The Cold War Defense of the United States
Strategy, Weapon Systems, and Operations
John E. Bronson
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 272 pages
Book Review published on: August 9, 2019
In September 1945, fresh from its victory over fascism, the United States faced a new threat possessing the capability of destroying it. Fundamental disagreements between Western democracies and the Soviet Union surfaced following World War II and began to affect relations between them. (Soviet Union leadership was committed to the achievement of world domination.) In The Cold War Defense of the United States, retired engineer and author John Bronson tells the remarkable story how American defense planners developed its defenses from fledging stopgap measures into a complex fabric of interconnected combinations of high-tech equipment in defending the United States during the Cold War. The Cold War Defense of the United States is not a story of death and destruction; rather, it is a story of preventing it.
The Cold War Defense of the United States begins with an overview of several significant elements of World War II that ushered in the Cold War. Communist ideology held that Western-style capitalism was the root cause of the many European conflicts over the years. This, coupled with the loss of twenty million people and widespread destruction of countless towns, villages, and structures by the Germans, created the need for a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Western democracies. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech and Harry S. Truman’s doctrine reflected the concerns of Western democracies for the territorial expansion of the Soviet Union. The United States assumed an attack by the Soviet Union on Western Europe would require the United States to once again oppose the takeover of the European countries. Defense of the United States would be paramount if the United States was to have any chance of coming to Europe’s defense.
National Security Council Paper 68, United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, became the Truman administration’s foundation and road map for how the United States would address territorial expansion of communism. This resulted in the decision to discontinue the postwar drawdown of military capability and initiate a defense survivability strategy that included the fielding of air defense units to protect population and industrial centers against a possible attack by the Soviet Union.
Bronson asserts the concept of survivability ended in 1955 when the Soviet Union achieved its initial success with the thermonuclear bomb. American planners accessed that any Soviet-equipped thermonuclear bombers that leaked through the defense system would cause damage that was essentially deemed not survivable. This changed the air defense units’ role from protecting industrial areas to preserving the ability of the United States to launch a counterstrike. The ability of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to launch an attack to destroy the enemy before they could destroy sufficient strategic air capacity served as a deterrent to any potential adversary.
Increasing lethality, speed, and range of Soviet aircraft forced American defense planners to develop capabilities to ensure the earliest warning of a Soviet attack. Bronson describes a joint U.S.-Canadian defense agreement that placed thirty-four radar sites on Canadian soil in 1954. These sites became known as the Pinetree Line and provided the United States two to three hours of advance warning in an impending attack. Many of the sites were deactivated in the 1960 as the threat became more and more from intercontinental missiles.
Around the same time, United States and Canadian defense planners also placed a line of radars in far North Canada, approximately two thousand miles from the United States-Canadian border. The Far North Line was known as the distant early warning line, which provided the United States six to seven hours of advance warning. These land lines were augmented in 1957 by a series of patrolling naval ships and aircraft that became the Atlantic, Pacific, and Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom barriers. These barriers would evolve as technological advances in radar and surveillance enabled United States defense planners to detect, access, and respond faster to impending Soviet attacks.
The U.S. Navy was successful in developing defense capabilities against Soviet submarines. Success of the United States’ antisubmarine warfare during the Cuban Missile Crisis naval blockade was reflected in four Soviet Foxtrot submarines being detected, tracked, and located. Bronson states the Soviets considered this a colossal failure, forcing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to redirect funding for construction of cruiser ships to nuclear submarines. Bronson describes the challenges for the Navy to evolve in meeting the continuing threat posed by Soviet Union submarines that were becoming more numerous and sophisticated.
The Cold War Defense of the United States describes the establishment of SAC as the country developed its strategic deterrence. Bronson informs us that Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay assumed command of SAC with the intent to establish its capabilities to conduct long-range strategic attacks on short notice to almost any part of the world. He describes the requirement in developing the SAC command post, enhanced communications and navigation systems, evolution from propeller-driven bombers to intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the capability to defend against a rocket-delivered attack.
Bronson’s research is extensive and reflects findings from recently discovered tablets and manuscripts. The strength of The Cold War Defense of the United States is the extensive research of the author, quality of prose, and numerous illustrations and maps throughout the book that provide systems and defense strategies and context for the reader. Bronson also includes a list of Cold War historic sites along with chapter notes. The book is highly recommended to both scholars and students interested in the Cold War or post-World War II American defense strategy. The Cold War Defense of the United States is not a story of death and destruction but the story of what America did to protect itself during a dangerous period in American history.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas