January 13, 2019


The Lethal Crescent: Where the Cold War was hot. : a review of THE COLD WAR'S KILLING FIELDS: RETHINKING THE LONG PEACE by Paul Thomas Chamberlin  (Daniel Immerwahr, DECEMBER 20, 2018, The Nation)

Scholars still debate why the Cold War stayed cold. Gaddis, like Orwell, emphasized nuclear weapons, which forced caution on the superpowers. Unwilling to gamble on all-out war, Washington and Moscow sought to contain, not destroy, each other, and they largely stuck to their own spheres of influence. They pressed frequently on the boundaries of those spheres, but just as often, they backed down from conflict.

That pattern can be seen clearly in the first true Cold War crisis in Europe, Joseph Stalin's 1948 blockade of the Western-controlled parts of Berlin, a city located in the middle of the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. Harry Truman could have gone to war over this, but he didn't. Instead, he responded with a creative workaround, a round-the-clock stream of planes that flew 2.3 million tons of supplies to the city's sealed-off sectors. In a swaggering show of abundance, one squadron developed the habit of parachuting candy to Berlin's overjoyed children. For his part, Stalin could have shot the planes down, but he didn't. Instead, after 11 humiliating months and more than a quarter-million overflights, he reopened the roads. Not a single shot was fired.

But is Berlin a good stand-in for the entire Cold War? Perhaps not. Just as Stalin and Truman were facing off over that contested capital, a similar showdown was taking place nearly 5,000 miles away in Changchun, a prosperous provincial capital in Manchuria. As with Berlin, communist forces--this time under the leadership of Mao Zedong--controlled the zone around the city, but Changchun itself remained under the control of Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang government. As with Berlin, Mao closed the roads to the city.

Yet here this tale of two cities diverges. Mao didn't expect Chiang to relinquish Changchun peacefully. Rather, the point of his five-month blockade was (as one of Mao's generals put it) to "turn Changchun into a city of death." The trapped, starved, and freezing residents started dying in the streets. "There were corpses everywhere," recalled the general charged with defending the city. "It had become a living tomb." The siege very likely killed more people than the bombing of Hiroshima did, with estimates between 120,000 and 200,000.

Many more people died in the campaign that followed. On the eve of his victory, Mao bragged to Stalin that his forces had killed more than 5 million since 1946, though between 2 million and 2.5 million killed on all sides seems like a sturdier number. But however many millions of people died, one thing was clear: The contrast between Berlin and Changchun--planes dropping candy versus corpses in the streets--represented a larger divide. The Cold War in Europe may have been a patient chess game, or a Long Peace. But in Asia, it was a bloodbath.

Paul Chamberlin's eye-opening The Cold War's Killing Fields offers us a precise, painful account of the Cold War as narrated from the Changchuns of the world rather than the Berlins. His focus is not on the capitals where grand strategies were spun, as in Gaddis's telling, but on the blood-soaked locales where those strategies took their greatest toll. By Chamberlin's calculations, more than 20 million people died in conflicts related to the Cold War.

What makes the Cold War so deeply unjust is that we had the capacity to end it throughout.  The reality of Mutual Assured Destruction was that both US and Russian leaders were assured that only the latter was mortally threatened.  Had Curtis LeMay been allowed to decapitate the regime in the 40s-50s untold millions of lives could have been saved, along with incalculable levels of human suffering:

The General and World War III: Curtis LeMay believed that the only sure nuclear defense was to launch a preëmptive first strike. During the Cuban missile crisis, he almost did it. (Richard Rhodes, 6/19/95, The New Yorker)

[W]hen LeMay took his ideas for a sac war plan to his superiors in the Air Force, he proposed that "the primary mission of sac should be to establish a force in being capable of dropping 80% of the stockpile in one mission." By then he was confident, he assured them, that "the next war will be primarily a strategic air war and the atomic attack should be laid down in a matter of hours." The Air Force agreed: the plan that resulted entailed destroying seventy Soviet cities in thirty days with a hundred and thirty-three atomic bombs, causing up to 2.7 million deaths and another four million casualties. American air-power strategists had a name for such an attack as LeMay was proposing: "killing a nation."

In the spring of 1953, a committee headed by retired Air Force General James Doolittle proposed giving the Russians a two-year deadline to come to terms and attacking them if they failed to do so (thus using the wasting asset to force a decision). The following year, President Eisenhower rejected this bizarre nuclear ultimatum and issued an updated Basic National Security Policy statement: "The United States and its allies must reject the concept of preventive war or acts intended to provoke war."

At the outset of the Korean War, in 1950, LeMay had asked the Pentagon, as he said later, to "turn sac loose with incendiaries" on North Korea; Truman's advisers had rejected such a blitzkrieg of mass destruction. sac was ultimately authorized to bomb urban and rural North Korea anyway, piecemeal, and carried out its assignment brutally, burning out cities and breaking big agricultural dams, scouring out entire valleys of peasant villages and rice paddies as far as twenty-seven miles downstream, spreading the agony across the years of war. More than two million North Korean civilians died in that campaign, a little-known toll comparable to civilian losses in Japan during the Second World War. "Over a period of three years or so," LeMay remembered, "we killed off--what--twenty percent of the population of [North] Korea. . . . This seemed to be acceptable to everybody; but to kill a few people at the start right away, no, we can't seem to stomach that." Such inconsistencies further undermined LeMay's trust in Presidential decisiveness. If deterrence had to be his formal strategy, he would also prepare darker strategies against the hazard that deterrence might fail.

