“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein, 1949
World War II eliminated one type of totalitarianism only by strengthening another, with Soviet communism gaining territory and momentum. The U.S. and Soviet Union were the two powers left standing at the end of WWII, but their longstanding rivalry never degenerated into a direct armed conflict between the two nations. Thus, their rivalry was called the Cold War as opposed to an actual hot war. What lent the Cold War such urgency was that if it had turned into a hot war, it would’ve been the hottest war in history because each side stockpiled big arsenals of nuclear weapons.
Complicating matters, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was a sociopath of near Hitlerian proportions. As General Secretary of the Communist Party, his ruthless disregard for human life made him the idol of future Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The son of Georgian peasants, Comrade Stalin worked his way up the Bolshevik ranks as a bank robber in the czarist era. In power from 1922-53, he was probably as murderous as Hitler, killing at least 10 million Soviets through deliberate, if famine-related, starvation, including the Ukrainian Holodomor (below), Great Terror political purges, and imprisonment in Gulag labor camps. Some historians, including Robert Conquest in The Great Terror (1968), estimate the number as high as 20 million while others, including Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Soviet historian/political reformer Alexander Yakovlev, put the number far higher yet, at 60-70 million. Of course, Hitler’s total should include more than just the Holocaust since he was largely responsible for the entire European theater of WWII that killed tens of millions more, including civilians in Stalin’s USSR.
For sheer callousness at least, Stalin could rival anyone. He sealed off borders and liquidated prosperous peasants (kulaks) by starving them to death to redirect their money toward industry. He famously said that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Like Hitler, his genocidal policies were often aimed at nationalities such as Ukrainians or nomads of Kazakhstan.
Nonetheless, most historians would argue that, given the choice, Soviets and Eastern Europeans were lucky that the USSR prevailed over Germany in World War II. Remember, Hitler’s unrealized Generalplan Ost would’ve enslaved, expelled or exterminated most of the Slavic population. Under Stalin, citizens were usually allowed to live as long as they submitted to state authority and many prisoners survived the Gulags. Luckily, Stalin never fully provoked the West to the point of escalation and didn’t live to see the advent of nuclear missiles.
From the American perspective, Stalin was less concerned with international expansion than the Trotskyist faction among Russians. However, the USSR already included huge swaths of the Eurasian continent and, after 1945, Stalin’s Socialism In One Country — focusing on shoring up communism in-house rather than expansion — included solidifying Marxism in Eastern Europe. Prior to WWII at least, the ultimate goal of Communist International was the overthrow of the U.S. government. The Cold War fault line was the border between Western and Eastern Europe, where the Soviets set up a series of client states, or puppet governments with no real autonomy, who took their cues from the Soviets. These countries were known as the Eastern Bloc and, in a commencement speech in Missouri, United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill nicknamed the line between them and the West the Iron Curtain. Within the USSR, Soviet propaganda cited Churchill’s speech as a virtual declaration of war by the “Anglo-American imperialists.” Security was so tight along the Iron Curtain that bears and wolves were trapped on one side or another. The people of Bratislava, in today’s Slovakia, didn’t see beavers reappear on their part of the Danube River until 1989. Within East Germany, one of the Eastern Bloc countries, lay Berlin, itself divided into Soviet and western sectors, east and west. Vienna, Austria was similarly divided after the war, until 1955. However, the Cold War wasn’t just fought in Europe; it was fought all over the globe and even Space above.
While the U.S. and Soviets were allies in WWII against their common enemy, Germany, the two countries never got along well. Communism was antithetical to free markets, as was the Soviet dictatorship to American democracy. As far back as the 1830s, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed of the U.S. that “no country in the world has a more lively or concerned feeling for property.” Since the late 19th century, the U.S. considered its economy dependent on global trade and the emergence of communist countries threatened to dilute its prosperity. The Soviets remembered American anti-Bolshevik intervention in the Russian Revolution at the end of WWI and thought of the U.S. as an aggressive, interventionist country.
There was religious conflict, too, given that the U.S. was mostly religious and the USSR was at least perceived as being godless. The Soviet government never actually snuffed out Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Judaism in its European regions or Islam in South Asia, but their official state policy was atheism. By the 1970s, the Soviet government bragged of having destroyed 611 of 657 churches that stood in Moscow in 1917. Communism’s founder Karl Marx famously wrote that religion was the “opium of the people”. He meant that establishments use organized faiths to manipulate working classes and keep their minds off their exploitive circumstances. Suffice it to say, that idea never gained traction in America. The U.S. government responded by adding “one nation, under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance that children recited in public schools and “In God We Trust” to currency to replace E Pluribus Unum (from many, one). Soviet propaganda, meanwhile, harped on America’s longstanding inability to reconcile Christian values and race relations (click to enlarge, right).
The two countries were wary of each other as they closed in on Germany at the end of WWII. Each knew the other would keep control over the area that it held at the end of the war. At the end in May 1945, the Soviets had a bigger army, but the U.S. had the atomic bomb. The Americans pressed for troop reduction and the Soviets for a nuclear-free world but, of course, neither would give up their advantage.
The American government was more focused on history than religion at this point, though. They were anxious to avoid the mistakes of the previous generation by not over-punishing WWII’s losers the way the Allies had Germany after WWI. Despite five years of violent conflict, Japan quickly became America’s biggest Pacific ally, an “ideological dam” against communism as former president Herbert Hoover called it. General Douglas MacArthur oversaw reconstruction efforts there during the American Occupation of 1945-49, revitalizing industry and writing a new constitution. Germany’s heavy indebtedness only helped sink the world economy in the 1930s and led to Nazism. This time, the U.S. rebuilt West Germany’s economy as best it could, hoping for a strong ally in the heart of Europe, and wrote off a big chunk of the debt they still owed from the Versailles settlement of 1919. The U.S. didn’t actually control Western Europe the way the Soviets did the Eastern Bloc, but they fended off communism and built up industry. They even hired Nazis to assassinate communist leaders. There, as in Asia, they built an ideological dam. As we’ll see below, America also established a series of bilateral security agreements in Asia with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, whereas in Western Europe they crafted a unilateral alliance called NATO.
President Harry Truman called Herbert Hoover out of retirement because of his experience in reconstruction efforts after WWI. The ex-president opposed an expensive American military presence in Europe and Asia, arguing that it would bust the budget and turn the U.S. into an authoritarian nation. For him, American allies in both regions should shoulder the military burden. Hoover thought it was important, though, that the U.S. help rebuild Asia and Europe financially. Germany, especially, was sinking into an economic abyss after the war, compounded by a harsh winter. People were hungry and, in that environment, communism looked all the more appealing, especially since communists could associate greedy capitalists with the Nazi regime who’d ruined the country (the Nazi’s purged their leftist factions in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives). The U.S. naturally didn’t want German industry focused on militarization, but the Hoover Report nonetheless made the case to the American public and Truman’s administration that rebuilding West Germany was essential to the health of Europe and, by extension, America’s future prosperity and peace. While the U.S. supported prosecuting Nazi ringleaders at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, Hoover suggested that de-Nazification and retribution should give way quickly to an emphasis on economic growth. There was a narrow window of opportunity to replace the proverbial stick with the carrot — the stick here being de-Nazification and the carrot being money. While Germans were only allotted a third as many daily calories (1500) as occupying forces, and German women sometimes sold themselves just to feed their families, the overall relations between Germans and the occupying Allied forces was decent given the circumstances. After all, if the West didn’t come through, the Soviets would fill the vacuum with its own carrots and sticks.
Journalist Eric Lichtblau traced how America provided safe haven to hundreds of German scientists, engineers, doctors, informants, and spies and in The Nazis Next Door (2014). This occurred while a quarter million Holocaust survivors remained in Displaced Person Camps as the Allies decided what to do with them — often the same concentration camps they’d been in during the war with Allied flags flying over them. Thousands died after the war, some at the hand of prison guards but most from disease and malnutrition despite modest rations of bread and coffee. As word of their plight spread to Congress and President Truman, the normally anti-Semitic Truman wrote Eisenhower, “One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not led to believe that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.” But General George Patton, who as you read in the previous chapter led America’s 3rd Army through France, Belgium and Germany in 1944-45, hoped the camps would protect Germans from murder and pillage at the hands of escaped Jews who would otherwise “spread over the country like locusts.” He oversaw the camps. “Old Blood & Guts” wrote in his diary that the American officials who compiled the scathing 1945 Harrison Report on DP Camps “believe the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.” He was disgusted that, in the absence of bathrooms, they defecated on the floor and even constructed makeshift synagogues in camp. Oblivious to their circumstances and put off by survivors’ emaciated appearance, he was astonished that “beings alleged to be made in the form of God could look the way they do.” Crediting perpetrators as much as he blamed victims, Patton even overrode Eisenhower’s direct orders and used Nazis to administer DP camps because of their experience and efficiency! With the 1920s immigration policies still in place (Chapter 7), the U.S. granted only 40k visas to Jews who survived the Holocaust from 1945-48.
Secretary of State George C. Marshall traced Hoover’s path, meeting with many of the same people, and agreed with his proposals for rebuilding West Germany’s economy. Marshall, who led the U.S. Army during WWII as Chief of Staff and served as Secretary of State until 1949, pushed the idea of a major European stimulus package in his Harvard commencement address of 1947. In 2013, the History News Network conducted a poll of professional historians, asking them to name the most important document in American history, exempting the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Surprisingly, Marshall’s Harvard speech outdistanced Paine’s Common Sense (1776), MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech (1963), the Suffragists’ Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments (1848), and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Part of that may have been because those other important documents stole votes from each other. Another reason, though, is that while it’s easy to remember how the misguided punitive peace after WWI led to WWII, it’s easy to forget that the smart resolution to WWII led to 70 years and counting of peace and prosperity in Western Europe. That was also due to other factors, including the bomb making war a more unthinkable option, but the Marshall Plan laid the foundation for that success. It’s also easy to forget that American post-war prosperity would’ve been impossible without strong, allied institutions in Europe. Economies don’t respond to political borders, which is why the European debt crisis of 2008-12 threatened America’s recovery from the Great Recession. And, if Europe had degenerated into more war after 1945, the U.S. undoubtedly would’ve been pulled in.
Despite an understandable skepticism among many American voters, the Marshall Plan passed Congress in 1948, sending $13 billion worth of grants (not loans) to Europe. They also forgave Germany’s wartime debt. Similar funds aimed at Japan helped the U.S. rebuild a bulwark of democratic capitalism in the Pacific. Congress offered to include aid to the Eastern Bloc in the Marshall Plan, knowing that the Soviets would turn it down; one wonders what would’ve happened had the Soviets called their bluff and taken the money. The U.S. had already sunk an earlier $13 billion into Europe between 1945-47, around 5% of America’s $258 billion GDP. It lent urgency to Marshall’s case when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in central Europe in 1948.
The Marshall Plan supported democratic capitalism but, beyond that broad framework, Europeans were left to work out the details. It did not impose an “Americanization” program but instead helped lay the foundation for decades of growth amidst a collection of like-minded independent countries that would be responsible for their own renewal. Over and against the wishes of Britain and France, who had less bargaining power this time around, these countries would include a new Federal Republic of [West] Germany (1949), with control over its own resources — not a western German territory controlled by Britain, France, or any international organization. The U.S. and Prime Minister Winston Churchill hoped these individual countries would gradually break down the economic barriers between them and move toward an integrated market, making it easier for them to swap surpluses with each other and easier for workers to move around. The U.S. removed many of its own trade restrictions with Europe in the process. Having set this process in motion, the Marshall Plan didn’t contain provisions for enforcement or meddling. It would be up to future businessmen, politicians, tourists and exchange students to bind the West back together again. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, the Soviets likewise invested in factories and machinery, with everyone on both sides of the Iron Curtain aiming to maximize the mass production that helped the Allies win the war.
The U.S. concluded that Woodrow Wilson was right all along about contributing to world leadership. In between WWI and WWII, the U.S. was never purely isolationist, but they were unilateralist in their orientation, mostly going it alone without regard for cooperating with allies. That changed dramatically with the onset of WWII. America spearheaded the formation of the new United Nations even as WWII was starting in 1939, and built U.N. headquarters in New York City. Later they added several offices in Geneva, Switzerland, where the League of Nations had been housed in the Palace of Nations. FDR used the term United Nations in early 1942, not to describe the fledgling organization, but rather the 26 countries that agreed to fight the Axis Powers in WWII in the Declaration by United Nations. The idea of revamping the League was fundamental to the cooperation between the U.S., British, and Soviets from the beginning of WWII, serving as a backdrop to the immediate military alliance. They formally agreed to the new U.N. at the Tehran Conference in 1943 and set it up at a series of meetings in San Francisco in 1945.
The U.N. had economic offshoots, though, that excluded the Soviet Union. At the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in 1944, the Western Allies formed the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, organizations that lent money to developing markets under the condition that they’d develop along capitalist lines. Those organizations have done a lot of good in poor countries but critics point to conditions they attach to loans, like bans on labor unions and discouraging environmental and child labor laws. In Bad Samaritans, Ha-Joon Chang argues that they “kicked the ladder out from under” emerging markets with “asymmetrical demands” after wealthy countries like the U.S. and Britain grew strong through tariffs in the 19th century and Keynesian stimulus spending in the 20th, both of which are forbidden for loan recipients.
The World Bank and IMF pegged other countries’ currencies to the U.S. dollar to stabilize currency fluctuations. Henceforth, oil and gold were bought and sold internationally in U.S. greenbacks. They pegged the U.S. dollar to gold at $35/oz. until 1971, when President Richard Nixon closed the gold window because too many countries running trade surpluses with the U.S. were swapping in their dollars for gold. The U.S. was running low and, to this day, no one is entirely sure how much gold is in Fort Knox and under New York’s Federal Reserve branch. The U.S. left the gold standard in 1971 and the dollar became a free-floating, fiat currency that’s basically as good as the country’s economy and reputation. So far, that reputation has held up reasonably well and the U.S. has maintained its 0% default rate on bonds since 1791.
Hoping to avoid the meltdown in world trade that followed WWI, Americans and Western Europeans set up GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which became known as the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 1995. Later, other countries joined the group. The WTO arbitrates trade disputes between countries, refereeing global commerce and encouraging low trade barriers. In the late 20th century, the head of the WTO kept photos of Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley over his desk as a reminder of what can happen with too much protectionism. As we saw in Chapter 8, world trade plummeted after the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff or at least continued a decline that had already begun.
Unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations, the U.N. would act militarily, but only with the authorization of its Security Council – an upper tier made up of WWII’s victors: the United States, USSR (Soviet Union), United Kingdom, France, and China (Taiwan between 1949-1971). These five permanent members, the so-called “four policemen” plus China, shared power on the Security Council with ten others rotated in. All countries in the world belonged to the second tier, but any one vote on the Security Council could nix an initiative. With the U.S. and USSR both on the Security Council, the Cold War trumped any idealistic notions that the U.N. could usher in an age of world peace. Nonetheless, the organization has done more good than harm in terms of battling hunger, disease, poverty, etc., intervened in two major conflicts (Korea and the Persian Gulf War), and conducts nuclear weapons inspections in “rogue” countries.
The U.N. had a curious religious effect as well. It inadvertently helped fuel a cottage industry in apocalyptic novels like the best-selling Left Behind series, since some Fundamentalists see world government as a portal for the Anti-Christ. That contributes to the U.N.’s unpopularity among some Americans. Most U.N. skeptics, though, just don’t like seeing the U.S. subordinated to a higher authority. So far, the U.N. has never become an actual world government that subordinates anyone’s ultimate authority. It’s more of a forum for countries to meet in and argue or air out problems. It doesn’t have any power beyond that which individual nation-states like the U.S. give it. Like corporations, charity organizations (UNICEF, Amnesty International) and smaller political units (in the U.S., states, counties, and cities), the U.N. is ruled by nation-states (countries).
The U.S. had a range of policy options to pick from in fighting the Cold War. They could have taken a live-and-let-live approach and hoped that Soviet communism wouldn’t impact them directly. That would have been difficult given the importance of global trade and the importance of military spending to the U.S. economy. Joseph Stalin’s combative speeches spoke of the long-term incompatibility of the two systems. Another option would’ve been pre-emptive nuclear strikes to rid the world of Soviet communism before it could pose a threat; the USSR didn’t develop the bomb until 1949. Winston Churchill even went so far as to order preparations to eliminate the USSR, code-named Operation Unthinkable, that would’ve commenced with attacks on Soviet troops in Eastern Europe at the close of WWII. Aside from moral and logistical problems with that approach — making it too unthinkable — most Americans were not in the mood for World War III in the late 1940s and the Americans and Brits were certainly outnumbered on the ground attack portion of the plan, even if they had a monopoly on the bomb.
President Truman arrived at a middle containment option to stop the further spread of communism while acquiescing in communism where it already existed. The idea’s proponents theorized, accurately as it turned out, that communism would eventually destroy itself if the Free World could just outlast it. Containment overlapped with the Truman Doctrine that called for funneling weapons and money into key strategic areas to blunt communist expansion. The U.S. strove to contain communist expansion, with mixed results, for another half-century through eight more administrations, Democratic and Republican. Ultimately, they lost some key battles (i.e. China, South Vietnam, Cuba) on the way to winning the overall Cold War with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Containment theory was the brainchild of two men in particular: Dean Acheson in the state department and George Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow who wrote his “Long Telegram” (aka Article X) outlining the logic behind containment that Foreign Affairs published in 1947. Kennan saw no hope for long-term peaceful co-existence because of the Soviets’ hostility to global capitalism, including institutions like the World Bank and IMF.
The Truman Doctrine initially focused on stopping communism in strategic areas like Greece, Turkey, and Iran – hoping to not let “one rotten apple spoil the barrel” as Truman put it. This was a pre-cursor to what the French and President Dwight Eisenhower later called the domino theory in Southeast Asia. Truman hoped they could influence the outcome of wars and revolutions in these areas through money and arms without sending American troops into combat, and they succeeded at first.
To better coordinate containment strategy, the military branches started operating under a single Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Navy and old War Department merged with the Army into a new Department of Defense (DOD). The Marines were already tied to the Navy, and the DOD carved a new branch out of the Army Air Corps-USAAF, the Air Force (USAF), that at first was going to be the lone repository of all things nuclear. That caused a lot of tension over funding and the Navy was worried anyway that nuclear weapons would make maritime war obsolete. The infamous “Baker Shot” underwater A-bomb test at Bikini Atoll (Operation Crossroads) was intended to prove that ships were impervious to nukes, which they definitely weren’t.
Additionally, a new National Security Council (NSC) would work within the Executive Branch, briefing the president daily on imminent threats and coordinating between the Department of Defense, Executive Branch, intelligence, etc. (in the 1990s, Bill Clinton likewise created a National Economic Council to coordinate between the Treasury, Departments of Labor and Commerce, Small Business Administration, etc.). A new branch dedicated purely to intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), replaced the Army OSS and would spy mainly on communists. Just as the Army Air Corps was the forerunner of the Air Force, the Army’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the forerunner to the CIA. The executive’s “breakfast reading” is known as the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and includes recent information from the CIA, NSC, and, today, the Department of Homeland Security. Presidents have varied as to how they receive the reports. Reagan liked videos, Bill Clinton liked small bits called “snowflakes,” George W. Bush liked his read to him, Obama liked to read them on a secure iPad®, and Trump preferred to not hear them daily, saying “I get it when I need it.”
Britain had its own Cold War Secret Intelligence Service — aka SIS, MI6 or “Her Majesty’s Secret Service” — that sometimes worked in tandem with the CIA. MI6’s fictional hero was Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Agent 007. Fleming worked in special forces during WWII and helped jumpstart America’s OSS that morphed into the CIA. As we’ll see in the next chapter, Fleming worked closely with the CIA to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba in the early 1960s. In addition to regular espionage, the CIA funded softer operations through indirect cultural organizations that distributed Western (but not explicitly anti-communist) literature, and they supported Western culture through the short waves with Radio Free Europe, based in West Germany. Unfortunately, Radio Free Europe goaded on and misled rebellious Hungarians into thinking that the West would come to their aid in fighting off their communist oppressors, but Dwight Eisenhower’s administration instead chose to avoid provoking the Soviets, hanging the rebels out to dry. The Hungarian Revolution failed at the cost of 16k civilian casualties, discouraging like-minded republicans elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. At the height of the Cold War, the USSR spent more trying to jam Western radio than it did on its own radio propaganda. President John Kennedy said such Western media spread a little of what Thomas Jefferson called the “contagion of liberty.”
Finally, the National Security Agency (NSA) started in 1952 to listen in on signals and messages pertaining to intelligence and counter-intelligence. It’s gained special notoriety during the War on Terror between 2001 and 2015 because it filtered public email and phone meta-data and is one of the largest agencies by personnel and budget. The early Cold War thus spawned as many lasting bureaucracies as the New Deal, as offshoots like the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) sprang from the Department of Defense.
Cold War Intensifies
An early test for Truman’s new containment system was Berlin, Germany. The city was a natural ground zero for the European Cold War given West Berlin’s vulnerability as an exposed island in the Eastern Bloc. In 1948, Joseph Stalin blockaded the western part of the city, cutting off road and rail. Truman responded by airlifting food and fuel and amassing B-29 bombers along the border between East and West Germany, the type known to carry atomic bombs, during the Berlin Airlift.
To combat such threats in the future, Dean Acheson organized a group pact called NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) the following year. NATO’s terms, laid out in Article 5, were that, among all the Western countries, an attack on one was an attack on all. So far, the only time Article 5 has been invoked was Europe’s commitment to help the U.S. combat terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. NATO was a bold step for the U.S. given its relative isolationism in the 1920s and 30’s. It committed the U.S. to defend all of Western Europe and North America (the areas in green, above). Three years prior, the U.S. and Canada even considered meshing their militaries; the U.S. had two bases in Canada, and Canadian companies could bid for military contracts in the U.S. on equal terms. George Kennan thought NATO was an over-commitment for the U.S. and that Acheson was “over-learning the lessons of Munich,” referring to the Western Allies’ appeasement of Hitler at the 1938 Munich Conference. The Soviets countered with the Warsaw Pact in 1955, operating on the same principles as NATO in the Eastern Bloc. Had any Western forces invaded Eastern Europe, the Soviets would’ve nuked America.
In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, code-named Joe 1 for their leader Stalin, after Los Alamos scientist Klaus Fuchs sold them designs. American-born spy George Koval passed on critical information about how to set off a nuclear chain reaction and how the Americans arranged their production sites (years later Vladimir Putin awarded Koval a medal of honor). Another Los Alamos employee, David Greenglass, passed on information to his communist brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, leading to the conviction of Julius and his wife, David’s sister Ethel. The Rosenberg’s high-profile electrocutions in 1953 were the only civilian espionage executions in American history. When the U.S. released information on its counter-espionage Venona Project in 1995, it confirmed Julius’ guilt but not Ethel’s. Not everyone implicated in the Venona investigations was convicted, though. Since the U.S. didn’t want the Soviets to know they’d broken their code, they allowed several high-profile spies to walk away, including nineteen-year-old Theodore Hall, who passed on critical information about Fat Man, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. A key figure in breaking Soviet code was a young Mississippi-born Austinite and UT graduate named Meredith Gardner, who for obvious reasons no one heard of at the time.
Making matters worse for the U.S., Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong won their civil war over the American-backed Nationalist Party. The war had been going on since 1927, interrupted by Japan’s partial conquest of the 1930s/40’s. The losing side of the civil war, led by America’s World War II ally Chang Kai-shek, escaped to Taiwan, then called Formosa. Even today, Taiwan’s official name translates to “The Republic of China” insofar as they still consider themselves the rightful rulers of the island and mainland; communists on the mainland call themselves “The People’s Republic of China.” The Cold War was ramping up. The Soviets got the bomb and the largest country in the world (China) went communist in the space of a couple months.
Like Stalin, Mao was notoriously brutal toward his own people and, like the Soviet case, there’s widespread disagreement on the number of people killed. Historians are left to sift through thick clouds of propaganda in the Chinese and Western sources of the time. Communists beat to death countless landlords and wealthier farmers and millions died in purges known by innocuous names like the Great Leap Forward. Millions more starved to death in ruthless agricultural reforms. At one point, Chairman Mao asked for criticism and new ideas then changed his mind and killed over half a million people who’d spoken up. It’s likely that around 30-75 million people died under Mao’s regime between 1949-1976, discounting how many died in the civil war preceding it. If those numbers are anywhere close to being accurate, the devastation was as much as Hitler and Stalin combined. Western analysts might have actually underestimated rather than overestimated the death toll.
On the heels of these setbacks, the U.S. dramatically upped its commitment to stopping the “Red Menace,” with the defense budget increasing from $12.5 to $70 Billion in 1950. Nearly half of the defense budget was now going to the Air Force, much to the delight of shareholders in Boeing, Lockheed, General Dynamics and the like, whose lobbyists’ campaign donations were mere pennies on the dollar. As part of the National Security Council’s list of recommendations, NSC-68, the U.S. declared that it would fight communist expansion anywhere and everywhere rather than just strategic areas. They poured money into countries all over Asia, built air bases in Libya and Saudi Arabia, armed NATO in Europe, and dedicated research into a bigger bomb: the “Super” or hydrogen bomb. Predictably enough, the Soviets exploded their first fusion bomb in 1953, a year after America’s initial Ivy Mike thermonuclear test in the Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific (photo at the top of the chapter). In 1954, an improved American device exploded in the Castle Bravo Test at Bikini Atoll was 2.5x stronger than expected, raining radioactive ash down on nearby islanders and Japanese fishermen over a five-square-mile area and spreading diluted radiation around the world in the upper atmosphere. In 1961, Soviets exploded a 57-megaton bomb named Tsar Bomba over 1500 times stronger than the combined 15-16 kiloton bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is, to date, the largest man-made explosion in world history.
