The Massive Retaliation—Limited War Dilemma
The debate over American military policy has focused upon the two alternatives of “massive retaliation” and “limited warfare.” The supporters of the former have argued that the United States cannot afford the men or the resources to meet each Communist threat on its own terms. Instead, the United States must concentrate upon that form of military force— nuclear air power—where it is best able to maintain a decisive superiority. The key element of American strength must be, in the words of Secretary Dulles, “a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing.” Opposed to this doctrine is the claim of the limited war advocates that the United States cannot assume the responsibility for turning “brush fire” aggression into major conflict. The punishment must be made to fit the crime. The United States and its allies should possess balanced military forces capable of a variety of responses to a variety of challenges.
Each of these two policies has its limitations. Massive retaliation violates the principle of economy of force; limited warfare presupposes a strictly defensive role. The history of the past decade suggests that the United States does not wish to adhere consistently to either policy. On the one hand, three months after announcing the massive retaliation doctrine, the Eisenhower Administration conspicuously refrained from applying it to Indochina. On the other hand, a limited war policy requires the maintenance of military forces of a strength and variety which are probably beyond the willingness of the American people to support for any length of time. American policy has tended to fall between the two poles. It has been caught in a dilemma between selective preparation for massive action, on the one hand, and massive preparation for small action, on the other. As a result, the United States has lacked the will to engage in massive retaliation, and it has lacked the diversity of strength to fight limited wars. The disadvantages of both massive retaliation and limited warfare as commonly conceived suggest the desirability of searching for other alternatives of policy.
War may be analyzed in terms of its scope and its purpose. With respect to scope, war may be limited or total. In a total war, the national existence of all the principal participants is at stake. A war is limited, on the other hand, when the national existence of at least one major participant is not immediately endangered. The Korean War was a limited war because, although the existences of North and South Korea were at stake in the conflict, the existences of the other two principal participants, the United States and China, were not. In contrast, World War II was a total war because it was a fight to the finish for national survival for all the major powers involved. With respect to purpose, war may be classified as aggressive, defensive, or preventive. The purpose of an aggressive war is to achieve by force of arms a favorable alteration in the balance of power. The purpose of a defensive war is to resist by force of arms an unfavorable alteration in the balance of power resulting from the military action of another state. The purpose of a preventive war is to forestall by force of arms a probable future unfavorable change in the balance of power. Thus, it is possible to arrive at a sixfold classification of wars:
1. aggressive limited
2. aggressive total
3. preventive limited
4. preventive total
5. defensive limited
6. defensive total.
Almost unanimous agreement exists that aggressive limited war and aggressive total war have no place in American policy. The debate between the advocates of massive retaliation and limited warfare, on the other hand, essentially involves the relative roles of defensive limited war and defensive total war in American policy. The supporters of massive retaliation wish to restrict the number of contingencies to be met by defensive limited war and expand the number to be met by defensive total war. The supporters of limited warfare would follow a contrary policy. Both sides in the “great debate,” however, neglect the role of preventive war. Although they have not devoted much effort of analyzing its legitimacy or relevance, Americans undoubtedly have an instinctive dislike of preventive war. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that perhaps this dislike is rooted in an overly narrow conception of preventive war and that a reconsideration of the full role which preventive war could play in American policy may indicate a way out of the unpleasant dilemma of massive retaliation versus limited warfare.
The Preventive War Decision
Preventive war may be more fully defined as military action initiated by one state against another for the purpose of forestalling a subsequent change in the balance of power between the two states which would would seriously reduce the military security of the first state. Fundamentally, the purpose of preventive war is the preservation of the status quo. In the actual conduct of the war, however, the aim may change from the simple avoidance of an unfavorable shift in the balance of power to the desire to bring about a favorable change in that balance. A war is still preventive, however, so long as the likelihood of an unfavorable shift in the balance was the overriding component in the decision to initiate military action.
The decision of a state to engage or not to engage in preventive war should be based upon an evaluation of five different factors.
