crises of the 1950s and the armed services’ internal development produced a wave of intellectual interest in the concept of limited war. At first the analysts’ concern centered on the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but by the end of the decade the central policy proposals, exemplified by General Maxwell D. Taylor’s The Uncertain Trumpet (1960) and Robert Osgood’s Limited War (1957), addressed the problem of conventional combat readiness. In theory the United States could best avoid any level of nuclear confrontation only by improving its ability to employ nonnuclear air-ground combat forces whenever the Communists invaded an allied country. Adopted with escalating enthusiasm by journalists and political pundits, the strategic rage of 1960 became “flexible response.”

“Flexible Response”

Safely in the White House, John F. Kennedy argued that he would junk the New Look and bring new rationality and efficiency to American defense policy. Military reform had been a major theme of Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign against Richard M. Nixon, for he insisted that containment needed more vigorous, innovative application. The new administration adopted the concept of flexible response as the foundation of its defense policy, which meant that the United States would meet Communist military threats with an appropriate level of matching force. Victory would be a return to geopolitical stability without an escalation to nuclear war. Obscured by his personal charm, ironic humor, and intellectual curiosity, Kennedy’s character had a strong streak of romantic liberalism that focused his interest on the nonwhite developing nations. His missionary impulse strengthened the administration’s belief that nuclear deterrence and the complementary balance of power between NATO and the Warsaw Pact had driven the military competition to different techniques and different places. The most likely challenge would be a “people’s war” or rural-based leftist revolution. Such Communist insurgencies would probably occur in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Kennedy did not undervalue NATO, but he thought the great conflicts of the future, stimulated by the growing Russian-Chinese schism, would come outside Europe.

The president’s personal and political liabilities also shaped flexible response. Republican attacks upon his inexperience, his inherited wealth, his Catholicism, and his opportunism did not end with the 1960 election. Rather than risk the charge that he was inclined to appease Communism, which he did indeed see in less alarmist terms than Nixon, Kennedy embraced containment with zeal. Kennedy’s optimistic assessment of the American economy reinforced his commitment to flexible response. Kennedy’s economic advisers believed the nation could safely spend $50 billion for defense without spurring inflation or producing other economic ills. In fact, the administration believed that increased defense spending, matched with a tax cut, would spur a sluggish economy by placing government funds in the one activity where some public consensus existed: national defense. Increased defense spending might also legitimize the “New Frontier” among domestic conservatives.

The Kennedy administration concluded that it could sell accelerated military modernization by bringing more centralization and civilianization to defense decision-making. A Senate investigation of national security decision-making, led by Henry M. Jackson, urged greater curbs on interservice rivalry. A postelection study by another Democratic expert on defense, Senator Stuart Symington, also urged more centralized defense management. Tutored by retired generals James M. Gavin and Maxwell D. Taylor, the president believed the service departments, abetted by the JCS, had become the major barrier to efficient defense program development. The civilians who staffed the national security agencies of the New Frontier shared similar views. Drawn from eastern universities, foundations, banks, and law offices or recruited from western laboratories and the RAND Corporation, the “defense intellectuals” believed they could engineer an organizational revolution within the executive branch.

The Department of Defense became both the target and instrument of reform. Encouraged by his advisers to bring new dynamism to the Pentagon, Kennedy recruited the maverick president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert S. McNamara, to be secretary of defense. A self-made millionaire and moderate on domestic issues, McNamara did not fit the same mold as his New Look predecessors, for he had developed an interest in world affairs uncommon in corporation executives. His team in the office of the secretary of defense (OSD) reflected his high confidence in civilianized, centralized defense decision-making. Roswell Gilpatric, Cyrus Vance, William Bundy, and Paul Nitze represented the tradition of policy activism and internationalism established by their patrons, Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett; Harold Brown, recruited from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, headed a team of scientist-engineers critical of service research and development; Charles J. Hitch, William W. Kaufmann, and Alain C. Enthoven came from the RAND Corporation, prepared to apply their skills as economic analysts. Drawing upon his experiences as an Army Air Forces management expert in World War II, honed by fifteen years with Ford, McNamara forged a formidable OSD team, admired by their champions as true “defense intellectuals” and disparaged by their critics as “whiz kids.” Forceful, articulate, and persuasive, McNamara quickly became a favorite adviser at the White House and the principal designer of flexible response.

