POLITICAL WARFARE is a concept that appears new only because it is quite old. The term was coined by George Kennan in 1948, at the dawn of another long struggle against an authoritarian rival. The appeal of political warfare resided in the American recognition that the Cold War would be a struggle that occurred largely in the gray areas between war and peace, one in which success required using measures short of war to project U.S. influence and weaken the Soviet adversary. American policy also reflected a view that the Kremlin was both a ruthless enemy—one that would not hesitate to wage political warfare against the West—and one whose economic backwardness, repressive governance and domineering relationship with its allies made it vulnerable. Virtually from the start, then, political warfare figured prominently in American strategy.
One category of political warfare programs aimed actively to foment instability within the Soviet bloc. Beginning in the late 1940s, Washington supported anti-Soviet forces in the Baltic states and Ukraine and Eastern European resistance groups from Poland to Albania. The CIA sponsored anti-Soviet and anti-communist radio broadcasts into the bloc and arranged for the dissemination of destabilizing material such as Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin. The idea, John Foster Dulles once explained, was not necessarily to overthrow Kremlin rule but to promote “indigestion” by making it harder to maintain Soviet dominance at home and abroad.
A second and closely related category entailed measures to erode the legitimacy—and deny the moral equality—of the Soviet regime and its satellites. By supporting congressional “Captive Nations” resolutions that highlighted the lack of self-determination in Eastern Europe, by highlighting the repressive nature of bloc regimes and by underscoring the ideological differences between East and West, American officials sought to deny the Soviets prestige and increase their political and diplomatic difficulties.
The third category featured efforts to contest Kremlin power outside the Soviet bloc by influencing nations that were the object of superpower competition. In 1948, the CIA intervened in Italian elections to prevent the Communist Party from winning power; in subsequent decades, U.S. presidents would utilize covert interventions, economic and diplomatic pressures, propaganda campaigns and other steps to strengthen pro-American forces and weaken Soviet proxies throughout the third world. The number of such operations skyrocketed as the Cold War went global; the restraints on political warfare tended to be weaker here than within the Soviet bloc, because there was less danger of provoking a violent Kremlin response.
This emphasis on political warfare spurred development of a supporting bureaucratic apparatus. The growth of covert action mechanisms; the creation of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America (VOA) and the U.S. Information Agency were part of this burgeoning capability. That capability, in turn, required coordinating mechanisms, such as the Office of Policy Coordination in the late 1940s and then the Psychological Strategy Board and Operations Coordinating Board during the 1950s.
The coherence and effectiveness of these activities varied widely. Most operations in the Soviet bloc failed to seriously threaten the stability of Soviet-backed regimes; early CIA initiatives in Albania, Poland and elsewhere collapsed in tragicomic fashion. Moreover, even fervent Cold War warriors struggled to reconcile the desire to foster Soviet “indigestion” with the realization that doing so could simply trigger violent Kremlin reprisals against civilian populations. In the third world, some American initiatives failed or provoked nationalist backlash; others raised troubling questions about whether resisting Soviet expansionism justified extreme practices such as assassination plots and destabilization campaigns. Proper oversight and coordination of these initiatives was always difficult in light of the fact that political warfare was inherently inter-departmental in nature, and it only became more difficult as the number of operations grew. Yet if the overall goal of U.S. political warfare was to increase Soviet costs while strengthening America’s ability to compete, then these programs had their share of success.
Even failed covert activities in Eastern Europe during the late 1940s had salutary effects, by inflaming Soviet paranoia and triggering counter-productive purges that eliminated some of Stalin’s own loyalists. Anti-Soviet radio broadcasts consistently helped delegitimize Soviet-backed regimes and contributed to instability in East Germany in 1953 and Poland and Hungary in 1956. In Hungary in particular, the resulting crackdown was tragic for many Hungarians. Yet it was also deeply damaging to the Soviets, by revealing just how brutal their dominance was in Eastern Europe. Outside the Soviet bloc, early CIA operations helped neutralize communist influence in Italy and France; in the Third World, U.S. political warfare initiatives kept pressure on Soviet clients and raised the price of alignment with Moscow. Political warfare was never a magic bullet, but it was a useful competitive tool—and one that would prove invaluable in the Cold War’s endgame.
