America's Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain
By Peter Grose
Houghton Mifflin, 2000
320 pages; $25.00
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Review by Frank Bourgholtzer
Seven little words in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs described the basic concept of a proposal for a U.S. foreign policy initiative to roll back the "Iron Curtain."
Curiously, the true meaning of the proposal was misunderstood by almost everyone who read the article--both on the hawkish right and the New Deal left--and the initiative was history by the time the American people became aware that it had even existed.
Peter Grose, a former New York Times correspondent and editor of Foreign Affairs, has carefully assembled all the elements, pro and con, good and bad, of the endeavor that came to be nicknamed "Operation Rollback." To write his book, Grose made use of both Russian and American declassified documents, interviews with participants, and the many books and articles that had already been written on the subject.
The 1947 Foreign Affairs article carried the byline "X." But it was common knowledge that "X" was the State Department expert on Soviet affairs, George Frost Kennan, who was about to become head of the newly created "Policy and Planning Staff."
Kennan wrote that U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union "must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." He went on to specify how this policy could be achieved: "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by"--and here are the vital seven little words-- "the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force." This "counter-force," he added, should be applied "at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points."
It doesn't take a Shakespearean scholar to understand that "counter-force" means meeting force with force. But that concept went right over the heads of New Deal liberals, who hailed "containment" as a sensible modus vivendi with a former ally, and right-wing conservatives, who railed against what they called "panty-waist diplomacy"--accusing containment of failing to do what Kennan's policy was, in fact, meant to do.
Columnist Walter Lippman, who was one of the few who seemed to understand from the outset the aggressive nature of the proposed policy, called it a "strategic monstrosity." Lippman predicted that the proposal would require unending military pressure that would strain the country's political and economic resources to the breaking point.
Kennan and his policy planning staff knew what they wanted to do with the Mr. X formula. At the time, the Soviet Union, in violation of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, was consolidating control over Eastern Europe. President Harry Truman had already promulgated the "Truman Doctrine," which allocated military and economic aid for countries close to Soviet borders, and the "Marshall Plan" to rebuild Europe's economy.
The counter-force policy was approved by the National Security Council in June 1948 as NSC Directive 10/2. Kennan termed the policy "organized political warfare." It authorized "preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition, and evacuation measures," as well as "subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas, and refugee liberation groups"--all to be carried out in such a way that the U.S. government could "plausibly disclaim any responsibility."
Grose analyzes many examples of political warfare, which included forays into Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, Poland, and ultimately, the Soviet Union. He describes the covert operations, almost all of which ended in disaster, with depressing objectivity. Many, if not most, of the schemes to penetrate Soviet-controlled territory were arranged in concert with British intelligence. The Soviet establishment, with a counterintelligence machine that had been perfected over a period of 30 years--and which was aided by British turncoats Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby--always seemed to be ready and waiting when the covert agents arrived at their chosen targets. About the only clear success of the strategy was not a covert activity--Radio Free Europe.
Another, even more fascinating element of the book is Grose's account of the part the rollback strategy played in domestic American politics--especially in the questionable behavior of the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster.
In 1948, Kennan begged Allen Dulles to become the leader of his political warfare campaign. Dulles declined the offer because it came at a time when he thought Thomas Dewey would defeat Truman in the upcoming presidential election. Dulles anticipated that in a Dewey administration he would be the chief of intelligence activities. Dewey lost, but Dulles remained a close adviser to Kennan's project, was privy to its innermost plans, and four years later, before the 1952 election, became deputy chief of the CIA in charge of psychological warfare.
Meanwhile, Allen's brother, John Foster Dulles, was leading an impassioned political attack against Truman, castigating the administration for coddling communism and coining the term "rollback" in his call to aggressively turn back the Iron Curtain. Grose writes, "This was precisely the campaign that the Truman administration had been pursuing for four years."
Grose does not specifically accuse the Dulles brothers of dishonesty, but the reader is left wondering whether John Foster Dulles deliberately continued his political attack, knowing that the psychological warfare program was super-secret and that the Truman government could not challenge him without blowing its cover.
The author writes that by late 1952 "the senior responsible officer within the CIA was now declaring [rollback] a failure." Frank Lindsay, who had served in the Office of Strategic Services--working for a year behind the lines in Yugoslavia with Tito's partisan forces--was the officer in charge of the psychological warfare operations. In October 1952, he prepared a memorandum asserting that "the instruments currently advocated to reduce Soviet power are both inadequate and ineffective against the Soviet political system. The consolidated Communist state . . . has made virtually impossible the existence of organized clandestine resistance capable within the foreseeable future of appreciably weakening the power of the state."
When the Dwight Eisenhower-Dulles team came to power in 1953, the psychological warfare initiative fell into their hands. They knew the policy had been a failure. The officers who had been running the covert missions began to resign and the air-drops of infiltrators effectively ended in 1953. Kennan, on his way out of government service, was no longer the champion of counter-force. In a rare speech, he criticized leaders who proposed aggressive policies that capitalized, as he put it sarcastically, on "what they believe to be the unhappiness of various peoples under Soviet rule."
Operation Rollback also illuminates aspects of the McCarthy era, during which Soviet espionage activities were of vital concern to the U.S. psychological warfare program. It was obvious that Russian intelligence had penetrated American and British operations at very high levels. U.S. code-breaking experts began to uncover "leaks," which eventually led to Truman's establishment of the "Loyalty Program" in 1947.
Grose makes no attempt to view rollback in the light of other political developments, such as the development of nuclear weapons, concerns about possible preemptive nuclear strikes, and the struggles among the armed services over the proper course of military preparation. Grose's analysis seems to be that rollback faded away after 1953, not because it clashed with new realities in foreign affairs, but because it simply didn't work.
The book is rich in detail about its own subject, too much so to summarize neatly, but two quotations should be reported:
In his memoirs, published in 1967, Kennan referred to himself as "one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster."
In April 1948, Harry Truman said of the Marshall Plan, "Eastern Europe and Western Europe are so integrated that, if Western Europe is prosperous, Eastern Europe will have to come in."
Grose adds: "In the event, Truman's vision was not all that faulty--it
just took longer than anyone could imagine at the time."