Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gratuitious Threats Carry a Price

In today's LA Times, Matthew Brzezinski warns that George Bush's anti-missile system deployment to Russia's doorstep could have regrettable consequences. He looks at another time, back in te 50's, when Washington thought it was a good idea to use a sharp stick to poke at the Russian bear:

Under the stewardship of John Foster Dulles, his hawkish secretary of State, Eisenhower devised a new defense doctrine to counter the spreading "Red menace," which had recently claimed Eastern Europe and was infecting Asia.

To keep the Soviets sufficiently frightened and in check, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command, or SAC, began a systematic and sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation. Every day, U.S. planes took off from bases around the world and penetrated Soviet airspace, probing for weaknesses in Russian radar defenses. Huge exercises with ominous names like Operation Power House scrambled hundreds of nuclear-laden long-range bombers that charged across the Atlantic, headed for Moscow. At the last minute, they would turn around, but in some war games, squadrons of B-47 Stratojets would take off from Greenland, cross the North Pole and fly deep into Siberia in attack formation -- in broad daylight. "With any luck, we could have started World War III," the SAC commander, Gen. Curtis LeMay, famously declared.

The Russians were not amused. Had the Soviets tried the same stunt, Khrushchev indignantly responded, "it would have meant war."Throughout the campaign to demonstrate overwhelming American air superiority, the United States violated Soviet airspace more than 10,000 times. Our thermonuclear stockpile increased tenfold, while LeMay publicly speculated about the 60 million Soviet citizens targeted for annihilation under the Dulles doctrine of massive retaliation. The term was a bit of a misnomer because Soviet planes at the time did not have the range to reach U.S. soil and never once infringed on U.S. territory.

Unfortunately, the massive retaliation doctrine was too effective. "Soviet leaders may have become convinced that the U.S. actually has intentions of military aggression," the CIA warned in a 1955 report. And the intelligence agency was right. "We were very afraid, and saw the Americans clearly as the aggressors," recalled Khrushchev's son, Sergei, who now lives in Rhode Island. And so the Soviet Union started a crash program to build an ICBM.

Sputnik was the ICBM's public unveiling, Moscow's turn to demonstrate its air superiority. Ten times more powerful than any operational U.S. missile of the era, it instantly redressed and reversed the strategic imbalance and catapulted the Soviet Union into superpower status as America's technological equal.

The Eisenhower administration's own actions, which some historians now call reckless, inadvertently sped up the Soviets' quest for a missile. It's a historical lesson the current occupants of the White House should ponder.

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