Cold War - U.S. invades Russia
January 8, 2013 10:36 PM   Subscribe

Did the United States ever have a plan to invade Russia or any part of the Soviet Union?

One thing I have never understood about the Cold War is the Russian fear of a U.S. invasion. Fear of nuclear annihilation makes sense in a convoluted 'preemption' sort of way, but was there even the possibility of a U.S. led ground war on Soviet soil? Why would the U.S. ever want to invade Russia?
posted by mousepad to Law & Government (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The conventional wisdom is that the military plans for *everything*. I'm pretty sure we've (in recent-ish history) had leaked plans of an invasion of Canada, for crying out loud. So, plans that anyone considered a good idea, maybe not - but I would be shocked if there wasn't a lot of thought put into "if we decided to, how would we do this?"
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:58 PM on January 8, 2013

I think it was generally assumed that nuclear war would be far more likely than a ground invasion.
posted by twblalock at 11:00 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Operation Unthinkable may be of interest to you. This documentary also talks about plans to invade the USSR from the Pacific to open a second front. Furthermore, we'd already invaded them once, though that didn't go so well.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:00 PM on January 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

The US military branches (and every other major military, I imagine) have plans for every conceivable attack and defense, partly because it could happen (politicians do crazy things, the world can change) and partly because thinking these things through makes you smarter about them.

Also because planners gonna plan.
posted by zippy at 11:02 PM on January 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

NATO war plans were generally defensive in nature, expecting a Soviet thrust through the Fulda Gap into West Germany, and anticipating their own use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy massed tank formations. I don't believe they ever thought that they might invade, except insofar as the dominant theory of warfare was maneuver based, meaning that the battle lines would be quickly shifting masses of tanks with the hope of breaking through the enemy's lines in order to get into their operational rear with your own armoured forces. Ideally, NATO forces would retreat slowly, doing tremendous damage to advancing Soviet forces, while looking for a place to concentrate a counter attack that would smash Soviet lines, causing disarray and retreat. So there might be tactical invasion, but there was little thought given to actually invading and occupying Russia.

If the Russians were paranoid about it, they had much historical reason to be. While Napoleon and Hitler proved that it was a sucker's bet to invade, the Russians remember that millions of their own died each time, and thought hard about how to avoid that.
posted by fatbird at 11:05 PM on January 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

The article on the Fulda Gap in Germany goes into some detail on its strategic importance in a potential land-based invasion during the Cold War. NATO definitely planned for it.
posted by zsazsa at 11:05 PM on January 8, 2013

The Canadian invasion plan was part of War Plan Red, a scenario of the US vs. Great Britain. If somebody worked that one out, you can guarantee they thought about what it would take to invade the Soviet Union.
posted by xil at 11:07 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

What fatbird said. The NRDC's gaming out of what's known of US Cold War strategy might interest you.

The Russian collective/cultural memory of resisting actual bloody invasion remains pretty vivid.
posted by holgate at 11:17 PM on January 8, 2013

Well, the Soviets had pretty good maps of the entire world, and fairly detailed ones of anywhere they considered 'strategic', including the Bay Area. There's a big difference, however, between Hitler-style of 'here is my map of Poland with all the divisions marked on it, muhahaha' and superpower-duelling 'we should have good maps, just in case we need them'. As noted above, by the time Soviet troops would have been anywhere near putting boots on US soil things would probably have escalated to the nuclear stage, Red Dawn fantasies notwithstanding.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:18 PM on January 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

If the Russians were paranoid about it, they had much historical reason to be.

One major reason being that the U.S. has actually invaded Russia, prior to the Cold War with the other World War I Allied powers, during the attempted intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks: the American Expeditionary Force Siberia and the Polar Bear Expedition.
posted by XMLicious at 11:34 PM on January 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

It is important to note that while most Americans have long forgotten about the invasions referred to in XMLicious' links, they were taught as central to Soviet history in school history classes, and still are taught to Russian school children.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:22 AM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Related indirectly... during the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans had huge arsenals of extremely high yield strategic nuclear weapons. Total nukes on the American side were in the 50,000 warhead range... (most of which were tactical nukes.) The Soviets had less, overall, but much bigger strategic nukes.

Flight time from launch to detonation was maybe 1/2 hour to an hour, from either side. Accuracy (which was/is classified) was rumored to be in the 100 yard / meter range from half way around the planet. The big worry was first strike. If the Reds shot at us first, our entire deterrent was based on 1% of our missiles surviving. That 1% would have been enough to kill most of the remaining Soviet citizens and destroy their country. I saw an estimate once that that if 10 warheads (not missiles) were targeted at the US refineries (limited in number), we'd be in the dark ages and facing mass starvation in a few months. Back then, with multiple impact re-entry vehicles (MIRV) warheads, there were 3 per Russian missile. Our MX had 10 per missile and I forget what our Titan inventory sported... but the point is, not much would have to get through or survive to make humanity face tough times.

With those kinds of strategic factors, invasions might have been planned, but no one likely considered them to be anything other than make-work folly. Some stuff you gotta do. One big nuke exchange, over in a day, would render a project that may take a year to implement rather superfluous.

All along the European front separating East and West, both sides had battlefield nukes, too. Scores of thousands between the sides.

While we still face some danger from nukes, compare to the 1980's, there are none.
posted by FauxScot at 5:28 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kind of.

The SIOP, Single Integrated Operations Plan, was the US's plan for war with the Soviet Union. It was in place and constantly updated from the early 1960s through 2003, when war with the Russians became a remote enough possibility that the SIOP seems to have been merged with other contingency plans.

Two things were always assumed. First, that nuclear weapons would be exchanged. But second, and this is the one that bears most importantly on your question, the Russians, whether or not they initiated the conflict, would invade Western Europe. Or, at least, there would be a land war starting there.

Why not invade through Alaska? Well, have you been to Alaska? Not a whole lot going on there. And even if you conquered it, there's no viable way of moving troops via land from Alaska to anywhere else in North America. I mean, you can technically drive from Anchorage to Vancouver, but it's over 2,100 miles, and the terrain is such that there are bound to be zillions of places where a hundred guys with pitchforks could go all Thermopylae on any invaders. The US could theoretically invade Kamchatka Krai, but the Russians can basically stand to let us have it. It's about a thousand miles from a bologna sandwich. I think the strategic command offices on both sides of the conflict basically chalked an invasion in either direction as "More trouble than it's worth." No, if there's going to be ground forces in conflict, it's going to be in Europe.

Thing is, the Russians remember Napoleon's invasion in the winter of 1812. There were almost certainly children and definitely grandchildren of people who were there alive in the 1960s. And in the 1960s they sure as hell remembered Hitler's invasion in 1941. Repelling that invasion was incredibly costly. Something like 5 million Russians died between June and December 1941, more than half of the total count for all of World War II. The Russians had zero desire to go through that again, which is one of the main reasons they assembled their satellite states in Eastern Europe and established the Iron Curtain.

So the SIOP absolutely included plans for ground-based warfare in Europe. It would presumably have included contingencies for the war going badly, and Allied forces being pushed into France--or beyond--and for the war going well, and Allied forces storming through Poland into Russia proper.

The Russians' fear of this was not entirely unreasonable. The US still has major military bases in Germany. During the height of the Cold War, there were over a quarter of a million US troops on active duty stationed in various parts of Europe. The US viewed them as a defensive and deterrent force. But the best defense being a good offense, to say this made the Russians "nervous" would be putting it mildly.
posted by valkyryn at 5:38 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

A big component is propaganda. Why should Soviet citizens suffer bread lines while the government keeps building tanks and missiles? Because The Enemy is around the corner! Intertwine that with the paranoia and megalomania of power, and you have a cold war.

I was born in 1975, and I have no memory of any serious talk of the US invading the USSR. My memory of the cold war, from the US perspective, was that nobody wanted anything bad to happen, but you never know what some nut might do.
posted by gjc at 5:39 AM on January 9, 2013

Why would the U.S. ever want to invade Russia?

Paraphrasing from the movie Contact, when Jodie Foster's character asks why she has a suicide pill in her official kit: "There are a hundred reasons why you might need this, but the one reason you really need it is the reason we can't think of."

The U.S. military has not got to where it is by lacking plans. They might not be good plans, but the plans are there. It is better to have a binder detailing How To Invade The Soviet Union (even just as a starting point) and collecting dust than to not have that binder when the President calls down and says, "Gentlemen, invade the Soviet Union."
posted by Etrigan at 5:46 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Parts of the US also claimed a few islands (Wrangel, Herald, Jeannette, Henrietta, Bennett, and Medny) over Siberia that led to a US/USSR agreement of some kind in 1990. Some people are still having hissy fits over them. Regardless, they fit into a much larger perspective. I have Russian friends who honestly believe the end of WW2 was a land grab, which is why Russia extended so far into Korea. To them, the US nuking of Japan had nothing to do with the mortal costs of Downfall but was instead because the US wanted to beat Russia to Japan and claim it for itself. Some of that is because the US has access to far more in the Pacific (Google Earth KML file) than most folks realize, and many came from the Pacific campaigns of World War II. From the Russian perspective, it probably did look like a land grab that either ended with Japan or kept on rolling to Russia and China. We had invaded both already (a lot of these came by force). And it didn't end there. Shortly thereafter maritime boundaries became much more important due to access to fish stocks and oil drilling. The US was and is positioned quite well in the Pacific, but could always want more.* Lastly, we have bilateral defense agreements with a lot of folks in that region which are also in the KML file. So between the Pacific island claims, the previous invasions (there was a second expedition in Siberia, BTW), defense agreements, and regular Pentagon planning... there was plenty to fear about the US.

* It's no wonder, as such, that there is so much anti-US rhetoric in the area. They play off of the CONUS+AK/HI perspective, and we are only now starting to counter it.
posted by jwells at 6:20 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not only were there plans for invasion, but those invasion plans were in full view of the Russians.

The US forces in Europe were placed for the possibility of a ground war. But a ground war in the late 20th Century has a "front" that is 200 miles deep (artillery range, etc). In other words, the "front" would be the size of a nation in itself. The American plan was that in the event of war, such a huge swathe should not be carved out of the "American side", should hostilities ensue, the front should be on the Russian side of the border, not the US/ally side.

To that end, the American tanks and other military assets along the iron curtain were placed where they could immediately penetrate the necessary 200 miles. This placement of assets wasn't something that could be hidden - the Russians could see clear as day that the American ground assault forces were not placed for defensive action, but instead for hair-trigger invasion without warning.

(Similar perhaps to how the placement of the Cuban missiles did not appear defensive to the Americans?)
posted by anonymisc at 10:37 AM on January 9, 2013

Why would the U.S. ever want to invade Russia?

Why would Russia ever want to invade the USA? If Americans were so paranoid about something so ridiculous, and you're more culturally familiar with this fear (and for many their fear of this persists even to this day), why does it seem strange that Russians could also be afraid?
posted by anonymisc at 10:51 AM on January 9, 2013

I was an ELINT intercept operator/Analyst from 1967 to 1971. My understanding was that we would not initiate a first strike, but our missiles would launch before the Soviet first strike missiles hit North America. Flight time from launch from the northern Soviet sites was less that half an hour. Our estimated counter-missile capability was ninety percent interception of Soviet missiles. MIRVs complicated this effort. You had to hit the MIRV by apogee or forget it.

Anyhow, I remember the numbers of Soviet ICBMs at somewhere around 25,000. One impact area, in Missouri, was targeted with 300 missiles. If all went well, then only 30 of them would detonate. Hydrogen bombs, I mean. Thirty in an area of roughly 300 by 90 miles. I'm not familiar with any of the other impact areas. I imagine we would have needed about ten times more bombs than the Soviets to achieve a similar level of destruction, but those computations were far above my pay grade.

When I first entered the Army, in 1963, we were training for a conventional ground war in Europe, or rather, what would remain of Europe if the balloon went up. IRBMs in western Europe and the Balkans would pass one another, you see, so the territory we could deploy in was problematic. It's not usually something you think about, but if you think how we used to do "duck and cover" drills in the US during the 1950's, you can understand why many Europeans might not have been too enthusiastic about the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction that was being prosecuted by the US and the Soviet Union. Franch and Germany, and probably most of the other countries in the area, would have paid a terrible price for having American missiles defending the free world from bases in their countries.

I knew a fellow LRRP who had been stationed in Europe before he came to our outfit in Vietnam, whose team practiced carrying a portable nuclear device: they would be inserted into some Soviet Bloc country, plant the device, then try to get out of the blast area before it detonated. If any of you get the chance to see the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, you will be amazed to see a facsimile of this device on display. (BTW, the museum is not a glorification of war. It's well worth the visit. Plan to take more than one day to see it all.)

Our version of paranoia was based on fear of Stalin's tanks. IRBMs were seen as the only way to slow down that sort of war. The Soviet view was more complex, and at least as well-founded in theory. Our own defense guru at the time, Macnamara, thought that a minimum of perhaps 25 million Americans would die in a first strike exchange. It's worth noting that we had provisions for a second and third wave of missiles, to underscore the terms of the doctrine: Mutual Assured Destruction.

Based on all that, I figure the bayonet tactics I learned in basic training were just busywork. Right about then, and just in time, guerrilla warfare became recognized as an alternative to nuclear warfare: not all folks can afford missile technology, only those nations with twisted notions.

I'd guess some guy drew up some schemes to invade the Soviet Union. But, after a missile exchange, I don't see any point, nor can I ken a way to provide logistics to any military force being sent over there. We would be lucky to have enough survivors to make a good post-apocalypse movie, never mind support an overseas army.
posted by mule98J at 11:08 AM on January 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

There would have been an assumption during the Cold War that the other side might at some point develop a 100% effective anti-missile system. We know now after decades and bazillions of dollars that it's not so straightforward but I would think there's no way that military planners would assume their nuclear delivery capabilities could not be neutralized.

So from the Soviet point of view, if an American SDI-type implementation was successful and we came to feel we were immune from missile attacks they might face an invasion or more conventional war, and thus they maintained measures like the biological weapons programs.
posted by XMLicious at 11:45 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, hi, I took a college course on "Modern Soviet Foreign Policy" in the fall and winter of 1989.

What everyone says about the US military having a backup plan for everything just so they're ready for it is true; however, that doesn't fully explain what the Soviets were afraid of. The other piece of the puzzle is: over the course of its nearly thousand-year history up to that point, Russia already had been invaded a whole hell of a lot by other countries. In fact, the Third Reich did so in 1941, only a short time prior - and that was after the Soviets had signed a non-aggression treaty with them first. It was the biggest and most powerful invasion force in history, and the campaign in the USSR lasted 4 years and some of the battles there were the most lethal in human history - nearly a third of all World War II casualties happened just in Russia. It also struck at the one spot in the Soviet Union that had the most infrastructure, so the economy was also clobbered.

So with that event such a recent thing in the USSR's past, and a whole host of other invasions coming before then, the Soviets were just really, really, REALLY paranoid about the possibility of another invasion; which is also part of why they were afraid we would do the same thing; I mean, everyone else had, and in some cases they did even after promising they wouldn't, so why would the USA be any different? So that's why they were afraid we'd do that.

I am paraphrasing wildly, and have supplemented my memory with some Wiki browsing just now - but "the Soviets got invaded a lot so they were a little touchy" was the one fact I managed to fully retain from that college course. This is not just because of my faulty memory, but also because Glasnost started up literally only a month into the course, and after soldiering on for a couple weeks my professor finally gave up and said "You know what, fuck it, I have no idea what's going on any more, I'm gonna pass you all and just make this a current events discussion group." It was surreal.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:50 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

It would be hard to overstate the damage done to Russia during WWII, and the 25 years preceeding it. The body count alone is beyond comprehension: some 35 million people.
posted by mule98J at 2:52 PM on January 11, 2013

And as EmpressCallipygos says it stretches far back in history, with 20th and 21st-century Russians entirely mindful of it: see the Soviet-produced film Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, concerning the period of European history now known as the Northern Crusades. Ostensibly the motivation was for the (German) Teutonic Knights to conquer and convert the remaining non-Christian populations around the Baltic Sea but with the Pope's approval they continued onward with the intention to invade the (Orthodox Christian, but non-Catholic) Russian states.

That was contemporary with the Mongolians conquering the world including Russia, also touched on in Alexander Nevsky.

During the last several centuries not only Napolean and Hitler invaded but the continuous conflicts in Europe frequently involved invading Russia (as well as Russians invading other places in the course of establishing and maintaining the Russian Empire) including for example the 19th century Crimean War in which several Western powers allied with the Ottoman Empire to invade Russia.
posted by XMLicious at 3:35 PM on January 11, 2013

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