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Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items explore that possibility. Written by Alternate Historian

October 12

The year 1957, is not chosen at random. That is the year contemplated by "Dropshot", the U.S. plan for a third world war, which governed strategic thinking for the 1950s. Originally created in 1949, the plan was eventually released under the Freedom of Information Act. It was published, with commentary, in 1978 by Anthony Cave Brown in a book entitled "Dropshot".

Part One of "Dropshot", World War III in 1957The war described by that book is the starting point for this article, though my discussion departs from it in many particulars. I would like to consider three topics:

(1) How could such a war could have started?
(2) What would the course of the war have been?
(3) What would postwar history have been like?

A new story by John ReillyA preliminary matter that must be dealt with is the role of nuclear weapons. The writers of Dropshot in 1949 did not think that nuclear weapons would be decisive. Their use would have been optional except in retaliation. Though atomic bombs are devastating if you can transport them someplace where they can do damage, the only means then available was the bomber. This made delivery highly problematical, especially between continents. The writers did note that their assessment would be obsolete if these weapons could be married to rockets capable of flying between North America and Eurasia. As it happened, the era of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) did not really begin until the early 1960s. As late as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviets were estimated to have only about 50 ICBMs, none in hardened silos. (The Pentagon expressed confidence to President Kennedy that the U.S. could destroy them before they could be launched. Kennedy was not enthusiastic about putting this confidence to the test).

Thus, while Dropshot did anticipate that the U.S. would be able to make successful nuclear strikes at a few Soviet industrial facilities, it judged that these would not be enough to determine the course of the war. Dropshot forecast that the Soviets would be able to drop no more than two atomic bombs on the United States, and that only if they were lucky. It now appears that those "duck and cover" instructional films that were shown in schools starting in the 1950s were less irrational than later opinion has assumed. If you were affected by one of these strikes at all, you were likely to be some distance from ground zero, where precautions against blast and fallout would make perfect sense. We should also note that the relative immunity to atomic attack enjoyed by the United States would not have applied to the European members of NATO. Even in Europe, however, Dropshot did not believe that atomic weapons would be decisive, or even necessarily used at all.

With these points settled, we may begin the discussion proper:

(1) How could such a war could have started? It could not have started by accident. The hair-trigger nuclear response procedures which characterized the later stages of the Cold War simply did not exist during the period in question. There was no need for them, since it would have taken hours for a nuclear-armed bomber to reach its target. Indeed, the leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have been less constrained than were the leaders of the major European powers in August 1914. The intricate mass mobilization plans devised by France and Germany in preparation for the First World War could not really be controlled once they were started. They were intimately tied to strategic plans of offense and defense which required major battles to occur within days of the start of mobilization. A war in 1957 between the United States and the Soviet Union would have started very differently. The mobilization of whole continents is necessarily a leisurely affair. The plans the newly mobilized armies would have been called on to execute would have been calculated in terms of months or years. Therefore, though accidental skirmishes between East and West might have occurred in Europe or the Mediterranean in the 1950s, an actual war would probably have to have been deliberate.

Since the Dropshot war is defensive, at least in its opening stages, we must imagine a situation in which the Soviets launch a general offensive to occupy Western Europe (and various other places, as we will see below.) This would have required a Soviet leadership that believed a decisive victory for communism was achievable by military means, and a U.S. leadership that was either threatening or indecisive or both. The first requirement would have been met by the survival of Stalin into a vigorous old age. Though Stalin died in 1953, he would have only 78 years old in 1957, hardly old enough to get a driver's license in Georgia. The Stalin whom Solzhenitsyn described in his novel, "The First Circle," planned to fight and win a decisive third world war. Let us then imagine the old tyrant succumbing to delusions of omnipotence because of his overwhelming victory in the Second World War, yet frightened by events he sees happening on the other side of the world.