Basic to a decision to engage in preventive war is the prediction that the potential military strength of one’s own state is declining in comparison with the military strength of the enemy. Preventive war normally is the weapon neither of revolutionary states nor of states who are on the ascendent and rapidly growing in military power. It is more likely to be the recourse of “have nations” than of “have-not nations,” and it is most likely to be resorted to by states which are on the verge of relative decline.
A further prediction is required that the conflicting intentions of the two states will eventually lead them to war or to the overt use of the threat of war at some point in the future. If this prediction is unfounded, no reason exists for preventive war. During the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, British naval circles did not demand a preventive war against the United States although it was obvious that eventually American naval power would surpass that of Great Britain. The lack of conflict of interests between the two countries made such a course unthinkable. On the other hand, prior to World War I, British naval leaders did contemplate the desirability of preventive action against the growing German Navy. Here the likelihood of conflict between the two nations was such that it was necessary seriously to consider striking first while Britain still maintained a decisive superiority.
Any war intensifies the threats to the military security of a state for at least two reasons. During war the reduction of the military security of the state becomes the positive goal of another state or a coalition of states. Also, during war, changes in the military security of a state may occur suddenly and quickly. The military security of a state may deteriorate in peace, but it normally does so slowly. Only in war can a Jellicoe risk the complete destruction of the military security of his country in a single afternoon. Victory or defeat in battle may turn on unpredictable or intangible factors, such as the weather or the temperaments of the commanders. Victory or defeat in the war may hinge on underlying or uncontrollable factors, such as relative technological progress or the constitutional structure and domestic politics of the opposing states. For these reasons, a state normally will not resort to preventive war unless it has exhausted all other possible means of averting or neutralizing its threatened loss of military security.
If the danger to military security stems from a military build-up by its potential opponent, the threatened state may try to balance that growth by expanding its own military strength. Most states will prefer an arms race to a preventive war. Only if it becomes manifest to one state that it has little or no hope of keeping up in the arms race, will it be strongly motivated toward preventive action. Another alternative is the negotiation of alliances with other states who would guarantee to come to the aid of the threatened state if it were attacked by its potential opponent. A state which is diplomatically isolated or uncertain of support from other states, such as Prussia in 1756 and Israel in 1956, is much more likely to resort to preventive war than a state which still has room for diplomatic maneuver. Another possible alternative is direct negotiation with the potential opponent designed to eliminate the causes of friction between the two states. Or an effort might be made to reach some agreement with the potential opponent which would define and stabilize the balance of power between the two states. The Washington Treaty of 1922 and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 are classic examples of this sort of action. In the post-World War II period, many Americans, such as Thomas K. Finletter, have pointed out that the one logical alternative to a preventive war with the Soviet Union is the negotiation of an atomic arms inspection and limitation agreement. Because of the risks which war of any sort presents to the military security of a state, normally it will try to exhaust all possible alternatives before turning to preventive war. The willingness of a state to consider preventive war is itself a sign that its military security is in a parlous condition.
A decision to engage in preventive war depends upon accurate predictions as to the probable course of future events in the absence of such a decision. In general, the more long-range the prediction, the less accurate it will be. If the unfavorable change in the balance of power is likely in the immediate future, more grounds exist for waging preventive war than if it is not likely until the distant future. In the latter case, too many other variables may appear to alter the course of events. The problem of foresight is thus a key one in the preventive war decision. Seventeenth-century kings, for instance, justified preventive war on the grounds that divine help enabled them to foresee the future accurately. Others, such as Bismarck, have been more modest: “I would . . . never advise Your Majesty,” the German statesman declared during the “war in sight” crisis of 1875, “to declare war forthwith, simply because it appeared that our opponent would begin hostilities in the near future. One can never anticipate the ways of divine providence securely enough for that.”1 In short, a “clear and present danger” must exist for preventive war to be justified. The case for preventive war is strongest when the danger is concrete and immediate; less and less reason to engage in preventive war exists as the danger becomes more intangible and as it recedes into the future.
Before deciding upon preventive war a high degree of certainty must exist that this action will achieve its objective, that in reducing or eliminating one threat to its military security, for instance, the state does not hasten or further the emergence of other threats. The military action contemplated must be carefully calculated so as to achieve the desired result, but not to do more than is necessary. Bismarck once described preventive war as “suicide for fear of death.” This description, however, is accurate only if the cure is equal to or worse than the disease. A proper decision to wage preventive war is a decision to cut off a limb to save a life. The results of the action clearly must be more advantageous than the course of events in its absence.
