“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, though smaller conflicts spun out of it. 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. Just as Napoleon wasn’t French (Corsican) and Hitler wasn’t German (Austrian), neither was Stalin Russian. The son of a shoe cobbler from Georgia, the man born as Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jugashvili worked his way up the Bolshevik ranks as a bank robber in the czarist era, changing his name to Stalin (translation: “man of steel”). He succeeded Lenin during the Russian Civil War. In power from 1922-53, Stalin was probably as murderous as Hitler, killing at least 10 million Soviets through deliberate, if famine-related, starvation, including the Ukrainian Holodomor (left), Great Terror political purges, and imprisonment in Gulag labor camps. Holodomor translates to “extermination by hunger.” The famine in Ukraine was so horrific that many Ukrainians sided with Germany during their 1941 invasion. 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. If we’re keeping score, 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 with hydrogen-bomb warheads.
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.
In 1955, Texas started requiring U.S. history survey courses as a general college requirement, motivated partially by the goal of teaching students American superiority over the Soviet Union. That same year, Dwight Eisenhower’s administration added the Presidential Fitness Test to P.E. classes because they feared that postwar kids were too soft to later confront communism. 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 political establishments use organized faiths to manipulate working classes and keep their minds off their exploitative circumstances. Suffice it to say, that line of criticism never gained traction in America. The U.S. government responded in 1956 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). President Dwight Eisenhower cultivated a relationship with Protestant evangelist Billy Graham who, at the time, promoted a Christian nationalism that he later shunned for a more global perspective (we’ll hear more from Graham in future chapters). Soviet propaganda, meanwhile, harped on America’s longstanding inability to reconcile Christian values and race relations (click to enlarge on right). Today, instead of cartoons that Americans never see, Russian trolls use algorithms to incite racial conflict on social media. They know us well and which buttons to push.
The U.S. and USSR 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 war’s end. By 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, naturally, neither would give up their advantage.
The American government was anxious to avoid the previous generation’s mistakes by not over-punishing WWII’s losers the way the Allies had Germany after WWI, even though Germany was more clearly to blame for WWII than they had been WWI. But, aside from that, the bigger reason for America’s post-war generosity in Asia and Europe was to rebuild societies that provided a better alternative than communism. They aimed to displace the potential for communism in Japan and western Europe with democratic capitalism, and succeeded.
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. 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 Nazi snipers to assassinate communist leaders. In Asia, General Douglas MacArthur oversaw reconstruction efforts in Japan during the American Occupation of 1945-52, revitalizing industry, purging labor unions of leftists, and writing a new constitution (Japan’s Red Purge). As we’ll see below, America also established a series of bilateral (one-to-one) security agreements in Asia with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (unofficially), whereas in Western Europe they crafted a multilateral 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 their country (Nazis 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 war crimes trials and the carrot being money and future geopolitical security. While Germans were only allotted a third as many daily calories (1500) as occupying forces and German women sometimes sold themselves to soldiers just to feed their families, their overall relationship with occupying Allied forces was decent enough given the circumstances. It had to be because, 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 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 Allied Commander Dwight 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 and, to his credit, marched some German civilians out to view the camps, as Eisenhower had instructed. Yet, “Old Blood & Guts” Patton 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 Jewish Holocaust survivors from 1945-48.
Secretary of State George C. Marshall traced Herbert 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 also easy to forget that the smart resolution to WWII led to 75 years of peace and prosperity in Western Europe. That was also due to other factors, including nuclear bombs 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 why, for that matter, America’s own Wall Street meltdown led to Europe’s crisis in the first place. 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 and Britain. They also forgave Germany’s wartime debt. Similar funds aimed at Japan helped the U.S. rebuild a bulwark of democratic capitalism in East Asia. Had the U.S. not cared about Japan’s postwar fate, they could’ve stepped aside and let the USSR defeat Japan in 1945 the way they did with Germany in the Battle of Berlin, costing zero American lives and sparing the U.S. the guilt of dropping the atomic bombs. However, more Japanese would’ve likely died in that invasion than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviets would’ve transformed Japan into a communist bulwark instead. In Europe, 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 than after WWI, these countries would eventually include a new Federal Republic of [West] Germany (1949), with control over its own resources, not a western German territory controlled by outsiders or agencies. At the end of World War II, the U.S. (yellow, below) occupied most of southwest Germany while Britain controlled the northwest. The map below shows occupied Berlin in the context of occupied Germany, before West Germany became an independent country in 1949.
