The Protracted Conflict

April 1, 1959

The democratic peoples of the West view peace as the norm of international relations and conflict as an aberration from the normal state of things. This preconception — one great illusion of democracy — has been the most effective ally of totalitarian aggressors who have turned this century into the bloodiest epoch of human history. The aggressors have made one concession to the ideal of democracy: Bent upon conflict, they have avowed their love for peace.

It was easily predictable that the Communists, once the American atomic monopoly was broken, would step up the pace of the cold war while professing all the more Communist strategy now is plain: the creation, in accelerating sequence, of international crises accompanied by ever more pressing demands for a “relaxation of international tensions.”

The Communists know that the democratic peoples are weary of the cold war. They gamble on the assumption — a plausible one in the light of history — that the democracies will, sooner or later, content themselves with a settlement that promises them “peace in our time” and will not look too closely at the real terms of the compact that relieves them of their fears. At best, such a settlement will be a truce; at worst, if could so weaken the Western democracies’ will to resist that it would be tantamount to a decisive victory for Communism. It will not — and it cannot — terminate the cold war, for Communism and conflict are synonyms. Communist doctrine is conflict doctrine.

Our generation, the great democratic illusion notwithstanding, faces the prospect of a prolonged contest with international Communism. The first step toward the development of an effective free world counteraction is a clear understanding of the nature of the enemy who is determined to overwhelm us, ad of the strategy he employs toward this end.

We are confronted by an unprecedented paradox: virtually unlimited resources and higher standards of living are within our reach. Yet, the survival of civilization itself has been put in jeopardy. Since World War I our world has undergone continuous revolutionary change. Nationalism, population pressure, and the “revolution of rising expectations” are the chief agents of this revolutionary upheaval. A new order is in the making. The question that now faces mankind is this: Will the new world be free or will it be slave? The future will be decided by the free or will it be slave? The future will be decided by the outcome of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, or, more broadly, between the free world and the Communist bloc.

The contest between our way of life and that represented by Communist totalitarianism has been called the cold war. A more accurate description for this struggle might be the “protracted conflict.” Protracted conflict is a recognizable historical phenomenon. It accompanies all periods of epochal change.

Revolutionary movements, by their very nature, start from a position of physical inferiority vis-à-vis the defender of the status quo. The strategy of protracted conflict aims to enable the revolutionary side to wear the enemy down while building up its own strength and to postpone a decisive showdown until the balance of power has shifted overwhelmingly to its side. In essence, this has been the strategy of the Russian and Chinese Communists.

Over the past four decades, the Communists have employed the strategy of protracted conflict to strengthen gradually their position in relation to the capitalist nations of the West, The Communists have matched the material and technological superiority of the West with their own deeper understanding of the nature of conflict in this revolutionary world. They have succeeded in shifting the ratio of power between the two sides to one that almost favors them. Within these four decades, Communist power has grown until it controls the destinies of nearly a billion people. The West has experienced a corresponding decline in the power it once exercised in Asia and Africa.

The salient characteristics of the Communist doctrine of protracted conflict are: (1) the total objective of eventual world domination; (2) the constant shifting of the battleground, instruments, and tactics for the purpose of confusing the West, keeping it off balance, and wearing down it resistance.

The Reds’ protracted conflict plans prescribe a strategy for compressing the West over a period of time by limited operations, feints and maneuvers, psychological and economic warfare, and diverse forms of violence. In Communist theory the various techniques of political warfare and selective forms of violence range all of the way from the clandestine distribution of subversive literature to the knockout blow delivered with every available weapon.

Plans for protracted conflict include every possible relationship between peoples ad groups, not only military, political, economic, and cultural, but also others that in the West’s prevailing liberal philosophies seem the exact opposite of conflict.

This comprehensiveness of view has permitted the Communists to integrate the nuclear bomb into their strategy. In contrast, the West — psychologically incapable of bridging the dialectic gap between peace and war and between one form of conflict and another — failed to exploit the incalculable advantage it enjoyed when it had an atomic monopoly and later when its weapon systems were more sophisticated and differentiated than those of the Soviets.

The Communists are confident that they have developed of military strategy that can defeat the West in any kind of war, although they prefer to obtain their ends short of nuclear war. The Communists have accepted atomic weapons, including the H-bomb, as an integral part of both military and political technology. They have an over-all objective — the communization of the globe — and in pursuit of that objective any and all kinds of weapons may have to be used.

But, unlike the democracies who so exuberantly embrace total war whenever their own vacillation and the over-reaching arrogance of the aggressor have pushed them into war, the Communists are guided by an old rule of warfare: economy of force. They propose to use force in carefully measured dosages, no bigger and no smaller than attainment of the political objective requires. Like yesteryear’s “colonialists” and “imperialist” whom they denounce and from whom they have learned so much, they would like to complete conquest of the globe without destroying the productive capacity of the conquered, for they hope to harness the resources of the conquered as quickly and completely as possible to their own economy.

They have convinced themselves, however, that if in the process some crockery has to be broken, it might as well be broken atomically, and that a vigorous social system like theirs can survive even thermonuclear punishment, whereas the “rotten” capitalistic system cannot. To this extent, Soviet strategy is “positive” and “constructive,” for it implements a political doctrine that envisages creation of a new global order.

But Western strategic thought is defensive. It does not propose to wrest the lands under Communism from their rulers. It considers its weapon systems, including the nuclear, as the means for retaliation against attack, not the instruments of a policy designed to bring about a fundamental change in the status quo.

The Communists apply the strategy of protracted conflict to al aspects of international relations. Thus, the word “negotiation” has a meaning for the Communists, which is difficult to reconcile with our understanding of it. A genuine global settlement of differences with the “capitalist camp” is inconceivable to the Communists, but this does not rule out negotiations. Negotiation on any level, from the “summit” on down, is a tactical maneuver by which the Communists improve their position in order to launch new attacks. This is not an argument against any negotiations with Soviet Russia. There is, in theory at least, no reason why the West could not “out-negotiate” Russia. If, however, we expect such negotiations to result in a lasting, all-around settlement of the basic issues of peace and war, then we are heading into a baited trap set by the Communists.

Soviet leaders pay lip service to the “relaxation of tensions.” But they decided long ago that permanent, genuine coexistence between their system and ours is impossible.

To be sure, the Communists would like to gain their ends without resorting to total war. But the avoidance of all-out military conflict is not peace; in fact, we are at war in a sense right now. We can suffer a conclusive defeat even though nuclear warheads may never be fired.

The Soviets have always been loath to engage in military conflict unless they were certain of victory. They blundered in Korea, where a clear-cut case of Communist aggression was met by vigorous Western counteraction. The Communists are not likely to repeat this mistake. They now refrain from presenting gross overt challenges that might provoke a strong and united response from the free world.

One of the Communists’ favorite methods of waging the protracted conflict is by use of proxies. These come in a variety of packages. The Soviets hid behind the North Korean Army and Red Chinese volunteers in the battle for Korea; they encouraged Nasser’s Egypt to drive Western influence from the Arab world. The Communists strive to keep the West on the defensive and in a reactive frame of mind. They manage this trick by shifting constantly the locale of world crisis. Temporarily stymied by American firmness in the Quemoy crisis, they have attempted to regain the initiative in Europe by heating up the Berlin situation.

Whenever the West appears ready to bring superior power to bear in ay situation, the Communists beat a tactical and face-saving retreat — and probe another sector of our defense. In order to divert our attention from the most likely next objective, the Communists resort to what they obviously consider ruses: truce talks, summit conference, disarmament negotiations, and “about-face” propaganda offensives.

The Communists have been remarkably successful in imposing ground rules for protracted conflict upon the free world. One of these ground rules is the division of the world into two zones: The non-Communist world constitutes the “war zone,” in which the Communist are permitted as a matter of course to cause trouble; the West, on the other hand, must not under any circumstances intervene in the “peace zone,” namely, the territory controlled by the Communists. Thus, for example, the free world was warned not to “interfere” in Hungary at the time of the rising of the freedom fighters. Yet the Soviets meddle all the way from Iraq to Guatemala.

The Communists contend that the West, in the interests of “peace, “must be willing to accept compromise settlements whenever the Communists press their offensive into the” war Zone.” At the same time, they threaten that the slightest trespass of the Communist frontier will unleash nuclear war.

Communist gains since World War II — the conquest of Eastern Europe and mainland China and the ejection of the West from one “position of strength” after another — attest to the success of Communist strategy and the inadequacy of our policies. Although many policies developed in Washington have been both imaginative and constructive, the American posture over-all has suffered from serious shortcoming. Nearly every policy has been merely improvised in response to the Communist threat. We do not seem to conceive of the conflict with Communism as an integrated whole.

We lack such a strategy of conflict, chiefly, because we are what we are. Although the great majority of Americans are agreed that Communism is an evil, they are divided — as they are on almost all major national issues — on what to think and what to do about Communism and its threat to the American way of life. Neither our people nor our government, nor for that matter the free world in general, have agreed on the basic nature of the Communist threat.

Thus we cannot agree on a common plan for meeting it. The West has neither an agreed political objective nor a clear notion of the nature of protracted conflict. It lacks a doctrine for coping with the Communist challenge. It has not been able either to integrate nuclear weapons into its strategy effectively or make full use of the political leverage afforded by either nuclear or “conventional” capabilities. The West abhors war, seeks to prevent it, and, if it cannot be prevented, “limit” it. All-out war is the final, the unspeakable alternative when all else has failed.

For the Communists, war is just one mode of protracted conflict, and the objective determines the scope of military violence or of any other technique of conflict. Atomic weapons, including thermonuclear bombes, are integral parts of the Soviet conflict machine preferably to be used as psychological and diplomatic instruments, but ready to be used, it need be, as firepower. The Communists are as aware as we are that they will suffer terrible losses in a thermonuclear duel. But they do not surrender to the “conventional obsession.” They know nuclear weapons of all sizes are here to stay, and wishing will not put them back into Pandora’s box.

How, then, should we meet this across-the-board Communist challenge to our very existence? The answer, first, is that our protracted-conflict arsenal must contain a host of policies, economic, political, intellectual, social, as well as military, to turn aside the Communist thrust — ad deliver thrusts of our own — all along the line.

Within this broad policy concept, two absolute axioms to govern our behavior may be set down. These are the twin guardians of our future.

First, the keystone of our “policy system” is military strength, for the simple reason that without it we are not likely to get a full opportunity to bring the others into play. This may seem self-evident, but it requires emphasis.

Second, we must be positive in our outlook, in our prosecution of policies. If we remain solely reactive, if we always act “second,” this is exactly the position we may come to assume on the world stage.

To take a slightly longer look at urgent military questions…

Perhaps nothing is more revealing of the West’s perilously defensive, negative approach than the widely publicized and earnestly debated proposals for denuclearization of Central Europe and limitation of its local armaments to “conventional” weapons. According to these proposals, the West’s massive atomic retaliatory power — mostly American — is expected to keep on deterring the Soviets from using theirs. Local forces armed with “conventional” weapons — as, for example, the military forces of a “neutralized” Germany as envisaged by the advocates of “disengagement” in Europe — will have the task of coping with peripheral challenges, such as border raids by the Communists or their proxies, revolts engineered by Communists in friendly countries, and other “nibbling” tactics.

But there is not the slightest indication that the West is prepared to bear the financial burden of a strategy based on maintaining both a separate “conventional” military establishment and a nuclear “grand deterrent.” This would probably mean doubling the defense budgets of the Western powers. Obviously the nuclear component of Western strategy would have to be maintained at the present rate, for its deterrent power in being would have to furnish the umbrella for the conventional forces. At the same time the West’s “conventional” forces would have to be about as large. In short, the West would have to return to the concept of large standing ground armies that prevailed before the Second World War. There is no indication that politicians and/or the public would support such a policy anywhere in the West.

The idea that local “conventional” forces can persuade the Communists to desist from starting small wars for fear of landing in unprofitable stalemates or of “tripping off” a nuclear holocaust is based on the assumption that the Reds would and could confine their operations to “conventional” weapons. Now, in fact, nuclear weapons are already an integral part of the Communists’ war machine, and it is highly that they could fight a “limited” war of, say, the dimensions of the Korean War without the use of tactical nuclear weapons even if they wanted to.

It is true that they maintain large standing forces that are not equipped with nuclear weapons. But the principal mission of such forces is to keep down rebellious peoples in the satellite countries and at home rather than to fight foreign wars. The Soviet forces trained for war against the West are schooled in the use of nuclear weapons. They would use them as the tactical situation demanded.

