The Last Cold War Was Disastrous — We Shouldn’t Welcome Another

A new book uses poor history to urge the ruthless containment of America’s rivals — skirting Washington’s past failures and the millions of civilian dead.

US president Richard Nixon (left) and national security adviser Henry Kissinger talk together, Washington, DC, November 25, 1972. (White House via CNP / Getty Images)

After seemingly drifting into irrelevance following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, the ongoing war in Ukraine has given NATO a new lease on life. The thirty-nation alliance has not only returned to its traditional modus vivendi of facing off against Russia — including a tripwire defense strengthened by new deployments, bigger budgets, and renewed cohesion — but has also focused its attention on the supposed security threats posed by China.

Within this context, The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry by Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at John Hopkins University and recent appointee to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, is a timely intervention. At this perilous moment, Brands argues, Americans must revive the “muscle memory” that originally crafted the “carefully measured and coldly unsentimental strategy” that defeated the Soviet Union. That policy, he says, was “containment” that, bluntly put, entailed mobilizing some 5 to 10 percent of GDP to halt and erode the threat from Moscow and, from 1950 into the 1970s, from China.

Whether or not US voters — let alone European allies — are up for recommitting to a cold war will be influenced by what is remembered of the last one, as well as by memories of their failed hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To this end, Brands recaps decades of global conflict, focusing on the original East-West antagonism of 1947–1991. From this, he distills twelve “lessons” from an era of neither war nor peace. Americans, and thereby their allies, he concludes, must accept “the need to see competition as a way of life.”

A reader might be skeptical from the start because his dated history of the Cold War is combined with a triumphalist all-American twist — starting with the chestnut that, after World War II, “a crippled, bankrupt Britain could no longer exercise global leadership.” Though badly dented, Britain, of course, never went “bankrupt.” Moreover, the Truman administration, as shown by its findings during July 1950 in a pivotal document, NSC-68, was certain that the British Empire and Commonwealth would exercise such leadership well into the future. Undeterred by easily documented facts, Brands focuses on events in Washington. He argues, for instance, that “George Kennan . . . Averill Harriman [sic],” and other officials created “a golden age of American foreign policy,” one that culminated in Harry S. Truman’s decision that summer of 1950 to fight in Korea, which cemented “the free world security architecture” we know today.

Even from the start of the postwar era, the United States has had much less agency in global events than its policymakers like to imagine. During that “golden age,” for instance, the British effectively bluffed Washington into the 1947 Truman Doctrine while pulling, pushing, and altogether maneuvering the Americans to commit to a North Atlantic alliance by 1949 — with the Foreign Office basically writing NATO’s famous Article 5, which outlines the organization’s collective defense obligations.

Nor would a reader learn from Brands’s account the extent of the US disaster in Korea. A strategic argument can be made in defense of America’s intervention in summer 1950 to halt Kim Il-sung’s attempt to capture South Korea. Once these aims were accomplished, however, Washington embarked on a catastrophic mission creep, not for the last time. US practitioners of “golden age” foreign policy, in league with Britain, had decided by September 1950 to “liberate” and “democratize” North Korea. Come late November, China brutally repelled the Anglo-American counterinvasion; 28,345 Americans died above the 38th parallel, and 1,078 British soldiers were killed in total.

For a while, Washington recognized the painful limits to what Blinken today calls the Biden administration’s plan to “shape the strategic environment around Beijing.” Still, by 1957, after Britain’s spectacular crackup at Suez, Washington again ventured afar in search of dragons. It was then, according to Vice President Richard Nixon, that the United States decidedly explicitly to take over “the foreign policy leadership of the free world.” And part of this takeover was the Eisenhower administration’s commitment of 692 advisers to South Vietnam.

President John F. Kennedy reveled in such newfound leadership, and Brands reminds us that Kennedy thrillingly proclaimed a “twilight struggle” against Sino-Soviet expansion. But he neglects the scope of Kennedy’s startling militancy. To JFK, America was in a “struggle for supremacy” against “ruthless, godless tyranny,” waged as a “global civil war” during “an hour of maximum danger.” Kennedy demanded “sacrifice by the people of the United States” and, given the valor of ignorance, Americans soon endured a second failed war in Vietnam. They sacrificed 58,220 dead: over two million civilians in that war zone lost their lives.

