Throughout most of its history, the United States has had a tendency to isolationism, with very little desire to extend its influence beyond the Western hemisphere. Americans were reluctant to enter World War I, and relieved when the war was over. The majority wanted to curtail international involvements: Wilson's "solemn referendum" on the League of Nations turned out to be a solemn refusal to get involved. Likewise in World War II, America tried to avoid getting involved, delaying entry into the war until it was almost too late. After this war too, many Americans wanted to see us withdraw from foreign affairs, but this proved to be impossible. During the post-War period, America reluctantly accepted its responsibilities as a major player in world affairs and was moderately successful in leading the free world through the difficult years of what came to be called the Cold War.
[Note that for the 2nd MT, I only want you to comment on the first 18 years of the Cold War period. We will only cover the period up to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963. The final part of the Cold War I will talk about in more detail later.]
August, 1945. After the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered. World War II was over. The good guys had won--sort of. Why only sort of? While world War II stopped the Fascists, the Nazis, and the military dictatorship of Japan, it left another totalitarian system, Communism, stronger than ever.
Prior to WW II, there was only one communist nation on the face of the earth, the Soviet Union. And that was simply not the Marxist dream. Marxists wanted to see the "dictatorship of the proletariat" spread worldwide, and while Comintern had succeeded in destabilizing democratic governments in places like Germany and Italy, the Communists had no where been able to take control themselves.
During the opening days of WW II, the Communists got there chance to expand. The Soviets took over the Baltic states, Eastern Poland, and Finland. During the last days of WW II, they were able to push much further, pushing into countries like Hungary and Poland. The big question was what would happen when the war was over? Would the Soviets go home and leave these countries independent? Perhaps not....
In February of 1945, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt met at Yalta to try to reach some agreement on what was going to happen in Europe once the war was actually over. Churchill and Roosevelt wanted Stalin out of Eastern Europe, but Roosevelt wanted other things as well. He hoped for Soviet help in the war against Japan and for Russian participation in a new organization, the United Nations. Stalin agreed to last two, and Churchill and Roosevelt dropped their demands that he leave Eastern Europe--perhaps thinking they (or the United Nations) could do something after Hitler and the Japanese were defeated.
Roosevelt wasn't a well man--he'd be dead within a few months. Also, he seems to have been a bit naive. In 1942, he had said, "I think that if I give him (Stalin) everything I possibly can and ask nothing in return he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace."
But within a few months of Yalta, Roosevelt at last saw his mistake. "We can't do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta." And then there's my all-time favorite Roosevelt quotes, "Stalin is not a man of his word."
But Stalin did keep his promise to enter the war against Japan. Two days after the atomic bomb was dropped and just a few days before the Japanese surrender, Stalin's troops poured into Manchuria, and as a result of this token effort, Stalin and the Russians were rewarded with substantial chunks of Japanese territory. And soon, the democracies were bargaining with Stalin again.
In July and August 1945, the victorious allies met at Potsdam to try to work out a settlement.
At Potsdam, it was also agreed the Germany would be divided into four occupied zones and punished in other ways. Later, the Soviet-occupied zone would be East Germany, the three zones occupied by France, Britain and the U.S. would unite into West Germany.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the Potsdam conference agreement strengthened the Soviet Union. The Soviets were given all sorts of concessions to compensate them for their sacrifices during the war--concessions that came at the expense of other eastern European countries, particularly Poland.
One good thing came out of the Potsdam conference. It was decided that Nazis who had committed atrocities during the war would be put on trial. This led to the famous Nuremberg trials where Nazi war criminals were told over and over again that following orders was no excuse for crimes against humanity. A good principle, but--ironically--sitting among the judges were Soviet officials--officials from a nation that committed crimes as bad or worse than those of the Nazis.
Poland was a good example of problem. Remember that the Soviets had invaded Eastern Poland during the first days of WWII. Among other atrocities, they took 22,000 Polish officers that they had captured, marched them into Katyn Forest, and massacred them all. But that was not nearly as bad as what was to come.
In the last days of World War II, the Soviets could have come to the aid of the Polish resistance forces. Instead, they let Hitler do much of their dirty work for them, allowing the resistance forces to be wiped out before moving in themselves. And when Soviet troops finally march in, the treated Polish civilians with the utmost brutality, raping women, stealing everything of value, and killing anyone who tried to resistance.
When the Soviet troops got to German territory,
treatment of civilians was even worse.
Soviet soldiers raped tens of thousands of women and young
girls--probably committing at least two million rapes.
[See this review of Antony's Beever's book on the fall of Berlin or another review of Beever's book.]
Stalin didn't mind at all--he *wanted* such behavior. Why? To create tremendous fear of the Soviet army. And it worked. Fear of the Soviets was powerful tool of local communists in securing support, and eventually communist governments working hand in glove with the Soviet Union controlled most of the countries of eastern Europe.
Winston Churchill now warned of a new menace, telling us that "An iron curtain descended on Europe." But it wasn't just Europe. In 1949, Communists took over in China too--and it like the Marxist dream of world-wide communism might become a reality. In the 1950's, Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev could confidently tell the democracies, "We will bury you."
And for more than 40 years it looked as if there was a chance they would. This period (from roughly 1945-1991) is what we call the period of the Cold War, the period in which advocates of Communism (led by the Soviet Union) worked to expand that particularly flavor of totalitarianism, while advocates of democracy (led by the United States) worked to contain Communism.
The countries of the Free World had some advantages. Liberal democracy, with its free markets and free men, invariably works out better in economic terms. Note the contrast between free West Germany and communist East Germany. Further, citizens of a democracy enjoy freedoms those living under totalitarianism can't even dream of.
But this very freedom was, to a certain extent, a disadvantage. Communist agents and communist sympathizers [see Mona Charon's book Useful Idiots.] could take advantage of fundamental western freedoms like freedom of the speech and freedom of the press to advocate for a system where there would be no freedom of speech of freedom of the press. Anti-Communism was unfashionable among the Western elites, and the Roosevelt administration was filled with communist sympathizers and even Communist agents. An example of the former, Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's Secretary of Agricultural, a man who favored unilateral disarmament after WW II. An example of the latter, Alger Hiss a communist spy working for the state department who had actually accompanied Roosevelt to the Yalta conference.
Fortunately for the cause of Democracy, Roosevelt's death put into office a leader not nearly as naive about the communist threat as FDR, a Missouri farmer named Harry S Truman.
Truman not tainted with the elitist attitudes of the Harvard and Yale men who tend to dominate American politics. He was tainted with college at all, or the elitist attitudes that go with it. He got his education while serving in the military--good background for a president. He had not been part of Roosevelt's "inner circle"--in fact, he didn't even know we about the A-bomb until he became president.
Truman's first step was to clear out the pinkos from within. He dismissed Henry Wallace calling him, "A pacifist 100%. He wants us to disband our armed forces, and give Russia our atomic secrets." Of such men, Truman said, "I am afraid they are a sabotage front for Joe Stalin."
Truman put an end to the sabotage front. He launched a systematic investigation of the loyalty of 3 million federal employees, eventually dismissing 3000 of them. At the same time, Richard Nixon and other members of the House Un-American Activities Committee exposed Alger Hiss as a communist agent. Hiss was convicted of perjury and sent to prison.
Truman also created the CIA, an intelligence gathering organization that could (on occasion) be used as a counter to what eventually came to be called the KGB, the Soviet covert operations team.
Truman put an end to Communist expansion in Europe. Partly, this was through the adoption of the Truman doctrine, a doctrine that provided military assistance to any nation fighting communist expansion--as we did in Greece and Turkey in 1948. But, perhaps more important: Truman's decision to help rebuild Europe economically. Truman pushed through congress the Marshall Plan, a plan that gave more than $10 billion in aid to restore the European economy.
In Japan likewise, the US helped the restore our war-ravaged former enemy. US occupation forces under General MacArthur helped oversee the demilitarization of Japan, but also the creation of a democratic government.
Despite his foreign policy accomplishments, Truman
likely to lose the 1948 election. The
Democrats split three ways. Strom
Thurmond broke away "Dixiecrat" third party, cutting in to the
Democrats base in the South. Henry Wallace also jumped ship, leading a
party "progressive" ticket.
[It's amazing how short our national collective memory is. Wallace and his "progressives" really were what Truman claimed, a sabotage front for Stalin and the Soviets. The Communists directly supported Wallace's campaign, and students in the Communist Block took up the chant, "Long live Wallace, death to Truman." There is some evidence Wallace was a covert KGB agent. It's hard to imagine why anyone who loves America would want to label themselves "progressive."]
Truman seemed an inevitable loser to his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey--so much so, that on election night, at least one major newspaper decided to go with the headline "Dewey Beats Truman," not realizing that they were going to end up with egg on their faces when the final votes were tallied.
During his 2nd term, Truman continued his commitment to stop the spread of Communism. In April of 1949, he helped create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was a defensive alliance in which the member nations (the US, France, Britain, and others) maintained that an attack on any one of them was an attack on all. If the Soviets attacked any member nation, the combined might of NATO would be used against them. The threat was enough: the Soviets never did attack a NATO member.
But not all was going well. Traitors in Britain and the US (like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) leaked atomic secrets to the Soviets, and by the end of 1949, the Soviets had a bomb of their own. That same year, the Chinese communists under Mao Tse-tung prevailed over Chiang Kai-Shek, and China became communist.
And that didn't seem the end. In 1950, backed by the Communist Chinese, Communist North Korea attacked the democratic south. Truman sent MacArthur to Korea.
[Well, actually MacArthur directed US forces from Tokyo! If you want to know where the generals were, I'll tell you where they were....]
With UN authorization, the United States began a "police action" that pushed the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel. UN/US troops pushed them back further...too far, too aggressively. MacArthur *wanted* to extend the war into China, but, as Omar Bradley noted, this was probably, "The wrong war, at the wrong place, and the wrong time, with the wrong enemy." Chinese response to the UN/US push was tougher than MacArthur had expected. Truman dismissed the insubordinate MacArthur, but fighting a war limited to Korea was tough enough. Ultimately, more than 1,000,000 people died during the war, with over 50,000 American casualties. And the war dragged on...there had to be a better way--a better leader.
And in 1952, Americans thought they had just that in Dwight David Eisenhower.
General Eisenhower was one of the most popular presidents in US history. He had been the mastermind behind the Normandy invasion, the most massive military assault in all history. He was so popular that many Democrats had wanted him as their candidate instead of Truman in 1948. Not surprisingly, the Republicans (who had now been out of the White House for 20 years) were delighted that Eisenhower was willing to run as a Republican in 1952. The Democrats put up the witty and eloquent Adlai Stevenson, but Stevenson had no chance against the popular Eisenhower. "I like Ike" was enough of a slogan, plus Eisenhower's promise to go to Korea.
As president, Eisenhower was able (eventually) to wind down the Korean War--though he had to threaten to use atomic weapons, and the basic conflict between the two Koreas was left unsolved and with the potential to break into open hostility at any time. Eisenhower was determined to stop further Communist expansion in Asia. He helped create SEATO, an equivalent to NATO for Asia.
But Eisenhower had something of a dilemma as far as his Asian policy was concerned. For a number of years, the US had been backing the French in Indochina, helping the French defend their colonial possessions because, among other things, the French were keeping the Communists from gaining control. But in 1954, the French suffered a major defeat at Diem Bien Phu, and it looked like they would be unable to hold onto Vietnam unless the US provided more than money. The US would have to send troops. This Eisenhower would not do. But he also was not prepared to leave all of Vietnam in the hands of the Vietnamese Communists. Instead, a 1954 compromise created two nations: communist North Vietnam, and democratic South Vietnam. Eisenhower now committed the US to defending the newly-created South Vietnamese nation--and probably no one at the time realized how costly that commitment would eventually become.
In Europe too, Eisenhower was not the miracle-working anti-Communist people had hoped for. In 1956, Hungarian revolutionaries tried to overthrow their communist government expecting US and NATO help. The US watched passively as Soviet tanks moved in to crush the revolution and put the communists back in place.
And yet--a wonderful time as well. 1950's America was incredibly prosperous. Eisenhower cut government spending--including military spending--and the economy boomed. He trimmed some of the New Deal bureaucracy, but kept the minimum wage law and launched some public spending projects (like the interstate highway system). And all this was, in some ways, a key to winning the Cold War. During the 1950's, American classrooms were big on charts comparing the Soviet system and that of the United States. Here's what we produce: here's what they produce. Here's our standard of living. Here's theirs. And, of course, overseas too this went a long way toward helping win the Cold War. Would you rather live like an American or a Russian? Anyone comparing American and Russian life in the 1950's would have to choose America...maybe.
But in 1957, we were in for a major shock. Cuba, our long time little brother to the south, was going through a tough time. A ruthless dictator named Batista was running the show. Batista promised the Cuban people free elections, elections he never held. And yet, for a time, we backed him. "He's an SOB," one American diplomat said, "but at least he's our SOB." But Batista ceased to be our SOB, and the Eisenhower administration decided that Batista had to go. But who would replace him? Many, including some people in our CIA, favored a young Cuban militant named Fidel Castro. The New York Times especially editorialized in favor of Castro. "But he's a communist," said some. "No way!" said the Times again and again and again.
Eventually, US pressure forced Batista to give up his position. But, at the same time, US policy makers decided that Castro wasn't a man they could support. But Castro seized power anyway, and, since he couldn't get US support, he looked elsewhere--to the Soviet Union. And it turned out that Castro *was* a communist after all. And, guess what? We now had a Soviet satellite only 90 miles off the US coast.
And, speaking of satellites, on October 4, 1957 the US got another shock. The Soviets sent into orbit Sputnik I and then a bit later Sputnik II (carrying a dog!)--the first artificial satellites ever to orbit the earth. Now it wasn't the dog in space that was scary: it was our realization of something else the Soviets could send into space.
Throughout the 1950's, Americans were worried about nuclear war, and now that the Soviets had the technology to send objects into orbit, that threat became more direct than ever. Kids in school went through drill after drill. Get under your desk, left hand over your eyes, right hand over the back of your neck. It was a scary time...
In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev gave the US an ultimatum: get out of Berlin. The US ignored the ultimatum...and we trembled on the brink of nuclear war.
Despite all this, Eisenhower's personal popularity remained high. Despite an incapacitating heart-attack and doubts about the health of the oldest man (at that point) to have ever held the presidency, Ike was reelected by an overwhelming margin in 1956. But this personal popularity wasn't going to automatically transfer to the next Republican presidential candidate, Eisenhower's VP, Richard Nixon. The 1960 election was likely to be a very close one--and that's exactly what it turned out to be.
In 1960, the Democrats put up John F. Kennedy. Now to explain JFK, I need to go off on a tangent here and talk for a bit about his father Joseph Kennedy.
Joe Kennedy made his considerable fortune in some rather unsavory ways. He had figured out clever ways of manipulating stock prices, maneuvering stock prices up, getting people to rush in to what seemed a "can't miss" deal, dumping his stock when prices were high--a letting suckers pick up the tab for stocks worth much less than they had paid. He added to his fortune by buying up liquor franchises during Prohibition--franchises that, once Prohibition was lifted, became enormously valuable.
Kennedy made political allies all over the political spectrum: Lafollette, Franklin Roosevelt, Joe McCarthy, Adlai Stevenson, Herbert Hoover--anyone who might be useful to him. His relationship with Roosevelt was particularly interesting. Kennedy wanted to be Secretary of the Treasury (playing the Andrew Mellon role, I guess), but Roosevelt made him head of the SEC (on the principle that it takes a thief to catch a thief). Kennedy was unhappy with Roosevelt, and, in 1944 was going to back the Republican candidate (Dewey) instead. Roosevelt simply let him know that the IRS was going to investigate him...and, all of a sudden, Kennedy was in the Roosevelt camp again.
Jack Kennedy was very much his father's son: a rich kid, ambitious, willing to adopt his ideals (such as they were) to circumstances. He was neither moral nor terribly discreet about his peccadilloes. His extramarital affairs were numerous and (potentially) disastrous. He suffered from all sorts of ailments, and was really too sick a man to handle any position of great responsibility.
But none of this mattered. In fact who and what Kennedy was mattered not at all. His father's money created a powerful Massachusetts political machine with both liberal and conservative politicians obligated to support the Kennedys in return for past political favors. His father's money hired the best speech writers and ghost-writers money could buy. His father's money hired him the best campaign staff money could by. His father's money hired the best political wife money could by, the beautiful and stylish Jackie Kennedy.
All this made for a carefully crafted Kennedy image. A World War II incident blown all out of proportion made Kennedy seem like a hero, the skipper of PT 109--and the dramatic story was told and retold: in the New Yorker, in Reader's Digest, in a book and a movie. We even got a top 40 song about PT 109!
And then there was Profiles in Courage, a great book which won a Pulitzer Prize. Supposedly written by Kennedy--but actually written by a ghost writer.
Jackie Kennedy was easily transformed from--well, what she was--into a symbol of the idea American wife and mother.
All of this was enough to get Kennedy elected to a senate seat and to secure the Democrat nomination for president in 1960.
Opposing him: Richard Nixon--of whom, I'll say a lot more later. For now, it's important to understand that Nixon was just about the opposite of Kennedy, a man from a lower-middle class background who had to work hard for everything he had in life. Nixon was what his contemporaries called a "grind" or an "iron butt," and there have been few presidential candidates who knew as much about foreign and domestic policy as Richard Nixon.
And with a choice between these two men, the spoiled, superficial inexperienced rich kid and the hard-working solidly middle class experienced statesman, the American people chose...
Well, that's hard to say. The campaign was an interesting one (the first campaign I remember, by the way). It was the first to feature televised debates between the candidates. Views of the debates vary. The consensus is that Nixon won on substance but lost because his stage make-up ran under the lights and spoiled his appearance. Those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. But, at the time, no-one knew what had really happened.
Eisenhower had devised a plan to topple Castro--what eventually became the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Kennedy, as a possible president, had been briefed on the plan so that, just in case he was president, he could be properly prepared. But the plan depended on secrecy, and wasn't disclosed to the public at large.
In the debate, Kennedy decided to hammer the Eisenhower administration (and, by implication, Nixon) as being soft of Castro. How could Nixon respond? Nixon knew that Ike was begin anything but soft on Castro, but he couldn't explain that without throwing away the whole plan. And so Nixon let Kennedy score on cheap shots rather than say anything that might hamper American anti-Communist efforts. Please remember that about Nixon.
Now back to the question: which of these two men did the American people vote for? And the answer: no one really knows. The official popular vote was extremely close, with fewer than 100,000 votes (out of 68 million cast) separating the two candidates. The official Electoral College margin was larger, with Kennedy taking 303 electoral votes and Nixon 219. But the results in Texas (24 electoral votes) and Illinois (27 electoral votes) were questionable. In Illinois, Mayer Daley's corrupt Chicago machine manufactured votes for Kennedy, and it's nearly certain that that state was stolen for Kennedy. In Texas too it's very likely that Lyndon Johnson's political machine stole the election as well.
Nixon could have challenged the election--but he was unwilling to do so. In the midst of the Cold War, particularly, it seemed too dangerous to do anything that would undermine the prestige of the presidency or the American people's faith in their electoral system. Please remember that about Nixon.
[Kennedy, by the way, privately called Nixon a fool for not challenging the results. Two very different men here!]
When Kennedy took office in 1961, he brought with him to Washington an army of rich and successful men (e.g., Robert Strange McNamara left his position at Ford to become Secretary of Defense) and intellectuals (e.g., Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger). He brought with him his beautiful wife Jackie. The press fell in love: this was a new Camelot!
Well, would these brave knights solve our cold war problems? Not by a long shot!
They set lofty goals. Kennedy promised us we were confronting a New Frontier, in which we would sacrifice for greatness. His inaugural address promised, "America will pay any price, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and the success of liberty."
But what would happen when the chips were down?