Assured of Kennedy’s full support, McNamara applied a range of decision-making reforms. He changed the budget process by demanding that the services adopt the planning-programming-budgeting system (PPBS), newly popularized by eastern business management schools. McNamara demanded that defense budgets be organized by functions like strategic deterrence rather than “inputs” like manpower procurement. With costs estimated over five years rather than one, he developed a Five Year Defense Plan that linked defense spending with missions—strategic forces, general-purpose forces, strategic air and sea mobility forces, and lesser categories that spanned service lines. By recasting the budget process, McNamara made it far easier for his analysts to apply systems analysis, a highly quantified technique of investigating “cost effectiveness,” or the predicted increase in military capability for different levels of investment.

Systems analysis allowed Hitch, Brown, Enthoven, and their colleagues to compare (at least on a cost basis) the relative value of weapons programs that performed the same or similar missions. Moreover, the process forced the services to investigate the full financial implications of their programs by stressing systemwide costs (manning, maintenance, modification, basing) over a weapon’s full lifetime, which might reach twenty years into the future. Applied with messianic energy by a new office, the assistant secretary of defense (systems analysis), the new technique found many applications. It became a marvelous tool for dismissing service requests and nonquantifiable professional military judgments. It supported the application of “commonality” as an efficiency tool, which justified the creation of new agencies like the Defense Intelligence Agency (1961) and the Defense Supply Agency (1961); the development of a fighter plane like the TFX for both Air Force and Navy use; and the adoption of all-service field uniforms and combat boots. Matching systems analysis with other social science techniques like game theory, OSD could even sortie into the arena of strategic doctrine.

McNamara’s “revolution” in the Pentagon gave flexible response a life that outlived Kennedy, for it brought such disarray to the armed forces and Congress that it took another war and a decade of learning and political infighting to devalue its assumptions. The very success of PPBS and systems analysis as defense management techniques—a success dependent on presidential support and congressional confusion—extended the power of its practitioners from the development of military forces to the employment of those forces. In practice, OSD, in collaboration with the NSC staff, challenged the State Department as the primary agency in determining American policy whenever that policy appeared to have military significance. For almost a decade, the most powerful knights of “Camelot” were the civilians and military officers who marched under McNamara’s banner.

McNamara focused on improving the nation’s strategic nuclear forces, which meant maintaining a survivable second-strike capability. The secretary quickly learned the facts of life about nuclear strategy, but he found no easy way to bring either strategic or economic rationality to force planning. Between 1961 and 1966, OSD conducted a series of sophisticated, highly quantified studies of strategic deterrence, including gaming the nuclear wars that might occur should deterrence fail. Presented with service programs on one hand and esoteric calculations on the other, McNamara tried to find a solution to force planning that satisfied his thirst for reason. He found none. At first he thought that the United States should stress its ability to attack Soviet strategic forces and other military targets. As the secretary explained in his Ann Arbor speech of June 1962, a “no cities” doctrine ensured deterrence and provided damage limitation and escalation control if war came. Once the secretary examined the implications of his counterforce strategy, he retreated from it. The numbers did not provide economic or strategic reassurance: If the United States planned to retaliate against remaining Soviet forces after the Soviets had struck first at U.S. strategic forces, the requirements for delivery vehicles became astronomical—and potentially threatening to the U.S.S.R. as an American first-strike force. As McNamara pointed out to the Air Force, “Damn it, if you keep talking about ten thousand missiles, you are talking about preemptive attack.” If the United States developed such a force, it might frighten the Soviets into beginning the very war both sides sought to avoid.

