Peripheral Strategies

Pseudoerasmus had an interesting thought about the Cold War: that all the West’s efforts in the Third World were pointless, had little effect on the ultimate outcome, with the possible exception of some big oil producers. “most developing countries could have disappeared into a black hole 16 galaxies away & it might have made little difference to the outcome.”

Nice to be arguing with someone who’s not crazy, for a change.

He has a point. If you’re thinking about human capital, industrial resources, military potential – those countries didn’t amount to much. Cuba didn’t matter, Angola didn’t matter, Vietnam didn’t matter.

I was recently reading The World was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. The Soviets were struggling for influence & trying to screw the US all over the globe, but not much came from it, even when they prevailed: it was like trying to build bricks without straw. What can you do with Afghanistan, with Ethiopia, with South Yemen? Pseudoerasmus says ” serene non-intervention by the USA everywhere (except maybe oil-producing middle east) would have made little difference to the final outcome.”

Look at the correlation of forces, write down the power equation, and he sure looks right.

But he’s not right.

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243 Responses to Peripheral Strategies

  1. catte says:

    I’ll bite: the US could easily afford the interventions, while the USSR couldn’t. Keeping the foreign intervention race going forced the Reds to spend money on useless empire-building and run out of money earlier. At least that was what I was taught.

    But then — why did they think propping up tinpot commies was beneficial in the first place?

    • gcochran9 says:

      We wildly outspent them: in Vietnam, probably 30-1, not counting casualties.. There’s no way on God’s green earth that Vietnam was a net strategic advantage to the US.

      • cassander says:

        You can win or lose in one particular place, one intervention can come up negative, without the whole strategy being a bad idea, just like you can lose a battle and win the war.

      • Zimriel says:

        Vietnam was worth keeping out of Maoist China’s hands. But since the Russians wanted the same thing. . .

      • athEIst says:

        Now they make shoes for us.

        • Patrick L. Boyle says:

          I recently bought a dining room table on Amazon that was made in Vietnam. It’s a good solid wooden table – no high tech features. Good table.

          So that’s what we were fighting for. Or in my case – what I was avoiding fighting for.

    • Zenit says:

      But then — why did they think propping up tinpot commies was beneficial in the first place?

      Lenin’s theory of imperialism.,_the_Highest_Stage_of_Capitalism

      According to Lenin, the capitalists bribe the working class in the capitalist countries with super-profits gained from super-exploitation of the colonies. Logically, the colonial or third world is the weak point of the capitalist system – if the capitalists lose them, the working class will be impoverished again and communist revolution will be inevitable.

  2. Sam says:

    Soviet economics was doomed to never work as advertised. As long as they maintained adherence to the economic system it was bound to decay over time.

    However, while that may be the case elites can still draw on ideological legitimacy and defensive legitimacy. The Soviet-American adventures around the world wore down the Soviet more. Perhaps an Pseudoerasmus’ alternative world would have produced fewer interventions but a more drawn out process of decommunizing like with China.

  3. Peter Lund says:

    Korea? Indonesia? South China Sea?

    • dearieme says:

      The Korean war wasn’t worth it except to those South Koreans who survived. There was no real American interest there, and certainly no vital interest. It was, alas, a waste of lives and money. You can’t even argue “they invaded our ally”. South Korea had not been included on a list of countries that the US was prepared to defend – a list that had been handed to the USSR as a deterrent.

      But at least the war was fought to a draw and South Korea eventually blossomed afterwards. Vietnam was fought, badly, all the way to a disastrous defeat. Not that any vital lesson was learnt since the second Iraq war had the same outcome.

      • pyrrhus says:

        Which is why Dean Acheson left Korea off the list of countries that the US would fight to protect against communism…But Truman wanted to run again in ’52, so my guess is he didn’t want to look weak, and intervened anyway with a weak hand.
        Anyway, from the standpoint of Americans, the Korean War turned out very badly. The US has expended more than a trillion dollars maintaining troops in S.Korea while the Koreans have run massive trade surpluses against their “saviors.” And the two Koreas still want to reunite, at which point it will all have been for naught…

        • gcochran9 says:

          “trade surplus” means we’re getting stuff for free. Those bastards!

          • ilkarnal says:

            For real, though – your industrial capacity is a very important strategic issue, and economic threats to it should be met with protectionism. You cannot make up for being unable to make stuff by being unable to buy stuff, because when the very bad times come the serious players will all be devoting their industrial capacity to their own defensive needs. You will only be able to buy scraps. Also, you need to be making big leaps in capability that surprise your enemy all the time, and the extra time and risk required for procuring from foreigners could be costly even if such procurement was feasible.

            Trading away manufacturing for services is a massive strategic blunder.

          • Bob says:

            There are scholars who argue that the Soviet Union was running large trade surpluses with the other communist countries and that this was a major factor in its collapse, as it effectively amounted to producing and exporting stuff for free (in addition to the formal subsidies it would give to other commie countries). This resulted in fewer resources and stuff domestically and less domestic support and morale to keep the USSR going.

          • reiner Tor says:

            Not for free. Either for the promise of later payment or for some assets. The promise can be broken, or the asset be nationalized (if it’s within US borders), but both means a loss of trust and so includes intangible costs. In other words, both has to be delivered or else great costs are to be incurred. In still other words, those deliveries are not for free.

          • Thiago Ribeiro says:

            Go to know Americans losing their good jobs are getting stuff for free. They will need it!!

            • Bob says:

              That’s not a law of nature. That’s just policy. A trade deficit means a capital surplus. Where the surplus ends up is largely driven by policy.

              • Greying Wanderer says:

                China sells stuff for dollars which they can’t use because America has nothing to sell – except America itself – the US is paying for their iphones in acres. The only reason China continues to give America “free stuff” is because they are using the proceeds to buy America piece by piece..

              • Bob says:

                What do you mean they can’t use dollars? Dollars are accepted around the world for stuff. To buy stuff around the world you generally need dollars, and when you don’t use dollars, you end up using them indirectly because dollars are held by banks and intermediaries in foreign exchange reserves. China sells stuff to the US because that’s where the dollars are, and you need dollars to buy stuff around the world.

                We prevent them from buying stuff all the time:

                As far as real estate, rising prices have been an aim of the government going back at least to FDR, and policymakers and elites tend to own lots of real estate wealth, so there’s tremendous support for driving foreign money into real estate. But this is a matter of policy. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be restrictions on real estate transaction like there are with semiconductor firms.

                The Chinese government has a policy of financial repression and capital controls. It wants capital directed domestically or abroad to purchase strategic assets like US technology.

              • Ursiform says:

                “China continues to give America “free stuff” is because they are using the proceeds to buy America piece by piece.”

                I remember when they said Japan was doing that. The Japanese overpaid for a lot of properties, then sold them back at a loss. Talk about free money …

              • gcochran9 says:

                I bet they lost money on Nakatomi Plaza, too.

      • syonredux says:

        “The Korean war wasn’t worth it except to those South Koreans who survived.”

        Quite a few of those…..

        And I’m not quite sure how things would have stood vis-a-vis Japan if the entire Korean Peninsula went commie…

        My take: Korea was worth it; Vietnam wasn’t.

        • dearieme says:

          Japan is separated from Korea by a very wide anti-tank ditch patrolled by the USN. So a communist S. Korea would have made no difference. That’s presumably why S. Korea was not on the US list of places it had chosen to defend.

          • syonredux says:

            “Japan is separated from Korea by a very wide anti-tank ditch patrolled by the USN. So a communist S. Korea would have made no difference.”

            Psychologically, it would have. People are not calculating machines….as the Japanese proved back in 1941…..

            “That’s presumably why S. Korea was not on the US list of places it had chosen to defend.”

            Was RISK around back then?

            • dearieme says:

              I don’t see the point of this line of argument. Truman’s action was about US domestic party politics, not about US interests. Ditto JFK and LBJ in Vietnam.

              • syonredux says:

                “I don’t see the point of this line of argument. Truman’s action was about US domestic party politics, not about US interests. Ditto JFK and LBJ in Vietnam.”

                Domestic political concerns always take top priority, sure….but Allies have to be taken into account….US Occupation of Japan ended in 1952….How would things have gone with the Japanese facing a 100% commie Korean Peninsula?

              • dearieme says:

                “How would things have gone with the Japanese facing a 100% commie Korean Peninsula?” It’s hard to see why it would be much different. How would Taiwan be facing a 100% commie Chinese mainland?

