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The Cold War

And The Red Scare

Following the containment policy provided a justification for the United States to build up their military and weapons on an unprecedented scale. A 1950 National Security Council Report suggested that the country should use military force to contain communist expansion wherever it was found to be occurring. The report called for a four-fold increase in defense spending to back this up. American officials especially encouraged the development of atomic weapons like those that ended World War II. This led to the beginning of a deadly “arms race.” The Soviets tested an atom bomb in 1949, and in response President Truman announced the U.S. would build an even deadlier bomb, the hydrogen bomb. As a result of this “arms race,” the stakes of the Cold War were dangerously high. The first test of an H-bomb in the Marshall Islands showed how terrifying the nuclear age could be. The bomb created a 25-square-mile fireball which blew a huge hole in the ocean floor, vaporized an island, and had the strength to destroy half of Manhattan. Tests by Americans and Soviets in this time spewed radioactive waste into the atmosphere. The threat of nuclear war affected American life during this time. Schools practiced attack drills in school, and families built bomb shelters in their backyards.

In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began a series of hearings meant to show that there was communist insurgency in the United States. HUAC forced hundreds of people who worked in the movie industry in Hollywood to renounce left-wing political beliefs and testify against each other. More than 500 people lost their jobs, and many of these actors and directors were unable to find work again for a long time. HUAC also accused State Department workers of engaging in subversive activities. Anticommunist politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy expanded this investigation to include anyone who worked in the federal government. Many federal employees were investigated, and some were even fired or prosecuted. This hysteria and widespread fear over the potential presence of communism in the United States is known as the “Red Scare,” with red referring to the red flags that communists used.

At the end of World War II, most American officials agreed the best defense against the Soviet Union was a strategy known as “containment.” Diplomat George Kennan explained the policy by saying that the only course of action was long-term, firm, and “vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” He believed that the Soviet Union would never be able to coexist peacefully with the United States, and therefore the United States must keep an eye on Russian expansion. He declared before Congress in 1947 that the United States should support free people who were resisting attempted subjugation by the Soviet Union. The idea of containment would shape American foreign policy for the next forty years.

Upon taking office, President Nixon implemented a new approach to international relations. He encouraged the United National to recognize the communist Chinese government, began establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing, and he adopted a policy of “détente” toward the Soviet Union. “Détente” means relaxation or release from tension, and it refers to the easing of hostility or strained relations. In 1972, Nixon signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) with Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev. This treaty prohibited the manufacture of nuclear missiles by both sides. However, the Cold War unfortunately worsened again under President Ronald Reagan. He believed communist was a threat, and therefore wanted to provide military and financial aid to anticommunist governments around the world. This policy became known as the Reagan Doctrine. Reagan worked on fighting communism in countries such as El Salvador. At the same time, the Soviet Union was struggling with severe economic problems and political unrest. Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, and introduced the policies of political openness (“glasnost”) and economic reform (“perestroika”). In 1989, every other communist state in Eastern Europe replaced its government with a noncommunist government. The Berlin Wall was finally destroyed in November of 1989, and by 1991 the Soviet Union had fallen apart. The Cold War was over.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union fought as allies in World War II, but the two nations had a tense relationship. Americans were wary of Soviet communism and concerned about Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical rule. Soviets resented that Americans refused to treat the USSR as a legitimate part of the international community, and that American entered WWII late, resulting in the deaths of millions of Russians. Soviet expansion in Europe after the war made Americans fear that Russians planned to control the world. The USSR began to resent American intervention in international relations. The Cold War refers to the period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union which lasted from the end of World War II to the 1990s. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference:

The first military action of the Cold War occurred in 1950 when the North Korean People’s Army, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. American officials, fearing this was the beginning of a communist campaign to take over the world, decided that intervention was necessary. President Truman sent the American military into Korea to intervene. However, the Korean War dragged on and did not end until 1953. At the end of World War II, it was decided at Allied peace conferences at Yalta and Potsdam that Germany’s territories would be divided. The eastern part of Germany went to the Soviet Union and the western part went to the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop people from crossing from East to West Germany and vice versa. In 1955, the United States and other members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, made West Germany a member of NATO. The Soviet Union responded with a defense pact between them, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria known as the Warsaw Pact. Other significant issues abroad included the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bay of Pigs was a failed invasion of Cuba in 1961 by Cuban exiles who were funded and directed by the United States government. The goal was to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s communist government, but the mission was a complete failure. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day standoff in October of 1962 over the presence of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy enacted a naval blockade around Cuba and made it clear the United States would use military force if necessary, and people feared nuclear war. However, the Soviet Union agreed to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the United States promising not to invade Cuba. In Vietnam, the French colonial regime collapsed, which led to a fight between the American backed leader Ngo Dinh Diem in the south and the communist Ho Chi Minh in the north. American had been committed to maintaining an anticommunist government in Vietnam since the 1950s, and in the early 1960s it became clear that to contain comment expansion in Vietnam they would need to intervene. What was meant to be a brief military intervention turned into a conflict which lasted from 1955 to 1975.