Five Ways the Soviet Union Could Have Won the Cold War

July 16, 2014 Topic: HistoryGrand StrategyPoliticsEconomics Region: Russia

Five Ways the Soviet Union Could Have Won the Cold War

Or at the very least, could the USSR have survived until today and remained a viable competitor with the United States?

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.

In the 1970s, the window would open again.

1976: Operation RED DAWN

What better way to help the Americans celebrate their bicentennial than by attacking and destroying their global alliances and then defeating them in a no-kidding shooting war?

It is, I admit, a pet peeve to hear younger people talk about how anything in America in the twenty-first century "is just the worst ever," a whine that instantly identifies the speaker as someone who either did not experience, or cannot remember the 1970s. If the Soviets were going to take us down, the mid-1970s would have been the time to do it.

Consider the Western landscape in 1976. For two years, America was governed by Gerald Ford, a very nice and able man whom no one elected, and whose name at the time was inextricably linked to the pardon of his nearly impeached predecessor, Richard Nixon. Although Ford retained Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente with the USSR was so widely regarded by other Americans as a failure—one that emboldened, rather than restrained Moscow—that Ford eventually banned the word from the White House.

Come to think of it, no one elected Ford's vice president, either, since Ford himself assumed that office when Nixon's number two, Spiro Agnew, likewise resigned in disgrace. The White House was thus occupied by two men whose only link to the American people were some Senate confirmation hearings. (As the fictional Frank Underwood says upon taking the Veep's oath of office in the series House of Cards: "Democracy is so overrated.")

At home, the U.S. economy was a wreck. Oil embargoes and deindustrialization, among other problems, created "stagflation," the condition of high inflation, high unemployment and low-growth that is so rare we don't even use the word anymore. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, interest rates stayed startlingly high, peaking in 1980 at a breathtaking 21 percent, or roughly six times as high as they are today, placing house and car loans out of the reach of ordinary Americans. (Note to my students: my first student loan in 1979 was at 13.5 percent, which today would be considered usury. I shed no tears for you.)

Overseas, the United States had been driven out of Vietnam in 1975 by a coalition of Communist states, including the USSR. That same year, President Ford had to fly to Brussels literally to plead with NATO to stay together. The U.S. military, the great fighting force that stormed the beaches of France only thirty years earlier, was a hot mess, rife with drugs and crime, and burdened by too many people whose only other option was jail. (One of my friends, now retired, was a company commander in the U.S. Army in Germany in this period; things were so bad that officers did not enter the barracks of the men they commanded at night without wearing a sidearm.) Many men and women served with distinction in the U.S. armed forces in the 1970s, but we couldn't pick and choose which ones would be on the front lines if the Soviets rang the bell.

So why not attack? It was not beyond the Soviets to create some kind of false premise, perhaps involving their blood feud with the Germans, and to strike into the heart of Central Europe, preferably in the dead of winter. One violent, short, brutal shock, and NATO shatters like spun glass. The Americans fall back. The Germans retreat into a house-by-house defense against the invading Soviets. (How'd that go the last time?) The Poles and East Germans, although no friends of Russia, are fed Warsaw Pact propaganda and are led by officers who wouldn't mind getting a little payback against the West Germans for their own reasons, and they fight.

The Belgians fold, the French want no part of it, the Danes and Norwegians are warned not to interfere. The Greeks and Turks, busy fighting each other since 1974, hardly notice. Only the British Army of the Rhine holds on—and not for long.

America stands alone.

But wait, you say: Ford would never have allowed it. We'd have used nuclear weapons and taken down those invading Soviet tank columns, and then let Moscow think hard about whether this was worth Armageddon.

Maybe. Or maybe, with NATO unraveling, allies deserting, and the Soviets pointing thousands of highly-accurate nuclear warheads at North America, we'd have done what had to be done, and taken the deal, handing over Europe to its new masters. The U.S. president, elected by no one, might not have felt he had the authority to release nuclear devastation on millions of people who had little voice in his authority.

And after Vietnam, the tumult of the 1960s, and the crash of the American dream in the 1970s, maybe we'd have surrendered because deep down, we felt like we deserved to lose.

In 1985, a man named Grigorii Romanov made a run at becoming Soviet leader. A ghastly and vicious Soviet hawk (and apparently, an unstable alcoholic), he could well have triggered World War III and for a time, he seemed intent on doing it. He was too late: by then, America and its allies had regained their confidence—and their strength—while the USSR lost its way, politically and militarily. As the 1970s came to an end, so did the last clear chance at a Soviet military victory over the West.

1979: Lenin stays out of the jungles

Leonid Brezhnev wasn't the brightest man. When we finally cracked open his journals, they were mostly about things like his weight and his hunting trips. (By contrast, Ronald Reagan, long caricatured as a dunce, wrote in a journal daily and produced a historical record of his administration.) Brezhnev also wasn't much of a Communist: he collected cars and jewelry, chased girls, and generally partied hard. A Soviet joke of that era has Brezhnev's mother surveying all of his luxuries with a worried eye, and when her son asks what's wrong, she says: "Leonid, this is all very nice, but what will you do if the Communists come back?"

Like most of the mediocre men who ascended to power in the postwar Soviet Union (see "The Class of '38," above), Brezhnev believed in the Soviet system, insofar as he seemed to understand it. It had been pretty good to him, after all, and after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the subsequent collapse of U.S. foreign policy in the mid-1970s, he and his lieutenants led the USSR through a dramatic and ill-advised period of imperial overextension, culminating in the disastrous decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979.