It is sometimes claimed that any deliberate resort to force, whatever its purpose, is immoral and unjustifiable. One must keep in mind, however, the differences between preventive war and aggressive war. Aggressive war has a much weaker moral basis than preventive war. The aim of aggressive war is to acquire some benefit which the state does not currently have; the aim of preventive war is to avert the loss of security which the state does currently have. A state is more justified in taking action to protect its security than it is in resorting to military action for the purpose, for instance, of picking up additional real estate, as the United States did in 1812 and 1846. The purpose of aggressive war is to achieve by force that which cannot be achieved by peaceful means. The purpose of preventive war is to preserve by force that which would otherwise be lost by force. Aggressive war substitutes violence for peace. Preventive war substitutes present violence for future violence.
The government which decides upon preventive war consciously chooses one evil in the hopes of averting a greater evil. The morality of its decision depends upon its rationality. The more accurate and wise the conclusions of the government with respect to the five factors of capabilities, intentions, alternatives, imminence, and consequences, the more justified—and justifiable—will be its decision. The government which plunges its country into war without a careful calculation of these factors is assuredly guilty of bringing about harm which might not be necessary. If, on the other hand, a serious reduction in relative military strength appears imminent; if the intentions of the opposing state are clearly hostile; if all other feasible means of avoiding the destruction of the balance of power have been exhausted; if preventive military action would appear relatively certain to achieve its goal; if all these conclusions are arrived at through a process as considered and rational as men can make it: then the government which did not engage in preventive action would be morally guilty of gross dereliction of duty to its citizens. Would anyone argue, for instance, that the French leaders would have been less moral if they had acted in 1936 and thereby averted the holocaust of World War IIP The statesman is responsible for the security of his country. Just as it may be necessary at times to fight a defensive war to protect that security, so also it may be necessary at times to fight a preventive war.2
American Doctrines of Preventive War, 1946-1956
From the founding of the Republic until 1945, the United States at times waged aggressive war and at other times was forced into defensive wars. Rarely if ever in its history, however, did it confront the issue of preventive war. The reason for this was simply its isolation from world affairs. Not participating directly in the balance of power in Europe and Asia, the United States never had to bear primary responsibility for the maintenance of that balance. It entered both world wars only after the balance had been upset and a defensive war was already under way to restore it. The only longstanding and deeply-rooted rivalry between the United States and a foreign power was with Japan during the years from 1907 down to 1941. And even in this case the conflict of interests was not sufficiently direct, nor the Japanese military threat sufficiently menacing, to provoke many serious suggestions of preventive war. In this relationship, as was generally true down to 1945, the potential military power of the United States was continually increasing relative to that of its rival, and, for this reason also, it was against its interests to precipitate a conflict.
Since World War II, however, the international position of the United States has been drastically altered in at least two major respects. First, the continuing Cold War with the Soviet Union has involved many basic conflicts of interest. The balance of power between these two countries has become the most fundamental element in world politics. Consequently, the United States has a responsibility for the maintenance of that balance such as it did not have previously. Secondly, during the decade after World War II, the military strength of the Soviet Union and its allies generally tended to increase relative to that of the United States and its allies. These two new facts meant that the United States could no longer ignore the possibility of preventive war, and that under some circumstances it might have the responsibility and duty to undertake preventive military action. This revolution in the American security position was reflected in the appearance, for the first time in American history, of serious thought on the subject of preventive war. During the postwar decade three authentic doctrines of preventive war were developed.
Nuclear Monopoly Exploitation. This doctrine, advanced by some military men and others in the years immediately after World War II, held that the United States should force a military showdown with the Soviet Union before the latter acquired nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.3 It was assumed that conflict between the two countries was inevitable sooner or later and that once it acquired substantial nuclear capability the Soviet Union would not hesitate to utilize that capability against the United States. The United States, it was said, should present Russia with an ultimatum to cease the production of nuclear arms and to accept international supervision or to be blasted to bits. The arguments of the nuclear monopolist school of thought were, of course, accepted neither by the American public nor by the administration in power. Replying to the preventive war advocates, spokesmen for the latter declared that future American inferiority could not be assumed and that time was on our side if we made good use of it.
