There is little doubt that Soviet leader Josef Stalin was heavily involved in authorizing the invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) by forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea). North Korean leader Kim Il Sung met twice with the Soviet leader and secured his approval for the invasion, but Stalin insisted that Kim also secure the blessing of People's Republic of China (PRC) leader Mao Zedong. Stalin promised to support the invasion and supplied substantial material and military assistance, including Soviet aircraft and pilots who actively flew against United Nations Command (UNC) bombers and fighters in far North Korea. Although Soviet aviators trained Chinese pilots and then turned over their aircraft to them, Stalin never would allow the Soviet Air Force to carry out ground support missions or protect Chinest communist forces on the ground. Mao Zedong was bitter over this, claiming that Stalin had extended that pledge before China's entry into the war in October 1950.
South Korea appeared quite vulnerable in June 1950. With the Japanese surrender, the Soviets had occupied northern Korea above the 38th Parallel, while U.S. forces had occupied the southern half of the country. Efforts to reunify the two halves of Korea foundered on the rocks of the Cold War, with the Soviets refusing to allow elections sponsored by the United Nations (UN) in their zone. Stalin and Mao undoubtedly believed Kim's assessment that the United States would not fight for Korea (U.S. leaders, including Far East commander General Douglas MacArthur and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, excluded South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter in public pronouncements) or that even if it did fight, the war would be over before the United States could intervene in force. Fearful that South Korean leader Syngman Rhee might unleash hostilities in an attempt to reunify Korea, the United States had provided only defensive weapons to South Korea, and very few at that. The North had fighter and bomber aircraft, tanks, and heavy artillery. The South had none of these.
U.S. military intelligence failed to give sufficient weight to the massive North Korean military buildup. Analysts assumed that because the United States possessed the atomic bomb, North Korea would never invade the South. Kim almost succeeded. In what Harry S. Truman said was the most difficult decision of his presidency, he decided to fight for Korea. American forces arrived from Japan just in time and in sufficient numbers to stave off defeat. The UN also intervened, thanks to the poorly timed Soviet boycott of the Security Council demanding that the PRC receive the seat held by the Republic of China (Taiwan). The Inchon invasion of September 1950 and concurrent UNC breakout from the Pusan Perimeter led to a UNC invasion of North Korea in an effort to reunify the nation. The Truman administration ignored Chinese warnings of possible intervention. As UNC forces drove to the Yalu River, the Chinese entered the war, and in November they smashed a UNC offensive and pushed south of the 38th Parallel. Gradually UNC lines stabilized, and the Chinese were driven north again.
The war then changed from a contest of movement to one of position. The Western powers, and especially the United States, concluded that restoration of the prewar status quo would be sufficient and that reuniting Korea was not worth the cost or risk of wider conflict. In Washington's view, it was the "wrong war, in the wrong place, with the wrong enemy." Peace talks dragged on, hampered by the issue of prisoner exchanges; the fighting finally ended with the signing of an armistice in July 1953. Throughout the rest of the Cold War and beyond, Korea remained one of the world's flashpoints.
The Korean War affected the Cold War in a number of other places. It led to the institutionalization of the military-industrial complex in the United States and raised fears that the nation was morphing into a garrison state. After all its previous wars, the United States had disarmed. The U.S. military underwent a massive expansion during the Korean War, however, and remained strong thereafter.
The Korean War brought the Cold War to Asia, turning the region into one of the main battlefields of Cold War rivalry. It also led the Truman administration to extend direct military assistance to the French in Indochina, where they had been fighting the communist-led Viet Minh since 1946. The French claimed that their war pitted democracy against communism and that Indochina and Korea were in this sense related. Policymakers in Washington professed to believe the French argument that they had indeed granted independence to the state of Vietnam and that their struggle was about anti-communism rather than recognizing the true anticolonial motivation of the war there.
The Korean War also fed anticommunist paranoia in the United States that found expression in McCarthyism. And it had a pronounced impact on developments in Europe, especially the rearmament of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). Many leaders saw direct parallels between
Both the Soviet Union and the United States had new leadership in 1953. Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in January as president of the United States, with John Foster Dulles as his secretary of state. Stalin died in March and was followed by a collective leadership that ultimately gave way to rule by Nikita Khrushchev.
Fear of thermonuclear war dominated the 1950s. The Soviet Union exploded its first hydrogen bomb in 1953, and Americans worried that the Soviets might strike the American heartland with long-range bombers. Revelations of Soviet spies in the U.S. nuclear program led to witch-hunts and the belief that communist spies were everywhere. On the Soviet side, leaders were deeply concerned about the proven strategic bombing capability of the United States and the ring of U.S. overseas bases that surrounded the Soviet Union. A diplomacy of stalemate, based on mutual fear of destruction through nuclear weapons, held sway.
In January 1954 Dulles announced the Eisenhower administration's policy of "massive retaliation" with heavy reliance on nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet attack. The European allies of the United States worried about American saber-rattling and feared that Washington might unwisely unleash a nuclear war, particularly as Dulles made much of going to the "brink" of war in order to confront the communist states. Such a prospect was particularly worrisome, as the most likely location for a military confrontation was the European continent. Throughout the Cold War, much of official Washington professed to believe in monolithic communism—the idea that all communist states moved together in lockstep, with Moscow calling the shots. This proved to be a mistaken notion, and it ignored the traditional antagonism between China and Vietnam as well as other rivalries.
In 1954 France suffered a resounding military defeat in a remote valley in northeastern Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. The Indochina War had never been popular in France, and this defeat enabled the French politicians to shift the burden of blame to the military and extricate their nation from the war. Not coincidental to the timing of the battle, a conference was under way at Geneva to discuss problems in Asia. The resulting Geneva Accords of July 1954 provided for the independence of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Vietnam was "temporarily" divided at the 17th Parallel with elections to take place throughout the entire country in two years to reunify it.
Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) President Ngo Dinh Diem refused to permit the elections, however, and the Eisenhower administration firmly supported Diem. Washington pointed out that communists ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) and that communists, once in power, had never allowed truly free elections that might unseat them. Nevertheless, Diem's decision led to a renewal of the struggle to unify Vietnam that became the Vietnam War (1957–1975).
Meanwhile, French Army regulars found themselves immediately transported to fight in Algeria, where nationalist agitation led to the outbreak of violence in November 1954. The Algerian War simmered for a time but then grew in intensity and claimed increasing numbers of French soldiers including draftees, although the brunt of the fighting on the French side was carried by the professionals. Ultimately, fears among the French settlers in Algeria and professional army officers that they were again going to be sold out by the Paris government led to a military putsch. This ended the French Fourth Republic in May 1958 with the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle, who proceeded to establish the Fifth Republic with a greatly strengthened presidency, tailor-made for the general himself.
In the 1950s a group of nations was emerging as a self-proclaimed neutralist or nonaligned bloc—also known as the third world or developing world to distinguish it from the Western powers and the communist bloc. India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru became its leader, but other prominent spokesmen were Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. In April 1955 representatives of twenty-nine African and Asian states held a major conference at Bandung in Indonesia to set out the guidelines for nonalignment. For Washington at least, this brand of neutralism—laced with a strong condemnation of colonialism and imperialism promoted by leaders of the developing world—often seemed to favor the Soviet Union.
In Europe, the major problem was the ongoing impasse over the settlements with Germany and Austria. In January 1954 the foreign ministers of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States met in Berlin, but there was no progress on fundamental issues. The United States insisted on free elections throughout Germany, which was to the advantage of the West, while the Soviet Union preferred direct talks between the FRG and the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). The Soviets also made it clear to their Western counterparts that the price for the reunification of Germany and Austria would be the permanent demilitarization of both states. Washington, however, firmly supported the creation of a West European army that would include the FRG. This became known as the European Defense Community (EDC). In August 1954, however, the French National Assembly rejected the EDC, effectively killing it. A formula was then found for the FRG to rearm within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In 1955 the Soviet government made a number of moves to ease the Cold War. The USSR established diplomatic relations with the FRG and agreed to release the last German prisoners of war from World War II. Finland received the territory of Porkkala near Helsinki, which the Soviet Union had secured at the end of World War II. The Soviets also evacuated their naval base at Port Arthur in the Far East. Finally, the Soviets agreed to the Treaty of Belvedere that ended the occupation of Austria and restored it to full sovereignty, on the pledge of permanent Austrian neutrality and economic concessions.
In these circumstances, the leaders and foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France met in Geneva in July 1955 in a new effort to resolve the impasse over Germany. President Eisenhower, Premier Nikolai Bulganin, Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, and Premier Edgar Faure met in a cordial atmosphere. Eisenhower issued his Open Skies Proposal to prevent surprise aerial attack and to pave the way for wide-scale disarmament. The Soviet leaders, however, had no intention of opening Soviet territory to foreign inspection and thus rebuffed the proposal. Nor were the Soviets interested in a mutual security pact between the U.S.-sponsored NATO and its counterpart, the Soviet-sponsored Warsaw Pact (created in May 1955). Both sides also refused to budge from their previous positions regarding Germany, and the result was impasse. In October 1955 the foreign ministers again met in Geneva and again failed to find common ground. Hopes for a settlement regarding Germany had disappeared.
The continuing threat posed by the Soviet Union greatly boosted the movement toward European unification. Only the continuing military threat posed by the Soviets could have caused the West European states to come together. The Council of Europe had been established in 1949. It was followed by the 1953 European Coal and Steel Community, and although efforts by the West European states to create a European army that included West Germany failed, the European Economic Community (EEC) came into being in 1957. In 1959 Britain took the lead in forming a counterpart, the European Free Trade Association.
The year 1956 saw two watershed events of the Cold War occur simultaneously: the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. To try to meet a perceived growing threat by the Soviet Union in the Middle East, the United States had promoted the formation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955. Iraq and Turkey were the original signatories, soon followed by Britain, Pakistan, and Iran. Many in the Arab world, especially the Egyptian leader Nasser, saw this treaty as nothing less than an attempt by the West to reassert its old colonial control over the Middle East.
In 1956 Nasser sought funding for a long-advocated project—construction of a high dam at Aswan on the upper Nile. The Egyptian leader saw this as a means of improving the Egyptian standard of living and strengthening his standing in the Middle East. At the same time, however, Nasser sought to secure new weapons that would place the Egyptian military on a par with that of Israel. Dulles promised U.S. assistance for the dam but refused the Egyptian request for advanced weaponry, and Egypt turned to the Soviet bloc for the new weapons. This along with Nasser's diplomatic recognition of the PRC incensed Dulles, who then withdrew the offer to assist in financing the dam. To pay for the dam, Nasser therefore nationalized the Suez Canal, a step that he had already been contemplating.
Nasser's actions led to the formation of a coalition of Britain, France, and Israel against him. The British government had the largest stake in the Suez Canal Company and in its operations, and Prime Minister Eden developed an almost pathological hatred of Nasser and was determined to topple the Egyptian leader. The French believed that Egypt was actively supporting the Algerian rebels, while the Israelis were angry over Nasser's decision to blockade the Gulf of Aqaba (Israel's entry into the Indian Ocean) as well as Egyptian sponsorship of fedayeen (Arab commando) raids against the Jewish state. Leaders of the three powers therefore concluded an agreement whereby Israel would invade the Sinai and give Britain and France an excuse to intervene militarily to "protect" the canal.
The Israelis moved at the end of October, and the French and British governments demanded the right to occupy the canal zone. When the Egyptian government rejected the ultimatum, on 5 November 1956 French and British forces striking from Cyprus invaded and occupied Port Said at the Mediterranean end of the canal.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States demanded that the British, French, and Israelis withdraw from Egyptian territory. While the Soviet Union threatened to send "volunteers," it was the position of the United States that was critical. President Eisenhower, livid that Eden had not informed him beforehand, put heavy economic pressure on Britain, obliging the allied forces to withdraw.
The Suez Crisis was a major event in the Cold War. Israel and Egypt were the chief winners. The blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba was ended, and UN observers were brought in to police the frontier between Egypt and Israeli. Nasser found himself a hero in the Arab world; his prestige soared on the retreat of the British and French. The Soviet Union and the UN also benefited. Britain was the chief loser. The Suez Crisis marked the effective end of Britain as a world power. And it shattered the solidarity of the major Western powers. Unfortunately for the West, the crisis came at the worst possible time, diverting attention from the concurrent Soviet action against the Hungarian Revolution.
The Hungarian Revolution of late October and early November 1956 was one of the most dramatic events of the Cold War, although it was not the first sign of restiveness within the Soviet bloc. In June 1953, after the death of Stalin, worker unrest led to rioting in East Berlin and across the Soviet Occupied Zone, which was crushed only by Soviet tanks. Khrushchev's moves toward de-Stalinization in early 1956, particularly his "secret speech" revealing the dictator's crimes, led to unrest in Poland in June 1956. There were demonstrations in Pozna?, with industrial workers demanding redress of grievances. Order was restored only by deploying large numbers of security police.
Similar protests in Hungary that October became revolution, however. Encouraged by events in Pozna? and by the limited reforms subsequently introduced in Poland, student demonstrators in Budapest protested the wide gulf between the stated goals of the communist regime and the reality of its rule. This demonstration led to widespread demands for democratic reform, an end to the hated security police and censorship, and Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy, brought to power in an effort to accommodate the reformists, found himself swept along by a revolutionary tide. He announced a host of changes that included free elections, an end to press censorship, and reform of the hated security police.
The Soviets had already decided to intervene before Nagy's demands rose to include a Soviet troop withdrawal and the announcement that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin found Nagy's commitment to democratic reforms unacceptable. If the situation in Hungary was allowed to stand, Soviet leaders feared that the movement would surely spread to other satellites.
On 4 November 1956, Khrushchev sent 200,000 Soviet troops and 2,000 tanks into Hungary. Nagy called for resistance, and the Hungarians fought as best they could. Over the next several weeks thousands of people died; 200,000 Hungarians fled to neighboring Austria.
There was near universal condemnation of the Soviet action, but no action was taken, in part because the Soviet move was made while the Western powers were embroiled in the Suez Crisis. There was much criticism of the United States among Hungarians and a corresponding loss of faith regarding both Dulles's frequent talk of "rolling back communism" and prior pledges of U.S. assistance toward this end. The lesson of the Hungarian Revolution for the peoples of the Soviet bloc was that the Kremlin could do as it pleased within its existing sphere of influence.
