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 final Soviet collapse in 1991.
Alternatively, if you would like to learn about the conflict in video form, check out this nine-minute explainer video.
Cold War Timeline
|February 4th – 11th 1945||Yalta Conference||Meeting between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin to decide what would happen at the end of the war. Topics discussed included –
Partitioning of Germany
|May 8th 1945||V E Day||Victory in Europe as Germany surrenders to the Russian army.|
|July 17th – August 2nd 1945||Potsdam Conference||The Potsdam Conference formally divided Germany and Austria into four zones. It was also agreed that the German capital Berlin would be divided into four zones. The Russian Polish border was determined and Korea was to be divided into Soviet and American zones.|
|August 6th 1945||Hiroshima||The United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima|
|August 8th 1945||Nagasaki||The United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.|
|August 14th 1945||V J Day||The Japanese surrendered bringing World War Two to an end.|
|September 2nd 1945||Vietnam Independence||Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam an independent republic.|
|March 5th 1946||Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech||Churchill delivers his ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech which contain the famous phrase “..an iron curtain has descended on Europe”|
|March 12th 1947||Truman Doctrine||President Truman promised to help any country facing a Communist takeover|
|June 5th 1947||Marshall Plan||This was a programme of economic aid offered by the United States to any European country. The plan was rejected outright by Stalin and any Eastern Bloc country considering accepting aid was reprimanded severely. Consequently the aid was only given to Western European Countries.|
|September 1947||Cominform||The USSR set up Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) which was the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties responsible for the creation of the Eastern bloc.|
|June 1948||Formation of West Germany||The French, USA and UK partitions of Germany were merged to form West Germany|
|June 24th 1948||Berlin Blockade||Russia’s response to the merger of the French, USA and UK partitions of Berlin was to cut all road and rail links to that sector. This meant that those living in Western Berlin had no access to food supplies and faced starvation. Food was brought to Western Berliners by US and UK airplanes, an exercise known as the Berlin Airlift.|
|May 1949||End of Berlin Blockade||Russia ended the blockade of Berlin.|
|April 4th 1949||NATO formed||The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation formed with member states Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States|
|June 25th 1950||Korean War||The Korean war began when North Korea invaded South Korea.|
|March 5th 1953||Death of Stalin||Joseph Stalin died at the age of 74. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev.|
|July 27th 1953||Korean War||The Korean war ended. North Korea remained affiliated with Russia while South Korea was affiliated with the USA.|
|Summer 1954||Geneva Accords||This set of documents ended the French war with the Vietminh and divided Vietnam into North and South states. The communist leader of North Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh while the US friendly south was led by Ngo Dinh Diem.|
|May 14th 1955||Warsaw Pact||The Warsaw Pact was formed with member states East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union.|
|October 23rd 1956||Hungarian Revolution||This began as a Hungarian protest against Communist rule in Budapest. It quickly gathered momentum and on 24th October Soviet tanks entered Budapest. The tanks withdrew on 28th October and a new government was formed which quickly moved to introduce democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. The Soviet tanks returned on 4th November encircling Budapest. The Prime Minister Imre Nagy made a World broadcast that Hungary was under attack from the Soviet Union and calling for aid. Hungary fell to Russia on 10th November 1956.|
|October 30th 1956||Suez Crisis||Following military bombardment by Israeli forces, a joint British and French force invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal which had been nationalised by the Egyptian leader Nasser. The attack was heavily criticised by World leaders, especially America because Russia had offered support to Egypt. The British and French were forced to withdraw and a UN peace keeping force was sent to establish order.|
|November 1st 1957||Space Race||USSR Sputnik II carried Laika the dog, the first living creature to go into space.|
|1960||Paris East/West talks||Talks between Nikita Khrushchev and Dwight Eisenhower concerning the fate of Germany broke down when a USA U2 spy plane was shot down over Russian airspace.|
|April 12th 1961||Space Race||Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyvich Gagarin became the first human being in space.|
|April 17th 1961||Bay of Pigs Invasion||A force of Cuban exiles, trained by the CIA, aided by the US government attempted to invade Cuba and overthrow the Communist government of Fidel Castro. The attempt failed.|
|August 13th 1961||Berlin Wall||Berlin wall built and borders sealed between East and West Germany.|
|October 14th 1962||Cuban Missile Crisis||A US spy plane reported sighting the construction of a Soviet nuclear missile base in Cuba. President Kennedy set up a naval blockade and demanded the removal of the missiles. War was averted when the Russians agreed on 28th October to remove the weapons. The United States agreed not to invade Cuba.|
|November 22nd 1963||JFK Assassination||JF Kennedy was assassinated while on a visit to Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder but there has always been speculation that he was not a lone killer and that there may have been communist or CIA complicity.|
|October 15th 1964||USSR||Nikita Krushchev removed from office. He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.|
|July 1965||Vietnam War||150,000 US troops sent to Vietnam.|
|August 20th 1968||Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia||Warsaw Pact forces entered Czechoslovakia in a bid to stop the reforms known as ‘Prague Spring’ instigated by Alexander Dubcek. When he refused to halt his programme of reforms Dubcek was arrested.|
|December 21st 1968||Space Race||US launched Apollo 8 – first manned orbit of the Moon.|
|20th July 1969||Space Race||US Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon.|
|April 30th 1970||Vietnam War||President Richard Nixon ordered US troops to go to Cambodia.|
|September 3rd 1971||Four Power Agreement Berlin||The Four Power Agreement made between Russia, USA, Britain and France reconfirmed the rights and responsibilities of those countries with regard to Berlin.|
|May 26th 1972||SALT||Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty signed between the US and USSR.|
|August 15th 1973||Vietnam||The Paris Peace Accords ended American involvement in Vietnam.|
|April 17th 1975||Cambodia Killing fields||The Khmer Rouge attacked and took control of Cambodia. Any supporters of the former regime, anyone with links or supposed links to foreign governments as well as many intellectuals and professionals were executed in a genocide that became known as the ‘killing fields’.|
|April 30th 1975||Vietnam||North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. The capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese led to the whole country becoming Communist|
|July 1975||Apollo-Soyuz Test Project||Joint space venture between USA and USSR heralded as an end to the ‘Space Race’|
|January 20th 1977||Carter President||Jimmy Carter became the 39th President of the United States|
|November 4th 1979||Iranian hostage crisis||A group of Iranian students and militants stormed the American embassy and took 53 Americans hostage to show their support for the Iranian Revolution.|
|December 24th 1979||Afghanistan||Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan|
|July 1980||Olympic Boycott by USA||A number of countries including the USA boycotted the summer Olympics held in Moscow in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Other countries including Great Britain participated under the Olympic flag rather than their national flag|
|December 13th 1980||Poland||Martial law was declared to crush the Solidarity movement|
|January 20th 1981||Iranian hostage crisis ended||The Iranian hostage crisis ended 444 days after it began|
|June 1982||START||During a summit in Geneva Reagan proposed Strategic Arms Reduction Talks|
|July 1984||Olympic boycott by Russia||Russia and 13 allied countries boycotted the summer Olympics held in Los Angeles in retaliation for the US boycott of 1980.|
|March 11th 1985||Govbachov leader of USSR||Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union|
|April 26th 1986||Chernobyl Disaster||An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine remains the worst nuclear disaster in history|
|June 1987||Glasnost and Perestroika||Mikhail Gorbachev announced his intention to follow a policy of glasnost – openness, transparency and freedom of speech; and perestroika – restructuring of government and economy. He also advocated free elections and ending the arms race.|
|February 15th 1989||Afghanistan||The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan|
|June 4th 1989||Tiananmen Square||Anti Communist protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China were crushed by the government. The death count is unknown.|
|August 1989||Poland||Tadeusz Mazowiecki elected leader of the Polish government – the first eastern bloc country to become a democracy|
|October 23rd 1989||Hungary||Hungary proclaimed itself a republic|
|November 9th 1989||Fall of the Berlin Wall||The Berlin wall was torn down|
|November 17th – December 29th 1989||Velvet Revolution||The Velvet Revolution, also known as the Gentle Revolution, was a series of peaceful protests in Czechoslovakia that led to the overthrow of the Communist government.|
|December 2nd, 3rd 1989||Malta Summit||This meeting between Mikhail Gorbachov and George H W Bush reversed much of the provisions of the Yalta Conference 1945. It is seen by some as the beginning of the end of the cold war.|
|December 16th – 25th 1989||Romanian Revolution||Riots broke out which culminated in the overthrow and execution of the leader Ceauşescu and his wife.|
|October 3rd 1990||German reunification||East and West Germany were reunited as one country.|
|1st July 1991||End of Warsaw Pact||The Warsaw Pact which allied Communist countries was ended|
|31st July 1991||START||The Strategic Arms Reduction treaty was signed between Russia and the USA|
|25th December 1991||Gorbachev resigned||Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. The hammer and sickle flag on the Kremlin was lowered|
|26th December 1991||End of the Soviet Union||Russia formally recognised the end of the Soviet Union|
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 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 War
Although 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 for the shaky relationship to 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 with 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 to promote communism across the world and their expansion into Eastern Europe
The Truman Doctrine: Freedom Precedes Order
The 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 a 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.
THE PRAGMATIC ROOTS OF THE TRUMAN DOCTRINE
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 chooses 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.
Policy of Containment: America’s Cold War Strategy
Shortly 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 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 “roll back” 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.
NSC-68: The Blueprint for Cold War Militarization
The prospect in 1950 of a united and expansionist communism, led by the Soviet Union and Communist China, led the Truman administration to draft and adopt the most important national security document of the Cold War—National Security Council Report 68.
In late January 1950, Truman requested an in-depth report on the continuing world crisis. Drafted by Paul Nitze, who had replaced George Kennan as the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and a team of State and Defense Department officials, NSC-68 was submitted to the president in April.
Truman was reacting to a series of aggressive communist actions, including the Soviet organization in January 1949 of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), intended to strengthen the USSR’s hold on Eastern Europe; the successful Soviet test in September of an atom bomb; the establishment of the People’s Republic of China; the creation of the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany); and Mao’s public promise that China would side with the Soviet Union in the event of a third world war.
Of special concern to the president was the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb, which the administration had not expected until mid-1950 at the earliest. Truman quickly decided that the United States should proceed with the development of a hydrogen bomb. He defined the key components of American military strength as a modernized and trained conventional capacity and a nuclear edge over the communists.
NSC-68 presented Truman with a comprehensive plan of action to meet the Soviet challenge. The plan would serve as America’s core strategy until superseded by President Richard Nixon’s policy of détente in the early 1970s.
Plans for Cold War Victory
Here are the sections of NSC-68.
- In its first section,NSC-68 describes the USSR as a tyranny with an unprecedented ambition: “The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” It sketches the violent and nonviolent means at Moscow’s disposal as well as the possible use of atomic weapons. The document agrees with Truman’s view that the Soviets acted ideologically and with irrational suspicion at the same time.
- In the second and third sections, NSC-68 compares America’s fundamental purpose and the Soviet Union’s ideological objective. Citing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, it argues that America has striven “to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.” Without apology, America considers itself to be a good regime.
In sharp contrast, the Kremlin is driven by the desire to achieve absolute power and extend it over the nonSoviet world. Communist ideology requires the enslavement not the fostering of the individual. The Soviets’ primary strategic target is the United States, the bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansion.
- The fourth section of NSC-68 contrasts the idea of freedom under a government of laws with the idea of slavery under a despotic government. The document argues that the Soviet blend of domestic insularity and overall aggression is primarily the product of Marxism-Leninism, not historic Russian insecurity.
The document stresses the global nature of the Cold War, making the frequently quoted observation, “The assault on free institutions is world-wide now . . . and a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”
The document outlines a wide-ranging strategy to meet communist imperialism. The primary goal is to maintain a strong free world—politically, morally, economically, and militarily—and to frustrate the Soviet design and bring about its internal change.
- In the fifth section, NSC-68 examines Soviet intentions and capabilities. The Soviet Union is inescapably a military threat because “it possesses and is possessed by a world-wide revolutionary movement, because it is the inheritor of Russian imperialism, and because it is a totalitarian dictatorship.” Communist doctrine “dictates the employment of violence, subversion and deceit, and rejects moral considerations.”
The Truman administration saw Soviet intentions and capabilities as interlaced. Had Truman gauged capabilities with no reference to ideology and intentions, he might have given way to the Soviets in Berlin rather than ordering the airlift.
The primary Soviet weakness identified by NSC-68 is the nature of its relationship with the peoples of the USSR. The Iron Curtain surrounding the satellite nations holds together the Soviet empire. The document looks to the independence of nationalities as a natural and potent threat to communism.
- In the sixth section, NSC-68 contrasts U.S. intentions and capabilities with those of the Soviet Union. A thriving global community, including economic prosperity, is necessary for the American system to flourish. For the Soviets to join the system, they would have to abandon their imperialist designs.
Containment is defined as blocking further expansion of Soviet power, exposing communist ideology, weakening the Kremlin’s control and influence, and fostering the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system. At the same time, it leaves open the possibility of U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union—but from a position of American strength.
- The last section endorses Truman’s commitment to peace within a program of increased political, economic, and military power (including atomic weapons). The buildup constitutes a firm policy “to check and to roll back the Kremlin drive for world domination.” Recognizing the possible dangers of such a policy, the report insists that a free people must be willing and able to defend its freedom.
Just as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO had done, the document calls for a free world to which, at a minimum, the Soviet Union must adjust. Rather than coexisting with the USSR, it argues, the free world’s combined strength—made up of democracies under the rule of law, with open markets, and rooted in Western principles—would transform the Soviet system. It was the definitive statement of the U.S. strategy to expose and act against communist tyranny whenever and wherever possible—a strategy that would soon be seriously tested.
