“THE POLITICAL CONTEXT OF US ARMY DOCTRINE, 1974-1976”
By David C. Rasmussen, PhD., Lieutenant Colonel, US Army-Retired
Abstract: The political divisiveness and distrust that built up around the Nixon Administration as a result of the Watergate cover-ups and investigations, ending with President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, created a backlash to policies associated with Nixon such as détente with the Russians. Even though President Ford tried to maintain continuity with Nixon’s policies, the policy of détente had become so toxic to both Democrats and Republicans, that President Ford was forced to completely abandon it during the 1976 Republican presidential primary campaign. It was within this rare political context of bipartisan unity that the Army had the rationale it needed to make its largest doctrinal shift in the post-World War II era.
Never before, and never since 1976, has the US Army made such a sudden and radical shift in its military doctrine to focus exclusively on fighting and defeating a single adversary: Soviet Russia. But never before and never since this time have both primary political parties in the US been so united in opposing the policies of a disgraced president: Richard Nixon. This case study examines the political context within which the US Army made a doctrinal shift away from fighting a wide variety of adversaries across a broad spectrum of conditions, to a doctrine that focused solely on fighting and defeating Russia. The evidence presented here suggests that the US Army was able to adopt this doctrine in response to a rare window of bipartisan unity galvanized in opposition to a corrupt and disgraced president.
The 1976 edition of the Army’s capstone doctrine, Field Manual 100-5, shifted significantly in content from the six previous editions of this manual published during and since World War II: editions published in 1941, 1944, 1949, 1954, 1962, and 1968. Each of those editions focused the Army on fighting a variety of un-named adversaries, ranging from unconventional adversaries under low-intensity combat conditions to conventional adversaries under mid-intensity conditions, and beginning with the 1954 edition, combat under high-intensity nuclear conditions. The 1976 edition, however, broke with previous editions of the Army’s capstone doctrine by deleting all unconventional warfare content, except for just two paragraphs, and by focusing its content exclusively on mid- to high-intensity combat against a named single adversary: Russia. High-intensity nuclear warfare content is represented in a single short 9-page chapter on tactical nuclear operations. This leaves 190.5 of this edition’s 200 pages, or 95% of its content, devoted entirely to mid-intensity conventional ground warfare against Russian forces. The development of this doctrine occurred over an 18 month period from early 1975 until July of 1976 when it was published. This sudden shift in Army doctrinal focus from a broad spectrum of adversaries across the globe to just a single adversary, Russia, paralleled a foreign policy shift that was occurring at the same time in the Republican Party: a shift away from a policy of détente with the Russians associated with Richard Nixon to a policy of confrontation. Nixon’s détente was a policy meant to foster cooperation while reducing tensions with Russia (Gaddis 2005, 181; Litwak 1984, 1-4, 191-192; Poole 2015, 1). It was also part of a larger strategy to reduce America’s military commitments abroad – something that the American electorate sought after Vietnam.
During his 1972 re-election campaign, Richard Nixon promised that he would end the war in Vietnam, end the draft, and reduce American commitments abroad by shifting the burden of international security from America to its allies. By August 1972, President Nixon was able to report to the American people that he had finally withdrawn all combat troops from Vietnam, and that he would end the draft by the following summer of 1973 (Ambrose 1989, 601). In making and fulfilling these campaign promises, Richard Nixon took “the steam out of domestic anti-war protests” (Gaddis 2005, 154), and captured a large portion of the electorate from the Democrats. Nixon went on to win re-election by a landslide in November 1972. More than any other factors, these two complementary achievements, ending the draft and pulling US troops out of Vietnam, ensured Nixon’s victory (Ambrose 1989, 655). Promises of better relations with Russia dovetailed with ending the war and ending the draft, further undermining the appeal of Democrats and the antiwar movement (Friedberg 2000, 194; Sorley 1999, 116; Zelizer 2010, 238). “A vote for Nixon in 1972 was a vote for détente…for a whole new era of world peace” (Ambrose 1989, 661). Better relations with Russia would allow the US to significantly reduce its commitments abroad. According to Robert Litwak (1984, 193), “the policy of superpower détente was viewed as a means of creating and ensuring the stable conditions along the periphery which would allow for an orderly devolution of responsibility [from the US] to…regional powers.” Like the New Look strategy under President Eisenhower, détente under President Nixon came to be seen as a cheaper way to accomplish US foreign policy goals (Berkowitz 2006, 76).