The U.S. and U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill hoped Western European 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. The West German postwar Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) included automakers like Volkswagen, BMW, and Porsche and shoemakers Puma and Adidas. 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 new United Nations’ formation even as WWII was starting in 1939, and built U.N. headquarters on their own turf 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 UN also included the International Court of Justice, aka the World Court, UNESCO (to protect world heritage sites), and led to the World Health Organization (WHO, 1948- ), through which the U.S. and USSR cooperated in eradicating smallpox.
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. These 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 protective 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. Whether or not that will give way eventually to cryptocurrency or some variation of agreed-upon digital currency is an open question. 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, which grew to include most countries in the world, as shown by these countries in green and blue (the European Union) with yellow “observers” and red non-members.
The WTO arbitrates trade disputes between countries, refereeing global commerce and encouraging low trade barriers (tariffs). In the late 20th century, the WTO head 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 perpetuated a steep decline that had already begun. But since the WTO includes nearly everyone, it can’t throw its weight around against anyone, and its best intentions to keep trade flowing can get overridden by trade disputes between its biggest countries, like the U.S. and China. Below, we’ll see how the United Nations was likewise unable to overcome tension between the U.S. and USSR.
Today, Americans are debating whether to dismantle their own creation, replacing this global, “rules-based” liberal international order with a more nationalist “America First” go it alone approach that eschews multilateral trade pacts, treaties, and organizational guidelines without degenerating into pure isolationism or protectionism. We’ll examine the pros and cons of globalization more thoroughly in Chapter 21. For now, it’s worth noting that the reason post-war Americans created the global system wasn’t to subordinate America’s interests to others, but rather to create a stable framework that bolstered America’s security and economy while keeping the U.S. in a leadership role. One motive was to keep bad actors like Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany from filling a potential power vacuum, as happened in the 1930s. Since this Pax Americana has served the United States and others well, leading to a long stretch of relative peace and prosperity, we should think through alternative models carefully before blowing it up (see Anne Applebaum’s optional article below). Ignored after World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s interventionist policy was so predominant after World War II that diplomatic scholar Walter Russell Mead argued “no ruler since Charlemagne has made as deep an impression on the European political order as the much-mocked Presbyterian from the Shenandoah Valley.” But as Mead’s optional article below explains, Wilsonianism is now on the wane. COVID-19 was the first global crisis since WWII in which the U.S. didn’t assume a leadership role (no one did). The last two Republican administrations, Bush 43 and Trump, have argued that since the U.N. Human Rights Council, for instance, has been hijacked by countries like Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela who are themselves guilty of human rights violations and use the U.N. mainly to criticize America’s ally, Israel, the U.S. should turn away. Trump argued the same about the WHO, pulling the U.S. out to protest China’s corrupting influence on that health organization. Democrats like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden argued that, instead, the U.S. was better off keeping a seat at these tables to try and prevent such countries from dominating international organizations. As we’ll see below, when the USSR boycotted the U.N. in 1949, it backfired by allowing the U.S. to lead a military intervention against communists in Korea. Their boycott just ceded power to the United States. Likewise, ignoring the U.N. or WHO today makes a point but it cedes power to potentially bad actors.
Unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations, the U.N. would act militarily, but (prior to 2003) 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 (replaced by 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. If you’ll pardon a brief commentary: the French, at this point, should’ve been popping open some of their famous champagne at the prospect of being mentioned in the same breath as world powers. All countries in the world belonged to the second tier General Assembly, but any one vote on the Security Council could nix an initiative. Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov had insisted on this at Yalta as a condition of the USSR joining the U.N. 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, as mentioned above. Nonetheless, the organization has done more good than harm battling hunger, disease, poverty, etc., intervened in two conflicts favorably from the American perspective (Korea and the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War), and conducts nuclear weapons inspections in “rogue” countries that have been fairly reliable so far, despite hyperbolic commentary to the contrary. The UN also served as a forum for open if hostile debate during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that did not escalate into a major war. In 2003, the U.S. overrode the Security Council when it invaded Iraq, undercutting the U.N.’s role in brokering conflicts. Secretary of State Colin Powell later called his presentation at the U.N. of faulty evidence on behalf of war a “blight on my record.”
