A Case of Decline? Examining the US Strategic Position in the Mid-1970s

Many individuals have taken to the pen and the podium to compare the United States’ current situation with those of the past. Some have analogized that the US is in the same position as it was during the Interwar period, while others have compared 2017 to 1949, periods both marked by strategic uncertainty, rising threats, finite resources, and dynamic technological change.[1][2] We should be wary of analogies, but we should also recognize that past developments could serve as case studies to help us think about today’s developments. History provides perspective, something Americans sorely lack today.[3] The United States is witnessing momentous change, as are many states around the world today. Examining the US position in mid-1970s – another period of momentous change – may provide some perspective on the US position in 2017.

Beginning with the end of the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the conventional wisdom in the mid-1970s was that the US position was declining relative to the Soviet Union and other emerging powers. In retrospect, developments in the mid-1970s undermined this idea of decline and laid the groundwork for a generation of American preeminence. World-wide discontent with the international order, negligible economic growth, and a renaissance of great power competition, are the conditions the US finds itself facing in 2017. The choices made by America now will determine whether this preeminence endures or fades away.

By 1974 a combination of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, inflation, and slow economic growth cast serious doubts on American power. The United States faced a constitutional crisis not seen since the Civil War, and the 895 days that followed were wracked with fears of decline. As David Rothkopf noted, “While few in the street would consider or articulate questions about American decline as academics might, people knew in their gut that something was deeply wrong, that this was not the America they had been raised believing in.”[4]

The American Economic Position

The deteriorating American economic situation in the 1970s was partially caused by the economic rise of allies and partners – namely West Germany and Japan. After several decades of providing robust US aid and assistance, the US was now faced with increasingly competitive economies that were “taking jobs” away from American workers. Seen in retrospect, this was a success of the US Cold War strategy; the power and influence of the United States may have been eroding, but the post-World War II system was crafted to return the devastated economies of the world to their feet, so the US would not have to carry all the burdens.

Lost in the conversation was the fundamental resiliency of the American economy.

The perception of US economic decline in the 1970s was only partially correct. Lost in the conversation was the fundamental resiliency of the American economy. While there was certainly economic turmoil – and the U.S. lost its position in heavy industry and manufacturing to Western Europe and others – it still had a world-class scientific and technological education system, flexible state labor laws, a national culture that emphasized innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking, and an enormous research and development capacity backed by public-private partnerships.[5] By comparison, the Soviet system was rigid, overly reliant on heavy industry, and did not have the innovative technological base to compete with the U.S. in the long run.

The American Defense Position

By this time the American public had elected a Congress that was in “a full-fledged revolt against the very executive authority that was so central to the administration’s grand strategy.”[6] Senators led by Henry Jackson dismantled a major trade agreement with the Soviet Union (a “carrot” for détente in Kissinger’s view), the War Powers Resolution of 1973 implemented restrictions on Executive Branch authority over military activities, and the Church Committee’s investigations led to cuts in funding for covert intelligence operations.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the reductions in American military capabilities relative to the Soviet Union. While the US deployed only two strategic weapons systems during that period, the Soviets deployed eight new or updated ICBMs, two new SLBMs, and the Backfire bomber. By 1977 the US’s deployable ground forces were cut by 207,000 men while Soviet forces grew by 262,000 men. By FY 1974 the US Air Force was at 110 squadrons, down from 169 in FY 1968, and Navy ships (including submarines) down to 495 from 976. Meanwhile, the Soviet Navy was also approaching parity in surface combatants and submarines. Overall, US defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP shrank from 8.1% in FY 1970 to 4.9% in FY 1977, while Soviet expenditures were estimated at around 13% of their GDP, and were increasing each year.[7] However, those estimates were overstated; the size of the Soviet economy was much smaller than estimated by the CIA at the time.[8] Soviet national income, originally estimated to be about half that of the United States, was actually less than a third, putting their military burden at as much as 25% of GNP, which proved unsustainable in the long run.