The Cold War appeared to spread in the late 1950s with increasing Soviet challenges in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, especially in its support for so-called "wars of liberation." In an effort to reassert U.S. influence in the Middle East, the American president announced the Eisenhower Doctrine in early 1957. It pledged the United States to support the independence of Middle Eastern countries against the threat of communism. Washington intended this to underline the importance of the Baghdad Pact, to which the United States was not a signatory. The Eisenhower administration also continued to send significant economic and military aid to the Diem government of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam).
The Soviet challenge also spread to space, as Khrushchev was keenly interested in his nation's space program. On 17 August 1957 the Soviets fired the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)—the United States did not fire its first ICBM until the next year—and on 4 October 1957 the Soviets launched the first satellite into Earth's orbit. Sputnik 1 was especially embarrassing to the United States, as it was seen as a sign of Soviet scientific prowess, and became more so when in December a much smaller U.S. rocket exploded on the launch pad. The United States did not place its first satellite into orbit until January 1958, and it was still far smaller than those launched by the Soviets. Sputnik 1 also marked the start of the Space Race between the two superpowers.
Many in the West questioned whether the United States still held an edge in military technology, and the notion spread that there was a so-called missile gap in which the Soviets held a sizable lead. Although Eisenhower knew, thanks to U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, that no missile gap existed, he could not make this information public. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's charges of a missile gap therefore might have swayed a close presidential election in November 1960, lost by Republican Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's vice president.
For NATO, the new missiles posed serious problems. In order to offset its far smaller manpower strength, NATO members agreed to the placing of missiles on their soil. This elicited fears in Europe that a Soviet preemptive strike or counterstrike might wipe out sizable population centers. At the same time, other Europeans questioned whether the United States would actually risk nuclear attack on its own soil in order to defend Western Europe. There were frequent protests against the placement of U.S. missiles in Europe. Often these took on an anti-American tone, while the threat from the Soviet Union was overlooked.
The irony was that at the same time Khrushchev trumpeted "peaceful coexistence," he also embarked on a period of "missile rattling," threatening on at least 150 different occasions the use of nuclear weapons against the West. This included specific threats, such as noting that only ten nuclear warheads would render the entire island of Britain uninhabitable and threatening the destruction of the Acropolis. Many feared that the unpredictable Khrushchev might precipitously launch a catastrophic war.
In 1958 Khrushchev ushered in a period of acute tension when he resumed the pressure on the Western powers over Berlin. Believing that he was dealing from strength, he attempted to secure a Western withdrawal from Berlin. The Soviet leader referred to the city as "a bone stuck in my throat," knowing that he could never stabilize East Germany until he could stop East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin. Because the autobahn leading across East Germany to the Western zones of Berlin was the one place in the world where armed Soviet and U.S. forces faced one another, the situation was very tense indeed.
In November 1958 the Soviets simply informed the Western occupying powers that they considered the agreements governing postwar Germany to be null and void. Khrushchev demanded that Berlin be turned into a demilitarized free city, and he gave a deadline of six months—to 27 May 1959—for resolving the situation. In February 1959 he threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany that would give it control of access routes into the divided city. East Germany might then choose to close the routes, setting up the possibility of war should the West attempt to reopen them by force.
To Western leaders, Khrushchev's threats and posturing seemed reminiscent of Adolf Hitler's threats before World War II, and they were determined not to yield to such pressure. In May 1959 the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France met in Geneva where, until August, they endeavored to find a solution. Again there was no common meeting ground, but the three Western powers stood united, which may have given the Soviets pause. Khrushchev let his May deadline pass without taking action. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief as the Soviet leader probably lost his one chance for nuclear blackmail.
Khrushchev was somewhat mollified by an invitation from Eisenhower to visit the United States. The Soviet leader arrived in September 1959, just as the USSR landed a probe on the moon. Khrushchev and Eisenhower held extensive talks and actually generated a cordial, friendly atmosphere—the so-called Spirit of Camp David. Khrushchev, for his part, denied that there was ever any deadline over settling the Berlin issue. The two leaders also agreed to hold a summit in Paris in May 1960 to discuss Germany. Eisenhower was scheduled to visit the Soviet Union shortly thereafter.
This thaw in the Cold War proved short-lived, if indeed it existed at all. In any case, it was formally broken by the Kremlin following the 1 May 1960 U-2 Crisis, in which the Soviets shot down one of the U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that had been making regular overflights of the Soviet Union. Assuming that the plane and its pilot had not survived, Washington put out the story that a "weather aircraft" had gone off course and was missing. The Soviets then produced the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, trapping Washington in a lie. An angry Khrushchev stormed out of Paris, torpedoing the summit only a few hours after it began.
Neutralist leaders such as Nasser, Nehru, and Sukarno of Indonesia attacked the West in the UN. Khrushchev also delivered a speech before that body in September 1960. Strangely, he attacked the authority of the UN and particularly Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, demanding that the position of secretary-general be made into a troika of three individuals: one representing the West, another the communist bloc, and the third the neutralists. Such an arrangement would no doubt have weakened the authority of the UN to act in crisis situations, and Khrushchev's stance ended up alienating the neutralists.
