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The American Military Experience-June 2000
Professor Peter Schrijvers
America and its Allies:
Cold War Illusions: America, Europe and Soviet Power, 1969-1989
Dana H. Allin, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994. 267 pages.
Reviewed by Joe Apostolidis


Among the many aspects of the Cold War that are being re-examined, one is it's supposed bipolarity. While it is true that the two superpowers were rivals since the end of the Second World War, it was never, except for the brief period immediately following the war, a case of strict duality. Even in the case of the Soviet bloc, there were tensions and a certain give and take between the Soviets and their client states. This was even more the case for the United States, whose relations with its European allies were complex and not simple to analyse. Dana Allin has written a insightful study of this question focussing on the second half of the Cold War, from the height of US involvement in Vietnam until the collapse of the Soviet bloc. His premise is that during the Second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Union's power was vastly overrated, if still antagonistic and that the Cold War was essentially won long before Reagan entered the White House (1) Allin then proposes a major (overlooked) factor for this: the constant American pessimism and underestimation of its European allies facing the Soviet Union. As he states, any plausible scenario of Soviet superiority necessitates the elimination of Western Europe as an ally of any value. (2)

As Allin admits, the Soviet Union in 1980 was, in military resources, many times more powerful than it was in 1946 (when it was much more dangerous). However, according to Allin, American containment had worked, and the West had a clear advantage in the combination of economic power and political stability (notwithstanding certain crises), and parity in military power, which meant neither side held the advantage here. So, the threat of Soviet encroachment on Western interests was small (3) Notwithstanding the general success of American foreign policy, US elites had a darker vision, one which was most explicit among Reagan neo-conservatives but which was also present, Allin believes, in the Nixon and Carter administrations. What Allin describes was the American fear of Finlandization, or the effective exclusion of American influence in Western Europe by Soviet intimidation and the establishment of a Soviet sphere of influence, perhaps benign (after all even Finland retained a capitalist system and domestic civil liberties) but real nonetheless. It is this idea and fear of Western weakness that Allin explores in his book.


Allin begins his first chapter as a prologue on "Containment in Europe, 1945-1969" where he examines the foundation of the Western Alliance and the policy of containment in the convulsive ruin of World War Two. He begins by looking at the American idea of Europe before 1945. The roots of American isolationism stemmed from the desire of the founding fathers to protect the young and still weak nation from getting caught up in the tangle of alliances which were a potential threat, a desire made possible by America's geographic isolation. (4)Besides this practical consideration, there were moral attitudes that started to take root in this lucky isolation. Allin mentions Jefferson's ideal of an "Empire of Liberty" imbued with the values of Republican Rome and the Puritan Calvinist notions of Americans as "God's elect." Because of this, Americans gradually came to the conclusion that their separation from Europe and its problems was not just a matter of practicality and circumstance, but of moral superiority. (5)Even when the US did join the First World War, it was sold as the "war to end all wars" to make "the world safe for democracy." The disillusionment that set in afterwards did nothing but reinforce the ingrained isolationism. Even the rise of fascism did not change this, and according to Allin, even late in the Second World War, American public opinion tended to consider Britain as a more natural antagonist than Soviet Russia. (6) Of course, this moralistic attitude that looked down upon British and European colonialism coincided quite nicely with economic self-interest. Although Roosevelt admired the people of Britain and their leader, it was clear that the US assumed Britain's demotion, similarly, US attitudes towards France and Germany demonstrated the attitude that Europe was finished and its time had passed. (7) Roosevelt, according to Allin, was more a realist than his critics give him credit for, but does criticise him for his scorn for old Europe and mystification of China.

The chaos and ruin of the immediate post-war period in Europe, as well as increasing frustration with the Soviet Union led to the formulation of the American policy of containment and aid to Western Europe. Allin identifies the emergence of two varieties of containment: the defensive model proposed by Keenan that emphasised economic development, and a more active strategy with military preparedness at the core which came to be the conventional wisdom (8) Allin claims Keenan's analysis aimed at rebuilding western strength and was optimistic about the long-term viability of the West and certainly that the Soviet empire would eventually erode and unravel faced with these enormous advantages, Soviet military power was, if I could paraphrase a well-known Communist leader, a "paper tiger. (9) Despite some Soviet attempts at some type of settlement (and Allin is no revisionist), the attitude of men like Dean Acheson prevailed which required an indefinite assertion of American military power partly based on pessimism of the European ability to defend themselves. In a similar vein, Allin portrays the adoption of nuclear deterrence on the unwillingness of either the West Europeans or the US to try to match Soviet conventional strength.

