The Korean War: Containment in Asia
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 sides.
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).
Help | Feedback | Make a request | Report an error