In spite of 15 years of experience gathered in the course of day-by-day struggle with the Kremlin, most Americans feel themselves no better qualified today to anticipate trends in the cold war than they were in 1946. The “Soviet enigma” seems no nearer solution than ever; the United States retains its belief in the existence of some mysterious but clearly sinister “blueprint,” “master plan,” or “time-table” that the Soviet bosses obstinately insist on hiding from honest God-fearing Americans by means of the infamous “closed society.” Operationally, therefore, the dominant American strategic concept ever since 1946 has been one of “response” to whatever “challenges” the Soviet cares to initiate, whether “ambiguous” or “explicit.”
The image of a great people resting its security and survival on nothing more substantial than its ability always to improvise an effective response to an external threat—over a time span usually measured at least in several decades—has proved galling to most Americans. As long as the nation admits itself to be unable to penetrate Soviet intentions, however (and avoids attempting to do so by relying on near-cosmic and operationally useless postulates of “world domination” and “the spread of Communism”), no more rewarding approach is possible. Actually, granted American assumptions, the only viable alternative to the contemporary posture of the United States is a suicidally risky pre-emptive (sometimes called “forward”) strategy of dubious rationale and low potential productivity.
Part of the obvious inability of American political and opinion leadership to come to grips effectively with the Cold War is due to the great dissimilarity in what can be termed the “strategic styles” of the two nations: the distinctive fashion in which each formulates its operative problems and devises techniques for their solution. Completely apart from their opposing concepts of national mission and ideological orientation, the U.S.S.R. and the United States approach the narrower field of political and strategic analysis from radically different points of view and varying patterns of assumptions.
The bulk of official, journalistic, and public discussion of the issues of the Cold War in the United States centers about the conflict of purpose that is painfully obvious between the antagonists. Far too little attention has been paid to the matter of style. Very few Americans seem at all sensitive to the fact that the United States conducts its Cold-War policy in a very different way than does the Soviet. Yet victory or defeat for the nation will be finally registered only in the real world. It does not seem unreasonable to argue, therefore, that deeper insight into the actual conditions of the global struggle will bear fruit in a more realistic and effective American policy.
This is not merely to argue that the United States should forthwith make still another massive effort to “understand the menace of Communism,” although obviously the more that Americans learn about the reality of Soviet motivation and action (as opposed to the myths industriously propagated by several schools of doctrinaires), the better for the nation. But Americans stand in even greater need of self-analysis; it is shockingly apparent to any serious student that the American people understand themselves and their government’s policy only marginally better than they do the Soviet. Intensive study of the U.S.S.R. can be no more than a waste of time unless the United States couples this effort with an equally serious attempt to come to terms with itself. Only in this way can the struggle with the Soviet be placed in its true perspective.
Probably the most basic difference in strategic style between the Soviet Union and the United States is dramatically suggested by the Russian preference for chess as an intellectual pastime in contrast to the American predilection for either poker or contract bridge. This is in no sense an invidious comparison; poker and contract bridge are both serious games of strategy that require intellectual and analytical gifts of at least as high an order as does chess. But—and this is the key point—the conditions under which strategic choices are made are radically different in chess than in the games favored by Americans.
The essence of strategy in chess—especially as the game is played by the Russian masters, who are the best in the world—is its integral unity. The entire plan of attack is tied together from the very first move. The successful conclusion of a game is the result of an interlocked series of operating decisions, each of which is dependent upon those preceding it and in turn affects and eventually governs those that follow. There are no breaks in the strategic web, no opportunity to “fall back and regroup.” The chess player, once he has committed himself to a strategic plan, must stand or fall on it to the end.
Poker and bridge, on the other hand, both consist of a series of analytically independent strategic confrontations (deals) tied together only loosely by a central strategic purpose. “Victory” in bridge or poker is achieved by amassing a large enough margin of profit out of an indefinitely prolonged series of separate strategic situations to emerge the winner. Each situation, furthermore, is operationally unique, with its controlling characteristics determined by the chance fall of the cards. An evening of bridge or poker demands as many strategies as there are deals.
In chess, victory (checkmate) is won by one move made at the end of the game. In games of cards, however, pay-offs are maximized by capitalizing on favorable opportunities that are at least partially fortuitous—an unusually large pot or a redoubled slam—whenever they arise. Chess problems are formulated as ways of ending a game (“white to play and win in three moves”); bridge problems, however, involve the solution of an entire hand examined with no reference to the over-all state of the competition. Chess begins with the players exactly equal in strength (except for “the move”), while poker or bridge allocates strength to each player by an arbitrary distribution of cards. Chess, in a word, demands a strategy of finality; poker or bridge, a strategy of opportunity.