In sum, the Cold War escalated considerably after 1949, with a dangerous nuclear arms race fueling an already intense ideological rift. Moreover, the Chinese Revolution and NSC-68 led to future American interventions in Korea and Vietnam. While almost any area is strategic by some definition, it’s a stretch to define either Korea or Vietnam as critical. Nonetheless, Vietnam has natural resources (tin, rubber, zinc, and coal) and proximity to heavily trafficked shipping lanes, while Korea is between China and America’s ally to the east, Japan. Korea and Vietnam are contiguous with China, and if the U.S. wasn’t going to invade China directly, then it wasn’t going to allow communism to spread far beyond its borders. To this day, the U.S. also backs Taiwan insofar as it would (supposedly) defend the island country from a Chinese invasion, and it sells them weapons. Yet, to please China once it improved relations with them in the 1970s, the U.S. doesn’t diplomatically recognize Taiwan (see One China Policy). Taiwan still claims to be the “Republic of China” and fears that if it formally declared independence, China would conquer it to put down the rebellion in a region it still considers part of the “People’s Republic of China.” Meanwhile, the U.S. backs South Korea more unambiguously.
The Korean conflict of the early 1950s involved both the Chinese and Soviets, as would Vietnam. The Soviets took control of North Korea at the end of WWII, while U.S. allies held the country south of the 38° Parallel. They were looking at a National Geographic map when they arbitrarily agreed on that horizontal line to divide the country. Each side withdrew troops in 1948, but then northern communists seized most of the south in 1950 with the Soviet’s permission, hoping to unify the peninsula. The U.S. led a United Nations resolution to contain the communists in the north and the USSR wasn’t there to veto the action. They’d boycotted the U.N. to protest China being kicked off the Security Council after it went communist in 1949, replaced by Taiwan (China resumed its place 1971). Thus, in 1950 neither of the two countries who would’ve opposed the resolution, the Soviets or Chinese, was there to stop the U.S. from leading a U.N. coalition in support of South Korea that included Britain and Australia.
As the Korean War started, governments of both North and South set off massacring hundreds of thousands of civilians who leaned too far to the right or left, respectively. The U.S. and its allies had a hard time securing the small territory their South Korean allies held in the South. Then, led by Douglas MacArthur, they launched a surprise attack on the west coast port of Inchon. Building momentum from the Inchon Landing, they took control of nearly the entire country, chasing communists across the Korean-Chinese border along the Yalu River. That, however, scared the Chinese into sending 300k troops to confront them.
At that point, MacArthur wanted to roll into China and overthrow Mao Zedong, but President Truman held him back because that exceeded the U.N. mandate to just secure South Korea. Truman also disapproved of the general’s plan to use a string of 26 atomic bombs to create an impenetrable radiation belt to fence in the communists. For Truman, “Mac” was a “pompous ass” that disrespected him, once saying he wasn’t about to take orders from a “failed haberdasher” (Truman went bankrupt running a hat store as a young man, whereas Mac was born to military blue-bloods dating to the Civil War). But the president, however less popular than a WWII hero, is Commander-in-chief. Truman pulled rank and fired MacArthur “so there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy…the cause of world peace is much more important than any individual.” Truman said, “I wasn’t going to let the SOB resign on me, I wanted to fire him!” While the public backed Mac, the move ultimately destroyed both men’s careers. MacArthur got a ticker-tape parade in New York and overwhelming support while Truman’s approval ratings plummeted. Still, it’s telling that when asked in a Senate hearing about the prospect of starting WWIII with a Chinese invasion, MacArthur said, “I don’t know…that’s the president’s problem.” Truman couldn’t have said it better himself.
