The U.S. Escalation Cycle, 1960-2018

Scholars of international politics regard the relative balance of forces as the crucial controlling variable. Under the shadow of thermonuclear weapons, forces-in-being came to matter more than intrinsic war potential. But like every other measure, the relative balance hides as much as it reveals. We get no sense of the escalation cycle of either great power.


There is great stability in the number of personnel working for the armed services of the United States until the Soviet capitulation. The response to the shock in Korea is clear in the jump from 1950 to 1955. The strategic air command emerges as a war-winning first-strike weapon in the mid-1950s. The Dulles-Eisenhower doctrine of massive retaliation admits the manpower cuts evident in 1955-1960. The Kennedy escalation is also visible in 1961. It is, unfortunately, overshadowed by the Johnson escalation in 1965. The Reagan escalation is barely visible.


What is missing from the force-levels is their deployment. Are they deployed within the continental United States? Or are they deployed abroad? Statistical Abstract of the United States intermittently reports the number of US military personnel deployed overseas. This is a more sensitive barometer of American politico-military engagement.


Are these troops deployed in Europe and Korea? Or are they deployed in ‘the southern half of the world’, seen to be at particular risk for communist subversion by the authors of the Kennedy escalation? In the graph above, the Cold War premium is manifest. US forces deployed in Europe and Korea are cut in half after the Soviet capitulation.

The diagnostic innovation of the Kennedy Administration was based on their critique of Dulles-Eisenhower military policy. In the age of megaton thermonuclear weapons, ‘the practical and moral necessity of disciplining mass violence’, as Osgood phrased it in Limited War, became absolutely paramount. Any military move in a confrontation with the Soviets had to signal deliberate restraint. By the same token, communist expansion through a local attack like Korea or through guerrilla war as in China, Vietnam, Laos, or Cuba, could not be deterred through a policy of nuclear retaliation.

The military instrument was to have ‘great power in all its parts’, as Kaufmann put it in 1960. Kennedy asked McNamara to report on short-term plans to rebuild ‘nonnuclear military power’ very early in 1961. The Defense Secretary recommended raising the number of combat-ready divisions in the Army and the Marine Corps from 14 to 22 by the end of the year. The Kennedy administration did not come in with a clear solution to the problem of guerrilla subversion identified by the civilian military intellectuals in 1954-1960. But there was no deficit in urgency from the top down. In practically his first day in office, Kennedy demanded of his national security principals: ‘What are we going to do about guerrilla war’? On February 23, 1961, he signed a Secret executive order, National Security Action Memorandum-2 (NSAM-2), with the subject title, ‘Development of Counter-Guerrilla Forces’. The Administration’s solution would be articulated by Walt Rostow, Roger Hilsman, and U. Alexis Johnson at State. The final form would appear as Overseas Internal Defense Policy.

The Kennedy Administration launches into an extraordinary global effort to fight communist subversion ‘in the grey areas’. Special Group (C.I.) was set up promptly to oversee the global counterinsurgency campaign from Washington. Charles Maechling Jr. was installed as the Director of Overseas Internal Defense. In 1969, he would write an indictment of counterinsurgency in the Foreign Service Journal (p. 19). Much later, in 1988, in a chapter titled “The First Ordeal by Fire,” published in Low-Intensity War by Michael T. Klare (ed.), Maechling would write a much more revealing and scathing account of Blaufarb’s ‘Counterinsurgency Era’.

The Kennedy escalation runs into two blockages identified by Blaufarb that would bring it to grief in the late-1960s: the U.S. military’s de facto refusal to field Hilsman’s lightly-armed, small-unit forces suitable for counterinsurgency, and the dependent regime’s problem of ‘self-reform in the midst of crisis’. But 1961-1968 is merely the first cycle of counterinsurgency. From the Kennedy innovation onward, civilian and uniformed intellectuals would repeatedly struggle with the problem of protracted guerrilla war. Counterinsurgency would become a foul word in the Seventies. It is resurrected in the mid-1980s by civilian militarists, put into motion by the Reagan Administration, and played out as the ‘mujaheddin war’ in Afghanistan and the ‘contra wars’ in Central America. The term of choice among civilian intellectuals in the Reagan cycle was ‘low-intensity warfare’. Despite the Iran-Contra scandal, that would test Congress-White House relations, the Reagan wager would be saved by the bell, ie the Soviet capitulation.

Source: Google Ngram.

What is interesting is how, working in this reference frame, we can nearly seamlessly transition between the “Cold War” and “post-Cold War” periods. The third and last counterinsurgency cycle is ‘the long war’ that ensued after 9/11. The confrontation with Salafi jihadism would be projected onto Saddam. It would all come to grief in 2006, but not because the military refused to learn how to fight counterinsurgency—the Anbar Awakening is a signal that the U.S. military had finally figured out how to do it. Instead, what breaks in the-mid-2000s is again the home front. The details differ greatly from the Vietnam War. The moral economy was fraught even before it got off the ground. The rationale for the U.S. attack on Iraq was soon widely believed to be bogus. The Iraq war proved to be geopolitically counter-productive for the United States—the only power to gain influence was Iran. Obama brought it to a close, even as he escalated in Afghanistan. Petraeus, who had revisited the Sixties experience in the mid-1980s counterinsurgency revival, would be sent to oversee counterinsurgency in Afghanistan in 2010. But the effort was soon abandoned. By the time Obama left office, the groundwork had been turned over to the Afghans.


Okay, so we have the counterinsurgency cycle that requires documentation and emplotment. But there is bigger fish to fry. The focal point of the burgeoning literature on civilian intellectuals and the U.S. national security state is the tension between democracy and security. That’s the thread that runs through works on the secrecy regime, ‘Cold War social science’, and so on. I do not find this question all that interesting. What I want to do instead is ask whether civilian intellectuals were able to influence the thought and practice of the armed services. How do we think causally about military intellectuals, policy and practice? What were the blockages? Did institutional memory decay between the counterinsurgency eras? What can we say about the learning process of the military as ‘ecologies of attention’? Did State and CIA contribute to this conversation? Who is paying attention to whom?


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