American behavior in the Cold War is rooted—possibly unwittingly—in the bridge- poker school of strategy. Operationally, foreign policy seems to be conceived as a set of beads on a string, held together only by the single thread of time. Each bead is a single crisis, conflict, or “situation” (Berlin, Laos, Cuba, the Congo, Suez, Korea, and so on). Each situation (deal) is complete in itself, with its own unique context, its largely fortuitous conditions, and its own strategic imperatives and opportunities. Each is deemed susceptible of “solution” within its own terms. The United States thus moves through time dealing with one foreign policy crisis after another, with top priority being assigned in practice to the current or most recent one.
Thus the nation is confronted with an endless series of new strategic situations, each calling for a fresh approach that is forcibly reminiscent of the bridge player picking up a new hand. Within each such “problem” the United States seeks “victory”—or at least an escape from “defeat.” Victory and defeat in these cold-war “hands” are reciprocal: the United States “wins” if the Soviet is balked and “loses” if Moscow has its way. After all, in a poker hand “there can be only one winner”; setting an opponent’s contract frequently scores more points for the bridge player than he could possibly make on his own initiative. And although defeat is irksome, it can often be borne by reflecting that “we just didn’t have the cards” or by giving voice to the perennial hopeful cry of the loser: “Deal!”
In strict bridge-poker terms, this piece-by-piece approach to strategy is beyond criticism; this is the way one wins such games. But do Americans really believe that enough American “victories” in individual crisis situations can be accumulated ever to persuade Khrushchev to throw in his cards? Nevertheless, political and journalistic figures thunder for “victory” in each confrontation with the Soviet, and American success in the cold war is usually computed on some “box-score” basis for mass consumption.
The essentials of Soviet strategy can all be found in the literature of chess. The U.S.S.R. has a policy that is unified, both in time and in space. The Kremlin is adept at the “orchestration of crisis,” using a bewildering variety of tactics simultaneously in many parts of the world in a co-ordinated effort to achieve its ends. The Soviet, unlike the United States, does not have a “Latin American policy,” a “southeast Asian policy,” or even a “German policy”; there is only a single Soviet policy that governs action in any situation.
Another analogy that highlights the difference between the two approaches is drawn from sports. Soviet calculations are much like those used in managing a professional baseball team; U. S. policy-makers, on the other hand, react more like the coaching staff of a “big-time” intercollegiate football team.
Organized baseball is a game of percentages. Each team in a league will win some games and lose some; the championship goes to the one that compiles the highest winning percentage. There is no premium on winning any particular contest (except the final game of the World Series—the baseball counterpart of checkmate). Throughout a long season there is a single strategic goal to which the team’s effort is constantly directed; a single victory (even a spectacular one) is only one small step toward the championship that can be balanced off the next day by a loss. Any one game is much less important in itself than in relation to the team’s performance over the whole season and to the record of the other teams in the league.
This is a fair characterization of Soviet policy. To use a tired cliche, the Kremlin “keeps its eye on the ball”; any single issue gains policy significance only in terms of an over-all strategic design. Thus Soviet planners have no reason to fear a dangerous relaxation of effort in a moment of triumph nor does Moscow disintegrate in dismay and shock after a defeat. The U.S.S.R. plays the percentages; Soviet strategy is aimed at winning the final game of the international World Series.
There is nothing either novel or vicious, or uniquely Communist, about this approach; on the contrary, it is in the grand tradition of statecraft. It was long ago pointed out— frequently, at least by some Germans and Americans, with some scorn—that “Britain always loses every battle but the last one.” It is a tribute to British reticence that only seldom did London point out the obvious fact that the last battle is the only one really worth winning. It is, however, a difficult concept for Americans to grasp, since so many of them think in categories appropriate to high- pressure college football.
The modern football coach in an institution taking the game seriously has his mission imposed upon him by the nature of the system in which he operates. He must strive for an undefeated season, or at least a sufficiently impressive won-lost record to attain the stratospheric regions of the “top ten.” It is an interesting sidelight that national championships in professional baseball are decided on a strict mathematical basis while in college football they are “awarded” by self-appointed committees of journalists. Does this suggest some relationship with the American obsession with “prestige”?
The coach must, therefore, win ten or 11 games, evenly spaced throughout a three- and-a-half month season. Any one game is as important as any other; each contributes equally to his success. Only a few teams— such as the service academies—can count a season a success if only they humble a traditional rival. For most coaches, their record and their job security are placed in absolute jeopardy each Saturday. A football team “plays one game at a time” in a special and excruciating sense.
