America’s victory in the Cold War has inexplicably and unfortunately started to fade from the national consciousness even though the campaign against Communism provides a successful model for fighting cold wars, including the current struggle against Islamofascism. Fortunately, Thomas M. Nichols, a Professor at the U.S. Naval War College, has masterfully filled a crucial gap in the contemporary discourse with Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. Nichols deserves credit for simultaneously providing an indispensable guide to cold wars and a fascinating true story.
Drawing upon his extensive background in Russian-Soviet affairs and political science, Nichols convincingly argues that highly ideological opponents such as the USSR and al-Qaeda place similar strategic obstacles in the path of the free societies that they oppose. Responsive tactics will necessarily vary by adversary, but Nichols’ strategic framework provides a reliable basis for devising the appropriate tactics for a given enemy.
Meticulously researched and documented, Winning is also exceptionally well written, striking an ideal balance between general accessibility and academic rigor. Platitudes need not apply, nor do unsupported opinions. Nichols’ command of the material is evident, as is his passion for the subject. (He is also the author of The Sacred Cause, an intriguing look at Soviet civil-military relations and an interesting 20th century backstory.) Despite Winning’s serious subject matter, the author does not hesitate to admit an occasional dash of humor into the discussion—of course, many Soviet high jinks suggest themselves.
Nichols asserts that “cold wars” generally comprise two hostile powers locked in mutually declared hostilities that elude final resolution because both sides possess a sufficient nuclear deterrent to price a direct attack out of the geopolitical market. Forced to abstain from overt war, the competing entities must continue their struggle in all manner of secondary theaters without capitulating and without pushing the opponent too far.
Victory in the “Cold War does not mean the end of cold wars,” of course. While al-Qaeda and its progeny have evidently not yet acquired the necessary nukes to hold the West at bay, Nichols warns that atomically armed Islamofascists are a likely future cold war antagonist. Beijing, Pyongyang, and Teheran are also incubators for potential cold war combatants. These unpleasant truths underscore Winning’s central contention: that we discard our Cold War experiences at our own peril.
Notwithstanding the tendency in Western intellectual circles to overemphasize “realist” theories of behavior, Nichols pays proper heed to the importance of ideology in shaping motivations. Indeed, Marxist ideology played a central role in the 1945-1991 contest; the ideology of extreme fundamentalist Islam has galvanized the 9/11 generation. Because ideologues hold as sacred the cause of transforming the world to conform to their beliefs, ideological movements must always “move” toward their goal.
As a result, ideologues can never completely disavow struggle; if they stop “moving,” they have no purpose. As Winning explains, the U.S. was therefore unable to placate the Soviets and will be unable to mollify future cold war ideological foes; similarly, 9/11 resulted from irreconcilable and irrational animus, not the apologist’s pabulum of poverty and legitimate “root causes.” Nichols embraces the truth: no permanent peaceful coexistence is possible with forces that dream of the West’s destruction.
Precluded from total war, cold warriors must conduct their struggle by other means. Beyond an arms race and the propaganda wars, cold war opponents can express themselves in peripheral venues, e.g. by aiding and/or fighting proxies. Given the ideological state’s unquenchable thirst for expansion, the U.S. made understandable efforts to counter Communism in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and other countries. Nichols argues that although often maligned, our Korean and Vietnamese efforts played significant, if uncertain, roles in slowing Moscow. Whether Vietnam was worth the price we paid, by the time Saigon fell the Soviet economy had permanently stopped growing. As a general rule, retarding the enemy’s momentum is an important element of fighting a cold war.
Although détente afforded the U.S. a chance to recover from Vietnam and to conclude arms control agreements, Nichols argues persuasively against those in the West who viewed détente as a desirable long-term situation. Because of the USSR’s ideological underpinnings, Moscow viewed détente as a means to place a veneer of cooperation over continued expansionism in an atmosphere of Western reluctance to interfere lest the Potemkin cooperation crumble. In the 1970s, however, détente delivered the time and stability that enabled the U.S. to emerge in the 1980s with renewed confidence and strength. Détente was an effective tactic but would be a foolish permanent strategy against its Cold War opponent.
Winning provides a much needed scholarly analysis of the Carter and Reagan contributions to the Cold War. Those who wish to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the 39th and 40th Presidents should definitely arms themselves with a copy of Winning. While understandably critical of Carter’s inconsistent approach and impractical “linkage” of arms control and human rights, Nichols reminds us that some of the Soviet aggression that so befuddled Carter stemmed from the permissive détente of his predecessors. Additionally, Carter receives credit for belatedly channeling his exasperation with the Brezhnev regime into a nascent defense build-up and concurrent ratcheting-up of his rhetoric.
Ronald Reagan, who in 1977 summarized his Cold War philosophy as “we win and they lose,” employed a strategy of “overdoing it,” i.e. attacking the Soviets on countless fronts. His initiatives included accelerating the arms build-up, advocating SDI, increasing assistance to anti-Communist forces in peripheral states, and verbally bludgeoning the “evil empire.”
Ironically in other contexts but not in the midst of a Cold War, Reagan was almost catastrophically “too successful.” Based on evidence including a 1983 nuclear alert in Europe that stemmed from the Soviet reaction to NATO maneuvers, Nichols concludes that Reagan came uncomfortably close to pushing the Soviets across the Cold War’s undrawn line. The Great Communicator himself seems to have perceived the peril; Reagan adopted a less confrontational tone and allowed the Soviet Union to begin dying—of natural causes. Of paramount importance, however, is one unalterable fact: Reagan’s approach led to victory.
Nichols also notes the fortuitous outcome of the 1980 Republican primaries. George H.W. Bush had the perfect temperament to preside over a surprisingly benign Soviet decline; had he upset Reagan in 1980, his less confrontational style might well have precipitated another round of détente that would have afforded the Soviets additional years to foment their Marxist misery and an invaluable, albeit probably futile, opportunity to attempt to fix their ailing economy.
Winning concludes with a concise synopsis of the book’s lessons. Most importantly, Nichols contends, the West must remain in the arena, always standing up to the words and deeds of current cold war adversaries; walking away is only an option if we want to create a world of ideological repression. While daunting challenges will undoubtedly confront the West in the coming decades, we can take solace not only from Nichols’ cautious optimism but also from his recognition of the deceptively simple key to America’s continuing vitality. For anyone interested in a concise yet comprehensive examination of the past Cold War and the lessons that it has taught us about future cold wars, Winning is a winner.