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Cold War in the 1950s

The United States dominated global affairs in the years immediately after World War II. Victorious in that great struggle, its homeland undamaged from the ravages of war, the nation was confident of its mission at home and abroad. U.S. leaders wanted to maintain the democratic structure they had defended at tremendous cost and to share the benefits of prosperity as widely as possible. For them, as for publisher Henry Luce of Time magazine, this was the "American Century."

For 20 years most Americans remained sure of this confident approach. They accepted the need for a strong stance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War that unfolded after 1945. They endorsed the growth of government authority and accepted the outlines of the rudimentary welfare state first formulated during the New Deal. They enjoyed a postwar prosperity that created new levels of affluence.

But gradually some began to question dominant assumptions. Challenges on a variety of fronts shattered the consensus. In the 1950s, African Americans launched a crusade, joined later by other minority groups and women, for a larger share of the American dream. In the 1960s, politically active students protested the nation's role abroad, particularly in the corrosive war in Vietnam. A youth counterculture emerged to challenge the status quo. Americans from many walks of life sought to establish a new social and political equilibrium.

Mao's only visit to Moscow to meet Stalin, which he made following the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949, culminated in the proclamation of a Sino-Soviet alliance in February 1950. The alliance peaked during the Korean War as China intervened for almost three years on behalf of North Korea. Declassified documents show the initiative for the North attacking the South came not from Stalin but from Kim Il Sung, who pleaded with Moscow unsuccessfully in 1947 and 1949 for permission to attack. The attack came only after the North Korean dictator received permission from both Mao and Stalin to attack, essentially daring the Soviets or the Chinese to appear weak.

The passing in 1953 of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave the new American president, Dwight Eisenhower, a chance to deal with new Soviet leaders. In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first Republican president in 20 years. A war hero rather than a career politician, he had a natural, common touch that made him widely popular. "I like Ike" was the campaign slogan of the time. After serving as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Western Europe during World War II, Eisenhower had been army chief of staff, president of Columbia University, and military head of NATO before seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Skillful at getting people to work together, he functioned as a strong public spokesman and an executive manager somewhat removed from detailed policy making.

Despite disagreements on detail, he shared Truman's basic view of American foreign policy. He, too, perceived Communism as a monolithic force struggling for world supremacy. In his first inaugural address, he declared, "Forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history. Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against dark."

In July 1955 Eisenhower and Nikolai Bulganin met in Geneva, Switzerland. The leaders of Britain and France also attended. Eisenhower proposed that the Americans and Soviets agree to let their military bases be inspected by air by the other side. The Soviets later rejected the proposal. Yet the meeting in Geneva was not considered a failure. After all, the leaders of the world's most powerful nations had shaken hands.

The new president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had argued that containment did not go far enough to stop Soviet expansion. Rather, a more aggressive policy of liberation was necessary, to free those subjugated by Communism. But when a democratic rebellion broke out in Hungary in 1956, the United States stood back as Soviet forces suppressed it.

Eisenhower's basic commitment to contain Communism remained, and to that end he increased American reliance on a nuclear shield. The United States had created the first atomic bombs. In 1950 Truman had authorized the development of a new and more powerful hydrogen bomb. Eisenhower, fearful that defense spending was out of control, reversed Truman's NSC-68 policy of a large conventional military buildup. Relying on what Dulles called "massive retaliation," the administration signaled it would use nuclear weapons if the nation or its vital interests were attacked. In practice, however, the nuclear option could be used only against extremely critical attacks.

Real Communist threats were generally peripheral. Eisenhower rejected the use of nuclear weapons in Indochina, when the French were ousted by Vietnamese Communist forces in 1954. The president exerted heavy pressure on all three countries to withdraw. Still, the nuclear threat may have been taken seriously by Communist China, which refrained not only from attacking Taiwan, but from occupying small islands held by Nationalist Chinese just off the mainland. It may also have deterred Soviet occupation of Berlin, which reemerged as a festering problem during Eisenhower's last two years in office.

Cold War tensions increased, then eased, then increased again over the years. The changes came as both sides actively tried to influence political and economic developments around the world. For example, the Soviet Union provided military, economic, and technical aid to communist governments in Asia. The United States then helped eight Asian nations fight communism by establishing the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. In the middle 1950s, the United States began sending military advisers to help South Vietnam defend itself against communist North Vietnam. That aid would later expand into a long period of American involvement in Vietnam.

The Cold War also affected the middle east. In the 1950s, both east and west offered aid to Egypt to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. The west canceled its offer, however, after Egypt bought weapons from the communist government of Czechoslovakia. In 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser then seized control of the company that operated the Suez Canal. A few months later, British and French forces attacked Egypt following Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal and Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai. For once, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on a major issue. Both supported a United Nations resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire. The Suez Crisis was a political victory for the Soviets. When the Soviet Union supported Egypt, it gained new friends in the arab world.

In 1959 Cold War tensions eased a little. The new Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschchev, visited Dwight Eisenhower at his holiday home near Washington. The meeting was very friendly. But the next year, relations got worse again. An American military plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower admitted that such planes had been spying on the Soviets for four years. In a speech at the United Nations, Khruschchev got so angry that he took off his shoe and beat it on a table.

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Page last modified: 26-08-2011 15:50:08 ZULU