There is a good argument to made that the United States took as little hurt from the Cold War as it did because the president during the 1950s was that logistics expert, Dwight David Eisenhower. Throughout his presidency, experts from the Pentagon would come to him with estimates of the terrifying strength of the Soviet Union and proposals for huge increases in conventional forces which would be necessary to counter it. Eisenhower, who had been a five star general, knew just how seriously to take assessments of this type. Using his own good judgment to gauge just what the Soviets could or would do, he starved the U.S. military during the 1950s to let give the consumer economy room to breath. It was a risk, but history shows that he was right to take it. (His successor, John Kennedy, lacking this self-assurance, tended to act on the assumption that the most pessimistic assessment was the correct one, which was part of the reason for the Vietnam War.) Eisenhower knew that the Soviets were a real threat, one that had to be contained. In this he was right: the attempts by revisionist historians to ascribe the Cold War to American paranoia are tendentious. He was also right in believing that containment, as distinguished from rollback, could be achieved by feint and threat. He could make threats effectively because he was a known quantity to the Soviet leadership. They knew he was a cautious commander, that he would not start a fight if he did not have to, that he was not easily deceived. Even when they lied to him, they lied within limits understood by both sides.

Let us picture an alternative president. Suppose that Eisenhower is out on the golf links in September of 1956, taking a short break from his not-very-grueling campaign for almost certain reelection, when he has a fatal heart attack. His running mate, Vice President Richard Nixon, was even then a man of ambiguous reputation. Nixon assumes the top spot on the Republican ticket, and he has few if any differences with his boss's sober military and foreign policies. However, people quickly form the impression that he is too young and too opportunistic to be president yet. They therefore turn, with a sigh of resignation, to the Democratic presidential contender, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, of course, had many gifts. He was intelligent, well-informed, and articulate to a degree rare among American politicians. Stevenson was a genuine intellectual. Unfortunately, he was also a windbag in the great tradition of William Jennings Bryan and a sentimental internationalist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson. Sentiment and kindness are not the same thing, so foreign affairs conducted by sentimental statesmen are often envenomed to an unusual degree.

Stevenson's foreign policy is itself a good illustration. John Kenneth Galbraith, who helped write Stevenson's speeches in the early 1950s, has remarked that part of his job consisted of toning down the virtual declarations of war against the Soviet Union that Stevenson usually inserted in his first drafts. Doubtless some of this rhetoric was intended merely to counter the impression that the Democratic Party was soft on Communism. However, it cannot be denied that Stevenson felt the policy of Cold War containment was immoral because it did not go far enough. He did not favor an attack on the Soviet Union, but he did want it pressured from all directions with physical and moral force. This was what Ronald Reagan actually did in the 1980s, with considerable success. However, Reagan and his advisers knew that the Soviet Union had exhausted the growth capacity of a command economy, that the system was strong but brittle. In the 1950s, by contrast, the Soviet Union was growing and confident. Stevenson would not have been deterred by this well-known fact; he had the sort of mind that regarded mere practicality as rather tawdry. His idealism would have been costly. Even a symbolic threat to the Soviet Empire, as it then was, would have brought results quite different from those of thirty years later.

If the parties to the Cold War had wanted a military showdown, they would have had several perfectly suitable occasions in 1956, notably the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Uprising. Had Stalin still been alive at that time, it is conceivable that he would have started to deal with the peoples of Eastern Europe as he had begun to deal with the peoples of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Certainly some Eastern Europeans believed that Stalin was planning massive movements of populations and the vigorous purging of pre-World War II society. If this happened, an outraged Stevenson Administration might then have announced its intention to send a standby expeditionary force to Western Europe to support any future popular uprisings in Eastern Europe. Less suspicious rulers than Stalin would have been moved to preemptive action in such an event. He would not have been reassured by the interminable flow of moralistic rhetoric that President Stevenson could have been relived upon to produce. There would have been too much of it to read, much less analyze. Stalin could easily have decided that he could no longer wait for his creatures in Western Europe to take power through force or fraud. Hoping for a decisive victory before the U.S. expeditionary force could arrive, he sends his armies across the north German plain to take the ports on the English Channel.