The 1980s saw the most comprehensive U.S. political warfare campaign of the entire Cold War. This offensive actually began under the Carter administration, which returned, through its focus on human rights, to highlighting the moral differences between East and West in a way Moscow found quite alarming. As détente collapsed, the Carter administration also contested Soviet momentum by supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland and intensifying covert pressure on Soviet clients in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere. The Reagan administration expanded this agenda, on grounds that a sclerotic Soviet political system represented Moscow’s greatest vulnerability, and that waging political warfare was vital to a broader Cold War offensive. “A little less détente with the politburo and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions,” Ronald Reagan believed.
As president, Reagan hammered home the immorality and failures of the Soviet system in major speeches; the administration provided symbolic and material support to Solidarity and dissidents within the Soviet Union. The United States increased radio broadcasting into the Soviet empire; U.S. diplomats used the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to expose Moscow’s human rights abuses. The CIA increased covert support to anti-Soviet movements in the third world; the administration created the National Endowment for Democracy (ned) as part of a push to spread liberal political values and undercut the appeal of communism within Eastern European states and far beyond. This was a top-to-bottom political warfare campaign, led by the president, supported by the bureaucracy and intended to exploit an adversary’s weakness for competitive gain. By seeming to call the legitimacy of the Soviet regime into question, this offensive contributed to some of the sharpest Cold War tensions in decades. Yet they also threw the Kremlin off balance, reversed its ideological momentum, compounded its troubles in ruling its own restive empire and thereby contributed to a dramatic turnaround in the superpower competition.
America’s Cold War experience demonstrates the merit of vigorous, sustained political warfare in discomfiting and disadvantaging an authoritarian adversary. Washington might profitably reclaim that tradition in dealing with its rivals today.
THE PAST is never a perfect analogue for the present, and the United States cannot simply re-run its political warfare playbook from the era of superpower rivalry. U.S.-Russia power dynamics are much different than they were during the Cold War; America and China have far greater economic interdependence than the United States and the Soviet Union ever did. Yet there are fundamental similarities between past and present in that Washington faces ongoing geopolitical competitions with authoritarian rivals that make ample use of political warfare, so the need for an American counteroffensive is every bit as pronounced as it was during the Cold War.
What would an offensive strategy look like? The specifics of such a program will inevitably evolve over time and must be tailored to the particular characteristics of particular relationships and regimes. Some key aspects of a political warfare program must also be shielded from public scrutiny. In general, however, any offensive approach to political warfare should be guided by several considerations.
Such an offensive should be multifaceted, hitting an adversary on multiple fronts at once. It should be multilateral, exploiting cooperation with close allies and partners if possible. It should also be multi-level, featuring strong leadership from the president and coordinated implementation throughout the bureaucracy. Additionally, it should be more asymmetric than symmetric, more proactive than purely reactive. The United States cannot and should not replicate authoritarian tactics such as use of disinformation and fake news, nor should it limit itself to in-kind responses to Russian and Chinese methods. Rather, it should pursue political warfare in ways that are consistent with U.S. laws, norms and democratic traditions, and it should retain the prerogative to steer the competition into the most advantageous areas. Finally, a political warfare offensive must be calibrated: it must be strong enough to have meaningful strategic impact, but not so aggressive as to have dangerous or counterproductive consequences.
This last point is particularly important. An intemperate offensive strategy that puts nuclear-armed rivals on “death ground”—the desperate terrain on which regime survival is at stake—would risk catastrophic escalation and be alarming to American allies and partners. It might close off possibilities of cooperation on issues where a non-zero-sum approach is still possible: climate change in the U.S.-China relationship or arms control in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Conversely, a timid counteroffensive that Russia and China can merely shrug off would be strategically pointless.