USHI Module: How Was the Cold War Waged?

KC Johnson

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Paul Nitze, author of NSC 68

In 1947, the journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann penned an article describing the developing US-USSR confrontation as a "Cold War."  The term came to describe the state of superpower relations for the next four decades.  This unit focuses on the foreign policy aspects of how the Cold War was waged. In doing so, it raises three questions:
Why did the Cold War occur?
Why did military tactics become the preferred way for the US to wage the Cold War?
Why did the Cold War spread beyond Europe and become global in scope?


Making the Transition:
Historians debate an appropriate starting point for the onset of the Cold War; this debate, in many ways, provides an opening for any study of the Cold War.  Authors such as David Foglesong and William Appleman Williams trace the beginning to the US intervention in the Russian civil war; still others point to the domestic anti-radicalism of the first Red Scare and the 1920s.

Those who pin the start to the post-World War II period divide largely into three camps.  New Left historians, such as Walter LaFeber but most outspokenly Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, see US policies as primarily responsible for the onset of tensions.  They argue that the US acted in such a way that created fears of encirclement by the Soviet Union, and the Soviets responded defensively by consolidating their position in Eastern Europe.

This viewpoint has been most passionately challenged by Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis, who sees Soviet actions in general and the decisions of Josef Stalin in particular as the driving force behind the postwar tensions.  In recent years, Gaddis has pointed to a large batch of Eastern bloc documents that bolster his view.

Taking a position somewhere in the middle, University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler has argued in two recent books that the war resulted mostly from a combination of the domestic institutional situations in both nations and balance-of-power forces, in which both the US and USSR were drawn into a power vacuum in central Europe.


The end of World War II saw two major powers dominating the European scene: the United States, whose troops liberated the western half of the continent; and the Soviet Union, whose Red Army had driven the Germans from eastern and east-central Europe.  Europe thus was in many ways a divided continent even before the Cold War dawned.

In addition, the two sides had fundamentally different viewpoints of the postwar scene and of their rival's intentions.  The first major dispute of the postwar era occurred over Poland, the invasion of which by Germany had triggered the start of World War II.  Between 1919 and 1921, the Soviet Union had been at war with Poland; in 1941, the Nazis had marched into the USSR through Polish territory.  Unsurprisingly, then, strategic concerns remained highest in Stalin's mind.  For President Roosevelt, the Atlantic Charter signified a US commitment to Polish democracy; FDR also paid attention to the wishes of Polish-American voters, an element of his Democratic constituency.  At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the two leaders worked out an arrangement in which the Soviets consented to holding "free elections" in Poland while the US agreed that any resulting Polish regime should be "friendly" to Moscow.  From FDR's point of view, a compromise on the issue was possible.  The Soviets, however, had a quite different perspective on the future of Poland.



Quite beyond the fate of Poland, the US and the USSR brought a different set of historical assumptions and ideological biases to international affairs.  To an extent, the Cold War developed a momentum of its own, as can be seen through a time line of the era.

Within that broad scope of time, a few key events stand out in contributing to the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union:

January 5, 1946: President Truman indicates that the US will not recognize future communist governments, since "I'm sick of babying the Soviets
February 9, 1946: Before the Communist Party Congress, Stalin suggests that communism and capitalism were incompatible.
February 22, 1946: George Kennan's Long Telegram, one of the most famous documents of the Cold War, contending that Russian behavior was determined by a "traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity," and that "we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi."
March 5, 1946: Former British prime minister Winston Churchill, at Fulton, Missouri, declares that an "Iron Curtain" has descended on Europe.
March 10, 1946: Truman demands Russia withdraw from Iran, which had been jointly occupied by the British and the Red Army during World War II, with no oil concessions and no annexation of Azerbaijan.
September 12, 1946: Former Vice President and then Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace delivers a Madison Square Garden speech announcing ""the tougher we get with Russia, the tougher they will get with us"; he was forced to resign as Secretary of Commerce September 20.
March 12, 1947: President Truman announces the Truman Doctrine, informing Congress, "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 by outside pressures.
June 5, 1947: Secretary of State George Marshall, in a commencement address at Harvard University, announces a package of economic assistance to aid in European recovery. Though not "directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos," the Marshall Plan further divides Europe into two spheres of influence.  For his efforts, Time named the secretary of state its "Man of the Year" for 1947.
July 26, 1947: Congress passes the National Security Act, which creates a civilian Secretary of Defense (the first was James Forrestal), a National Security Council, a Central Intelligence Agency--but does not call for universal military training.
February 25, 1948: Communists overthrow the government of Eduard Benes in Czechoslovakia, the last democratic nation in the Soviet bloc.
June 24, 1948: Further increasing tensions over Europe's future, at least according to the newly created CIA, the Soviets begin a blockade of the Western zones in occupied Berlin; the Allied powers would respond with an 11-month airlift to supply the beleaguered city.
Apr. 4, 1949: The NATO treaty is signed.
July 14, 1949: The USSR explodes its first atomic bomb.
Oct. 1, 1949: The Communist Party completes its triumph in the Chinese Civil War, as Mao Zedong assumes power.
Another way, though, to glimpse the differences between the two sides comes in examining two documents, from comparable periods, one from the US embassy in Moscow, the other from the Soviet embassy in Washington.  In such a view, a close look at George Kennan's philosophy becomes particularly important in understanding the Cold War's origins.

 Such an approach leads to some interesting questions to consider for this phase of the Cold War, such as:

--To what extent did either Kennan or Novikov correctly analyze the other side's intentions at the dawn of the Cold War?
--Do you see turning points in the development of the Cold War, places where, if it couldn't have been avoided, at least it could have followed a different path?

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Historiographical Debate:
Unlike the origins of the Cold War, on the question of militarization, the dispute largely centers on the important event rather than the key motivation.  Most US history textbooks point to the onset of the Korean War as the time when the Cold War became "hot."   But in the last decade-plus, two powerful monographs have challenged that view.   In American Cold War Strategy, Ernest May suggests that the militarization of the Cold War was, in part, the classic example of bureaucratic politics in action, as Paul Nitze, director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, maneuvered his way through the upper reaches of the Truman administration to bring about the adoption of NSC 68, a more comprehensive national security document than virtually anyone in the administration deemed possible only 18 months before.
Meanwhile, in an important work of scholarship--in addition to a partial memoir of his time in office--former Harvard dean and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy's Danger and Survival argued that the 1950 decision to develop the H-bomb--a weapon that had no conceivable military use--represented the key turning point in making military tactics the primary means through which US national security policy would be structured.
Making the Transition
A section on this question, then, could address any of these three explanations, or a combination of all three.
Despite the newer--and, in many ways, more interesting historiographical trends--the Korean War represents the logical place to start in examining the militarization of the Cold War.  After the North Korean invasion of the South on June 27, 1950, the Truman administration itself struggled to understand the first week of action.  Eventually, however, the administration settled on a policy of going to the United Nations for a resolution authorizing an international force to repel the invasion.  The CIA did not underestimate the difficulty of the task.  The war itself dragged on for nearly three years before ending in a somewhat inconclusive armistice and more conclusive treaty of mutual defense between the United States and Korea, the first such document negotiated between the US and a nation on the Asian continent.
Any study of the Korean War yields itself to an analysis of NSC 68, which, in many ways served as the ideological basis for the conflict.  One obvious effect of the war: a dramatic increase in US defense spending, as NSC 68 recommended.
And, among the items receiving the new appropriations: the hydrogen bomb, one of the most controversial weapons ever built in the United States.  Begin with the Nuclear age timeline, followed by the H-bomb time line, to get a sense of where the development of the weapon fitted into the overall militarization of the Cold War.  PBS has also put together a useful set of teaching suggestions on the topic, which includes visual images of the effects of the H-bomb.  Finally, for a particularly useful exercise in understanding--on a miniature scale--how the development of the H-bomb affected international relations, play a round on the Prisoners' Dilemma.