The Warsaw Pact
The USSR and seven European countries signed the Warsaw Pact on May 14, 1955 as a response to NATO, to have a similar alliance on the opposition side. Members included Albania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. Through the treaty, member states promised to defend any member that may be attacked by an outside force, with the unified command under a leader of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact ensured that most European nations were aligned in one of two opposing camps and formalized the political divide in Europe that became prevalent World War II.
The Warsaw pact was only signed 6 years after the NATO alliance was made. The reason for this is because NATO allowed West Germany to join the alliance and start a small army again. The Soviet leaders were very apprehensive about this, especially with WWI and WWII still fresh in mind and decided to get security measures in place in the shape of a political and military alliance. The pact however only lasted until 1991, when the Soviet Union came to an end
Hungarian Revolution of 1956
Eisenhower was president at a time, said Congressman Walter Judd, when the world was “filled with confusion,” when a third of its people had gained their independence, and a third had lost it. “No such convulsions have ever previously occurred in all of human history.” Yet for the majority of Americans, the Eisenhower years went by so calmly—at least until the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane in 1960—that they did not realize what serious dangers had been overcome. Still, there was some criticism of Eisenhower’s foreign policy, particularly the U.S. response to the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
On October 22, 1956, five thousand students crammed into a hall in Budapest and approved a manifesto that, among other things, called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, free elections, freedom of association, and economic reform. The following day, thousands filled the streets of the capital city, chanting “Russians go home!” and ending up in Hero Square, where they pulled down a giant statue of Stalin.
“In twelve brief days of euphoria and chaos,” writes the historian Anne Applebaum, “nearly every symbol of the communist regime was attacked” and, in most cases, destroyed. Along with eight thousand other political prisoners, Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty was released from the prison in which he had been kept in solitary confinement. Hungarian soldiers deserted in droves and gave their weapons to the revolutionaries. But then Soviet tanks and troops rolled back into the city in the first days of November to crush the Hungarian Revolution, brutally crushing the revolution and killing an estimated two thousand people. Nearly fifteen thousand were wounded. According to the authoritative Black Book of Communism, thirty-five thousand people were arrested, twenty-two thousand jailed, and two hundred executed. More than two hundred thousand Hungarians fled the country, many of them to America.
Conservatives charged that the Eisenhower administration, after encouraging resistance if not revolution, failed to help the Hungarian freedom fighters. In some of its broadcasts, Radio Free Europe, financed by the U.S. government and run by Eastern European exiles, gave the impression that the West might come to the Hungarians’ assistance. It didn’t. There were several reasons why America did not act in Hungary:
- The United States asked Austria for freedom of passage to get to Hungary, but Vienna refused transit by land or even use of its air space.
- The United States had no plan for dealing with any major uprising behind the Iron Curtain. No one in authority apparently believed that something like the Hungarian Revolution might happen.
- The Soviets had the home-field advantage, and an American defeat would have been a serious strategic defeat not only in Europe but around the world.
Outwardly unsuccessful, the Hungarian Revolution showed that communism in Eastern Europe was weaker than anyone, including the communists, realized. An empire viewed by many in the West as invincible was exposed as vulnerable.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion
In March, just two months into the Kennedy administration, Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay was called into a meeting at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs. He would represent the Air Force because White was out of town. LeMay noticed that there was something odd about the meeting right from the start. To begin with, there was a civilian in the room who pushed aside a curtain to reveal landing areas for a military engagement on the coast of Cuba. LeMay had been told absolutely nothing about the operation until that moment. All eyes turned to him when the civilian, who worked for the CIA, asked which of the three sites would provide the best landing area for planes.
LeMay explained that he was completely in the dark and needed more information before he would hazard a guess. He asked how many troops would be involved in the landing. The answer, that there would be 700, dumbfounded him. There was no way, he told them, that an operation would succeed with so few troops. The briefer cut him short. “That doesn’t concern you,” he told LeMay.
Over the next month, LeMay tried unsuccessfully to get information about the impending invasion. Then on April 16 he stood in for White—again out of town—at another meeting. Just one day before the planned invasion, he finally learned some of the basics of the plan. The operation, which would become known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, had been conceived during the Eisenhower administration by the CIA as a way to depose Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Cuban exiles had been trained as an invasion force by the CIA and former U.S. military personnel. The exiles would land in Cuba with the aid of old World War II bombers with Cuban markings and try to instigate a counterrevolution. It was an intricate plan that depended on every phase working perfectly.
THE BAY OF PIGS INVASION: A FAILURE OF MILITARY STRATEGY
LeMay saw immediately that the invasion force would need the air cover of U.S. planes, but the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, under Kennedy’s order, had cancelled that the night before. LeMay saw the plan was destined to fail, and he wanted to express his concern to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. But the Secretary of Defense was not present at the meeting.
Instead, LeMay was able to speak only to the Under Secretary of Defense, Roswell Gilpatric. LeMay did not mince words.
“You just cut the throats of everybody on the beach down there,” LeMay told Gilpatric.
“What do you mean?” Gilpatric asked.
LeMay explained that without air support, the landing forces were doomed. Gilpatric responded with a shrug.
The entire operation went against everything LeMay had learned in his thirty-three years of experience. In any military operation, especially one of this significance, a plan cannot depend on every step going right. Most steps do not go right and a great deal of padding must be built in to compensate for those unforeseen problems. It went back to the LeMay doctrine—hitting an enemy with everything you had at your disposal if you have already come to the conclusion that a military engagement is your only option. Use everything, so there is no chance of failure. Limited, half-hearted endeavors are doomed.
The Bay of Pigs invasion turned out to be a disaster for the Kennedy administration. Kennedy realized it too late. The Cubans did not rise up against Castro, and the small, CIA-trained army was quickly defeated by Castro’s forces. The men were either killed or taken prisoner. All of this made Kennedy look weak and inexperienced. A short time later, Kennedy went out to a golf course with his old friend, Charles Bartlett, a journalist. Bartlett remembered Kennedy driving golf balls far into a distant field with unusual anger and frustration, saying over and over, “I can’t believe they talked me into this.” The entire episode undermined the administration and set the stage for a difficult summit meeting between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev two months later. It also exacerbated the administration’s rocky relationship with the Joint Chiefs, who felt the military was unfairly blamed for the fiasco in Cuba.
This was not quite true. Kennedy put the blame squarely on the CIA and on himself for going along with the ill-conceived plan. One of his first steps following the debacle was to replace the CIA director, Allen Dulles, with John McCone. The incident forced Kennedy to grow in office. Although his relationship with the military did suffer, the problems between Kennedy and the Pentagon predated the Bay of Pigs Invasion. According to his chief aid and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy was unawed by Generals. “First, during his own military service, he found that military brass was not as wise and efficient as the brass on their uniform indicated . . . and when he was president with a great background in foreign affairs, he was not that impressed with the advice he received.”