Nuclear weapons are an integral part of Communist protracted conflict strategy. Increasingly the Soviets us their nuclear striking power as a means to condition the West to the acceptance of such ultimatums as, for example, Communist demands for the evacuation of first Quemoy and Matsu and then Berlin.

Yet the Communists, masters of psychological warfare that they are, recognize the limits to their diplomacy of nuclear blackmail. This was demonstrated on the beaches of Lebanon. In the teeth of menacing Soviet gestures, the Sixth Fleet steamed into the Eastern Mediterranean, and United States Marines swarmed ashore at Beirut. They did not encounter Soviet “volunteers.” The Soviets did not follow up impetuous pronouncements; they confined their military operations to troop maneuvers north of the Caucasus.

The decisive factor was the United States’ capability of massive retaliation. The Soviets were not prepared to test their particular brand of brinkmanship on this particular demonstration of American brinkmanship. The United States was able to make its local intervention stick because its very real threat of massive retaliation impressed upon the Soviets the wisdom of nonintervention. In the light of the United States’ outright defiance of Soviet nuclear blackmail it is highly unlikely that the Soviets would have intervened had the United States cared to extend its intervention from the Lebanon to Iraq. But this is another, a political, story.

The West must possess the capability of withstanding psychologically the soviet nuclear threat and countering it with a superior capability of massive retaliation. This capability in turn must be based on the security of the launching sites of massive retaliation (i.e., their invulnerability to surprise attack) and on adequate military as well as civilian air defense.

The conditions of a viable Western strategy are psychological readiness and military technological superiority, the resolution to stand up to the Soviet thermonuclear threat and the force to counter it. Given the wide spectrum of Soviet challenges, the United States must have the capability intervening quickly and impressively, as it did in Lebanon, in “limited” conflict situations. If United States intervention in Lebanon and British intervention in Jordan proved anything, it proved that military intervention in a “limited” conflict is not necessarily fraught with the danger of general war. It is the capability of massive strategic retaliation and the resolution to launch it as a last resort, which make United States “limited” intervention feasible and narrow the Soviet choice of conflict techniques.

War is an organic whole, and only within this organic whole can any specific action be conceived of as “limited.” The West is in mortal danger because, on the one hand, it cannot grasp intellectually the full variety of Communist conflict techniques and, on the other hand, it harbors the illusion that the unlimited aspirations of the Communists can be defeated cheaply, by maintenance of second-best military forces and unilateral declarations of peaceable intentions.

The struggle with Communism is an all-out struggle. At is core is the military-technological race, a race both immensely expensive and terribly risky.

We are given to understand, on the highest authority, that the conflict will continue until the “shrimps have learned to whistle” — until Communists have ceased to be Communists. Until then the West must keep on increasing the power of the “great deterrent” and evolve, under its shield, political and psychological strategies for countering and confounding the Communists.

History has cast the United States in the unenviable role of leader of the free world and its principal defender against the Communist bid for world domination. Little in history has prepared the American people for a protracted conflict of unpredictable length and indeterminate outcome. Americans like to think of other peoples as friendly neighbors. They find it difficult to grasp the mentality of the Communists for whom conflict is a way of life and the extermination of the opponent, the ultimate objective.

However, to defeat the enemy we must first know him. Americans must understand the nature of workings of the strategy of protracted conflict before they can hope to meet the challenge of Communist imperialism and turn it back.

The author, political science professor Robert Strausz-Hupe, is particularly qualified to write on this subject. His ninth book, written with three co-authors, appears next month. Its title: A study of Protracted Conflict. Strausz-Hupe is director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Foreign Policy Research Institute and chairman of its International Relations Group Committee. A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, he has lectured at the Air War College, Army War College, National War College, and the Armed Forces Staff College. His published works cover a broad range of national and international issues, including American-Asian relations, the world balance of power, and colonialism. A frequent contributor to magazines, Strausz-Hupe has written for The Saturday Evening Post, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, The Reporter, The Air University Quarterly Review, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and others. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1903, he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1940, earned his doctorate six years later, was a consultant to the United Nations from 1948 to 1951.