By the time Allin arrives at the beginning of the Nixon/Kissinger era, he claims that the Cold War, having reached a stalemate, was essentially over. As the Soviet military threat was essentially neutralised, and the Berlin Wall ironically clarified the respective spheres of influence in Europe, the contest became economic and political rather than military. The west was already enjoying the benefits of a miraculous economic recovery (as was Japan) whereas the Sino-Soviet split and the numerous strains in the Warsaw pact (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia demonstrated an underlying fragility in the Soviet empire in spite of technological advance and huge military strength. Therefore, Allin asks, why did a deep pessimism take hold of American elites? (10)

Allin analyses the Kissinger era in "Henry Kissinger and the Decline of the West" where he shows the difficulty Americans and their government had in believing the Cold War was being won when they were losing a real war. He draws an analogy between the American experience in Vietnam and the British experience almost two centuries earlier in America. The elites of both countries exaggerated the importance of their respective wars at the time and the consequences of a defeat, neither realised that their respective enemies, the Soviet Union or Bourbon Spain and France, were on the road to ruin (11) In the case of the United States, what was missing, according to Allin, was the courage to walk away. Instead, fears based on the "domino theory" and alleged credibility among US allies delayed the end of the war. Even Nixon, who pledged an end to the war was compelled to seek "peace with honour" that delayed further the pull-out. However, Allin focuses on Kissinger, as Nixon gradually left more and more of the foreign policy stage to his Secretary of State.

Allin portrays Kissinger as a pessimist who strove to counteract the forces of disintegration in the West and who worried about the inherent indiscipline of the democracies. To Kissinger, while détente may have been necessary, it was important that the US control the process and prevent a West European "Race to Moscow" led by France and West Germany in particular. (12) Ironically, Kissinger had urged Nixon at the outset of his administration to break with the Kennedy/Johnson hostility to De Gaulle yet later described neo-Gaullism as the greatest threat to western unity. Allin states that Gaullism rested on two rationales: that France must remain independent of American hegemony; and that it could remain so because the Soviets were too weak to impose their hegemony in its place. Furthermore, it was insane that the Kremlin would contemplate imposing its will on 300 million West Europeans when they could not hold down a third as many in the East, De Gaulle stated. He believed that the balance of power was an imperative since whomsoever wielded too much would become corrupt in the end and lose all sense of limits. Americans, according to Allin, felt that power was good or bad depending on who had it. (13)

The West German Ostpolitik, Allin says, was more worrying for the US since it involved strategically vital West Germany and was based on a perception of Soviet strength. Willy Brandt, a complex character, did many things that failed to endear him to his own citizens, the most painful of which was the recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as Germany's eastern frontier in the 1970 German-Polish treaty. Nevertheless, Brandt's government was able to produce treaties with the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany by 1972. These meant, among other things, freer access between West Berlin and West Germany, and the possibility of contact for families divided by the frontier. Although the Americans accepted and even welcomed certain of these agreements, notably on Berlin, there was a good deal of grumbling. Kissinger praised Brandt's acceptance of his divided country, yet worried that this was a means of achieving German unity by using the FRG as a magnet to draw the East in (as it did indeed) while he felt it was the communist world that would be the stronger magnet (14) This attitude was certainly reinforced by assertions by German politicians such as Bahr who stated that the US would not respond to an attack on Hamburg with nuclear missiles so Germany had no alternative but détente. (15)

However, Allin claims West Germany was securely anchored in the Atlantic alliance
Allin identifies other causes for this pessimism among the US elite. One was certainly the relative decline of US economic power to Japan and Western Europe and the strains it caused. Allin finishes his chapter with a brief description of the fumbled attempt to renew the Atlantic partnership after Vietnam and the strain of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent oil embargo where the Americans perceived a European trend towards appeasement in their lack of support for Israel and willingness to cut deals with the OPEC producers to insure their supply.
The next chapter, "The Neoconservative Alarm" discusses the bitterness and confusion that overcame the US in the 1970s. Allin describes the growth of neoconservativism, which he claim came from disillusioned elements among the left-wing of the Democratic party. Fro the neo-conservatives, the traditional conservatives like Kissinger and Nixon were wrong in supposing the Soviet threat was manageable, it was unique and irreconcilable. (16) The continuation of détente and the SALT agreements under Ford and Carter were moral failures of the first order. Allin mentions many figures in this movement but two merit special attention, Paul Nitze, a Pentagon negotiator in the Nixon era and Reagan arms control expert, and Richard Pipes, a well-known Russian/Soviet historian. They formed a group called "The Committee on the Present Danger" when George Bush was director of the CIA and which successfully campaigned to block SALT II. The Committee argued that the Soviet Union intended to dominate Western Europe with a whole slew of economic, political and military means, including nuclear weapons. (17) Unfortunately for the moderate, Keenanesque supporters like Carter at the beginning of his presidency, it seemed that there was a significant Soviet expansion underway in Africa, Central America and the Middle East culminating in the open Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.Allin points out the main irritants for Europeans in the Reagan administration, its seeming ideological radicalism and demonisation of the Soviet Union, and its open musings about the possibility of winning a nuclear war. He then outlines the three main areas where containment had failed, according to the neo-conservatives. The first is looked at in the chapter "The Military Threat: Nuclear Blackmail" where these analysts questioned the American strategy of massive retaliation for a Soviet conventional attack given superpower nuclear parity and alleged conventional superiority (which Allin convincingly challenges). Here the Soviet SS-20 and the American Pershing response as well as the idea of a tactical nuclear war (not much more acceptable to the Europeans than a general war as they would be equally devastated). The next is called "The Political Threat: Europe's slide to the Left," where Allin shows how the US interpreted the rise of socialist parties and the continuing strength of the Italian and French Communist parties as evidence of the rise of a Marxist fifth column that was eating away at European resolve from within and which for certain observers, was orchestrated by Moscow.