Khrushchev's frantic leadership also created friction within the communist bloc. By 1960, a simmering dispute between the Soviet Union and the PRC erupted into full-blown antagonism—the Sino-Soviet split. Chinese leader Mao Zedong had dutifully followed Moscow's lead during the first decade of the Cold War, but cracks then began to appear in the relationship. For one thing, following the death of Stalin in 1953, Mao believed that he and not the new Kremlin leaders was the logical spokesman for international communism. Mao was much more confrontational toward the West than were the new leaders of the Soviet Union. Also, the Soviets had refused to share advanced nuclear technology with China and expand military aid. Then there was their 2,000-mile frontier—the longest in the world—and disputes over Mongolia.
In the confrontation between the two largest communist powers, most of the world's communist states lined up behind Moscow. In Europe, Beijing enjoyed the support only of Albania. By the spring of 1961 the split was sufficiently pronounced for the Soviet Union to withdraw all its technicians from China and cut off assistance to the PRC.
While this might have benefited the United States, leaders in Washington were in no position, either mentally or politically, to take advantage of the split in the communist world. President Kennedy, who took office in January 1961, almost immediately faced a series of international challenges. The first was the outbreak of fighting in Laos, where communist, neutralist, and rightist factions vied for power. Then in April 1961, U.S.-trained and -sponsored Cuban exile forces landed on that island in an attempt to overthrow its now avowedly communist leader, Fidel Castro. The operation, conceived and largely planned under Eisenhower, was incredibly botched. Without air cover, which Kennedy refused to provide, the Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed to failure, and Kennedy was forced to take responsibility.
An apparently weakened Kennedy met with Khrushchev in June 1961 in Vienna, where the Soviet leader renewed his pressure on Berlin. Attempting to test the new U.S. administration, Khrushchev intimated that he wanted the issue settled by the end of the year. Yet Khrushchev merely trotted out the same demands, with the sole concession that Berlin might be garrisoned by UN or neutralist troops. This time the Soviets began harassment of some Allied air traffic into the city, and the East–West German border was for a brief period almost completely closed. Again, the Soviet leader threatened the use of nuclear weapons, asking the British ambassador why 200 million people should have to die for 2 million Berliners.
Khrushchev was determined to stabilize East Germany, which was fast hemorrhaging its population. By the summer of 1961, some 3.5 million people, among them the young and best educated, had fled through the escape hatch of West Berlin to West Germany. The communist response came on 13 August with the erection of the Berlin Wall, the initiative coming from East German boss Walter Ulbricht rather than from Khrushchev. The escape hatch was at last closed, and East Germans were now walled in.
Kennedy stood firm. In a speech to the American people, he characterized the Soviet position as "what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable." Kennedy called for a sizable increase in defense spending, a reinvigorated civil defense program, and mobilization of some reserve and National Guard air transport units. The only military action undertaken by the United States, however, was to send 1,500 reinforcing troops along the autobahn and into the city. Kennedy later went to Berlin and delivered one of the more memorable (and grammatically incorrect) phrases of the Cold War when he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). The ugly concrete barrier remained, however, symbolizing both the failure of communism and the unwillingness of the West to take action against those regimes.
In the fall of 1961, the Soviet Union broke a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing to explode a series of large bombs. This set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the single most dangerous confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States of the Cold War and the closest the two sides came to thermonuclear war.
Castro had come to power in Cuba in early 1959 and soon transformed the island into a communist state. Increasingly dire conditions on the island, in large part the consequence of U.S. economic policies designed to unseat Castro, forced the Cuban leader to turn to the Soviet Union for economic and military aid. Anxious to secure his ally and buttress his own popularity at home, Khrushchev responded. Cuba, so close to the United States, appeared to Khrushchev in the spring of 1962 as the ideal means by which to offset the heavy advantage in long-range nuclear weaponry enjoyed by the United States.
The high-rolling Khrushchev ordered the secret placement of SS-4 and SS-5 missiles on the island, hoping to present Kennedy with a fait accompli. Despite the contrary opinion of some key Soviet military officers, Khrushchev and Minister of Defense Marshal Rodion Malinovsky persisted in the belief that this could be accomplished without American detection. U.S. U-2 surveillance flights over Cuba, however, soon discovered the operation.
On 22 October 1962, in a dramatic television address to the American people, Kennedy revealed the presence of the missiles and demanded that they be removed. He ignored certain of his advisors who urged a preemptive military strike on the island, announcing a naval quarantine of Cuba instead. Peace hung in the balance for a week as Soviet ships carrying missiles continued toward the island nation.
On 27 October a U-2 was downed over Cuba by a surface-to-air missile, apparently on the orders of a Soviet general on the spot. The occurrence shocked even Khrushchev and may well have marked a watershed in his thinking. U.S. contingency plans called for an air strike if a U-2 was shot down, but Kennedy countermanded the order just in time.