Despite President Nixon’s re-election success in 1972, the effects of the Watergate scandal began to have a serious impact on his administration. A majority Democratic Congress began pushing back on the president’s agenda, especially in areas of national security and foreign policy. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis (2005, 179), distrust with President Nixon after the 1972 election quickly became “so deep that the US Congress was passing laws – always blunt instruments – to constrain the use of US military…capabilities.” According to President Ford (Ford 1979, 355), “[i]n the wake of the war and Watergate, Congress had passed bill after bill restructuring the president’s power to conduct foreign policy.” By the summer of 1973, Congress cut all funding for the South Vietnamese government, still fighting against the communist North, over the president’s objections (Ambrose 1989, 591, 656-658; Gaddis 2005, 176-177; Schultzinger 2008, 213). In November of that same year, Congress passed the War Powers Act over the president’s veto (Brinkley 2007, 88). It then cut defense spending for fiscal years (FY) 1974 and 1975, continuing a trend in steady reductions from a 1968 peak. It reduced the defense budget from $78.4 billion in FY 73 to $77.4 billion in FY 74, and then again to $75.1 billion in FY 75 – bringing it to its lowest point in constant US dollars since the first year of the Kennedy Administration in 1961 (Romjue 1984, 2; SIPRI 1977). The cuts Congress made to the defense budget by FY 75 represented an overall decrease of 24% in just seven years; from a post-World War II peak of $103 billion in FY 68 (SIPRI 1977). This steady decline in defense spending mirrored reductions in Army personnel strength – declining to just 725,000 soldiers in 1975 from a peak of 1,570,000 in 1967 – and far below the Army personnel strength of 960,000 that President Kennedy inherited from President Eisenhower in 1961 (Kretchik 2011, 324).
Continuing declines in Army resources, combined with the decline of the power of the president relative to Congress, prompted conservative factions in both major political parties to push back by rallying around hawkish foreign policy issues (Mieczkowski 2005, 308; Zelizer 2010, 241). Both Democrat and Republican conservatives argued that America’s military had become too weak, and the US role in the world seriously diminished, as a result of President Nixon’s détente policies – policies that President Ford continued to pursue even after Nixon resigned in August 1974 (Zelizer 2010, 251). They viewed Nixon’s, then Ford’s, close ties with Russia as directly contributing to an American decline (Brinkley 2007, 113). Critics of détente pointed to a series of international crises where cooperation with the Russians had failed. They cited Russian support for Arab countries during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the loss of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Angola to communist forces – all supported by Russia (Dobrynin 1995, 365; Isaacson 1992, 608). Furthermore, they emphasized the fact that the Russians and their allies had been steadily increasing defense spending throughout the 1960s and early 1970s while the US had been steadily decreasing its spending since 1968.
Conservative Republicans, led by Ronald Reagan, and conservative Democrats, led by Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA), argued that the American people could and should be convinced to support an increase in defense spending in order to reverse what they viewed as a US decline and Russian rise (Berkowitz 2006, 76). They argued that the US should be able to confront the Russians from a position of strength instead of attempting to cooperate with it from a position of weakness, as Nixon, then Ford, had been attempting to do (Berkowitz 2006, 77; Brinkley 2007, 82; Kissinger 1999, 92, 112; Poole 2015, 23). Reagan summarized the position of both Republican and Democrat conservatives when he said during a campaign speech that, “peace does not come from weakness or from retreat. It comes from the restoration of American military superiority” (Zelizer 2010, 268).