              • syonredux says:

                ““How would things have gone with the Japanese facing a 100% commie Korean Peninsula?” It’s hard to see why it would be much different. How would Taiwan be facing a 100% commie Chinese mainland?”

                Until Stalin ordered them to overplay their hand, Japan had a fairly significant communist party (won 10% of the vote in ’49)….Finlandization seems like a possibility…

                Taiwan’s bit of a different kettle of fish, what with it being founded by the Kuomintang after their defeat by the communists….

            • MEH 0910 says:

              “Was RISK around back then?”


              “Risk was invented by French film director Albert Lamorisse and originally released in 1957 as La Conquête du Monde (The Conquest of the World) in France. It was later bought by Parker Brothers and released in 1959 with some modifications to the rules as Risk: The Continental Game, then as Risk: The Game of Global Domination.[3]”

        • reiner Tor says:

          On the other hand, North Korea would be quite different, had it won the war. They didn’t want economic reforms because they thought they would end up as an inferior version of South Korea (they were forced to accept a new economic system anyway, and young Kim went all in with it anyway), but they would probably have reformed their economy a long time ago, had they won the war, like Vietnam did.

          • reiner Tor says:

            In other words, North Koreans are probably worse off than in they would be if the US didn’t intervene.

            • syonredux says:

              “In other words, North Koreans are probably worse off than in they would be if the US didn’t intervene.”

              Dunno. Kim Il Sung was a weird guy…..

              Mao got what he wanted…..and that gave China The Great Leap Forward Famine and the Cultural Revolution…..

          • syonredux says:

            “On the other hand, North Korea would be quite different, had it won the war. They didn’t want economic reforms because they thought they would end up as an inferior version of South Korea (they were forced to accept a new economic system anyway, and young Kim went all in with it anyway), but they would probably have reformed their economy a long time ago, had they won the war, like Vietnam did.”

            With the Kims in charge…….

      • syonredux says:

        “It was, alas, a waste of lives and money. ”

        Joe Stalin really shouldn’t have given into Kim Il Sung’s constant requests to be allowed to invade.

  4. j says:

    It is naive to think that any country just can be indifferent to its environment, that is, the world, and no evil will befall in it. Even with tight policing, at least three irresponsible governments aka shit holes succeeded in building nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities. Without America making order, the planet would be unlivable.

    • dearieme says:

      “America making order”: priceless. You must be thinking of Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen?

      The question isn’t one of indifference, it’s of unintelligence in selecting which cases to choose.

      • protokol2020 says:

        Iraq under Saddam today, would still be a shithole. America, or no America. Libya would be a desert, if nobody needed oil, as the West needed it.

        I am afraid, that even my Europen country would already become a shithole if there was no America over there.

        And some parts of America are shitholes as well. Like Detroit or increasingly California.

        A third world shithole is what Nature wants.

        • reiner Tor says:

          Iraq under Saddam would have had no ISIS. Fewer people dying might be better from a disinterested point of view. The Iraq war did make a difference: it made things worse.

          • syonredux says:

            “The Iraq war did make a difference: it made things worse.”

            Shoulda stopped at throwing the Iraqis out of Kuwait..revert to status quo ante bellum….

            • James Baird says:

              Even that was iffy – so Saddam gets access to Kuwaits oil (a lot of which they were stealing from Iraq) instead of a bunch of effete Emirs. Who cares?

    • dave chamberlin says:

      “Without America making order, the planet would be unlivable.”

      Exactly what order have we made? Here Africa, here’s enough modern medicine so you can fill up your continent to the bursting point and you can all have a horrible existence. Here middle east, lets pay a few people billions for your oil and let the rest of you live worse lives every generation until you run amok in anger. Here South and Latin America here’s billions for your narco terrorists, we would like you to export illegal drugs to us. Hey third world, we will give modern weapons to your dictators so that they can stay in charge.

      Now admittedly their are nastier players on the world stage than America. We mean well but our “help” is at best inept and at the worst self serving and over the long term making things worse. I will grant you nations are discouraged from rolling their tanks over borders of other countries thanks to America, and this is a good thing. But Americans aren’t helping the third world and the point made by Cochran and Psuedoerasmus is we can’t. Why? Here’s a big big clue as to why. ttps://….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..3.8.990.6..0i10k1j0i10i46k1j46i10k1j0i13k1j0i13i10k1.299.XLF2gBhHjgY

    • pyrrhus says:

      America (actually the Globalist Deep State) doesn’t maintain order. It creates massive disorder so that the right people in the military/industrial complex and banking can make immense profits..The Middle East was a pretty peaceful place before 1948…

      • The G man says:

        ‘The Middle East was a pretty peaceful place before 1948’

        No it wasn’t. It may shock you to learn that the slow motion collapse of an empire that was so removed from basic standards of civility that it was built on kidnapping children and castrating them to be avant le lettre robot soldiers was a pretty bloody and chaotic affair. In your defence, Egypt was quite nice when it wasn’t ruled by Egyptians. Not so much for Egyptians, obviously, but for idle sons of English merchants it was pretty good and, hey, they’re human too.

        But that misses the point. A world in which you can get from one end to the other in the space of a day is going to have a global hegemon. Duh. Empires spread to the maximum limit specified by transport and communication unless constrained by another empire. One can imagine empires that would have done a better job and ones that would have done a worse one. Either way, you are trying to extrapolate from a data set of 1 and, probably, we’ll only see one more before cyborgs take over and put your great-grandchildren in zoos (if they are lucky).

    • Irate eye rater says:

      If your concern is loonies building nuclear weapons, US forigen policy is a mighty strange thing to praise. Iraq and Libya both ended nuclear programs in return for the west agreeing not to destroy them. Later, the west destroyed them both. Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited in return for promises of protection and was abandoned to dismemberment.

      Contrast the fates of North Korea and Pakistan, who plowed ahead and actually built bombs.

      Its clear what the incentive implied by US intervention actually is. The only reason so few obey that incentive is that building these things is difficult.

  5. Well, I was mostly trolling, but I did introduce one fudge factor:

    “If the Cold War in the Third World did matter to the outcome of the cold war in some way, it was by inducing the USSR to allocate more of its resources to silly adventurism. It was expensive for the USA, but military tit-for-tat was relatively even more expensive for the USSR”.

    But in the 1970s you also had the hard-currency windfall of the energy-and-commodities boom. That gave the Soviets three important things: (a) ability to buy more western grain imports (b) get more Western loans and (c) spend more on the third world. So it’s difficult to say whether the heightened adventurism of the 1970s was due to the windfall, or simple competitive rivalry with the USA.

  6. Baruch Kogan says:

    The Soviets were a Eurasian gerontocratic tellurocracy. The US was a global thallasocracy with a popular government, commanding vastly more wealth. Similar to Athens and Sparta, in very broad terms.

    The Soviets’ best strategy was asymmetric warfare, waged globally, to threaten global chokepoints, force the Americans to over-extend themselves, commit disproportionate amounts of wealth and force, and leverage the losses and excesses of the Americans and their clients in both internal and foreign propaganda, while using their nuclear triad and air defense branch to keep the Americans from attacking them. An eventual best-case might have been to achieve a collapse of the American will and a split in NATO in order to take over Western Europe.

    That’s the top layer. A deeper layer involves noticing that the main instrument of projecting Soviet power overseas was the Soviet merchant marine, which was completely dependent on Western engines; that Soviet MIRVs needed imported American precision grinders to create the ball bearings necessary for their targeting systems; that the Soviets mechanized their client states with trucks built entirely by a production plant built by Americans and their Western clients; and that rather than a Cold War between two adversaries and their proxies, the situation looked a bit different when you looked at the details. Antony Sutton wrote a lot about this.

    For instance, Angola was an oil-rich Portuguese colony. The US supported its Marxist revolutionaries*, and when Angola fell to the Communists, American firms moved right in and set up operations**, and had their operations protected by Angolan and Cuban troops.

    *Dean Acheson: “The President then asked me why I was so sure that there was no room for negotiations under the present conditions. I said that, as he perhaps knew, we had in fact been subsidizing Portugal’s enemies; and that they strongly suspected this, although they could not prove it. He said that the purpose of this was to try to keep the Angolan nationalist movement out of the hands of the communist Ghanians, etc., and keep it in the most moderate hands possible. I said that I quite understood this, but that it did not make what the Portuguese suspected any more palatable to them. We were also engaged in smuggling Angolese out of Angola and educating them in Lincoln College outside o• Philadelphia in the most extreme nationalist views. Furthermore the head of this college had secretly and illegally entered Angola and on his return had engaged
    in violent anti-Portuguese propaganda. We voted in the United Nations for resolutions condemning”
    Portugal for maintaining order in territory unquestionably under Portuguese sovereignty.”

    ** Sutton mentions “Gulf, Texaco, Petrofina, Mobil, Cities Service, Marathon Oil and Union Texas
    Petroleum. Other firms include Allied Chemical, Boeing Aircraft, General Electric – and Bechtel Corporation.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      ” The US supported its Marxist revolutionaries*”

      Untrue. As for the idea that industry in the Soviet Union was mostly an American or Western creation, also untrue. Sutton was a nut.

      • Baruch Kogan says:

        What do you mean, “untrue”?

        “After visiting the United Nations, he returned to Kinshasa and organized Bakongo militants.[3][7] He launched an incursion into Angola on March 15, 1961, leading 4,000 to 5,000 militants. His forces took farms, government outposts, and trading centers, killing everyone they encountered. At least 1,000 whites and an unknown number of natives were killed.[8] Commenting on the incursion, Roberto said, “this time the slaves did not cower”. They massacred everything.[9]

        Roberto met with United States President John F. Kennedy on April 25, 1961. When he applied for aid later that year from the Ghanaian government, President Kwame Nkrumah turned him down on the grounds that the U.S. government was already paying him.”

        Key areas of industry in the Soviet Union were an American/Western creation. Who built Magnitogorsk? Not peasants straight out of the fields, and not the pre-war intelligentsia (they were dead or in exile.) Nope:

        “The city underwent rapid change in the 1930s, when according to Stalin’s Five-Year-Plans, Magnitogorsk was to become a one-industry town modeled after two of the most advanced steel producing cities in the United States at that time — Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At this time, hundreds of foreign experts kept coming here in order to implement and direct the work.[citation needed]

        In 1928, a Soviet delegation arrived in Cleveland, Ohio to discuss with American consulting company Arthur G. McKee a plan to set up in Magnitogorsk a copy of the US Steel steel mill in Gary. The contract was four times increased and eventually the new plant had a capacity of over four million tons annually.”

        That’s not some one-off, either:

        “On May 8, 1929, through an agreement signed with Kahn by President of Amtorg Saul G. Bron, the Soviet government contracted the Albert Kahn firm to design the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, the first tractor plant in the USSR. On January 9, 1930, a second contract with Kahn was signed for his firm to become consulting architects for all industrial construction in the Soviet Union.

        Under these contracts, during 1929–1932, Kahn’s firm operated from its headquarters in Detroit and the newly established design bureau in Moscow to train and supervise Soviet architects and engineers. The bureau Gosproektstroi was headed by Albert Kahn’s younger brother, Moritz Kahn, and 25 Kahn Associatese staff were involved in Moscow in this project. They trained more than 4,000 Soviet architects and engineers; and designed 521 plants and factories[3] under the first five-year plan.”

        The big names in the Soviet automotive industry were set up by the Americans: ZiL and GAZ.

        “In 1931 the factory was re-equipped and expanded with the help of the American A.J. Brandt Co., and changed its name to Automotive Factory No. 2 Zavod Imeni Stalina (ZIS or ZiS). ”

        • Rod Carvalho says:

          Holden’s UPA was (allegedly) nationalist, rather than Marxist. The Marxists were in the MPLA.

          • Baruch Kogan says:

            Yeah, and that’s exactly the line they took with Castro.

          • Cantman says:

            How is a “nationalist” defined as distinction from a “communist”? Almost all third world “nationalist” movements supported state organisation of the economy. A “nationalist” is just an American-aligned communist.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Most of those countries were too disorganized to have been totalitarian even if they’d tried. Saying that a “nationalist” is just an American-aligned communist just marks you as an idiot. Am I supposed to believe that Saudi Arabia is really like the Soviet Union, since they nationalized Aramco?

              • Baruch Kogan says:

                Look, when I read the State Department and prog college/NGO docs of the time (Lattimore’s IPR, for instance), the idea is that the US must support progressive nationalists-often, in order to outflank the Communists. People I’ve seen described as nationalists in this framework include: Mao (who was also a True Democrat, like the Founding Fathers,) Stalin (ditto,) Castro, Tito, Ho Chi Minh…I haven’t read anything about the Khmer Rouge, the Pathet Lao, the North Koreans or the various African commies except for Holden, but I expect the internal discourse about them was the same.

              • Cantman says:

                Saudi Arabia, the country that never fell to a “national liberation movement”, and is still ruled by its pre-1941 government.

              • gcochran9 says:

                I said ” Saying that a “nationalist” is just an American-aligned communist just marks you as an idiot. ” And I’ll say it again. And although there’s a place here for idiotic comments they have to be interesting.

              • Cantman says:

                OK, you said I’m an idiot, but previously had an argument why, and I have explained why that argument does not hold water. I think it’s interesting that the US and USSR weren’t all that different in terms of what they supported abroad (obviously they were different in their home policies).

              • gcochran9 says:

                I know the history of the Cold War well enough, and what you’re saying is far from true. I suppose I should tolerate you, because everyone knows that listening to idiots has some sort of subtle benefit, but I’ll be damned If I can see what it is.

            • Rod Carvalho says:

              I would not focus too much on ideology. Tribal identity mattered, too.

        • Zenit says:

          Why are you surprised? This is capitalism working as supposed to do. Capitals knows no borders and no nations, “patriotism” is merchandise manufactured and sold to suc…customers like you.

      • B. says:

        The histories say they provided the engineering expertise needed to create the Soviet Tank plants. The only major arsenal that was indigenous Russian was their artillery one, and that one was pre-revolutionary.

        There’s a book by some jew commie engineer who went to help USSR with aeronautics in the 1930’s : they were struggling.

        Without western engineers, they’d never have managed to ramp up production numbers like they had. Soviets simply didn’t have the engineers to design and oversee the construction of the factory. IIRC, something like half of their pre-revolution experts escaped..

        • Baruch Kogan says:

          They didn’t even have the FOREMEN to run the plants at first; were importing Finns from Michigan and such through AMTORG.

          Things improved over the decades, but not enough; in the 70s, KAMAZ was built largely by Western companies and equipped with Western-made equipment. Or look up “Bryant Grinder ICBM”.

          • gcochran9 says:

            Things improved over the next three or four years. Magnitogorsk produced a lot of steel and a lot of tanks in 1942, and it wasn’t because Americans were running it. They weren’t. And those tanks (T-34s) were better than ours.

            Americans were involved in the big industrial projects of the 30s – some of them – but it’s not as if the Soviets couldn’t produce competent engineers of their own. There are areas in which the Soviets were not competitive, like fine pharmaceuticals and, increasingly electronics/computing ( although their software could be good) but the idea that everything they did was developed elsewhere is nonsense.

            • Baruch Kogan says:

              Not everything they did was developed elsewhere, but without the stuff developed elsewhere, their whole system would have been a non-starter. They could not have been a threat to America without America providing them with the key components of their systems. What’s a USSR without trucks? For that matter, what’s a Red China/North Vietnam/Korea/etc. without Soviet trucks? And without American industrial support, no Soviet trucks.

              Those T-34s were a direct descendant of the BT series, which was built on US specs, with the first two BT tanks shipped directly to the USSR from the US, via AMTORG, with US military and State Department approval. Again, no American aid-no T-34s.

              The main Soviet air force cargo aircraft was the Li-2, a licensed version of the C-47. The license was awarded in 1936.

              Then we can talk about how the key components of the Soviet atomic program came from the US; some from the Ottawa Ring, via espionage, but most completely officially, via the air bridge from Great Falls, MT…

              Literally everywhere you look, American support was key to building the Soviet military-industrial complex.

              • gcochran9 says:

                You’re substantially wrong. Sure, the Soviets bought/borrowed/stole lots of technology, but they were also fully capable of developing their own. What would have they have done without a C-47 design? Developed their own, just as they developed their own fighter planes and ground-attack planes. The laws of physics are not an American monopoly, and there were plenty of smart engineers and physicists in the Soviet Union. Sure, there are areas where hey had trouble competing ( electronics/computing) or even chose to sit out (antibiotics) – but the idea that they depended on American technology is basically false.

                Consider the basic oxygen process. The first country to experiment with it was- surprise – the Soviet Union, in the 1930s. But they had trouble getting a reliable, cheap supply of liquid oxygen, which awaited the development of the turboexpander – invented by Kapitsa, Guess where he lived? But the first practical implementation was in Austria in 1952. Later, in 1956, basic oxygen furnaces showed up in both the United States and the Soviet Union, but both were relatively slow to switch from open hearth furnaces – other countries modernized faster.