Since preventive war was not an available remedy to the enlarging Soviet capacity for a first strike, sac was authorized to plan for preëmption--for beating the Soviet forces to the punch if intelligence indicated they were beginning a first strike. The C.I.A. estimated that the Soviet Union would need a month to assemble and deliver its small stock of nuclear weapons. The Joint Chiefs ordered sac to assign highest priority to a "blunting mission" that would take out Soviet airfields first upon Presidential determination that a Soviet attack had begun, followed by attacks on advancing Soviet troops, followed finally by attacks on cities and government control centers.

LeMay had no interest in dribbling out his forces on three disparate missions. The Soviets might need a month in 1954 to deliver their arsenal of about a hundred and fifty atomic bombs; his thousand and eight bomber crews, once deployed, could deliver as many as seven hundred and fifty bombs in a few hours. The sac commander continued to believe obstinately that the most effective attack would be his "Sunday punch": simultaneous assault from all sides with everything in the stockpile. According to documents analyzed in International Security by the defense consultant David Alan Rosenberg, Captain William Brigham Moore, a Navy officer, attended a sac standard briefing on March 15, 1954, kept notes, and came away appalled: "The final impression was that virtually all of Russia would be nothing but a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours." During the post-briefing question period, someone asked LeMay what course he would advocate if hostilities were renewed in Korea--by then at truce. He answered that he would drop a few bombs in China, Manchuria, and southeastern Russia. "In those 'poker games,' " the Navy captain quotes LeMay, "such as Korea and Indo-China [where the French were then engaged], we . . . have never raised the ante--we have always just called the bet. We ought to try raising sometime."

By 1954, Curtis LeMay had apparently begun raising the ante with the Soviet Union on his own, covertly and extralegally. Reconnaissance overflights of the Soviet Union had begun no later than 1950. LeMay used these flights not only to gather electronic and photographic intelligence; he also used them to probe Soviet air defenses, knowing as he did so that he might be provoking war. There is testimony that he may have meant to do just that. If he could not initiate preventive war, he seems to have concluded, he might be able to push the Soviets to sufficiently high levels of alert to justify launching a full preëmptive attack. He linked reconnaissance with provocation in an interview after he retired:

There was a time in the 1950s when we could have won a war against Russia. It would have cost us essentially the accident rate of the flying time, because their defenses were pretty weak. One time in the 1950s we flew all of the reconnaissance aircraft that SAC possessed over Vladivostok at high noon. Two reconnaissance airplanes saw MiGs, but there were no interceptions made. It was well planned, too--crisscrossing paths of all the reconnaissance airplanes. Each target was hit by at least two, and usually three, reconnaissance airplanes to make sure we got pictures of it. We practically mapped the place up there with no resistance at all. We could have launched bombing attacks, planned and executed just as well, at that time.

Soviet defense forces had no way of knowing if LeMay's crisscrossing reconnaissance aircraft carried nuclear weapons or not. If Soviet aircraft had crisscrossed American cities under similar circumstances, sac would certainly have preëmpted. The Soviets hunkered down, because they had no adequate response, but their lack of defenses predictably emboldened LeMay.

In 1954, LeMay remarked to a reconnaissance pilot whose plane had been damaged by a MiG-17 while over the Soviet Union, "Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started." The pilot, Hal Austin, told the documentary filmmaker Paul Lashmar that he assumed LeMay was joking, but years later, after LeMay retired, Austin saw him again and "brought up the subject of the mission we had flown. And he remembered it like it was yesterday. We chatted about it a little bit. His comment again was, 'Well, we'd have been a hell of a lot better off if we'd got World War III started in those days.' "

Unfortunately, not only did we fail to end the Soviet ,Union we also pretended that they were our peers.  Not only did we treat them as if they were a serious threat, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis--when we could have destroyed them with impunity--we also treated them like a plausible regime:

Kissinger regularly mixed violence and the threat of it with diplomacy, so that the diplomacy had credibility. He preserved what he saw as the legitimate order, in which the Soviet Union was both contained and accepted, so that revolutionary chaos was confined to the edges of the superpower battlefield, in the Third World. (In perceiving the Soviet Union as permanent, orderly, and legitimate, Kissinger shared a failure of analysis with the rest of the foreign-policy elite -- notably excepting the scholar and former head of the State Department's policy-planning staff George Kennan, the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, the British scholar and journalist Bernard Levin, and the Eureka College graduate Ronald Reagan.)

While RWR obviously deserves great credit for reversing the narrative and denying their permanence and legitimacy, he was, unfortunately, a leader among those who elevated them as a military threat.  Essentially, we ended up with a dynamic where left, right and center over-estimated the USSR all for their various--often conflicting--purposes, making the USA an effective guarantor of the manifestly failed evil state.

Bill Kristol's most recent Conversations, with Stephen Rosen touches on many of these themes before getting to China.  Like the Cold Warriors before him, Mr. Rosen overestimates the potential of the PRC (the size of the economy of 1.3 billion people can look large, but it masks a GDP per capita of $9k in a state with imploding demographics), but he does plumb its greatest weakness: The Party is terrified of its own citizenry in a way that it is not clear the Soviets ever were.  They spend as much or more on internal security as they do on external.  This affords us tremendous opportunities.  Besides supporting independent nationhood for Hong Kong, Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet and Uighurstan, the removal of the North Korean regime would serve to destabilize China proper and we could make disrupting the Great Firewall a focus of our military policy. As important as any concrete actions is a change in our rhetoric. Rather than treat them as a Great Power, as we did the USSR, we need to constantly diminish them and aggresively deny their legitimacy and potential for any future significance. They are a fine source of cheap labor, but little more, and as we develop other Third World countries and switch to robotics they'll be displaced from even that minimal role.

Posted by at January 13, 2019 8:03 AM