Wednesday, November 22, 2017


The Cold War: A Very Condensed History
Talk given at the Veterans Day ceremony at the Carroll County Veterans Memorial Park
November 11, 2017
Steve Goodson

The Cold War was a global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that took place during the four-and-a-half decades following World War II.  It is referred to as a “Cold” war because there was never open military conflict between the two great powers involved.  Rather, the war was fought by other means: the creation of rival alliances; the extension of military and economic aid to allies and potential allies; a tremendously expensive arms race; propaganda campaigns; espionage and subversion; guerilla warfare; and wars fought through other countries, such as Korea and Vietnam.  The Cold War touched every continent and even ventured into space.

The origins of the Cold War go back to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which ended with the victory of the Communists and ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  The ideology of communism was hostile to bedrock American values such as capitalism/free enterprise, political democracy, and religion.  In addition, the communist ideology was international in scope – the goal was the overthrow of capitalist governments around the world.

So, from the very beginning, the U.S. viewed Russian communism as a grave threat.  In fact, the U.S. did not formally recognize the existence of the Soviet government until 1933.

World War II created an unlikely – if temporary – alliance between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.  The war began in September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, but the U.S. didn’t enter the war until December 1941.  In the meantime, the U.S. provided desperately needed supplies to Britain as that nation – after the fall of France in June 1940 – faced Germany alone.

On June 22, 1941, however, Germany launched a massive surprise invasion of the USSR.  (Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been unwilling to accept indications of a possible invasion, placing faith in a non-aggression pact the Soviets had signed with Germany in August 1939.)  Many Americans were ambivalent about the possibility of seeing the Soviet Union as an ally.  U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman was quoted as saying, “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia and, if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”   British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not share Truman’s views, stating to his secretary that “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil before the House of Commons.”  Nor did President Franklin Roosevelt balk at supporting the Soviet Union in its struggle with the Nazis – the U.S. would supply millions of tons of supplies to the Soviets under the same Lend Lease policy by which Americans supplied the British.

Once the U.S. went to war with Germany in December 1941, what was called the “Grand Alliance” was formed between the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.  Throughout the war, however, there were tensions and a lack of full trust between the Soviets on the one hand and the British and Americans on the other.  Yet as long as its members faced a common enemy, the Grand Alliance held.

By late 1945, however, the common enemies had been defeated, and the United States and the Soviet Union were left the two most militarily powerful nations on earth.  The focus returned to the stark differences between the ideologies and interests of the two countries.  Relations between them had already begun to unravel late in the war, and this fraying continued through 1946 and into 1947.  On March 12, 1947, responding to Soviet pressures on Turkey and Greece, President Truman made a historic speech before Congress.  He requested $400 million in economic aid for Greece and Turkey, and asked for the authority to send U.S. military personnel to train their troops.  In the most famous and consequential line of the speech, Truman said, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.”

This principle became known as the Truman Doctrine.  At the heart of this doctrine was the idea of “Containment” – the U.S. must commit itself to preventing the expansion of communism beyond its existing borders.  In the world outlined by Truman in his speech, any territorial expansion of communism threatened the security and interests of the United States and of non-communist governments and people everywhere.  In a sense the U.S. would serve as a “global policeman,” using its military and economic power to contain communism.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Truman Doctrine, as it would be the backbone of American foreign policy for the next forty years.  The implementation of this Doctrine represented a sharp contrast to U.S. actions following the First World War, when – dashing the hopes of President Woodrow Wilson – the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the U.S. thereby failed to join the newly created League of Nations, choosing instead a retreat from international affairs and a period of relative “isolation.”

With the Cold War deepening, the U.S. faced a host of challenges in the late 1940s.  One of the first involved Berlin.  At the end of World War II, Germany had been divided into four occupation zones, each administered by one of the wartime Allies (the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union).  Berlin, the former German capital, lay deep within the Soviet zone, and was likewise carved into occupation zones that divided East from West Berlin.  In 1948, the Americans, British, and French began the process of unifying their German occupation zones into what would eventually be known as West Germany.  The Soviets adamantly opposed this action, and in April 1948 began restricting the flow of traffic from western Germany to West Berlin.  On June 24, the Soviets cut off access to West Berlin altogether, leaving more than two million West Berliners without supplies of food, fuel, and other necessities.