McNamara moved back toward finite deterrence targeting of the New Look era, a movement that irritated military planners and carried with it the political risk of admitting massive retaliation was not so silly after all. McNamara understood that maintaining a survivable deterrent was a more complicated matter than it had been before the Soviets began to deploy ICBMs. He tried to find an acceptable force structure that would provide “assured destruction” under the worst possible assumptions and include a limited counterforce capability. For planning purposes he directed that American forces be capable of destroying 25 percent of the Soviet population and 50 percent of Soviet industry; he later admitted that U.S. forces could have destroyed 50 percent of the Russian population and 80 percent of Soviet industry in the late 1960s. But who knew what level of threatened destruction deterred the Russians or whether it influenced them at all?

With such questions unanswered, McNamara accepted a force three times larger in delivery vehicles than the Eisenhower program projected for the 1960s. Nevertheless his program did not meet military requests, which remained wedded to the war-fighting assumptions of the SIOP. By the end of 1963, the McNamara strategic program was largely in place. The ICBM force would increase to around 1,000, a happy medium between the New Look’s 600 and the 1,450 to 2,000 missiles the Air Force wanted. The heart of the force would be the solid-fueled Minuteman in two new models. The submarine force would jump from twenty-nine to forty-one boats, carrying 656 missiles. The manned bomber force could be reduced from its high of 1,500 toward a more capable force half as large.

McNamara’s analysis of assured destruction requirements, measured in part against predictions of Soviet ICBM programs through the 1960s, reinforced the secretary’s conviction that the Russians would someday reach nuclear parity. It was not a conclusion that made force planning easier or that enhanced Kennedy’s political future. McNamara redirected strategic force planning by checking the Air Force’s bomber program; he canceled both the B-70 supersonic, high-altitude bomber and the “Skybolt” bomber-carried missile. By increasing warhead accuracy, the United States might reduce warhead yield, a development that would allow more warheads to be placed on the future generations of missiles installed in silos and submarines. Shortly after McNamara capped the growth of delivery vehicles (1963–1964), he approved the development of multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as the next hedge against a Soviet first strike. McNamara favored the strategic triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers, for his studies suggested that such a mixed force defied a disarming first strike and assured the ultimate deterrent of counter-city retaliation. Despite his critics’ argument that “assured destruction” was only “massive retaliation” repackaged, the McNamara program, which now included substantial counterforce potential, surged forward to completion by 1967.

McNamara rejected the options of active and passive defense against Soviet missile attack, for the secretary believed that strategy, economics, and public ignorance made defense pointless. Although OSD improved the bomber defense system and supported major improvements in satellite and ground radar surveillance, McNamara beat back service-sponsored antiballistic missile (ABM) programs until Congress and President Lyndon Johnson forced him to accept a minimal commitment to ABM in 1967. McNamara never argued that the Army could not hit an incoming warhead, only that the Russians could overwhelm either a point defense or area defense system with a minimal increase of warhead numbers. McNamara applied similar logic to the protection of urban Americans from the effects of nuclear weapons. In the technical sense the availability of fallout shelters would no doubt save lives if war came. Such public shelters, however, would cost around $40 billion, the same loose estimate as for the ABM system. McNamara’s strategic advisers also feared that civil defense systems might lead the Russians to conclude that the Americans believed they could wage nuclear war and survive. When public hysteria greeted a minimal government shelter program in 1961–1962, McNamara found an additional excuse to rely on assured destruction.

The Kennedy administration also had to face the unpleasant reality that no easy technical solution would eliminate the risk of nuclear war. Kennedy adopted Eisenhower’s negotiations for arms control, especially to limit nuclear testing, for the medical effects of radioactivity in the atmosphere had created a public constituency for a test ban. At the same time the United States and Soviet Union shared the conclusion that limiting nuclear testing would impede other nations from going nuclear. In October 1963 the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union agreed to conduct nuclear tests only underground. The signatories of the Limited Test Ban Treaty then extended it to other nations to sign. For the first time in the nuclear age, arms control had become an important element in American national security policy.

The puzzles of nuclear deterrence reinforced Kennedy’s commitment to improve the nation’s general-purpose forces. At the center of flexible response theory was the assumption that deterring and fighting with non-nuclear forces would reduce the likelihood of nuclear escalation. Accepting these arguments with enthusiasm, McNamara argued that the United States needed a “two and a half war” conventional force capability that would allow it to mount a successful defense of north Asia, Europe, and any insurgency-threatened state within its alliance system. Although the United States did not reach this level of readiness, the administration increased the size of the armed forces by 250,000 men and spent 80 percent of its added defense funds (around $10 billion a year) on conventional forces.

Flexible response came to NATO with mixed results because it represented mixed goals. First, McNamara’s experts scrutinized the Soviet armed forces with economic analysis as well as traditional order-of-battle studies and concluded that the real Soviet threat was forty-six divisions, not the force double that size estimated by New Look planners. Conventional defense appeared to be a real option. Under American initiative NATO forces in central Europe increased from twenty-one to twenty-seven divisions and from 3,000 to 3,500 aircraft; weapons modernization continued apace to give the alliance more fighting power. In 1963 NATO’s annual exercises included troops flown to Germany from the United States; the Army then accelerated a plan to preposition weapons, vehicles, and supplies in Europe for the reinforcing troops. The issue of NATO nuclear weapons and the larger question of the reliability of American strategic deterrence, however, brought disarray to the alliance. The flexible response strategy, officially approved in memorandum MC 14/3 by NATO’s defense planners in 1967, suggested that the United States might not risk nuclear war for Western Europe. Ironically, at the very time NATO developed both the forces and strategy that might have reduced its dependence on tactical nuclear weapons, another major change in the alliance resurrected the prospect of early nuclear escalation.

Even before the adoption of MC 14/3 the Kennedy administration did all it could to reassure NATO’s leaders that flexible response did not mean abandonment, but it sent other conflicting signals. In 1962 the United States canceled an expensive air-launched missile program that would have modernized Britain’s strategic bomber force. The United States also held fast to its decision not to assist the French nuclear weapons program. President de Gaulle had domestic reasons for going forward with the force de frappe,but his grand design to reduce Anglo-American influence in Europe and to complicate Russian calculations shaped French policy. French nuclear theorists disagreed with McNamara that a French nuclear capability threatened the stability of deterrence. The French insisted instead that their force filled a credibility gap created by flexible response. To reinforce French military independence, de Gaulle announced in 1966 that France would leave NATO’s integrated military organization. This decision deprived the alliance of geographic depth for its logistical system and closed French air bases to NATO aircraft. The French partial defection from NATO showed the Soviet Union that the alliance might have internal defects that could be exploited by clever diplomacy, and it also made West Germany the critical continental member of the alliance, binding NATO to Germany’s demands for forward defense and the early introduction of nuclear weapons.

The essence of flexible response strategy appeared in McNamara’s drive to improve the armed forces’ ability to move and fight without nuclear weapons. Although he doubted the wisdom of building nuclear-powered carriers, he allowed the Navy to modernize naval aviation and maintain a twenty-four carrier force. He approved an amphibious force building program that would allow the Marine Corps to deploy two full division-wing teams. The secretary pressed the Army to develop field forces with greater firepower and mobility. Although the Army added two divisions, its major reforms were structural. In one developmental path, the Army reorganized its armored and mechanized infantry divisions to resemble the German Panzer forces of World War II in flexible structure and tactical concepts. The other developmental path brought Army aviation programs to the highest priority. In 1962 McNamara made two important decisions that opened the air mobility age. He created Strike Command, a joint Army–Air Force organization that joined the Army’s most mobile forces (the two airborne divisions) with the Tactical Air Command and Military Airlift Command. The secretary approved major expansions in TAC and MAC, especially the procurement of large strategic transports. He also threw his weight behind an internal Army study of tactical air mobility that recommended the formation of an entire air assault division. This division would not only carry infantrymen into battle, but include “air cavalry” forces of armed helicopters that could attack the enemy independent of ground action. In addition, the Army extended greater helicopter capability to all its divisions. At the same time, it curbed its fixed-wing programs in order to dampen Air Force concern that the Army would soon provide all its own close air support.

