It is possible to see the Cold War as a departure from previous patterns of American strategic thought. During the Cold War, policymakers embraced the idea that it was in the service of American interests, indeed essential to American interests, that militant socialism not dominate various other countries around the planet: the vocabulary of ‘domino effect’ and ‘rollback’ and ‘containment’ emerged.
The conflicts in Vietnam and Korea demonstrate a willingness, not found a century earlier, to use significant amounts of American military power in distant lands in engagements which did not directly protect American lives or soil. The indirect threat present in these locations, it was argued, would eventually be as dangerous as any direct threat.
During the Cold War, strategy was conceived in the broadest possible terms, and not limited to military action. The contest was not between two armies, but rather between two ideologies, and as such, this contest would incorporate economic, artistic, athletic, and scientific competition.
This understanding of the Cold War, according to historian Russell Weigley, instantiates the theoretical work of Carl von Clausewitz:
During the Cold War and especially after the Korean War, belief that the United States was involved in a protracted conflict with international Communism led to a departure from historic habits and to an effort to form a national strategy for the employment of American power in defense and promotion of the country’s political values and interests. The new national strategy would be not merely a military strategy but an all-inclusive planning for the use of the nation’s total resources to defend and advance the national interests, encompassing military strategy and Clausewitz’s use of combats along with other means.
Weigley goes on to argue that, prior to the Cold War era, strategic thought was a field of work in which few Americans engaged, in which little work was done, and in which serious analysis was rare.
The strategic work that was done prior to the Cold War was narrower in scope, and limited to a military understanding of strategy. Broader theoretical work, like that of Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu, was rare:
This determination to conceive and to act upon a national strategy prompted a flow of writing and criticism concerned with strategy, including its military aspects, that was unprecedented in American history. Although by the 1970s the bipolar confrontation between the United States and Soviet Russian Communism that produced the new interest in strategy and a new concern for a broad national strategy had given way to more complex power relationships, the perils of unstable world politics, an unstable balance of nuclear force, and “wars of national liberation” are more than ample to perpetuate strategic thought and writing as a thriving American industry.
Military policy and foreign relations changed after 1945 in a way which made them not merely different in content, but in concept, from the diplomatic and military engagements of the previous century.
This question presents itself: is it possible to embrace this significant change in strategy, indeed this change in the nation’s understanding of its role among the other nations of the world, and simultaneously remain true to the founding principles of the United States - remain true to the notion of individual political liberty as central and essential? This question lies behind aspects of the debate between ‘isolationists’ and ‘internationalists,’ although framing the debate with those two words oversimplifies the question.
Can America play a large role in the world without sacrificing its commitment to personal freedom in the realms of political expression, religion, and property rights?