In evaluating the ideas of the nuclear monopolists, it must first be conceded that they accurately predicted the change in Soviet and American relative military capability. This was, however, the only factor which they evaluated correctly. The clash of interests between the Soviet Union and the United States was not sharp enough for either country to conclude that all-out nuclear warfare was its only possible recourse. Besides, other means of maintaining the balance of power were open to the United States. The Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb in August, 1949, was countered by the decision to construct a hydrogen bomb, increased emphasis upon the NATO alliance, the slow but, in time, effective development of a continental air defense system, and a program for general rearmament first laid out in “NSC 68” in the winter of 1949-1950 and then put into effect after the outbreak of the Korean War. The nuclear monopolist school also failed to consider adequately the consequences of their proposed action. Assuming that the Soviet Union rejected the American ultimatum to stop producing atomic bombs, the United States would have to devastate the Soviet Union by atomic attacks. Simultaneously, however, the Red Army would occupy western Europe and hold its cities and peoples as hostages for those in Russia. If the United States persisted in its course, the result would be the complete devastation of Europe and Russia. Eventually the United States might emerge as the strongest power amid chaos. The ultimate effect, however, would be the loss to the American economy of its principal source of foreign trade in western Europe, the imposition upon that economy of the tremendous burden of relief and reconstruction for most of Eurasia, the necessity of maintaining a large American army in Russia and other areas for a prolonged period of time, a general shift in the balance of power toward the Far East, and the probable substitution of China for Russia as the principal threat to American security. In short, advocates of the nuclear monopoly doctrine of preventive war confounded the elimination of the Soviet threat to American security with the enhancement of American security generally. They failed to see that action designed to accomplish the former might not serve the ends of the latter.
Piecemeal Destruction. This school of preventive war advocates appeared after the start of the Korean War. They were concerned with the possible dissipation of American strength through a series of small wars with Soviet satellites. Rather than succumb to this fate, they argued that the United States should force an immediate showdown with the Soviet Union as the source of the evil and the real beneficiary of the satellite aggressions. In August and September, 1950, various officials of the government were quoted or reported in support of a preventive war with Russia. While most of them did not elaborate their reasons in detail, the fear of progressive involvement in small-scale conflicts which would eventually lead to a general conflagration was apparently a major factor in their thinking. Representative Carl T. Durham, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, argued, for instance, that:
Stalin would like nothing better than for us to become physically sapped and financially bankrupt by wasting our manpower and resources against his satellite nations.
I think that in the days to come the pattern will be sufficiently clear to tell us whether or not Russia is trying to defeat us through that process. If it becomes clear beyond all doubt that that is the Russian policy, then I say that we have no alternative but to go to war with Russia; in which event, we must pick the time and place.4
The administration, however, forcefully rejected this line of thought. The advocates of preventive war were either rebuked or eased out of government, President Truman declaring that: “We do not believe in aggressive or preventive war. Such war is the weapon of dictators, not of free democratic countries like the United States.” Nonetheless, the fear of piecemeal aggression and the belief that the United States would have to precipitate a military showdown with the Soviet Union did not completely disappear and remained to hover in the background of the MacArthur controversy. The opposition to the political restrictions imposed upon military operations in Korea and the desire to extend the war by bombing Manchuria and blockading China contained elements of this type of preventive war thinking. Generally, preventive war means the recourse to violence for victory now rather than waiting for defeat later. In this case, however, preventive war meant extending already existing violence rather than risking subsequent defeat.
