(See Main Section: Cold War)
The Cold War was a geopolitical chess match between the United States, the Soviet Union, and both parties’ allies in which the major power players sought to project their respective ideologies across the globe in the wake of colonialism’s collapse following World War Two. The period occurred between 1947, the year of the Truman Doctrine, and 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Scroll down to see articles about the Cold War’s beginnings, the foreign policies of American presidents regarding the Cold War, the end of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and the final Soviet collapse in 1991.
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“The Cold War — Not WW2 — Was Arguably the Defining Event of the 20th Century”
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During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union fought together as allies against the Axis powers. However, the relationship between the two nations was a tense one. Americans had long been wary of Soviet communism and concerned about Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical rule of his own country. For their part, the Soviets resented the Americans’ decades-long refusal to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community as well as their delayed entry into World War II, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Russians. After the war ended, these grievances ripened into an overwhelming sense of mutual distrust and enmity. (Source: History.com)
The Origins of the Cold War Timeline
(See Main Article: The Origins of the Cold War Timeline)
Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Communist Revolution in Russia puts the Bolsheviks in power.
The Russian Civil War ends with the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Joseph Stalin is appointed general secretary of the Communist Party.
Lenin dies after a long illness. Stalin consolidates all political power, ruling the Soviet Union with an iron hand until his death in 1953.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, splits Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe between the USSR and Nazi Germany.
Yalta Conference. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, meeting in the Crimea, agree on free and open elections in Eastern Europe and divide Germany into four occupation zones.
Franklin D. Roosevelt dies; Harry S. Truman becomes president.
United Nations founded.
V-E Day. Allies celebrate victory in Europe after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
JULY 17–AUGUST 2
Potsdam Conference. Meeting in Potsdam, Germany, Truman confirms Stalin’s plans to enter the war against Japan. Atlee replaces Churchill as prime minister of Great Britain. U.S. and Britain object to Soviet policies toward Poland and the Black Sea.
V-J Day. Allies celebrate Japan’s unconditional surrender. World War II ends with Soviets retaining most of the territories they held in 1939 and areas occupied during the war, including parts of Austria, Germany, and Korea. Communists formally control governments in Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Soviets install communist government in northern Iran.
Stalin announces that conflicts between the West and USSR are inevitable, charges that capitalism caused World War II, and calls for an industrial build-up in Russia.
George Kennan sends the Long Telegram from Moscow to Washington, describing inherent Soviet hostility toward Western capitalist societies, especially the United States.
Churchill delivers his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, proposing an Anglo-American alliance against international communism.
After months of diplomatic protests by the United States, Great Britain, and the United Nations, the Soviets withdraw from Iran. Truman orders preparation of task force to send to the eastern Mediterranean.
The USSR pressures Turkey to agree to joint control of the Turkish Straits, beginning naval maneuvers in the Black Sea and dispatching troops to the Balkans. In response to a plea from the Turkish government, Truman orders a naval task force to the area and affirms U.S. support of Turkey.
Attempted communist takeover intensifies civil war in Greece.
Indochina War begins.
Communists take power in rigged Polish elections in violation of Yalta agreements.
The British officially inform the United States they can no longer guarantee the security of Greece and Turkey.
Truman Doctrine. Announcing aid to Greece and Turkey, Truman proposes a policy of supporting free people against anti-democratic forces from within or outside national borders.
Marshall Plan: With Truman’s full backing, Secretary of State George Marshall announces a multi-billion-dollar European Recovery Program of economic aid.
“Sources of Soviet Conduct” by “X” (George Kennan) published in Foreign Affairs, advocating policy of containment of the Soviet Union.
National Security Act signed into law, reorganizing the U.S. military under the Department of Defense and establishing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the CIA.
Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Soon after, Congress passes the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan).
Berlin blockade begins.
UN-supervised free elections lead to the formation of the Republic of Korea in the south; Soviet Union declares the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north to be the legitimate government of all Korea.
Whittaker Chambers accuses Alger Hiss of espionage at open congressional hearing.
Communists formally take over Hungary, arresting and executing opponents and controlling the secret police; Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, primate of Hungary, is imprisoned on December 26.
Harry S. Truman is sworn in again as president.
Formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a twelve-nation military alliance intended to protect Western alliance members and contain Soviet expansion.
Berlin blockade ends.
The Federal Republic of Germany is established in West Germany; the Soviets declare their zone of East Germany to be the German Democratic Republic.
Soviet Union tests an atomic bomb.
Mao Zedong declares the birth of the People’s Republic of China after a long civil war between the communists and Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists; Chiang and other anticommunist Chinese move to the island of Formosa (Taiwan) and set up the government of the Republic of China.
Truman approves development of the hydrogen bomb.
Senator Joseph McCarthy claims that communists have infiltrated the U.S. State Department.
The USSR and the People’s Republic of China sign a pact of mutual defense.
Communist North Korea invades South Korea with military support from the Soviet Union.
Truman and the United Nations call for a defense of South Korea. United States sends forces (eventually joined by forces from sixteen other countries) led by General MacArthur to Korea.
Truman approves NSC 68, the outline of a broad defense and foreign policy strategy to counter and challenge the Soviet Union.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted of espionage for their role in giving atomic secrets to the USSR during and after World War II.
Armistice talks begin in Korea.
Greece and Turkey join NATO.
The European Recovery Program ends, with European industrial output substantially higher than in 1948.
Dwight D. Eisenhower is sworn in as president.