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 Protestant evangelicals see world government as a portal for the Anti-Christ. 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. Its scientists today argue for the urgency of combatting climate change, but they don’t have the power to do anything about it other than educate. 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). But multi-national corporations are challenging the power and authority of countries and cryptocurrency or something like it could one day decouple nations from finance.
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 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 preemptive nuclear strikes to rid the world of Soviet communism before it could pose a threat; the USSR didn’t develop the bomb until 1949. The U.S. hinted at this option with Plan Totality after the Potsdam Conference in 1945 but it was merely a disinformation ploy that Truman called his “giant atomic bluff” to trick the Soviets into thinking the U.S. had more nukes than they really did at the time. George Patton wanted to join forces with Germany in a ground war against the Soviets in 1945. Winston Churchill ordered preparation of a plan to attack the USSR, code-named Operation Unthinkable, that would’ve commenced with attacks on Soviet troops in Eastern Europe at the close of WWII. This intercepted 1945 message from Japan, declassified in 2005, suggests that the Soviets feared the Western Allies mobilizing the 5.5 million German POWs they held against the USSR. British philosopher Bertrand Russell, famous for his pacifism during WWI, suggested that the West threaten the Soviets with atomic bombs to compel them to join a world government (i.e., U.N.) that would, in turn, monopolize nuclear weapons and diffuse major wars. Aside from the logistical problems with all these plans, the Western Allies were not in the mood for World War III in the late 1940s and, as shown below, they were outnumbered on the ground attack portion of Churchill’s plan, making it too “unthinkable,” even if they had a temporary monopoly on the bomb.
Instead of these plans, President Truman arrived at a compromise middle-of-the-road 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 USSR’s collapse in 1991.
Containment theory was the brainchild of two men in particular: Dean Acheson in the state department and George Kennan, an American diplomat and future ambassador 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. Kennan rightfully predicted, though, that if the West could just contain Soviet communism rather than destroy it preemptively, it would collapse on its own from within. Kennan also helped implement the Marshall Plan.
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 precursor 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 naval 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 were not. A century earlier, Herman Melville’s fictional Captain Ahab forecast the whereabouts of his infamous whale prey, Moby Dick, off these islands.
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. Just as the Army Air Corps was the forerunner to the Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) replaced the Army’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and dedicated itself to spying, mainly on communists. 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. Ronald 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, the Firm, 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. MI5 covered the domestic realm, like America’s FBI, which is to say that the CIA and MI6 employ “our spies” while the FBI and MI5 thwart “their spies.” Fleming worked in special forces during WWII and helped jump-start America’s OSS/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 manipulated elections in countries like Italy (contributing to communists losing in 1948) and funded softer operations through indirect cultural organizations that distributed Western literature. The U.S. exploited short waves with Radio Free Europe, based in West Germany then Prague, and Voice of America, started during WWII and often hosted by refugees from totalitarian governments. West Berlin, symbolically, was a hotbed of artistic expression. David Bowie recorded his Berlin Trilogy there in the 1970s, for instance. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of Harlem (right) convinced the State Department to send musicians overseas to promote democracy in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries that were otherwise only exposed to Soviet propaganda about American racism. If the idea was to convince people of American superiority, then they needed to see and hear the unifying message of mixed-race bands like those of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Dave Brubeck to counter seeing Soviet-sponsored images of Whites throwing rocks at black kids in Little Rock, Arkansas. Neither side was lying: America’s Achilles’ heel was racism but, so too, its mixed racial history forged the best popular music in the world. The Cold War was, among other things, a war of ideas and messages and the audiences that needed winning over were mostly non-Whites in the developing world who’d experienced the brunt of colonialism. Soft diplomacy, much of it organized under the U.S. Information Agency (1953-1999), undoubtedly had a positive if impossible-to-measure effect. President John Kennedy said Western media spread a little of what Thomas Jefferson called the “contagion of liberty.” This New Yorker cartoon even asked of “a diplomatic mission of outmost [sic] delicacy…who’s the best man for it — John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State) or Satchmo (Louis Armstrong)?”
