by Jeremy Young | 4/23/2008 05:29:00 PM
(Cross-posted at The Wild, Wild Left.)

I'm currently grading papers for a 300-level course on American military history. Many of the students in the course have trouble understanding the difference between such concepts as "deterrence," "annihilation," "massive retaliation," "containment," and "limited war." As a result, they get low grades.

If Hillary Clinton were in my class and said this (video here), I'd fail her. Hillary, what's the difference between deterrence and massive retaliation?

...I think deterrence has not been effectively used in recent times, we used it very well during the Cold War when we had a bipolar world, and what I think the president should do and what our policy should be is to make it very clear to the Iranians that they would be risking massive retaliation were they to launch a nuclear attack on Israel.

First of all, massive retaliation and deterrence are different things. In fact, they are actually opposing military strategies. Deterrence was a useful strategy that's outdated and unusable today. Massive retaliation, on the other hand, is possibly the most terrifying strategy ever to be outlined by any government, ever. Over the flip, a short history lesson.

Throughout most of American history (at least since the Civil War), the United States' primary military strategy was one of annihilation. That is, victory was to be achieved by utterly defeating the opponent's military and by destroying their will to fight. In the Civil War, General Sherman conducted his famous "march to the sea," terrorizing the citizens of Georgia in order to break their will to fight. In World War I, we threw everything we had at the Germans in order to buckle their line on the Western Front. In World War II, we took this to a new level, firebombing Dresden and Tokyo in order to terrorize the Germans and Japanese into giving up.

While this strategy sounds brutal and inhumane -- and it was -- it was generally successful. The Confederacy and the Central Powers threw up their hands once it became clear that we possessed so much power that we could decimate their societies. In World War II, however, the strategy of annihilation faltered. Hitler didn't give up just because we burned his people alive in Dresden; we had to actually send troops into Berlin in order to topple his government. And in order to make the Japanese surrender, we had to take annihilation to the next level: nuclear war against Japanese population centers.

It was this last act that led to an eventual change in American strategy. The strategy of annihilation left little doubt as to what the role of nuclear weapons should be in the emerging Cold War: if the Soviets, or any of their Communist satellite states, attacked any ally of the United States, we must respond by annihilating Moscow with a nuclear blast. At the same time, however, it was perfectly clear that we couldn't actually do this and hope to keep our own allies from dropping us like a flaming pile of hotcakes. When the North Korean Communists surged across the 38th parallel into South Korea in 1949, was it really an appropriate response for us to nuke Moscow? This question was answered in two different ways by defense intellectuals: deterrence and massive retaliation.

The earnest young man in this picture is Paul Henry Nitze, one of America's foremost defense intellectuals in the 1940's and 1950's (and, indeed, up through the 1980's). In 1949, Nitze served as primary author of an internal State Department document called NSC-68. Nitze is no hero to the Left, as his actions in the 1960's would later show, but his recommendations in NSC-68 were sober and realistic. In the emerging Cold War, Nitze argued, nuking Moscow was something the U.S. simply had to be able to do, because if Moscow decided to nuke us, we had to be able to nuke them back. But to launch a preemptive "first strike" against the Soviets, to nuke them because one of their allies invaded one of our allies (as in Korea), was sheer idiocy. Chances were that we wouldn't be able to completely knock out the Soviets with a single nuclear strike, and when they recovered, their retribution would be terrible. Besides, our own allies would see nuking Moscow as a massive overreaction, and they'd begin to view the U.S. (quite rightly) as a global threat greater than the Soviets. Nitze's answer to all this was the strategy of deterrence.

In summary, we must, by means of a rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world, and by means of an affirmative program intended to wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union, confront it with convincing evidence of the determination and ability of the free world to frustrate the Kremlin design of a world dominated by its will. Such evidence is the only means short of war which eventually may force the Kremlin to abandon its present course of action and to negotiate acceptable agreements on issues of major importance.

To break this down, Nitze advocated the buildup of a massive nuclear arsenal (the beginning of the "arms race") in order to deter the Soviets from attacking us directly. At the same time, however, Nitze recognized that we wouldn't actually be able to use these nukes unless the Soviets attacked us directly. Instead, he called for a combination of global economic stimulus (i.e., the Marshall Plan), diplomacy, and the ability to fight so-called "limited" wars -- wars like Korea and Vietnam that involved small regions of the globe and didn't call for nuclear action.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because it's exactly what the U.S. did throughout the Cold War. Paul Nitze's strategy of deterrence accomplished its main objective, which was to keep the Soviets from directly attacking the U.S. (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was as close as they ever got). And while we never really learned how to fight and win limited wars (as the outcomes in Korea and Vietnam show), the Soviets fared no better (witness their involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980's).

But before Hillary Clinton decides that a reinvigoration of deterrence is the appropriate military strategy for her Presidency, it's worth considering that deterrence only works against an enemy that has a national base and that actually deploys tanks and troops in the field. To refresh Senator Clinton's memory, the last foe America faced that deployed tanks and troops in the field was Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Insurgent forces like the Sadrists and Al-Qaeda aren't deterred by our overwhelming nuclear capability because they know we couldn't find them to nuke them, at least not without nuking a whole lot of innocent civilians too.

At the same time, as Senator Clinton helpfully reminds us, there were those who even in the 1950's thought Nitze's strategy of deterrence wasn't hawkish enough.

This square-jawed man is John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower's Secretary of State from 1953-1960. In a 1954 speech, Dulles coined the phrase "massive retaliation" and outlined its basic principles. I'll let Dulles speak for himself:

Local defense will always be important. But there is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty landpower of the Communist world. Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power. A potential aggressor must know that he cannot always prescribe battle conditions that suit him. Otherwise, for example, a potential aggressor, who is glutted with manpower, might be tempted to attack in confidence that resistance would be confined to manpower. He might be tempted to attack in places where his superiority was decisive.

The way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing. (emphasis mine)

Sounds good, but let me spell out for you how this would actually work. What Dulles is actually calling for is the right for America to attack the Soviets wherever we want, whenever we want, so long as some Communist country has attacked some free country somewhere in the world first. What this translates to is the unlimited right for us to nuke Moscow on any conceivable pretext. The North Koreans invade South Korea? Nuke Moscow. Ho Chi Minh attacks the French at Dien Bien Phu? Nuke Moscow. Khrushchev gets rowdy with Vice President Nixon at the Kitchen Cabinet debate? Nuke Moscow.

This is what massive retaliation meant: a blank check for American nuclear aggression against any nation and on the thinnest of pretexts. Thankfully, despite the urgings of his Secretary of State, President Eisenhower didn't implement massive retaliation, and instead chose Paul Nitze's strategy of deterrence. From that day to this, massive retaliation has been viewed as an example of the worst of American Cold War belligerence, as an offensive and ridiculous idea whose implementation could well lead to the destruction of humanity.

I never thought I'd see the day when an American politician advocated massive retaliation as a valid post-Cold-War strategy for dealing with enemies. I never thought I'd see the day when an American politician said that an appropriate response to Iranian military action against Israel was for America to nuke Iran. (And make no mistake, "massive retaliation" is always a code word for nukes. Go ask John Foster Dulles if you don't believe me.) Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that even Bush's neocons would pursue such a baldly insane strategy for dealing with tensions in the Middle East.

But it's not Bush's neocons resurrecting the phrase "massive retaliation" from its well-deserved, fifty-year-old grave. It's Hillary fucking Clinton. And please excuse me if I'm disgusted that anyone in the Democratic Party would even think of voting for Hillary after hearing her give the answer above. She truly is the worst of the worst.



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Blogger Mentarch on 4/23/2008 10:56 PM:

"it's worth considering that deterrence only works against an enemy that has a national base and that actually deploys tanks and troops in the field."

Ummm ... doesn't this applies to Iran?

Or North Korea?

I agree with your reasoning concerning terrorists - but did you just conflate terrorism with Iran?

Or did I misread?

(I am sincerely asking, here ...)


Blogger Mentarch on 4/23/2008 10:58 PM:

(To complete my question 0 it is late here and I am way too sleepy to read, let alone comment)

My questions above were with regards to deterrence, of course.

I fully agree with your points concerning massive retalliation ... ;-)


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/23/2008 11:11 PM:

Good question. The reason we don't need to pursue deterrence with regard to Iran or North Korea is that neither country is a nuclear power. You don't need nukes to deter a country that has none; the "shock and awe" campaign we used against Iraq in 2003 would be more than adequate to destroy Iran or North Korea.

Now, you can say, "But what if Iran or North Korea DO get nukes?" The UN has estimated, if I recall, that it would take them 10-15 years to do so even if they defied every single UN order between now and then (and of course the UN would take action against them long before that). But if they did, despite decades of disarmament, the current nuclear arsenal would be more than adequate to take them out, despite Hillary's comment that deterrence "has not been effectively used in recent times."

In fact, deterrence has worked exceptionally well at doing what Nitze designed it to do: keep traditional tanks-and-bombs armies from directly attacking the U.S. Not one has done so, and even if North Korea or Iraq got nukes and wanted to use them against us, they'd be incapable of doing so rationally, because we'd still have vastly more and better nukes even if they developed nukes nonstop for the next 50 years.

What we have to worry about is exactly what we had to worry about in 1949: irrational people getting control of nukes (thankfully, this hasn't yet happened), and stateless insurgents attacking us or our allies. We're perfectly capable of dispatching with an enemy like Saddam, Iran, or North Korea, and would be if we didn't spend another dime on defense for the next half-century. The question is, how do we win 4GW wars? Hillary seems to say, nuke Moscow.