Finally, in the chapter entitled "The Economic Threat: Energy and Jobs," Allin shows how the US, completely overestimating the strength of the Soviet economy, considered the development of economic ties between Western Europe and the Soviet Union as another means of the Soviets gaining access to western technology and pushing Western Europe into economic dependance upon the USSR (18)

Finally, in "Who Won the Cold War" and "Epilogue" Allindraws up a balance sheet of the why the Western Alliance endured, while criticising the attitudes that created such strain between the US and Europe.

Overall the book leaves a very good impression as a truly scholarly and carefully researched endeavour. Dana Allin, a scholar who at the time of writing was at the Aspen Institute in Berlin, trained at John Hopkins and has worked with such names as Robert Tucker, and Lanxin Xiang (the latter a Professor at H.E.I.) His book is well-organised and very thoroughly footnoted and includes a select bibliography. Allin very skilfully and convincingly dissects the reasons for the differing attitudes between the US, France, the UK and Germany. Regarding the US and Germany for example, he makes the point that since the US had very little direct experience of war in the recent past, and excepting Vietnam, was mostly victorious and fought ostensibly (especially the historically unique instance of WWII) with a fixed goal and moral purpose. This made the Americans less sensitive to the tragic dimensions of the exercise of power. (19) The Germans, Allin asserts, were (and are) prone to the opposite tendency, the feeling from their experience that war is always catastrophic in its morality and results and thus very unwilling to admit the occasional necessity of military preparedness. Of course, while constrained against sending troops outside of Germany, the Germans always carried their weight in NATO. The French, while fully prepared to go along with deterrence, were determined to be treated as an equal partner and refused to accept American hegemony, partly as a result of the fact that it was the Anglo-Americans that liberated France and the Soviet Union was not considered a great threat and De Gaulle needed to rebuild French pride and independence. Allin, in my view does a fairly good job of demonstrating the essence of mistaken perceptions and fears among the US elites of the fundamental weakness of the Soviet empire when faced with the West. As he convincingly argues, it was the stability and trust built up under détente that allowed European Communism, faced with the inexorable magnetism of Western freedom and economic success, to be buried (20)

This book serves as a warning to the United States not to take international affairs or its allies for granted and to be better prepared to deal with the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. This was a book that is highly recommended for those wishing to learn about an aspect of the Cold War not often discussed and as a rebuttal to neo-conservative apologists.


1) Dana H. Allin, Cold War Illusions, 1994, xi.

2) Allin, Cold War, xi.

3) Allin, xii.

4) Allin, 4.

5) Ibid.

6) Allin, 5.

7) Allin mentions the clashes between Roosevelt and De Gaulle as symptomatic of this, as well as Morgenthau's plan to "pastoralize" Germany after the war.

8) Allin, 12.

9)Allin, 15.

10) Allin, 25.

11) Allin, 28.

12) Allin, 31.

13) Allin, 33.

14) Allin, 39

.15) Allin, 40. This policy, it must be said, caused alarm bells in France as well, fearful of any hint of revival of German unity.

16) Allin, 54.

17)Allin, 61.

18) Allin mentions the gas pipeline which was to link Western Europe to the Soviet Union and states that while it seems incredible now given what is known about the Soviet economy, the Americans felt that it was to compensate for their shrotcomings that the Soviets hit upon this strategy to hang the capitalist west.

19) Allin, 138.

20) Allin, 179.


 

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