Key point: There were many inflection points of the Cold War. The Free World was in many ways lucky to have survived.
In 1969, a Soviet dissident named Andrei Amalrik wrote an essay called “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” It predicted the demise of the Soviet system, most likely in a conflict with China. Amalrik, as it turned out, was wrong about a war with China, but he was only off about the end of the USSR by a few years. No one took Amalrik very seriously at the time; I was assigned his book, like most young graduate students in Soviet affairs, primarily to critique it. Today, people with almost no memory of the period accept the Soviet collapse as just another inevitable historical moment.
But did it have to happen? Could the Soviet Union have won the Cold War? Or at the least, could the Soviet Union have survived until today, and remained a viable competitor to the United States while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, or the centennial of the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 2022?
Counterfactual history, the game of “what if,” is an intellectually hazardous exercise. No one can really explain what didn’t actually happen. And in any case, why bother? Maybe the Persians could have beaten the ancient Greeks; maybe Columbus could have taken a wrong turn and been lost at sea; maybe the first atomic bomb could have been a dud and convinced everyone to go back to the drawing board. But the Persians did lose, Columbus did make it across the Atlantic, and the Trinity test did light the sky with nuclear fire. It would take a lifetime to imagine the alternatives, none of which are real.
The reason we even think about these alternate possibilities, however, is to prevent us from making the mistake of believing in inevitability. The inability to see alternatives leads to lazy strategic thinking, which is why so many programs—including the department I once chaired at the Naval War College, Strategy and Policy—use counterfactual history. Otherwise, we risk failures of strategic imagination. I will never forget, for example, the military student I had many years ago who insisted that the American victory in the War of Independence was inevitable. What would it even look like, he sputtered, if North America had stayed British?
There was a long silence in the room until one of his classmates quietly suggested the alternative with two words: “Like Canada?”
Especially for many of my younger students, the victory of the American-led coalition of democracies now seems like a natural end to a struggle that really wasn’t all that dangerous, and whose outcome was foreordained. But to the people who fought the Cold War, there were many days where it all seemed to be a lot more tenuous. There were many moments where this planetary conflict—as I called it in a 2003 book, the fight to “win the world”—with the Soviet Union seemed a near-run thing. With that in mind, let’s consider five historical periods where different choices could have led, if not to global victory, at least to survival and a fighting chance for the since-departed Land of the Soviets.
1938: Stalin doesn’t kill all the smart Communists
Was Stalinism an inevitable outcome of the Soviet experiment? This is one that historians of the Soviet period have long loved to argue about, and it won't be settled here. But it is undeniable that Stalin's purges of the Soviet military and the Communist Party struck down some of the best and brightest from the generation of the Revolution. Shortly after leading Bolshevik Sergei Kirov was gunned down (on Stalin’s secret orders) in Leningrad in 1934, Stalin initiated a cyclone of murder and repression that exterminated mostly imaginary enemies in the Party and the military.
To replace all this slaughtered talent, Stalin promoted younger people with little experience (but whose loyalty was now beyond question) into positions of great authority. Western Sovietologists used to call these people "The Class of '38," because they leapfrogged into senior jobs when the purges ended in 1938 to replace the men who'd been shot. This resulted in bizarre personnel situations; in the military, for example, Stalin wiped out so many officers that the military academies had to be graduated early when the Nazis attacked in 1941. Young twenty-somethings who might have been lieutenants were suddenly given senior commands as majors, colonels, even generals.
In the Party, the young civilians who were brought to the fore not only lacked expertise, they lacked courage and initiative. They had, really, only one important skill: they knew how to survive in Stalinist Russia. Their sense of self-preservation would serve them well in the daily grind of Soviet life, but they had no vision and no ability to deal with crises. Stalin, like the ancient Greek solons, cut down the tallest stalks of wheat in his field, and all that was left was the kind of mediocrity that led to Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and a host of lesser, deservedly forgotten incompetents.
Could the murdered generation of Bolsheviks have saved the USSR? If you read Stephen Cohen's classic book, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, you certainly might think so. Others counter that without Stalin, the Soviet Union would never have survived World War II. (A few of us might argue, of course, that Stalin's idiocy and misplaced egomania also helped spark that war.) Still, assuming Hitler was defeated, the Soviet Union would at least have entered the 1950s with battle-hardened revolutionaries at the helm, instead of the cautious bureaucrats who rammed the whole thing into the ground.
Before he died, Stalin warned his inner circle that without him, they would be as helpless as kittens. He had a point—but only because he had taken every step to ensure it.
1947: Truman loses his nerve
In early Cold War history, 1949 looks like a really bad year: the Soviets exploded their first nuclear bomb, and China emerged from the wreckage of world war and civil struggle in Asia as the world’s largest communist power. The West by this point had endured repeated Soviet challenges: Stalin, now in control of several conquered European states (including a quarter of Germany) had already tried to leave troops in Iran in 1946, among other daring plays. No one needed convincing that NATO, formed during the West’s annus horribilis in 1949, was a good idea. Leaders in the U.S. policy establishment, such as Paul Nitze, were already warning of doom while drafting documents like NSC-68, and the North Korean attack on South Korea a year later made such warnings seem prescient.
The real test of American nerve, however, came two years earlier. In 1947, President Harry Truman had to decide whether America really was going to step into Britain's shoes as Europe's postcolonial police officer. Greece was in the middle of a civil war with Communist rebels. Other parts of Western Europe, broken in spirit and bankrupt from two world wars in thirty years, were also ripe for revolution and conquest. Soviet ideology chief Andrei Zhdanov had proclaimed the "two camps" thesis, in which there were only two choices—socialism or capitalism—for the rest of the world. The pieces were in place. All that was necessary for a Soviet advance was an American retreat.
Imagine that in 1947, Truman abandons the Greeks. He pulls America home, politically as well as militarily. That means, among other things, the Marshall Plan is never implemented. It also means that Truman will never have to respond to the Berlin Blockade, because the Blockade never happens: without American leadership, the currency reforms in Germany's western zones never take place. The Federal Republic of Germany is never created, and with the western zones left to rot in economic ruin, they likely fall prey to Soviet "aid" over time.
Likewise, Truman decides that America's disengagement from Europe means no CIA meddling in the Italian elections in 1948. Italy (like unfortunate Czechoslovakia the same year) gets pulled into the Soviet orbit by electing Communists. France, already home to a strong Communist party, follows suit. The Greek Communists, unopposed, complete their conquest, and the Iron Curtain now extends from the English Channel to the Aegean, and across to the Sea of Japan.
NATO is never formed. Some version of America’s "special relationship" with the United Kingdom remains, with America and the British Commonwealth facing a Europe ruled, either overtly or by proxy, from Stalin's chambers in the Kremlin. Awash in Europe's resources, Stalin builds an empire that lasts, and America remains a naval power left to patrol the seas with its British, Canadian, and Australian friends—mostly to make the world safe for Communist shipping.
Of course, Truman actually did plunge into the Cold War competition, and the Soviet chance for victory slipped away for another quarter-century. Democrat or Republican, U.S. presidents after Truman were all dedicated Cold Warriors. America and Europe, taking their halting first steps in 1949 as an alliance, soon became a nuclear-armed porcupine the Soviets could attack only at their own peril.