Graham T. Allison of Harvard's Kennedy School, Jeremi Suri of the University of Texas at Austin, and William Taubman of Amherst College join Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose to discuss Cold War conduct. The panel explores the defining elements of the Cold War, competition and constraint, and the ways the war transformed U.S. and Soviet societies.
This meeting is part of the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall Symposium.
ROSE: Welcome, everybody, to session two of today's Council on Foreign Relations symposium on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall.
This session will be about the conduct of the Cold War, and it features three spectacular panelists: Jeremi Suri, William Taubman and Graham Allison, virtually.
And we are going to welcome not just the people in the room, but people who are watching livestream on CFR.org. And this is an on-the-record session. And our panelists have spectacular bios. They're also very familiar faces. Graham is the director of the Belfer Center at Harvard. Jeremi is the Mack Brown distinguished professor—distinguished chair for leadership in global affairs at the LBJ School at U.T. Austin. William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell professor emeritus of political science at Amherst, a Pulitzer prize winner for his biography of Khruschev, and writing a new one on Gorbachev.
Without taking up more time from our precious session, read their full bios in the handouts that you have.
So, we've talked about how the Cold War began. And the next session later on is going to talk about how it concluded. As we thought about how to discuss the years in between, it seemed to me that the central features of this period, the Cold War era, were that there was, (A), no great power war directly; (B), a lot of great power crises; and (C), a lot of proxy wars between clients and allies of the great powers—Korea, Vietnam, et cetera.
And so this period seemed to be marked by some stability and some regularities of practice, although not the traditional ones we associate with great power relations and great power conflict.
So what I posed to the panelists was, (A), sort of a Council question: Here's what I think; is this right? (B), if to the extent that is the case, was it the case throughout the entire period or did it change over time? Was the early Cold War different from the later Cold War? Did we fall into patterns of stability and so forth or out of them?
And third, what are the central reasons for these patterns of things? Was it some kind of structural phenomena like the advent of nuclear weapons or bipolarity or whatever that kept things in this kind of pattern? Or was it the contingent choices of leaders? If you had different leaders on different sides at various points, would you have gotten a very different pattern of outcomes?
These are the kinds of questions that they're going to talk about. And very briefly, we'll just have them start by giving some thoughts on the perceived regularities of behavior during the Cold War and their possible causes. And then we'll get into a lively discussion, and then we'll bring all of you in for the second half.
So, Jeremi, why don't we start with you.
SURI: Sure. So, I agree with your proposition, Gideon. First, that the Cold War was a period of relative stability if we think of the periods of great power conflict that had preceded it. The first half of the 20th century is filled with the major powers fighting one another, and the second half of the 20th century does not see that. So in that sense, there's a surface stability.
But I would argue that within that are two elements of crucial instability, and this is what makes the Cold War a war as well as cold. On the first hand, there is the growth of what we might call areas of conflict short of great power war. This involves covert activity. This involves economic competition. It involves propaganda. It's a heightened period of competition just short of war. So, you're not crossing that line, but it's not the traditional kind of stability you might have thought of in a post-1812 context in Europe.
The second area I would point to would be the internal transformations. And this didn't come up in the first panel, but I hope it comes up in ours: the ways in which the Cold War transformed societies within, both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as Europe. And these were areas and places where, yes, there was growth and political order, but there were new institutional transformations that I think destabilized traditional notions of democracy and traditional notions of other kinds of political order in other societies.
So if you think about the way the National Security Act of 1947 changed the organization of our society, I'm not sure I'd call that stability. I would actually call that institutional change.
ROSE: Graham, let's go to you, and then wrap up with Bill, because he might have—you might have more of a structural perspective and he might have more of a first-image perspective. So, what's your take on these perceived regularities?
ALLISON: Well, thanks very much, Gideon. And thanks for letting me participate at a distance. I'm actually teaching a class this morning, and the class is part of the exercise now, and we'll come back to it after.
So first, I think the question that you raised is: "What means Cold War?" And as Clausewitz taught us, war is the mere extension of politics by other means. Cold War is the extension of war by other means. So, not to be too snobby about it, but basically the aims of the Cold War were traditional war aims either to transform or to destroy another regime.
The means chosen were everything short of war, just as Jeremi said. So, economic warfare, covert warfare, proxy warfare, information warfare, attempts to undermine the other society—the other regime. But short of war. Now, why the constraints? That's to your question, Gideon. The defining feature of the Cold War was, first, that it was cold. That is, short of bombs and bullets, the traditional means of war. But secondly, that it was constrained—constrained by what emerged after the Cuban missile crisis, but you could see even before, as what Kennedy once called "primitive rules of prudence" or the rules of the status quo in which there evolved a recognition of a set of constraints in which we could do this and this, but not quite that.
And the reason for the constraints was the recognition that if, God forbid, a conflict or competition escalated to hot war, that is, the exchange of bombs and bullets, that could include the exchange of nuclear weapons, you would be—the society that had advanced the purpose by war, would have actually committed suicide.
So, it was often referred to as a mutual suicide pact or mutual assured destruction, after the arsenals became equivalent.
So that was a fundamental structural feature that I think lived to—learning of a set of constraints, and there were a number of very close calls—but the constraints were constraining a competition in which I still will want to destroy your regime or transform it, but I have to do so by competing with you in every way short of hot war.
ROSE: Ok. Mr. Taubman.