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Making the Transition:

The US involvement in Vietnam, which is covered in another USHI module, represents the obvious starting point for such a unit.  But this question also yields itself to an examination of the Latin American policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.  Robert Pastor, a historian of the region and NSC staffer during the Carter administration, has provided a quick overview of the literature on the topic.
The Eisenhower administration entered office committed to a foreign policy it dubbed the New Look and it summarized in NSC 162/2 [WHICH I WILL NEED TO SCAN]  Concerned with the budget implications of the containment philosophy held by the Truman administration, Eisenhower reined in defense spending (the only Cold War President to do so) by relying more on the threat of a massive retaliation launched from nuclear weapons to deter communist aggression.  This approach, however, was not designed to meet leftist challenges in the Third World, for which the administration instead relied on covert action.
The US involvement in the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz's left-leaning regime in Guatemala represents the best example of New Look covert action.  That Arbenz ordered the expropriation of United Fruit Company landholdings represented enough proof for the administration of his supposedly communist leanings, although recent scholarship has suggested that Arbenz was, in fact, a secret member of the Communist Party.
In Operation PBSUCCESS, Eisenhower and his chief foreign policy advisers--Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and DCI Allen Dulles--authorized a covert operation designed to encourage the Guatemalan Army to deflect from Arbenz. A 12-page detailed plan of the operation's goals and the policy behind it are now available. A good summary of the literature relating to the US involvement; in addition, the CIA itself commissioned an internal study of the operation. Moreover, the National Security Archive has recently obtained a trove of newly declassified CIA documents on the Guatemalan operation.


From Eisenhower to Kennedy:

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Kennedy, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara during ExComm deliberations

While Guatemala represented the key Latin American initiative of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy focused his hemispheric diplomacy on Cuba.  In his inaugural address, Kennedy promised that the United States would actively meet the communist threat anywhere in the the world, although his administration's first effort in that regard, the Bay of Pigs affair of 1961, ended disastrously.  Nonetheless, in Operation MONGOOSE, the administration continued to search for ways to oust Fidel Castro from power.
This failure hovered over the administration's response to events in Cuba 18 months later.   After U-2 overflights confirmed, on October 15, 1962, the existence of a Soviet missile site in Cuba, President Kennedy convened the ExComm (executive committtee of the National Security Council) to deliberate the US response. The fourteen days of the crisis saw the administration adopt a quarantine of Cuba as an alternative to an immediate air strike, Kennedy deliver an ominous speech to the American public announcing the discovery of the missiles, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson engage in a widely broadcast confrontation with Soviet UN ambassador V.I. Zorin about the Soviet intentions in Cuba, and the two sides eventually agree to a withdrawal of the missiles in exchange for a public commitment by the United States not to invade Cuba and a private promise to dismantle NATO's Jupiter Missiles in Turkey.
The missile crisis itself can be taught in a number of interesting ways.  For those of a more document-oriented bent, the Foreign Relations of the United States series has all of its Cuban Missile Crisis documents on line; a sample is here.  But the better place to start is with the Kennedy Tapes, transcripts (with commentary) of the secret recordings made at the time by President Kennedy and prepared by historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.  Finally, the recent film Thirteen Days has an interesting--and quite balanced--historical web site devoted to a full-fledged analysis of the crisis and the differences between the historical and movie versions.
In many ways, the Cuban Missile Crisis represents a logical way to conclude this unit, combining as it does elements from all three foreign policy questions that the unit poses as well as offering one of the most clear-cut demonstrations of the interrelated nature of foreign and domestic policy during the Cold War.  Film represents one way of making the point of how the Cold War affected American culture; no better demonstration is Dr. Strangelove, especially the War Room scene. One particularly useful comparison in this regard is between Strangelove and On the Beach, released four years earlier. The differences in technical discussion about nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy between the two movies offer one way of suggesting how the crisis brought home to the American public the immediate impact of seemingly abstract debates about foreign policy, weapons systems, and international strategy.

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