Here’s What You Need to Remember: Few who actively fought the Cold War believed in American invincibility. Rather, they believed that U.S. victory (or even survival) depended on carefully calibrated investment in particular military technologies, as well as extensive interventions in the domestic politics of foreign countries (with the Korean and Vietnamese Wars representing the most extravagant such interventions). Even in the 1980s, when the signs of Soviet decay became increasingly evident, few believed that the USSR would either collapse or withdraw from the conflict.
Could the Soviets have won the Cold War? In retrospect, Soviet defeat seems overdetermined. The USSR suffered from a backwards economy, an unappealing political system, and unfortunate geography. But even into the 1980s, many Cold Warriors in the West worried that Red Victory was imminent.
We can think of Red Victory in two ways; first, if the fundamental rules of the competition between the United States and the USSR had operated differently, and second if Moscow and Washington had made different strategic decisions along the way.
Changing the Rules
The idea of socio-political “rules” that dictate how the world works runs counter to a lot of work in the social sciences. Still, certain social and political experiments initiated at the start of the Cold War ran aground on the shoals of social and human capacity. If we imagine the loosening of some of these “rules” then the Soviet and American experiments might have performed differently.
It was not obvious that central planning would fail as dismally as it did. Some economists, often working from the experience of World War II, believed that central governments could process information with sufficient speed and accuracy to successfully allocate resources across a society. This included the allocation of capital (human and resource) to technological innovation. In a wartime context, this worked well enough; the state could direct investment away from consumer goods and towards critical military production and innovation. In peacetime, the system worked less well, as workers and consumers demanded better treatment.
As it turned out, of course, state central planning fell short of the various forms of capital allocation found in the West, especially where innovation was concerned. This eventually had an impact on military innovation, as civilian technological contributed to military advances. Eventually, the United States could rely on its productive civilian economy not only to out-produce the Soviets in consumer goods, but also to produce more effective weapon systems.
On the other hand, if the American system had proven less resilient to economic and social pressures, then the United States might have had to give up on the Cold War. During the 1960s, this looked distinctly possible. Although the economy continued to perform well, social conflict over civil rights, and over Vietnam War, threatened to cause serious damage to U.S. democracy. Informed by a version of Marxist orthodoxy, Soviet planners expected that class conflict and economic stagnation would produce precisely this outcome, but in reality it happened for reasons that they could not have predicted. The crisis of the West emerged not from economic dislocation, but from its opposite; the 1950s and 1960s were an economic “golden age” according to Thomas Piketty, who observed that inequality in wealth and income began to accelerate in the 1970s. The social upheaval that threatened to destroy the West in the 1960s stemmed from the decay of systems of social and political inequality, rather than from a stagnating economy.
Related to this, we now think of the U.S. commitment to a certain level of civil liberties as one of its greatest Cold War strengths. The far greater tolerance in the United States (which ran far short of absolute) for political dissent created an altogether stronger and more attractive social system, while also synergizing with the economic system to enable consistent economic growth and technological innovation. At the time, however, many (both in the West and in the USSR) believed that tolerance for civil and political liberties exposed social and political weakness; the repressive Soviet system could better weather internal dissent than the relatively open American system.
Finally, the United States drew a tremendous amount of strength from the international economic system that it created at the end of World War II. This system eventually extended across the developing world, and supplied the West with the labor forces and raw materials necessary to vastly outperforming their Communist counterparts. If revolutionary models had proven more appealing in the postcolonial world, the balance of economic power might have shifted. In reality, while the Soviet political and economic model had some appeal across the developing world, would-be revolutionaries still found themselves embedded within a larger system that pushed them into collaboration with the West.
What about changes that don’t involve breaking the world open and tinkering with the mechanisms? In this case the immense vulnerability of the USSR weighs against success, but there are still some strategies that might have played out more effectively.
If the Soviets had undertaken much more aggressive measures in the first two decades of the Cold War, they might have shattered the NATO alliance and prevented the development of the transatlantic coalition that won the Cold War. A general Red Army offensive into Western Europe in the 1950s or 1960s almost certainly would have enjoyed tremendous short-term success. The problem was twofold; the Americans had a nuclear advantage that could devastate the Soviet homeland, and the Soviets could barely afford to maintain the empire they had, to say nothing of expanding it into Western Europe. But the Soviets appreciated that the first might have been a bluff, and if they had calculated the long-term odds differently, might have gambled on the second. Bringing millions of sullen Germans, Frenchmen, and Italians under the Soviet boot might not have increased Soviet power in the long-run, but it would have dealt a blow to the architecture of the American-led post-war global system.
Another alternative would have involved deliberately retreating from central planning in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than in the late 1980s. China undertook this policy with great success at the end of the 1970s, producing enormous economic growth. Such an effort might not have generated a tremendous amount of foreign direct investment (as it did in China) but would at least have unshackled a moribund economic system. And the Chinese Communist Party has managed, thus far, to hold the lid on political dissent. Undertaking these steps before falling too far behind might have saved the USSR, at least for a time.
What about American decisions? The United States could have decided not to wage the Cold War at all. The Soviets seemed willing to accept the Finlandization of much of Western Europe, and in the absence of a U.S. presence Moscow might have renewed its old ties with Paris. As a result of reduced tension between the United States and the USSR, the Soviets would presumably have dedicated fewer resources to their war machine, reducing pressure on the rest of the economy. Of course, moving off a war footing might have produced social instability and pressure for internal change of repressive Soviet policies.
With its enormous economic resources, the United States had the advantage of making tragic mistakes, as the experience of Vietnam illustrates. It could have been worse; the United States could have decided to bog itself down in an effort to save the Chinese Nationalist regime in the 1940s and 1950s. Such a decision would not only have proven tremendously costly in blood and treasure; it would also have raised dangerous questions about U.S. imperial aims, and about the wisdom of U.S. strategic policymaking. The Soviets could have bled the Americans much more effectively than they did in either Korea or Vietnam, although it’s unclear whether it would have been enough to force the United States to scale down its international commitments.
The United States certainly enjoyed tremendous advantages in 1945, including the world’s most robust economy, an advanced technological base, a well-developed set of internal economic infrastructure, and a relatively appealing sociopolitical model.
But few who actively fought the Cold War believed in American invincibility. Rather, they believed that U.S. victory (or even survival) depended on carefully calibrated investment in particular military technologies, as well as extensive interventions in the domestic politics of foreign countries (with the Korean and Vietnamese Wars representing the most extravagant such interventions). Even in the 1980s, when the signs of Soviet decay became increasingly evident, few believed that the USSR would either collapse or withdraw from the conflict.
In any event, Soviet weakness ran deeper than almost anyone expected. Even to the extent that “new Cold Wars” are developing between the United States and Russia, or the United States and China, few want to replicate Soviet mistakes. But it would also be an error to discount the perceptions of those who waged both sides of the Cold War.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.