This War Studies Advanced Program will introduce students to the Soviet Union, American grand strategic thinking in the early Cold War, and U.S. and Soviet nuclear thought.  It will consider the challenge Americans faced defining and understanding the Soviet threat.  It will also explore the Soviet view of the Cold War, the challenges facing Moscow, and Soviet approaches to meeting those challenges.  It will highlight the way wildly divergent experiences in World War II, as well as extreme differences in ideology, shaped each side’s perception of the other and created mutually-incompatible approaches to the conflict.  It will also explore the development and evolution of nuclear war theory on both sides, emphasizing the very different conclusions drawn about the nature and acceptability of nuclear war by systems guided by such opposing ideologies and experiences.  It will end by considering how to apply lessons drawn from the Cold War to the challenges emanating from Russia today.

War Studies Advanced Programs are open only to alumni of the basic War Studies course. These sessions are offered in the winter and summer, and focus either on a national security challenge or on a historical conflict. Learn more about the War Studies Program.

Image courtesy White House Photographic Office | Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Fred Kagan on war and statesmanship


James M. Dubik

LTG James M. Dubik (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and a Professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. General Dubik has extensive operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Bosnia, Haiti, Panama, and in many NATO countries.

Frederick W. Kagan

Frederick W. Kagan is a Senior Instructor with the Hertog War Studies Program at the Institute for the Study of War. The author of the 2007 report “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq,” he is one of the intellectual architects of the successful “surge” strategy in Iraq. He is the director of AEI’s Critical Threats Project.

Kimberly Kagan

Kimberly Kagan is a Senior Instructor with the Hertog War Studies Program and founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War. She is a military historian who has taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Yale, Georgetown, and American University.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

This lesson will focus on two major themes.  First we will consider two opposing definitions of the Soviet threat that competed within the U.S. government in the first decade of the Cold War—George Kennan’s and that embodied in NSC-68, drafted under the leadership of Paul Nitze.  We will then explore the two conflicting grand strategies proposed by Kennan and NSC-68 and consider why Nitze’s ultimately prevailed.  We will move from this discussion to an assessment of the desirability of reconsidering Kennan’s rejected grand strategic approach in the current national security environment.




This lesson will begin by examining the nature of the Soviet state from the Soviet perspective.  We will look at the origins and evolution of the Soviet Union, the Stalin period, and Soviet experiences during the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War) to understand the very different perspective Soviet leaders might have had on world affairs from their American counterparts.  We will consider how the Cold War appeared to the Soviets from its earliest days.  We will examine, briefly, Soviet ideology as it relates to war and international relations.



This lesson will explore the origins and evolution of American thinking about atomic and nuclear war.  We will discuss the difference between atomic and thermonuclear weapons and the implications of that difference for thinking about nuclear war.  We will then consider the ways in which American nuclear theorists wrestled with the problem of thinking about how to wage nuclear war and, ultimately, about whether that question was even meaningful.



This lesson will consider the Soviet approach to thinking about atomic and nuclear war.  It will contrast Soviet thought not only with American theory, but also with the understanding American theorists had about Soviet nuclear thinking.  We will discuss the dangers inherent in assuming common rationality with an opponent and how to identify and mitigate those dangers.  We will also consider the implications for deterrence of varying assessments of the feasibility of waging nuclear war.



We will end this course by examining current American and Russian doctrine and policy regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear war.  To what extent have Washington and Moscow converged on a common assessment of the feasibility of waging nuclear war or of waging limited nuclear war?  How well does American policy appear to understand Russian theories, policies, and doctrines?  How can we apply Cold War theories to the modern world in which multiple states maintain nuclear arsenals but are no longer aligned neatly into two camps?  Do they apply at all?



Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

War Studies Program

Learn the theory, practice, organization, and control of war and military forces.

Russia: A Return to Rivalry

Examine U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.

Nuclear Strategy & World Order

Explore the ways nuclear weapons have transformed the world we inhabit today.

Great Figures: Ronald Reagan

Chart the dramatic rise of the modern conservative movement by studying the political career of Ronald Reagan.

Great Figures: Margaret Thatcher

Learn how Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics, set Britain on a new course and helped end the Cold War.

U.S.-Russia Strategic Competition

Consider the nature of the Russian challenge to the United States.