“Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain” by Peter Grose
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, 256 pp.
Operation Rollback was a political warfare component of the United States’ containment strategy that took place behind the Iron Curtain. The architect of the concept, George F. Kennan, was a largely unknown diplomat when a telegram came in at the US State Department from its embassy in Moscow on February the 22nd 1946. Washington had requested an interpretive analysis of recent Soviet statements about financial international institutions, for the purpose of fashioning American policy. In this telegram, Kennan warned Washington that the ally in war was becoming an adversary in peace. Along with this warning he sketched what in a matter of time would become America’s strategy of containment towards the Soviet Union (p. 5). Only a few came to understand how this was the American option short of war.
Roll out the Rollback
Kennan’s vision of the Rollback operations consisted of four elements (pp. 96-99). The first was the overt operation of establishing a private committee to mobilize support for émigré factions who could be supplied with printing presses as long as they served American interest as well as their own. The second was a plan for clandestine support to anticommunist factions in countries out of Soviet orbit where communism might gain power through a democratic process. The third was a resort to direct action to protect vital installations from being sabotaged or captured by the Soviet Union. Fourth and final was the counterforce against Soviet power through subversive means behind the iron curtain. All controversial elements designed to be denied at all times officially.
In the following years and largely through failing attempts, Rollback operations were employed in practically all European captive states as well as in the Soviet Union’s heartland, Russia. Peter Grose implicitly argues that Moscow had a tendency to always be a step ahead of Washington in the domain of political warfare in the aftermath of WWII, both when it came to understanding the full implications of nationalist movements in Eastern Europe (p. 46) or the potentials of the émigré organizations on both sides of the iron curtain (p. 49). Only gradually did allied case officers realize that their covert operations were falling into the grip of double agents (p. 35) – the chronic trap that would plague the Rollback operations to the end.
While the Rollback operations were countered abroad, the Grose’s book illustrates how the strategy of containment was almost just as opposed at home. Truman’s strategy of containment was wrongly accused for being a strategy of appeasement (pp. 60-68). When it became evident that the relationship to the Soviets could not be saved, the more radical republican tongues advocated for a gloves-off strategy towards the Soviet Union instead, with a promise to liberate the captive states of Europe (pp. 76-78, 151). However, when Eisenhower took office in 1953, he did not to change the containment strategy for a number of mostly external reasons (p. 205). Eisenhower’s cautious policy ensured stability for the following years, and in the absence of crisis he ordered a study of the subversive operations that the government had undertaken since the end of WWII. By 1956, the study was concluded and it denounced the entire concept of political warfare as it had been played out in the aftermath of WWII (p. 218). The study remains one of the most embarrassing policy documents of the Cold War and has never been declassified. Grose finds that from hereon, the Rollback vision as an integral part of containment was largely abandoned.
Rollback comes to a halt
The book does not provide us with an explicit argument for why Rollback failed and Grose himself remains neutral. However, the book does have a clear implicit aim which is to demonstrate that the Rollback operations behind the Iron Curtain largely did more harm than good as a complement to the strategy of containment in the early Cold War (p. 218). On the sideline of the story, we are presented with Kennan’s later remorseful memoirs of his role in Operations Rollback (p. 8), and to emphasize the failure, at the end, we are also presented with the devastating 1956 study that led to the abandonment of the operations (p. 218).
Grose and the literature on political warfare
Operation Rollback is remains relevant today because the formulation and execution of the operations to a large extend defined the so-called political warfare as an integral part of a larger American peacetime strategy. The book portrays how political warfare provides an option short of war as an opportunity to complement a larger strategy. But Operation Rollback also suggests that there are limits to what political warfare can do, which is being demonstrated by the repeating failures by the more aggressive aspects of the concept. Furthermore, the operations suffered from blowbacks which manifested the risk of unintended consequences both at home and abroad. Something that did not get much attention in wartime, but would become more relevant in the newly founded peacetime.
Another work that focuses on Operation Rollback is “Undermining the Kremlin: America’s Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956” by Gregory Mitrovich which was published the same year. Mitrovich’s book complements Grose’s by its larger emphasis on the policy making that surrounded the operations, whereas the book in hand is more about the implementation. However, the two books differ in interesting ways. In Mitrovich’s book the relationship between containment and subversive operations is turned around. Whereas Grose argues that containment was the larger strategy and the Rollback operations sought to complement it, Mitrovich argues that Rollback operations was the larger strategy and containment sought to complement it, as Malcolm Byrne notes in his review of Mitrovich. This disagreement is an interesting one and demonstrates that there is room for more research on the topic. The tone in Mitrovich’s book is also somewhat more optimistic on behalf of the Rollback operations, and interestingly he believes the abandonment of the operations had a different cause. As Raymond L. Garthoff notes in his review of “Operation Rollback”, Grose presents the view that the abandonment of Rollback was a result of the operations lack of value to the containment strategy. Mitrovich on the other hand argues that it was a shift in the strategic balance of nuclear strike-back that caused the abandonment of the operations and with that the American belief that the Soviet Union could be defeated in the short term. If one hoped to find a stronger account for how Operation Rollback affected Kremlin policy making these years, one will still have to look further. The question of to what extent Operation Rollback caused or affected the super power rivalry remains unanswered by both books.
Political warfare as an enabler of change
In “Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain”, Peter Grose succeeds in one work to assemble many of the pieces that made for some of America’s grimmest operations in the aftermath of WWII. However, it seems to me that the puzzle remains somewhat unsolved and this makes a general judgment of the book difficult. On the one hand, there is too little emphasis on the targets of these operations and too much emphasis on the operators that conducted them. It seems to me that the book only presents half of the story. Furthermore, it is hard for the reader to make his or her own judgments of the operations underway because of the limited account for the structural conditions in the target states of the operations. On the other hand, and to Grose’s defense, one can only do so much in some 250 pages. Also, some of the answers to the question the reader is left with remain inaccessible in Kremlin archives. In my view he brilliantly and discretely exhibits the naivety in Washington at this time, and the book leaves one with a strong and well-documented lesson from Operation Rollback: political warfare can at times be a great enabler of change, but it cannot by itself be the lead creator of change. Those who fail to recognize this do so at their own peril.
Reviewed by Jeppe Rothuizen
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