                The Soviets built a number of titanium-hulled submarines powered by liquid-lead-cooled nuclear reactors. Where do you think they got THAT design from?

              • Baruch Kogan says:

                Developed their own, just as they developed their own fighter planes and ground-attack planes.

                Check out where the engines of those planes came from. Half were powered by a Soviet knockoff of the Wright Cyclone, and most of the rest by Soviet-made Hispano-Suiza engines.

                The USSR had some very talented engineers and scientists to fill in the gaps where they couldn’t buy or steal the necessary tech. But if those gaps had been substantially bigger, they would not have been able to fill them. The Russians could not have planned and built those plants on their own, trained the workforce and designed the systems, and produced the necessary raw materials. In almost every key area, they were dependent on the West many times over.

              • gcochran9 says:

                You want I should make a list of all the inventions pirated from someone else by the US, or Germany, or Great Britain? NK-33.

                You’ve said a bunch of stuff, all of it substantially wrong. Get better.

              • j says:

                I have worked with many engineers from Russia and the general impression is that the only reliable equipment they had was sourced in the West. Even in the eighties, the working ones were those dismantled in East Germany and rebuilt screw by screw in the USSR.

              • Baruch Kogan says:

                Forget it, J, our host is not susceptible to logic on this question.

                “Sure, the Americans built Magnitogorsk, set up the machinery, trained the Soviets in its use…but 8 years later, the Soviets were running Magnitogorsk without American engineers. Which proves that the USSR was not dependent on American technology!”

                Ok, boss.

              • gcochran9 says:

                Americans didn’t build Magnitogorsk. Americans ( mostly ) designed it.

            • reiner Tor says:

              The T-34 wasn’t better than the Sherman. It was better in some aspects, and worse (much worse, even) in some others.

              • gcochran9 says:

                The T-34 in 1941 was far superior to the M4s that hadn’t showed up yet.

              • reiner Tor says:

                Okay, but the US industry could produce the Sherman really quickly after it entered the war. The Soviets were mostly stuck with the T-34 until the end of the war. (Granted, they could’ve switched to a better tank by 1942, had they not been attacked by Germany in 1941… but that’s another story.)

              • gcochran9 says:

                Upgrades: T-34/85. And the Soviets could build plenty of T-34s and upgraded versions: around 60,000

            • Ursiform says:

              The Russian boasting of having invented everything became a common joke. But there is a distinguished history of top notch Russian science and engineering.

              The Soviet Union stumbled when scientific theory fell afoul of politics, or industrial policy hampered production. Many technical areas managed to avoid politics, and during The Great War production became more important than economic purity. Plus workers were far more motivated by driving the Nazis out than they ever were by socialist incentives.

            • Ursiform says:

              The Russian boasting of having invented everything became a common joke. But there is a distinguished history of top notch Russian science and engineering.

              The Soviet Union stumbled when scientific theory fell afoul of politics, or industrial policy hampered production. Many technical areas managed to avoid politics, and during The Great War production became more important than economic purity. Plus workers were far more motivated by driving the Nazis out than they ever were by socialist incentives.

  7. Hesse Kassel says:

    Perceptions of relative success matter within the home countries for one thing.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Which I what I think, more or less. But it’s weird: playing to the galleries.

      • dearieme says:

        Yeah, playing to the gallery in Vietnam worked a treat for the US, didn’t it?

        • gcochran9 says:

          If we’d said sure, go ahead, conquer most of the world, I think a lot of people without a really clear understanding would have concluded that we were losing. Maybe instead of there being ~50 card-carrying MPs in Labor back in the 60s, there would have been considerably more. It is not as if the western powers weren’t falling apart too – I remember when Ron Dellums was head of House Armed Services. Or when Hillary was pushing for Johnetta Cole as head of the Department of Education – derailed by the Forward pointing out that, as a prominent member of the Communist Party, she might be insufficiently supportive of Israel.

          • Hwite says:

            Was she ever an actual member of the Communist Party?

            • gcochran9 says:

              She was for years a member of the national committee of the Venceremos Brigades, had a major position on the executive board of the U.S> Peace Council ( a front), was a featured speaker in a 1984 (!) tribute to Herbert Aptheker,

        • syonredux says:

          “Yeah, playing to the gallery in Vietnam worked a treat for the US, didn’t it?”

          As I noted above, I think that US intervention in Vietnam was a bad idea….but, that being said,….It’s been argued that Congress’ refusal to fund air support after the US withdrew is what allowed the North to conquer the South in ’75….So, different mindset in Congress, and Vietnam might have ended up just like Korea in ’53…

          • dearieme says:

            Unlikely. The N. Vietnamese had something to fight for. Since there was no vital American interest involved the US was bound eventually to become bored with the whole farrago and go away.

            • syonredux says:

              “Unlikely. The N. Vietnamese had something to fight for. Since there was no vital American interest involved the US was bound eventually to become bored with the whole farrago and go away.”

              Dunno. North Korea had something vital to fight for in ’53……

              • reiner Tor says:

                North Korea (the people) would be vastly better off if they won the war, it’s obvious. I mean, millions of them wouldn’t have died needlessly in a famine. Their government would’ve allowed economic reforms probably already in the 1980s, the same as Vietnam. Granted, South Koreans would still have lower living standards.

              • syonredux says:

                “North Korea (the people) would be vastly better off if they won the war, it’s obvious. I mean, millions of them wouldn’t have died needlessly in a famine. Their government would’ve allowed economic reforms probably already in the 1980s, the same as Vietnam.”

                Dunno. Presumably, the Kims would still be in charge….

          • Bob says:

            A point JEP made often. Though not one I was taught in my public education, and not what one would gather from common discussion today. I would suggest the Kurds and the Afghan people heed this lesson well. Uncle Sam can be a fickle bastard. While in 75 it was the Dems that did the deed of shame this should give little comfort as weasels abound on both sides.


      • Cantman says:

        It makes sense to play to the galleries when controlling US domestic politics was really the only thing that mattered on either side.

    • Rodep says:

      Not just your home country. A big part of power is just being perceived as powerful. Half the Peloponnesian War was fought over strategically insignificant cities, but Athens needed public victories to keep its tributaries from rebelling.

  8. CT says:

    Didnt Cuba matter simply due to its proximity to the US?

      • Jim says:

        Should we have allowed Khrushchev have placed Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba?

        • gcochran9 says:

          It would have been a bad thing, but nuclear missile subs give a similar strategic payoff, and that happened.

        • dearieme says:

          Kennedy knew that the missiles in Cuba made no strategic difference. This linked account is, I think, too kind to Kennedy, but that point comes across clearly.

          • gcochran9 says:

            Kennedy didn’t know jack. Putting missiles in Cuba roughly doubled Soviet strategic nuclear strength. And JFK didn’t strategically weigh that or anything: he couldn’t even understand it. He kept asking why the Russkis wanted to put missiles in Cuba – weren’t they just as effective back in Russia? Fact: the Russians had effective, affordable short-range-missiles at the time. They had very few long-range missiles. Put a short-range missile in Cuba and suddenly it can hit the US – like a long-range missile, but better: cheaper and with hardly any warning time.

            JFK was not smart.

            People are reluctant to admit that the fools at the top often have no idea what they’re talking about.

            • dearieme says:

              Kennedy not smart? How can that be? I saw an article by an American psychologist who had estimated Kennedy’s IQ at 157.

              True, his measured IQ would have barely got him into the second-top stream in my secondary school, and would have made it un likely that he’d have got into a British university in those days, but still. Are you doubting the professional skill of a psychologist?

              • syonredux says:

                “True, his measured IQ would have barely got him into the second-top stream in my secondary school, and would have made it un likely that he’d have got into a British university in those days,”

                Yep. At 119, JFK’s IQ was almost certainly below GWB’s……

              • dearieme says:

                You needed 118 at my school. Second top stream meant not clever enough to study Latin, but he would have studied French.

                A friend of mine, a generation older than me, met JFK when he was a senator – I assume that he was interested in improving his knowledge of foreign affair by meeting foreign academics who were at MIT. Anyway, my friend found Kennedy charming but not very bright. He was, however, quite bright enough to surround himself with bright advisors. Alas, on the matter of Vietnam some of those people proved to have rotten judgement, however high their IQs.

