Each of the two opposing power systems held an effective veto over the other

Monday, January 4th, 2021

T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War) the complexities of war in the Nuclear Age:

Well-placed men in government, who could not be named, stated to reporters that the old policy of October 1950, seeking the defeat of the aggressor, was dead.

Military reports indicated that there was a strong possibility that the CCF in Korea could be brought to ruin by continued offensive action. But would the collapse of the CCF, and the resultant loss of face in Asia, force the U.S.S.R. to act?

The answer will never be known, for the United States had had enough of challenges.


The announcement said, in effect, that the United States, acting for the U.N., was willing to settle, without threats, recrimination, or talk of punishment. The Communists had tried a gambit, and failed. The U.N. had tried one of their own, and had also failed. No one had really lost — but no one had really won. The United States said that the status quo ante was quite all right with it, if the Communists agreed.

Thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children, civilians and soldiers were dead, crippled, or homeless. But the frontier had been held. After all the fighting, and suffering, and dying, all was as it had been. Nothing had been settled — except that now each side knew the other had the will to fight, in defense of what it considered vital interests.


In the seventh year of the Nuclear Age, they accepted the fact that each of the two opposing power systems held an effective veto over the other. They would not, except as a last extremity, accept general war.

They would fight; they would reluctantly spill the blood of their nation’s young men, but if possible, only in limited fashion, and only to prove a point to the enemy.

They tended to be level-headed, pragmatic, cynical of sweeping conclusions in any direction, with complete awareness of the dreadful complexities of the modern political world. They did not envision surrender. But they also saw no clear-cut answers, in a world that held only awesome problems.

It was typical that many of these men, like Dean Acheson, wore London suits, for they had inherited the mantle the British Lion had worn a hundred years earlier.

Many of them, strangely, often had the name of Woodrow Wilson on their lips, as they talked to the public. This was ironic, because a Wilson would have vomited them forth from his Administration. Like a great many of the American people, the crusader Wilson would never have understood them.


MacArthur had delivered Red China an ultimatum. He had hinted that the full power of the United States and its allies might be brought to bear against the Chinese homeland; threat was redolent throughout the discussion of Chinese weakness, and it was a threat that MacArthur obviously relished.

When Truman read it, he went white. MacArthur’s announcement was a challenge to the authority of the President, under the Constitution, to make foreign policy.


MacArthur was challenging traditional civilian supremacy in government, and Truman was not at all certain but that Caesar was speaking from beyond the Rubicon.

MacArthur was no Caesar, with immense political ambitions. He was a servant of the Republic who felt so strongly that the course of the Administration, eschewing triumph over the transgressor, was immoral that he had put himself into public opposition. He was trying to influence policy.


Soldiers are brought up to tell the truth, and to take positive action. Since politicians, in the main, regard neither of these with great affection — they must forever please the people, regardless of what is true or what needs to be done — soldiers and political men are often in conflict.

A political leader who takes strong action, who does not equivocate, dally, or try the impossible task of pleasing everyone, has usually nothing to fear from soldiers, even in authoritarian lands. It is the leaders of the Fourth Republic, the Frondizis, the Roman Senate, the men who try to walk a tightrope, who have been intolerable to the soldiery.

Military men, who are willing to risk their lives, have small sympathy with anyone unwilling to risk his office. While politics may be the art of the possible, war is often the art of the impossible.


The old school of thought was honest and sincere, but contradictory. Its major premises were that America should avoid trouble overseas — but that if it arose, should smash it, without counting any cost. No entangling alliances should be made; there should be no involvement in foreign politics; but if the United States were confronted with evil opposition, if it were attacked, then it should rise in righteous wrath.

The old school was highly suspicious of the military, and preferred to cut arms spending to the bone.

There was nothing wrong with this school of thought — Americans had cleaved to it for generations, and as late as 1941 more than 70 percent of them had been against entry in world affairs — except that there was now no one to hold the far frontier. There was no Army of France, no British Navy, to strive, morally or immorally, for order in the world.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    The world got too small and crowded for isolationism to work any more. It’s the same reason libertarianism won’t work in cities. Live and let live requires a certain spatial separation. Freedom doesn’t scale.

    But we don’t have to go out looking for fights. The fights will come to us.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    The Truman/Eisenhower Containment and Deterrence strategy ended up with a win and no WWIII, so it’s hard to criticize, but there’s no doubt that the creation of a huge standing armed forces plus a national security state, damaged constitutional government in the United States, possibly fatally. In addition, a successful curbstomping of North Korea and Communist China would probably have led to the collapse of Communism four decades earlier, and the saving of tens of millions of lives. That’s 20/20 hindsight, of course, and there’s no guarantee that it would have worked, but guys like MacArthur and Patton were not just fire-breathing lunatics, they had a point that protracted conflict had its dangers as well.

  3. Kirk says:

    Once, I’d have agreed with Altitude Zero. Nowadays, I’m not entirely certain that we didn’t get taken to the cleaners by the oligarchy.

    How much of what happened in the Cold War was due entirely to our own paranoia? How much was actual fun-house mirror reflection of our own issues?

    Not to argue that the Communists weren’t utter bastards bent on subverting the rest of the world, either–Just that I suspect a lot of our reactionary BS was entirely self-referential. “We can do it, so they must be doing it, too…”. Ya gotta wonder just how much of the military-industrial complex stems from that nuttiness, especially when you look at the things that are open-source and public, like the whole “Build the MIG-25 to counter the cancelled XB-70…” thing, with the rest of the various packages we copied from them. It’s like a solipsist self-reinforcing circular cluster-f**k of a firing squad.