Truman wasn’t necessarily averse to using atomic bombs and the U.S. then enjoyed an advantage of 450 bombs to the Soviets’ 25 (hydrogen bombs weren’t quite invented yet). Recently declassified documents indicate that the Korean War nearly escalated into a nuclear conflict in 1950. In fact, Truman might have fired Mac precisely because he agreed with the general’s idea of nuking North Korea but wanted a more dependable leader on the ground if things escalated into a broader war with China or the Soviets. Other politicians were on board with the nuclear option as well, including Al Gore, Sr. of Tennessee, and Truman sent bombs to the Pacific to prepare for an attack. American leaders were concerned, though, that given North Korea’s mountainous terrain, the bombs wouldn’t be that effective. Nothing would undermine America’s stature at the time more than a low-casualty atomic attack. Truman, Secretary of Defense George Marshall, and Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Omar Bradley also feared that a nuclear attack on China would precipitate a Soviet attack on West Germany.
In any event, the U.N. found incendiary bombs less high profile and likely to provoke the Soviets. As it was, American pilots were already fighting MiG-flying Soviets directly in dogfights. The U.S. bombed North Korea and the communist-occupied South relentlessly with napalm, obliterating a huge portion of the country and killing over a million civilians. By the end of the war, many of the surviving North Koreans were living in caves, with their cities and towns reduced to piles of ash and snow, according to American POWs. The American pilots’ primary targets were strategic, but they often dumped their payloads on civilians. One pilot claimed to have wiped out eleven villages in one day. Delayed-fuse demolition bombs blew up people trying to retrieve the dead from fires and posed a danger long after the war ended in 1953. Where communists occupied southern cities, frustration over not being able to kill communists without destroying cities led to research on the neutron bomb. Some napalm sorties accidentally hit American forces; one soldier reported his friends rolling around in the snow trying to extinguish themselves, begging to be shot. Eventually, Churchill complained to Washington that napalm wasn’t invented to be “splashed” all over civilians. Air Force General Curtis “Bombs Away” Lemay, who’d overseen the incendiary attacks on Japan in WWII, complained that the U.S. should’ve just destroyed North Korea with atomic bombs in a few days at the beginning of the war because they did the same thing anyway with napalm spread out over a few years. That was the nature of limited war in the atomic age.
The momentum was lost after Truman fired MacArthur and the communists rallied, taking back the northern half of the country with an infusion of thousands of Chinese troops. The war degenerated into a stalemate along the 38° Parallel for the next two years. Soviets were also involved and America learned after the Cold War that they were hoping to stall the ground war long enough to study their tactics. Finally, after Stalin died in 1953, Truman’s successor Dwight Eisenhower arranged an armistice with new Soviet leader Georgy Malenkov after threatening a nuclear attack. However, the “Forgotten War” never officially ended and American troops still occupy South Korea, with communist forces amassed across the demilitarized zone 2.5 miles away. The stalemate that began in 1951 officially continues to this day despite the long ceasefire. South Korea didn’t want an armistice at the time and never signed on to the ceasefire.
South Korea has been a relative success story. Thanks to the efforts of U.S.-led U.N. forces in the early 1950s, the South Korean dictatorship maintained its sovereignty. In the 1980s, its government transformed into a bona fide democracy and, over the last fifty years, its economy into a small-scale powerhouse (above). In the next chapter, we’ll pick up in 1953 and see how Eisenhower and John Kennedy handled containment policy as the Cold War grew even more intense.
Tensions continue with North Korea, though, highlighted by their ongoing attempt to develop nuclear weapons and their leaders’ claims that they will use them against the U.S. (including Austin, Texas when George W. Bush and Kim Jong-il were in power). Thus far, North Korea doesn’t have the missile technology to deliver such weapons but their obstinacy has alienated even neighboring communist power China, who doesn’t need any unnecessary escalation with America. A failed cyber-attack in 2009 and controversy surrounding The Interview (2014), that depicts the slow-motion decapitation of leader Kim Jong-un, underscored these tensions. North Korea purportedly used a third party to hack into the comedy’s producer, Sony Pictures, and the U.S. purportedly sought cooperation with China in retaliating by temporarily taking down North Korea’s internet. In 2017, Donald Trump’s cabinet debated whether or not to continue negotiations with or sanction North Korea or try to overthrow Kim Jong-un, with Trump rattling the saber while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explored diplomatic options. A nuclear North Korea would exert more regional power, however, regime change could destroy not only North Korea but also neighboring South Korea and Japan.
Optional Reading & Viewing:
How the Cold War Happened in Four Minutes (How It Happened)
History of the United Nations in Pictures, New York Times, 9.22.14
Woodrow Wilson Center International History Declassified (Digital Archive)
The Early Cold War, 1945-1952, State Department, Office of the Historian