McNamara also turned his attention to the New Look reserve structure and did not like what he found. In June 1961 Kennedy met Khrushchev in Vienna for a heated debate on world politics, and the president returned dismayed that he had impressed the Soviets as a weak leader. Khrushchev strengthened this fear in August when he erected a wall to stop refugees from reaching West Berlin and then threatened Allied control of their part of the city. McNamara called 148,000 reservists to active duty, partly to improve readiness, in part as a diplomatic signal. The results were mixed. Air Force (Guard and Reserve) and Navy air and surface units showed reasonable readiness, but Army Reserve and National Guard units showed a shocking lack of training, manpower, equipment, and enthusiasm. After demobilization the following year, McNamara proposed to merge the Army and Air Force Guard and Reserve, which set off a storm in Congress. The secretary settled for a less dramatic approach by giving the Air and Army Guard the principal responsibility for providing combat units and assigning Air Force and Army Reserve units supporting missions. He also provided additional training funds for “selected” units and supported internal reforms that reduced drill-pay reservists from 937,000 to 871,000 but improved unit readiness.

The major test of flexible response came from Cuba, where Castro threatened American domination of the Caribbean basin. The Castro threat, which made Cuba a bastion for exporting revolution, agitated the administration. It also tied Communist subversion into part of a global pattern. In January 1961 Khrushchev stressed in a major speech that the Soviet Union would support “wars of national liberation” and protect the Third World bastions of socialism that such wars produced. Similar sermons from Castro, Che Guevara, and Chinese Defense Minister Lin Biao convinced Kennedy that the United States did not have an adequate capacity to stop Communist subversion. As he told his closest advisers, the United States would have to become more proficient at counterinsurgency. In April 1961 he demonstrated his own and the nation’s ineptness in covert operations by making the decisions that botched the Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Neither a true covert operation nor a conventional invasion, Operation ZAPATA depended on a revolt that never occurred, air cover that proved inadequate, and interagency coordination that failed. After a series of postmortems, the most important directed by JFK’s personal military adviser, Maxwell D. Taylor, the administration spurred the CIA, the Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency, and the armed forces to give counterinsurgency the highest priority. Kennedy gave the CI crusade his personal touch by forming the Special Group/Counterinsurgency, dominated by his brother Robert, Taylor, and McGeorge Bundy.

Demonstrating the old proverb that Irishmen always get even, Kennedy approved joint maneuvers in 1962 that tested the contingency plan for an invasion of Cuba. After a purge of the CIA’s operations directorate, he unleashed Operation MONGOOSE, a series of schemes to bring Castro down through Cuban exile—CIA collaboration. He also gave his personal attention to the growth and reorientation of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, an elite and neglected force of 2,000 that was supposed to organize sabotage teams in Asia and Eastern Europe in the case of general war. McNamara organized his own OSD task force and linked it with a similar group created in the JCS. Giving the Army the lead in developing CI forces and doctrine, Kennedy and McNamara expanded the Army’s military assistance and civil affairs schools and held CI seminars for high-ranking civilian officials and military officers. Special Forces, however, held center stage—green berets and all—for the president ordered it to assist native villagers, rural militias, and foreign ranger forces to combat Communist guerrillas. In November 1961 the first Special Forces teams reached the embattled central highlands of South Vietnam, but the geographic orientation of the government’s CI effort remained Latin America.

For both the United States and the Soviet Union, Castro’s survival had passed the unconventional stage, for the Russians had started to provide the Cubans with a flood of advisers, ground weapons, aircraft, and air-defense missiles. In the summer of 1962 intelligence reports from Cuba mentioned new missiles, but closer investigation suggested that the installations were for air defense.