Finally, even liberal Democrats joined with conservatives from both parties to oppose détente; attacking Nixon, then Ford, for failing to challenge the Russians on human rights issues (Isaacson 1992, 612; Mieczkowski 2005, 282). Two primary issues that liberal Democrats, as well as conservatives, focused on were President Ford’s refusal to meet with Soviet dissident and human rights activist Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he visited the US in early July 1975, and the president’s attendance and signing of accords with the Russians at the Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki, Finland in late July and early August that same summer. In both cases, liberals and conservatives alike accused Ford of appeasing the Russians, and for ignoring human rights abuses (Brinkley 2007, 108; Cannon 1994, 399; 2013, 394; Dobrynin 1995, 348; Gaddis 2005, 205, 189; Kissinger 1999, 649; Reichley 1981, 355). Sen. Jackson accused the White House of failing to extend an invitation to Solzhenitsyn because it did not want to offend the Russians, saying it was “a sad day when US foreign policy sided with the [Russians] and not with freedom of speech” (Kissinger 1999, 651). Furthermore, by attending the Helsinki Conference, and by signing the resulting accords with the Russians, President Ford was accused by his critics of accepting Russian domination of Eastern Europe (Cannon 2013, 395; Leffler 2007, 252; Litwak 1984, 196). “Liberals and conservatives alike denounced Ford for signing the agreement, charging that the continued pursuit of [Nixon’s] détente was hardly worth it if it meant perpetuating injustice by recognizing Soviet control of Eastern Europe” (Gaddis 2005, 189). Ford was accused of having been “bulldozed by the Soviets into making one-sided concessions such as abandoning Eastern Europe to eternal Soviet domination” (Kissinger 1999, 642). The New York Times even accused President Ford of crossing the line from détente to appeasement (Kissinger 1999, 651).
The pressure on détente coming from all sides of the political spectrum eventually resulted in its unravelling under President Ford. The first signs of this came shortly after the Solzhenitsyn and Helsinki controversies. In October of that year, President Ford made key changes to his foreign policy and national security staffs. In what came to be referred to as the “Halloween Massacre,” the president replaced Henry Kissinger as national security advisor with Brent Scowcroft. He then replaced James Schlesinger as secretary of defense with Donald Rumsfeld, a Republican hawk, who had been serving as White House chief-of-staff. He then replaced Rumsfeld as chief-of-staff with his deputy chief, Dick Cheney. The president did retain Kissinger as his secretary of state, but his removal from the dual national security advisor role sent a signal to the Republican right and conservative Democrats in Congress that President Ford intended to distance his administration from Nixon’s detente policies and move toward a more confrontational approach with Russia (Brinkley 2007, 129; Dobrynin 1995, 348; Isaacson 1992, 669; Kissinger 1999, 834-844; Reichley 1981, 353; Rumsfeld 2011, 222).
As Republicans entered the 1976 presidential primary campaign season, attacks against détente continued and even intensified for political gain by the right-wing of the party led by Ronald Reagan (Isaacson 1992, 695). Reagan’s stated campaign goal was to “build American military power, and confront the Soviet Union” (Garthoff 1985, 539). He portrayed Nixon’s, then Ford’s, détente policies as American accommodation to an expansionist Russia (Rumsfeld 2011, 227; Zelizer 2010, 270). He charged that both Nixon’s and Ford’s “efforts to foster détente with the Soviets had weakened American standing in the world” (Schultzinger 2008, 220). While Nixon and Ford had favored negotiation with the Russians – Reagan said he favored confrontation (Cannon 2013, 403). He “pummeled Ford for his naiveté and ridiculed him for signing the Helsinki agreement” (Leffler 2007, 253). He cited setbacks in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Angola as evidence that détente had failed (Dobrynin 1995, 367; Mieczkowski 2005, 288). Even the Russians agreed. According to one Soviet official at the time, “the world was going our way” (Andrew and Mitrokhin 2005; Poole 2015, 23). Unopposed by the United States, Russia continued to provide military aid to both Egypt and Syria – nearly causing Israel’s defeat in the October 1973 war. Russia continued to support North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam in violation of the 1973 cease-fire agreement. It supported Angolan insurgents in conjunction with Cuba. It continued to increase defense spending, and continued to violate international human rights norms and laws (Berkowitz 2006, 75; Ford 1979, 345, 373; Garthoff 1985, 407, 538; Leffler 2007, 252; Mieczkowski 2005, 282; Poole 2015, 2, 8; Zelizer 2010, 250, 255). Reagan cited these détente failings to argue that President Ford, as well as Secretary of State Kissinger, must be replaced. On the campaign trail, he stated that “there is little doubt in my mind that the Soviet Union will not stop taking advantage of détente until it sees that the American people have elected a new president and appointed a new secretary of state” (Ford 1979, 374).
Reagan’s political attacks on détente were effective. They helped him to win early primaries and caused President Ford to reconsider the legacy of Nixon’s détente policies altogether as a growing campaign liability (Garthoff 1985, 538, 540; Mieczkowski 2005, 288; Zelizer 2010, 269). According to the President Ford’s campaign advisor Robert Teeter, “détente is [now] a…bad idea with most Republican primary voters” (Zelizer 2010, 261). The term détente had become poisonous (Mieczkowski 2005, 288). President Ford himself even said the campaign “made it necessary to deemphasize détente” (Zelizer 2010, 262). As a result, by March 1976, President Ford completely dropped the use of the term détente for the hard-line phrase “peace through strength” (Gaddis 2005, 189; Garthoff 1985, 548; Leffler 2007, 253; Rumsfeld 2011, 227). He admitted that this shift away from détente was not done for rational foreign policy reasons, but simply to satisfy the political campaign. According to the president, “as the nomination and election approached, partisanship would flourish, making it impossible to discuss complex [foreign policy] issues…in a rational way” (Ford 1979, 353-354). It was, therefore, during the 1976 Republican primary election campaign that “the coffin lid slammed down hard on détente” (Mieczkowski 2005, 288).
It was within this context of anti-détente sentiment from both ends of the political spectrum, from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, that the Ford Administration was able to pass the first defense budget increase through Congress since 1968. This effort was helped along by the new Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he published a critical report in March of 1975 warning of a “massive shift of power as Soviet weapons technology improved” (Rumsfeld 2011, 224-225; Zelizer 2010, 269). He highlighted a rising Russian threat, prompted the CIA to raise its Russian military estimates; the Congressional Research Service even began issuing alarmist reports on the conventional US-Russia military balance (Garthoff 1985, 545). As of 1976, that balance was certainly tipped in the favor of Warsaw Pact over NATO on the Central European front, and it was projected to increase. Warsaw Pact armies maintained 58 active divisions with 564,000 soldiers compared with NATO’s 28 divisions and 414,000 soldiers (Fischer 1976, 8, 11; IISS 1977). The defense budget for FY 76 was consequently raised to $77.4 billion, an increase of $2.3 billion over the 1975 budget (SIPRI 1978), with the largest portion of the increase going to the Army for development and acquisition of five key land-based weapon systems it argued would be necessary if the administration was serious about discarding the legacy of Nixon’s détente and reconstituting a US capability to confront Russian and Warsaw Pact ground forces in Central Europe.