TAUBMAN: As a biographer, I am indeed drawn to personalities as opposed to structural sources of conflict and structural constraints, although of course at the end of the day it's the personalities, leaders, operating within the limits of constraints, and to some degree provoked by the sources of conflict that go beyond themselves.
But as I think about the Cold War's conduct, I think primarily about Soviet leaders. Not because they were wholly responsible but because that's my (inaudible). But I think it's very interesting to take four of them in a row and think about the differences.
I also think about how each of them thought about the lessons to be learned from the behavior of his predecessor. Stalin, as our previous panelists suggested, I think did not necessarily want a Cold War, he wanted to avoid it, he wanted some continuation, in some form, as Mel put it, of the grand alliance.
But he played a large role in sparking the Cold War in the way that he behaved, in glomming on to Eastern Europe, not just keeping it as a his general sphere of influence but Stalinizing it in the crude way that he did. And his suspicions, I think, went far deeper than those of his successors or the American (inaudible) because after all, he was not only politically paranoid but personally paranoid.
So Kruschev comes along and thinks that Stalin has done many good things but that he has also gone too far in certain areas. So he looks around, Kruschev does, and sees that the Soviet Union is isolated in 1953, in the Cold War; that's partly Stalin's fault. So Kruschev sets out to ease the Cold War, if not end it, but the way that he goes about easing it has the effect of intensifying it, most particularly in the great crises of Berlin and Cuba. We can talk later—I won't go into it now—about what it was about his character and his way of proceeding that had this contradictory effect of intensifying what he wanted to ease.
Then Brezhnev comes along and looks at Kruschev and decides in the very famous phrase that wasK used when he was ousted that he was guilty of hare-brained scheming—H - A -R -E—of sort of crackpot conduct of Soviet foreign policy, and Brezhnev acts accordingly to proceed differently, and you can see it in Berlin for example. Krushchev's way of trying to solve the Berlin and German problems was to issue an ultimatum in 1952 and to begin thereby a three year long crisis.
Brezhnev's way was to negotiate and it produced in 1971 an agreement on Berlin. I want to talk more about Brezhnev as opposed to Kruschev but it was a much steadier hand on the wheel.
And then we get—if I can encroach very quickly on the next panel—then we got Gorbachev, who draws the lesson that Stalin and Khruschev and Brezhnev were all wrong in different ways in the way they went about things, and what was needed was a wholesale change in Soviet doctrine, ideology, ideology, conduct, that would really end the Cold War.
So, I'm just saying that you learn a lot if you look at the different leaders and how they—how they differently conducted the Cold War.
ROSE: With the temerity of youth, at least by CFR standards, let me be somewhat provocative and pose a question to all of you. The lived experience of the Cold War was dominated by crises, fear and ideological conflict. There was famously in Albert Wohlstetter's (inaudible)—Churchill's term, "the delicate balance of terror." There was a series of crises. There was the entirely new, apparently, at least for American strategic thinkers, concept of limited war which had to be worked out, but everyone feared escalation.
And throughout, you know, a paradigmatic piece of cultural product during this period would be, of course, "Strangelove," or something like that. And yet looking back after the fact, what seems to have been at the time this period of endless crisis and danger, looks remarkably calm, stable and almost with a stability and lack of great power conflict overdetermined. So much so that John Lewis Gaddis famously wrote a piece in the mid-80s saying, "Instead of thinking about this as the Cold War, we should think about this period as the long peace."
And my question to you is, Graham, you wrote an entire book about the Cuban missile crisis. All of you have written about these eras. In retrospect, was the delicate balance of power a hell of a lot more stable than anybody recognized? Because we've now had lots of nuclear weapons and lots of hands over lots of dyads over lots of decades, and it's never gone boom, no matter what the configuration, no matter what the potential for crisis, instability or whatever.
And second, were all these crises relatively obviously settled with a kind of frozen-conflict pattern in Germany, in Korea, if the geography had been acceptable, in Vietnam? And was a lot of the panic and terror about escalation during the Cold War completely out of place? And in retrospect were things a lot calmer and mellower than people felt?
ALLISON: Gideon, as usual, you're a great provocateur. So, I think the answer is both, and let me try to get piece by piece.
So first if, God forbid, in the missile crisis, we'd ended up with a nuclear war, we would look back and say, "This was insane. How in the world did we ever think we would be able to live in a world in which the Soviet Union could attack us with nuclear weapons; we could attack them; and 100 million people could be killed in, you know, the course of a day?"
So, the fact that we survived, I would say, we shouldn't become complacent. In the missile crisis, Kennedy thought the chances it would get to war were somewhere between one and three. And even I think looking at it historically, I don't have any reason to disagree with that. So, we survived some very close calls.
The fact, on the other hand, just as you said, that the crystal ball effect of nuclear weapons in which one had the feeling you could smell burning in the air, as Khruschev rightly said, produced clarity of mind. Because if the consequence of my going to war with you will be the destruction of my own society, that's called mutual suicide. And even though that's a strange pact, and if God forbid we got there by accident or miscalculation or confusion, that would be a bad thing. But lo and behold, it was very clarified.
So I think you had—you had both sides of that. And what I think is especially interesting about the conduct of the Cold War, as you were suggesting, was the evolution of an understanding that—of constraints on this competition. So in '56 when the Hungarians revolted after our encouragement, Eisenhower said, "Yeah, but we're not going into their core interest." And pretty soon, there emerged a recognition that there were spheres of influence which you didn't enter with military terms.
That got tested in the missile crisis. You tested it in proxy wars, in Vietnam, for example. But always at the edge, not getting to the central component.