The piecemeal destruction doctrine predicted a gradual erosion of American power through a series of satellite wars which would eventually reach the point where the Soviet Union could step in to administer the coup de grace. This argument, however, was necessarily couched in terms of an undermining of American economic strength rather than a weakening of actual military strength: very obviously one result of the Korean War had been an increase in American military force in being. Unlike the nuclear monopoly theory, it appears likely that this school of preventive war thought was wrong in its capabilities calculation. Armaments generally stimulate economic development, and history affords no clear case of a country bankrupt because it spent too much on its military defense. With respect to intentions, the piecemeal destructionists, like the nuclear monopolists, pictured the conflict of Soviet and American interests as more intense than it actually was, and they consequently minimized the willingness of either power to accept compromise solutions. Similarly, the piecemeal destructionists overlooked the possibility of alternative ways of meeting the reduction in security which they predicted. Among these means were the strengthening of local native defense forces, the use of tactical atomic weapons in limited wars, and the deterring of limited aggression by the threat of massive retaliation. The danger which the piecemeal destructionists feared was also a long-range one, and consequently on this ground, too, there was reason to be skeptical of their prediction. Finally, the piece meal destructionists, like the nuclear monopolists, did not consider carefully whether the consequences of initiating all-out preventive war would not be even worse than those resulting from a series of little wars.
Anticipatory Retaliation. The nuclear monopoly and piecemeal destruction theories held that a shift in the balance of power was already under way which required American preventive action. A third school of preventive war thinking, that of anticipatory retaliation, argued, in contrast, not that preventive war was required immediately but that it might be required in the future. The United States, they said, must be prepared militarily, politically, and psychologically to forestall the rapid destruction of its military security from a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Thus, while the nuclear monopoly school wished to use war to prevent the Soviet Union from developing atomic capability, the anticipatory retaliation school warned that we might have to resort to preventive war as a result of the Soviet Union developing that capability. This latter theory foresaw a situation of intense international crisis during which it became evident that a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union was imminent. Would the United States simply have to brace itself and await the attack? Or could it strike first at the enemy’s war-making capability? The supporters of anticipatory retaliation declared that the latter course was necessary. Conceding the first atomic blow to the Russians would, in their view, result in the destruction of American nuclear retaliatory power and, consequently, would open the nation to devastation and defeat. Unlike the doctrines of nuclear monopoly and piecemeal destruction, the theory of anticipatory retaliation was developed and expounded almost entirely by military officers, principally in the Air Force. Instead of the defensive-offensive strategy upon which this nation had traditionally relied, it was argued that in the event of an imminent attack we should undertake an offensive-defensive action. Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, then Deputy Commander of the Army Air Force, put the case very bluntly in November, 1946, when he argued that, in the event of a likely attack against this country, the United States would have to strike first:
If we are to prevent the launching of atom bombs, guided missiles, or super-rockets against our industrial establishments, we must have a force ready to destroy these weapons at their source before they are launched.5
During the late 1940s when it was most widely articulated, the anticipatory retaliation doctrine represented a sound and realistic effort to prepare for a future contingency. The supporters of this doctrine were not advocating preventive war but rather the need to prepare for preventive war. At that time, it was reasonable to suppose that the Soviet Union would develop nuclear capability and that a situation of grave crisis verging on war might arise between that country and the United States. The calculation of the factors involved in the preventive war decision, however, could only be made when that crisis did arise, and the anticipatory retaliation proponents simply argued that we must be ready to make that calculation. In the crisis situation, a decision to take preventive action would be justified if it appeared clear that: (a) a surprise Soviet attack would cripple our retaliatory force; (b) the Soviets intended to make such an attack; and (c) the attack was imminent. Given these circumstances no alternatives would exist to nuclear war between the two countries, and the United States consequently would be justified in striking the first blow. Also, given these conditions, the consequences of not striking the first blow would be far worse than the consequences of initiating preventive action. The anticipatory retaliation doctrine was thus a realistic effort to prepare for a contingency which might well arise and in which preventive action might well be required.
Although the anticipatory retaliation thinkers thus dealt with a possibility of history, they did not, however, deal with a reality of history. The contingency which they feared never developed, and changes in the nature of armaments have now made it unlikely that it ever will develop. Basic to the anticipatory retaliation theory was the assumption that no real defense was possible against a nuclear attack. This assumption undoubtedly is still correct insofar as it refers to the prevention of widespread destruction of cities and industries. It is not correct, however, insofar as it asserts that a surprise attack would destroy American retaliatory power. The multiplication and the dispersion of the means of delivering atomic weapons have now made it virtually impossible for the enemy to assume that he could wipe out the American retaliatory force before that force could carry out its mission. The arrival of the age of atomic plenty, the strengthening of the Strategic Air Command, the expansion of a world-wide base system, the construction of Forrestal- class carriers, the development of guided missile submarines and cruisers, and the imminent potentiality of long-range ballistic missiles—all suggest that no first blow can be absolutely conclusive. Atomic plenty has put an end to the decisiveness of surprise atomic attack.
