Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Victory in a Nuclear War? A Comparison of NATO and WTO War Aims and Strategies


A question that haunted critical minds in the West throughout the Cold War was whether the evolution of two opposing military blocs in Europe meant that the blocs, their ideologies and their strategies, were actually mirror images of one another.

Hide All

1 Lenin Vladimir Iljich, ‘War and Revolution’ in On War, Army and Science of War (reprint Moscow: Prospekt, 1957), 100. For a development of this hypothesis, see Heuser Beatrice, Nuclear Mentalities? Strategies and Belief-Systems in Britain, France and the FRG, (London: Macmillan, 1998).

2 Cf. Bond Brian, The Pursuit of Victory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), and Alger John, The Quest for Victory: the History of the Principles of War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982).

3 Heuser Beatrice, NATO, Britain, France and the FRG: Nuclear Strategies and Forces for Europe, 1949–2000 (London: Macmillan, 1997), ch. 1.

4 Ploetz Michael, ‘The Second Cold War from an East German perspective’. (Ph.D. dissertation, King's College, University of London, 09 1997).

5 NATO documents (mainly political directives for strategy and force planning) have at the time of writing been declassified up to the late 1950s, and the MC 14 series has been declassified up to 1967. Documentation on WTO military exercises is accessible in the archives of the former GDR Ministry of Defence, now in the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg im Breisgau, and documents on WTO meetings can be found in the Stiftung Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR. But for NATO, exercise plans are not yet in the public domain, and for the WTO, the equivalent of NATO's political directives guiding strategy are not fully accessible.

6 For the different Eastern and Western terminology, see Bluth Christoph, ‘The evolution of Soviet military doctrine’, Survival, Vol. XXX (1988), 156. WTO planning and exercises did not allow officers from countries other than the USSR to be involved in the formulation of doctrine or grand strategy. Foreign officers on the staff college courses of the Soviet military academies were systematically excluded from any discussion of ‘strategic’ policy, and were only given lectures on ‘strategic-operational’, ‘operational-tactical’, and ‘tactical’ matters (i.e. covering the activities from the front downwards). Documents found in the Strausberg Ministry of Defence of the FRG never give the whole picture of exercise plans based on a scenario of war between the WTO and NATO, as operations against NATO's northern and southern flanks are not shown on maps and are not discussed in exercise descriptions.

7 Buteux Paul, The Politics of Nuclear Consultation in NATO, 1965–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Heuser, Nuclear Strategies and Forces, ch. 2.

8 NATO, MC 3/2 (28 Nov. 1949), § 2.

9 FRUS 1949 Vol. IV (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1975), DC 6/1, 354.

10 FRUS 1949 Vol. IV, DC 6/1, 354.

11 NATO MC 3/2, para. 7 f.

12 FRUS 1949 Vol. IV, 352 ff.; NATO MC 14 of 20 March 1950, § 5.e.

13 FRUS 1949 Vol. IV, 352 ff.

14 NATO MC 14, § 7.

15 NATO DC 13, § 6. DC 13 specifically only covered Phase 1.

16 Liddell Hart Military Archive, King's College London (henceforth LHA), Microfilm (henceforth MF) 64, JCS 1920'1; see also Brown Anthony Cave, ed., Operation World War III: the secret American plan ‘DROPSHOT’ for war with the Soviet Union, 1957 (London: Arms & Armour Press, 1979), 48, 241–6.

17 NSC 40, ‘American objectives vis-à-vis the USSR’, excerpts in Brown, Operation World War III, 12 f.

18 For the effect of the developments of 1949–50 on US strategic planning (in the form of NSC 68) and, in turn, on NATO strategy, leading to the Lisbon force goals, see Heuser Beatrice, ‘NSC 68 and the Soviet threat: a new perspective on Western threat perception and policy making’, Review of International Studies, Vol. XVII (1991), 1740.

19 NATO MC 14/1 (FINAL), §§ 14–15.

20 NATO MC 3/5 (FINAL) of 3 Dec. 1952, § 7 f.

21 NATO MC 14/1 (FINAL), § 3.

22 COS(45)402(0), quoted in Lewis Julian, Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-War Strategic Defence, 1942–1947 (London: Sherwood Press, 1988), 187.

23 NATO MC 48 (FINAL), ‘The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years’, of 22 November 1954.

24 NATO MC 48 (FINAL), § 6.

25 NATO MC 48 (FINAL), §§ 5–6.

26 NATO MC 48 (FINAL), § 32.c.

27 This would constitute ‘first strike’, i.e. the large-scale use of nuclear forces to eliminate the enemy's nuclear forces – not to be confused with ‘first use’, which in NATO doctrine (PPGs and GPGs) implies a selective, limited nuclear use, with the predominantly political purpose of signalling resolve, the military impact being of secondary importance, see below. The question is, however, whether the Soviet leadership would have interpreted ‘first use’ by NATO as different from ‘first strike’ – exercise plans suggest otherwise, see again below.

28 NATO MC 48 (FINAL), § 8; NATO MC 14/1 of 26 Sept. 1955 § 38.b.

29 NATO MC 48 (FINAL), § 32.c.

30 NSC 20/4 of November 1948, repeated in Annex to NSC 153/1 of June 1953 and in Annex to NSC 162/2 of October 1953, FRUS 1952–1954 Vol. II 596 f., and NSC 162/2 itself, ibid., 582. US attention in this period was focused very largely also on China, where the debate about occupation as war aim – should a general war result from a widening of the Korean confrontation – ensued between US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, see Schmidt Gustav and Doran Charles F. eds., Amerikas Option für Deutschland und Japan: Die Position und Rolle Deutschlands und Japans in regionalen und internationalen Strukturen – die 1950er und 1990er Jahre im Vergleich (Bochum: Universitätsverlag Dr N. Brockmeyer, 1995).

31 NATO MC 48/1, ‘The most effective pattern of NATO military strength for the next few years – Report No. 2’ of 26 Sept. 1955, § 22–4, 38.

32 NATO MC 14/2, ‘Overall Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Treaty Area’, 21 Feb. 1957, § 5.g.

33 NATO MC 48/2, § 2.

34 NATO MC 14/2(Revised)(Final Decision), § 5.g.

35 NATO MC 14/2(Revised)(Final Decision), § 25; NATO MC 48/2 (Revised), § 2.

36 NATO MC 14/2(Revised)(Final Decision), §§ 19–20.

37 This rejection had an important economic aspect as well, as the Lisbon Force Goals had proved so expensive that there was a widespread fear among NATO governments that the pursuit of the Lisbon Force Goals would lead to the economic exhaustion of the West, and thus to a communist victory not in a hot war, but in the ‘long haul’ of the Cold War. See Heuser: Nuclear Strategies and Forces, chs. 1 and 2.

38 General Stehlin Paul, ‘The evolution of Western defense’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. XLII (1963), 80.

39 de Broglie Jean, ‘Relations atlantiques et conference de sécurité européenne’, Revue défenser nationale, Vol. XXVIII (1972), 1415; General Beaufre André, ‘Le rôle ambigu des armes nucléaires’, Le Figaro (26 July 1974); Pierpont C., ‘Effets psychologiques de l'arme nucléaire’, Revue Militaire d'Information, Vol. CCLXIV (1964) 13.

40 FRG Defence Minister Leber Georg, ‘Erinnernswerte Abschiedsworte’, Europäische Wehrkunde, Vol. XXVII (1978), 176.

41 For the rejection of the Acheson and McNamara proposals for the future development of NATO strategy and the prevalence of European views, see Heuser , Nuclear Strategies and Forces, ch. 2.

42 Freedman Lawrence, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (London: Macmillan, 2nd edn. 1989), 292 f.; Wampler Robert, NATO Strategic Planning and Nuclear Weapons 1950–1957, Nuclear History Program Occasional Paper No. 6 (University of Maryland: CISSM, 1990), 43.