In September, however, air reconnaissance officers remained concerned about a pattern of construction that they had identified from limited flights, but not until early October did they receive permission to collect definitive photographs using an advanced model of the U-2, controlled by the CIA. The U-2 flight, conducted October 14, produced convincing evidence that the Russians were building sites for two types of offensive missiles, the medium-range (1,000 miles) SS-4 and the intermediate range (2,200 miles) SS-5. Further analysis suggested that the total missile force might number as many as eighty missiles of both types. At the time the U.S.S.R. had only about thirty ICBMs capable of reaching the United States; eighty MRBNs (the SS-4s) and IRBMs (the SS-5s) did not reverse the strategic advantage of the United States, but they might have dangerous implications for the nation’s alliance system if the Russians went unchallenged. Kennedy’s political career was no less at stake. The crisis also heartened those politicians and generals who longed to overthrow Castro and give the Russians a bloody nose, even if only symbolically. When presented with the photographic evidence collected and analyzed by the experts of the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), the administration decided to respond. After weighing the implications of an air strike on the missile complexes, Kennedy decided to force the Russians to withdraw the missiles if he could, but to prepare for a conventional invasion of Cuba and a nuclear war with the Soviet Union if his crisis diplomacy failed. As one participant recalled, “the smell of burning hung in the air.”

For one week (October 21–28, 1962), the United States and the Soviet Union flirted with nuclear war, and then they both blinked, to the vast benefit of both nations. After about a week of intensive debate within his administration, President Kennedy accepted an option fashioned largely by his brother and Robert McNamara: a selective naval blockade of Cuba that would prevent further military assistance to the Russian and Cuban armed forces on the island. The president threatened further action if Khrushchev did not bring the missiles home, a point he made in a dramatic national radio and television address on October 22. Although he could not be sure that the Russians had nuclear warheads in Cuba, Kennedy had to proceed as if they did. It was well that he did so, for NPIC found a warhead storage site after the crisis abated, and the Russians later admitted that they had had around twenty warheads in Cuba. The crisis peaked on October 27, the day the SS-4 sites became operational. Early in the day an Air Force U-2, flown by Major Rudolph Anderson, plunged to the earth, hit by a Russian air-defense missile. Without direct authorization, the commander of SAC, General Thomas S. Power, put his force in Defense Condition (DEFCON) 2, a posture that placed his bombers and missiles in the last stages of prewar readiness; Power had the orders transmitted in the clear for the edification of the Russians. Khrushchev also may have had second thoughts about his ability to control his commander in Cuba, General Issa Pliyev, who had shot down the U-2 without prior approval. Although control procedures for handling the missiles and nuclear warheads were more restrictive, General Pliyev may have had some latitude in launching missiles (including nuclear) at an American invasion fleet, already under way for Havana. Khrushchev could not stop an uncompromising message already sent to Washington, but he could send another personal plea, which he did. On October 28 he agreed to withdraw the missiles if the United States would not invade Cuba. Kennedy promptly accepted the offer.

The peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 appeared to prove the wisdom of flexible response and its accompanying readiness programs. Alerted strategic forces, especially SAC’s bombers, posed such a threat to the Soviet Union that a nuclear exchange appeared unlikely. NATO’s conventional forces (and its tactical nuclear weapons) seemed to ensure no Soviet response in central Europe. The Navy’s carrier battle-groups and antisubmarine task forces held the balance at sea. As Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged messages that combined threats and concessions, McNamara assembled an invasion force in the Caribbean and at southern ports that rivaled the task forces organized during World War II. In assessing the success of its crisis diplomacy, the Kennedy administration concluded that the combination of political will, strategic nuclear superiority, and conventional military readiness had given Khrushchev no rational alternative but retreat. Flexible response, applied with cautious threats of escalation, had restored America’s initiative in the Cold War. This conclusion was further reinforced in April 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson deployed a brigade of Marines and part of the 82d Airborne Division to halt a civil war in the Dominican Republic. Thus far the simultaneous test of flexible response in Southeast Asia had not yet brought any major reassessment of American defense policy.

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