“Salami tactics” refers to a divide and conquer approach, which aims to split up the opposition. The expression evokes the idea of slicing up one’s opposition in the same way as one might slice up a salami.
The phrase was coined by the Hungarian communist leader Matyos Rakosi as a way to describe his technique of dividing and isolating opposition parties during the 1940s. The phrase was also used a few decades later, in Czechoslovakia, to describe the gradual process of chipping away at the reforms that had been introduced by Alexander Dubcek before the Russian invasion in 1968.
The phrase is strongly associated with Josef Stalin, who used salami tactics to divide the anti-communist opposition groups in order to realize his goal of creating more and more communist states near Russia. Some analysts believe that Stalin’s salami tactics were simply a re-purposing of Hitler’s “piecemeal” strategy of decimating his opposition so that he and his cohorts were left as the only viable option.
During World War II, Hitler used salami tactics to slowly but surely annex other countries. The German leader eliminated his opponents piece by piece (or slice by slice), working strategically and timing his operations with the utmost care. The slow, precise approach meant that nobody ever felt alarmed enough to take decisive action in response.
Salami tactics can be compared to the idea of a “frog in hot water,” which similarly imagines an attack that comes on very slowly and by degrees. The image is of a frog immersed in water – the water’s temperature is slowly, and almost imperceptibly increased until finally the frog is boiled to death. Because the attack came on so gradually, the frog never had the opportunity to defend itself or to flee.
Salami tactics can also be compared to the old saying, “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” The Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling argued, in his book Arms and Influence, that salami tactics are typical childish behavior:
“Salami tactics, we can be sure, were invented by a child […] Tell a child not to go in the water and he’ll sit on the bank and submerge his bare feet; he is not yet ‘in’ the water. Acquiesce, and he’ll stand up; no more of him is in the water than before. Think it over, and he’ll start wading, not going any deeper; take a moment to decide whether this is different and he’ll go a little deeper, arguing that since he goes back and forth it all averages out. Pretty soon we are calling to him not to swim put of sight, wondering whatever happened to all our discipline.”
In modern times, pundits on the left and right have accused various governments of using “salami tactics” against the opposition. On the left, some have accused the US government of using police power, facial recognition technology, and surveillance tactics to weaken and intimidate opposition groups. Taiwanese writers have sometimes accused the Chinese government of using salami tactics against Taiwan. Western writers have also criticized what they say are “salami tactics” being carried out by Beijing in the East China Sea.