              • syonredux says:

                When was that? I was doing some poking around and found a rather surprising bit of info:

                “”One of the most outstanding groups of men that I was able to find was that of the faculty of the University of Cambridge. (Nature, 1967, 213, 442) These scores represent the Full Scale WAIS IQs of 148 faculty members in a variety of disciplines from one of the most distinguished Universities in the world.

                The WAIS has a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15…

                “The scores range from 110 to 141 with a mean of 126.5 and a standard deviation of 6.3 points. All the scores fall within three standard deviations of the mean. The distribution of the scores in terms of Wechsler’s classification show that all the scientists obtained scores above the seventieth percentile rank for the general population — 35.2 per cent are classified as “very superior”, 51.3 per cent as “superior”, and 13.5 per cent as “bright normal”. Approximate percentages of these three groups in a general population sample are 2.2, 6.7, and 16.1 respectively.””

              • syonredux says:

                Can’t seem to post the link to the info on Cambridge faculty IQ….Well, for the interested, it’s at Pumpkin Person. The title of the post is:”Average IQ of Oxford and Cambridge students.”

            • dearieme says:

              “Putting missiles in Cuba roughly doubled Soviet strategic nuclear strength.” That didn’t much matter as long as the vast American nuclear superiority meant that so many weapons would survive a first strike by the USSR that there was enough capacity left to obliterate the cities of that country.

              Naturally Kennedy couldn’t say so in public because he’d lied consistently on the topic, pretending that there was missile gap with the US behind the USSR. Thus did his lies risk a nuclear war. But what the hell, he had won the election, hadn’t he? Presumably the lies made the race close enough that his father’s money was able to buy the result he wanted.

    • AppSocRes says:

      Before the Castro brothers took over Cuba, “revolutions” in the Caribbean, Central America, and Latin America played out pretty much as described in Conrad’s Nostromo. Various elements of the upper classes contended for power, at most a few hundreds of people were killed, and nothing really changed. The Indian masses still remained at the bottom of the heap and were kept there, usually with relatively mild repression.* The “success” of Castro’s revolution not only encouraged similar revolutions elsewhere in the Americas but provided a permanent support system for such revolutions. The results continue to this day. The bloody destabilization of much of Central America and South America, and parts of the Caribbean has become an apparently permanent part of the political landscape.

      Two exceptions to this picture are the two countries that even most South ans Central Americans regard as outliers: Mexico and Argentina. To grossly simplify, the soi disant Mexican Revolution was actually a thirty-year long race war in which the Mestizos improved their relative position in society by using the Indios against the ruling pure-blood Europeans. After the Mestizos achieved their ends, they dumped their Indio allies and things have been relatively stable ever since. Again, to grossly simplify, Argentina is, like the United States once was, predominantly European. After a period of phenomenal growth during which Argentina seemed poised to overtake the USA, an economic depression led to the rise of Peron and a fascist-like government. Since then, Argentine politics have – with the exception of a relatively brief, bloody and incompetent military dictatorship – most closely resembled the politics of Italy north of Rome.

      • Jim says:

        The violence in internal conflict in South America wasn’t always all that minor and similar to the fictional account in “Nostromo”. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the Federal War for example in a nation with a population of not much more than a million.

  9. AH says:

    I have to disagree, but maybe it’s just a different interpretation of what “Third World” means. I think the Cold War made a huge difference to South Korea and the bigger Latin American countries, especially Chile and Argentina.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      Don’t worry about whether it made a difference to the South Koreans, Chileans, and Argentinians. Answer whether it made a difference to the outcome of the Cold War.

      Did the United States win (and the USSR lose) the Cold War because of anything that happened in Korea, Chile, and Argentina?

      (The answer is no.)

      • gcochran9 says:

        Well, the fact that we don’t even know exactly why and how we won complicates this analysis. Might have been a butterfly flapping its wings in Bolivia.

        • Pincher Martin says:

          I thought we won because the Soviets decided, correctly, that they were falling behind the West and made the tactical mistake of believing that political openness (glasnost and democratization) should go hand-in-hand with economic restructuring (i.e, perestroika) to allow them to catch up.

          This political openness caused Eastern Europe and soon afterward the constituent parts of the Soviet Union itself to unravel form Moscow’s control.

          The ChiComs were making it clear around the same time that no such political openness was necessary. A large imperial Communist country could liberalize economically and still maintain the same political structure.

          • Pincher Martin says:

            The more interesting questions to me are …

            1) Why didn’t Gorbachev quickly back off his political reforms and reinstitute those pre-Gorbachev Soviet controls when it was clear that there was even the possibility the whole thing could unravel? (Instead, he doubled down.)

            2) At what point in time did it become impossible for Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership to do that?

            But as to the cause of the downfall of the Soviet Union, I think it’s pretty clearly rooted in the political decisions of Gorbachev and the Soviet Leadership in the second half of the nineteen-eighties based on their mistaken perception that political reforms were necessary to economically catch up with the West.

            • Ivan says:

              You are correct in your previous statement that political democratization is unnecessary for introducing market economy and may indeed be harmful as we saw in the respective examples of China and Russia.

              As to Gorbachev’s not backtracking on his reforms, a simple explanation would be that he lacked imagination, did not understand his own people too well, and believed in the woodoo of democracy, i.e. he was a stupid man although he meant well. If it were not for him alone, the Soviet Empire would have been alive although perhaps not so well today: the breakdown was merely an unintended side effect of “perestroika”. The West’s role in the Soviet Union disintegration was virtually nil.

              • Smithie says:

                Gorbachev lost to Yeltsin, a guy who was missing a thumb and index finger because he had played with a grenade in his youth. Maybe, a sign of his relative political acumen.

              • Smithie says:

                There was one guy who was close to Yeltsin for a time. Instead of Yeltsin’s right-hand man, they called him Yeltsin’s right-hand glass.

            • Smithie says:

              Some believe Gorbachev gave the order to fire in Lithuania causing a massacre. But, it is frankly hard to parse, as an outsider. Just like some of the Putin rumors.

              Khrushchev exceeded the liquidation quota that Stalin gave him. He was clearly very ruthless and experienced, but in the end, he couldn’t keep himself in power. Meanwhile, Gorbachev came to power as geriatric members of the Politburo were falling asleep in meetings.

            • reiner Tor says:

              It was very difficult to reform the Soviet economy the same way the Chinese did. The big problem was that the reforms caused huge problems in the Stalinist part of the economy. The Chinese kept the Stalinist part of the economy on life support for decades, but the Soviets had a much bigger Stalinist part of their economy (basically, everything except the private plots in the kholkhozes). Eventually, there would’ve had been an economic crisis, no matter what.

              Of course, they could’ve accepted it and carried on, if they had the nerves.

          • Unladen Swallow says:

            One of the stories I heard that shook Russian self-confidence was the Israeli military’s crushing of Syria’s military in Lebanon in 1982 convinced them they hoplessly behind in modern weapons technology. They therefore needed major political and economic reforms in order to compete.

            • Pincher Martin says:

              One of the stories I heard that shook Russian self-confidence was the Israeli military’s crushing of Syria’s military in Lebanon in 1982 convinced them they hoplessly behind in modern weapons technology.

              I’ve read the same thing, and it may be true. The disparity between the two Koreas was also getting pretty stark and hard not to notice.

              But the ChiComs were seeing many of the same things in the early nineteen-eighties. They even flirted with some political reforms at the time. But they drew back pretty quickly on the political stuff when things threatened to unravel. Gorbachev did not.

              Was it the age difference between Deng, who was an old practical Maoist, and the young idealistic Gorbachev? Or perhaps China was in stronger position in that its imperial holdings were much smaller and easier to control than were the Soviets’ more extensive empire.

            • Pincher Martin says:

              Another thing to consider is Gorbachev himself.

              I’ve seen some large media-created cult of personalities focused on political figures arise in the West. Nelson Mandela. The Dalai Lama. Barack Obama. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the positive media attention that Gorbachev generated in the second half of the nineteen-eighties and the first two years of the nineteen-nineties. For more than five years that man was the center of international media attention. Everything he did made huge news. When he went in 1988 to Governor’s Island in New York for a summit meeting with President Reagan and President-elect George H.W. Bush, many in the media reported it as if Gorbachev was the only man who mattered there.

              I wonder to what degree this gushy media attention affected Gorbachev and his decision-making, allowing him to believe, at least in the beginning, that he was winning the propaganda war. Perhaps he even believed that this propaganda war mattered, that it would lead to tangible results. Perhaps he believed it right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.

