In many ways, the Cold War began even before the guns fell silent in Germany and in the Pacific in 1945. Suspicion and mistrust had defined U.S.-Soviet relations for decades and resurfaced as soon as the alliance against Adolf Hitler was no longer necessary. Competing ideologies and visions of the postwar world prevented U.S. president Harry S Truman and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin from working together.
Stalin intended to destroy Germany’s industrial capabilities in order to prevent the country from remilitarizing and wanted Germany to pay outrageous sums in war reparations. Moreover, he wanted to erect pro-Soviet governments throughout Eastern Europe to protect the USSR from any future invasions. Truman, however, wanted exactly the opposite. He believed that only industrialization and democracy in Germany and throughout the continent would ensure postwar stability. Unable to compromise or find common ground, the world’s two remaining superpowers inevitably clashed.
Truman worked tirelessly to clean up the postwar mess and establish a new international order. He helped create the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and funded the rebuilding of Japan under General Douglas MacArthur. After prosecuting Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials, Truman in 1947 also outlined the Marshall Plan, which set aside more than $10 billion for the rebuilding and reindustrialization of Germany. The Marshall Plan was so successful that factories in Western Europe were exceeding their prewar production levels within just a few years.
Although Stalin joined with the United States in founding the United Nations, he fought Truman on nearly every other issue. He protested the Marshall Plan as well as the formation of the World Bank and IMF. In defiance, he followed through on his plan to create a buffer between the Soviet Union and Germany by setting up pro-Communist governments in Poland and other Eastern European countries. As a result, the so-called iron curtain soon divided East from West in Europe. Stalin also tried unsuccessfully to drive French, British, and American occupation forces from the German city of Berlin by blocking highway and railway access. Determined not to let the city fall, Truman ordered the Berlin airlift to drop food and medical supplies for starving Berliners.
The Berlin crisis, as well as the formation of the Eastern bloc of Soviet-dominated countries in Eastern Europe, caused foreign policy officials in Washington to believe that the United States needed to check Soviet influence abroad in order to prevent the further spread of Communism. In 1947, Truman incorporated this desire for containment into his Truman Doctrine, which vowed to support free nations fighting Communism. He and Congress then pledged $400 million to fighting Communist revolutionaries in Greece and Turkey. In 1949, Truman also convinced the Western European powers to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), so that they might mutually defend themselves against the danger of Soviet invasion. Threatened, the USSR sponsored a similar treaty of its own in Eastern Europe, called the Warsaw Pact, in 1955.
In the domestic policy arena, Truman signed the National Security Act in 1947 to restructure America’s defenses for the new Communist threat. The act reorganized the military under the new office of the secretary of defense and the new Joint Chiefs of Staff. It also created the National Security Council to advise the president on global affairs and the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct espionage. Truman’s leadership in confronting the Soviet Union and rebuilding Europe convinced Democrats to nominate him again for the 1948 election. His Fair Deal domestic policies and support for civil rights, however, divided the Republican Party and nearly cost Truman the election.
Developments in Eastern Europe, the fall of China to Communist revolutionaries in 1949, and the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons terrified Americans, who feared that Communists would try to infiltrate or attack the United States from within. Congressman Richard M. Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee led the earliest Red hunts for Communists in the government, which culminated with the prosecution of federal employee Alger Hiss and the executions of suspected spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Truman initially supported these inquiries and even established a Loyalty Review Board to assist in the search. He eventually began to express concern, however, that the Red hunts were quickly devolving into witch hunts.
Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR eventually exploded in Korea when Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. Determined not to let Communism spread in East Asia, Truman quadrupled military spending and ordered General MacArthur to retake the southern half of the peninsula. MacArthur succeeded and then pushed the North Koreans almost up to the Chinese border. Threatened, over a million soldiers from Communist China poured into Korea, forcing MacArthur to retreat back to the 38th parallel, which had originally divided North Korea from South Korea.
When MacArthur began to criticize Truman publicly for his unwillingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea, Truman was forced to fire his top general for insubordination. United States forces remained entrenched at the 38th parallel for two more years, at the cost of more than 50,000 American lives. Both sides declared a cease-fire only after the new U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, threatened to use nuclear weapons in 1953.