Khrushchev's hand was weak, for the Soviet Navy was in no position to run the blockade, but he played it to the end. Convinced that the United States was about to invade Cuba, the Soviets arranged a face-saving compromise in which Castro, who had sought a preemptive Soviet nuclear strike on the United States, was all but ignored. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles along with jet bombers and some Soviet troops from Cuba. In return, the United States pledged not to invade Cuba and to withdraw its (obsolete) Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Massive Soviet economic assistance to Cuba continued, however. Khrushchev's misstep here was one of the chief causes of his ouster from power less than two years later. It greatly strengthened Kennedy's hand, however, and encouraged a stronger response to communist aggression elsewhere.
The United States had become increasingly involved in Vietnam, supporting the government of South Vietnam against an insurgency supported by North Vietnam that aimed to reunify Vietnam under communist rule. U.S. strategy in Vietnam was prompted by the containment policy and by the domino theory—the mistaken belief that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, the rest of South Asia would automatically follow. This U.S. policy toward Vietnam began in the Eisenhower administration, but the communist Viet Cong were apparently on the brink of winning the war in 1961–1962.
President Kennedy therefore increased the American involvement by dispatching both helicopters and additional American advisors. Both the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnam, although at considerably lower levels than the United States provided to South Vietnam.
As each side raised the stakes, the Vietnam conflict slowly escalated. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's successor, began bombing North Vietnam and introduced U.S. ground troops into South Vietnam. Troop numbers steadily increased as North Vietnam sent its regular forces south. Following the costly but ultimately unsuccessful communist Tet Offensive of January 1968 and a sharp drop in American public support for the war, Washington sought a way out.
The war cost Johnson the presidency. With the polls showing plummeting public approval ratings and with Johnson facing sharp challenges from within his own party, he decided not to run again. Republican Richard Nixon won a very close race against Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Nixon, who was president from 1969 to 1974, accelerated the Johnson administration's policy of Vietnamization, or turning over more of the war to the South Vietnamese. But the war dragged on, with more U.S. casualties under Nixon than during the Johnson years, until a peace settlement was reached at Paris in January 1973 that enabled the United States to quit Vietnam "with honor." South Vietnam, largely abandoned by the United States, fell to a communist offensive in April 1975.
Even as the war in Vietnam wound down, other events were moving the Cold War from confrontation to cooperation, or détente. The policy of détente originated with de Gaulle's return to power in France in 1958. Uncertain that the United States would risk nuclear retaliation on its own soil to defend Europe, de Gaulle sought to develop a French nuclear deterrent and the means to deliver it (the Force de Frappe). He also wanted to organize Europe as a third force between the United States and the Soviet Union. De Gaulle negotiated independently with the Soviets and made well-publicized trips to Poland and Romania appealing for European unity. Soviet leaders were quite content with de Gaulle's attacks on the United States, but they had no intention of giving up their hold on their satellites. In 1966, angry because the United States and Britain would not share control of nuclear weapons within NATO, de Gaulle nonetheless withdrew France from NATO military command.
West Germany was the next country to venture into détente. In the late 1960s, Foreign Minister Willy Brandt instituted what became known as Ostpolitik. This reflected a shift in attitude in West Germany regarding relations with East Germany. Under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, West Germany had embraced the Hallstein Doctrine, refusing diplomatic relations with any nation that recognized East Germany. This policy had in part isolated West Germany as well as East Germany, however, and it had cost West Germany trading opportunities with East Germany. Brandt believed that trade and recognition would help facilitate rather than impede German reunification.
The Czech government also attempted to take advantage of the new, more flexible attitudes brought by détente in 1968. Under the leadership of Alexander Dub?ek, the regime introduced "socialism with a human face," a host of reforms that ultimately included free elections and an end to censorship. Dub?ek, himself a communist, claimed that these steps would in fact preserve communism.
The Soviet reaction was swift and decisive. In August 1968, an estimated 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops (primarily Soviet Army but including units from East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria) invaded Czechoslovakia, where they met only minimal resistance from a stunned population. The so-called Prague Spring was over. The Czechs did not fight, for to do so would have been futile.
To justify the action, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev announced what became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. This held that whenever a communist regime was threatened, other communist states had the right and indeed the obligation to intervene. This doctrine would later be invoked to justify the Soviets' 1979 invasion of Afghanistan as well.
The Brezhnev Doctrine understandably alarmed the People's Republic of China. Strictly interpreted, the Brezhnev Doctrine could be applied against the People's Republic of China itself, for it had "strayed from the path" of Soviet-style communism. Indeed, at the end of the 1960s the Soviets assembled considerable forces along their long common border with China, and Moscow did nothing to dampen rumors that it was contemplating a preemptive nuclear strike against China. In 1969 and 1970 there were actually armed clashes along the border that easily could have escalated into full-scale war.