American Policy: Preventive War and Limited War
All three American doctrines of preventive war identified preventive war with total war: the hurling at the Soviet Union of all the force in nuclear weapons which it was within the capacity of the United States to hurl. And because the advocates of preventive war thought of it only as total war, so also did its opponents. “It is basically,” Hanson Baldwin declared during the flurry of preventive war talk in September, 1950, “a doctrine of desperation, frustration, and negation.” Two days later his paper editorialized that “the whole concept of preventive war is immoral, self-defeating, and utterly fallacious.”6 These were typical. Obviously the opponents of preventive war were thinking exclusively of preventive total war, but in condemning it in such sweeping terms, they also closed their minds to the possibility of preventive limited war. The rejection of preventive war by both Democratic and Republican administrations and by most informed public opinion was not so much a rejection of limited war per se as it was a rejection of nuclear total war. After the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, such opposition was founded on the hard facts of reality. An atomic Armageddon would result in not “one Rome but two Carthages.” The price of victory was unacceptable, and victory itself could be measured only in degrees of total destruction. By implication, however, this blanket rejection of total war became a blanket rejection of preventive war.
Paradoxically, the same blind spot existed in the debate over the desirability of a limited war policy. The supporters of limited war thought of it exclusively as defensive limited war. They admitted that the United States would have to surrender the initiative to the Soviet bloc. Accepting the prevailing opinion, they, too, attacked preventive war as the equivalent of total war. And because the supporters of limited war identified it with defensive war, so also did its opponents. The Eisenhower Administration rejected limited war because it was defensive, and defensive war would require military budgets higher than the Administration could support. Secretary of State Dulles demanded that the United States place less reliance on limited war and that it seize the initiative in the Cold War. His two arguments, however, were incompatible. A policy of the initiative could not be a policy of total war. It would have to be a policy of small gains and piecemeal advances, which involved the risk of limited, not total, war. In opposing limited war, however, Dulles denied himself the means with which to assume the initiative. Thus, preventive war was rejected because it was mistakenly identified with total war, and limited war was rejected because it was mistakenly identified with defensive war. The possible marriage of preventive war and limited war, which would have used military initiative for politically defensive purposes, was overlooked.
To be economically and politically feasible as well as militarily effective, a policy which allows defensive limited war must also allow preventive limited war. Indeed, as the military action under consideration becomes more and more limited in scope, that is, as the gap between limited war and total war expands, the distinction between defensive and preventive action becomes more and more difficult to maintain, American willingness to fight preventive limited wars will multiply the contingencies which the Soviet Union must be prepared to meet and thus will tend to restrict its opportunities for aggressive action and, correspondingly, the number of defensive limited wars which the United States must be prepared for. In 1938, for instance, Hitler was able to prepare his aggression against Czechoslovakia secure in the knowledge that “the danger of a preventive war against Germany on the part of foreign states does not exist.”7 No contemporary potential aggressor should have a comparable immunity. The primary aim of a limited war policy is to maintain the stability of the international balance of power against the expansion of Soviet Communism. To restrict the implements of such a policy to defensive war means always to fight at a disadvantage—“the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”—and imposes upon the country which accepts such a restriction the need to maintain a military establishment of tremendous size and diversity. Preventive war is most appropriate when the threat is concrete and immediate, the intentions of the enemy are obvious, few alternative lines of action exist, and the consequences of the preventive action are highly predictable. In general, the smaller a war is, the more likely are these circumstances to be present. From Frederick the Great’s classic preventive action in 1756 down to the Israeli Sinai campaign two hundred years later, preventive wars have been wars of limited objectives. The late 17th and 18th centuries were the great ages of limited war; they were also the great ages of preventive war. As wars in the nineteenth century became more total, the horrors of war increased, and the willingness to resort to war to forestall some future danger consequently diminished. In actual fact, statesmen and governments did not dare to take preventive action except when the risks and evils involved in such action were relatively minor. At the present time, the cataclysmic destruction of total war and the renaissance of limited war give a new relevance to preventive war. The failure of American thinking to consider the possibility of preventive limited action has produced a lacuna in American policy. Conceivably it might be desirable and even essential for the United States to resort to preventive war in two possible types of circumstances: where such action was necessary to prevent an immediate local change in the balance of power in some area of the world and where such action was necessary to prevent the likely outbreak of total war.