43 PRO, CAB 131/25, D(61)2 of 13 Jan. 1961, Annex A: ‘N.A.T.O. Strategy and Nuclear Weapons’.

44 NATO MC 14/3.

45 Legge J. Michael, Theater Nuclear Weapons and the NATO Strategy of Flexible Response, RAND Paper R-2964-FF (Santa Monica, CA.: RAND, 04 1983), 1721.

46 Mey Holger, NATO Strategie vor der Wende: Die Entwicklung des Verständnisses nuklearer Macht im Bündnis zwischen 1967 und 1990 (Baden Baden: Nomos, 1992), 70–1. For a translation of his summary of the GPGs, see Heuser , ‘European defence before and after’, 412–13.

47 NATO MC 14/3 (Final), § 34.

48 Forster Michael, ‘AirLand Battle 1986: Das Ziel bleibt AbschreckungEuropäische Wehrkunde, Vol. XXXVI (1987), 672 f.

49 Der Bundesminister der Verteidigung, Weissbuch 1985 Zur Lage und Entwicklung der Bundeswehr (Bonn, 1985), § 61.

50 General Naumann Klaus, ‘Defensive Doktrinen und Streitkräftestrukturen’, EA, Vol. XLIV (1989), 669.

51 Kohl Helmut, ‘Deutsche Sicherheitspolitik vor neuen Aufgaben’, Bulletin des Presse- und Informationsamtes der Bundesrepublik, No. 21 (23. Feb. 1984), 188.

52 NATO MC 14/3.

53 Quoted in Backerra Manfred, ‘Zur sowjetischen Militärdoktrin’, Beiträge zur Konfliktforschung, Vol. XIII (1983), 49.

54 In Georges Tan Eng Bok, ‘Qui, quoi, où? Les niveaux d'élaboration et d'expression du discours militarie soviétique’, Note SOV/880823 of the Centre de Sociologie de la Défense Nationale, August 1988.

55 MZP, VA-01/39496, 108.

56 Quoted in Backerra, ‘Zur sowjetischen Militärdoktrin’ 48.

57 MZP, VA-Strausberg/29371, Part I, 139.

58 MZP, VA-Strausberg/29371, Part I, passim.

59 MZP, VA-Strausberg/29371, Part I, 207; Part II, 405.

60 YUG-78: see above; BRATSTVO: MZP, VA-Strausberg/29371, Part I, 142; YUG-82: VA-Strausberg/29371, Part II, 30.

61 MZP, VA-Strausberg/32659, 67, spelt here Gorejew.

62 MZP, VA-01/39528, 78.

63 MZP, VA-Strausberg/32657, 54–55, emphasis added.

64 ibid., 59.

65 ibid., 62 – and this was also described as a NATO aim in case of limited war (to be fought by NATO with or without nuclear weapons). In unlimited war, NATO would have the aim of achieving ‘the elimination of Socialism as a social system and the undivided rule of capitalism throughout the world’, 63.

66 This term has a curious history. ‘Sufficiency’, first used in relation to nuclear weapons, originated with British worries in the late 1940s about the acquisition of even a small number of nuclear weapons by the Soviets, which British planners even then thought would be enough to offset the larger US arsenal by deterring the USA from using theirs for fear of retaliation. The British concluded from this that only a small arsenal was needed to create effective deterrence. This idea was taken up in the 1970s by US President Richard Nixon in arms control negotiations, and in turn by the peace movements, particularly in West Germany, which injected it into the thinking of Gorbachev through his advisers in the joint strategy seminars conducted in the mid-1990s. It became the leitmotif of arms control negotiations at the end of the Cold War.

67 ibid., 69, emphasis added.

68 ibid., 70, emphasis added.

69 Quoted in Adragna Steven P., ‘A New Soviet Military? Doctrine and Strategy‘, Orbis, Vol. XXXIII (1989), 170, emphasis added.