LeMay and the other Chiefs sensed this and felt that Kennedy and the people under him simply ignored the military’s advice on the Bay of Pigs Invasion. LeMay was especially incensed when McNamara brought in a group of brilliant, young statisticians as an additional civilian buffer between the ranks of professional military advisers and the White House. They became known as the Defense Intellectuals. LeMay used the more derogatory term “Whiz Kids.” These were people who had either no military experience on the ground whatsoever or, at the most, two or three years in lower ranks.
In LeMay’s mind, this limited background could never match the combined experience that the Joint Chiefs brought to the table. These young men, who seemed to have the President’s ear, also exuded a sureness of their opinions that LeMay saw as arrogance. This ran against his personality—as LeMay approached almost everything in his life with a feeling of self-doubt, he was actually surprised when things worked out well. Here he saw the opposite—inexperienced people coming in absolutely sure of themselves and ultimately making the wrong decisions with terrible consequences.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
On 14th October 1962 a US spy plane flying over Cuba reported the installation of Russian nuclear missile bases. The picture (left) is one of those taken from the spy plane and clearly shows missile transporter trailers and tents where fuelling and maintenance took place.
The nuclear arms race was a part of the Cold War between America and the USSR which had began soon after the end of the second world War. In 1962 Russian missiles were inferior to American missiles and had a limited range. This meant that American missiles could be fired on Russia but Russian missiles could only be fired on Europe. Stationing missiles on Cuba (the only western communist country) meant that Russian missiles could now be fired on America.
The Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, welcomed the Russian deployment since it would offer additional protection against any American invasion like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
On hearing of the Russian deployment on 16th October, US president J F Kennedy called a meeting of the EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to discuss what action should be taken. The group remained on alert and met continuously but were split between those who wanted to take military action and those that wanted a diplomatic solution.
On October 22nd Kennedy made the news of the installations public and announced that he would place a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent Russian missiles from reaching the bases. However, despite the blockade, Russian ships carrying the missiles remained on track for Cuba.
On October 26th the EXCOMM recieved a letter from Russian leader Nikita Kruschev stating that he would agree to remove the weapons if America would guarantee not to invade Cuba. The following day a US spy plane was shot down over Cuba and EXCOMM received a second letter from Kruschev stating that the missiles would be removed from Cuba if America removed nuclear weapons from Turkey. Although Kennedy was not averse to removing the missiles from Turkey, he did not want to be seen to giving in to Kruschev’s demands. Additionally the second letter which was much more demanding and aggressive in tone did not offer a solution to end the conflict.
Attorney General, Robert Kennedy suggested that the best solution was for the second letter be ignored and that the US reply to Kruschev accepting the terms of the first letter. A letter was duly drafted and sent. Additionally the Russian Ambassador was told ‘off the record’ that the missiles would be removed from Turkey in a few months when the crisis had died down. It was emphasised that this ‘secret clause’ should not be made public.
On Sunday 28th October Kruschev called a meeting of his advisors. The Russians were aware that President Kennedy was scheduled to address the American people at 5pm that day. Fearing that it could be an announcement of war Kruschev decided to agree to the terms and rushed a response to reach the President before 5pm. The crisis was over. The Russians duly removed their bases from Cuba and as agreed US missiles were quietly removed from Turkey some months later.
Result of the Cuban Missile Crisis
In the summer of 1962, negotiations on a treaty to ban above ground nuclear testing dominated the political world. The treaty involved seventeen countries, but the two main players were the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1950s, with the megaton load of nuclear bombs growing, nuclear fallout from tests had become a health hazard, and by the 1960s, it was enough to worry scientists. Kennedy, in particular, was pushing for a ban and was optimistic about succeeding.
It never happened. The result of the Cuban Missile Crisis was an increasing buildup of nuclear weapons that continued until the end of the Cold War.
Air Force General Curtis LeMay was less sanguine because the U.S. had already been limiting its above ground tests while the Soviets had been increasing their own. Just eight months earlier, on October 31, 1961, the Soviets tested the fifty megaton “Tsar” Bomb, the largest nuclear device to date ever exploded in the atmosphere (the test took place in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean and was originally designed as a 100 megaton bomb, but even the Soviets cut the yield in half because of their own fears of fallout reaching its population). LeMay did not see any military advantage for the U.S. to sign such a treaty. He doubted the countries would come to an agreement and felt vindicated when the talks deadlocked by the end of the summer. The agreement was ultimately signed the following spring, though, and remains one of the crowning achievements of the Kennedy Administration.
Completely unnoticed that summer was the sailing of Soviet cargo ships bound for Cuba. Shipping between Cuba and the USSR was not unusual since Cuba had quickly become a Soviet client state. With the U.S. embargo restricting Cuba’s trade, the Soviets were propping up the island with technical assistance, machinery, and grain, while Cuba reciprocated in a limited way with return shipments of sugar and produce. But these particular ships were part of a larger military endeavor that would bring the two powers to the most frightening standoff of the Cold War.
Sailing under false manifest, these cargo ships were secretly bringing Soviet-made, medium range ballistic missiles to be deployed in Cuba. Once operational, these highly accurate missiles would be capable of striking as far north as Washington, D.C. An army of over 40,000 technicians sailed as well. Because the Soviets did not want their plan to be detected by American surveillance planes, the human cargo was forced to stay beneath the deck during the heat of the day. They were allowed to come topside only at night, and for a short time. The ocean crossing, which lasted over a month, was horrendous for the Soviet advisers.
The first unmistakable evidence of the Soviet missiles came from a U-2 reconnaissance flight over the island on October 14, 1962, that showed the first of twenty-four launching pads being constructed to accommodate forty-two R-12 medium range missiles that had the potential to deliver forty-five nuclear warheads almost anywhere in the eastern half of the United States.
Kennedy suddenly saw that he had been deceived by Krushchev and convened a war cabinet called ExCom (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), which included the Secretaries of State and Defense (Rusk and McNamara), as well as his closest advisers. At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs began planning for an immediate air assault, followed by a full invasion. Kennedy wanted everything done secretly. He had been caught short, but he did not want the Russians to know that he knew their plan until he had decided his own response and could announce it to the world.
Kennedy shared his decision to pursue negotiation and a naval blockade of Cuba while keeping the option of an all-out invasion on the table with the Joint Chiefs on Friday, October 19. The heads of the military, General Earle Wheeler of the Army, Admiral George Anderson of the Navy, General David Shoup of the Marines, and LeMay of the Air Force, along with the head of the Joint Chiefs, Maxwell Taylor, saw the blockade as ineffective and in danger of making the U.S. look weak. As Taylor told the president, “If we don’t respond here in Cuba, we think the credibility (of the U.S.) is sacrificed.”
Of all the Chiefs, Kennedy and his team saw LeMay as the most intractable. But that impression may have come from his demeanor, his candor, and perhaps his facial expressions, since he was not the most belligerent of the Chiefs. Shoup was crude and angry at times. Admiral Anderson was equally vociferous and would have the worst run-in with civilian leadership when he told McNamara directly that he did not need the Defense Secretary’s advice on how to run a blockade. McNamara responded, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done, I want to know what you are going to do—now!” On his way out, McNamara told a deputy, “That’s the end of Anderson.” And in fact, Admiral Anderson became Ambassador Anderson to Portugal a short time later.