              • reiner Tor says:

                I read it at the blog of Anatoly Karlin, that either Gorbachev or his wife wrote in their memoirs that when Gorbachev was being celebrated by a large crowd in maybe Italy, he turned to his wife and said: “that’s why it’s worth it.” It’s possible that the personality cult created by western media was the key factor. But then again, maybe it didn’t matter. Who knows?

          • Cantman says:

            The USSR fell because it lost the will to impose Russian imperialism on the other nationalities. Countries usually do not fragment because their economies are not doing well; if the USSR had changed its name and economic system, but retained the same territory and vassal states, this argument would be much more plausible. China reformed its economic system without “falling”, and NK refused to reform its economic system even though that system plainly does not work without “falling”.

        • Zenit says:

          There is no great mystery. The Soviet communist nomenclature and upper class saw how good is life of Western capitalists and decided to privatize what their ancestors nationalized and join the winning team.
          They were right, and they won. You won nothing.

          • gcochran9 says:

            I don’t think there’s a word of truth in what you say.

          • Randall Parker says:

            The guys at the top of the USSR were clueless and not trying to collapse communism. One lesson I took away from Chris Miller’s book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (a useful read IMO) was that Gorbachev was not as dumb as some other Politburo members. He knew Soviet ag was really bad and the other top leaders and bureaucrats blocked his attempt to introduce more market forces into Soviet agriculture. He knew the Chinese were demonstrating better ways and that the Chinese were doing this very quickly (albeit from a lower starting point.

            Though Deng Xiaoping thought Gorbachev was pretty dumb. So maybe I’m giving Gorbachev too much credit.

  10. Citizen A says:

    One of the greatest indicators of how screwed up the Soviet system got was the need to chronically import grain- into one of the greatest areas to grow food in the world!

    Given how our own grainbelt spews out massive surpluses today, so much that we turn it into alcohol to burn for fuel…one does really begin to wonder at how stupid so much soviet research managed to get under Stalin, and how long it took to recover.

    The Third world was a major distraction- the real venue for destabilization was in Europe- the socialization of the European Countries in response to the perceived social safety system under communism was a very expensive cost relative to the advantages.

    As for wasting resources on the Third World- every Soviet military pile of junk sold into the Third World was of great advantage to folks who wanted to “liberate from colonialism” and have their own elites capture even more of the surplus- how many villas in the south of France and in Switzerland were funded from selling on or using the weapons to get even more…

    Now, let’s look at another part of the strategy by the USSR-

    Very interesting problems you have imported, Mr. Central Committee… I would note the most interesting artifact of the US infatuation with importing bright Africans is the past President.

    In short, without real systems of management and control, “winning” in terms of the third world does not exist. Colonialism was a costly failure for the most part- and one even notices the Chinese simply import any necessary labor into Africa to extract what they need….

    • gcochran9 says:

      “the greatest areas to grow food in the world” – the United States. Russia suffers from latitude.

      • AppSocRes says:

        As I remember, when Soviet apologists raised this argument in the 1960s, a counterargument was that Canada’s highly productive grain belts in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, which are at roughly the same latitude as Ukraine and other Soviet grain producing regions, were about as productive as their southern neighbors in the US grain belt.

        • gcochran9 says:

          There were a lot more people to feed in the Soviet Union than there were in Canada. Ten times as many. On the other hand, the Soviets managed to barely avoid mass starvation in 1942, with the Germans holding 45% of the population and ~60% of the agricultural land. Go figure.

          • Citizen A says:

            Soviet Agriculture did not produce what was necessary until they directed some modest investments- but still:
            Although accounting for a small share of cultivated area, private plots produced a substantial share of the country’s meat, milk, eggs, and vegetables.[citation needed] Although never more than 4% of the arable land in the USSR, private plots consistently yielded a quarter to a third of total produce. In other words, private plots were more than 8 to 12 times as productive. Private plots were among many attempts made to restructure Soviet farming.[citation needed] However, the weak worker incentives and managerial autonomy, which were the crux of the problem, were not addressed.[citation needed]

            The private plots were also an important source of income for rural households. In 1977, families of kolkhoz members obtained 72% of their meat, 76% of their eggs and most of their potatoes from private holdings. Surplus products, as well as surplus livestock, were sold to kolkhozy and sovkhozy and also to state consumer cooperatives. Statistics may actually under-represent the total contribution of private plots to Soviet agriculture.[14] The only time when private plots were completely banned was during collectivization, when famine took millions of lives.[15]
            from the

            But, now this:

            Hey, look- lots of grain again….for export. Looks like lots of still untapped potential- which is the general description of the Soviet Union- way too much land, way too few skilled people, and nowhere near enough useful capital in all of the categories except munitions.

          • athEIst says:

            Stalin had rid himself of non-starvation-resistant Ukrainians back in ’32

      • Scar-tan says:

        Wheat and barley grow better in higher latitudes.
        The US produces 60 million tons of wheat from 145 million acres. Canada produces 31 million tons from only 35 million acres. Ukraine produces 26 million tons from 34 million acres. Russia produces 65 million tons from 108 million acres.
        Potatoes do better too.

        Off-topic FYI, but Canada exports 3.6 million tons of wheat a year to the US, the US exports 58,000 to Canada.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Your figures are wrong. The US, in 2017, produced about 50 million tons of wheat on 46 million acres, Canada produced about 25.5 million tons of wheat on 22.4 million acres.

          Minor differences are due to weather and low wheat prices. How you managed to mis-estimate US wheat acreage by a factor of 3 is another quesion.

  11. It would have mattered had the cold war turned hot.

  12. Bukephalos says:

    He’s omitting how positioning nukes on the global stage could procure advantages to one power over the other

  13. Smithie says:

    The whole strategy of alignment was a vanity. The Soviets never controlled Yugoslavia or Albania despite their close proximity because they didn’t have the supply lines or the troops in situ. Meanwhile, most dictators had their own ambitions, they were “aligned” as long as the check cleared. Want to “re-align” them? Write a bigger check.

    Before WWI, the state department was in one modest-sized building. As far as I’m concerned, it could be run from a one-room school house.

    • Cantman says:

      It wasn’t vanity. Both sides officially believed that all men were created equal. There were a lot of people in, say, Arabia, so if they’re equal to Europeans then a Pan-Arab Union has the potential to be a major power and its formation would have world historical consequences. When you read about Anthony Eden worrying in his private diaries that he was permitting a second Nazi Germany to arise by not stopping Egypt now, he sounds less crazy when you realise that pretty much every smart person in the world at least agreed with his premise. And how different is it today?

      • gcochran9 says:

        Of course Antony Eden was crazy (and amphetamines didn’t help): Hitler had Germany, Nasser had Egypt. As Ike said. Hiterlian Germany had the second-largest economy in the world (although not a close second), while Egypt was what ? 40th?

        • Cantman says:

          He was. So were the US and USSR. If all men are created equal, having Arabia is as good as having Germany. Both the US and the USSR believed all men were created equal, officially, and most of their officials really believed it on some level.

          Ike was a technical guy who somehow became president. Way less crazy than the average politician.

          People who thought Vietnam etc. mattered also thought that the Aswan Dam was going to industrialise Egypt and that socialist African countries would overtake Europe due to their superior economic organisation and rich natural resources. The mistake is to believe that the US rejected all this stuff, like it was some reactionary power. It wasn’t.

        • syonredux says:

          Benzedrine is a helluva drug……

        • Cantman says:

          Obviously Eden was wildly wrong. But lots of fancy people at that time believed that Egypt (and India, and Sub-Saharan Africa…) were going to rapidly industrialise in the next few years. All people are created equal, it was only colonial exploitation holding them back, and they had the secret weapon of rapid adoption of scientific socialism world’s best economic system – right? This was once entirely mainstream. For that matter it was never actually repudiated, its advocates just stopped drawing attention to it after it didn’t exactly work out.

  14. j says:

    Being in the world is important even for America, because things change so fast. Thirty years ago China was a primitive shit hole, people went hungry, yet in on generation is about to overtake America. And America too is changing vertiginously, the futurists are always taken by surprise. America must have a hand everywhere, if only to prevent the next Black Death epidemic.

  15. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I lived in various Asian countries during the 90’s and met guys from places like Africa who grew up during the cold war. They said something interesting. All of the young people who attended Western universities ended up becoming pro-communist and all those who went to Moscow (and Beijing) decided that communism didn’t work. I really do think the entire interventionist foreign policy (that actually goes back to the Spanish-American War) concept is a giant boondoggle.