The U.S. also assigned a handful of African-American ambassadors, including Edward Dudley (Liberia) and Carl Rowan (U.N, Finland). The net effect of the Cold War was to encourage the civil rights movement since racism was a bad look internationally. 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 1956 Hungarian Revolution failed at the cost of 16k civilian casualties, discouraging like-minded republicans elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. At the Cold War’s height, the USSR spent more trying to jam Western radio than it did on its own radio propaganda.
Finally, the National Security Agency (NSA) started in 1952 to listen in on signals and messages relating to intelligence and counter-intelligence. It 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 city’s western part, cutting off road and rail, partly to protest the Western Allies introducing the Deutsche Mark currency into West Berlin. Truman responded by airlifting food and fuel with C-47’s and amassing B-29 bombers along the border between East and West Germany — the type known to carry atomic bombs — during the Berlin Airlift overseen by Air Force General Curtis Lemay.
To combat such threats in the future, Dean Acheson organized the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) pact the following year. NATO’s terms, laid out in Article 5, were/are that, among most of the Western countries, an attack on one was an attack on all, creating regional collective security similar to what the UN was attempting globally. 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 ’30s. It committed the U.S. to defend most of Western Europe and North America (the areas in green, above), excluding Sweden, Finland, and Austria. 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 collective security principle in the Eastern Bloc as NATO in the West. Had any Western forces invaded Eastern Europe, the Soviets would’ve nuked America. As we’ll see in Chapter 22, NATO outlasted the Cold War, used to counter a potential Russian threat even after the Cold War ended in 1991. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. considered disbanding the western military alliance by withdrawing from NATO but his advisers talked him out of it. Logically enough, Trump’s skepticism of NATO made him the apple of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s eye.
In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, code-named Joe 1 by the U.S. for 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). Joe 1 was essentially a replica of America’s early bombs. 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. Greenglass agreed to frame his sister Ethel in exchange for the government not prosecuting his own wife as an accomplice. 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. Hall enjoyed a nice career at the University of Chicago and Cambridge. They also knew that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent but couldn’t raise any objection to her execution without revealing their source.
Female mathematicians spearheaded the top-secret Venona code-breaking program because they provided better cover than males. It started in 1943 when the U.S. and the USSR were allies because diplomats feared that the Soviets would strike a separate peace deal with Germany. A key linguist 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 Kuomintang. The war had been going on since 1927, interrupted by Japan’s partial conquest in the 1930s-40s. The losing side of the civil war, led by America’s World War II ally Chiang 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,” which is why conservative Texans joke about the “People’s Republic of [left-wing] Austin.” The U.S. Navy situated its Seventh Fleet between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan to defend Taiwan. 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 30-40 million people died under Mao’s regime between 1949-1976, discounting how many died in the civil war preceding it. Western analysts might have actually underestimated rather than overestimated the death toll, even as they thought they were exaggerating the numbers on the upside. In their Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Maoist Red Guards destroyed much of China’s Confucian religious heritage and other historical sites and artifacts in their zeal to destroy the Four Olds: customs, habits, culture, and ideas.
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 contractors like Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics, whose lobbyists’ relatively small campaign donations paid off with huge returns. 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). China tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1967. Unlike their first atomic test, the Soviet hydrogen bomb had a different design than America’s, indicating more of their own research.
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. They also failed to remove Marshall Islanders far enough from the test sights, accidentally irradiating some. For more on the story of Pasifika refugees relocated to the U.S. and their ongoing plight, see the optional article below by Dan Diamond. The British accidentally sickened and killed some of their own soldiers and Australia’s indigenous population with seven tests at Maralinga between 1956-63, studying the corpses for radiation effects without the victims’ permission. In 1961, Soviets exploded a 57-megaton device 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 the political 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. But 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 resolved to prevent communism from spreading 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 Japan and South Korea unambiguously with bilateral treaties.
The Korean conflict of the early 1950s involved both the Chinese and Soviets, as would Vietnam. Both wars centered geographically along latitudinal lines drawn up arbitrarily by world powers. When the allies divided land that had been conquered by Japan after WWII, the Soviets took control of North Korea while U.S. allies held the territory south of the 38° Parallel. In August 1945, American officials on the ground in Korea when the war ended threw together a slapdash proposal to divide the country horizontally based on a National Geographic map they had with them, with a special eye toward keeping the capital of Seoul on their side. 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. Under President Truman, 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, were on the Security Council to stop the U.S. from leading a U.N. coalition in support of South Korea that included Britain and Australia. Meanwhile, the U.S. beefed up its troops in Europe because they feared that Stalin was baiting them into an Asian war to divert attention from a bigger European invasion.
