In World War I, the United States was a reluctant belligerent, not entering the war until April 1917, some thirty-two months after the conflict began. It emerged from the Great War in a position of preponderant economic and political strength, having been spared completely the devastation that had been wrought on the other major belligerents. Despite its putative policy of neutrality during much of the war, its economy had also benefited handsomely from the sale of war matériel and other goods to its allies, chiefly France and Great Britain. By the end of the war, in fact, New York City had supplanted London as the world's chief financial center.
At the end of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson attempted to construct a New World Order, one in which future military conflagrations would be unlikely and in which all nations would participate on a more-or-less equal footing. Wilson's internationalism policy was predicated upon three tenets. First, the postwar order was to be based upon a free-market liberal capitalist system, modeled after the United States, in which the United States would play a central role. Second, new international economic arrangements were to stress free trade, equal access to markets, and the reduction of ruinous competition. And third, international arrangements and the peace would be enforced by a supranational body known as the League of Nations—the precursor to the post–World War II United Nations (UN)—to which all nations would belong and contribute. Wilson, who referred to the League of Nations as "an alliance to end all alliances," had clearly envisioned an activist, proactive role for U.S. foreign policy. But his vision remained just that—a vision.
The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and by doing so refused to sanction U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Thus, the United States never participated in the body, and by the late 1920s Republican-led administrations had turned American foreign policy into one of unilateral, limited internationalism rather than multilateral internationalism. The onset of the Great Depression saw the United States become even more isolationist, so much so that Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts to keep the nation out of a future war. Only with the obvious aggression of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s was President Franklin D. Roosevelt able to wrench his nation off the path of neutrality and isolationism, and even then it took the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to bring the nation into the war, more than two years after it had begun.
World War II silenced all but the most intransigent American isolationists. The war proved that isolationism had only invited aggression and that if a third world war was to be avoided, the United States had to take the lead in international affairs, essentially filling the vast power vacuums left in the war's wake. In 1945, America was in a unique position to do just that.
Unlike all the other major World War II belligerents, the American homeland had been left entirely undamaged, and its industrial capacity, which grew exponentially throughout the war, was capable of providing much of the world's manufactured goods. While once-mighty empires such as that of the British had been brought low because of the war, the United States emerged from the war as the world's most powerful nation. Its war casualties were comparatively small, it boasted the most technologically advanced armed forces in history, and it alone possessed the atomic bomb. And although the Soviet Red Army may have had numerical superiority at war's end, the Soviet Union was no match for American economic and military power. Before World War II had ended, U.S. policymakers had already begun to plan for the postwar world, which included the establishment of the UN, another supranational organization in which the United States would, this time, play a pivotal role.
The United States took on the role of leader of noncommunist nations in the Cold War and vied with the communist powers, most prominently the Soviet Union, for influence in decolonized and third world countries. For Americans, the Cold War was a military, political, economic, and ideological contest between democracy and totalitarianism, between capitalism and communism. Yet in establishing anticommunist alliances, the U.S. government sometimes backed undemocratic governments that did not share American ideals of democracy and freedom but were anticommunist and willing to cooperate with U.S. diplomatic aims. The Cold War was the primary focus of American foreign relations and military policy for more than four decades, and as such it also influenced American politics, society, and culture.
Even before the end of World War II, American policymakers feared Soviet expansion into Western Europe and Asia. Soon after the war, deteriorating relations between East and West, the drawing of what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill termed the Iron Curtain, and the imposition of communist governments in Eastern Europe bolstered these fears. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman declared that the United States would assist any free nation in opposing takeover by hostile powers, serving as one of the earliest public announcements of the U.S. containment policy to prevent the spread of communism. This commitment, known as the Truman Doctrine, was to be the operative anticommunist policy for the duration of the Cold War, in the process making the United States the world's policeman. The Marshall Plan, also announced in 1947, represented a massive U.S. effort to rebuild Western Europe's wartorn economies and in so doing construct a citadel against Soviet encroachments in the region.
International developments in the late 1940s and early 1950s stoked Americans' fears of the global reach of communism, reinforced U.S. determination to counter it, and fueled the post–World War II defense buildup and nuclear arms race. In 1948, Congress reinstated the Selective Service Act, which until 1973 required all eligible young men to register for military service. The Sovietled Berlin Blockade (1948–1949) fortified Americans' suspicions of communist expansionism in Europe. In 1949, the United States entered into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a security pact with Canada and West European nations committing all signatories to come to the defense of any one attacked by a hostile power—implicitly understood to be the Soviet Union. This was a radical departure in U.S. foreign policy, as the nation had not been part of any permanent military alliance since the Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth century. A few months later, Americans grimly received the news of the triumph of Mao Zedong's communist forces in China, fast upon the heels of the shocking revelation that the Soviets had obliterated the U.S. atomic monopoly by exploding their first A-bomb in September.
This development led the Americans to embark on the construction of a thermonuclear—or hydrogen—bomb in January 1950, which was successfully detonated in 1952. In April 1950, Truman's National Security Council (NSC) produced a report, NSC-68, advocating a massive military buildup to prevent the spread of communism and to demonstrate U.S. determination to meet communist expansion head-on. Truman did not act on the report's recommendations until after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Within hours of the attack by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), he committed U.S. troops to the fight via the UN. The Korean War lasted three years and caused the loss of nearly 37,000 American lives. Korea also forced Truman to implement the prescriptions in NSC-68, resulting in a huge military rearmament program and the permanent stationing of troops in both Asia and Western Europe.
Cold War events overseas greatly influenced American domestic politics. Although anticommunism was no stranger to the United States, it exploded after World War II. War hawks and Truman critics accused his administration of losing China to the communists and branded the Democrats as soft on communism. In February 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy helped perpetuate the second American Red Scare of the twentieth century (the first one occurred in the immediate aftermath of World War I) by charging that communists had infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government. Although his tactics were abhorrent and his charges mostly scurrilous, McCarthy created a four-year-long anticommunist witch-hunt—subsequently dubbed "McCarthyism"—that ruined myriad careers and stifled political discourse. Simultaneously, investigations of former State Department official Alger Hiss and the atomic espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg contributed to Americans' notions that fellow citizens might indeed be aiding a communist takeover from within the United States.
The Cold War also influenced American society and culture. Hundreds of thousands of people relied on the defense industry for employment between the 1950s and 1980s. For example, aerospace companies under contract by the U.S. government burgeoned in southern California, stimulating a mass migration to the region. Soon, a new defense economy, or military-industrial complex, had transformed the nation by attracting millions of people from the old industrial heartland of the Northeast and Midwest to the new industrial areas of the South and Southwest. This major demographic shift resulted in a realignment of political power, moving it farther west and south. It is little coincidence that since 1964, America has had three presidents from Texas, two from California, and two from the Deep South. In the declining cities of the North, however, urban decay, deindustrialization, high unemployment, and a diminishing tax base resulted in the creation of a permanent underclass of people unable to access reputable educational opportunities or decent jobs. Military service was expected of able young men, millions of whom served overseas in hot and cold wars in the 1950s and 1960s.
Because of their nation's superpower status and its role as the leader of the anticommunist world, Americans were aware that the peoples of other nations paid attention to how they behaved at home and abroad. The excesses of McCarthyism and the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs caused those in other nations to question whether the United States actually guaranteed its citizens the constitutional rights it held up to the world as evidence of its moral authority. The civil rights movement, which gained momentum in the mid-1950s, also drew international attention to how the United States treated its African American population. The Soviets as well as U.S. allies and citizens in nonaligned nations closely followed the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956) and the attempt of nine African American students to integrate into a Little Rock, Arkansas, all-white high school in 1957. Onlookers in other nations condemned America's racist Jim Crow laws and violence against people of color and asked whether the United States could truthfully proclaim itself the beacon of democracy when it tolerated such patently unjust treatment of its own citizens.
Concerns about white Americans' conduct abroad also intensified in the 1950s. The widely read 1958 novel The Ugly American, by Americans William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, portrayed U.S. foreign service employees as boorish and ignorant of Southeast Asian languages and customs and argued that their incompetence endangered U.S. Cold War policies and even pushed potential allies toward the communist camp. To counter global negative perceptions of Americans, the U.S. government attempted to project a positive image of itself through cultural diplomacy, including informational pamphlets, student exchanges, international exhibitions, and jazz concerts.