At home, the Cold War had become a trellis on which the well-connected could grow careers — overexcited politicians, lawyers, bankers, and industrialists, as well as the Harvard professors who staffed Kennedy’s administration and stayed on under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Emergency had created a dramatizable, institutionally underwritten, lucrative way of life.

Brands praises President Richard Nixon’s “impressive, if cold-blooded” statecraft, an assessment that neglects Nixon’s failed attempts to gain the support of Moscow and Beijing for an end to the Vietnam War.

The guidance that Nixon heard on that small matter from national security adviser Henry Kissinger was as foolish as the advice that was given to presidents Kennedy and Johnson by their own professors at the National Security Council. Kissinger knew the war was unwinnable. Yet he concluded — wrongly, as was soon proved — that quitting Vietnam would shake the balance of power. Therefore, he insisted, at the height of the slaughter in 1969, that “withdrawals of US troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public.” He at least understood that voters sensibly wanted any reason to escape a war they sensed to be hopeless.

Nixon allowed that Kissinger was among the people who would foment crises to “earn attention for themselves,” and Kissinger said something similar about Nixon. Each knew little about the forces of technology, economics, and demography that were reshaping the world. Instead, the Cold War was incubating the careers of such men, and their certitudes led to unpleasant surprises and expensive repairs. Indeed, professors doubling as government advisers are again making careers out of global conflict.

In the telling, what Brands describes as the “elegant strategy of containment” — first concocted under Truman, and the rationale for Vietnam — had come to mean anything to anyone.

Brands is on firmer ground when he turns to Ronald Reagan’s presidency, 1981 to 1989, and the Cold War’s end. However, Twilight Struggle overlooks the fact that Reagan’s priority, before confronting Moscow, was to fix America’s economy. It was gripped by stagflation, due heavily to a combination of the Vietnam War and the myopic Nixon/Kissinger tactics in the Middle East that spawned OPEC. Only then did Reagan execute an ideological and geo-strategic offensive against Moscow. This approach wasn’t “containment,” and his well-crafted plans worked. As for the CIA, an organization Brands believes is omnicompetent, it was “usually wrong,” observed George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state.

Ultimately, Brands uses potted Cold War history to urge a revival of “containment” against Russia and China. Based on his book, a reader might conclude, “Why not?” After all, the America portrayed in Twilight had managed the world with uncanny effectiveness for a lifetime.

Except America has stumbled for decades in its political and military dealings with the rest of the world — those four lost wars are just the worst moments of miscalculation. To pick at random, other letdowns had included illusory arms control deals with Soviet Russia, propping up scores of tropical gangsters, “nation-building” in places where nations have never existed, and committing trillions of dollars to the Pentagon (enabled by former officials as lobbyists and corporate directors), while overseeing the immiseration of America’s working and middle classes. For a lifetime, too, prosperity has been secondary to a “security” never fully established, one that always seems easy to lose.

Lots of dreadful habits were in place once the attacks of September 11, 2001, sparked America’s “global war on terror.” Did a policy of containment offer “clarity of conception with flexibility of application,” as Brands insists? Only in the classroom.

A third and fourth failed war became nearly inevitable. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, as in Korea and Vietnam, ended up hopelessly, disastrously different from America’s purpose at the start. Advice from foreign policy professors was again appalling. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was just one of the clueless voices urging the George W. Bush administration to “realign” the Middle East. When that didn’t work out, Kissinger — thriving as a business consultant — gave Bush the same advice he had offered Nixon: withdrawing from Iraq would be like “salted peanuts” to the American people. They’d want out, and fast. Immune to irony, the Council on Foreign Relations established the Henry A. Kissinger Study Group on Exit Strategies to honor one of its distinguished members.

Despite decades of blundering, Brands concludes that Americans must once more set about “ruthlessly blocking an opponent’s way forward” (emphasis in original). There’s no mention of a previous “ruthlessness” having made Washington complicit in killing altogether millions of innocents in Vietnam, Indonesia (1965–66), Bangladesh (1971), Central America, Iraq, and occupied Palestinian territory, too.

Throughout Twilight Struggle, Brands ignores the harm to domestic politics caused by America’s repetitive follies. A large part of the rage and frustration that drew millions to the Donald Trump phenomenon was fueled by the latest failed wars, by false promises of “victory,” and by the unauditable, ceaseless military spending. Unlike Brands, and other professors who double as government advisers, most Americans have learned from decades of adventurism that their country is not up to the task of ensuring a peaceful world order.