A New Project Solarium

What are the top 5 items

By Dr. Richard Weitz

09/21/2011 – Many think tanks have been launching new “Project Solarium” exercises designed to assess the advantages, costs, risks, and implications of several plausible U.S. grand strategies in coming years.

These exercises seek to identify the most important trends, drivers, and potential “black swans” that could affect U.S. national security policy, highlighting in particular those issues on which analysis most disagree, such as the importance of preventing failed states in developing countries or of sustaining a large American military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia even after 2014. The areas under review encompass the evolving international context; domestic political, economic, and social factors that could affect U.S. foreign policy; alternative U.S. world roles; and the implications of various grand strategies for the U.S. military.

What are the top 5 items, which should appear on the strategic whiteboard for the next decade? (Credit: Bigstock)
What are the top 5 items, which should appear on the strategic whiteboard for the next decade? (Credit: Bigstock)

Project Solarium was a classified strategic planning exercise that President Dwight Eisenhower initiated during the summer of 1953 to assess U.S. strategic options for dealing with the Soviet Union. It established the foundation of Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” doctrine and effectively legitimized the containment doctrine, which some Republicans had criticized during the 1952 national elections, the United States pursued toward the Soviet Union during the next four decades of the Cold War.

Historians have praised the well-structured nature of the exercise as well as for its thoroughness, inclusiveness, consensus-building effects, and communications value. They particularly laud Eisenhower’s decision-making approach for adhering to the principle that “process and product are inseparable and interdependent” and that alternative proposals should be developed and assessed.

Early in his administration, Eisenhower became deeply aware of the conflicting views held by different members of his administration about the best strategy to pursue concerning the USSR following Stalin’s death that year. Project Solarium aimed to establish a long-term Cold War grand strategy for the United States by providing a conceptual guideline that would integrate the various individuals and agencies managing American foreign policy. The process generated the core principles of the National Security Council Document (NSC) 162/2, which established the basic elements of Eisenhower’s New Look in foreign policy and the administration’s nuclear doctrine of massive retaliation.

Historians describe the project as a very deliberative enterprise managed directly by Eisenhower. The immediate catalyst for running the exercise arose from an intense discussion between Eisenhower and Secretary of State Foster Dulles in the Solarium Room of the White House in early May 1953. During the encounter, the president became more deeply aware of the conflicting views held by different members of his administration about the best strategy to pursue concerning the USSR following Stalin’s death in 1953. Dulles outlined three broad alternatives, ranging from drawing a global line against further Soviet bloc expansionism, including in peripheral areas like Korea, to a policy of seeking to “roll back” the Soviet bloc by peaceful means. Eisenhower then decided to conduct a major strategic planning exercise to assess the alternative grand strategies the administration should pursue toward the Soviet Union. The exercise would serve to unify his entire national security and foreign policy team behind a single approach toward the Soviet Union.

The exercise sought to include the set of alternative strategies available to the administration, ensuring that they embodied genuine differences and disagreements. Eisenhower’s basic rules were simple: Truman’s policy of containment would serve as the default position, participants were to justify why it needed to be kept or changed, proposed strategies should avoid extreme options such as world government or isolationism, all the proposals should consider the budgetary implications of their strategies, and each group was required to act as zealous advocates of their approach while still acknowledging possible weaknesses.

In organizing the enterprise, Eisenhower picked three teams of eight to ten people. Each team was designated to represent a specific policy standpoint in addressing the Soviet threat. One advocated a détente policy, another drawing a line and threatening massive retaliation should the Soviet bloc seek to go beyond it, and the last argued for a  “rollback” option on the grounds that that containment was too passive, lacked a clear conclusion, and might be read in Moscow as evidence that a fearful Washington could be intimidated.

Team A was headed by George Kennan.

According to all accounts, this team rejected the idea of a general war against the Soviet Union. However, the document on Project Solarium complied by the Eisenhower Institute described team A’s position as urging a dynamic “waging peace” campaign toward Moscow. Military force would serve at best an enabling role in support of diplomatic, economic, and political initiatives aimed at both negotiating with Moscow and shoring up the U.S. position as long as the Cold War persisted.  In contrast, Henry Brands viewed team A as advocating the continuation of the already established containment policy, in which force build-up was still the core method to exhaust the USSR.

Team B was led by Air Force Major General James McCormack.

By all accounts, this team looked into the possibility of “drawing a line” beyond which Soviet expansion would result in general war and U.S. nuclear retaliation. In fact, this team did not make a full-hearted case for this defensive line. Instead, it concluded less confidently that “a preponderant show of U.S. force combined with a definitive geographical boundary line could lead to a change in Soviet policy and/or a mellowing of the overall regime.”

It also acknowledged that America’s allies were unlikely to agree on where to draw this line and domestic support for nuclear war would also prove difficult to generate. Historians disagree over how expensive Team B members considered their proposal. They seemed to have considered the initially high up-front costs as yielding long-term savings since the proposals implementation would hasten the demise of the Soviet threat.

Vice Admiral Richard Conolly chaired Team C.

This team assessed the “rollback” option, accepting the campaign rhetoric that containment was excessively passive, lacked a clear end point, and could be read in Moscow as evidence that a fearful Washington could be intimidated. Brands’ account records the team as saying that the United States should “prosecute relentlessly a forward and aggressive political strategy in all fields and by all means: military, economic, diplomatic, covert, and propaganda.”

The Eisenhower Institute records suggest that the team advocated using military actions “short of a general war” (such as covert paramilitary operations or economic coercion). They also advocated seeking to shrink and transform the Soviet bloc through a gradualist rollback sequence starting from Soviet satellite states and then applying to pressure on the USSR itself.

After five or six weeks of secret and intense study by all three teams at the National War College, they were called to the White House library on July 16 to present their arguments to Eisenhower. The cabinet members of the National Security Council, the military chiefs of staff, the military service secretaries, and various other national security advisors were also present. Only after the briefings concluded did Eisenhower respond, first by assessing all the strengths and weaknesses of the positions and then by expressing his own conclusions. He generally favored the views of Team A, but added a few elements of Team B to the guidance eventually incorporated in NSC 162/2.

Observers have come to view Project Solarium as a “best practice” for national strategic planning. The exercise required senior policy makers to reveal and evaluate a number of often implicit and hidden assumptions about the nature of the Soviet threat and U.S. response capabilities.

In addition, some historians praise the exercise for employing an exemplary task-driven reactive style of decision-making and for considering all alternative paths for achieving a clear goal. The benefits of multiple advocacy at the early stage of a presidency are that they can help all senior administration officials agree on fundamental strategic guideline.

In addition, the principle of multiple advocacy underlying Project Solarium was an effective communication tool, both within Eisenhower’s administration and to his adversaries. In particular, it allowed Eisenhower’s team to consider how different audiences would react to his statements.

Yet, while Eisenhower’s attention to organization led to the orderly acquisition and processing of information, that very orderliness discouraged creativity and often left the decision-making process static despite the demands of a dynamic security environment.

In addition, historians debate how open Eisenhower was to considering alternative strategies.

Some believe he was seeking a way to save money by reducing defense spending and used the exercise to justify cutting conventional forces and relying instead more on nuclear weapons. Eisenhower entered office with the convictions that the Cold War would be a long-lasting struggle. Some analysts warned at the time that the growth of U.S. military spending when the Korean War began in 1950 and the influence of the armed forces on policy might weaken the U.S. economy and American constitutional principles.

The strategy of “massive retaliation” endorsed by Project Solarium served the purpose of containing the Soviet threat at a lower budgetary and ideological cost than the other alternatives considered.

Many defense analysts have called for replicating the process now that we are facing another era of strategic uncertainty and budget stringency. Each of the U.S. military services are organizing such exercises, as are some think tanks.

They primarily focus on U.S. grand strategy rather than a specific country or issue. Some of these exercises seem primarily academic, whereas others are designed to both understand and defend their institutions’ roles in the new order. Military leaders recognize that their personnel must understand these issues to best prepare their services, their units, and themselves for future security challenges and opportunities. They also appreciate that they will need to justify their programs in an increasingly stringent budgetary environment.

(This is a contribution to the Strategic Whiteboard