By the dawn of the 1960s, McCarthyism was largely a thing of the past, although anticommunist policies and sentiments remained strong. In his 1960 presidential campaign, President John F. Kennedy sharply criticized President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration as being weak in its fight against communism. In less than three years, Kennedy's administration demonstrated a tough and bellicose (if not always successful) anticommunist posture in its botched attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, clashes with the Soviets over Berlin in the summer of 1961, nuclear brinkmanship with the Russians over the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962, and the dramatic increase of U.S. military advisors assisting the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam). Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, while expanding the role of the government in protecting public welfare and promoting civil rights, sought to carry on Kennedy's tough anticommunist policies. Congress's August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing Johnson to enlarge the role of the United States in fighting the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) provoked a massive escalation in the Vietnam War. Johnson's Vietnam War policies were expensive and divisive. By 1968, America was being torn apart by a burgeoning antiwar movement, race riots, political assassinations, and a virtual clash of cultures between the old ruling elite and the new generation of politically active college students and other young adults.
In American culture and society in the 1960s, irreverent critiques of Cold War dogma became popular. Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 (1961) ridiculed the armed forces as ineffectual and its missions as self-destructively irrational. Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963) satirized the assumption that science ensured progress, portraying a nuclear scientist's invention intended to benefit the military as a threat to the existence of humankind. Among those who criticized the U.S. military engagement in Vietnam were many youths who had grown up practicing duck and cover exercises at school, reading textbooks that uncritically lauded the United States as the heroic leader in the crusade against the evils of communism, and watching films and television programs that depicted devious communists outwitted by resourceful American heroes. The counterculture movement, which influenced and was heavily influenced by anti–Vietnam War and antidraft activists, also rejected the consumerism and militarism of American society.
Despite challenges to the Cold War consensus forged in the previous decades, anticommunist attitudes persisted throughout the 1960s. Many Americans, whom President Richard M. Nixon termed "the silent majority," resented the hippies, protestors, and radicals who were seen as destroyers of the American way of life and backed conservative domestic and foreign policies. Although all the major candidates for president in 1968 had promised to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam, many Americans supported the continued air war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) in the early 1970s. Despite his pledge to end the war quickly, Nixon did not remove American troops from Vietnam until the beginning of his second term in 1973. Internationally, however, the Vietnam War cost the United States much of its credibility in global affairs and its claim to moral leadership in the struggle against communism. It also fueled anti-Americanism worldwide.
The 1970s saw détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, the end of the Vietnam War, and the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), which was recognized by President Jimmy Carter's administration in 1979. In the wake of the destructive Watergate scandal, which forced Nixon from office, Americans wrestled with the role of their nation internationally and the conduct of their government at home. The takeover of the Republic of Vietnam (ROV, South Vietnam) by the communist nationalists on the heels of the hasty American departure from Saigon in April 1975 made many Americans wonder why their nation had invested so much money, so many lives, and so many years to preserve a small, volatile nation on the other side of the world.
The costs of the war were indeed high, and ultimately the United States had not achieved its goal of preventing the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. The disclosure of America's secret bombings in Cambodia and Laos, reports of war atrocities committed by U.S. forces, Nixon's ignominious resignation in August 1974, the fall of South Vietnam, and revelations about nefarious activities by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at home and abroad badly shook the American psyche. At the same time, skyrocketing oil prices, inflation, unemployment, and a stagnant economy seemed to show that the American Dream was becoming a nightmare by the end of the 1970s. The public mood turned inward, more concerned about problems at home than abroad.
Cold War tensions flared once more when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 in an effort to uphold a pro-Soviet government there. President Carter had initially envisioned a foreign policy that emphasized the advancement of human rights rather than a harsh anticommunist stance entailing accelerated defense spending. The Soviet invasion, however, galvanized him to demonstrate U.S. opposition to Soviet expansionism by supporting the Afghan resistance, suspending arms limitation talks with the Soviets, placing embargoes on sales of grain and technology to Russia, reinstating registration for the draft, and boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. To make matters worse, the United States was gripped by the Iran Hostage Crisis between November 1979 and January 1981, which only seemed to prove America's international weakness and Carter's inability to solve thorny foreign policy issues. Although it must be said that Carter was largely a victim of circumstances beyond his control, he nevertheless bore the brunt of Americans' frustration with a reeling economy and international crises.
Carter lost the 1980 presidential race to Ronald Reagan, who simultaneously ushered in a sometimes frighteningly militaristic anticommunism and uplifting pro-American rhetoric. In condemning the Soviet Union as an evil empire, Reagan revived in many Americans the belief in the United States as the champion of freedom and justice in the world, which appealed to those still galled by the U.S. failure in Vietnam, its loss of status in the world, and a flagging economy. In Reagan's first term as president, his administration pushed through billions of dollars of cuts to social programs, tax cuts, and major increases in defense spending.
While many Americans supported the nuclear buildup—including in 1983 Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed "Star Wars," a space-based system to shield the United States from incoming nuclear missiles—as necessary to counter Soviet power, others were alarmed. In June 1982, 750,000 people gathered in New York City's Central Park to protest the accelerating nuclear arms race. Apprehension over the possibility of nuclear destruction emerged in many cultural forms during the 1980s, including the controversial television movie The Day After (1983), which graphically depicted a nuclear attack on a Midwestern city, showing the instant vaporization of humans, slow death by radiation poisoning, and the collapse of society. Popular music and literature served as additional outlets for fears of nuclear annihilation. Prince's 1983 song "1999" advocated enjoying life to its fullest as nuclear war loomed. Doug Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture depicted an unambitious group of friends in their twenties, living in the southern California desert to escape from the consumerist society of the 1980s, as deeply troubled by fears of nuclear destruction and radiation.
The mid-1980s, however, saw a rapid deceleration in Cold War tensions. The personal rapport between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985, inspired international optimism that perhaps the two superpowers could find solutions to their differences and step back from the nuclear abyss. Summits between the two leaders yielded an agreement in 1987 for mutual inspections of nuclear arms. Between 1989 and 1991, Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, and Gorbachev negotiated momentous economic and arms reduction agreements.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, those who study it continue to pursue answers to many questions. Was the Soviet Union as expansionist as American policymakers in the 1940s assumed? Might the United States have learned to coexist with communist states, or was conflict unavoidable? To what extent were pro-Soviet agents working in the United States as spies and saboteurs? Access to archival sources in the former Soviet Union as well as declassified U.S. historical documents are helping scholars to answer these questions.
Why the Cold War ended remains the subject of lively debate. Some analysts primarily credit U.S. resolve, demonstrated by a mighty (and massively expensive) defense, a steadfast opposition to communist ideology, and economic strategies that thwarted Soviet expansion over the decades. The costs to the Soviets of countering U.S. power, according to this view, contributed greatly to the demise of the Soviet Union. Other scholars give greater weight to economic and political problems inherent in the Soviet system and to Gorbachev's reforms. While Cold War triumphalists claimed that the fall of the Soviet Union proved the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism, others pointed to U.S. failures to adhere to its own proclaimed democratic principles over the course of the Cold War, such as its covert and possibly illegal operations to help remove governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973) and the subversion of the U.S. constitutional process in the Iran-Contra Affair (1984–1986).
In the early twenty-first century, remnants of the Cold War persist in U.S. foreign relations. The U.S. government still refuses to recognize the Cuban government of communist Fidel Castro. The PRC's human rights abuses and suppression of democracy continued to trouble Americans, although Sino-American relations, especially in trade, had improved. North Korea, perhaps the last lonely outpost of the Cold War, remained intractably bellicose.
Donna Alvah and Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Dudziak, Mary. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.; Fernlund, Kevin J., ed. The Cold War American West, 1945–1989. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.; Friedberg, Aaron L. In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America's Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.; Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; Judge, Edward H., and John W. Langdon, eds. A Hard and Bitter Peace: A Global History of the Cold War. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.; Lafeber, Walter. America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945–2002. Updated 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.; Leffler, Melvyn P. The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917–1953. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.; May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.; Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917–1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.; Schrecker, Ellen, ed. Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History after the Fall of Communism. New York: New Press, 2004.; Sherry, Michael J. In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930's. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.; Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996; Winkler, Allan M. Life under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.