The principle of economy of force requires that the scope of preventive military action reflect the scope of the danger which it is designed to prevent. The three postwar doctrines of preventive war all saw the danger as a total one. Consequently, they demanded a matching response in the form of preventive total war. It is possible to imagine, however, future events which would upset the military balance of power in a limited way and which could be forestalled by limited preventive action. A Communist coup d’état in a friendly or neutral power, the threat of local aggression by a Soviet satellite, the movement of a neutral or friendly power into the Soviet bloc, the sudden increase in the armaments of a satellite or neutral power—all these might be the occasion for preventive action by the United States and its allies. At the very least, such situations require a careful weighing of the pros and cons of the five factors involved in a preventive war decision. Conceivably, the failure of Western governments to consider the possibility of preventive action in such situations could have serious implications for their military security.
So far, the United States has never been forced to engage in this form of preventive action, although on several occasions the line has been approached. Normally, however, it has been sufficient for the United States to encourage and support the action of other friendly governments in eliminating small-scale potential threats to the balance of power (e.g., the suppression of the Greek Communist forces, 1947-1949). In response to the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, the United States considered the possibility of attempting to prevent the loss of the city by pushing an armed relief column through from western Germany. In 1954 the United States came close to taking preventive action against the Communist-inclined government of Guatemala. Extreme concern was expressed in official circles over the shipment of Soviet arms to Guatemala and the threat of Communist strength there to the security of the Panama Canal. The United States encouraged Honduras and Nicaragua in their opposition to the Guatemalan regime and lent moral, diplomatic, and, possibly, material support to the insurgents under Castilho Armas who eventually dislodged the offending government.
A second situation in which preventive action might be necessary would be where the initiation of a limited war appeared to be the only way of avoiding total war. This might well be the case where a potential opponent appeared to have embarked upon a program of aggression which would ultimately increase his relative military capability to the point where he would feel safe in initiating an all-out war. Or it might be necessary to undertake a limited war so as to occupy and dissipate the forces and distract the intentions of a power which was apparently building up its strength with a view to making total war. The calculations in these situations would be difficult—particularly in view of the relative remoteness of the danger to be prevented—but they would not be impossible, and they might at times be necessary. In one aspect, moreover, they would be easier than any other type of preventive war decision. For it would not be necessary to estimate the present and future military strengths of the two powers involved. Normally, a preventive war is undertaken in order to secure victory now rather than risk defeat later. The question of victory or defeat in total war, however, is relatively meaningless. It is total war itself, not defeat in total war, which must be prevented. The issue is not the difference in outcome of war now and war later, but rather the difference in size of war now and war later. It might well be more desirable to engage in a smaller war now with less chance of success than to engage in a total war later when the military balance was more favorable. In the extreme case, it might even be preferable to fight a limited war which one was sure to lose if the certain alternative was total war at a later date.
It has been argued that the United States could lose the peace without firing a shot. It may be equally true that under certain circumstances the United States can only preserve the peace by firing a few shots. Those who were afraid of the piecemeal destruction of the United States through a series of limited wars urged preventive total war as an alternative. It could be, however, that the only way of avoiding total war is to be ready and willing to fight a limited war. It is frequently emphasized that small wars may grow into large ones. This is indeed a risk. But there is a greater likelihood that a small war may be a substitute for rather than a prelude to a large war. History suggests that some form of violence in international politics is inevitable. A rigid rejection of all forms of war in national policy—particularly the refusal to wage preventive limited war—could well lead to a buildup of pressures and tensions making for total war. In the present state of international politics, it would be peculiarly tragic if the mistaken identification of preventive action with total war inhibited the United States from taking the preventive action necessary to avert total war.