Such Chinese concerns were a key factor leading to a thaw in relations with the United States. Since the communist victory in China in 1949, the People's Republic of China, even more than the Soviet Union, had been the bête noire of the conservative right in the United States, which regarded the "loss" of China as nothing short of a "sellout." The United States and the People's Republic of China did not have formal diplomatic ties, and their only talking ground was the UN or through third parties. That ended in February 1972 with the dramatic state visit of President Nixon to Beijing. Nixon, with impeccable Cold Warrior credentials from the 1950s, was perhaps the only U.S. president of the era who could have carried this off. The United States nonetheless moved cautiously, fearful of alarming the Soviet Union and disturbing détente. U.S. negotiators also ran up against the stone wall of Chinese insistence on the return of Taiwan, which Washington had, since the Chinese Civil War and in defiance of most of the world's states, regarded as the true representative of China. Finally, in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, the United States established full diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China, necessitating a severing of diplomatic ties with Taiwan although not an end to U.S. support. The U.S.-People's Republic of China thaw was one of the more interesting events of the Cold War and served somewhat to inhibit Soviet aggressive behavior.
Another significant part of détente was the extension of Ostpolitik by Brandt. When he became chancellor of West Germany in 1969, he decisively changed relations with the Soviet bloc nations. Brandt jettisoned the Hallstein Doctrine and in 1970 concluded a treaty with Moscow whereby West Germany recognized the existing border between East Germany and Poland, implicitly recognizing East Germany itself. West Germany also extended considerable loans to the states of Central and Eastern Europe.
At the same time, even as the war in Vietnam continued, U.S. Presidents Johnson and Nixon endeavored to engage the Soviets in a range of discussions. They even raised the possibility of improved relations with the Soviets, to include access to Western technology, if the Vietnam War could be settled. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went so far as to declare the world to be multipolar, with East-West relations no longer the central issue in international affairs.
Nixon did not let substantial Soviet aid to North Vietnam interfere with efforts to strengthen détente. Traveling to Moscow in May 1972, he signed two major agreements with Brezhnev: the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which came to be known as SALT I, and an agreement of principles to regularize relations between the two superpowers. The document held that as each power possessed the capability to destroy the other and much of the rest of the world besides, there was no alternative to the two powers conducting their relations on the basis of "peaceful coexistence." The two powers pledged to do their "utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war." They also pledged to resolve their differences "by peaceful means."
To no one's surprise, this agreement did not usher in an era of perpetual peace. The Soviet side, for one thing, had entered into the agreement in the hopes of securing Western trade, investment, and badly needed technology. In the new era of détente, the Soviet leadership hoped to achieve its ends while also supporting communist expansion in the developing world by means of proxy forces. Nixon, for his part, announced the Nixon Doctrine in 1973, a rough parallel to Soviet policy whereby the United States would assist other nations in defending themselves against communist aggression but would no longer commit American troops to this effort.
Following the end of the Vietnam War, the United States reduced defense spending to about 5 percent of gross national product (GNP), while the Soviet Union's defense expenditures rose to more than 15 percent of GNP. The Soviet Union also obtained less for its defense spending than the United States and thus was less able to bear the burden of this expense. Certainly the heavy claim of defense spending played a role in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is by no means clear that this alone brought an end to the Cold War.
Détente led to a tremendous increase in trade between Western nations and the Soviet bloc and greatly aided the communist bloc economies. West European nations and Japan gave extensive loans to the Soviet Union and its dependencies, most of which were used to prop up these communist regimes with short-term spending on consumer goods rather than to invest in long-term economic solutions. Much Western technology also flowed to the Soviet Union. The hope of those supporting détente was that improved trade and economic dependence on the West would discourage aggressive actions by the communist states.
While direct diplomatic confrontation between the Soviet Union and United States decreased in the period of the 1970s, both sides pursued the same goals by supporting proxy states, especially in the Middle East and in Africa, the scene of a number of civil wars, including one in Namibia. The late 1970s saw not only an Angolan civil war fueled by support from both the Soviets and from the West but also the actual intervention of Cuban troops in that African nation. The Soviets also benefited from the overthrow of key American ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1979. Soon the new Iranian regime had seized as hostages U.S. embassy personnel, beginning a protracted standoff with the United States.
Although President Carter met with Brezhnev in Moscow to approve yet another strategic arms reduction agreement (SALT II) in June 1979, Soviet leaders sent troops into Afghanistan to protect the pro-Moscow communist government there only five months later, sending U.S.-Soviet relations plummeting. Ultimately the Soviets dispatched to Afghanistan some 150,000 men as well as substantial numbers of aircraft and tanks.
Instead of rolling to victory, however, the Soviets came up against tough Afghan guerrilla fighters, the mujahideen, who received aid from the United States through Pakistan. The most important U.S. assistance was probably in the form of Stinger shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles that neutralized Soviet ground-support aircraft and helicopters. It seemed a close parallel with Vietnam, where the Soviets kept an insurgency going against the United States and its allies for more than two decades with only a modest outlay of its own. Relations between the two superpowers suffered further when, to punish the Soviet Union for its actions in Afghanistan, President Carter imposed a boycott on U.S. participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and then began a substantial U.S. military buildup that was continued under his successor.
The cost of globalism for the Soviet Union was high too, as it turned out. With the strain of Afghanistan, international aid commitments, and massive defense spending brought on by the large U.S. buildup and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, Star Wars) initiated by President Ronald Reagan, the Soviets simply could not keep up. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who took power in March 1985, therefore had to deal with the consequences of decades of economic mismanagement.
A committed communist, Gorbachev nonetheless believed that the Soviet Union would have to reform itself if it was to compete with the West. His programs of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (transformation) were designed to rebuild the Soviet economy while maintaining communist control over the political life of the state. Unfortunately, his economic reforms produced scant improvement, and his moves to ease censorship often led to civil unrest and ethnic strife within the Soviet Union as well as national and regional independence movements.
Even as the Soviet Union slid toward chaos domestically, however, Gorbachev scored successes in foreign policy. In the course of two summit meetings with Reagan, he offered concessions and proposed sometimes striking solutions in a manner that led to improved U.S.-Soviet relations and agreements on the reduction of nuclear weapons, including the first agreement in history to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. In 1988, Gorbachev ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. He also promised publicly to refrain from military intervention in Eastern Europe, and he encouraged open elections in the states of the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe.
After the surprising collapse of the government of East Germany and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989, Gorbachev also agreed to the reunification of Germany and the inclusion in NATO of the new united Germany. Most observers credit Gorbachev, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, with being the driving force behind the end of the Cold War.
Although the Soviet leader's foreign policy was widely hailed abroad, the situation within the Soviet Union continued to deteriorate. Old-line communists considered Gorbachev's policies equivalent to treason. In 1990 several Soviet republics, including the Russian Soviet Federal Republic led by Boris Yeltsin, declared their independence. Gorbachev tried to stem this tide and preserve the Soviet Union, but he was unsuccessful. Talks between Soviet authorities and the break-away republics resulted in the creation of a new Russian federation (or confederation) in August 1991.
Also in August 1991, a number of high-ranking officials representing the rightist faction in the Communist Party—including the chief of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB), the defense minister, the prime minister, and the vice president—placed Gorbachev under house arrest and attempted to seize power. Faced with Yeltsin's personal and courageous intervention on behalf of opposition groups, the coup collapsed after two days. Gorbachev returned to Moscow but was now dependent on Yeltsin, who banned the Communist Party from the new Russian republic. Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the Communist Party in August 1991.
In December 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus created a loose confederation known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Eight other republics subsequently joined, and the CIS formally came into being that same month. Gorbachev resigned as president on 31 December, and the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
The Cold War ended—fortunately—with a whimper rather than a bang. Few knowledgeable observers predicted that it would occur as it did. Most assumed that the Soviet Union was incapable of reforming itself and saw the Cold War ending only after the military defeat of the Soviet Union or if some sort of internal, violent revolution were to occur in the USSR. Almost no one had perceived the fragility and weakness of the economic and social structures in one of the world's superpowers that ultimately led to its demise.
Different dates have been advanced as the end of the Cold War. One is November 1990, when the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Paris and signed the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. All European states were represented at the conference, save Albania. In July 1991 the Warsaw Pact officially disbanded. Another possible ending date for the Cold War is 1991 in general, when events in the Soviet Union, including the failed August 1991 coup in Moscow and the December dissolution of the Soviet Union, destroyed the political structures of Soviet communism. Finally, an argument can also be made for a date of November 1992, when William J. Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush, the last Cold War president, in the U.S. presidential election. Clinton's elevation to the presidency marked a political shift in emphasis away from foreign affairs to the resolution of domestic problems.
One of the great ironies of the Cold War was the rapid rebuilding of Japan and Germany. These two well-disciplined, hardworking peoples profited handsomely from the Cold War in the sense that the Western powers needed them as allies against the Soviet Union and therefore encouraged their rapid economic development. In West Germany's case, this need was so great as to allow the rearmament of that nation in 1955, which would have been considered far-fetched in 1945. By the end of the Cold War, Germany was the dominant economic power in Europe, while Japan occupied the same position in Asia.
Of course, the end of the Cold War did not extinguish international tensions and bloodshed. Problems in the Middle East remained unresolved; Yugoslavia broke apart in bloodshed that threatened to erupt into wider conflict and eventually triggered armed NATO intervention; Iran and Iraq were continuing concerns; civil war and famine remained endemic on the African continent already being ravaged by AIDS; nuclear proliferation widened, especially with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the danger of terrorists securing nuclear weapons intensified; violence continued to plague Sri Lanka; and dalliance with nuclear weapons by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remained an ongoing source of concern for the West. If anything, the breakup of the bipolar world increased, rather than lessened, challenges facing the world's diplomats.