Anticommunist riots in East Berlin suppressed by Soviet and East German forces.
Armistice ends the fighting in Korea, but no peace treaty is signed.
Nikita Khrushchev becomes head of the Soviet Communist Party; his main rival is executed in December.
Dien Bien Phu falls to communist Vietminh in Vietnam.
The first Taiwan Straits crisis occurs when the Communist Chinese shell Taiwanese islands; the United States backs the ROC.
The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) is founded to resist communist aggression. Member states are Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
U.S. Senate censures Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The Baghdad Pact is formed to resist communist aggression in the Middle East, with member states Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The United States becomes an associate member in 1959, when the pact is renamed CENTO after Iraq’s withdrawal.
West Germany joins NATO.
Warsaw Pact established by the USSR and satellites Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria.
Nikita Khrushchev delivers his “secret” de-Stalinization speech at the Twentieth Communist Party Congress.
Anticommunist protests in Poznan, Poland, are crushed by communist Polish and Soviet forces.
First American U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union.
During the Suez Canal Crisis, Eisenhower pressures Britain and France to accept a UN ceasefire in order to prevent the USSR from assisting Gamal Nasser’s Egypt and expanding Soviet presence in the Middle East.
Hungarian Revolution begins, but after two weeks of freedom, students and workers protesting Soviet occupation are violently put down and communist rule is reestablished.
Communist insurgency sponsored by North Vietnam begins in South Vietnam.
Fidel Castro arrives in Cuba, where he will lead a revolution and establish a communist state.
Eisenhower Doctrine—a commitment to defend the Middle East from communist aggression—is announced.
Spuknik I satellite launched by the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev publicly claims Soviet missile superiority over the United States, but U-2 flights secretly confirm U.S. superiority.
The Common Market established by Western European nations.
Mao begins the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization of Chinese agriculture that will cause the deaths of tens of millions.
The second Taiwan Straits crisis begins with communist Chinese bombing of Quemoy.
The second Berlin crisis begins, with Khrushchev demanding that the West leave Berlin.
Fidel Castro takes control of Cuba.
The “Kitchen Debate,” an exchange between Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon about the relative levels of abundance produced by capitalism and socialism, takes place at an American cultural exhibition in Moscow. The exchange is captured on videotape and broadcast in the United States and the USSR.
Khrushchev is the first Soviet premier to visit the United States.
Khrushchev announces that the USSR has shot down an American U-2 plane and captured its pilot. United States suspends U-2 flights.
The Sino-Soviet split begins.
Communist revolt in Laos begins.
Khrushchev vehemently protests against American and Western policies at the United Nations, publicly embraces Fidel Castro.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba end.
John F. Kennedy is sworn in as president.
Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuban exiles organized by the CIA land in Cuba, seeking to spark an uprising against Castro’s regime. President Kennedy withholds vital air and naval support, and the mission fails.
First U.S. military advisors are sent to Vietnam.
Berlin border is closed by East Germany, followed by construction of the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin. The wall cuts off the flow of thousands of East Germans seeking to migrate to the West.
USSR detonates the most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever tested, with an explosive yield of some fifty megatons.
Communist Chinese forces attack India and make claims on numerous areas along the Himalayan border.
Cuban Missile Crisis erupts when the United States discovers Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of striking U.S. targets. Kennedy imposes a quarantine and demands the missiles’ removal. The Soviets acquiesce, acknowledging the superior military strength of the United States, while the United States agrees to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.
Publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on the author’s experiences as a prisoner in the Gulag.
Hotline enabling direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin is opened.
Kennedy delivers his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Berlin.
Nuclear test ban treaty between United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain is signed.
Ngo Dinh Diem, president of Vietnam, is overthrown and assassinated.
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated by Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald; Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as president.
Senate passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing U.S. military action in Vietnam.
Khrushchev is replaced by Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Communist China tests its first atomic bomb.
Lyndon B. Johnson is elected president.
Extensive U.S. bombing (Operation Rolling Thunder) begins in Vietnam.
First U.S. combat troops arrive in Vietnam.
The Cultural Revolution begins in the PRC.
Thousands of demonstrators picket the Pentagon in protest against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
North Korea captures USS Pueblo; captain and crew are released in December.
“Prague Spring” begins in Czechoslovakia.
Tet Offensive begins in South Vietnam.
Warsaw Pact and Soviet troops suppress the “Prague Spring.”
Richard Nixon is sworn in as president.
Clash between troops of Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China along their joint border.
President Nixon begins “Vietnamization” of the war in Indochina and announces gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
Nixon Doctrine: A pledge to honor treaties, provide a nuclear shield to allies, and provide arms and economic aid to other nations but not U.S. troops.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is ratified.
Nixon announces invasion of Cambodia. Four students killed in protests at Kent State University.
Nonaggression pact between West Germany and the Soviet Union signed.
United States ends trade embargo on the People’s Republic of China.
India and the USSR sign a twenty-year friendship pact.
Nixon becomes the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China.
First Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) signed by United States and USSR.
Break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, beginning the Watergate scandal.
Vietnam Peace Agreement signed in Paris.
Congressional Watergate hearings begin.
After publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the West, Solzhenitsyn is arrested and exiled from the USSR.
Richard Nixon resigns the presidency in the face of certain impeachment and conviction and is succeeded by Gerald R. Ford.
Communists take power in Ethiopia.
Cambodia falls to communist Khmer Rouge, who over the next two years engineer the death of one-fifth of the Cambodian population.
Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese after U.S. Congress refuses further aid, ending the Vietnam War in a communist victory.
Khmer Rouge seizes the American merchant ship Mayaguez in disputed waters off Cambodia. The ship is recaptured with heavy U.S. casualties in the last official engagement of the Vietnam War.
Communists take power in Angola and Mozambique.
JULY 30–AUGUST 1
Western powers and USSR sign the Helsinki Accords. The West accepts Soviet borders and increased trade, while Soviets promise to recognize certain human rights.
Communists take power in Laos.
Mao Zedong dies; Cultural Revolution ends.
Charter 77 is signed by Czechoslovakian dissidents, including Václav Havel.
Jimmy Carter is sworn in as president.
After years of protesting Soviet repression, especially of Jews, Natan Sharansky is found guilty at a show trial. He will spend years in prisons in Moscow and the Perm Gulag in Siberia.
Soviets continue arms buildup in Eastern Europe, including deployment of SS-20 missiles that can reach targets in Western Europe.
Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Krakow, Poland, elected pope, taking the name John Paul II.
Communists seize power in Afghanistan.
United States and People’s Republic of China establish diplomatic relations. U.S. ends official diplomatic relations with longtime ally the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Margaret Thatcher becomes prime minister of Great Britain.
Pope John Paul II visits Poland.
Carter and Brezhnev sign the SALT II agreement.
Communist Sandinistas, supported by Cuba, topple the Nicaraguan government.
Iranian militants attack U.S. embassy in Teheran and seize fifty-two hostages, beginning the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.
NATO announces dual-track decision to deploy long-range theater nuclear forces in Western Europe and offers to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear weapons in Europe.
The Soviet Union responds to a coup in Afghanistan by invading and establishing a pro-Soviet government, becoming entangled in a decade-long civil war.
Russian dissident and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov protests the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and is exiled to Gorki, a city closed to foreigners.
Carter Doctrine: the United States will respond with force if any country attempts to control the Persian Gulf and threaten U.S. interests there.
Communist Polish government legalizes the Solidarity trade union.
After campaigning on a pledge to restore U.S. military superiority, Ronald Reagan is elected president.
Reagan sworn in as president; Iran hostage crisis ends.
United States suspends aid to Nicaragua.
Polish government arrests Solidarity leaders and declares martial law.
Spain joins NATO.
Addressing the British Parliament, Reagan predicts that communism is headed for “ash-heap of history.”
Leonid Brezhnev dies and is succeeded by Yuri Andropov as head of USSR.
Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Soviets shoot down civilian Korean Air Lines Flight 007, flying from Anchorage to Seoul, purportedly in Soviet airspace, killing all 269 aboard, including a member of Congress.
U.S. forces overthrow the Marxist regime in Grenada and restore democracy.
Deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe begins.
Reagan Doctrine: the United States will support anticommunist fighters in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia.
After the deaths of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev becomes general secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union.
Reagan and Gorbachev meet for the first time at a summit in Geneva and agree to hold more summits.
Reagan and Gorbachev agree at Reykjavik to remove all intermediate nuclear missiles from Europe; after offering to share nuclear technology, Reagan refuses to give up SDI, which leads to end of the summit.
The Iran-Contra scandal breaks.
Speaking in Berlin before the Brandenburg Gate Reagan challenges Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”
Gorbachev and Reagan sign the INF Treaty, eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons for the first time.
Soviet Union announces its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Speaking at Moscow State University, Reagan says that “it’s time” for a new world of friendship, peace, and freedom.
Gorbachev renounces the Brezhnev Doctrine, saying the USSR will no longer interfere militarily in Eastern Europe.
Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan.
Czech police put down demonstrators, arrest Václav Havel.
George H. W. Bush is sworn in as president.
Sandinista government agrees to free elections in Nicaragua.
In the first partially free elections in the Soviet Union, non-Communists are elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies.
Hungary begins to remove the fence separating it from Austria.
Tiananmen Square Massacre. After weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations, Chinese troops and tanks forcibly end demonstrations, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of students.
JUNE 4 AND 18
In free Polish elections, Solidarity defeats the communists.
Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, is given a hero’s burial in Budapest.
Massive popular protests begin in Leipzig, East Germany.
Berlin Wall falls: travel restrictions are lifted, and many thousands of East Germans flood into West Germany.
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is overthrown and executed.
Václav Havel becomes president of Czechoslovakia, leading its first non-communist government since 1948.
Lithuania declares independence from the Soviet Union. Estonia and Latvia soon follow.
Communist Party loses its monopoly of power in the Soviet Union.
Unification of Germany.
Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe are signed, bringing the Cold War closer to an end; the USSR, however, continues to exist.
Warsaw Pact disbands.
Hard-liners in the Politburo attempt a coup, placing Gorbachev under house arrest. Boris Yeltsin rallies the people against the Gang of Eight and the coup collapses.
Gorbachev resigns as president of Soviet Union after Russian president Yeltsin bans the Communist Party and assumes all the powers of the old regime. The USSR dissolves, and the Cold War officially ends.
Soviet Union is replaced by fifteen independent states led by Russia.
(See Main Article: The Cold War: Causes, Major Events, and How it Ended)
“The Iowa Boy Who Loved Baseball, Leaked Atomic Secrets to the USSR, and Jump Started the Cold War”
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If you would like to learn about the conflict in video form, check out this nine-minute explainer video.
Causes of the Cold War: What caused the Cold War? A number of geopolitical factors that emerged in the wake of the Second World War, pitting Russia against the U.S. World War II ended with the Soviet Union and the United States as allies that triumphed over Nazi Germany. But how did two countries that used to fight on the same side end up a couple of years later as mortal enemies in a Cold War of distrust that prevailed for years to come? Possible Causes for the Cold WarAlthough The U.S. and Soviet Union were allies during WWII, there were many tensions early on and once the common threat of Germany and Japan were removed, it was only a matter of time before the shaky relationship fall apart. Here are some possible factors that contributed to the Cold War:
- The Soviet Union refused to become part of the UN for a long time
- Stalin felt that America and Britain were delaying D-Day, causing more Soviet losses in a plot to weaken the Soviet army. Almost sixty times more Soviets died in the war than the Americans.
- The “Big Three” clashed during the Tehran Conference about Poland and other Eastern European countries that bordered Germany. Stalin felt independent countries were a security threat to Russia because they have been weak enough to let Germany attack the Soviet Union through them several times. Britain and America wanted these countries to be independent, not under communist rule.
- The Soviets and Germans had a non-aggression pact in the first two years of the war with a secret protocol
- The support of the Western allies of the Atlantic Charter
- The Eastern Bloc of Soviet satellite states that was created
- The Allies allowing Germany to rebuild an industry and army, scrapping the Marshall and Morgenthau plans
- The Allies allowing Germany to join NATO
- American and British fears of communist attacks and the Soviet Union’s dislike of capitalism
- The Soviet Union’s fear of America’s nuclear weapons and refusal to share their nuclear secrets
- The Soviet Union’s actions in Eastern Germany, in the Soviet zone
- The USSR’s aim was to promote communism across the world and their expansion into Eastern Europe
The Truman Doctrine: Freedom Precedes OrderThe combination of one of the worst winters in history and the economic consequences of World War II reduced Great Britain in early 1947 to near bankruptcy. On February 21, the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., informed the State Department that Britain could no longer play its traditional role of protecting Greece and Turkey against threats external and internal and would have to withdraw from the region by April 1. Since Greece faced internal agitation by communists and Turkey confronted the hostile Soviet Union, only a firm American commitment could prevent Soviet control of the two strategically located countries. There was no one to protect the strategic interests of the United States but the United States itself. Great Britain’s withdrawal from the international stage had left a political vacuum, and the United States moved to fill it, not for narrow commercial or territorial reasons, but to protect freedom, independent states, and allies in a crucial area of the world.
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THE PRAGMATIC ROOTS OF THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE: On On February 26, Secretary of State George Marshall and Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson brought their recommendations to President Truman. Greece needed substantial aid and quickly; the alternative would be the loss of Greece and the extension of the Iron Curtain across the eastern Mediterranean. Truman wrote in his memoirs, “The ideals and the traditions of our nation demanded that we come to the aid of Greece and Turkey and that we put the world on notice that it would be our policy to support the cause of freedom wherever it was threatened.”Central to the development of the Truman Doctrine was the president’s February 27 session with congressional leaders. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress following the mid-term elections, and Truman understood that he needed the help of the Republican leaders to craft a bipartisan foreign policy. At the White House meeting, Truman asked Marshall to summarize the case for Greek and Turkish aid, which the secretary did in his usual matter-of-fact way. There was a tepid response from the congressional group. Understanding what was at stake, Acheson intervened with a dire warning that the Soviets were playing “one of the greatest gambles in history.” The United States alone was in a position “to break up the play.”Silence ensued, broken at last by a solemn Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republicans’ foreign policy leader, who said, “Mr. President, if you will say that to the Congress and the country, I will support you, and I believe that most of its members will do the same.”Truman based the assistance on the belief that governments suited to the peoples of Greece and Turkey would not develop or succeed if tyranny prevailed in those countries. But his concern went farther than the hopes of the Greek and Turkish peoples for a democratic future. He also stressed the implications of communist pressure on the entire region and on the world, asserting that the totalitarian pattern had to be broken. The consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe depended on the local conditions in each country, the strength of the communist-led wartime resistance movements, and the degree of direct Soviet intervention. The Kremlin had promised in the Paris peace treaties to remove its troops from Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary but had failed to do so.
As a result, the communists were able to force the socialists to join them in coalitions they dominated. Moscow had also manipulated the Polish elections to eliminate Stanisław Mikołajczyk and his Polish Peasant Party, with the help of a hundred thousand Polish security police agents, modeled on the Soviet NKVD. Because the Red Army did not occupy either Greece or Turkey, Truman saw an opportunity to encourage liberty in the two countries by strengthening domestic conditions and preventing Soviet intervention on behalf of the local communists. He signed the Greek and Turkish aid bill into law on May 22, 1947, declaring, “The conditions of peace include, among other things, the ability of nations to maintain order and independence and to support themselves economically.” Although he did not name the Soviet Union, Truman said that totalitarianism was hindering peace and encroaching on peoples’ territories and lives and called for an unprecedented American involvement in foreign affairs in peacetime. The assertion of the Truman Doctrine was truly historic—the first time since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 that an American president had explicitly defined a principle of foreign policy and put the world on notice. In the absence of an effective United Nations, the president said, America was the one nation capable of establishing and maintaining peace. The international situation, he said, was at a critical juncture. If America failed to aid Greece and Turkey “in this fateful hour,” the crisis would take on global proportions. While political and economic means were preferred, military strength was also needed to foster the political and economic stability of threatened countries. The Truman Doctrine was a primary building block of containment. The president sounded themes that endured throughout his and successive administrations. The United States, he said, must support free peoples who were resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures so that free peoples can “work out their own destinies in their own way.”
MAIN POINTS OF THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE: Faced with a war unlike any previous one, Truman laid the groundwork for a policy of peace through strength. Against the backdrop of postwar domestic needs and wants, he had to educate the American people and persuade congressional leaders that decisive U.S. engagement in a new world struggle was necessary. Between 1946 and 1950, he reached three conclusions regarding global politics:
- Freedom must precede order, for freedom provides the deepest roots for peace. He rejected the realist preference for order above all.
- What kind of government a people choose is decisive in both domestic and international politics. He did not echo President Woodrow Wilson’s call for self-determination with a secondary concern for governing principles. For Truman, a commitment to justice was the overriding principle.
- Security and strength go hand in hand. Truman’s definition of strength included political order and military muscle, that is, a government and people embracing and then maintaining their liberty and justice.
President Truman and his administration proceeded to build on this political foundation. The impending economic collapse of Britain, France, and most of Western Europe in the winter of 1946 and the spring of 1947 led the United States to take action in the economic sphere in the form of the Marshall Plan. Soviet expansionism, including the establishment of puppet governments in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, Communist agitation in Italy and France, and the Berlin blockade spurred the United States and its allies to form NATO, America’s first military alliance in peacetime. NSC 68 added an international dimension to the concept of peace through political, economic, and military strength. The Truman Doctrine was the linchpin to foreign affairs in this period.
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Policy of Containment: America’s Cold War StrategyShortly after Stalin’s death in March 1953, Eisenhower gave a speech notably titled “The Chance for Peace,” in which he made clear that the United States and its friends had chosen one road while Soviet leaders had chosen another path in the postwar world. But he always looked for ways to encourage the Kremlin to move in a new direction. In a diary entry from January 1956, he summarized his national security policy, which became known as the “New Look”: “We have tried to keep constantly before us the purpose of promoting peace with accompanying step-by-step disarmament. As a preliminary, of course, we have to induce the Soviets to agree to some form of inspection, in order that both sides may be confident that treaties are being executed faithfully. In the meantime, and pending some advance in this direction, we must stay strong, particularly in that type of power that the Russians are compelled to respect.”One of Eisenhower’s first acts upon taking office in January 1953 was to order a review of U.S. foreign policy. He generally agreed with Truman’s policy of containment except for China, which he included in his strategic considerations. Task forces studied and made recommendations regarding three possible strategies:
- A continuation of the policy of containment, the basic policy during the Truman years;
- A policy of global deterrence, in which U.S. commitments would be expanded and communist aggression forcibly met;
- A policy of liberation which through political, economic, and paramilitary means would “rollback” the communist empire and liberate the peoples behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.
The latter two options were favored by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who counseled the use of the threat of nuclear weapons to counter Soviet military force. He argued that having resolved the problem of military defense, the free world “could undertake what has been too long delayed—a political offensive.”Eisenhower rejected liberation as too aggressive and the policy of containment as he understood it as too passive, selecting instead deterrence, with an emphasis on air and sea power. But he allowed Dulles to convey an impression of “deterrence plus.” In January 1954, for example, Dulles proposed a new American policy—“a maximum deterrent at a bearable cost,” in which “local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power.” The best way to deter aggression, Dulles said, is for “the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing.”As the defense analysts James Jay Carafano and Paul Rosenzweig have observed, Eisenhower built his Cold War foreign policy, largely based on the policy of containment, on four pillars:
- Providing security through “a strong mix of both offensive and defensive means.”
- Maintaining a robust economy.
- Preserving a civil society that would “give the nation the will to persevere during the difficult days of a long war.”
- Winning the struggle of ideas against “a corrupt vacuous ideology” destined to fail its people.
The Eisenhower-Dulles New Look was not, as some have charged, a policy with only two options—the use of local forces or nuclear threats. Covert means were used to help overthrow the pro-Marxist regime of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala in 1954, economic pressures were exerted in the Suez Crisis of 1956, and U.S. Marines were used in Lebanon in 1958. The U.S. Navy was deployed in the Taiwan Straits as part of Eisenhower’s ongoing, staunch commitment to the protection of the Nationalist Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu—and by extension the Republic of China itself, Japan, and the Philippines—against communist aggression. With the president’s full endorsement, Dulles put alliance ahead of nuclear weapons as the “cornerstone of security for the free nations.”During the Eisenhower years, the United States constructed a powerful ring of alliances and treaties around the communist empire in order to uphold its policy of containment. They included a strengthened NATO in Europe; the Eisenhower Doctrine (announced in 1957, protecting Middle Eastern countries from direct and indirect communist aggression); the Baghdad Pact, joining Turkey, Iraq, Great Britain, Pakistan, and Iran in the Middle East; the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which included the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand; mutual security agreements with South Korea and with the Republic of China; and a revised Rio Pact, with a pledge to resist communist subversion in Latin America. As Eisenhower said in his first inaugural address, echoing NSC 68, “Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark.” Like Truman, he believed that freedom—rooted in eternal truths, natural law, equality, and inalienable rights—was the foundation for real peace, and he sharpened the idea that faith in this freedom ultimately united everyone: “Conceiving the defense of freedom, like freedom itself, to be one and indivisible, we hold all continents and peoples in equal regard and honor.”Dulles, who had closely studied Soviet history and shared Eisenhower’s deep Christian faith, regarded the very existence of the communist world as a threat to the United States and considered the policy of containment as a righteous duty. While George Kennan argued that communist ideology was an instrument not a determinant of Soviet policy, Dulles argued the opposite. The Soviet objective, Dulles said flatly, was global state socialism. Eisenhower agreed: “Anyone who doesn’t recognize that the great struggle of our time is an ideological one . . . [is] not looking the question squarely in the face.”The common thread running through all the elements of the Eisenhower strategy—nuclear deterrence, alliances, psychological warfare, covert action, and negotiations—was a relatively low cost and an emphasis on retaining the initiative. The New Look was “an integrated and reasonably efficient adoption of resources to objectives, of means to ends.”Not all of Eisenhower’s challenges were external— some originated within the borders of the United States and indeed his own Republican party. The most visible and contentious problem was how to deal with the outspoken, unpredictable Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
(See Main Article: The Cold War Home Front: McCarthyism)
Shortly after WWII a phenomenon known as McCarthyism began to emerge in American politics. McCarthyism was the practice of investigating and accusing persons in positions of power or influence of disloyalty, subversion (working secretly to undermine or overthrow the government), or treason. Reckless accusations that the government was full of communists were pursued by Republican-led committees with subpoena power and without proper regard for evidence. The two Republicans most closely associated with McCarthyism were the phenomenon’s namesake, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Senator Richard Nixon, who served as Vice President from 1953-1961, and then President from 1969-1974. Both men were driven by personal insecurities as much as by political gain.
Government employees, the entertainment industry, educators, and union activists were the primary targets of McCarthyism. Their communist (or leftist) associations were often greatly exaggerated, and they were often dismissed from government jobs or imprisoned with inconclusive, questionable, and sometimes outright fabricated evidence. Most verdicts were later overturned, most dismissals later declared illegal, and some laws used to convict later declared unconstitutional. The most famous examples of McCarthyism are the investigation into the leftist influence of the motion picture industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and investigations conducted by Senator McCarthy’s Senate sub-committee, culminating in 1954 with hearings about subversion within the Army. Both committees were provided information by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under Director J. Edgar Hoover.
In addition to these investigations, several high profile Americans were smeared by McCarthyism, including General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff during WWII and chief architect of the Marshall Plan, and Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State and chief architect of American foreign policy during the early stages of the Cold War. McCarthyism, now discredited by all but the most rabid right-wingers, caused enormous conflict within American society.
The Origins of McCarthyism
McCarthyism began well before Senator Joseph McCarthy arrived on the scene, and its origins are complicated. Much of it was rooted in fear and anxiety within the Republican Party’s reactionary fringe. The United States had experienced a similar phenomenon from 1917-1920 in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which represented the emergence of communism as a political movement. Civil liberties were strictly curtailed by the Espionage and Sedition Acts, especially free speech.
After the war, a wave of leftist bombings, labor discontent, and a distrust of immigrants resulted in the First Red Scare, characterized by aggressive Justice Department investigations, severe violations of civil liberties, mass arrests and deportations, and several high-profile convictions. But during the 1930s the Communist Party of the United States gained influence as the image of Communism improved. They championed labor rights and were the bitter enemies of right-wing fascists, especially Nazis. During the worst of the Great Depression, some Americans questioned whether capitalism had failed. Some sincerely believed in the egalitarian promise of communism (and were later bitterly disappointed by its repressive tendencies). Others experimented with leftist ideas as a youthful indiscretion–because it had become popular on campus or within their social circles. During WWII, with the United States and the Soviet Union temporarily allies, anti-communist rhetoric mostly ceased. With the war’s end, however, the Soviets quickly reneged on the promise to hold free elections in territory conquered from Germany and instead installed repressive puppet regimes. Much of Central and Eastern Europe had been freed from Nazism only to become satellite nations of the Soviet Union.
The disillusionment of the post-war failure to free the peoples of Europe gave rise to the bitter winds of the Cold War. Fear and anxiety of Soviet domination were aggravated by revelations of Soviet spying on the West. Just a month after V-J Day, a cipher clerk working in the Soviet Embassy in Canada defected, bringing with him 109 documents detailing Soviet spying in Canada. Another Soviet Spy, this time an American, defected in 1945. Elizabeth Bentley had taken an interest in communism in the 1930s through her studies abroad and at Columbia University in New York. She joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1935. Bentley eventually became a spy for the Russians, first unwittingly, then willingly, through a lover. All of her spying was done during WWII, and the information passed to her by spies in the American government, which she then passed on to Moscow, had to do with what the United States knew about Germany. In 1945 she became disillusioned with her role and contacted the FBI. She subsequently named about 150 persons within the government as her contacts, many of whom were already known to investigators. The American public found out about Bentley in July 1948, and it fanned the flames of McCarthyism.
