Small Wars Journal

Revisiting Defense Strategies: The Applicability of Melvin Laird’s Strategy for Peace

Wed, 10/30/2013 - 7:39am

Revisiting Defense Strategies: The Applicability of Melvin Laird’s Strategy for Peace

Joseph Royo


Given recent discussions about U.S. strategies and strategic thinking, this piece adds to those discussions by revisiting defense strategies coming out of the Vietnam conflict. The following brief essay was submitted as part of the coursework for the Command and General Staff College. The intent was to argue whether Melvin Laird’s Strategy for Peace memorandum written to President Nixon in 1970 was still applicable today. The author’s main point is that yes Laird’s strategy is applicable, and no his strategy is not so applicable today. It was originally posted on the author’s blog, under the title Melvin Laird’s Strategy for Peace: a 2011 Analysis. It has since become a popular reference for students at the CGSC. This updated version refines some of the details and cited references.

In 1970 Secretary of Defense, Melvin R. Laird, proposed a defense strategy to President Nixon. This strategy sought to shift the defense focus from war to peace. The strategy included measures to restructure forces within fiscal constraints while maintaining a strong force able to deter threats. Melvin Laird's insights, as outlined in Strategy for Peace, are in part applicable and in part less applicable today. Some of his insights with regard to the nature of current fiscal, security, and resourcing expectations are applicable. We face almost identical challenges today as the United States faced in 1970. His insights on nuclear deterrence strategies, however, are less applicable. The nature of the nuclear threat has shifted from a bipolar nuclear world to one that is more diffused. Altogether we should consider his insights since they provide instruction from a similar era with similar domestic and foreign challenges.

The crux of Laird's proposal stems from a budget policy, security policy, and foreign policy that were strained by fighting in the Vietnam War. Much like what we are facing today, the country had been involved in a costly war, both physically and financially. Also, much like what we face today, questions about how the Army in particular should be used and how it should be resourced were being raised. Laird's fundamental argument is to reshape wartime thinking to peacetime thinking by pursuing Nixon's, "policy of peace."[1] He said, "It is not a policy of warfighting [sic]; it is not a policy of status quo; it is a policy to move this country and the world towards a generation of peace based on three principles - partnership, strength, and willingness to negotiate."[2] These are applicable principles worth remembering today.

Laird points out that the U.S. cannot sustain enforcing security internationally and that the U.S. should encourage security cooperation. He notes "A larger share of free world security burden to be taken by those free world nations which have enjoyed major U.S. support…"[3] His point is to bring attention to an unsustainable situation whereby the U.S. bears a greater burden of security than most others. Today we experience the same situation. President Obama's National Security Strategy highlights this very need to restore and strengthen the international order. The National Security Strategy notes, "Our engagement will underpin a just and sustainable international order—just, because it advances mutual interests, protects the rights of all, and holds accountable those who refuse to meet their responsibilities; sustainable because it is based on broadly shared norms and fosters collective action to address common challenges."[4] This is a very applicable consideration from 1970 to today given the similar nature of a complex and changing world system coming out of protracted conflicts.

Laird points out that although the U.S. must maintain a position of military strength, it should be done through force restructuring that reduces costs and maintains flexibility.[5] He recognizes a changing threat landscape and repeatedly mentions a shift in focus from conventional theater based warfare to other potential threats.[6] This restructuring emphasizes a policy of deterrence, based more on the threat of force rather than the actual use of it. He argues for improvements in mobility, tailoring of forces able to operate in specific areas, responsiveness, and security assistance programs with partnered nations.[7] These are arguably the very same force restructuring issues the U.S. faces today. The 2011 National Military Strategy (NMS) identifies that, "Our strategy, forged in war, is focused on fielding modular, adaptive, general purpose forces that can be employed in the full range of military operations."[8] It further identifies the need to be expeditionary and partner with not only partnered nations but with intergovernmental organizations. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasizes a strategy of deterrence built around restructuring forces.[9] The force restructuring debate then and today are not only similar, they are almost identical. The idea behind both then and now is to build a strong force able to deter uncertain threats without bankrupting the nation.

The force restructuring discussion must include arguments of costs and budget realities. Laird recognizes this. He points out that the current (1970) 9% GNP rate of defense spending should be reduced to 7% or less.[10] He argues that his proposal would be, "consistent with maintaining strength while phasing down to a peacetime force with flexible options…"[11] The U.S. in 1970 was facing budgetary challenges  resulting from years of war similar to what the U.S. faces today. Although, the rate of defense spending today is less in terms of GDP, we face a real defense budget cut. Both the 2010 QDR and the 2011 NMS acknowledge this.[12] Laird's proposal and the military fiscal debate today recognize that fiscal restraints should not equate to reduced capability. The NMS states, "As we adjust to these pressures, we must not become a hollow force with a large force structure lacking the readiness, training, and modern equipment it needs."[13] Laird's insights, therefore, offer a clear glimpse into our forces future as we face fiscal reality.

Laird's points about deterring nuclear warfare against the USSR specifically are less applicable because at that time, we were engaged in a struggle for strength against a single competitor - communist USSR and to a certain extent China. As the famous Foreign Affairs essay by "X" noted in 1947, our policy of containment was, "designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."[14] We were in the midst of a containment strategy against our communist enemy. The thought of or discussion of nuclear proliferation by other states or potential non-states was not even mentioned in Laird's memorandum.[15] So, the nuclear strategy was specifically against a now non-existent entity. That does not mean, however, that a nuclear threat no longer exists. Today nuclear threats do exist, but their existence has been diluted across a number of potentialities.

First, a conventional peer-to-peer state threat by the known nuclear states with which we have ongoing trade and diplomatic relations exists. An example of this would be the U.S. vs. China or Russia, or France, or Britain. That threat is arguably low because diplomatic and trade relations surpass the value of exchanging casualties. Second, a conventional peer-to-peer state threat by unknown nuclear states with which we either have poor or no relations exists. An example of this would be the U.S. vs. Iran or Venezuela. This threat is arguably low too because the international community in general has a very low tolerance for radicals wielding nuclear power. However, this threat is more real than the first because the unstable nature of these state leaders creates less predictability with regard to their intentions. Third, a non-conventional non-peer-to-non-peer threat by an unknown nuclear empowered state or non-state with which the option for relations is impracticable exists. An example of this would be the U.S. vs. Hamas or al Qaeda. This threat is higher than the first two because of its criminal in nature intentions. This threat is arguably possible but less probable because of the difficulty of obtaining materials to create a successful weapon.[16] Nevertheless, the point regarding these three threat forms is that today, a nuclear threat is more diffused than in 1970. So, a deterrence policy against just one competitor as Laird proposed is less applicable. However, the larger point of preventing any such nuclear threat by creating an environment that makes a “nuclear attack an unattractive option for opponents" remains relevant.[17]

Reflecting on Laird's insights provides useful instruction for today's defense challenges. We face a changing domestic and foreign landscape similar to what Laird implies in 1970. As the U.S. recovers from more than a decade of war, his insights on force restructuring, fiscal constraints, and international partnership provide a companion blueprint to the national strategies that address the same issues. Although his nuclear deterrence policy is less relevant today, the threat of nuclear attack does still exist and requires attention. We should take from Laird both those applicable and less applicable factors and apply them to future defense discussions.


"X". "Sources of Soviet Conduct." Foreign Affairs, 1947: 566-582.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The National Military Strategy of the United States of America. Washington D.C.: Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2011.

Laird, Melvin R. "Strategy for Peace: A National Security Strategy of Realistic Deterrence." Memorandum for the President from the Secretary of Defense. Washington D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, November 6, 1970.

President of the United States. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: The White House, 2010.

Royo, Joseph A. "Diplomatic Discourse." Nuclear WMD vs. Illegal Drugs. July 25, 2010. (accessed October 24, 2013).

United States Department of Defense. Quaderennial Defense Review Report. Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010.

End Notes

[1] See Laird, p. 3 of the base memorandum.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Laird, p. 4 of the base memorandum.

[4] See NSS, p. 12.

[5] See Laird, p. 1 of the base memorandum. He calls for a restructuring of force that would reduce spending related to GNP from 9% to 7%.

[6] See Laird. This point is made repeatedly. He does not underscore entirely a conventional theater fight, but notes that other threats may be more relevant.

[7] See Laird, p. 37.

[8] See NMS, p. 18.

[9] See QDR, pp. 11-13.

[10] See Laird, p. 1 of base memorandum.

[11] See Laird, p. 6.

[12] See both the QDR and NMS for many references to upcoming fiscal reductions and troop reductions.

[13] See NMS, p. 18.

[14] See Sources of Soviet Conduct, p. 581. The policy of containment was born out of this essay by the anonymous "X" later revealed as George F. Kennan.

[15] See Laird. His thesis of nuclear deterrence revolves almost entirely around the USSR.

[16] These threat analyses are derived from previous research the author has done regarding nuclear threats. This analysis can be found at:

[17] See Laird, p. 41.


About the Author(s)

Major Joseph Royo is an Army Special Forces officer with over ten years of operational experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. He holds a MA in Diplomacy from Norwich University, a MA in Global International Studies from Kansas University, and a Master of Military Arts and Science from the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is currently a special operations planner at the 3rd Special Forces Group, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Previous publications include:

Afghanistan Part II: The Reoccurrence of International Terrorism in Somalia. Small Wars Journal. August 30, 2010.

British Military Decline 1919-1939. Small Wars Journal. July 11, 2012.

Agency and International Relations: An Alternative Lens. e-International Relations. August 28, 2012.

Finding Operational Art: The Normandy Breakout. Small Wars Journal. February 6, 2013.

Twitter: @joeroyo