the cold war

Today's selection -- from The Long Sixties: America, 1955 - 1973 by Christopher B. Strain. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Castro, and the Cold War:

“On May 5, 1960, on the eve of a historic summit in Paris between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Khrushchev announced that the Soviets had shot down an American spy plane over Soviet airspace. The United States initially denied that a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane had been spying when brought down, but Khrushchev produced not only film of Soviet military bases taken from the plane wreckage but also the captured pilot himself, Francis Gary Powers, who had parachuted to safety. Caught in a lie, Eisenhower hesitatingly accepted full responsibility for the incident and announced that there would be no future flyovers. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done: coupled with increasingly shrill arguments over the imminent partitioning of Berlin ( divided in 1961 by a concrete wall, guard towers, machine-gun posts, and barbed wire to prevent East Germans from leaving Soviet-controlled East Berlin for the democratic western section of the city), the U-2 incident ruined chances for success at the Paris summit. Nor would it be the last time that a downed U-2 would end up jeopardizing diplomatic negotiations at a key moment in US-Soviet relations. Indeed, such would be the pattern of events throughout the nearly 45-year-long period of tense US-Soviet relations known collectively as the Cold War, with all of its brazen lies, calculated bluffs, embarrassed retractions, and bold posturing by each side. During the long but never officially ‘hot’ conflict, chance after chance for reconciliation seemed almost preordained to derail through diplomatic blunder or military gambit. 

“The Cold War began as World War II was ending, even as the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki mushroomed into the atmosphere. The United States now squared off against its recent ally in the epic struggle against the Axis powers, the Soviet Union. Having two seemingly contradictory ideologies, these two ‘Superpowers’ found themselves pitted in an ideological struggle that reflected the perceived needs of the Americans and the Soviets to ensure national security, increase global influence, and consolidate power. A decade after the end of World War II, the Cold War showed no signs of abating.

“In the name of securing its own borders, the Soviet Union maintained an expansionist policy into the 1960s—indeed, throughout the duration of the Cold War. Having invaded several Eastern European neighbors weakened by World War II, the USSR had used aggressive military action in the late 1940s and 1950s to create a buffer zone of communist countries—often referred to as Soviet ‘satellite’ states—along its western border. When the Soviets pushed into these other nations in the wake of World War II, the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), fearing the outbreak of another world war, responded, but did so cautiously, applying political pressure rather than military force. Emboldened by the lack of direct military intervention from the United States and Europe, Khrushchev contemplated expanding the Soviet military presence into the Western Hemisphere.

“For many Americans the Cold War came home, so to speak, in 1959 when guerrilla leader Fidel Castro ousted the US-supported dictator in Cuba, an island nation only 90 miles from the tip of Florida. Castro, a young revolutionary and a lawyer, alarmed his neighbors to the north when he announced he was communist and commandeered American-owned businesses on the island. It seemed to Americans, in Washington as well as on Main Street, that communism, a Soviet phenomenon a world away, had cropped up in the United States' own backyard. President Eisenhower publicly protested Castro's agrarian reforms throughout 1960 and eventually broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. No longer a faraway, even ephemeral concept, the Cold War—heretofore largely a propaganda battle with the Soviets—had suddenly become much more concrete as the USSR moved to support Castro's regime economically. An initial agreement to buy Cuban sugar led to beefed-up trade between the Caribbean nation and the Soviet Union.

“Propping up Castro seemed to fit into the larger strategy of Soviet dealings with the West. Russian history provided ample evidence to mistrust outsiders and sustain the impression of a hostile world aligned against Moscow; therefore, supporting Cuba could be understood as a logical defensive measure by the Russians. As far as the Americans were concerned, however, the move constituted a dangerous kind of Soviet expansionism. Whether through an obsession with national security, or a genuine ideological commitment to creating an international classless society, the Soviets seemed to be advancing communism by spreading it to other nations far and wide. Alliances with other nations also played a central part of each superpower's overall strategy, as did covert operations and the practice of brinkmanship. ‘The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art,' Secretary of State Dulles openly told LIFE magazine in 1956.

“In many ways Eisenhower's response to Castro's takeover and Soviet support of the new regime in Cuba seemed to mirror the Soviet's strategy, especially in the conviction that making bold announcements and striking aggressive poses would increase difficulties for the other side. Together, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles articulated an uncompromising vision of US hegemony at mid-century. The United States, like the Soviet Union, felt that it had to appear willing to resort to the use of nuclear weapons whenever and wherever its interests were at stake. And it was this sort of drastic, even apocalyptic mindset, that gave birth to what became known as the nuclear arms race, as the Soviet Union continually tried to achieve ‘parity’ with the United States in terms of numbers of nuclear warheads, even as the United States continually tried to increase its nuclear stockpile to ‘stay ahead’ of the Soviets. It was understood by American strategists that, whatever their differences, communists worldwide shared common interests hostile to those of the ‘free world,’ and that eventually they would act on that basis. Under President Eisenhower, Secretary of State Dulles advanced a theory of what one scholar has termed ‘asymmetrical strategic deterrence,’ a bold response sometimes mischaracterized as ‘massive retaliation.’ The idea was not to resort to nuclear weapons, ‘nukes’ for short, upon minimal provocation; rather, it was to make the cost of aggression so great that aggression itself became cost-prohibitive; with his conceptualizations of first-strike and second-strike capabilities, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, would later hone this idea into what came to be called ‘mutually assured destruction.'

Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, 1945

“If the situation should escalate, the United States should not sway from its duty to use all of the weapons at its disposal—up to and including nukes. As far as Dulles and other US leaders were concerned, nuclear weapons, the massive use of which could, of course, end human life on Earth, were simply bigger and better weapons—another step in the progression of warfare, akin to the technological advancement of gunpowder over the crossbow. Dulles felt it was morally irresponsible to watch communism spread, threatening democratic ideals, and he seemingly convinced Eisenhower that the nuclear option should always be available to thwart the Russians or the Chinese. The general idea, the President told Congressional leaders in late 1954, was ‘to blow hell out of them in a hurry if they start anything.’

“This hardline approach carried the United States through the 1950s, but the policy had reached its limits by the end of Eisenhower's tenure in office. In his ‘Farewell Address’ in January 1961, Ike warned the American people against the ‘conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry’ that was ‘new in American experience’ and whose influence was felt in every city, state house, and federal building. ‘In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,’ declared the President, now a lame duck. ‘The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.’ It was a strong warning from Eisenhower, one which the Kennedy administration promptly ignored.

“Indeed, upon taking office Kennedy took steps to grow the very ‘military-industrial complex’ that his predecessor had just cautioned against, establishing a special post in the Defense Department in 1961 to sell American arms through private corporations to foreign nations. By 1965, American companies had exported $1.9 billion worth of arms to Europe, Japan, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, and other nations, whether democratic or dictatorial, deemed to be sufficiently anti-communist. The General Dynamics Corporation alone sold more than $1 billion worth of military goods, mainly sophisticated and expensive electronic equipment, overseas between 1962 and 1965. These sorts of collusions between private companies and the US government would feed the impression that American corporations were directing foreign policy as much as US foreign policymakers were.”



Christopher B. Strain


The Long Sixties: America, 1955 - 1973




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