Commentary: How lack of inclusion affected the Cold War

  • Published
  • By Jon Bingham
  • 75th Air Base Wing History Office

Many of the Hill Air Force Base military members are unlikely to find themselves facing off with adversaries on a battlefield or engaged in aerial combat, unlike some of their Team Hill colleagues in the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings. It is indisputable, however, that the work done in the wings, depots, and directorates across the command contributes to the U.S. Air Force’s readiness and ability to win the nation’s next war. The work done every day at Hill AFB is crucial, whether it’s fueling aircraft, shipping Standard Airmunitions Packages, completing maintenance and modification on aircraft and components, or a myriad of other important missions conducted across the installation. Readiness is critical, and the base strives to become more mission ready every day. Many tools are used to help drive an increase in readiness, including strategic plans.

AFMC released its Strategic Plan, “We Are One,” in January. Several months later, the 75th Air Base Wing launched an initiative called “Project One,” which directly supports the AFMC commander’s Strategic Plan. According to a townhall meeting led by 75 ABW Commander Col. Jeffrey Holland, “Project One” aims to “increase mission readiness by creating, fostering, fortifying, and sustaining enduring on- and off-base communities in which Airmen and their families can comfortably thrive during their service at Hill AFB.” One may ask how creating, fostering, fortifying, and sustaining enduring on- and off-base communities increase mission readiness. If you find yourself asking this question, several historical case examples may offer insight.

The ideological struggle between East and West during the latter half of the 20th Century, known as the Cold War, involved numerous armed conflicts across the globe. The Cold War teaches us several important historical lessons on the importance of inclusion within armed forces. Both the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States struggled with inclusion and the full integration of minorities during the Cold War to an extent that the loss of military readiness impeded operational capability. While hard to measure statistically, historians generally agree that the loss of military readiness caused by a lack of inclusion and integration experienced by both nation states negatively impacted their ability to achieve national strategic objectives. Drawing an analogy, a sports team experiencing internal strife among its players is very unlikely to win a national title.

The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. This was the process of internal disintegration within the Soviet Union that resulted in the end of the existence of the USSR as a sovereign state. Each of its constituent republics gained full independence through the process, including the Russian Federation. While understanding the Cold War and the politics of the USSR is a complex challenge that fills numerous scholarly volumes, it’s safe to say that the Soviet failure to assimilate ethnic groups into the political and cultural apparatus played a significant role in the failure of the USSR as a nation state. It also hurt Soviet military readiness.

Boiling decades of history down and with the risk of oversimplification, the Soviet’s lack of trust in the non-Slavic republics and their inhabitant ethnic groups caused serious disunity in the USSR’s military. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet military tried several strategies with varying levels of success to incorporate ethnic groups. Early on, with the challenge of language, the USSR established “national units” along regional and ethnic lines. Due to not being properly “Sovietized,” however, these units were only deployed in their originating regions. This caused problems when during uprisings, the loyalty of members of these national units came into question after they refused to fire on their own populations (such as during the 1956 uprising in Tbilisi).

Out of fear that these “national units” would strengthen the often-rebellious republics too much, the USSR ultimately disbanded many of them and incorporated regional conscripts into the main Soviet military; but the Soviets did so not without caveat. Soviet leadership, with varying levels of limitation depending on the political landscape, aimed to limit the number of minority soldiers allowed into integrated units in an effort to control nationalistic tendencies. Non-Russian minorities were often denied promotion opportunities regardless of leadership potential based on ethnic status. This resulted in a high level of disunity and decreased military readiness in the Soviet military.

The US military experienced similar disunity in its military during the Cold War. Part of that overarching power struggle, the conflict in Vietnam was a proxy-war between the Cold War rivals that put the US military’s unity to the test. The beginning of the Vietnam War occurred concurrently with the end of the nation’s civil rights movement, and operations in Southeast Asia highlighted racial disparities that still existed in the US military. For example, the draft system in place at the time resulted in a disproportionately higher rate of drafted African American men. Additionally, discriminative duty assignments resulted in disproportionately higher combat casualty rates for African Americans and fewer battlefield decorations. One can argue that the Vietnam War remains the most controversial military endeavor in the history of the nation, which began with overwhelming public support. For a myriad of reasons, with racial disparity and a lack of unity among them, the Vietnam War effort had arguably the lowest public support of any conflict in the nation’s past by the time the US withdrew from the conflict in 1975.

The lack of inclusion and unity throughout the Cold War experienced by both the USSR and US militaries played a role, although often overlooked, in accomplishing strategic outcomes for both nation states. The US withdrew from Vietnam with damaged public trust while the USSR broke apart due to geopolitical tension. While mission readiness at one installation might seem relatively minor in comparison to global competition between Cold War superpowers, it’s the cumulative strength of every installation that combines into the ability to win a war. “Project One” is about taking care of Airmen and making Hill AFB a great place to serve the nation, but it’s also about being ready for the next large-scale conflict and winning it.

Let us all reflect on the lessons provided by the Cold War and do our part by “creating, fostering, fortifying, and sustaining enduring on- and off-base communities in which Airmen and their families can comfortably thrive during their service at Hill AFB.” If we fail in that endeavor, history will judge accordingly.