Kennedy had claimed Ike was too soft on Cube--but he decided to go ahead with Ike's Bay of Pigs plan to topple Castro. An army of 12,000 Cuban refugees would land at the Bay of Pigs, while the US provided plenty of air support. In April of 1961, our Cuban allies landed--but US air support didn't show up, and our allies were cut to pieces. Not only did the Bay of Pigs not topple Castro, but now Castro had his excuse to crack down on any supposed opposition within Cuba. He arrested 100,000 people--and resistance to Castro was broken.
Further, Castro turned even more to the Soviet Union for support. Then, in October of 1962, US supply planes discovered that the Soviets had turned Cuba into a missile base, with 42 missiles 1000-mile range missiles and 24 2000-mile range missiles. All aimed at....
What to do? Kennedy's advisors split, but, ultimately, Kennedy gave Khrushchev an ultimatum: remove the missiles, or we will attack Cuba. This would have meant a nuclear war in which 60 million Americans would have died and probably as many Russians. Khrushchev estimated total world-wide deaths as pershpas 500 million people. The world hovered on the brink of catastrophe...and Khrushchev blinked. Or, rather, he figured a way to turn a profit. He agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba...but, in return, the US pulled its missiles out of Turkey and promised to do nothing more to topple Castro--who, from his safe perch, continued to stir up anti-American sentiment around the globe for the next 45 years.
Now of course Kennedy is not entirely to blame. He had inherited the Cuba problem from Eisenhower. And he had inherited other problems as well. One of them, Berlin.
Berlin was an isolate island of freedom in the midst of Communist East Germany. East Germans by the hundreds had been escaping the Communist yoke by the simple expedient of crossing over from Communist East Berlin to Democratic West Berlin. The Communists got tired of this, and tried to cut-off the supply corridor from West Berlin to West Germany. A massive airlift kept West Berlin going, and the Communists gave up. But they then put up a wall..the Berlin Wall...a symbol of the divide between east and west. Kennedy himself flew to Berlin, and he wanted to express his solidarity with the people of West Berlin by saying a few words in German. He should have said, "Ich bin Berliner," "I am of Berlin." What he actually said was "Ich bin ein Berliner," a phrase that's a bit more ambiguous, and might well be translated "I am a jelly donut." I feel that way a lot of the time....
But when you blunder as a history professor or a chess player, it's one thing. To blunder as president of the United States is something else again. And, unfortunately, Kennedy's last major Cold War decision was an extraordinarily costly blunder.
Blame for what eventually happened in Vietnam has to be shared by lots of people, but Kennedy himself made a particularly serious mistake. For almost ten years, American had been backing the Diem government of South Vietnam in Saigon against communist insurgents: against the Vietcong rebels in the south itself, and against North Vietnamese attacks. But things were just not going well. Why? The South Vietnamese military blamed the civilian government. If only they didn't interfere, we could win this war. The military planned a coup, but they knew they needed the continued support of America, and so they sent representative to Kennedy asking if he would support them if they took over. Kennedy promised that he would, and, on November 1, 1963, a military junta took over in South Vietnam, murdering Diem. This put us in a very uncomfortable position. No longer were supporting a democratically elected South Vietnamese government, but a group of thugs--better than the Communists, no doubt, but hardly the kind of government that would inspire the enthusiastic support of the American people.
Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Interestingly, views of Kennedy immediately altered. Dissatisfaction with Kennedy's blunders turned into mourning for a fallen hero. Kennedy was a saint and martyr and, ironically, more effective in this role than he ever was as president.
One side note. Kennedy's assassination sent shockwaves throughout America. We were as grim as we could possibly be--it felt like the world was coming apart. Kennedy was gone--and what next? A nuclear war that would kill us all? My principle, Mrs. Pohemus, delivered the tragic news of Kennedy's death...and I had never seen an adult so crushed. I was as worried about the future as I could possibly be. And my dad didn't help matters. As we sat at the dinner table, my dad said, "There isn't going to be any tomorrow afternoon."
My heart sank. My dad was telling me: this is it. The bombs will drop. The world is over.
"Yes," said dad. "No tomorrow afternoon--because President Johnson has declared it an official day of mourning."
I love my dad, but I never did quite forgive him for that pun.