HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE - Sixty years ago, a crowd of us young people anxiously massed around a black-and-white TV in my college student union building. The US and the USSR were in an existential standoff. The US had deployed ballistic nuclear missiles in Turkey. When the Soviets responded by placing missiles in Cuba, the US demanded their removal or face dire consequences.
We all breathed an enormous collective sigh of relief when Nikita Khruschev publicly agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba. John F. Kennedy secretly reciprocated by removing US missiles from Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union. The whole world rejoiced. A close encounter with a war, which could have threatened civilization, had been avoided.
In the aftermath, a robust international peace movement demanded and achieved some successes including the Anti-Ballistic Missile and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties. Those halcyon days are now over. The US is largely responsible for scrapping those disarmament treaties. The last remaining Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires in February 2026 and has faint prospects of being renewed.
Back in 1962, in the midst of the Cold War, it would have been unfathomable to think that we were living in hopeful times of relative security. But such was the case, compared to the current situation. The US and the USSR were both willing to step back from the brink of nuclear conflict in 1962. Both sides sought accommodation; neither sought victory. Now the US and its allies seek a mortal defeat of Russia.
No Exit Strategy
History has shown wars either end in a negotiated peace or in victory for one side.
The world was fortunate that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with both sides willing to seek accommodation rather than victory. In contrast, the currently raging and indeed escalating Ukraine War could be the prelude to World War III because neither side appears to have an exit strategy; one by choice, the other because its back is to the wall.
The US’s intent is victory by “overextending and unbalancing” Russia in the words of the 2019 position paper by the semi-governmental Rand Corporation. As analyst Rick Sterling pointed out, this was the playbook for the US to provoke Russia into the current conflict. Bombers have been repositioned within striking range of key Russian strategic targets, additional tactical nuclear weapons deployed, and US/NATO war exercises have been held on Russia’s borders.
German ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel recently revealed that the western powers never intended to make peace with Russia. That admission explicitly articulated what had been long enshrined in US foreign policy. Sooner or later the mounting provocations by the US and its allies deliberately threatening its existence would have had to be addressed by Russia.
Expansion of NATO
NATO was founded in 1949 at the onset of the Cold War against the then Soviet Union and later against Russia. NATO was from the beginning not so much an “alliance” as it was a military extension of the US empire where all members had to be integrated with and under US military command.
From its initial 12 members, NATO had expanded east toward the USSR with the addition of Greece, Turkey, and West Germany, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After that crisis and despite assurances to the Soviets and then the Russian Federation, NATO has expanded to the very borders of what is today Russia with a full membership of 28 hostile states.
The horrendous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 marked the dawn of the nuclear era with the US holding a monopoly of this ultimate weapon of mass destruction. The Soviet Union defensively developed its own capacity by 1949, followed by the UK in 1953. Since 1962, the nuclear club expanded to France, China, Israel, rivals India and Pakistan, and finally North Korea.
Currently, the US has 1644 deployed strategic nuclear warheads compared to 1588 by Russia. The only other powers with strategic warheads deployed on intercontinental missiles or bombers are France and the UK.
All of today’s nuclear powers, according to the Federation of American Scientists, “continue to modernize their remaining nuclear forces at a significant pace, several are adding new types and/or increasing the role they serve in national strategy and public statements, and all appear committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.” The danger of nuclear war is ever greater, exacerbated by potential unintentional or accidental triggers.
US hegemony threatened
Especially with the rise of China as a world economic power, US hegemony is being challenged. Washington has not adjusted to an emerging multilateral world graciously.
The one third of humanity that has failed to be sufficiently subservient to what President Biden calls his “rules-based order” have been placed under asphyxiating unilateral economic sanctions. Western Europe, a would-be natural trade partner with their neighbor to the east, has been pressured to sever their economic ties with Moscow. And if there is a hint of hesitancy, the US simply uses force as it did to end the export of Russian gas to Germany via the Nord Stream pipelines.
However, the US has found that it cannot always prevail. Pentagon Plan B, accordingly, is a plague of chaos as has been the fate for Afghanistan, Libya, Haiti, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, etc. For the hegemon, a failed state is better than an independent one. Given the alternative of chaos, one that would make the fire-sale Yeltsin period look like a picnic (and one in which Putin was complicit), Russia sees no alternative but to try to prevail at whatever cost.
Normalization of nuclear war
Adding to the present danger is the normalization of war. When I was in elementary school, the US government’s policy was to bring home the fear of nuclear war in order to justify the post-WWII expansion of the empire’s military. So, us children were terrorized with “duck-and-cover” drills. Families were to sequester in their own private bomb shelters.
Now the prevailing propaganda from Washington is that nuclear war can be “won.” Dr. Strangelove is no longer satire. This planning to fight a nuclear war as if it were not an existential threat is institutionalized insanity. Symptomatic is the Smithsonian Magazine’s reassurance: “Today we live in a vastly different world…the threat of global thermonuclear war has mostly faded.”
However, Robert Kagan, spouse of the US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, asks: “Can America learn to use its power?” The neo-con then argues in favor of a vigorous nuclear confrontation with Russia on the grounds that Putin will most likely back down.
As if in response, the inimitable Caitlin Johnstone retorts: “It’s as rational as believing Russian roulette is safe because the man handing you the pistol didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger.”
A pathway to a negotiated peace settlement is lacking
The Rand Corporation recently floated the perspective that: “The costs and risks of a long war in Ukraine are significant and outweigh the possible benefits of such a trajectory for the US.” Rand not only reflects, but also leads ruling class opinion. So, this analysis is significant because it backs off from advocating complete victory in Ukraine against Russia.
Unfortunately, not only does the Biden administration have no exit strategy to its wars without end, but it also faces little domestic opposition to this policy compared to former times.
While a handful of Republicans – mainly for narrow partisan reasons – have questioned the ever-expanding US war efforts, there is absolute war unanimity among Democrats. The Democrats have become the full-throated party of war. United with the neoconservatives, the “pimps of war” are charting the course of our future. Even some putative leftists in the US are beating the war drums to “support Ukraine’s victory against the Russian invasion.”
How I long for those days gone by when the choice of “better red than dead” was an option.
(Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization. This article was first featured in CounterPunch.org.)