Authored by Christian Ostermann, Ph.D.
For nearly half a century, between 1945 and 1989/91, the Cold War shaped how people in the United States lived their lives and thought about politics and the world in ways that are easily forgotten yet remain powerfully relevant today. The Cold War was so all-encompassing in its impact because it was both a military confrontation that had the potential destroy much of human civilization, and — somewhat paradoxically — also a confrontation between two competing universalist conceptions of how to build modern industrial civilizations. It was, in other words, a militarized clash of two systems, the Western model of pluralist democracy and market economy on the one hand and the Soviet model of communist dictatorships and state socialism on the other. For American leaders and citizens, what was at stake in fighting the Cold War was nothing less than the survival of the “American way of life.”
The roots of the conflict date back to the 19th century and early 20th century which witnessed the slow ascendance of the United States as the leading capitalist power, and, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the rise of Soviet Union as its main anti-capitalist critic. But it was not until the break-up of the accidental World War II alliance, in which both countries had temporarily joined to defeat Nazi Germany, that the ideological contest developed into a bipolar confrontation between two superpowers. World War II had made the United States the world’s most powerful country, economically and militarily. The deployment of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, designed to bring the war against Japan to an early end, demonstrated American technological leadership. For a few years, the United States was the world’s sole nuclear power.
Only the USSR, which at war’s end dominated much of the Eurasian land mass (its troops reaching deep into central Europe), could pose a major challenge to American preponderance. Led by Stalin, a megalomaniac dictator, the Soviet Union had played a pivotal role in the victory over Hitler. Stalin had hosted the Allied leaders in Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 for discussions of the postwar plans, underscoring his stature and that of his country in world affairs. At war’s end the USSR was seen as the liberator of the continent from Nazi yoke in many parts of Europe; communism, mantled in antifascism, commanded widespread appeal and inspiration. Though the USSR’s capabilities lagged behind those of the United States, the militarization of the Soviet economy and society would make it a formidable opponent.
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt had envisioned a postwar world in which peace was to be secured through the cooperation of the major powers (in the United Nations). Yet disputes over the Soviet installation of harsh Stalinist regimes in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in 1945 suggested to a growing number of people in the United States that such cooperation was impossible. Many agreed with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s view that an “Iron Curtain” was descending in the middle of Europe, dividing the continent. Early Cold War tensions (Iran, Turkey, Greece 1946) increasingly led the administration of President Harry S. Truman to believe that the USSR was pursuing bold and expansionist policies on a global scale.
Few officials in Washington expected a Soviet military attack given the tremendous destruction the USSR had suffered. But there were fears that war-weary Europeans, debilitated economically and psychologically and recalling the failures of capitalism and democracy in the prewar era, might vote their own communist parties into power and offer Moscow a chance to expand its influence. In response, the Truman administration developed a strategy of “containment” that sought to keep the power centers of Europe and Asia outside the Soviet orbit, reduce Soviet influence, and ultimately induce a basic change in the Kremlin’s approach to international affairs. In March 1947 Truman announced that the United States would come to the support of democratic governments threatened by communist subversion. Three months later the Truman administration launched a massive European recovery program, announced by Secretary of State George Marshall, forcing the Europeans to subordinate their historic rivalries to the common task of reconstruction, integration and democratization. In 1948 the United States embraced a similar set of priorities for occupied Japan.
As tensions with the Soviets rose, the joint running of occupied Germany proved increasingly unfeasible, hastening the establishment of a separate democratic-capitalist state in western Germany. Growing fears of the Soviet threat, spiked by the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, led to the conclusion of a formal military alliance between the United States and the Western European democracies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – the first of a set of military alliances, military bases and troop deployments through which the United States projected its military power across the globe.
FIGHTING THE COLD WAR
Fighting the Cold War required new national security instruments beyond the military: the 1947 National Security Act created a new National Security Council that was to coordinate the Cold War effort across the federal government. Building on the wartime beginnings of the Office of Strategic Services, the newly established Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sought to centralize and coordinate the rapidly expanding intelligence gathering aimed at the Soviet-Communist adversary. Out of the public eye, an expanding U.S. intelligence community employed human, signals, and imagery intelligence to understand Soviet capabilities and intentions. Shrouded in secrecy to this day, these “national technical means” would at later stages of the Cold War become critical to monitoring Soviet forces and verifying arms control agreements. U.S. Covert actions attempted to manipulate the course of the Cold War by methods ranging from bribing opinion-makers to paramilitary operations.
As thousands of U.S. diplomats, intelligence operatives, Marshall Plan officials and advisers headed to Europe, fears over Soviet-communist inroads also surfaced in Asia, especially following the victory of the communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949. Triggered by the unexpected, Soviet-sanctioned North Korean invasion of the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea in June 1950, the Korean War (1950-1953) supercharged these anxieties. Congress approved the tripling of the U.S. defense budget. Fears of future Soviet attacks caused the full-scale militarization of American containment strategy. At home, myriad civil defense programs, including the Federal Civil Defense Administration, sought to prepare American for a nuclear war through education, emergency drills, a system of fallout shelters and the Emergency Broadcast System.
Scientists, too, were mobilized into service for the Cold War. At top universities, weapons laboratories and in the defense industry, scientists and engineers, frequently under contract by the U.S. government, developed new weapons systems, spurring, with massive support by tax-payers’ dollars, technological innovations that bolstered military capabilities, space exploration and industrial production. Stepped up efforts led to the successful test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952 that was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Over the following decade, the United States built up of a large U.S. nuclear stockpile and acquired bombers, submarines, missiles and guns that could deliver the weapons to target, driven in part by exaggerated fears that the country had been outpaced by the USSR. Nuclear threats, the ever-present risk of accidental nuclear war through miscalculations, and fears of a preemptive strike by the other made these years among the most tense of the Cold War era. Provoked by Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev’s decision to send nuclear missiles to Cuba to defend the Fidel Castro’s revolution, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world perilously close to a nuclear conflagration. By the mid-1960s the United States found itself locked in a strategic stalemate with the Soviet Union: either could deter a potential attack inflicting massive death and destruction on the other.
The Cuban Missile Crisis gave renewed impetus to the efforts by diplomats and citizens to constrain the arms race and reduce the risk of general war. As nuclear conflict was increasingly understood by both sides as unacceptable given its devastating human and ecological costs, the Cold War competition flourished in other fields. Successive U.S. administrations deployed a broad arsenal of political, propaganda, economic, and cultural instruments to win the “hearts and minds” behind the Iron Curtain and in the Third World. In response to early Soviet propaganda and psychological warfare, the United States launched its own information and student exchange programs, such as the Fulbright scholarships. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized peace time propaganda overseas. Complementing overt U.S. government media as the Voice of America, the CIA mounted its own covert campaign through Radio Free Europe and later Radio Liberty, employing exiles and émigrés from the East to broadcast news and western views into the Soviet bloc. In 1950, Truman sought to enlist journalists in a “Campaign of Truth” to win the cold war. Financed in part by U.S. intelligence agencies, a growing network of private anti-communist organizations sought to place Communist regimes on the defensive. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the United States Information Agency (USIA) to conduct all U.S. information work around the world. American efforts included massive programs to translate and publish anti-communist books and journals for dissemination in the Warsaw Pact States and the developing world. The State Department and USIA, in what was commonly referred to “public diplomacy” after 1965, sponsored concert tours, created documentaries, secretly subsidized international newsreels and guided script decisions at major Hollywood studios to shape output with Cold War concerns in mind. Efforts to broaden the flow of Western ideas into the Soviet bloc expanded after the 1975 Helsinki Accords legitimized greater East-West contacts. International exchanges increased Soviet awareness of the life in the West, put realities in the East in a sharper relief and encouraged dissident impulses in the East.
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