The “record” is no more than an arithmetical total of wins and losses; a defeat in the first game is as important—but no more so—as one in the season’s finale. Thus for most football teams, there is no World Series. The season does not build to a climax, but instead is spent on a plateau of tension with no release until the very end. A final strategic influence is the distinctive rhythm of the football season: a week of preparation for a game, the game itself, another week of practice, another game, and so on. This is in sharp contrast to baseball; a professional team, launched on a season, spends virtually all its effort in daily competition that contributes directly to its final standing.
Again, one need not be an aficionado of college football to detect the elements of these preoccupations in American strategy. The national proclivity to conceive policy as a series of direct Soviet-American confrontations separated by more or less static pauses for practice strongly affects the planning of Any American Secretary of State, once a major Soviet-American crisis is touched off, must feel akin to the college football coach at the moment of kick-off. Now his preparations will be tested; now his true worth as a strategist (testable, according to this doctrine, only in face-to-face struggle—“the battle is the pay-off”) will be measured. He knows also that like the coach an undisguisable failure will touch off a popular demand for his official scalp. Humiliation and punishment of “those responsible” for “defeat” is part of the American way of doing business. And even a real success cannot console him, for he knows that there is another game to be played next Saturday.
Most significantly, however, the “football touch” is revealed in the pursuit of the undefeated season. Once the whistle blows and the United States becomes locked in open conflict with the Soviet, the nation demands “the old college try” from its servants. Each crisis is as important as any other; all are absolutely critical and call into question far- reaching matters of national prestige, survival, and world role. Each victory, no matter how trivial, vindicates the entire American position and induces visions of total success at some future time; each defeat (especially as interpreted by the mass media) plunges the nation into gloom and an orgy of Spenglerian despondency about the failure of American “vitality” and “will.”
Where the baseball-chess orientation of Soviet strategy pays off best is in its possession of a built-in device for the rationalization of operational priorities. Secure in their appreciation of an overriding and well-formulated set of objectives, Soviet planners avoid the trap of assigning each issue the same— necessarily absolute and transcendent—importance. Instead, Moscow can quickly determine how far it is appropriate to go in any situation, how much risk can be justifiably assumed, and how many human and material resources may be thrown into the struggle. Thus stabilized by a central strategic concept, Soviet policy has a consistency and a tenacity that make it very difficult to throw off the track.
The United States, relying on its football- poker calculus, finds it much more troublesome to govern its operations by any such tight strategic pattern. The nation concentrates on dealing with one crisis at a time. Inevitably, the peculiar circumstances of each situation have much more influence on the strategic choices made than can any generalized goal. Indeed, the inductive and pragmatic character of American planning tends to make the goals themselves merely functions of concrete situations rather than vice versa. As a result, the objectives of American policy usually find expression as abstractions with a vague operational ring rather than as formulations of concrete states- of-affairs the United States is seeking to bring about: “stop Communism,” “advance the cause of freedom,” “strengthen the Free World,” “stand firm,” and the like. None of these is of any use as a guide to action in an actual situation, and the United States usually contents itself with trying to “win” the pot on the table with the cards it has been dealt.
A student of chess soon learns the value of the “gambit”: the deliberate sacrifice of a piece in order to gain an immediate advantage in time or position that will make possible the later recapture of the lost piece under more favorable circumstances. Soviet strategists are adept at this maneuver, but it would be a foolhardy American policy-maker who would dare seriously to propose any such move. After all, no football team ever deliberately lost a game, no bridge player ever accepted an avoidable set, and very few poker players permit a pot to go by the board just to bait their opponents into over-extending themselves.
The key to gambit strategy is an appreciation of the relative value of the pieces in their current state of development; in other words, a gambit makes sense only in terms of advance planning and an over-all strategic concept. It is only moderately amenable to any mathematically rigid “theory of games,” since the contest is not “zero-sum.” “Gambitry” instead demands an intuitive flair, a sense of time and place, and a strong faith in the basic strategic plan.
In still another way the baseball-football contrast is visible in the respective national styles. Football is a game governed by a clock; everything takes place within a predetermined and, at least for the losing team, frequently too short period of time. Success demands strategies that produce quick results, or at the very least pay off within the fixed playing time. Baseball, on the other hand, has no time limit; the game is governed by the number of times each team comes to bat. No matter how long a team may prolong an inning, its opponents will have exactly as many opportunities—under identical rules and conditions—to score in its turn. Thus there is no premium on playing a “possession” game or in seeking to monopolize the initiative. Defense and offense are two sides of the same coin.
The analogy is almost disturbingly apropos to the Soviet and the United States. American expectations are geared to quick results, “crash programs,” “breakthroughs,” and winning “races” with the Soviet. The recurrent demand that the United States “seize the initiative” is clearly linked to the equally pervasive plaint that “time is running out,” so beloved of the nation’s editorialists. “You can’t score,” football wiseacres intone, “unless you have the ball,” and Americans see themselves committed to scoring the winning touchdown soon, before the final gun goes off. The Soviet, however, is not at all obsessed with time; the game is yet in its early innings and by the time the last man is put out, many years hence, Moscow is certain it will be the winner. Early leads do not count, except as a measure of how much catching up is to be done. It is the score at the end of the game that is all-important.