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. Along with Dean Acheson (now Secretary of State) and Omar Bradley (Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Truman feared that Stalin was baiting them and would’ve loved nothing better than to see the U.S. and China chew each other to bits. MacArthur wasn’t clued into this bigger context, instead listening to Chiang Kai-shek’s lobbying, who had an obvious stake in seeing the U.S. weaken China as that would strengthen Taiwan. Truman also disapproved of MacArthur’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” who disrespected him. Indeed, Mac once said 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 under the U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section 2, Clause 1), 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, hindering his chance at seeking re-election in 1952. MacArthur’s ignorance of the bigger picture and insubordination, in effect, forced Truman to courageously commit political suicide. 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.” Exactly. 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). Truman controversially suggested nuking the Chinese in North Korea in a press conference and 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 using nukes 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.
The U.N. found incendiary bombs less high profile and less likely to provoke the Soviets. As it was, American Sabrejet fighter pilots were already dog-fighting MiG-flying Soviets directly in the skies above Korea. American bombers attacked North Korea and communist-occupied portions of the South relentlessly with napalm, obliterating a huge portion of the country and killing over a million civilians. By war’s end, many North Korean survivors were living in caves, with their cities and towns reduced to piles of ash and snow, according to American POWs. The American bombers’ primary targets were strategic, but they often dumped their extra 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. Curtis “Bombs Away” Lemay, who’d overseen the incendiary attacks on Japan in WWII and Berlin Airlift, 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 country’s northern half 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 success story from the perspective of democratic capitalism. Thanks to the efforts of U.S.-led U.N. forces in the early 1950s, the South Korean dictatorship led by Syngman Rhee (left) maintained its sovereignty. Supporting a military dictatorship in South Korea was beneficial to the U.S. because it could swap financial aid for troop support in its Vietnam War (Chapter 18); whereas, in a democracy, voters might not have gone along with that. By the late 1980s, South Korea’s government had transformed into a bona fide democracy and its economy into a small-scale powerhouse. South Koreans debate whether they transformed into a democracy because of or in spite of the U.S., though there’s widespread appreciation, especially among older Koreans, for America’s role in fending off the communist North’s 1950 invasion. The 1988 Seoul Olympics, attended (to the humiliation of North Korea) even by other communist nations, symbolized South Korea’s rise and international recognition.
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). So far, North Korea doesn’t have the missile technology to deliver weapons that distance but their obstinacy has alienated even neighboring communist power China, who doesn’t need any unnecessary escalation with America. A failed 2009 cyber-attack against South Korea and the U.S. and controversy surrounding the movie 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 2017-18, Donald Trump’s cabinet debated whether to continue negotiations 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, but regime change could destroy not only North Korea but also neighboring South Korea and Japan as collateral damage. Negotiations collapsed in 2019 as North Korea refused to surrender its fledgling nuclear arsenal, as Trump hoped.
In the next chapter, we’ll pick up in 1953 and see how Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy handled containment policy as the Cold War grew even more intense and dangerous.
Optional Reading & Viewing:
How the Cold War Happened in Four Minutes (How It Happened)
Mary Elise Sarotte, “A Crash Course In NATO History,” NPR Podcast: 45 Min. (3.17.22)
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
Liza Mundy, “The Women Codebreakers Who Unmasked Soviet Spies,” Smithsonian, 9.18
John Dower & Hirata Tetsuo, “Japan’s Red Purge: Lessons From a Saga of Suppression of Free Speech & Thought,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 7.3.07
Mark Rice, “NATO’s New Order: The Alliance After the Cold War,” Origins, 4.16
Peter Goodman, “The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From The Powers That Built It,” New York Times (3.26.18)
Dan Diamond, “They Did Not Realize We Are Human Beings,” Politico, 1.26.20
Walter Russell Mead, “The End of the Wilsonian Era,” Foreign Affairs, 1-2.21 (access upcoming via JSTOR)
Anne Applebaum, “The Bad Guys Are Winning,” Atlantic (November 2021)