LeMay differed from Kennedy and McNamara on the basic concept of nuclear weapons. Back on Tinian, LeMay thought the use of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, although certainly larger than all other weapons used, were really not all that different from other bombs. He based this on the fact that many more people were killed in his first incendiary raid on Tokyo five months earlier than with either atomic bomb. “The assumption seems to be that it is much more wicked to kill people with a nuclear bomb, than to kill people by busting their heads with rocks,” he wrote in his memoir. But McNamara and Kennedy realized that there was a world of difference between two bombs in the hands of one nation in 1945 and the growing arsenals of several nations in 1962.
Upon entering office and taking responsibility for the nuclear decision during the most dangerous period of the Cold War, Kennedy came to loathe the destructive possibilities of this type of warfare. McNamara would sway both ways during the Cuban Missile Crisis, making sure that the military option was always there and available, but also trying to help the President find a negotiated way out. His proportional response strategy that would come into play in Vietnam in the Johnson Administration three years later was born in the reality of the dangers that came out of the Cuban crisis. “LeMay would have invaded Cuba and had it out . . . but with nuclear weapons, you can’t have a limited war,” McNamara remembered. “It’s completely unacceptable . . . with even just a few nuclear weapons getting through . . . it’s crazy.”
POLITICAL RESULT OF THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
Finally, Nikita Krushchev, who created the crisis, brought it to an end by backing down and agreeing to remove the weapons. As a political officer in the Red Army during the worst of World War II, at the siege of Stalingrad, the Soviet leader understood what could happen if things got out of hand. As his son, Sergei Krushchev, remembered his father saying, “Once you begin shooting, you can’t stop.”
In an effort to help him save face, Kennedy made it clear to everyone around him that there would be no gloating over this victory. Castro, on the other hand was quite different in his response. When he learned that the missiles were being packed up, Castro let loose with a tirade of cursing at Krushchev’s betrayal. “He went on cursing, beating even his own record for curses,” recalled his journalist friend, Carlos Franqui.
There was also a feeling of letdown among the Joint Chiefs. They thought the U.S. had capitulated and, in the end, looked weak. They also did not trust the Russians to stand by their promise to dismantle and take home all the missiles. The Soviets had a long track record of breaking most of their previous agreements. LeMay considered the final negotiated settlement the greatest appeasement since Munich. By breaking his word to Kennedy and placing missiles in the western hemisphere, Krushchev secured the ceremonial removal of the United States’ antiquated medium range missiles from Turkey in exchange for retrieving the missiles in Cuba. It was a hollow gesture as they were scheduled to be removed already, but it allowed Krushchev to save face internationally. Castro continued to be a thorn in the side of the United States. But ultimately, he was mostly inconsequential. More than four decades later, Kennedy’s blockade and negotiated settlement stand as the best-case scenario.
Nixon Doctrine — A Pragmatic Cold War Strategy
Despite his Quaker roots, Nixon had a reputation as a staunch anticommunist. Campaigning for the presidency in the fall of 1968, Nixon said that the United States should “seek a negotiated end to the war” in Vietnam while insisting that “the right of self-determination of the South Vietnamese people” had to be respected by all nations, including North Vietnam. Pressed for details, Nixon said he had “a secret plan” that he would reveal after he was elected. It turned out to be “Vietnamization,” the turning over of the ground fighting to South Vietnamese forces, backed by U.S. air power. This plan was part of his broader theory that came to be known as the Nixon Doctrine.
Nixon and Henry Kissinger (first as national security adviser and then secretary of state) agreed on the need to accept the world as it was—conflicted and competitive— and to make the most of it. It was in America’s interest, Kissinger said, to encourage a multipolar world and move toward a new world order based on “mutual restraint, coexistence, and ultimately cooperation.”
Containing communism was no longer U.S. policy, as it had been under the previous four administrations.
In a multipolar world—comprising the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Europe, and Japan—America could work even with communist countries as long as they promoted global stability, the new core of U.S. foreign policy.
The Nixon Doctrine contained three parts:
- The United States would honor existing treaty commitments;
- It would provide a nuclear shield to any ally or nation vital to U.S. security;
- It would furnish military and economic assistance but not manpower to a nation considered important but not vital to the national interest.
Gone was the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy understanding that a loss of freedom anywhere was a loss of freedom everywhere. As Kissinger put it, “Our interests shall shape our commitments rather than the other way around.”
Nixon was most lucid about the Nixon Doctrine in his June 1974 commencement speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. He suggested that U.S. foreign policy should be guided by a fusion of idealism and realism. But the president spent much of his speech on what he really thought was important: making his kind of realism the basis for American foreign policy in general and Cold War policy in particular. Because there were limits to what America could achieve and because U.S. actions might produce a slowdown or even reversal of détente, Nixon rejected the notion that the United States should aim to transform the internal behavior of other states.
“We would not welcome the intervention of other countries in our domestic affairs,” Nixon said, “and we cannot expect them to be cooperative when we seek to intervene directly in theirs.” At the same time, he emphasized that the goal of peace between nations with totally different systems was also a high moral objective. Nixon’s eye was on building and sustaining a relative peace and stability among the great powers in which the status of the United States could be preserved.
The Nixon Doctrine At Work in Vietnam
The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy team went to work, beginning with Vietnam. In four years, the Nixon administration reduced American forces in Vietnam from 550,000 to twenty-four thousand. Spending dropped from twenty-five billion dollars a year to less than three billion. In 1972, the president abolished the draft, eliminating a primary issue of the anti-war protestors. At the same time, he kept up the American bombing in North Vietnam and added targets in Cambodia and Laos that were being used by Vietcong forces as sanctuaries, while seeking a negotiated end to the war.
An impatient Congress and public pressed the administration for swifter results and accurate accounts of the war. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been guilty of making egregiously false claims about gains and losses in Vietnam.
When North Vietnam continued to use Cambodia as a staging ground for forays into South Vietnam, Nixon approved a Cambodian incursion in May 1970 by U.S. and Vietnamese troops. Escalation of the war produced widespread student protests, including a tragic confrontation at Kent State University, where four students were killed by inexperienced members of the Ohio National Guard. On June 24, the Senate decisively repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had first authorized the use of U.S. force in Vietnam. It later passed the Cooper-Church Amendment prohibiting the use of American ground troops in Laos or Cambodia.
The Nixon Doctrine as a Diplomatic Tool
But the Nixon Doctrine also contained elements of force. Nixon tried to exploit the open differences between the Soviet Union and Communist China, reflected in the armed clashes in March 1969 along the Sino-Soviet border. Nixon warned the Kremlin secretly that the United States would not take lightly any Soviet attack on China. He and Kissinger initiated secret negotiations with China that resulted in Nixon’s historic visit in February 1972. Mao Zedong and China’s premier, Zhou Enlai, led Nixon to believe they would encourage North Vietnam to end the conflict. Conservatives criticized Nixon’s unofficial “recognition” of Communist China because it weakened U.S. relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan, which functioned as a political alternative to the mainland and also served as a forward base for the U.S. military in Southeast Asia.
On January 22, 1973, in Paris, Secretary of State William Rogers and North Vietnam’s chief negotiator, Le Duc Tho, signed “An Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” In announcing the ceasefire, Nixon said five times that it represented the “peace with honor” he had promised since the 1968 presidential campaign. But the United States accepted North Vietnam’s most crucial demand—that its troops be allowed to stay in the South—a concession that sealed the fate of South Vietnam. It hardly mattered that the United States could maintain aircraft carriers in South Vietnamese waters and use planes based in Taiwan and Thailand if Hanoi broke the accords. Airpower hadn’t won the war. It wouldn’t secure the peace.
The North Vietnamese began violating the peace treaty as soon as it was signed, moving men and equipment into South Vietnam to rebuild their almost decimated forces. In response, the United States provided modest military aid to South Vietnam and bombed North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. The only tangible result was that in August 1973 an angry Congress cut off the funds for such bombing. In November 1973, it passed a War Powers Resolution requiring the president to inform Congress within forty-eight hours of any overseas deployment of U.S. forces and to bring the troops home within sixty days unless Congress expressly approved the president’s action.
It is possible, although doubtful, that Nixon and Kissinger might have come up with a scheme to extend aid to the beleaguered South Vietnamese, but the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon White House, ending the reign of the Nixon Doctrine. The president was preoccupied with his own survival, not South Vietnam’s. He acknowledged his personal defeat in August 1974, resigning as president—the first president in U.S. history to do so—rather than suffer certain impeachment and conviction.
In January 1975 North Vietnam launched a general invasion, and one million refugees fled from central South Vietnam toward Saigon. The new president, Gerald R. Ford, asked Congress for emergency assistance to “allies fighting for their lives.” An obdurate Congress declined. On April 21, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and his government resigned. Ten days later, North Vietnamese forces took Saigon, and Marine helicopters lifted American officials and a few Vietnamese allies from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy, “an image of flight and humiliation etched on the memories of countless Americans,” in the words of the British historian Paul Johnson.Hanoi raised its flag on May 1 and renamed the old capital Ho Chi Minh City. South Vietnam was no more.
But the dominoes had only begun to fall. In mid-April, the communist Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Their objective was to carry out in just one year the revolutionary changes that had taken more than a quarter-century in Mao’s China. Between April 1975 and the beginning of 1977, the Marxist-Leninists ruling Cambodia killed an estimated 1.5 million people, one-fifth of the population. Widespread atrocities also took place in Laos, which remains under communist rule to this day.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli war (the Yom Kippur War), in which the Soviet Union openly supported Syria and Egypt with a massive sea and air lift of arms and supplies, also set back detente. When the Israelis turned the tide and came close to destroying Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal, Brezhnev threatened to intervene. Nixon put the U.S. military on worldwide alert, causing the Soviets to back off and agree to a ceasefire that included a UN emergency contingent.
Carter Foreign Policy of the 1970s
The Carter Foreign Policy has been summarized by some analysts as good intentions gone wrong. Carter thought that most of the world’s problems flowed from the often antagonistic relationship between the developed North and the undeveloped South—often called the Third World. So he set about eliminating the causes of conflict. He negotiated a treaty turning over the Panama Canal to Panamanian control by the end of the century. He cut off U.S. support of the authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua, enabling the Cuban-backed Sandinistas to overthrow Somoza and gain control of the government.
The Carter Foreign Policy’s Effect on the Cold War
As part of its human rights campaign, the Carter administration advised the Iranian military not to suppress accelerating pro-Islamic demonstrations and riots. The shah of Iran, the chief U.S. ally in the region, was soon in exile. Encouraged by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the de facto leader of the country, militant Iranians paraded through the streets calling America the “great Satan.” They seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held fifty-two Americans as hostages for fourteen and a half months.
Carter made the mistake of admitting publicly that he felt the same helplessness that a powerful person feels when his child is kidnapped. As the political scientist Michael Kort points out, the admission made the United States look like “a weak and helpless giant as the Iranians mistreated the hostages and taunted the president.” A failed rescue attempt in April 1980 only made the United States and the president look weaker. Not until the eve of Carter’s leaving office in January 1980 (after having been defeated for reelection) did Iran release the hostages. “By then,” writes Kort, “Carter’s foreign policy and his presidency lay in ruins.”
The renowned scholar of foreign affairs Jeane Kirkpatrick (later the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan) thought that Carter’s pivotal mistake was his failure to distinguish between the relative danger of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Carter did not perceive that the shah of Iran and Nicaragua’s Somoza were less dangerous to U.S. interests than the fundamentalist Muslim and Marxist regimes that replaced them. In her definitive 1979 essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Kirkpatrick wrote:
The foreign policy of the Carter administration failed not for lack of good intentions but for lack of realism about the nature of traditional versus revolutionary autocracies and the relation of each to the American national interest. . . . [T] raditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, are more susceptible of liberalization, and they are more compatible with U.S. interests.
Beyond “reasonable” doubt, she wrote, the communist governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were much more repressive that those of “despised previous rulers.” The government of the People’s Republic of China was more repressive than that of Taiwan; North Korea was more repressive than South Korea. “Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty, whereas revolutionary autocracies create them.”
President Carter’s single major accomplishment in foreign policy came in 1978 when he brought Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to the United States to negotiate and sign the Camp David Accords, which established peace between two old enemies and marked a significant shift in Arab resistance to Israel’s right to exist. They were an historic achievement but had little impact on the Cold War.
Reagan Doctrine — A Proactive Anti-USSR Policy
Ronald Reagan would permanently change the global picture, which looked bleak when he took office in 1981. From martial law in Poland imposed by the communist regime and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and communist rule in Mozambique and Angola, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev claimed victories for Marxism-Leninism. Within a few years he developed the “Reagan Doctrine,” a pro-active foreign policy.
Within the free world, the Atlantic alliance was strained. To counter the deployment in the late 1970s of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles aimed at major European cities, NATO proposed a dual-track approach—negotiations to remove the missiles and the deployment of U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles aimed at Soviet cities. The latter sparked a popular movement in Western Europe, aided and abetted by the Kremlin, to freeze NATO’s deployment of nuclear weapons, and Western European governments wavered in their resolve to counter the Soviets, even on their own soil.
Reagan put the deployment of the Euromissiles at the center of his new foreign policy. He forged a close friendship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and sought the support of other Western European leaders, particularly Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany.
Unlike the foreign policy realists who viewed all regimes through the same lens, Reagan placed regime differences at the heart of his understanding of the Cold War. With his modest Illinois roots and biblical Christian faith learned from his mother, he emerged as a screen star and a committed anticommunist, fighting communist efforts to take over the Hollywood trade unions in the postwar period. Poor eyesight kept him stateside with the army during World War II, but his varied experiences contributed to his appreciation of the need for military strength. Two terms as a Republican governor of California confirmed his conservative, pro-freedom political views.
Reagan considered communism to be a disease and regarded the Soviet government as illegitimate. Like Truman, he believed Soviet foreign policy to be offensive by its very nature, and he saw the world as engaged in an ideological struggle between communism and liberal democracy. But unlike Truman, he sought in the circumstances of the 1980s not merely to contain the USSR but to defeat it.
Reagan had endorsed the strategy and insights of NSC 68 shortly after that key document of the Truman administration was declassified and published in 1975, devoting several of his radio commentaries to it. Also in the 1970s, he called for reductions, not limitations, in U.S. and Soviet armaments through verifiable agreements.
He identified as central weaknesses of the Soviet bloc the denial of religious freedom and the inability to provide consumer goods. He stressed that Pope John Paul II’s trip to Poland in 1979 revealed that communist atheism— ruthlessly imposed for decades—had failed to stop the people from believing in God. Reagan noted the pope’s language—“Do not be afraid!”—and the size of the crowds at the masses that he celebrated in Krakow, Warsaw, and other Polish cities. In Krakow, the pope’s home city, between two and three million people welcomed him, the largest public gathering in the nation’s history.
In a 1979 radio commentary, Reagan remarked that the pope, in his final public appearance, had invited the people to bring forward several large crosses for his blessing. Suddenly there was movement among the multitude of young people before him. They began raising thousands and thousands of crosses, many of them homemade, for the pope’s blessing. “These young people of Poland,” Reagan said, “had been born and raised and spent their entire lives under communist atheism. Try to make a Polish joke out of that.”1
All these policy positions formed a main theme of Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign: real peace would come through the military strength of the West along with its political and economic freedom. For Reagan, as for Truman, the gravest threat to the United States and the free world came from the Soviet Union, whose continuing imperialist designs on every continent demanded a new Cold War strategy.
Details of the Reagan Doctrine
A subset of the strategy for defeating the USSR was the “Reagan Doctrine,” a term coined by the columnist Charles Krauthammer, which departed from the previous policy of containment by seeking to oust communist regimes. It approved U.S. support of pro-freedom forces in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia. To his credit, President Carter had begun helping the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan during his final months in office. But a key Reagan decision was to supply Stinger ground-to-air missiles, which the mujahideen promptly used to shoot down the Soviet helicopters that had kept them on the defensive for years.
In Latin America, the Sandinistas were not only establishing a Leninist state in Nicaragua but supporting communist guerrillas in El Salvador and elsewhere. The Reagan administration directed the CIA to form an antiSandinista movement—the Contras—and asked Congress to approve funds for them.
Reagan never contemplated sending U.S. troops to Nicaragua. He believed that with sufficient military support and firm diplomatic negotiation, Nicaraguans could rid themselves of the Marxist regime. He was proved correct by the results of the democratic elections of February 1990, when the anti-Sandinista Violeta Chamorro decisively defeated the Sandinista commandante Daniel Ortega for president.
With people, funds, and weapons, the Reagan Doctrine pushed containment to its logical conclusion by helping those who wanted to win their freedom. The doctrine was part of Reagan’s overarching strategy to pressure the Soviets at their political, economic, military, and moral weak spots, build up Western strength, and press for victories on key Cold War battlefields.
Year of Miracles: Freedom Floods Eastern Europe
In February 1989, Václav Havel was jailed in Prague for participating in human rights protests, but the protests continued. After months of strikes, roundtable talks began in Poland between leaders of the still-outlawed Solidarity union and the communist government. The Polish government had insisted that Solidarity was a “spent force,” but as the Polish economy worsened, it was forced to “reckon with ideas they could not squelch and men they could not subdue.” In March, seventy-five thousand people demonstrated in Budapest on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops and free elections.
What would follow was a domino-like collapse of socialism throughout Eastern Europe and, eventually, Russia itself. The pivotal year of 1989 was later dubbed the Year of Miracles.
In April, Solidarity and the Polish government agreed to the first open elections since World War II. In May, the Hungarian government started to dismantle the Iron Curtain along its border with Austria, allowing East Germans to cross over into West Germany. Thousands did.
In June 1989, the Polish Solidarity movement won an overwhelming victory over their communist opponents in the Soviet bloc’s first free elections in forty years. The same month, Imre Nagy, who had led the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, was given a hero’s burial in Budapest. Gorbachev reminded the Council of Europe in July that he rejected the Brezhnev Doctrine: “Any interference in domestic affairs and any attempts to restrict the sovereignty of states, both friend and allies or any others, are inadmissible.”
In October hundreds of thousands of people began demonstrating every Monday evening in East Germany, leading to the forced resignation of Communist Party boss Erich Honecker, who had boasted in January that the Berlin Wall would stand for another hundred years. On November 9, 1989, a tidal wave of East Germans poured across the West Berlin border when travel restrictions were lifted, and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
The year of counterrevolutions ended with the overthrow and execution of the despot Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and the election of Václav Havel as the president of Czechoslovakia’s first non-communist government since the 1948 coup engineered by Moscow.
The waves of liberty, however, did not reach the shores of China. In the spring of 1989, pro-democracy Chinese students, inspired in part by the events in Eastern Europe, were demonstrating by the many thousands in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. For a short while, it seemed to Western observers as if the leaders of Communist China might follow Gorbachev’s example and allow meaningful political as well as economic liberalization. They underestimated the willingness of Deng Xiaoping and other communist leaders to use maximum force to eliminate any threat to their political control. On June 4, 1989, just two weeks after Gorbachev had visited China for a “socialist summit” with Deng, Chinese troops and tanks ruthlessly crushed the protests in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of defenseless students.
As China’s “paramount” leader, Deng had taken the measure of Mao and announced that he was right 70 percent of the time and wrong 30 percent of the time. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward were among the mistakes, but among the things Mao had done right were making China once again a great power, maintaining the political monopoly of the Communist Party, and opening relations with the United States as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. The most important of these was the unchallenged political authority of the Party.
Deng’s most significant action, beginning in 1979, was to leaven China’s command economy with free-market reforms, transforming the country into a global economic power in less than two decades.
The Year of Miracles: The Sinatra Doctrine?
Rightly described as a year of miracles, 1989 began with Václav Havel in jail and ended with him as the president of Czechoslovakia. At the start of the year, the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe seemed secure, but as we have seen, radical change was sweeping across the region. In May a Gorbachev aide wrote privately that “Socialism in Eastern Europe is disappearing.”
In October, the spokesman for the Soviet foreign ministry was asked what remained of the Brezhnev Doctrine. He responded wryly: “You know the Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way’? Hungary and Poland are doing it their way. We now have the Sinatra Doctrine.” The collapse of communism from Berlin to Bucharest ended Gorbachev’s hope of a reformed but still socialist region led by Moscow. It also ignited a nationalist fervor within the numerous non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union that had long been suppressed.