Eisenhower’s election in 1952 ushered in an unprecedented era of economic growth and prosperity in the United States. The average national income doubled during the 1950s and then doubled again the following decade, primarily due to continued defense spending and to the 1944 Montgomery G.I. Bill, which helped returning veterans buy homes and go back to school. The postwar “baby boom” contributed to population growth, while the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities, “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs, and the rush to the Sun Belt altered population demographics. By 1960, most American families had a car, a television, and a refrigerator and owned their own home. Popular television sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet glamorized suburbia and consumerism.
“Ike” Eisenhower had entered the White House determined to block the creation of new social welfare programs, which he called “creeping socialism.” He did not, however, cut federal funding from existing New Deal programs. In fact, he expanded Social Security and the Federal Housing Administration and even set aside tens of millions of dollars for the creation of the first interstates under the Federal Highway Act. Still a conservative, though, Eisenhower refused to endorse the blossoming civil rights movement and signed the Landrum-Griffin Act, also known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, in the wake of numerous AFL-CIO labor union scandals in the mid-1950s.
First-term Wisconsin Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, meanwhile, exploded onto the national political scene in 1950, when he accused more than 200 federal employees of being Communists. Even though McCarthy had no proof to support these claims, Americans supported his endeavors to find more “Soviet agents” hiding in Washington. Thousands of former New Dealers and Red-hunt critics from all walks of life were wrongfully persecuted. McCarthy’s influence eventually waned after he humiliated himself during the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
In addition to halting “creeping socialism” at home, Eisenhower also wanted to “roll back” Communist advances abroad. Along with Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower devised a New Look at foreign policy that emphasized the use of nuclear weapons, rather than conventional weapons and troops, to contain Communism. Eisenhower threatened the USSR with “massive retaliation,” or nuclear war, against Soviet aggression or the spread of Communism.
Eisenhower also made full use of the newly created CIA to help overthrow unfriendly governments in developing countries. He resolved the Suez crisis peacefully before it led to war and committed American funds to fighting Ho Chi Minh’s pro-Communist forces in Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellites in 1957 started the space race, prompting Eisenhower to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and sign the National Defense Education Act. In his farewell address in 1961, he warned Americans of the growing military-industrial complex that threatened to restrict civil liberties and dominate American foreign policy making.
Facing term limits, Eisenhower endorsed Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960. Democrats countered with World War II hero and Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy. After a close race, Kennedy defeated Nixon, thanks in large part to the African-American vote and Kennedy’s polished performance in the first-ever televised presidential debates.
As president, Kennedy pushed for a package of new social welfare spending programs that he called the New Frontier. Hoping to inspire a new generation of young Americans, he told them to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, however, blocked most New Frontier legislation in Congress.
Because Eisenhower’s threat of “massive retaliation” had proved too stringent and binding, Kennedy and his foreign policy team devised a new doctrine of “flexible response” designed to give the president more options to fight Communism.
In addition, Kennedy committed thousands of American troops to South Vietnam to support Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt regime but claimed the troops were merely “military advisors.” In Latin America, Kennedy took a different approach, funneling millions of dollars into the Alliance for Progress to thwart Communists by ending poverty. Despite the new doctrine, Kennedy was unable to prevent Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev from constructing the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Kennedy’s greatest Cold War challenge came in Cuba. Hoping to topple Cuba’s new pro-Communist revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, Kennedy authorized the CIA to train and arm a force of more than 1,000 Cuban exiles and sent them to invade Cuba in the spring of 1961. When this Bay of Pigs invasion failed embarrassingly, Kennedy authorized several unsuccessful assassination attempts against Castro. Outraged, Castro turned to the USSR for economic aid and protection.
Khrushchev capitalized on the opportunity and placed several nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy consequently blockaded the island nation, pushing the United States and the USSR to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev ended the terrifying Cuban missile crisis when he agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for an end to the blockade. Kennedy also removed American missiles from Turkey and agreed to work on reducing Cold War tensions. Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated in late 1963, just as tensions were rising in Vietnam—which would prove to be the next, and most costly, theater of the Cold War.