The Army’s commander in charge of doctrine at the time, Gen. William E. DePuy, shared Secretary Rumsfeld’s view. He said, “the situation in Europe had changed dramatically since we last paid any real attention to it [before Vietnam]. The Soviets were bigger, stronger, and in some cases, had fielded three or four generations of new equipment while we were standing still” (DePuy 1988, 1265; Romjue 1984, 5). The Army’s time in Vietnam represented “a lost decade of weapons advancement” (Herbert 1988, 99; Romjue 1984, 1-2). According to NATO Commander Gen. Alexander Haig in 1975, the Soviets outnumbered the US and NATO forces in Europe “2.3 to 1 in personnel and 3 to 1 in tanks, and Soviet military growth was continuing to increase” (Haig 1976, 14). Based on observations from the performance of both US- and Soviet-made weapons in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, both Gen. DePuy and Gen. Haig had reason to believe that the US had fallen behind the Soviets not just quantitatively, but qualitatively as well (Herbert 1988, 30, 99; Romjue 1984, 2, 6). The 1973 war turned out to be a microcosm of what a NATO-Warsaw Pact war might look like in Europe (Gole 2008, 240). “Tank ratios [were] similar to what would be expected in Europe” (Sorley 2009, 272). During the conduct of this war, “Arab forces had used Soviet technology to easily destroy American armor” (Kretchik 2011, 196). This led Gen. DePuy to the conclusion that the Army not only needed a doctrine that was compatible with America’s main ally in Central Europe – the West Germans – but also a doctrine that would allow numerically inferior US and West German forces to quickly defeat numerically superior Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. Because of the lethality and high attrition seen from the performance of modern weapons used on Arab-Israeli battlefields in 1973, Gen. DePuy understood that any future war fought in Europe would be much different than Vietnam (Herbert 1988, 30, 99). The war would be over quickly, and there would be no time for national mobilization before the war was over and had been decided. Although US and NATO forces might not be able to match the Soviets and Warsaw Pact soldier for soldier or tank for tank, they could definitely exceed them in quality if the US committed itself to achieving this. A new doctrine was therefore required for a new generation of American weapons and equipment – a doctrine that also complemented West German doctrine, compensated for numerical inferiority, and the lack of time available for national mobilization before any future war would have already been fought and decided. As a result, Gen. DePuy oversaw the development of the 1976 edition of FM 100-5 to focus solely on fighting the Russians outnumbered and winning, and then used it to justify the procurement of a new generation of Army weapons systems needed to accomplish that mission. As Gole (2008, 259) succinctly described it, the 1976 operations manual was “both a fighting doctrine and a procurement strategy.”
During the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon made and acted upon campaign promises to end the draft, end the Vietnam War, and improve relations with Russia. These promises helped him to capture votes from the Democratic base and win re-election by a landslide in 1972. However, the political divisiveness and distrust that built up around the Nixon Administration as a result of the Watergate cover-ups and investigations, ending with President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, created a backlash to policies associated with Nixon such as détente with the Russians. Even though President Ford tried to maintain continuity with Nixon’s policies, the policy of détente had become so toxic to both Democrats and Republicans, that President Ford was forced to completely abandon it during the 1976 Republican presidential primary campaign. It was within this rare political context of bipartisan unity in 1976 that political consensus galvanized around confronting the same Russia that Nixon had tried to improve relations with. This resulted in a unified Congress passing its first defense budget increase since 1968, with the largest portion of the increase going to the Army for the purpose of confronting Russia – a Russia that had become larger and more effective militarily while America had been fighting in Vietnam. Absent this bipartisanship galvanized around opposition to the policies of a disgraced president, it is unlikely that both conservatives and liberals from both political parties would have been united enough to reverse defense spending trends and focus those resources on a single foe – the foe that Richard Nixon, then Ford, had tried to foster closer ties with. Absent this, it is unlikely that the Army would have had the rationale it needed to make its largest doctrinal shift in the post-World War II era: a doctrinal shift that focused entirely on fighting and defeating Russia.
Although the US military prides itself for being apolitical, it cannot escape politics. While the institutions of the US military as a whole do not take an openly political stance on either politicians or policy, both politicians and policy take a stance on the military, often playing a tug-of-war over military spending and priorities that can at times even determine the adversaries that the military will prepare to fight, and hence the focus around which it builds its doctrine, organizations, training, and personnel. Instead of a tug-of-war in 1976, however, politicians began pulling in the same direction in their opposition to Nixonian policies, particularly in opposition to détente with Russia – providing the Army a rare window of opportunity to focus its institutional energy, including doctrine, on a single adversary. Political opportunities and challenges such as these will face the Army again. An understanding of the politics of the past, and how the Army reacted to these, is necessary to recognize and adapt to the politics of the future.
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