The Cold War Continues
The Cold War Continues
During Kennedy’s and Johnson’s presidencies, tensions remained high with the USSR. These tensions peaked most notably in Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam.
The Berlin Wall
In 1961, the USSR completed construction of the Berlin Wall, which physically separated East and West Berlin and was patrolled by East German guards. The wall was meant to prevent the exodus of talented and intelligent East Germans to West Germany, but it also came to symbolize the division of the entire world into two carefully guarded Cold War spheres.
The Cold War in Cuba
After Fidel Castro and the Cuban communists overthrew the Cuban government in 1959, the island nation became a subject of much anxiety to the U.S., since it represented an extension of the Soviet sphere of influence close to American territory. In 1961, JFK authorized a plan, drawn up by the Eisenhower administration, to send 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained and armed by the U.S., back to Cuba to spark an insurrection. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, as this operation was known, took place in April 1961, and resulted in an embarrassing defeat for the returning exiles and the United States.
The focus of the Cold War turned toward Cuba once again in 1962, when Americans discovered Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba. In what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK vowed to quarantine Cuba with a naval blockade to prevent the shipment of more missiles and to dismantle the existing missile bases by force if the USSR did not do so. Some 250,000 troops gathered in Florida to prepare to invade Cuba, and U.S. naval forces readied themselves to intercept Russian freighters en route. U.S.-USSR relations became tenser than ever. Nuclear war seemed very possible: U.S. B-52s carrying nuclear weapons remained constantly airborne, ready to strike. After several days, Soviet Premier Khrushchev recalled the Russian freighters and sent Kennedy a message that he would dismantle the Cuban missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise never to invade Cuba. Kennedy accepted the compromise. The Cuban Missile Crisis has been viewed as the defining moment of JFK’s presidency.
The discovery of Soviet missile sites in Cuba in 1962 led to a standoff between the U.S. and the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world’s two superpowers closer to nuclear war than any other Cold War episode.
In July 1963, the U.S. and USSR signed the Limited Test-Ban Treaty, which prohibited undersea and atmospheric testing of nuclear weaponry. This effort at easing tensions would later be known as détente.
Vietnam and the Vietnam War
Vietnam, divided at the seventeenth parallel between communist North Vietnam and U.S.-dominated South Vietnam, concerned Kennedy from the very beginning of his presidency. He believed in Eisenhower’s “domino theory,” which held that when one nation fell under Soviet domination, others in the region would soon follow. In efforts to stave off communist advances, Kennedy boosted the number of U.S. forces in South Vietnam to 16,000 by 1963. These forces aimed to protect the South Vietnamese from the pro-communist National Liberation Front, called the Vietcong.
Less than a month later, JFK was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency and the oversight of American operations in Vietnam. In August 1964, two American destroyers allegedly clashed with North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, off North Vietnam. Johnson announced that Americans had been attacked without cause and ordered air strikes. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, which authorized the escalation of American troops’ involvement in Vietnam. Nearly equivalent to a declaration of war, this resolution allowed Johnson to act as he saw fit in Vietnam. In 1965, Johnson ordered “Operation Rolling Thunder,” which launched continuous bombing of North Vietnam. This plan, however, failed to force North Vietnam to negotiate, and did not stop the flow of soldiers and supplies to communist forces in the South.
Since bombing was ineffective, Johnson decided in March 1965 to commit ground forces to the struggle. By the end of 1967, nearly 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam. The enemy these soldiers faced—the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong—used guerrilla tactics and were well supplied, well reinforced, and determined to fight until U.S. forces left Vietnam.
The haphazard guerrilla warfare provided little measurable indication of failure or success, and the American public gauged victories from casualty rates. In January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong launched a massive offensive, known as the Tet Offensive. Though American troops repelled the offensive after about a month of fighting, many thousands of Americans were killed, and the enemy managed to breach many areas thought to be secure. The American public began to believe that victory in Vietnam was impossible. The growing antiwar movement gained immense strength and support, and Johnson’s approval ratings plummeted. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Johnson halted the sustained bombing of North Vietnam and announced that he would not seek reelection. The increasingly unpopular war would be placed in the hands of his successor.
The Tet Offensive was a major turning point in the Vietnam War. Though a tactical defeat for the pro-communist forces, thousands of American deaths and the scope of the offensive convinced many Americans of the impossibility of victory.
Protesting the Vietnam War
Opposition to the Vietnam War began on college campuses around the nation. In 1965, the first “teach-in” was held at the University of Michigan to discuss U.S. actions. In 1966, after a wave of military draft calls, mass protests erupted on college campuses. Many clergy, intellectuals, politicians, and others joined students in voicing opposition to the war. These critics denounced American involvement in an essentially Vietnamese war, claiming there was no way to win without great cost and loss of life, and noted that the war was fought predominantly by poor Americans. Television coverage of the war further intensified antiwar sentiments, as Americans saw firsthand the brutal devastation involved.
Although a majority of Americans still supported the war, those who opposed it did so fervently, and the nation polarized along the two sides. At times, violence erupted, as when antiwar protesters clashed with police outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
The Vietnam War sharply divided the American people into antagonistic pro-war and antiwar camps. Student movements, criticism from respected American luminaries, and televised atrocities all contributed to antiwar sentiments.
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