So I think you have on both sides. On the one hand, a doomsday machine, as Herman Kahn taught us, which if it had exploded and if it were now to explode, people would say, "Well, this was an insane way to provide for international order and security." But on the other hand, each generation learning those constraints and internalizing them.
SURI: Yeah, I agree with Graham. I think—and I think I bring even more youthful exuberance to this panel, Gideon.
I think—I think your question is a dangerous one.
SURI: I think it's a dangerous question because it's actually what my undergraduates think, right? I mean, they think that the Cold War was this lost period of stability. Life was easy. The Communists look like a house of cards. To them, they have a hard time understanding McCarthyism, how we could be so fearful.
What I think historians bring to the table is an understanding of how human beings operate in these situations. And when you study these events, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Vietnam war, and many other moments in the Cold War, you see how difficult these moments were. You see how many difficult choices were made. And you see how heavy the costs were. And we shouldn't lose sight of the costs in the Cold War, right?
It might look cost-less to some of us sitting here now, but there were enormous costs. If we had a Latin American specialist here, he or she would talk about that. If we had a North African specialist, they would talk about that. If we think of the resources that were put into weapons that were never to be used, and the opportunity costs from that.
So I don't think we should look back with nostalgia. I don't think we should say it's a period of lost stability. I think we should look back and say it was a period of terror, which it was, that was well managed by diplomats and leaders, with the help of organizations perhaps like this. But that we wouldn't want to relive it and we shouldn't call that stability. Stability should be something different than that.
TAUBMAN: That's a very good point. I, too, would like to take off from Graham's saying that if there had been a war, a nuclear war, over Cuba, for example, in 1962, it would indeed have been madness. We would all, if we had survived, that's what we would have thought.
So you have to ask yourself—and furthermore, I think that on the Soviet side and the American side, that people knew that. They knew that a nuclear war would be madness. So you then have to ask: How did we get as close as we did? And here again, I am a biographer, so I don't mean to rest everything on biography. But I tried to figure out how Khruschev could get as close as he did.
And the first thing that I noticed was that in the way he posed the question on the Soviet side, he didn't really ask for advice. Or if he did, it was very late in the game from people who were bound to say, "Yes, Nikita, yes." It's pretty clear in retrospect that none of them thought it was a good idea at the time, even though they gained afterwards by saying they didn't think (inaudible) idea was a good idea to put missiles in Cuba.
So, I think Khruschev in that sense fits. I sometimes ask myself as a biographer: What do I have to demonstrate to justify the view that the person whose biography I'm writing is unique, and therefore one has to study not only his behavior, but his character, to figure out why he does what he does when others would not do it in his place?
And the uniqueness I think in Khruschev's case is exemplified in putting the missiles in Cuba. Nobody else would have done it. I think the same uniqueness is visible in his speech denouncing Stalin in 1956. The only one who probably would have done it was Beria, but Khruschev had eliminated him so he wasn't around to do it.
So, we—if I'm right about this, we then have this crucial decision which could have led through a series of steps to nuclear war, made by a man who was unique. Nobody else would have done it. It happened, and then events proceed. And if you want to get into even more detail, the fact that there were conventional nuclear weapons there which we didn't know about and which might have been used had we eventually invaded Cuba, against our invading troops. And that might have triggered the escalation to nuclear war.
It's all too easy to see in retrospect how you get there, even though it would have been mad to do it and everybody knew that at the time.
SURI: Yes, if I could just say, we talked—we talked in the prior panel about May and Neustadt's wonderful book, "Thinking in Time." They have a great phrase in there, that we should all avoid "creeping determinism," assuming things had to turn out the way they did.
ROSE: OK. So, the implicit counterfactual in your statement, and in May and Neustadt's statement, is that if we had run this experiment again, things might have gone differently. Because, of course, the determinism suggests that if you ran it again, you'd get the same outcome; that the structural factors were operating as well.
So here is my question to all of you, since you are taking that position. If you were to somehow magically be able to rerun the Cold War 100 times—OK, if you were able to simulate this and, you know, take back and rewind the clock like one of these movies with, you know, where the character can go back to the beginning of the day and rewind it again—"Groundhog Day."
How many times out of that 100 times does the Cold War blow up?
ALLISON: I'd say in the missile crisis, when I teach this to my course, I tell them, you know, Kennedy's one in three means that you've got a revolver with six chambers and two bullets. You put it to your head; you pull the trigger, and you say, "This works pretty well." So I would say if it's a one-in-three chance, if you run this 100 times, you have a good chance of having a third of the cases go very badly.
ROSE: OK. So Graham, my question to you would be: That was Kennedy's subjective assessment at the time. It wasn't like he was reading from a book of statistics saying "this is what happened." My question is: Do you in retrospect agree with Kennedy's contemporaneous assessment that it was in fact one in three?
ALLISON: I—I think I do. I've worked on this—worked my way through it a half-dozen different times. If I asked myself how many scenarios can I build from the events that occurred through a war, without any other decision by Kennedy or Khruschev, I—I say—I can easily think of fifteen and I'm sure more imaginative people can think of more.
So, for example, if Khruschev on the final Sunday had not said, "We're withdrawing the missiles," the U.S. was—had entrained an attack which would have been followed up, as Bill suggested, by ground forces. Those ground forces would have been attacked by tactical nuclear weapons that Kennedy did not even know were in Cuba and that were under the positive control of the commanders who would be under attack, whose procedures would be to use them.
Then you would have nuclear weapons used against Americans that would likely be in response to that. I remember when the Bobby Kennedy papers were opened two years ago, and I went through them early looking at them, he's got one of these briefings he's listening to, and he wrote down 40 million and 90 million. And this was a briefing on whether under those circumstances we go first or we go second.
So, I—would say play it out several times, and I feel, "Oh my God, we should be thankful for survival." And I agree very much with Jeremi's point that in retrospect, it's easy to regard that as, well, it was exaggerated, or be complacent about it. I think actually Kennedy's estimate was a pretty good one.
ROSE: Professor Taubman?
TAUBMAN: Two quick points. One is that although in the very beginning of the Cuban crisis, the Soviet commanders on the island who had control over these tactical nuclear weapons were told they were free to use them. When it really got hot, they were told they were not. But that doesn't make a hell of a difference because Moscow, which told them you couldn't use them, didn't have control over whether they were used or not.
The other point I wanted to make was that, and this sort of tends back toward the view that nuclear weapons kept us safe, and the threat of a terrible war, just because Kennedy thought there was between one in three, an even chance of nuclear war, that's probably a main reason why he behaved so reasonably once the crisis was at its peak, and allowed Khruschev to pull back in the way he did.
And as we know about that crisis, Kennedy had all kinds of hopes and plans, some of them involving Andrew Cordier at the United Nations, to try to pull back from the brink.
So I don't know, Graham, whether you—do you think in view of all of those plans of Kennedy's, contingency and otherwise, to avoid the brink, that we would have gotten to the brink anyway?
GRAHAM: Again, you—you looked at that, and I liked your book's treatment of it. I—I think it's quite hard to tell. I think probably nobody really knew at the end; there was a question. Everything was in motion to do this, certainly at the Defense Department people were planning and were exercising and were ready to go. Kennedy had told people that's what we were going to do. But he was simultaneously, just as you say, looking for other ways out, thinking that "Oh my God, once the U.S. starts bombing and killing a bunch of Soviets on the ground there, one thing is going to lead to the other and it could escalate."
SURI: So, if I might, I'll offer two alternative scenarios, in the spirit of your excellent question, Gideon, that I think were equally likely to produce outcomes as what we saw, which is to say that these are equally realistic to the actual history we lived. These are realistic counterfactuals.
The first is the good one, which is that in early 1950, Stalin continues to say no to Kim Il Sung's desire to attack South Korea. Same with Mao. And we do not have a Korean war, which would lead the United States not to make the same degree of militarized commitment it makes in Asia, which would keep us out of Vietnam, which would have a different relationship between the United States and China, a possible opening to China a lot earlier than the 1970s—a very different Asia, a very different East Asian experience. That's a good story, right?
And that was equally likely as what in fact happened, I would say, in 1950, because for years, Stalin and Mao have been saying no to Kim Il Sung.
An alternative scenario, which is not nuclear war, but is warfare, and I think was quite likely—it came up in the prior panel—which is that in the late 1940s when Stalin seeks to remove the American presence from West Berlin, the airlift doesn't work—right?—which many thought it wouldn't.
And in fact, there is a conventional conflict around West Berlin at that moment. I don't think it goes nuclear because the Soviets don't have an atomic capability of any significance. And the United States doesn't have a usable way to make it militarily actionable to drop atomic bombs on Russia. It's just not conceivable. But you see a renewed war in Europe at that moment. I think we were quite close at that moment to that scenario.
These two outcomes were equally likely to what we actually saw.
ROSE: So, out of your 100 simulations, how many times does the Cold War blow up?
SURI: I think it—I would say that 20 to 30 percent of the time, it actually results in conventional conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
ROSE: By the way, I can spin your Korea counterfactual in a positive way, OK? I actually think that the Korean war, and I think Gaddis's book—the Kennan biography—brings this out—I think was the single turning point in the Cold War for the reasons you said, both that it militarizes it, but that it also freezes it. You know, that—everything that plays out after Korea is bringing changes on the agreements that happened during Korea, which is you'll fight, but you'll fight in the third world and you'll keep it limited.
So in some ways, it's a—you can make the case that the Korean learning experience was something that in fact helped keep the Cold War cold for the next several decades.
SURI: It might have prevented nuclear war, but it's hard to write Vietnam out of the equation.
ROSE: Well, but then the question becomes: What's your standard for judging what in a historical era is the norm that you should expect? Throughout all of previous human history, major great power war was a pretty serious phenomenon. And so the lack of that during this period would seem to be in some ways the largest regularity to explain.
One last question before we bring our members in.
ALLISON: Gideon, can I make one quick note on your Korea point?
ROSE: Go for it.
ALLISON: I agree entirely. I think that if you look at your Korean point, the learning that came out of that was that there was a high risk of war with the Soviet Union. China became engaged in the war, actually brought us back to the 38th parallel. Eisenhower thought a lot about what the lessons of those were.
So the dogs that didn't bark in your theory are, here's Hungary, there's an uprising. Why did we not come to their support? Here's Czechoslovakia. There's an uprising. Soviet troops crush them. Why do we not come to their support?
To pull it to the current time, here's Georgia and a war between Russia and Georgia. We don't come to their support. Why not? Here's Ukraine today. We don't come to their support. Why not? Because it will depreciate it. We don't come to their support militarily because the chances of getting into a war that escalates to a war that would be suicidal for us are too great. Therefore, these rules of prudence we observe.
SURI: But if I might just, the contrary evidence is Quemoy and Matsu, which is the hardest thing to explain to undergraduates, right? Why these small uninhabited islands that are closer to China than Taiwan, why did we risk nuclear war over these islands twice after the Korean conflict? Twice we did that.
ROSE: By the way, anybody who's tried to teach kids about earlier eras that are now closed chapters knows exactly what Jeremi is talking about; getting them to re-live historical contingency. Whether or not you agree that it was contingent, the fact that the actors thought it was contingent. They're all Henry Wallace in retrospect because they go, like, Well, this wasn't a big deal, was it?"
ROSE: It's really crazy and annoying.
SURI: Exactly right.
ROSE: So, OK, one last question on the counterfactual before we go to this. Again, the contemporaneous understanding of the Cold War was fraught with ideology. This was what it was about. This was a great struggle to the death of different ideologies.
In retrospect, how much was this the case? You have the United States allying throughout the Second World War with its putative eternal ideological rival, and getting along just fine with Uncle Joe as long as was necessary to defeat Hitler. You have the United States allying from the early '70s on with an ideological nut case in China that was even more aggressive and Communist than the Soviets.
So, how much was ideology actually important in the Cold War, as opposed to geopolitical maneuvering?
TAUBMAN: Well, I think—we talked about this, or the previous panel did. I think you have to make distinctions. One of the things one thinks about first under the heading of ideology is doctrine and long-term goals—you know, the Communism—the spread of Communism, for example, if one is looking at the Soviet side—were some of the fine points of doctrine which seemed looming.
I don't think "doctrine" in that sense was very important. I think it was more sort of categories of mind, assumptions about the other side and about yourself and about the conflict. The notion, for example, that I believe all the Soviet leaders had up until Gorbachev that this was some kind of class conflict between the forces of socialism, Communism and capitalism.
Gorbachev changed that and started talking about the universal values that we all share and that we all ought to be attentive to. But that notion—the enemy or the adversary seen through the ideological lens would never—or would only with great difficulty—come across and work out a permanent solution with you, a permanent coexistence, because he couldn't do it, given his ideology and his hostility to yours and all the rest.
So in that way, I think it loomed very large in creating the sort of deep-seated suspicions on both sides that were so hard to get beyond. But within that framework, as somebody on the previous panel said, these are nation-states. These are politicians. These are statesmen. And they're maneuvering in the way that such people always do.
SURI: So I think there's a natural tendency, right, for a large power like the United States, when facing an enemy, an adversary, to try to find allies. I mean, that's explainable in a world of real-politik. What is unique, and what I think makes the United States hyper-ideological, and perhaps the Soviets were as well, is that not only do we seek to secure geopolitical influence, we seek to remake societies in our own image.
If you look at the history of other empires, they don't do that. They create hierarchies, differentiation and heterogeneity. That's how the British empire operated, in a world of heterogeneous entities. We seek to make the world homogeneous, to make it look like us. The Marshall Plan is one example of that.
You might be able to explain that largely out of real-politik. But then if you find how that model is continuously referred to and applied by Americans in other parts of the world, up through the post-Cold War, right, the notion of remaking the world to look like us it seems to me as central to the way Americans think about foreign policy from the 18th century. It's there at the founding of the Council, right, the Wilsonian foundations of the Council. And it carries on forward to the 20th century.
So it's hard for me to explain American foreign policy without ideology. But I think where you have the debates are between the ideological and the interest positions. And of course, the most effective policymakers bring those two together.
TAUBMAN: And, of course, the Soviets are doing the same thing.
SURI: I think so.
ROSE: So Graham, OK, to you, because you did an entire book on the Cuban missile crisis. This summer, we're all talking about the anniversary of the July crisis—the 100th centenary. Could you—you know, does the fact thatthe Cuban missile crisis played out between the leading Communist power and the leading capitalist power, does that make any difference at all? Or is it just a crisis like the July crisis?
ALLISON: Extremely good question, and it's complicated, as you suggest. I would say that the place to start, though, is that this was in the American perception a conflict with an evil empire. If you read NSC 68, this is evil incarnate, as Reagan eventually calls it. And from our perspective, we were the free world.
These were not just labels at the time. This was the—was a substantial part of the motivation. If you go back to Kennan's long telegram, he says, "This is a regime that's incompatible with us. We cannot live with this." And even Forrestal says, "It's going to be worse than the Nazis", as a threat to us.
From their perspective, as I think Jeremi rightly says, we were about transforming their world. So, they were Communism, ideology, on the march, attempting to imagine that they were going to transform the world to be in their image. We, the opposite of it. And I think the ideological component of it was an essential element through most of the period.
Now, in fact, we were simultaneously working—this goes to your next battle—to undermine their conception of, or their performance as a society, because ultimately what the call to war was about was about the same old war aims—either transforming or destroying a regime that we regarded as inimical to our interests.
And lo and behold, there was a strategy that even was then reflected in a structure and performance, in which lo and behold, market economies beat command-and-control economies. Free and democratic societies provide more for people than what the authoritarian or totalitarian system did. And when the wall comes down and people are rushing west, they're looking for bananas as well as freedom.
If it had turned out that actually our society didn't work better, this would have been a different story.
TAUBMAN: Very quick point for Dr. Kissinger this afternoon. Isn't his period of pursuit, of detente, an exception to this kind of rule? Was the Nixon administration really trying to destroy, undermine the Soviet system? Or was it trying to work out rules of the road for competing with it?
ROSE: Good question for Henry.