German Reunification: A Return to One Germany
In late November 1989, without consulting any allies, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl suddenly announced a ten-point program calling for free elections in East Germany and the eventual “German reunification within a “pan-European framework.” President Bush immediately endorsed the plan and pressed Kohl to accept NATO membership for a reunified Germany, arguing that deeper European integration was essential for the West’s acceptance of reunification.
When Britain and France as well as the Soviet Union expressed serious reservations about a united Germany, the U.S. State Department suggested a “2 + 4” solution— the two Germanys would negotiate the particulars of German reunification while the four occupying powers—Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR—would work out the international details. Bush facilitated Soviet acceptance of the controversial plan (Politburo hard-liners constantly referred to the twenty million Russians who had died at German hands in World War II) with a grain and trade agreement and a commitment to speed up arms control negotiations. In turn, the West German government made substantial economic concessions of many billions of dollars to the Soviets.
In amazingly short order, and due in large part to the skillful diplomacy of the United States, the Treaty on German Unity was signed by representatives of East and West Germany on August 31, 1990, and approved by both legislatures the following month. Final approval was given by the four Allied powers on October 2. Forty-five years after the end of World War II and fortyone years after Germany’s division, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist, and the country was reunited.
After less than a year of negotiations, Bush writes, “we had accomplished the most profound change in European politics and security for many years, without confrontation, without a shot fired, and with all Europe still on the best and most peaceful of terms.” “For me,” says Scowcroft, “the Cold War ended when the Soviets accepted a united Germany in NATO.”
Fall of the Soviet Union: The Cold War Ends
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.
The Fall of the Soviet Union Accelerates
The shrinking Soviet Union received another major blow when the biggest republic, Russia, elected its own president, Boris Yeltsin. A former Politburo member turned militant anticommunist, Yeltsin announced his intention to abolish the Communist Party, dismantle the Soviet Union, and declare Russia to be “an independent democratic capitalist state.”
For the remaining Stalinists in the Politburo, this was the final unacceptable act. Barely three weeks after the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Moscow, the head of the KGB, the Soviet defense and interior ministers, and other hard-liners—the so-called “Gang of Eight”—launched a coup. They placed Gorbachev under house arrest while he was vacationing in the Crimea, proclaiming a state of emergency and themselves the new leaders of the Soviet Union. They called in tanks and troops from outlying areas and ordered them to surround the Russian Parliament, where Yeltsin had his office.
Some eight decades earlier, Lenin had stood on a tank to announce the coming of Soviet communism. Now Yeltsin proclaimed its end by climbing onto a tank outside the Parliament and declaring that the coup was “unconstitutional.” He urged all Russians to follow the law of the legitimate government of Russia. Within minutes, the Russian defense minister stated that “not a hand will be raised against the people or the duly elected president of Russia.” A Russian officer responded, “We are not going to shoot the president of Russia.”
The image of Yeltsin boldly confronting the Gang of Eight was flashed around the world by the Western television networks, especially America’s CNN, none of whose telecasts were blocked by the coup plotters. The pictures convinced President Bush (on vacation in Maine) and other Western leaders to condemn the coup and praise Yeltsin and other resistance leaders.
The attempted coup, dubbed the “vodka putsch” because of the inebriated behavior of a coup leader at a televised news conference, collapsed after three short days. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he found that Boris Yeltsin was in charge. Most of the organs of power of the Soviet Union had effectively ceased to exist or had been transferred to the Russian government. Gorbachev tried to act as if nothing had changed, announcing, for example, that there was a need to “renew” the Communist Party. He was ignored. The people clearly wanted an end to the party and him. He was the first Soviet leader to be derided at the annual May Day parade, when protestors atop Lenin’s tomb in Red Square displayed banners reading, “Down with Gorbachev! Down with Socialism and the fascist Red Empire. Down with Lenin’s party.”
A supremely confident Yeltsin banned the Communist Party and transferred all Soviet agencies to the control of the Russian republic. The Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia declared their independence. As the historian William H. Chafe writes, the Soviet Union itself had fallen “victim to the same forces of nationalism, democracy, and anti-authoritarianism that had engulfed the rest of the Soviet empire.”
President Bush at last accepted the inevitable—the unraveling of the Soviet Union. At a cabinet meeting on September 4, he announced that the Soviets and all the republics would and should define their own future “and that we ought to resist the temptation to react to or comment on each development.” Clearly, he said, “the momentum [is] toward greater freedom.” The last thing the United States should do, he said, is to make some statement or demand that would “galvanize opposition . . . among the Soviet hard-liners.” However, opposition to the new non-communist Russia was thin or scattered; most of the hard-liners were either in jail or exile.
On December 12, Secretary of State James Baker, borrowing liberally from the rhetoric of President Reagan, delivered an address titled “America and the Collapse of the Soviet Empire.” “The state that Lenin founded and Stalin built,” Baker said, “held within itself the seeds of its demise. . . . As a consequence of Soviet collapse, we live in a new world. We must take advantage of this new Russian Revolution.” While Baker praised Gorbachev for helping to make the transformation possible, he made it clear that the United States believed his time had passed. President Bush quickly sought to make Yeltsin an ally, beginning with the coalition he formed to conduct the Gulf War.
Gorbachev’s Role in the Fall of the Soviet Union
A despondent Gorbachev, not quite sure why it had all happened so quickly, officially resigned as president of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991—seventy-four years after the Bolshevik Revolution. Casting about for reasons, he spoke of a “totalitarian system” that prevented the Soviet Union from becoming “a prosperous and well-to-do country,” without acknowledging the role of Lenin, Stalin, and other communist dictators in creating and sustaining that totalitarian system. He referred to “the mad militarization” that had crippled “our economy, public attitudes and morals” but accepted no blame for himself or the generals who had spent up to 40 percent of the Soviet budget on the military. He said that “an end has been put to the cold war” but admitted no role for any Western leader in ending the war.
After just six years, the unelected president of a nonexistent country stepped down, still in denial. That night, the hammer and sickle came down from atop the Kremlin, replaced by the blue, white, and red flag of Russia. It is an irony of history, notes Adam Ulam, that “the claim of Communism being a force for peace among nations should finally be laid to rest in its birthplace.” Looking back at America’s longest war and the fall of the Soviet Union, Martin Malia writes, “The Cold War did not end because the contestants reached an agreement; it ended because the Soviet Union disappeared.”
When Gorbachev reached for the pen to sign the document officially terminating the USSR, he discovered it had no ink. He had to borrow a pen from the CNN television crew covering the event. It was a fitting end for someone who was never a leader like Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan, who had clear goals and the strategies to reach them. Gorbachev’s attempt to do too much too quickly, the historians Edward Judge and John Langdon conclude, “coupled with his underestimation of the potency of the appeal of nationalism, split the Communist party and wrecked the Soviet Union.”
Gorbachev experimented, wavered, and at last wearily accepted the dissolution of one of the bloodiest regimes in history. He deserves credit (if not the Nobel Peace Prize) for recognizing that brute force would not save socialism in the Soviet Union or its satellites or prevent the fall of the Soviet Union.
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