(2) What would the course of the war have been? The Dropshot study is not a belligerent document. It seems to be one of those common bureaucratic plans which deliberately present a scenario so hair-raising that its intended readers will be dissuaded from ever trying it in real life. It does, of course, wildly overestimate anything the Soviet could or would do. In addition to the main thrust across northwestern Europe, it contemplates simultaneous Soviet offensives into the Middle East and Japan. (For reasons wholly obscure, it directs that Hokkaido, the northernmost and least populous of the main Japanese islands, be abandoned.) Its assessment of the early course of the war in Europe, however, was certainly realistic in 1949, and might still have held true in 1957. The gist of the forecast was two months of unrelieved disaster. While the planners hoped to stop the offensive somewhere in Germany, their sober assessment was that it would have been difficult even to hold Britain. Readers of Norman Schwartzkopf's memoir, "It Doesn't Take A Hero," will recall his description of the state of the U.S. Army in the 1950s. At least that part of it stationed in the United States was a hollow force of badly trained conscripts. Its equipment was ill-maintained and its senior officer corps consisted disproportionately of World War II veterans who would not otherwise have had jobs. This was the Army that was sent to fight in Vietnam, with what results we know. While doubtless the emergency of a world war would have quickly brought improvements, the opening phases of the war would have had to be fought with what the U.S. had on hand. What it had was not all that good. In some ways, an actual world war fought in 1957 would have been fought under even worse conditions than those envisioned in 1949. When Dropshot was being developed, the fate of China was still in doubt. The maps that come with the plan show China with a Communist north and a Nationalist south. The study discusses the country mostly in terms of natural resources and as a bridge to French Indochina. In reality, by 1957 China was a united ally of the Soviet Union. It had a significant military, as proven by the Korean War. As we know now, Chairman Mao tended to needle the Soviet leadership for being too accommodating to the West. By some accounts, he even proposed an offensive war against the West to Nikita Khruschev, offering tens of millions of soldiers and even the union of China with the USSR. Of course, China had (and has) little striking power beyond its own borders, and the Soviet Union could not have come near to supplying the Chinese Red Army with the equipment for offensive capabilities. Still, the Sino-Soviet alliance in a World War would have been a formidable opponent. It is perfectly plausible that some Chinese armies would have fought not just around China's perimeter, but in France and Germany. The worst case scenario for such a war is available, not in Dropshot, but in a 1955 novel by C.M. Kornbluth, entitled "Not This August". We hear about the war mostly in retrospect, since in the first few pages the president of the United States surrenders to the Communist alliance in a radio address. The bulk of the book is a description of the Soviet occupation, as it affects a single small town. The war lasted for three years, and it was not so different from the Dropshot war. Nuclear weapons were not a decisive factor. The Soviets take all of Europe and, using its resources and Chinese manpower, contrive to defeat the American fleet, make a landing in Central America and work their way north. The U.S. surrenders when the American front in Texas collapses. It might seem a bit premature to surrender with the enemy only on the southern border, but the author paints a good picture of a society that has already been bled white. All available manpower and industrial capacity have been diverted to the war, and still it is not enough. Dropshot contemplates a comparable degree of mobilization. Thirty million people of both sexes would have been needed to win the war the plan laid out. It would not have been an economically invigorating war, as the Second World War was for the United States. Wars are only invigorating if the economy has a lot of unused potential which would go to waste if not used for military production. This was the case with the American economy in 1940, but not in 1957. Rather, it would have been like the Second World War was for Great Britain, with every warm body either in the service or doing something to support the war effort, and with civilian production at destitution levels. During and after the Second World War, a number of laws were passed giving the president standby authority to nationalize or otherwise commandeer most of the industrial plant of the U.S. in the event of a national emergency. Universal conscription was, in principle, already in place. In the course of the war against the Communist alliance, the U.S. would itself have become a command-economy state.

© Today in Alternate History, 2013-. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.