Blogger Mentarch on 4/23/2008 11:14 PM:

Got it - thanks!

Now, this brings up one country: *Pakistan* ...


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/23/2008 11:37 PM:

Same deal. We've got way more nukes than they do, and ours are better. Deterrence is still fully operational against them.

Now, what would we do if a madman got control of those nukes? I don't know, but building more nukes wouldn't solve the problem. In fact, nothing any major American strategist has yet come up with would solve the problem. We should be spending our time researching that, instead of talking about nuking Moscow (got that, Hillary?).


Blogger Mentarch on 4/23/2008 11:58 PM:

Hear, hear! ;-)


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/24/2008 1:09 AM:

The problem that I'm having is two-fold. First, you're using the terms in a very specific historical context, whereas most people -- myself included -- are not actually aware of that: I didn't assume, for example, that "massive retaliation" meant a nuclear strike. The two are not really diametrically opposed, in my understanding -- deterrence is not based on a proportional response, but a massive, disproportionate one, and it worked because both sides had access to absurd first-strike and second-strike capacities. Dulles' idea is more or less irrelevant on arrival: the Soviet's had nukes by the time he delivered that speech, and there's no way a sane president was going to risk it; that said, it laid the foundation for the uncertainty as to whether US policymakers were, in fact, sane, which was useful at times.

Second, whether or not you believe the intelligence estimates regarding the actuality of Iranian nukes, the issue is on the table now and that is what Clinton was responding to. She didn't say anything about Iran's being a state sponsor of terror as a justification for nuclear bombing, or about their aggressive moves in the Persian Gulf as a justification for nuclear bombing; it was a straightforward warning with regard to WMD use against a long-time critical ally.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/24/2008 8:54 AM:

Ahistoricality, very good points. To your first problem, I don't think the historical context has to be apparent to you or me in order to be troubling. Maybe I'm paranoid or a conspiracy theorist (I hope not), but I find it difficult to believe that Hillary is using phrases like "umbrella of deterrence" and "massive retaliation" without the full knowledge and consent of her national security team. These words may just be words to us, but they have very specific meanings to them -- saying "massive retaliation" to a defense intellectual is, as far as I can tell, like saying "final solution" to a Holocaust survivor. Essentially, I'm afraid that Hillary's dog-whistling to the neocons that she's going to be more aggressive than Bush, not less, while using words that the rest of us don't fully understand. I find it difficult to believe, as well, that some overzealous speechwriter just slipped these words into her talking points, or that she just came up with this on the fly somewhere. One doesn't use words like "massive retaliation" in ordinary conversation; in fact, no one's used the formulation "massive retaliation" as far as I can tell since at least 1960. I think these phrases have very specific meanings to a very specific segment of the population, and those meanings are incredibly terrifying to me.

As for Iran, as I mentioned to Mentarch above, there's nothing we need to do to "use deterrence" against Iran. Deterrence is in effect against Iran right now. It would take Iran half a century to achieve nuclear parity with the United States if the US build no new warheads and of no country or group of countries intervened in Iran to stop that from happening. Either they're deterred by America's overwhelming nuclear superiority, or they're not deterred by it because they're madmen. If the former, the only thing we need to do is not totally disarm for a few years (something that no current presidential candidate seems likely to do); if the latter, nothing we have or know right now can stop them. So what she said made no sense as regards Iran, which is why I tend toward the more extreme explanation.


Blogger mark on 4/25/2008 4:18 PM:

Good post, some comments:

"Massive retaliation" was not DOA because there were vast differences in throw-weight, numbers of warheads and delivery systems. The U.S. could hit the USSR massively, the USSR could not do the same to the US on that scale until the mid-60's, after the Brezhnev nuclear build-up began ( but still enough to kill in the low tens of millions here and most Europeans).

Mostly, Dulles policy was meant to deter a Soviet conventional invasion of western Europe. Ike never seriously considered using nukes anywhere else and harshly rebuffed the suggestions that nukes be used or threatened over Laos or to stave off the defeat of the French at Dien bien phu. Or to nuke the moon as a demonstration of American prowess after sputnik.

"Massive Retaliation" was also aimed at keeping strict budgetary limits on conventional military spending by the Pentagon. Strategic bombers and nuclear warheads were far cheaper than Army divisions or carrier groups.

Kennedy abandoned "Massive Retaliation" for "Flexible Response" which later transitioned into "MAD" under LBJ and Nixon. The Soviets copied "flexible response" for the Red Army but never quite accepted MAD, doctrinally speaking, in the sense that MacNamara had hoped.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 4/25/2008 5:23 PM:

Mark, thanks for the clarification. My only quibble with what you've said is that it's my understanding that "flexible response" was transitioned in through the end of the Eisenhower administration and the beginning of the Kennedy administration. Deterrence had its advocates in the Ike administration too, for instance Paul Nitze, who worked for every American president until I think Ford.