    The other question is, what the hell would have happened had we been open and honest about it all, and just patted the Soviets on the head, said “Isn’t that special…” to all their claims of economic and demographic superiority, and then let them go on to collapse without us warping our society to compete with them and spending trillions of borrowed dollars on weapons? How much of that BS was really necessary?

    The whole idea of Communism was eventually going to come to a bad end, once all the many and sundry internal self-contradictions caught up with them. Maybe we sped things up, maybe we didn’t. We certainly spent a shed-load of money, and did vast damage to our cultural commons in the fight. Was it worth it?

    At the age of near-sixty, there’s a lot of reconsideration of things on my part. I’m not so sure that the things I was taught and came to believe were either accurate, or really, truly necessary. I suspect that Communism was going to collapse anyway, hard though that may have been for 20 year-old me to believe. Should we have done what we did? Was spending all that money, all that effort, all that damage to our civil rights, really necessary?

    It’s an interesting thing to consider, heretical though it may be.

  4. Altitude Zero says:


    I still believe that Communism was a Hellish evil, and that the Cold War, in some form, was necessary, but seeing how things have gone since its end, I’m less and less sure that we fought it the right way, or for the right ends. McCarthy was essentially right; domestic Communism was the larger threat, if not exactly in the way he believed. I’m a lot more open to your viewpoint than I would have been even five years ago.

  5. Gavin Longmuir says:

    We can never do more than guess at what might have been the consequences of the path not taken.

    Suppose the US had said at the end of WWII, “OK, that’s it. We are out of here. We are going back across the ocean, and we have nukes to destroy anyone who messes with us. It is up to you Europeans & Asians to sort out your own problems”. Would the US today be a better place? How about the rest of the world?

    My evolving view is that Competence is more important than Communism or Capitalism, especially in a world in which everyone is drifting towards the functional equivalent of Fascism.

    What brought down the USSR was incompetence — bad decisions they made on agriculture, which required the USSR to import large amounts of food. When the price of oil was high, the USSR could afford to do that. When Saudi Arabia drove down the price of oil, the USSR ran out of money and collapsed. Killed by incompetence.

    On the other hand, nominally Communist China has benefitted amazingly from competent leadership after Mao died. They know what their long-term goals are, and they are focused on achieving them.

    Meanwhile, the West (including the US) has suffered from a real dearth of competence in its Political Class, including bureaucrats, academics, lawyers, and business people as well as elected officials.

    Where does Competence come from? Why do some societies at some stages have it, while others do not?

  6. Kirk says:

    Gavin, all you have to do is remove accountability and personal responsibility from the presumed “leadership class”, and that’s all it takes.

    In the Soviet Union, so long as you were a good Party member, you were insulated from consequences sourced in reality. Pissing off Stalin, or one of his lieutenants could get you killed, of course, but that was an entirely separate issue from whether or not you were “right”. Ask any of the Red Army leadership that got purged before WWII–Tukachevsky would probably have some interesting things to say about the way reality wasn’t penetrating through to the upper leadership.

    We’ve done very much the same. If a member of our nomenklatura screws things up, so long as they remain ideologically pure, they’re never going to be held accountable. This is the fundamental issue with the whole of left-wing philosophy and conduct: Nobody ever pays a price for getting anything wrong. Learning does not occur, because they’ve short-circuited the feedback loop. So long as it is ideologically correct to touch that burner, the nerves will never inform anyone that touching the damn thing hurts.

    You see the same thing across our society, in terms of there being a reality dysfunction. Want to discipline a black soldier? LOL… Better be damn sure you’ve got him dead to rights, have dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the “t’s”, ‘cos if you haven’t, he’s going to get away with murder. Perhaps literally… All because of the fact that nobody wants to be the bad guy in holding him accountable, or, worse yet, run the risk of being seen as “racist” or “unfair to blacks”.

    That’s a symptom of the mentality that’s pervasive throughout it all, these days. Zero accountability, zero responsibility, zero consequence.

    I’d also suggest that the Chinese Communists are not much better, in this regard. If you’re a member of the Party, you’ll never pay the price for screwing up. Unless, of course, you’re like one of Stalin’s victims and wind up as a bad example for others. The Chinese are still on that upward half of the bell curve, where there’s a chance you’ll receive consequences for your stupidity or cupidity. That will undoubtedly change, and probably in a lot shorter time than you might think. Once it does, well… Yeah. Look out, it’s time for the Warlords again…

    The root of the problem is in the fact that the “establishment” even exists. So long as there are “old boy networks” and hereditary positions to benefit from, you’re going to see this sort of crap. In the Army, you’d occasionally run into cases where the West Point Protective Association was actually a thing, and the right officer, usually a minority member, would literally have someone cover for their rank and arrant idiocy. No black officer is ever going to be disciplined for most of the things that would end a white male’s career, and if that officer is female and black? LOL… She could murder someone in a staff meeting, and most of the people attending it would just look the other way and profess ignorance to the investigating officer.

  7. Sam J. says:

    Gavin Longmuir says,”We can never do more than guess at what might have been the consequences of the path not taken.

    Suppose the US had said at the end of WWII, “OK, that’s it. We are out of here. We are going back across the ocean, and we have nukes to destroy anyone who messes with us. It is up to you Europeans & Asians to sort out your own problems”. Would the US today be a better place? How about the rest of the world?…”

    Your most certainly right about the bad consequences for the US and the west for fighting the cold war but…look how many people died wherever they took over. You don’t have to be competent if you can just shoot anyone who us. And once they had enough power, countries and resources even the barely competent can defeat you.

    I think we could have made detente work during the Brezhnev era but when they invaded Afghanistan then…well the gloves came off even Jimmy Carter, who surely believed he could make a deal with them, decided that they couldn’t be trusted.

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