The problem with "limited war"

Col. Tom Snodgrass:


With the advent of nuclear weapons, many civilian think tank warfare theorists believed that direct superpower confrontation had become too dangerous to contemplate. Thus was born "limited war" in the national lexicon of strategic thinking when the Korean War broke out in 1950 and President Truman limited the war objectives and means in order to avoid nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Korean War began the change in the American concept of war away from total war, or what was called at the time "general war," to a form of war that was more "civilized" and "less dangerous" in the minds of social scientists.

The problem of limited war from an American national interest standpoint was that it assumed U.S. enemies would likewise be restrained in objectives and means. This fanciful social science assumption rested on the unproven belief that no foreign national leader in his right mind would dare oppose America, following its World War II victory, once U.S. willingness to fight was made clear. However, the advocates of limited war never came to grips with what would happen if a Soviet Cold War client state refused to "play" by limited war "rules." In other words, how and when would limited war be concluded when the communists were pursuing total war objectives and the U.S. was waging a war for limited objectives? This was the first appearance of an asymmetry in war strategies long before the now infamous contemporary asymmetry on the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) battlefield. The GWOT is more appropriately termed the war against Islam (and the Shari'a touting faithful), but we use GWOT due to its common usage.

This disparity of total vs. limited war objectives first became apparent as the Korean War dragged on and President Truman's administration could find no way to conclude the conflict. When President Eisenhower assumed the presidency from Truman in 1953, he quickly recognized the logical solution to the strategic conundrum was shifting U.S. war-fighting from limited to total war means, and he thereby ended the Korean War by communicating to the communists his intention of escalating with nuclear weapons if the communists persisted in their total war objectives. Civilian limited war advocates should have seen the glaring fallacy of their theory at this point, but they didn't. For his part, Eisenhower did not believe that limited war could remain limited.

As a warrior who knew war first-hand, President Eisenhower opted for a historically-based defense doctrine of "Massive Retaliation," which promised an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in the event of aggression. Throughout the better part of the 1950's, Eisenhower's national security strategy insured that there was no military superpower confrontation. Because Eisenhower had doubts that a "limited war" would remain such, his over-all national security policy, called the "New Look," was based on the unstoppable nuclear striking power of Strategic Air Command. During this period of relative peace, Democrat political opponents and social-science civilian theorists were in constant chorus that the New Look Massive Retaliation was simply too risky for the country and the world.

In spite of the Massive Retaliation doctrine's success in preventing conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union, in 1961 President Kennedy and his civilian social-science theorists rewrote the rules of war, conceiving and implementing a replacement doctrine they dubbed "Flexible Response" to counter client proxy warfare. It was at this point that we completely departed from the strategic thinking that had won World War II. The change in mindset was profound. The fundamental change in the U.S. approach to warfare now had at its essence the new approach that America would answer communist aggression against its interests with only a limited force that was "proportional" to the threat, thus inculcating the institutional idea in the U.S. national security infrastructure that American military responses should only be gradually escalated according to the perceived seriousness of the crisis.

The operative concept was that an enemy would "receive the message" that the U.S. intended to act militarily to defend its interests, and therefore, would be deterred from escalating the crisis further. Then, after it was clear to the enemy that his limited war objectives could not be attained, negotiations would ensue that would end the crisis. "Message sending" to the enemy through gradual escalation became an integral part of U.S. national security thinking and strategy.

The irony of the limited war doctrine is that it invited the Chinese into the Korean war, and the people who propounded the failed strategy blamed the military for the intervention instead of their own failed strategy. When the Democrats came into office again the made Vietnam into a quagmire through restrain in the use of force. The North Vietnamese could have been easily defeated in Laos by blocking their main supply route instead of chasing them and their communist allies around South Vietnam. The communist were in clear violation of the Geneva Accords on interference in Laos, but the Kennedy and Johnson administrations chose to ignore the causus belli and try to do it the hard way which ultimately cost many more lives and ultimately failed. The Colonel has much more to say on the subject and it is well worth reading.


  1. Wow. Good one. And so is Snodgrass's December 26th article on the same web site.


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