The implications of congressional assertiveness and declining US military expenditures were considerable. The sense in the Kremlin was that “the world was turning in our direction” while the U.S. was constrained in responding.[9] In 1975 the Ford administration watched as North Vietnamese forces overran Saigon, and Cuban and Soviet elements appeared elsewhere in the Third World, most noticeably in Angola. American pundits perceived much of this as acquiescence to the Soviet Union. In 1976, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan criticized the administration, categorizing the United States as second best now, saying, “All I can see is what other nations the world over see: collapse of the American will and the retreat of American power.”[10]

A closer look, however, tells a more complex story. In the “lean years” of the mid-1970s, the Nixon and Ford administrations undertook efforts to preserve the fundamental elements of military power while preparing for long-term competition with the Soviets. The Ford Administration anticipated defense cuts and in the Nixon administration, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird planned for several new strategic systems – the B-1 bomber, the Trident submarine, and the cruise missile. Laird’s successors, James Schlesinger and Donald Rumsfeld, continued this trend. This modernization, coupled with new conventional and nuclear doctrines, ended up enhancing US flexibility and enabled it to effectively challenge the Soviets.[11] Likewise, the systems the United States will acquire in the future – perhaps also paired with a larger force – will be driven by decisions to invest in them now. Today, with the current constrained budget environment and talks of a readiness crisis dominating headlines, ensuring the US military maintains its technological and qualitative edge over its adversaries is still imperative.[12] A smaller force does not need to be hollow.

Down, But Not Out

In a July 1975 luncheon address to the Upper Midwest Council and other organizations in Bloomington, Minnesota, Henry Kissinger remarked that the sentiment of American decline and impotence was an illusion, asking, “Can it be that our deeper problems are not of resources but of will, not of power but of conception?”[13] Like today, some of the setbacks the US encountered in the mid-1970s were self-inflicted while others were from increasingly confident competitors, but they were not as dramatic as many originally feared. They do however, point to a lesson which is – among other things – that it is difficult to do the thing that is most elementary to strategy: figure out where you are.

Pete Kouretsos is a Research Assistant with the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, and a recent M.A. graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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Header image: North Saigon, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, 1968.


[1] Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies,” Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C., January 28, 2015, https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606641/the-third-us-offset-strategy-and-its-implications-for-partners-and-allies.

[2] John J. Hamre to CSIS Board of Trustees, Advisers, and Friends, 1949, February 1, 2017, CSIS Memorandum, Number 440, https://gallery.mailchimp.com/833ec271d60c6750d9c3baaac/files/07df81af-3c03-4cdd-aa64-8652f92d988d/CWIR_440_1949.pdf.

[3] CBS News, “History offers needed perspective on today's ‘dangerous’ times, David McCullough says,” April 16, 2017, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/david-mccullough-history-dangerous-times/.

[4] David Rothkopf, Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski, edited by Charles Gati (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 65.

[5] Hal Brands. Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.

[6] Hal Brands, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The Promise and Pitfalls of Grand Strategy (Enlarged Edition), July 2013. 41.

[7] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 318-319.

[8] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Soviet Economy: Boy, Were We Wrong!” Washington Post, July 11, 1990, A19. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1990/07/11/the-soviet-economy-boy-were-we-wrong/b51847ea-094c-4632-af4d c6ec64890abb/?utm_term=.b31450aac5ad.

[9] Odd Arne Westad, “Moscow and the Angolan Crisis, 1974-1976: A New Pattern of Intervention,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, Winter 1996/97, 21.

[10] Gaddis, 319.

[11] Gaddis, 321.

[12] Vikram Mansharaman, “Column: Is the military’s unpredictable budget leading to a readiness crisis?” PBS Newshour, November 4, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/column-militarys-unpredictable-budget-leading-readiness-crisis/.

[13] Henry Kissinger, speech, “The Moral Foundations of Foreign Policy,” August 4, 1975.