Typically propaganda is thought of as being directed by governments against their own populations – one thinks of the crude propaganda of Pravda or JFK’s phony ‘missile gap’. However, there are many cases where the target of propaganda is not the general populace, but rather the political-military elite itself. Here propaganda has two roles: the first is to ease the cognitive dissonance experienced by members of the elite (reality often having the unfortunate tendency of being inconvenient for political and military leaders). The second is to win over, or marginalise, those members of the elite who dissent regarding a given policy.
In April 1950 the US National Security Council issued National Security Council Report-68 (NSC-68). A top secret document described by one of its authors as being ‘clearer than truth’ and by another as designed to ‘bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’‘. Produced in the climate of deteriorating relations between the Western allies and the Soviet Union in the early post-war era, key factors that precipitated the drafting of the document were the Berlin blockade, the ‘loss’ of China, and the successful and unexpected Soviet nuclear test of 1949. In response NSC-68 called for huge expansion of US military capabilities. The authors of NSC-68 justified its recommendations through their assessment of the military strength of the Soviet Union, and the alleged strategic objectives of the USSR. Regarding the military question, NSC-68 promulgated the view that, unless the United States changed course, the superiority of American capabilities would be rapidly eroded by rising Soviet military power. It further asserted that the Soviet Union was aiming to ‘create overwhelming military force’ and that Soviet capabilities in 1950 were far in excess of any possible defence requirements – indicating that the Soviet Union intended to use its forces to intimidate and aggress.
NSC-68’s authors asserted that while the first priority of the Soviet leadership was maintenance of control of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the regime aimed at eventual world domination and was bent on the subversion of all non-communist societies. As a consequence of its globalist ambitions the writers of NSC-68 claimed that the Soviet Union had ‘consistently pursued a bold foreign policy’.
Soviet Military Capabilities
NSC-68’s claim that Soviet military spending was eroding the gap between the two powers was controversial even within US policy making circles. Prior to its drafting Dean Acheson (himself a member of the NSC-68 study group) had remarked ‘that the passage of time steadily increases the power of the Soviet Union, that is a matter about which I think there is very great doubt’. The alleged decline in the scale of US military superiority was also questioned by George Kennan and the Bureau of the Budget which argued that there was little basis to the claim that the gap between the two states was narrowing.
The figures used to describe the actual strength of Soviet forces were highly questionable. For instance the authors claimed that the Soviets had 175 divisions under arms, yet only a third of those were at full strength and many of the divisions existed only on paper. Moreover simply collating the number of western and Soviet divisions to assess comparative troop strength was, methodologically, a highly dubious way of determining the Soviet Union’s military strength, since Soviet divisions were not as large as their western counterparts, and typically had much inferior logistical support.
While NSC-68 diagnosed a Soviet drive for military parity, and the desire on the part of the Soviets to create “overwhelming military force”, the Soviets in fact carried out significant demobilization of their forces in the late 40s and production of Soviet arms was greatly reduced after the war. In fact the post-war Soviet military build-up did not occur in the late 1940s but rather after the Korean war and following the US implementation of the recommendations of NSC-68. The economic data on the Soviet economy presented by the study group was also of doubtful value since the statistics presented for Soviet industrial production were merely Soviet targets.
Regarding Soviet nuclear capabilities NSC-68 stated that the Soviet Union was capable of launching nuclear attacks against American targets. Strictly speaking this was true, however the Soviet Union’s nuclear delivery system in 1950 was the reverse engineered US B-29 – the unreliable TU-4 ‘Bull’ which had insufficient range to return to the Soviet Union following the delivery of its payload. The study group claimed that by 1954 the Soviet Union would be able to do serious damage to ‘vital centers of the United States’ yet Soviet ability to launch a meaningful first strike remained in doubt as late as the early 1960s. In his memoirs Nikita Khrushchev recalled his acid response to the TU-4’s designer’s suggestion that the bombers might land in Mexico after deliverance of their nuclear payload: ‘What do you think Mexico is—our mother-in-law? You think we can go calling any time we want?’
What is most striking about the military analysis offered by the authors of NSC-68 is that NSC-68’s depiction of Soviet military capabilities and Soviet intent largely eschewed political and historical factors, favouring instead an essentially statistical approach. The inadequacy of this bean counting methodology can be illustrated by contemplating the strategic situation WWII had bequeathed the USSR.
Devastated by the Nazi invasion, much of the Western Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was in ruins in the post-war period, and as a consequence much of the Soviet military was diverted from military duties to reconstruction work. Moreover, in contrast to their counterparts in the West, the Soviet military in the conquered territories were also occupied with political responsibilities in maintaining control of populations that were by no means friendly to the Soviet state. Hungary and Romania had fought on the side of Nazi Germany deep within Soviet territory and sectors of the populations of the Western Soviet republics had welcomed the German invaders as liberators from the very real terrors of Stalinist rule. As a consequence, in the post-war period, Soviet forces were engaged in counterinsurgency operations against anti-communist partisans in the Ukraine and the other, rather reluctant, western constituent republics of the Soviet Union. Indeed the loyalty of the population of many of the western Soviet republics was considered so questionable by Stalin that he ordered much of the population deported to Siberia (another non-military task delegated to the Red Army). The lack of popular support also had implications regarding the supposed allies of the USSR – Czech and Polish troops were considered to be of doubtful loyalty (especially unsurprising in the latter case given the NKVD’s massacre of half the Polish officer corps at Katyn and possible Soviet collusion in Nazi Germany’s crushing of the Warsaw Uprising). The authors of NSC-68 simply ignored these factors, preferring to enumerate Soviet forces, massaging the statistics as they went, in order to make the Soviet military look rather more fearsome than it actually was, thereby making the redeployment of Soviet forces for offensive operations in the West appear to be a realistic prospect.
Even if one ignores the political and historical dimensions it is by no means clear that the Soviets could have easily conquered Western Europe as NSC-68 claimed – since, contrary to the standard picture, there was near parity of forces between East and West. Whilst NSC-68 did its best to portray the Soviet Union as a military behemoth capable of conquering Western Europe almost at will, Soviet military capabilities were in fact rather more analogous to those of a second order power such as Great Britain than to those of the United States. Crucially the Soviets lacked anything akin to the power projection capabilities that the American military possessed in abundance.
In a detailed analysis of Soviet capabilities in the 1950s Gareth Porter noted that the gap in military power between the United States and the Soviet Union was of such magnitude that it simply had no analogue in the modern era. That the United States enjoyed such enormous superiority in the 1950s suggests that the NSC-68 advocated military build-up had not averted the danger of eventual Soviet-American parity, but rather that it had served simply to increase what was already an enormous (and historically unprecedented) degree of military superiority which was not in danger of seriously shifting in favour of the Soviet Union.
It is difficult to believe that the Soviet Union at this stage had the militant goals ascribed to it by NSC-68 since it was invariably the case that instances of ‘Soviet expansionism’ occurred in reaction to the moves of the United States and her Western European allies. Moreover the allegedly expansionist acts of the Soviet Union were confined to eastern Europe which the Kremlin regarded as its legitimate sphere of influence (much as the United States routinely interfered in the internal affairs of Latin American states). Outside of Eastern Europe the Soviet Union was notably cautious. This reflected the fact that, by the late 40s, the USSR’s revolutionary ambitions were more a matter of prestige and propaganda than a factual reality.
The key example of alleged Soviet expansionism is the Sovietization of East Germany and the blockade of West Berlin. Whilst the establishment of the GDR in 1949 (following the establishment of West Germany the same year) did represent an extension of Soviet power into the heart of Europe, to portray Soviet moves to create its German satellite as unprovoked expansionism is to ignore quite real Soviet security fears and highly provocative moves on the part of the western powers that preceded the Sovietization of the eastern zone.
Having been invaded twice by Germany within living memory, the Soviet Union’s leaders desired (not least to maintain their own brutal rule at home) a neutralised Germany and friendly states on their borders. However much these goals may have been in conflict with the desires of the population of Eastern Europe (and any notion of democracy) these were objectives which the Western powers had appeared to accede to with the war time ‘percentages agreement’ and the acknowledgement of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe at Yalta. The Western allies had also agreed to the provision of significant reparations from the Western zones of Germany to the Soviets as well as agreeing to the ‘decartelization’ of the German economy in order to break the power of the big industrial combines that had been key enablers of the German war effort.
Under pressure from US business interests, the United States and Britain reneged on the decartelization plan. The American U-turn on German industry was recognised by the US branch decartelization chief as representing a betrayal of the Soviets. Prioritising the economic recovery of Western Europe the Americans and the British also backtracked on their commitment to provide the Soviets with reparations from the Western zones. The provocative nature of American moves in Germany were recognised by some US officials. For instance George Marshall noted that US actions in Germany would precipitate a Soviet clampdown in Czechoslovakia and that such a response would be, in his words, a ‘purely defensive move’. Whilst portrayed in the west as an effort to drive the Western powers out of Berlin, the blockade is now viewed by many scholars as an attempt to force the Americans to reopen negotiations on the status of Germany. This was not an altogether unreasonable aim since the US had flatly refused to accept German reunification, was integrating the three western zones (containing the bulk of Germany’s industrial plant and the majority of its population) and had halted denazification.
This alternative account of Stalin’s reasons for instigating the blockade appears consistent with Stalin’s behaviour during the crisis – on several occasions he offered to end the blockade on the condition that negotiations recommence and the establishment of a West German state be delayed. Moreover the Soviet clampdown in the eastern zone occurred in a notably piecemeal fashion and each significant move to create the institutions of repression in the East followed Western moves to create West Germany.
Outside of its acknowledged sphere of influence the Soviet leadership showed even greater caution – refusing to aid the Greek communists and restraining the Italian Communist Party. In the case of Italy, where communist support was so great that the Italian Communists were denied electoral victory through CIA subversion, it remains unclear why the Soviet Union did not attempt to press its advantage given its alleged globalist ambitions. Similarly Soviet support might have been decisive in the Greek civil war where the communists enjoyed enormous prestige due to their war time fight against the Axis powers. Stalin’s refusal to aid communists in either country appears to confirm that Stalin was simply adhering to the percentages agreement, on the understanding that the Western powers would respond in kind in Eastern Europe.
In China Stalin (the supposed idealogical fanatic) had initially favoured the Chinese nationalists during the Chinese civil war and only threw in his lot with Mao Zedong once it became apparent that the Communists were going to defeat the nationalist Kuomintang army. As late as 1949 Stalin was trying persuade Mao to come to a negotiated peace with Chiang Kai-Shek – leading to a furious Mao accusing Stalin of ‘exact fulfilment of the U.S. government’s wishes’. It appears that Stalin’s conspicuous ambivalence regarding the Chinese communists was intended to demonstrate to the Americans that the China situation could be resolved in a manner that was agreeable to them, provided the United States honoured the war time agreements regarding Soviet interests in Eastern Europe. A murderous and paranoid tyrant he may have been, but Stalin was no gambler. His pre-war non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany was but one of many examples of the cynical realpolitik that Stalin dealt in. The flimsiness of the claim of Soviet expansionism is well revealed by contemplating those analysts who have attempted a partial defence of NSC-68. For example, confronted by the absence of any serious evidence to suggest that the Soviets contemplated launching offensive operations in the West, Beatrice Heuser is reduced to citing Stalin’s worries of a general war as evidence of his intent to begin one.
Following the publication of NSC-68 Charles Bohlen of the US State Department offered a useful corrective to the document’s depiction of the Soviet Union:
‘the fundamental design of those who control the U.S.S.R. is (a) the maintenance of their regime in the Soviet Union, and (b) its extension throughout the world to the degree that is possible without serious risk to the internal regime.’
Bohlen understood that maintenance of Soviet control within the Soviet Union placed very real constraints upon Soviet efforts to expand their sphere of influence. While Stalin may have desired to see Western Europe fall to communist control he was not prepared to undertake any actions that might imperil his rule within the Soviet Union.
Kim Il-sung to the Rescue
Whilst the authors of NSC-68 may have been able to convince themselves, and much of the American political-military elite, of the veracity of their analysis it was understood that the US public was unlikely to accept the tax rises and reductions in socially useful spending – necessitated by a vast military build up – purely on the basis of the kind of speculative analysis NSC-68 consisted of. Fortunately for the NSC-68 study group the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 served to substantiate NSC-68s depiction of a rampant Soviet Union bent on world conquest – Dean Acheson cynically remarking that ‘Korea came along and saved us.’ Whilst it saved Acheson and his comrades it did the exact opposite for those who were neither convinced nor cowed by NSC-68 – George Kennan’s rapid career decline as he failed to follow the new party line being the most conspicuous example. Whilst the Soviet approved North Korean invasion of South Korea became the retroactive justification for NSC-68’s policy prescriptions, it is now widely recognised that it was not part of a Soviet plan for world conquest and that Stalin’s ambivalence towards Kim Il Sung’s adventurism was consistent with his approach to Eastern Europe and China. Unfortunately the analysis of ‘revisionist’ historians came much too late for the general public of the United States. America’s permanent war economy was quickly established in the wake of the Korean war and has long since outlived its cold war origins through the constant emergence of real, manufactured, and imaginary threats.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7