Until that huge misstep, however, the Soviets felt they were on a roll. As Gorbachev advisor Aleksandr Yakovlev later wrote, "the Soviet leadership of that time acted somewhat blindly. It was sufficient, for example, for any African dictator to declare his 'socialist orientation'. . . for assistance to be practically guaranteed." Brezhnev actually said to his inner circle at one point: "Why look, even in the jungles they want to live like Lenin!”

Well, no, “they” didn't. But that didn't stop the USSR from pouring money—precious hard currency they could hardly spare—into one failing Third World project after another. In some places, this made sense. Cuba, for example, was a Communist showplace right on the U.S. doorstep and a thorn in Washington’s side. But Ethiopia? Nicaragua? Even Grenada, where the Soviets actually believed they were adding yet one more country to a nonexistent Caribbean socialist commonwealth? These were fantastically expensive vanity projects, undertaken by Soviet leaders who had no idea how the laws of economics worked, and who did not understand that a financial duel with the West, even one led by the down-on-its-luck United States, was a terrible idea.

In some ways, the invasion of Afghanistan was far worse than the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Washington waded into a slow-motion escalation that bogged us down in a war we thought, at first, we could win. The Soviet invasion, by contrast, was completely hopeless, and the Soviet leaders knew it before they went in. We have the records of their meetings, and we know exactly what they said: they worried that somehow Afghanistan (like Egypt in the 1970s) would flip and join the Western team. They knew an invasion wouldn’t work, but they also had no idea what else to do, so they ordered one anyway.

Again, the Soviet economy could afford none of this. Most estimates of Soviet economic growth suggest that the Soviet economy came to a halt in the mid-1970s—in other words, just as they were feeling their expansionist oats and, in the words of a former top Soviet policy advisor, "binging like drunks" on weapons. Perhaps a period of consolidation, reform, and internal reorganization would have been a better idea. But that would have required that the Soviet Union at the time be led by men of vision and capability (and women, too, of whom there were none, ever, in the Soviet leadership). And since Stalin killed all those guys earlier...well, you get the idea.

1988: The China Syndrome

China does everything better, right?

When protesters assembled in Tienanmen Square in 1989, China's old Reds called it "counter-revolution," and sent in the tanks. Meanwhile, they made it clear that economic liberalization could continue everywhere else, thus offering the Chinese people a deal: stick with us and get rich, or oppose us and get shot. Couldn't Mikhail Gorbachev have tried the same thing?

Well, in a way, he did. Unfortunately, "in a way" pretty much describes how Gorbachev did everything during his brief stint as Soviet leader. He tried a little repression, and a little liberalization, a little of this and a little of that. Western admirers hate to admit this, but the basic problem is that Mikhail Gorbachev didn't know what he was doing. Mentored by the men who were left after Stalin—have I mentioned the Class of '38 yet?—he was and is, to his very bones, a product of the Soviet system.

In fairness, by 1985, it may have been too late for Gorbachev and for the USSR. And Gorbachev had a unique problem that the Chinese did not: an Eastern European alliance system chafing under socialist oppression and mismanagement. But it is at least notionally possible that after the Soviet Communist Party plenum meeting of early 1987, or later during the 19th Party Conference in 1988, Gorbachev might have laid down the law: I will use force, and I will use the market, and you people out there can take your pick of which one I use more.

The problem for Gorbachev was that some of his worst enemies in the Soviet regime were also the guys in the military and the cops who'd have to get out there and start shooting people if he gave the order. Clearly, they were willing to do it, as they showed by killing demonstrators in the Baltics and in Georgia, incidents over which Gorbachev now claims he had no control. (Well, who was running the place then, Mikhail Sergeevich?) Whether they were willing to do it for Gorbachev is another matter.

The China temptation, both in terms of force and finances, was debated in Moscow throughout the late Soviet period, but the Kremlin didn't know how to make it work, perhaps because it was unworkable. It required letting people in the Soviet republics make their own market choices, while enforcing strict loyalty to a Party in which Soviet citizens years earlier had lost their faith. In the end, Gorbachev fell victim to the high-minded rhetoric of his Bolshevik predecessors: they vowed that their federation was a voluntary association of states, a claim that could only stand so long as it was never tested.

When it came time either to open the Soviet economy, or to clamp down on Soviet dissent, Gorbachev did neither and instead invented a new office for himself as “President of the USSR,” as though a title alone could stop the centrifugal forces he himself had set in motion. That might explain why, when he ran for president of the new Russian Federation back in the 1990s, he got a whopping 386,000 votes out of the millions cast. He might be popular in the West, but the Russians know a feckless Soviet bureaucrat when they see one. It was the West’s good luck that he was on duty as the Soviet project ground to a halt.

In the end, I admit to my own bias here: I think the Soviet Union fell because the Soviet idea was as insanely unworkable as the Nazi, Imperial Japanese, Napoleonic and other dreams of imperial conquest. (U.S. policy played a role, too, especially in determining whether the USSR collapsed inward or exploded outward.) The Soviet Union, as former Soviet officer and later Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov once put it, was hatched by a bunch of vicious but ineffectual intellectuals who had no idea how to govern a country. Soon, they turned on each other and eventually, the revolution ate its own children.

I don't believe that Trotsky, or Kirov or Bukharin could have saved the Soviet Union, because the USSR was based on a lie at its very foundation. We can all be glad that history, and maybe a dash of divine providence, obviated any of the alternate paths here. But we had best think about them, because we once again face enemies overseas dedicated to the destruction of our ideas and values. They are not as dangerous as the old Soviet Union, but they are just as committed to our destruction. Fortunately for us, we've faced worse—and prevailed.


Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter:@TheWarRoom_Tom.

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