The Korean War: Containment in Asia
In Asia, as in Europe, Truman tried to contain the spread
of communism. The U.S. denied the USSR any hand in the postwar reconstruction
of Japan and occupied Japan until 1952, at which point the U.S.
officially exited but left troops behind on American military bases. In
China, the U.S. spent almost $3 billion in a failed effort to support
Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek against Mao Zedong’s
communists. In 1949, the communists achieved victory and established
the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The nationalists fled to Taiwan,
where they established their own government to rival the PRC. Asia,
much like Germany, became the site of division between contending
camps, communist and noncommunist.
The Cold War conflict in Asia erupted into outright war
in June 1950, when troops from Soviet-supported North Korea invaded
South Korea. Without asking for a declaration of war, Truman committed
U.S. troops as part of a United Nations “police action.” In actuality,
the Korean War was carried out by predominantly American
forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.
By late September, MacArthur’s troops had forced the North Koreans
back past the thirty-eighth parallel, the dividing line between North
and South Korea. Truman authorized an offensive drive across this
divide and toward China, but MacArthur was repelled by Chinese forces
in November. Fighting stabilized around the previous border, and
in the spring of 1951 Truman sought to scale back the war effort
and negotiate peace, despite MacArthur’s proposals for bombing attacks north
of the Yalu River in China. After a month of publicly denouncing
the administration’s policy of restraint, MacArthur was relieved
from duty in April 1951. Limited fighting would continue until June
1953, when an armistice restored the prewar border between North
and South. U.S. forces had lost almost 55,000 lives.
Eisenhower and the Cold War
Even though the threat of direct confrontation seemed
to be waning by the early 1950s, the Cold War was by no means near
an end. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles committed the U.S.
to mutual defense pacts with forty-three nations. World War II hero
Eisenhower won the election of 1952. Convinced that a large nuclear
arsenal would deter the Soviets from rash action, Eisenhower advocated
cuts in the army and navy to provide funding for the construction
of nuclear weapons and the planes that dropped them. This “New
Look” emphasized massive retaliation rather than ground force
involvement in countries threatened by Soviet influence. This form
of retaliatory defense was articulated in the U.S. military doctrine Mutual
Assured Destruction (MAD). Developed in the early 1960s,
MAD promised that whoever launched a nuclear attack would be immediately
counterattacked, resulting in total nuclear devastation on both
The focus on massive retaliation, however, did
not detract from interest in the extension of each superpower’s
spheres of influence. The focus of the Cold War now turned toward
the Third World, where proxy wars were waged by local groups backed
by the two powers. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),
which grew rapidly throughout Eisenhower’s time in office, spearheaded
U.S. efforts in these proxy wars by providing covert assistance
to those opposing Soviet-backed forces. In 1953, the CIA helped
to restore the deposed Shah of Iran to power, securing an American
ally along the Soviet border. Also in 1953, the CIA intervened in elections
in the Philippines. In 1954, it backed a military coup in Guatemala.
One marked example of the CIA’s failure came in early 1959, when
Cuba became a communist state led by Fidel Castro.
During the 1950s, the Cold War’s focus
turned to the Third World, where the U.S. and USSR often backed
rival groups in civil conflicts. The CIA spearheaded U.S. activity, engaging
in covert operations to aid U.S.-supported groups.
Threats to Stability: Vietnam and the Middle East
The CIA’s most important activities in the 1950s occurred
in Vietnam. Truman (and later Eisenhower) provided American aid
to the French, who battled the communist nationalist Vietminh for
control of the former French colony. In May 1954, the French surrendered. At
a conference in Geneva in July, Vietnam was divided at the seventeenth
parallel, pending possible reunification through free elections.
Eisenhower, however, refused to sign the Geneva Peace Accords on
account of his “domino theory,” which stated that should
Vietnam fall to Soviet control—as would likely happen if elections
reunified the country because the communist forces were dominant—all
of Asia would soon follow. The CIA thus helped to install Ngo Dinh
Diem as president of South Vietnam and helped him block the elections
that would have reunified Vietnam. But Diem’s control was tenuous
at best, and in 1960 the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam,
backed by North Vietnam, formed in opposition to Diem. Eisenhower
sent funds and advisers to aid Diem, committing the U.S. to involvement
in a potentially volatile situation.
Perhaps the greatest crisis faced by the Eisenhower administration
sprang up in the Middle East. In 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser came to
power in Egypt and nationalized the Suez Canal, which
had previously been foreign-owned. Israel, Britain, and France subsequently
attacked Egypt in October 1956. Eisenhower, enraged at his allies
for acting without consulting him, condemned their actions and prepared
for potential war. Finally, Britain, Israel, and France agreed to
pull out of Egypt in November 1956. In January 1957, Eisenhower
announced that the U.S. would increase its involvement in the Middle
East to oppose Soviet aggression by sending military aid and troops
if necessary. This “Eisenhower Doctrine” justified
the deployment of 14,000 marines to Lebanon in July 1958 to promote stability.
The Eisenhower Doctrine, elucidated after the
Suez Canal crisis, committed the U.S. to military involvement in
the Middle East when necessary to counter communist advances.
The Space Race
The struggle for nuclear dominance begot a battle between
the superpowers to exhibit technological prowess in all fields.
In October 1957 the USSR launched a space satellite, Sputnik.
The U.S. countered, launching Explorer I in January
1958. Still, American concern over technological competitiveness
lingered, spurring the 1958 creation of the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA).