This illuminating and wonderfully subversive book is, without a doubt, the most important contribution to the history of US national security policy to appear in the past decade. Nominally, Perils of Dominance reinterprets the origins of the Vietnam War, recounting the crucial decisions made between 1954 and 1965 culminating in the commitment of American combat forces. In retracing this familiar sequence of events Gareth Porter, an independent scholar who has published on the war for more than three decades, challenges and overturns conventional explanations of how the United States blundered into that conflict. But the revisionist interpretation that he puts forward is of far more than historical interest. Perils of Dominance demolishes our most fundamental assumptions about how national security policy is formulated. Perhaps of even greater significance, it undermines the very notion of the cold war as a construct that explains the postwar era and as a source of myth used to justify actions well into the present.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the chief factor governing US policy, writes Porter, was not ideology–a fear of aggressive and monolithic Communism that seemingly left the United States with no alternative but to prop up tottering dominoes–but “strategic asymmetry.” A pronounced imbalance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, amounting from 1953 onward to “something approaching absolute strategic dominance,” freed Washington of any perceived need to exercise self-restraint and created incentives for aggressive and even reckless action. In this sense, the United States wandered into the quagmire not grudgingly or against its will but because influential officials in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations were convinced that the United States held all the cards and couldn’t lose.
Striking at the cold war’s conceptual definition, Porter dismisses the notion that the Soviet-American rivalry was a contest between two superpowers of more or less equal stature. Rather, he asserts that from the early 1950s onward the international order was “effectively unipolar.” Once the Korean War triggered the rearmament program proposed by the 1950 policy paper NSC-68, the United States quickly achieved a position of overwhelming pre-eminence. For the next decade and more, it maintained that pre-eminence, especially as measured by the currency of nuclear striking power. Porter does an especially effective job of documenting this strategic disparity, fully recognized in both Washington and Moscow (not to mention Beijing and Hanoi). Although the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, when it came to deploying such weapons effectively, they lagged at least a generation behind the Americans. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, Soviet long-range bombers were slow, vulnerable and few in number. Soviet land-based missiles were unprotected and maintained at low levels of readiness. Soviet submarines were noisy and carried short-range missiles tipped with conventional warheads. Launching a missile required the sub to surface. Soviet air defenses were porous.
Furthermore, American officials had a high level of confidence in their ability to take out the Soviet arsenal before it could do any harm. Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, believed that SAC could destroy Soviet warmaking capabilities “without losing a man to their defenses.” In 1959 President Dwight Eisenhower assured Senator Lyndon Johnson that “if we were to release our nuclear stockpile on the Soviet Union, the main danger would arise not from retaliation but from fallout in the earth’s atmosphere.”
To be sure, US officials did not share these truths with the American people. For public consumption, the Red Menace remained dire. Portraying the Soviets as ten feet tall served several purposes. It enabled generals like LeMay to shake down Congress for better bombers, bigger missiles and an ever-expanding budget. It allowed ambitious politicians like Senators Johnson and John Kennedy to advertise their credentials as tough-minded statesmen keenly attuned to the threats facing the nation in a dangerous world. More obliquely, publicly exaggerating the lethality of the Soviet strike force helped the wily Eisenhower keep LeMay and other superhawks at least partially in check: By positing a relationship of mutual deterrence the President could argue against further expanding US strategic capabilities (in reality vastly superior) as potentially destabilizing. In other words, overstating the Soviet threat helped Ike fend off demands for overkill.