The Korean War was to some extent a preventive limited war. For South Korea, it was, of course, a defensive total war. But for the United States, on the other hand, it was in part a defensive effort to restore the balance of power which existed on June 25, 1950, and also in part a preventive effort to deter the Soviets from embarking upon further small-scale aggressions or upon a major conflict. During the MacArthur hearings, Senator Cain questioned General Bradley: “May I ask, sir, if you believe in a preventive war?” And General Bradley, obviously thinking in terms of a preventive total war, replied: “I do not, because I do not believe that is a solution.” Senator Cain, however, had a different concept of preventive war in mind, and the dialogue continued:
SENATOR CAIN. General Bradley, may I ask if the Korean War, which began in June 1950, has not become a preventive war?
GENERAL BRADLEY. Well, in a way it may have; not a preventive all-out war, but I believe that by taking this action in Korea we may have postponed or avoided a third world war, because, as I stated here before, one appeasement leads to another until eventually war is inevitable ....
So, in a way, if we can avoid World War III with the millions of casualties by taking casualties in Korea, and that actually works out that way, we may decide 5 years, 10 years or whatever time it takes for history to prove it, it was well worth while in avoiding World War III.
SENATOR CAIN. Then, you agree with the President that we are trying to prevent World War III by fighting a limited war in Korea at this time?
GENERAL BRADLEY. Well, I don’t know whether I would state it quite that way or not. I think that it could be stated that way, yes.8
General Bradley’s reluctance to agree with Senator Cain’s description of the Korean War undoubtedly reflected an unwillingness to pin upon a war which was already unpopular because it was “limited” the even more unsavory label of “preventive.” Yet all the difference in the world exists between preventive total war and preventive limited war. The former is an act of suicide; the latter is a necessary component of a limited war policy. The true alternative to defensive total war—-“massive retaliation”—is not just defensive limited war but defensive limited war plus preventive limited war. The continued identification of preventive war with total war only serves to bind and rigidify American policy. A policy designed to deter and contain aggression cannot restrict itself merely to fighting limited wars when the enemy upsets the balance of power. It must maintain the flexibility to take whatever action is necessary to avoid future disruptions of the balance of power. The United States cannot exclude the possibility of making a positive decision to go to war if that is necessary for the security of the country. American policy must remain free, as Washington wisely stated in his Farewell Address, “to choose peace or war as our interest guided by justice shall counsel.”
* The opinions or assertions in this article are the private ones of the writer and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Navy Department or the U. S. Naval Institute.
1. Quoted in Gordon A. Craig, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 255.
2. Winston Churchill stated the moral problem succinctly in The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 320:
“The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states. Their duty is first so to deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects. But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their own fellow countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definite conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded. If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used. And if this be so, it should be used under the conditions which are most favorable. There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win.
3. For a full statement of this preventive war doctrine, see George Fielding Eliot, If Russia Strikes (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949), chap. I and pp. 251-252.
4. New York Times, August 15, 1950, p. 10. Other officials expressing themselves in favor of preventive war were Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews, Senator John McClellan, Major General Orvil A. Anderson, USAF, and, reportedly, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson.
5. New York Times, Nov. 21, 1946, p. 10. For similar expressions by other Air Force officers, see Air Univ. Quarterly Review, I (Winter 1947), 66-77, 79-80, II (Winter 1948), 71-73, III (Summer 1949), 8, III (Fall 1949), 11. For a more recent statement of the anticipatory retaliation theory by a retired naval officer, see Capt. W. D. Puleston, USN (Ret.), The Influence of Force in Foreign Relations (New York: Van Nostrand, 1955), pp. 96-97, 127-130.
6. New York Times, Sept. 1, 1950, p. 4, Sept. 3, 1950, Sec. 4, p. 8.
7. Quoted in Alfred Vagts, Defense and Diplomacy (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1956), p. 313.
8. Hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees on the Military Situation in the Far East, 82nd Congress, 1st Sess., p. 954 (1951).