To recapitulate: American strategic style, drawing its inspiration from football and poker, is marked by a concentration upon unique situations, the development of multiple strategies for a broad variety of contexts, a one-dimensional search for victory in every conflict, the lack of an internal priority system, and a stress upon quick results. The Soviet, in contrast, has perfected a style that in every one of these respects is the reciprocal of the American: unified, goal-centered, alert to priorities of time and place, and free of haste.
Americans are fond of reminding themselves at every opportunity that they are involved in a struggle of long duration, but very few seem to have grasped the strategic implications of this platitude. The Soviet has been and obviously still is planning for the long term, building strategy upon the assumption that its goals are important and worthy enough to justify intensive and coordinated effort for many years. The United States, orienting itself primarily to crisis, has demonstrated astonishing ingenuity in extemporizing strategies and tactics in times of stress, but it has never developed a generalized strategic concept to rationalize its many policies and programs. The chess player, in a word, must think ahead to the consequences of any move he makes; the poker player cannot plan until he sees the cards he has drawn.
Bluff is a key element in poker, with the explicit strategic function of forcing an uncomfortable burden of choice upon one’s opponent. A skillful poker player can, under appropriate circumstances, maximize winnings otherwise unobtainable by the forthright and vigorous employment of a bluff. But chess is also replete with analogous situations, and the chess strategist has a major advantage over the poker player in evaluating a bluff. He has a broader strategic outlook and many more analytical criteria. He has the entire sweep of the game to help him
decide whether or not to call the bluff, while the poker player must operate largely within the limits of the single hand. The Soviet leaders have repeatedly shown much greater sophistication than the United States in handling bluffs. For Americans, a called bluff means either defeat or a dangerous escalation of the crisis. For the Soviet, it is only a side-clip to another prepared position.
The crisis of decision facing the United States at this point in history is whether the nation can safely go on playing poker with a chess master. Against an enemy who is always thinking several moves ahead, how long can the United States afford the luxury of not adopting a strategy until it sees the cards it has been dealt, until the crisis actually breaks? Under the conditions of military and political technology in the latter half of the 20th century, what chance has a strategy of opportunity against a strategy of finality?
Fifteen years of cold war have undermined most of the fundamental postulates on which the United States has based its approach. The result is a serious erosion in the American position:
(1) International crises are not independent and self-contained events, capable of being attacked as isolated decisional systems; instead, each development in world affairs is part of a seamless web of international interaction.
(2) All crises are not of equal importance, nor is one victory as meaningful as another. The real measure of American success or failure is relative, not to the embarrassment the Soviet bloc may suffer, but rather only to the central strategic purpose the United States may be serving.
(3) No state, no matter how powerful, can realistically hope for an undefeated season every year. A certain proportion of American moves are found to fail, even under optimum circumstances; the best any strategist can dream of is a winning percentage adequate to move him toward his own goals.
(4) The complex and swift-moving nature of contemporary world affairs places a high premium upon explicit and operative concepts of national purpose. No other device can prevent American policy from deteriorating into a welter of unrelated and often self contradictory undertakings.
With the world so emphatically refuting the American assumptions about the nature of the game, a massive overhaul in American strategic thinking is long overdue. It is past time for the United States to learn to play international political chess itself. Only by a strategic technique that takes into full account both the peculiarities of the environment and the tactics of the enemy can the nation significantly improve its capabilities for rewarding effort.
The elements of such a new strategic style have been already suggested; here they may be briefly summarized: (1) a clear formulation of national purpose that can serve as a constant criterion of choice; (2) a unitary strategy that integrates American action across time and in any part of the world; (3) an articulated system of priorities, derived from postulated goals, that imparts a sense of proportion to American planning; (4) a capacity to accept either a victory or a defeat with confidence and poise; (5) a sense of time that permits long-term planning and operations in pursuit of vital objectives.
None of these is especially esoteric, nor is any inherently impossible of adoption by the United States. Their realization requires only a greater measure of maturity in the American people and a display of greater courage and determination by their leaders. To embark on such a course, however, will undoubtedly generate painful political tensions within the United States and upset many cherished ways of thinking and acting. To fail to develop a viable strategic style, however, is to condemn the United States to a static policy in a dynamic world and the American people to a steady diet of eroding prestige and bewildered frustration. There would seem to be little doubt about which road the United States should take.
"If ten ships out of eleven were taken, I would never call it well enough, if we were able to get at the eleventh.”
Horatio, Lord Nelson