ROSE: By the way, I used to love to give this last question that we talked about—as an essay question for students saying: When did the Cold—what are the dates of the Cold War? And if you just simply ask them to give years, it began in year X. What year did the Cold War begin and what year did the Cold War end?
And, you know, they think of it first, the stupid students, as if it's a history question with just a what was the date. And then the smarter ones recognize that it's actually an essay question because the year you pick determines the factors that you think define the Cold War. Is it about the Soviet Union? Is it 1917? Is it 1945? (inaudible) 1947?
And the same thing with the ending. How you define what the role of ideology versus power and things like that tells you about the definition of what the war was about and when it started and ended.
OK. At this point, I could talk with these guys forever, but we're going to bring you guys in as well to let you talk with them. So, we're going to now throw it open to questions and discussion from the floor. A reminder, this is on the record. Wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation, and ask one concise question.
With that, we'll go there first, and then here.
QUESTION: I'm Marty Gross from Sandalwood.
As I was listening to this, I was fascinated by something that popped into my head. And I kind of looked at the...
ROSE: That's a typical Council-member question.
QUESTION: I know. I know. Let me tell you what it was and then you can judge it. OK?
I kind of saw the Cold War as like a system or web of relationships that had the potential for extreme outcomes that tried to be managed. And then I just kind of thought about the financial crisis. And that was another web of relationships that ended up producing an extreme outcome. And you can say that the financial crisis had an extreme outcome because they didn't manage a Lehman. But the Cold War didn't have a strategic—a disastrous outcome because they could manage Cuba. OK?
So, I'm just wondering, to what extent you think about what happened in the Cold War as this kind of system, like many other systems, that ended up not producing an extreme outcome, but easily could have maybe in a one-out-of-three have produced an extreme outcome? And how you might analogize other types of systems and relationships that can produce extreme outcomes when you think about the Cold War and what did or didn't happen there?
ROSE: Well, this is a question Nicholas Taleb has written in his book, "Antifragile." And the question is some systems are prone to sort of flying out of hand, and some systems have homeostatic factors that compress them into a thing. And this was the gist of the odds question, which is: How do you know whether the fact that we escaped was just a lucky accident or the operation of a system that dampened risk and controlled it?
The financial system, when we were in the great moderation and everything was going wonderfully before the financial crisis, only a lunatic said, "Oh, the long tail is going to come out and blow us all up." But, you know, so the question...
SURI: So—so, the historian's bias to this very good question is to say that no system manages itself. I think this is mythical, the notion that you can have a self-managing system, right? It's a sort of a world of deism that doesn't—that probably doesn't exist, right? But by the same token, most systems are not prone to every catastrophe possible all the time, right?
So what I say and the reason that I'm in this business is because I think the managers, the leaders, the diplomats, right, that's a key concept we don't talk enough about in American society—the importance of diplomats. Those individuals have to do three things that were done relatively well by leaders during the Cold War.
One, they have to read the system. They have to understand how it works. They have to have the theory. Two, they have to understand what their values and goals are. What do they care about? And it can't just be to perpetuate the system or perpetuate their own bottom lines. And third, they have to find partners to work with in managing the system. No system can be managed by one person. No person is strong enough to do that.
Those are the key issues. I think that's why we educate people in history, so they can do those things—read the system, work with others, and find a way to define your values in that system. In that sense, I think the analogy works from the Cold War to the financial.
TAUBMAN: On a slightly lighter note, I have before me the text of Vladimir Putin's speech in Sochi on October 24th, a very interesting speech, very scary in many ways. But at one point, he says this about how the Cold War was managed. He refers to the fact that "the rules governing international relations after World War II were designed for a bipolar world. Maybe so, and there loads of missiles. Besides, we had such brilliant politicians like Nikita Khruschev who hammered the desk with his shoe at the U.N. And the whole world, primarily the United States and NATO, thought this Nikita is best left alone. He might just go and fire a missile. They have lots of them. We had better show some respect for that."
ROSE: The madman theory, from Putin.
ROSE: Graham, you want to jump in on this?
ALLISON: So just—I—I liked Jeremi's answer. I think right on. I think that in the—and I think the analogy is worth it to pursue. In managing systems that have risks of failure, you can have a checklist of it. In part, you build in objective factors that make the risks of failure smaller.
So for example, after the Cuban missile crisis, having discovered that the local commander could have used the nuclear weapons themselves, we put on electronic locking devices or PELs, in which this is not left to the discretion of every colonel or every major. If you would imagine letting it play for a while without any locks, you would stay more likely to get a failure.
Secondly, you try to develop circuit-breakers so that if something bad happens, it doesn't cascade to something worse. That's about the financial systems.
And third, you have then good management of the system, where they—where there's an appreciation of constraints and when new things are unexpected, things happen. People try to cope. I would say that we were quite fortunate that in the missile crisis and in several of the other episodes, leaders acted better than you would want to count on as average in history.
ROSE: Over here.
QUESTION: Steven Schlesinger from the Century Foundation.
How much of a role did the United Nations play in managing the Cold War? Now, obviously before, the League of Nations had been a failure, but the U.N. is still surviving today. What factors did the U.N. play in ameliorating or at least reducing the tensions during that period?
SURI: So, I wouldn't claim the U.N. was the major actor or even one of the most important actors. But I think it still played a crucial role in three ways. One, it provided a forum even for adversaries to talk; an environment in which they could talk and sometimes even negotiate, as happened during the Cuban missile crisis and U Thant's role.
Second, I think the United Nations played an educational role. It had a public legitimacy and it brought others into the system. It also created a self-criticism within the system. And then third, I don't—I don't think we should underplay the role that the health and welfare agencies within the United Nations played—the World Health Organization. And then if we want to include the IAEA and other organizations like that that played an allied role with the United Nations in managing the system, I think that's significant.
Again, the U.N. is not the key actor, but I think we were lucky to have it and I think it contributed to the stability in the Cold War that Gideon was talking about.
TAUBMAN: That's quite true. It's interesting that you emphasize the positive because I think for much of the Cold War, the view would have been the United Nations was mainly an arena in which the Cold War was fought. And sometimes its own leaders became the issue in the Cold War—thinking back to my hero, Khruschev's suggestion that the secretary general—secretary general be replaced by a three-headed monster. And—and the charges that Dag Hammarskjold was favorable to the West and that sort of thing.
So like so much of what we've talked about today, there are two sides to the story.
ROSE: OK. Next question? In the back there.
QUESTION: (inaudible). You're talking about management of the system. I'm thinking ahead to later today—Henry Kissinger in his book "Diplomacy," talks about the balance of power—(inaudible), Metternich and so on, and talks about how to deal with revolutionary governments who won't play by those rules. And the Soviet Union would be one obvious example of that.
Over the span of, you know, from Stalin to Gorbachev, do you think that Kissinger's theories—sorry, much simplified—work? And how do you think that the Soviet Union changed from being a revolutionary government, in his terms, to a government that would play the rules of the balance of power?
ROSE: And I'll take the speaker's prerogative to broaden it and allow you to consider whether the United States was at any point or all points during this period a revolutionary power itself.
SURI: So, it's a big question. I think the United States has always been a revolutionary power. I think we still are a revolutionary power for the point I made before, that...
TAUBMAN: So we can't be managed?
SURI: Sometimes we can. If we don't manage ourselves, it's very hard for anyone else to manage us. And this is the peril of being so powerful. We create as many problems as we solve, right? We're a revolutionary power because we believe fundamentally—I've written a whole book arguing this—that the world should be made in our image. It's hard to find Americans who don't believe that. That's why realism has never really been mainstream in the United States.
Now, the question of Kissinger is really interesting, because he is a realist, of course. I would argue two things. And I've argued this at more length in my book about Henry. And he disagrees with it, so he'll say the opposite when you ask him.
But my—my argument is, and I try—I take Henry very seriously—I think his vision of the world was one that presumed the United States was often on the wrong side of history. And he was brilliant—brilliant at managing what he thought were historical currents working against us.
ROSE: Managing—he thought he was managing decline and in fact we were triumphing.
SURI: Yes, or we weren't declining in the way he thought we were declining, and the world's more complex, right? Things don't just go down and up. They go in many different directions at one time. And—and so he was brilliant at managing a difficult situation. He was probably the best person to be in power in the late '60s and early '70s, if you think of what American society looked like. And he's remained influential because of his unique perspective.
But I don't always think it's an actionable perspective for the American public and for a world where American power has more—more purposes other than just managing America's position in the world.
ROSE: (inaudible) the Soviets revolutionary (inaudible)?
TAUBMAN: Well, you have to distinguish between two meanings or senses of the word "revolutionary." One would be promoting revolutions within countries around the world. And I think that slowed down pretty quickly, and even Stalin was, as we said before, not promoting them in a place where we feared he might in Western Europe.
And Khruschev was more interested in revolutions in third world countries. By the time Brezhnev came along, I think it was Soviet influence in the third world that he was trying to promote. But that was also revolutionary in the sense of changing potentially the balance of power.
On the other hand, think about Eastern Europe. And for Europe as a whole, the Soviet Union wanted the preservation of the status quo in Eastern Europe—the recognition of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and in East Germany. And it was the West that was trying to figure out, whether through Ostpolitik engagement or other means, to destabilize the status quo in Eastern Europe.
So again, it gets complicated and cuts more than one way.
ROSE: What? You think Ostpolitik was designed to undermine the status quo as opposed to ratify it?
TAUBMAN: Well, it was designed to bring about a major change in Eastern Europe in the long run through engagement with...
ROSE: (inaudible). I always thought it was just Germany's attempt to appease and get through the short term.
TAUBMAN: You'll have to ask a German expert.
ALLISON: Gideon, let me pick up on that, because I think the proposition that the U.S. is a revolutionary nation is not often appreciated sufficiently by Americans.
Henry's version of it is that in the competition with China, fortunately only one of the parties is a missionary. That is, it wants to remake other societies. In the case of the Cold War, there was always a significant ideological component.
And even during the periods of detente, actually we were working quite hard to the original proposition to show that over time, the Western societies' ways of ordering the world in terms of a market economy and democracy, were better than the competition. And to communicate that to folks in the Soviet Union, first to demonstrate the fact, then to communicate it in a way that would erode.
So if you go back to the Reagan administration, where I served, there was a secret strategy which talked about deterrence and talked about negotiating disagreements, but had a third element that's now declassified—you could look at the documents—that said "undermining." So undermining was always a crucial element of it.
And by the end of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, as Bill and I have discussed before, I think he was the last Soviet man. There was nobody that believed in the ideology of Marxist-Leninism that motivated quite a lot of people in 1945, '46, '47, '48, but by the end was basically hollow.
SURI: I think, if might, defer—detente was a period when we were still trying to change the Soviet Union, but there was less optimism that we could change them 100 percent in our direction. I'll remind everyone that one of the big phrases during the 1970s was "convergence"—that these systems were converging.
And I think what Graham is talking about was the American strategy—Henry's strategy to try to have the convergence be more in our direction; but there was still the presumption of convergence, not victory.
ROSE: I would have put the (inaudible) policy, again as a kind of temporary (inaudible).
TAUBMAN: I just wanted to say that again, if you say Gorbachev was the last Soviet man, you have to define "Soviet." Because Gorbachev was not the last Soviet man in the tradition of people in the Politburo or who were, like Brezhnev and Suslov and the others who had internalized "Soviet" to mean state socialism and aggressive foreign policy.
Gorbachev was a Soviet man in what he took to be the original spirit of the revolution as visible in Lenin's last writings, although not his earliest ones; as visible in Bukharin's criticism of Stalin. Gorbachev had come, in effect, a kind of dissident, but still thinking that was encompassable in the right view of what the Soviet Union was all about or should have been.
ROSE: With regard to this question of the United States as a revolutionary power and its dealings with Russia and who was provoking whom, I urge you all, if you haven't, to follow the debate that's going on in Foreign Affairs now with John Mearsheimer and Steve Sestanovich and Mike McFaul about how much the West is to blame versus the Russians for the Ukraine crisis.
And—because Mearsheimer is putting forward this notion that we were the ones who ultimately provoked this crisis by pushing into the Russian sphere and destabilizing things, and that they're reacting defensively. And Sestanovich and McFaul are saying, "Oh, that's hooey and ridiculous."
TAUBMAN: You know, in the previous panel, I think it was Mel who said we really shouldn't think of this as a new Cold War akin to the old one. This is a new situation because in large part ideology is absent in the way it used to be present.
But there is that other level of Soviet thinking which is visible in Putin's thinking. And it takes the form of a kind of cynicism about the way the world operates, which is that everybody is the same. We lie. You lie. We push you. You push us. And therefore when you in the United States claim that you are above and beyond this and more noble than most, you're just not telling the truth. And we're pointing out to the world what you really are, and you're no better than us.
ROSE: Let's take one more question from the floor.
Yes, over here?
QUESTION: Herbert Levin.
I think you may have neglected some of the personalities in this, in favor of the institutions and the great forces. If you want to go a little further back, certainly Eisenhower stopped the Korean war. First of all, he had contempt for MacArthur and his bad handling of the armed forces there, and also, MacArthur's desire to invade North Korea and exterminate them instead of simply fighting back to the 38th.
What did he do? He accepted the North Korean terms which they'd offered two years before, which Truman probably would have been impeached for accepting. But he got out of that. Part of that was his World War I experience.
ROSE: And Herb, your question is?
QUESTION: You're not the only one who talks at great length, Gideon.
QUESTION: Second, you have the personality of Dulles, who threatened to use nukes to save Kinmen and Matsu, which were inhabited, by the way. And then he threatened to use nukes to save the French in Dienbienphu, which Eisenhower thought was idiocy, even though the Navy and the Air Force thought it was a good idea. The Army thought it was a bad idea.
The point is the personalities of these individuals. Eisenhower's experience in the First World War, his contempt for MacArthur; Dulles's infatuation with nukes—had tremendous affect on these things quite separate from analyzing the correlation of forces and the institutions involved.
And I wonder if you haven't neglected those aspects of the Cold War.
TAUBMAN: Well, I certainly tried to talk about the personalities on the Soviet side. And I would leave the personalities on the American side to historians of the United States and its foreign policy.
SURI: I couldn't agree with you more, Herb. I mean, I think personalities matter enormously. They're not the whole game. Sometimes they matter more than other times. I think this fits with Graham's point about how a system has different moments of circuit-break, with different moments of change.
But, I mean, to connect it to our star this afternoon, Henry Kissinger, I mean, my entire book about him argues that he is motivated by his own experiences growing up in the Holocaust, when he looks out at the world. And that experience as a German Jewish refugee never leaves him. I don't think you can understand why he does what he does without that, but I don't think that determines the choices he makes.
So it's part of who he is and it's part of how he interacts and thinks about things like democracy, how he thinks about Communism, how he thinks about Soviet leaders, how he thinks about the role of Germany and China in the world. China, for him, is the Germany of Asia. It's the cultural center. It's the civilizational center of Asia. It makes perfect sense in his world view and everything he writes is about that.
So personality I think does matter. But I think what's interesting, then, is how the personalities interact with the institutions and the circumstances. And I think that's what we've been—what we've been talking about.
ROSE: Graham, you want to chip in on this for a final word?
ALLISON: I don't think I can do better than Jeremi's summary. I think that you've got the combination of factors. And I think while it's good to start with the structural realities because they shape maybe in many instances 80 percent of the determination; in some 50 percent of the determination, the personalities matter a lot.
And if you think of somebody different—I think Herb's question is a good one—if it had been Truman reelected, he would not have been able to do what Eisenhower did. Eisenhower, coming both with his views and with his credibility was able to do things. I think if you can go back to the debate about Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam, and I think if you jump to 2003, you can't imagine an attack on Saddam by Al Gore if the Supreme Court had voted differently.
So I think personalities end up making a huge difference.
ROSE: Somebody once said that all Jewish holidays could be summed up succinctly: They tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat.
That's true of this conference as well. Before we get to the eating part, however, there is a third session. And the session's going to be on the end of the Cold War with Bob Blackwill, Vitali Churkin, Frank Elbe and Mary Sarotte. We'll begin in fifteen minutes at 11:15, and we hope you join us for that, too.