The Soviet goal was to force the western Allies either to give up control of West Berlin or give up their plans to unify their zones in western Germany. General Lucius Clay (a native of Marietta, Georgia), the military governor of the U.S. zone in Germany, stated, “When Berlin falls, western Germany will be next.  If we mean . . . to hold Europe against communism, we must not budge.”  President Truman agreed, and the decision was made to supply West Berlin by air.  Initially this seemed impossible, as it would be necessary to deliver 4,500 tons of food alone per day.  But the Allies brought in planes from all over the world, and by October they were delivering 5,000 tons of food daily.  Between June 1948 and May 1949, more than 1.5 million tons of supplies reached West Berlin, amounting to more than one-half ton for each West Berliner.

On May 12, 1949, the Soviets ended the blockade of Berlin.  That same May, a reunified western Germany adopted a constitution, and the newly christened German Federal Republic (West Germany) was functioning by the end of the year.  Also in 1949, the Soviets formed the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  The division of Germany was thus formalized and would last for more than four decades.  The western Allies granted full sovereignty to West Germany in 1955.

The eventful year of 1949 also witnessed the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty by the U.S. and a number of its allies, thus creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Under the treaty, an attack on any one of the member nations would be considered an attack on all of them.  In 1950, NATO created an integrated defense force in western Europe.  The Soviets established the Warsaw Pact in 1955, completing the division of Europe into mutually hostile armed camps.

The North Atlantic Treaty represented another sharp break from U.S. history and traditions.  There had long been a distaste among American leaders for “entangling alliances” during peacetime.  Under the mounting pressures of the Cold War, this principle gave way.

There were two other ominous developments late in 1949.  China’s civil war ended with the victory of the communist forces, thus giving communists control of the world’s most populous country.  In addition, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, ending the American nuclear monopoly.  This led the U.S. to develop a hydrogen bomb – far more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – with the Soviets following suit with their own H-bomb only months afterward.  The U.S. also began the rebuilding of its conventional military forces, which had been allowed to dwindle following World War II while the U.S. alone had the atomic bomb.  This was once again a major departure from American tradition and longstanding reluctance to maintain a “large standing army” during peacetime.

In 1950, Korea assumed center stage in the Cold War.  Occupied by Japan until 1945, Korea was subsequently divided into two occupation zones, with the Soviet Union controlling the peninsula to the north of the 38th Parallel and the U.S. in control to the south. 

By the end of 1949, the Soviets and Americans had withdrawn from Korea, leaving a heavily armed communist North facing a heavily armed anti-communist South across an artificial border, with each side determined eventually to reunify the peninsula on its own terms.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops began pouring across the 38th Parallel.  At Truman’s request, the United Nations Security Council (the UN had been formed at the end of World War II) held an urgent meeting in which it urged UN members to aid South Korea.  Ultimately nineteen nations contributed to the UN military effort, with the U.S. providing the vast majority of the troops and supplies.  The war initially went badly, with UN troops hemmed in around Pusan by August, but a brilliant counterattack behind North Korean lines turned the tide and began the push back north to the 38th Parallel.  General Douglas MacArthur, then the commander of the UN forces, persuaded Truman that the UN army should cross the Parallel and liberate North Korea.  By late November some UN forces had reached the Yalu River, which divides North Korea from China.  On November 25, however, some 300,000 Chinese troops surged across the Yalu in support of the North Koreans, taking the UN forces by surprise and causing the longest retreat in U.S. military history, which ultimately took the UN army back below the 38th Parallel.  Under General Matthew Ridgway, who had replaced MacArthur, UN forces regrouped and fought back close to the pre-war dividing line.  The result was a stalemate, with the war dragging on for two more years before an Armistice agreement was signed in July 1953.  The U.S. had suffered 140,000 casualties and had more than 33,000 men killed in the conflict.  A divided Korea remains one of the lasting legacies of the Cold War.

