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In political science, rollback is the strategy of forcing change in the major policies of a state, usually by replacing its ruling regime. It contrasts with containment, which means preventing the expansion of that state; and with détente, which means a working relationship with that state. Most of the discussions of rollback in the scholarly literature deal with United States foreign policy toward Communist countries during the Cold War. The rollback strategy was tried, and failed, in Korea in 1950, and in Cuba in 1961. The political leadership of the United States discussed the use of rollback during the uprising of 1953 in East Germany and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but decided against it to avoid the risk of Soviet intervention and a major war.
The rollback strategy succeeded in Grenada in 1983. Ronald Reagan promoted a rollback strategy against what he called the "evil empire" (the Soviet Union) in the 1980s. NATO has deployed a rollback strategy in Afghanistan since 2001 to end the power of the Taliban. Rollback of governments hostile to the U.S. took place in the American Civil War (1861–65), World War I (against Germany 1918), World War II (against Italy 1943, Germany 1945 and Japan 1945), 1953 Iranian coup d'état (against Mohammad Mosaddegh), 1954 Guatemalan coup (against Jacobo Árbenz), Panama (against Noriega, 1989), and Iraq (against Saddam Hussein 2003). In September 2014, after ISIL had outraged public opinion by beheading two American journalists, President Obama announced, "America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy." When directed against an established government rollback is sometimes called "regime change".
"Rollback" was discussed at length during the 1940s and 1950s, but the term goes back much further. Britons opposed to Russian oppression against Poland in 1935 proposed a coalition that would be "united to rollback into its congenial steppes and deserts the tide of Russian barbarism." Scottish novelist and military historian John Buchan in 1915 wrote of the American Indian war: "I cast back to my memory of the tales of Indian war, and could not believe but that the white man, if warned and armed, would rollback the Cherokees."
In American strategic language, rollback is the policy of totally annihilating an enemy army and occupying the country, as was done in the American Civil War to the Confederacy, and in World War II to Germany and Japan.
The notion of military rollback against the Soviet Union was proposed by conservative strategist James Burnham and other strategists in the late 1940s, and by the Truman Administration against North Korea in the Korean War. Much debated was the question whether the U.S. should pursue a rollback strategy against Communism in Eastern Europe in 1953–56; the decision was not to.
Instead of military rollback the U.S. began a program of long-term psychological warfare to delegitimize Communist and pro-Communist regimes and help insurgents. These attempts began as early as 1945 in Eastern Europe, including efforts to provide weapons to independence fighters in the Baltic States and Ukraine. Another early effort was against Albania in 1949, following the defeat of Communist forces in the Greek Civil War that year. In this case, a force of agents was landed by the British and Americans to try to provoke a guerrilla war, but it failed. The operation had already been betrayed to the Soviets by the British double-agent Kim Philby, and led to the immediate capture or killing of the agents. The process proved most successful in undermining the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In the Korean War, the United States and the United Nations officially endorsed a policy of rollback—the destruction of the North Korean government—and sent UN forces across the 38th parallel to take over North Korea. The rollback strategy, however, caused the Chinese to intervene, and they pushed the UN forces back to the 38th parallel. The failure of the rollback policy, despite its advocacy by MacArthur, moved the United States to a commitment to the alternate strategy of containment policy, without rollback. The U.S. had moved from a strategy of containment, to one of rollback, and returned to containment in a matter of months in late 1950-early 1951.
A more ambitious effort was Operation Paper in November 1950; this included the arming and supplying of remnant Nationalist Chinese troops in eastern Burma, the 93rd Division under General Li Mi, to invade the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. All of Li Mi's brief forays into China were swiftly repulsed, and after another failure in August 1952, the United States began to scale back its support.
Republican spokesman John Foster Dulles took the lead in promoting a rollback policy. He wrote in 1949:
We should make it clear to the tens of millions of restive subject people in Eastern Europe and Asia, that we do not accept the status quo of servitude aggressive Soviet Communism has imposed on them, and eventual liberation is an essential and enduring part of our foreign policy.
The 1952 Republican national platform reaffirmed this position; when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected, he appointed Dulles as secretary of state. Eisenhower adviser Charles Douglas Jackson to coordinate psychological warfare against Communism. Radio Free Europe, a private agency funded by Congress, broadcast attacks on Communism directed to Eastern Europe. A strategic alternative to rollback was containment, and the Eisenhower Administration adopted containment through National Security Council document NSC 162/2 in October 1953; this effectively abandoned the rollback efforts in Europe.
Eisenhower relied on clandestine CIA actions to undermine hostile small governments and used economic and military foreign aid to strengthen governments supporting the American position in the Cold War. A successful rollback was the CIA's Operation Ajax in August 1953, in collaboration with the British, which assisted the Iranian military in their restoration of the Shah.
Eisenhower's decision not to intervene during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 made containment a safer strategy than rollback, which risked a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Both Eisenhower and Dulles focused more attention on the Suez Crisis which, due to the Protocol of Sèvres, unfolded simultaneously. The Suez Crisis played an extremely important role in hampering the US response to the crisis in Hungary. The problem was not, contrary to widespread belief, that Suez distracted US attention from Hungary, but that it made the condemnation of Soviet actions very difficult. As Vice President Richard Nixon later explained: "We couldn't on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Gamal Abdel Nasser."
The "rollback" movement gained significant ground, however, in the 1980s, as the Reagan administration, urged on by the Heritage Foundation and other influential conservatives, began to channel weapons to movements such as the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, and others in anti-communist armed movements Angola, Cambodia and other nations, and launched a successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 to protect American residents and reinstate constitutional government following a coup by what Reagan called "a brutal gang of leftist thugs,"—this invasion was presented as a dramatic example of rolling back a Communist government in power. Moscow worried that it might be next.
Reagan's interventions in the Third World came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine. It was applied especially to pro-Communist regimes in Central America, as in Grenada and Nicaragua, and was also extended to Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.
Critics argued that the Reagan Doctrine led to so-called blowback and an unnecessary intensification of Third World conflict. On the other hand, in the various rollback battlefields, the Soviet Union made major concessions, and eventually had to abandon the Soviet-Afghan war. Jessica Martin writes, "Insofar as rollback is concerned, American support for rebels, especially in Afghanistan, at the time helped to drain Soviet coffers and tax its human resources, contributing to that nation's overall crisis and eventual disintegration."
Nationalistic unrest in the Soviet Empire exploded in 1989, as most of the Eastern European satellites broke free and rolled back Communism peacefully, with the exception of the violent revolution in Romania to rollback Communism. East Germany merged with West Germany. In 1991 the fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics declared their laws superior to those of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 25, 1991, as Communism was rolled back across all of Europe.
In September 2014, after ISIL had outraged public opinion by beheading two American journalists and had seized control of large portions of Syria and Iraq against ineffective opposition from American allies, President Barack Obama announced a new objective for a rollback policy in the Middle East. He announced: