The Cold War and U.S. Limited War Strategy
The Cold War has ended, but the intellectual legacy of the intensive, bipolar U.S.-Soviet competition between 1946 and 1990 remains. For U.S. and allied leaders, nuclear weapons technology created a compelling interest in both ways to limit war and military strategy involving the calibrated use, and threat, of force. The Cold War demanded of U.S. leaders an untested capacity for the coercive application of military power, and they groped about for the handles of an effective strategy of military limitation appropriate to the context of a bipolar, nuclear world. It was a clear case of on-the-job training, and very much against Americans' instinctive way of war.1 Success, as explained below, was elusive.
This chapter explores some of the challenges presented by limited war to U.S. political leaders, military planners, and academic strategists caught off-guard by the unexpected milieu of Cold War. The chapter begins with a mostly chronological review of the story from Korea through the Gulf War of 1991. The chapter continues with a consideration of the United States' Cold War experience, the lessons U.S. leaders learned from that experience, and what that learning may portend for the future.
After World War II, the United States' extension of peacetime defense commitments to Western Europe and decision to station permanent American garrisons there formed a politico-military strategy for Cold War competition. But that strategy also froze the status quo in the center of Europe, thereby reducing the risk of inadvertent war between the