70 Lenin Vladimir Iljich, Clausewitz' Werk ‘Vom Kriege’: Auszüge und Randglossen. (Berlin: Verlag des Ministeriums für Nationale Verteidigung, 1947); Lenin Vladimir Iljich, Über Krieg, Armee und Militärwissenschaft (trans. of V. I. Lenini), o voine, armii i voennoi nauke, (orig. Moscow/Berlin[Ost], 1957); Verlag des Ministeriums für Nationale Verteidigung (1958) 516–17; see also Kipp Jacob W., ‘Lenin and Clausewitz: The Militarization of Marxism, 1915–1921’, in Frank Willard and Gilette Philip eds., Soviet Military Doctrine from Lenin to Gorbachev, 1915–1991 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 6478.

71 Clausewitz was disliked by Stalin and dismissed in the 1950s as a bourgeois military theoretician, see e.g. Talenski N. A., ‘Militärstrategie und Aussenpolitik’ (originally 1958), in DGAP, ed., Strategie und Abrüstungspolitik der Sowjetunion – Ausgewählte sowjetische Studien und Reden (Frankfurt/Main: Metz, 1964), 79.

72 On Clausewitz and Soviet military strategy until 1960, see quoted in Romer Jean-Christophe, ‘Quand l'armée rouge critiquait Clausewitz’, Stratégique No. 33 (1987).

73 Petersen Phillip A. and Hines John G., ‘The conventional offensive in Soviet theater strategy’, Orbis, Vol. XXVII (1983), 696–7.

74 Sokolovskij V. D. et al. , Military Strategy: Soviet Doctrine and Concepts (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1963), 18.

75 Lange Peer H., ‘Die sowjetische Militärdoktrin und der WestenEuropa-Archiv Vol. XXXIX (1984), 181.

76 Schröder Hans-Henning, ‘Die Verteidigungspolitik der UdSSR 1987–1989’, BIOST, Bericht No. 14 (1989) 18 f; see also Pipes Richard, ‘Why the Soviet Union thinks it could fight and win a nuclear war’, Commentary, Vol. LXIV (1977), 2134.

77 Bovin A. E., ‘Vojna’, in Filosofskij Enciklopediceskij Slovar (Moscow, 1966), vol. 1, 553, quoted in Schröder, ‘Die Verteidigungspolitik der UdSSR 1987–1989’, 19.

78 Quoted in Schröder , ‘Die Verteidigungspolitik der UdSSR 1987–1989’, 19.

79 Quoted in Schröder , ‘Die Verteidigungspolitik der UdSSR 1987–1989’, 20.

80 Schröder : ‘Die Verteidigungspolitik der UdSSR 1987–1989’, 2023.

81 ‘Erklärung des Politischen Beratenden Ausschusses des Warschauer Paktes über Militärdoktrinen, auf seiner Tagung am 28. und 29. Mai 1987 in Ost-Berlin verabschiedet’, Europa Archiv, Folge 14 (1987), D 392; for a discussion, see Kipp Jacob W.: ‘Soviet military doctrine and conventional arms control’, Military Review, Vol. LXVIII (1988).

82 General Laurent Jacques, ed., Doctrine Militaire de l'URSS (Projet, Centre de la Sociologie de la Défense Nationale) (December 1990).

83 Laurent, Doctrine Militaire de l'URSS, 30, my emphasis.

84 See also the first NATO Strategic Concept, Foreign Relations of the United States, Vol. IV Western Europe (US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1975), 353–6.

85 See the US plan ‘DROPSHOT’ of 31 January 1949, King's College London, Liddell Hart Archive, Microfilm of JCS documents No. 64, JCS 1920/1. The plan was originally drawn up in January 1949, i.e. prior to the first explosion by the USSR of an atomic bomb, and not in 1950, as Anthony Cave Brown claims, cf. Brown, Operation World War III, 21.

86 Cf. Heuser Beatrice: ‘Warsaw Pact Military Doctrines in the 70s and 80s: Findings in the East German Archives’, Comparative Strategy, Vol. XII (1993), 437.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 34 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 505 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.