    Generally, I agree with “psuedoerasmus’s” position. The only potential counter argument I can think of is if our interventionist foreign policy somehow facilitated Nixon’s rapprochement with China and fostered free-market economic reform in the East Asian countries in general. I simply cannot think of any other counter argument.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I can think of hundreds. some of which might even be correct. Imagination can be a curse.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I’m looking at a list of prominent graduates of Patrice Lumumba University. I don’t think it supports your claim.

      • Abelard Lindsey says:

        It wasn’t my claim. It was a claim by some Ghana embassy guys I met at a party in Japan. Patrice Lumumba University might be an exception.

    • Smithie says:

      You could make the argument that Taiwan would have been taken without the other interventions, but even if you allow for that, I don’t think the Chinese would have touched HK. It was too useful for the elite, to buy drugs and luxury goods. Even if they had, that would still leave Japan as an economic example. For a while, it was thought Japan would supersede the US. That would have definitely scared the Chinese into reform, IMO.

      • Abelard Lindsey says:

        You reinforce my point. The cold war struggle at least provided a plausible rational for the interventionist foreign policy. However, this foreign policy actually started with the Spanish-American War and got us into the First World War, long before the Soviets became a credible global threat. Even though the Soviets imploded nearly thirty years ago, we still have the interventionist foreign policy, despise zero returns to the American citizen and taxpayer. If “psuedoerasmus’s” reasoning is correct, then my assertion that the entire 120 plus years of the foreign intervention project has been the biggest boondoggle ever foisted on the American taxpayer and public.

        • Abelard Lindsey says:

          As Jerry Pournelle once said, “We can be the friends of liberty everywhere, but defenders of only our own”. Do remember that Pournelle was a true blue cold warrior. If he thinks that foreign interventionism has been largely a waste, then you can take it to the bank that this is true.

  16. Randall Parker says:

    I thought it made sense for the USA to support Britain, our Cold War ally, in the Falklands. It sent a clear message that the very capitalistic USA sticks up for its allies and that its allies are, as a result, not losers. It would have hurt us to have right wing anti-communist Margaret Thatcher to have a loss and thereby to embolden commies in the UK Labour Party and other lefties.

    I saw the Third World Cold War battles in generally those terms: We needed to prevent communism from looking like it was on the march and destined to rule the world. Though we needed to do that cost effectively.

    At this point I think having a few communist regimes around is helpful. People don’t know much history. But Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea are present-day lessons that socialism and communism are pretty stupid.

  17. Hoover thought we should let the Germans and the Russians slug it out.

    • syonredux says:

      “Hoover thought we should let the Germans and the Russians slug it out.”

      USSR wins….which means that Soviet rule extends to the Rhine….Not a good scenario….

      • gcochran9 says:

        Depends. If the Western powers had made some sort of deal with Hitler so that he didn’t have to station lots of troops in Western Europe, didn’t have to put lots of energy into the Battle of the Atlantic, didn’t have to deal with Bomber Command and The Mighty Eighth, wasn’t under a trade embargo, with no Lend-Lease flowing to the Soviet Union – hard to see how the Soviets win.

        • syonredux says:

          Hitler wins, which means a Nazi Empire that runs from the Rhine to the Urals/Siberia…Not a good scenario….particularly if you are a Slav…..

          • gcochran9 says:

            That’s the maximum possible shift possible for the Western powers, short of direct military intervention against the Soviet Union. You could dial that up and down: you could have have the same policy that we did, except with zero Lend-Lease to the USSR: that dials down the Soviet war economy by more than 10%. You could have skipped the North Africa landings. Of course trying to thread the needle & end up with Germany and the Soviet Union fighting to a crippling draw is quite difficult: more likely if someone threw in a new piece of technology that radically favored the defender.

  18. Cantman says:

    Arguably it mattered in parts of Africa, where the left destroyed a few countries that had the potential to evolve into European settler states that would have had some relevance. The US and the USSR were pretty much on the same side there though.

    • gcochran9 says:

      None of the colonies in Africa had the capacity to evolve into stable settler states.

      • Baruch Kogan says:

        Why do you think so?

        • gcochran9 says:

          Because I’m not fucking blind.

          • Baruch Kogan says:

            If the African colonies were so inherently unstable, then why did the US have to go to such lengths to destabilize them? For instance, Rhodesia only fell after a prolonged embargo, culminating in the US leaning on South Africa to cut off the oil. Had there not been an embargo, Rhodesia would probably still be with us today (there’d be a lot less billionaires in Africa.)

            • syonredux says:

              “If the African colonies were so inherently unstable, ‘

              Demography is destiny.

            • gcochran9 says:

              You seem to forget extensive Soviet-backed guerrilla warfare. That, and the fact that whites in Rhodesia were wildly outnumbered – > 20-1.

              • Baruch Kogan says:

                But that guerrilla warfare wasn’t getting the guerrillas very far, because they were incompetent, and a lot of the Rhodesian blacks were either neutral or on the side of the whites. Again, they lasted 20 years under an embargo and it took cutting off their oil to make them fold.

              • gcochran9 says:

                Of course they were incompetent. But there were too many of them. The long-term trend was bad – white Rhodesians were emigrating. And the key development was the fall of Portugal’s colonies.

              • Baruch Kogan says:

                I dunno-if they’d held out another decade, the USSR would have collapsed and with it, the insurgents’ support. And it’s hard to overestimate how incompetent those insurgents were. I mean, this:

              • Cantman says:

                “That, and the fact that whites in Rhodesia were wildly outnumbered – > 20-1.”

                Irrelevant. Race war isn’t inevitable, it’s provoked or suppressed by information sources, and those are ultimately controlled by the rulers. Sure, America’s rulers like to provoke internal race wars. Wasn’t necessarily so, and wasn’t so in Rhodesia, where the vast majority of the native blacks acquiesced to the government, and many served in its armed forces. The Rhodesians, unlike the Afrikaaners, were also very open to coopting capable blacks by including them in the oligarchy. Some of the insurgents were native Rhodesians, but almost all of them entered the country via Soviet training camps further north in Africa. There was no spontaneous popular uprising.

              • gcochran9 says:

                From Mars, sure: do I hear a Syrtis accent?

        • Thersites says:

          Portugal was the ultimate test case on the viability of white settler societies in Africa. Estado Novo’s committment to holding their overseas possessions was so firm it was borderline delusional. They gave the colonial wars 250% of their maximum effort, and not only did they still lose their colonies, but Lisbon itself very nearly fell into the hands of the Communists as a result. (They were fortunately saved at the last minute by the single-handed heroic efforts of Capitão Falcão). If the the unbending Portuguese couldn’t hang on to their African colonies, it’s difficulty to argue that anyone else could have made a stronger effort or had better success with a similar project (though, admittedly, the Portuguese military hasn’t exactly been a Division I team since the 16th century).

          • gcochran9 says:

            Well, it is true that there have been times and places in which colonialism was practical, or at least possible. That depended to an extent on what ideas were currently floating around, the state of technology, demographics, etc. Back in 1890, European population size as a lot bigger compared to Africa (and the 3rd world generally) than it is today. Europeans had the Maxim gun: locals generally did not. Europeans (some more than others) had enormous self-confidence: they thought they could do anything. They were right, too. Locals were trapped in cultures that were uncreative & static – sometimes illiterate, which really limits your mental universe. In many cases, the locals were as dumb as a stump – while limiting their capacity to resist, that also decreased what they had to offer.

            Much of that changed in the 20th century. Some locals got an education: they then led resistance movements. Those semi-educated locals had a vision in which they were running the show, rather than Europeans. In Northeast Asia, the local were NOT dumb, caught up, and became players. European demographics soured, and Europeans lost that manic self-confidence. Most of them did, anyhow. Locals got transistor radios and, too often, AK-47s. European powers more often poked each other by aiding rebels against a rival imperium. And then, they fought each other.

            Now how could any given European power have avoided these problems and hung on to its colonies? It would have helped if the colonies were valuable – few were though. One such power could have decided to never educate locals and ban transistor radios. Hand out lots of free, addictive birth control in the colonies while banning it at home. By bribing and/or pruning the right intellectuals, they might have managed to maintain a degree of civilizational self-confidence.

            You’d also need to prevent the world wars between the European powers: that’s quite a trick.

            • DataExplorer says:

              I thought they gave up the colonies for moral reasons and because of international pressure, not because they could not handle the natives militarily. Morocco tried to take back the Spanish colonies militarily during the Ifni War, and got humiliated. But then Franco just gave up the territories anyway 10 years later because of UN pressure.

              • Greying Wanderer says:

                “I thought they gave up the colonies for moral reasons and because of international pressure, not because they could not handle the natives militarily.”

                they couldn’t handle the natives militarily for moral reasons

              • gcochran9 says:

                Ongoing guerrilla wars, Soviet-supported, no end in sight. The Portuguese Army overthrew the government. ” Moral reasons”?

      • Maciano says:

        Not even Tunisia or Algeria?

        • gcochran9 says:

          Probably not. Too many unassimilable locals, all with higher birth rates. De Gaulle lived in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises: he said if they kept Algeria, it’d end up as Colombey-les-Deux-Minarets.

  19. MawBTS says:

    What can you do with Afghanistan, with Ethiopia, with South Yemen? Pseudoerasmus says ” serene non-intervention by the USA everywhere (except maybe oil-producing middle east) would have made little difference to the final outcome.”

    There is strategic utility to pointless wars. If your enemy believes that you’re insane, won’t negotiate, won’t back down, and won’t respond to rational incentives, what will his behavior be?

    And politically, fighting wars can make you look good on the home front. You might be getting your ass kicked, but nobody can say you’re passive, or ineffectual.

    King Charles II of England fell ill on February 2, 1685. His physicans set to work. No expense was spared. They drew blood. They gave him enemas. They applied blistering agents to his scalp. They prodded him with a red-hot poker. They administered forty drops of ooze from the skull of a man who had died of torture. They shoved stones from the intestines of a goat down his throat.

    The king died on February 6. But nobody could blame the physicians. Look at how hard they tried!

    • Frank J at the website “IMAO” advocated years ago that we nuke the moon, or perhaps one of our own national parks, to show our enemies we are crazy and might do anything.

      The optics would be bad at home, sure. Not to mention that it would make our allies nervous.

  20. AlexT says:

    He’s not right because optics matter?

  21. thomas says:

    The military industrial complex needed to stay in business. Just not enough money to be made from some ICBMs to stay safe.

  22. Rodep says:

    There’s also a principle to the effect of: “Fight tooth and nail over things that don’t matter, to ensure they never come for the things that do.”

    Fighting over Vietnam makes a Soviet push in Europe unthinkable. This is why countries feud over tiny uninhabited islands. If you give them the island, they’ll just start gunning for your coastline.

    Although now that I think over the problem, I don’t think the USA’s Cold War interventions were actually all that resource inefficient. The serious battles were over Vietnam and Korea, both allies with long-term value. The rest was limited to backing coups and guerrillas, which seems more in line with the projected long-term value of the battlegrounds in Africa and Latin America.

    • gcochran9 says:

      “Fighting over Vietnam makes a Soviet push in Europe unthinkable.” If we’d put 500,000 troops in Antarctica it would have been even more unthinkable.

      Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re nuts.

      • iffen says:

        One of the main reasons that the N. Vietnamese won was because they were willing to kill, or cause to be killed, as many Vietnamese as was necessary to win. Another important reason was that the strategy of sending out American patrols to “entrap” ambushers was not a good one.

      • Rodep says:

        You only come out ahead if the deterrent value exceeds the resources wasted to prove your point. If you run the numbers poorly, that’s easy to screw up.

        Vietnam was probably an example. The US sunk a lot of resources on a third party, while it’s primary opponent stayed unscathed. Meanwhile, the war didn’t even set the precedent it was supposed to. Instead of showing how resolved the US was to fight communism, it ended up just demonstrating the limits of US resolve.

        But I maintain that there are sound strategic reasons to expend more resources on an objective than the objective itself is worth.

        To invert your reductio ad absurdum, if France could credibly pledge to deploy 500,000 troops in defense of its Antarctic claim, it would probably save lives in the long run. If it based its defense on a rational estimation of the value of its Antarctic claim, it would be at serious risk of losing lives, money, and a big hunk of ice.

        • gcochran9 says:

          It’s a recipe for being a sucker.

        • dave chamberlin says:

          “But I maintain there are sound strategic reasons to expend more resources on an objective than the objective itself is worth.”

          You are not alone in this silly strategy but it is stupid. What do you want from this country anyway. It’s resources? International corporations exploit this extremely well. You want a military base there? What for. The locals get pissy about it and modern warfare makes it unnecessary. Make allies and their bases become your bases. Colonies became an historical footnote because they made no sense. Wasting billions for what you call strategic reasons is also senseless. Of course we can continue to waste our precious tax dollars this way while China doesn’t. They will thank us later.

          • Rodep says:

            In this particular case, the US probably over-committed to Vietnam. I’m defending the broader principle, which is that the strategic considerations are deeper than “subtract resources spent from value of objective, if result is positive number, you won.” It’s like a game of chicken, if you never swerve you’ll die, but if you swerve every time you’ll be walked all over.

            Imagine an aspiring conqueror on the world stage, whose armies are better than anyone else’s. In a world where countries routinely spend 80 units of value to protect 5 units of value, the guy who allocates defenses in perfect proportion to the value at stake, becomes a constant target.

            Greg is right that the failure mode is getting suckered into useless fights to prove your machismo, but I think he’s wrong to categorically reject this consideration.

            • gcochran9 says:

              There ought to be some way of reliably and permanently prohibiting deeply silly people from ever having any influence on public policy. Branding? The Mark of Harpo?

              • Rodep says:

                If argumentation isn’t your style, can you point me in the direction of the book/body of theory/etc which will discredit my silly notions?

  23. Ulysses says:

    Well, we’re at 170 comments now. I’ve seen just about every argument under the sun, refuted. Could you say why you believe he’s wrong?

  24. dearieme says:

    The folly of the Korean and Vietnam wars lay in two things (i) The US used its own troops, and (ii) It fought against non-USSR troops. Even if the US had won people would have shrugged, But she drew one war and lost the other: potential enemies paid attention. A wiser war was in Afghanistan: the US used proxies to defeat the USSR itself. Money better spent. Perhaps it was in some way associated with who was President at the time.

    What was the US’s vital interest in Afghanistan? Simple: that the army of the USSR was there and looked beatable.

    That W, and then O, should be so lame-brained as to try to turn a punitive expedition against Afghanistan into a War of Occupation was not Reagan’s fault.

    • dearieme says:

      I mean “the folly, over and above the lack of a vital American interest, …”

    • syonredux says:

      “The folly of the Korean and Vietnam wars lay in two things (i) The US used its own troops, and (ii) It fought against non-USSR troops. Even if the US had won people would have shrugged,”

      What other troops could have been used in Korea? Remember, the NKs nearly conquered the whole peninsula before MacArthur turned things around…..

      And, in Korea, the US fought against the NKs, the Chinese, and Soviet pilots…..

      Vietnam: Largely agree. It wasn’t worth it.

      “That W, and then O, should be so lame-brained as to try to turn a punitive expedition against Afghanistan into a War of Occupation was not Reagan’s fault.”: Yep. Should have left it at “butcher and bolt.” It’s not as though the US hasn’t done that in the past (E.g., the First and Second Barbary Wars).

  25. Marshall Lentini says:

    “What can you do with Afghanistan,”
    Mine it, which was one of the reasons for taking it over.
    Big nations need these basic things for their composite things.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Afghanistan is a key source of lapis lazuli [ Badakshan ], without which Vermeer would never have been able to paint Girl With A Pearl Earring. That’s worth fighting for.

      I might also point out that nobody has managed to build a multi-hundred-qubit quantum computer without using lapis lazuli. Or a faster-than-light drive.

      • Ursiform says:

        There are rare earth metals in Afghanistan. I suppose when prices get high enough someone (probably China) will pay the price for security to mine them. That price might just be millions of dollars to the local warlord. Trying to expand the control of the central government may actually be delaying exploitation.

        • gcochran9 says:

          There are rare earth ores in California, too.

          Generally, when someone talks about a crucial shortage in some useful element, warns how country X is going to get a monopoly, they’re full of it. There are almost always alternate sources.

      • Marshall Lentini says:

        I didn’t “talk about a crucial shortage in some useful element”. All I meant was that from a capitalist standpoint, there is some economic justification for taking Afghanistan, just as there was in Vietnam. That doesn’t make it a good or viable idea, but capitalism doesn’t stop at the good and viable, does it?

        • gcochran9 says:

          There wasn’t any, in either case. I remember being surrounded by thirty morons on the quad telling me that we were in Vietnam for the oil: which hadn’t been found then, and never was found.

          Non-oil minerals, with a few exceptions like gold, are only economically valuable in places that are politically safe. The profit margins aren’t high enough to pay for a lot of troops. Now oil sometimes can: oil in Cabinda paid for Cubans.

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