Even more troubling was the revelation that the Soviets had spied on the West’s atomic research. In 1946 the U.S. and Great Britain cracked one of the Soviet codes and learned that a scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and was currently working in Great Britain’s atomic research facilities was a spy. Klaus Fuchs was a German communist who had fled his homeland to escape the Nazis. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he sincerely believed that the Soviets had a right to the atomic secrets being kept from them by their allies. Fuchs was arguably the most important spy in the Cold War. He passed on secrets that enabled the Soviet Union to end the U.S. monopoly on atomic weapons only 4 years after Hiroshima, and gave them critical information about American atomic capabilities that helped Joseph Stalin conclude the U.S. was not prepared for nuclear war at the end of the 1940s, or even in the early 1950s.
With this information, the Soviets strategized that the U.S. could not deal simultaneously with the Berlin blockade and with the communist’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. Fuchs was convicted in England in 1950. Closer to home, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were arrested in 1950, also for passing along atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during WWII. Events seemed spiraling out of control. Within months of the Soviet Union had successfully tested its first atomic bomb (years before U.S. intelligence had predicted), Mao Zedong’s communist army gained control of the Chinese mainland, forcing the U.S.-backed Chiang Kai-shek to flee to Formosa. Months later, communists in North Korea invaded South Korea. All of these events had a direct impact on McCarthyism.
But other forces also contributed to McCarthyism. Many had long been wary of liberal, progressive policies, particularly Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As far as many were concerned, “New Dealism,” was heavily influenced by communism, and by the end of WWII, it had ruled American society for a dozen years. During the McCarthyism era, much of the danger they saw was about vaguely defined “communist influence” rather than direct accusations of being Soviet spies. In fact, throughout the entire history of post-war McCarthyism, not a single government official was convicted of spying. But that didn’t really matter to many Republicans. During the Roosevelt Era, they had been completely shut out of power. Not only did Democrats rule the White House, but they had also controlled both houses of congress since 1933. During the 1944 elections, the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey had tried to link Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal with communism. Democrats fired back by associating Republicans with Fascism. By the 1946 midterm elections, however, fascism had largely been defeated in Europe, but communism loomed as an even larger threat. Republicans found a winning issue. By “Red-baiting” their Democratic opponents—labeling them as “soft on communism,” they gained traction with voters.
One of the early successful Red-baiters was an ex-Navy officer from California named Richard Nixon. Nixon was recruited into politics by a committee of Republicans in California’s 12th congressional district who were bent on ousting incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis, a loyal supporter of the New Deal with a liberal voting record. Nixon came on strong and suggested that Voorhis’s endorsement by a group linked to communists meant that Voorhis must have radical left-wing views. In reality, Voorhis was a staunch anti-communist. He had once been voted by the press corps as the “most honest congressman.” But Nixon was able to successfully link Voorhis to the group, even though Voorhis refused to accept any endorsement unless it first renounced communist influence. Nixon won by over 15,000 votes. Meanwhile, another young WWII veteran from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy won the election to the U.S. Senate.
In those mid-term elections of 1946, the Republican Party won a majority in both the House and Senate. Much of that had to do with voter discontent with Harry Truman over his refusal to lift wartime price controls and his handling of several high-profile labor disputes, but Red-baiting played a role. Being in the majority meant control of committee chairs, including the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had existed in various forms since 1934. This committee, known as HUAC, initiated a major revival of anti-communist investigations.
J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI
Reacting in part to Republican gains in the midterm elections and allegations that he was soft on communism, President Truman initiated a loyalty review program for federal employees in March 1947. The background investigations were carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This was a major assignment that led to a dramatic increase in the number of agents in the Bureau. It also gave more power to the FBI’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, who reigned over the agency for decades as an untouchable. Possessed with an ego that required constant flattering by his subordinates, even Congressmen and Senators were reluctant to challenge his methods (which included illegal wiretapping) for fear that he might have files on them. The legendary Hoover’s extreme anti-communism and loose standards of evidence resulted in thousands of government workers losing their jobs. Hoover insisted on keeping secret the identity of his informers, so most of the investigated were not allowed to cross-examine or even know who had accused them. In many cases, they were not even told what they were accused of.
In October 1947 HUAC investigated whether communist agents and sympathizers had been secretly planting communist propaganda in American films. This was the moment for conservatives to push back against the leftist politics of the Hollywood elite going back to the 1930s. “Friendly” witnesses who testified before the committee included Walt Disney, Screen Actors Guild president (and future U.S. President) Ronald Reagan, and actor Gary Cooper. The friendly witnesses testified to the threat of communists in the film industry, and some of them named names of possible communists. HUAC assembled a witness list of forty-three people, some of whom were known to have been members of the American Communist Party. Nineteen of the forty-three said they would not give evidence, and of those, eleven were subpoenaed to appear before HUAC and answer questions. One of these ultimately cooperated. The remaining ten, known as the “Hollywood Ten,” were labeled “unfriendly” witnesses.
Other Hollywood elite also resisted HUAC. They founded the Committee for the First Amendment as a protest against government abuse. Members included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Edward G. Robinson, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra. In October 1947 the group traveled to Washington to watch the hearings. After each unfriendly witness was sworn in, he was asked the same question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Membership in the Communist Party was not and had never been illegal. Each of the witnesses had at one time or another been a member (most still were), while a few had been in the past and only briefly. The unfriendly witnesses refused to answer the questions on First Amendment principles. Sometimes the questioning generated intense hostility, as in the case of screenwriter John Howard Lawson’s testimony. After the hearings, proceedings against the Hollywood Ten took place in the full House of Representatives. On November 24, they voted 346 to 17 to cite the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress. The next day Motion Picture Association of America president Eric Johnston issued a press release declaring that the Hollywood Ten would be fired or suspended without pay until they were cleared of contempt charges and had sworn that they were not communists. This was, in effect the first Hollywood blacklist. The Hollywood Ten were convicted and sentenced to one-year prison terms.
Humphrey Bogart felt enough pressure from the backlash of his involvement with the Committee For The First Amendment that he felt compelled to publish an article in Photoplay titled, “I’m No Communist.”
Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television
The investigation of the entertainment industry continued for several years. In June 1950 a right-wing journal called Counterattack published a book with the names of 151 actors, writers, directors, producers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and other entertainers, and the organizations they were linked to which were supposedly communist. No evidence was provided linking these organizations to communism. Many were labor organizations and newsletters. Called Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, it claimed these entertainers were actively engaged in manipulating the entertainment industry. Red Channels effectively blacklisted these entertainers. Executives in the movie and growing television
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industries avoided hiring persons on the list to avoid controversy and risk losing advertising sponsors. For example, veteran film and radio actress Jean Muir was scheduled to play the character of Mrs. Aldrich in the new NBC television series, The Aldrich Family. Just weeks before the season premiere, Muir was listed in Red Channels. After receiving a flood of phone calls, the show’s sponsor, General Foods, canceled the first episode, fired Muir, and replaced her with another actress. The first episode was quickly reshot and aired a week later. Lawrence Johnson, an official in the National Association of Supermarkets, pressured the manufacturers of products sold in supermarkets to not buy TV advertising for any program that used an actor listed in Red Channels.
When the TV series Danger tried to use one of these actors, Johnson told the show’s sponsor, the makers of Amni-dent toothpaste, that all grocery stores would put up a sign next to Amni-dent suggesting their programs employed communists. Meanwhile, they would put a sign next to a competitor’s toothpaste, Chlorodent, saying, “Its programs use only pro-American artists and shun Stalin’s little creatures.” The actor in question was quickly removed. By 1951, the major radio and TV networks had set up their own blacklist offices to clear actors with people like Johnson, always over the phone. The voice at one end would go down the list of proposed actors, and the person on the other end would respond with “yes” or “no.” Questions were not asked. Many careers were ruined, and nervous movie studios stayed away from scripts with plots that could be seen as controversial, resulting in nearly a decade of fluff, westerns, and patriotic war films.
Cold War Detente — US/Soviet Enmity Cools
(See Main Article: Cold War Detente — US/Soviet Enmity Cools)
By the time of the Nixon presidency, the nature of the Cold War had changed. Applying its interpretation of peaceful coexistence, an aggressive Soviet Union called for “wars of national liberation,” and supported many of them in the 1960s.
The communist world had grown substantially, spreading from Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam to other parts of Asia (Cambodia and Afghanistan), Africa (Angola and Mozambique), and Latin America (Nicaragua). Many political and intellectual elites in industrialized countries openly voiced their preference for the policies of Moscow and Beijing rather than Washington and London. The nonaligned world, led by India, often sided with the communist bloc in the United Nations and regional organizations, while presenting itself as neutral.
The American domestic scene had also substantially changed. After twenty years, the bipartisan consensus on the Cold War was coming apart. Anti-war demonstrations were increasing, and congressional hawks were turning into doves. Vietnam was a major, but not the only, cause of contention. So was the issue of nuclear parity.
The Soviet Union had made quick progress building its nuclear program, while the United States chose to permit parity through defense spending decisions and arms control treaties. Supporters of the parity policy argued that the decision was forced by limited means and a balancing of defense and domestic needs. Opponents countered that America should have fought the Vietnam War differently and made different decisions regarding national security and domestic priorities. They stressed that the United States should have pursued a policy of peace through strength rather than peace through negotiations from a position of parity.
What Was the Iron Curtain?
(See Main Article: What Was the Iron Curtain?)
The Iron Curtain is a term that received prominence after Winston Churchill’s speech in which he said that an “iron curtain has descended” across Europe. He was referring to the boundary line that divided Europe in two different political areas: Western Europe had political freedom, while Eastern Europe was under communist Soviet rule. The term also symbolized the way in which the Soviet Union blocked its territories from open contact with the West.
The following article on the fall of the Soviet Union is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding’s book A Brief History of the Cold War It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The fall of the Soviet Union was a decades-in-the-making outcome of Cold War politics, but it happened quite suddenly in the late 80s and early 90s, primarily at the level of U.S.-USSR politics. Even then the end was not clear. The first of the three Bush-Gorbachev summit meetings did not take place until December 1989 in Malta, where Bush emphasized the need for “superpower cooperation,” choosing to overlook that the Soviet Union was no longer a superpower by any reasonable criterion and that Marxism-Leninism in Eastern Europe was headed for Reagan’s “ash-heap of history.”
The second summit was in May 1990 in Washington, D.C., where the emphasis was on economics. Gorbachev arrived in a somber mood, conscious that his country’s economy was nearing free fall and nationalist pressures were splitting the Soviet Union. Although a virtual pariah at home, the Soviet leader was greeted by large, friendly American crowds. Bush tried to help, granting most-favored-nation trading status to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev appealed to American businessmen to start new enterprises in the USSR, but what could Soviet citizens afford to buy? In Moscow, the bread lines stretched around the block. A month later, NATO issued a sweeping statement called the London Declaration, proclaiming that the Cold War was over and that Europe had entered a “new, promising era.” But the Soviet Union, although teetering, still stood.
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