The Cold War entered the Western Hemisphere in dramatic fashion in 1959, when forces under Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt dictator of Cuba.  Castro ultimately aligned with the Soviets, a source of great concern to the U.S. since Cuba is only ninety miles from Florida.  One of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s last acts in office – in January 1961 – was to break off U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Incoming President John F. Kennedy inherited an Eisenhower Administration plan to have CIA-trained Cuban exiles invade Cuba and bring down Castro’s government.  The invasion – which landed at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs – was a complete disaster and a personal humiliation for the young president, coming as it did only three months after he had assumed office.

Perhaps sensing weakness, and fearing a full-scale U.S. invasion of Cuba, the Soviets began secretly constructing nuclear missile launching sites in Cuba in early 1962.  U.S. spy-plane photographs provided evidence of the sites in October 1962, leading to the gravest crisis of the Cold War.

The Kennedy Administration debated how to respond to the missile sites.  JFK resisted calls for an immediate invasion of Cuba and decided upon a naval blockade (or “quarantine,” as he would call it) of the island.  U.S. military forces were placed on high alert in preparation for a possible invasion of Cuba or – at worst – a nuclear war.  On October 22, Kennedy spoke to the nation on national television, announcing the presence of the nuclear launching sites and the U.S. determination that they be removed. One of the most stressful weeks in world history began with his statement that “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev angrily denounced Kennedy’s speech and vowed that Soviet ships would not honor the U.S. quarantine.  In the end, however, Soviet ships did pull up short of the quarantine line.  Behind-the-scenes negotiations resulted in an agreement by Khrushchev to remove the missiles and launching sites in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba in the future and to remove obsolete U.S. missiles from Turkey that were aimed at the USSR.

This was the closest the world had ever come to all-out nuclear war, and to a degree both sides took a step back.  A “hot line” was set up between Washington and Moscow to allow direct telephone communication by the two governments.  Furthermore, in September 1963, the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union agreed to a Limited Test Ban Treaty that would prohibit above-ground testing of nuclear weapons.  On the other hand, the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis led the Soviets to begin an arms build-up aimed at reaching nuclear parity with the United States, which the USSR achieved by the early 1970s.

In March 1965, the U.S. sent its first combat troops into Vietnam.  The Vietnam War is an enormously complicated story, with the roots of the conflict going back decades.  It is important to note here how much the war was a product of the policy of Containment.  The purpose of the war, from the U.S. perspective, was to prevent the expansion of communism from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.  Along with the need for Containment, U.S. leaders stressed the related “Domino Theory,” which held that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, a chain reaction would result in which one country after another would fall to the communists.  By the time the last U.S. forces were removed from Vietnam in early 1973, more than 58,000 Americans had been killed in the conflict.  In 1975, North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam and reunified the country under communist control.

After taking office in 1969, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger attempted a new relationship with the Soviet Union based upon the principle of “Détente,” or the easing of tensions.  This policy saw some successes, as Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit the Soviet Union and he and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed a historic Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (known by the acronym SALT).  But over the course of the 1970s Détente eroded and collapsed, with the last nail in its coffin being the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan aimed at propping up the Marxist government there.  As one of its responses to the invasion, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow.

Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and took a very hard line against communism and the Soviet Union.  In his view Détente had been a misguided mistake, and in 1983 Reagan famously referred to the USSR as “the evil empire.”   In October of that year U.S. forces invaded Grenada to free the Caribbean nation-state from what Reagan referred to as “a brutal gang of leftist thugs.”

But remarkably, after Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the two leaders were able to establish a good and productive relationship.  In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the first major arms reduction agreement in the history of the Cold War.

In the end, Gorbachev’s reforms made political dissent possible in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  Beginning with Poland in 1989, Eastern European countries began to elect non-communist governments and to break away from Soviet control.  In 1989, a shocked world looked on as the Berlin Wall – erected in 1961 and a grim symbol of the Cold War – came down.  In 1990, Germany was reunified.

The Soviet Union had entered its own process of disintegration, and the USSR – and as a result the Cold War – formally ended its existence on December 31, 1991.

The information in this talk was drawn from a variety of sources over a number of years.  One book in particular that I should credit with helping me put the talk together is Ronald E. Powaski, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (Oxford University Press, 1997).


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