In the years following the end of the Cold War, many historians and social scientists have written accounts of what were some of the causes and effects of this period when the threat of war was almost always present. One such person was Melvyn Leffler and his work, The Specter of Communism, which described the origins and conflicts of the Cold War. Out of these accounts several interesting questions come to light about the true nature of the Cold War. One such question that has surfaced recently is that of number 2 on the handout. The main emphasis of the question or statement is that the Cold War never really took place, and what did occur was nothing but a complete waste of money and time. I will have to disagree with the statement that it was a waste of time and money for several reasons. First of all, throughout the entire Cold War, Americas core interests were constantly a threat from the expansion of the Soviet Union and communism. These ranged from the spread of communism through Europe, into the Far East and even into our own backyard of Latin America and the Caribbean.All of these places represented vital interests for the survival of the United States and the American way of life.
When World War Two ended, the American public felt that they had finally achieved a peace that could last forever with the United States as the worlds foremost power economically, politically, and militarily. The remainder of the century was to be Americas Century, a time when the world would follow the United States into prosperity, both politically and economically. The end of the war left the United States in a position to dictate to the world the type of peace that would now encompass the globe. Following the principles of the Atlantic Charter, the United States could help bring political and economic relief to the world through its systems of capitalism and democracy. Such ideas could be brought to countries of the world over time with first the introduction of a free-market economic system, and then with gradual political reforms and a greater advancement of civil liberties. The spread of these ideas would lead to greater prosperity for the United States and the world as a whole. There was only one thing in the world that could stop the spread of American ideas: communism.
The word specter according to Websters College Dictionary means; some object or source of terror or dread. With the new Soviet threat and its recent aggression into Eastern Europe, the American government and the American public had a real reason to fear the spread of communism from the Soviet Union. If the Soviet progression across the continent was to continue, the United States would lose all of its post war economic gains in the war torn countries of Western Europe. The loss of this vast and growing marketplace for American exports would have thrown the American economy in a downward spiral for decades. As the title of Lefflers book mentions, the United States had a real reason to fear that American core interests and security were at threat from the spread of communism.
If the Red Tide did flow through Western Europe, the loss of the market for American goods would cause the economy of the United States to fall to something worse than depression levels. In turn, the government of the United States would have to impose manufacturing restrictions on the production of certain goods. The international market would no longer be able to absorb the surplus American goods due to the Soviet control of our greatest trading block. This new economic system would, after a certain period of time, cause the American economy to become a command economy where the government would be involved in every faucet of production. This in turn would cause the United States to shift dramatically to the left or right just to sustain our nation. We would have a closed society, loss of civil liberties, and Big Brother involved in our everyday life. In a strange bit of irony, we would become what we despised the most, a communist or fascist society with no individual liberties. After all of this, we would turn into a society that we fought the second world war to prevent. The fear of becoming a closed society from increasing German economic strength and the loss of free trade was a fundamental reason that Roosevelt fought so hard for the allies while we were still technically out of the war. It would be ironic that the Soviet Union would be able to bring down the greatest nation in the world without even firing one shot or stepping one foot on American soil.
The prospect of Soviet control over Europe, Latin America and the booming economy of Southeast Asia caused the American government to take steps that it had never taken before. At the end of the first World War, the United States recalled all its troops back home and basically left European security up to the Europeans. After the second war, President Truman saw that the security of Europe would be threatened for years. As a response, American troops were permanently stationed throughout Europe to hold back the Soviets and the Red Army. Containment of the Soviets to their sphere also led to the creation of NATO in 1949. The NATO alliance was the first permanent peace time alliance that was created for collective defense between the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic, and later in the Mediterranean. The United States also left troops in Japan to thwart the spread of communism into the vulnerable Japanese economy that was trying to recover from years of military buildup. Japan, like Korea and the rest of Southeast Asia were also becoming a large market for American exports that had to be protected from communist expansion.
When the government of Kim Il Sung brought his troops across the 38 Parallel into South Korea, he was not counting on American intervention to put down his dream of reunifying Korea under a communist dictatorship. President Truman was faced with the prospect of fighting another world war, the second in during his administration, when news reached him that the North Koreans had invaded the South. He faced a tough choice, should he risk an all out war against the Soviets and the Chinese for the defense of the small state of Korea, or should he leave the Koreans to their own defense. Truman decided that the risk was too great to have communists in control over all of Korea. This would just incite revolts in other countries, especially in Japan and Indochina. The American troops fought for three hard years in the bitter cold mountains just to keep the Chinese and Koreans at a stand still. The real threat existed that the Soviet Union would escalate the conflict into Europe while the United States was fighting a protracted war against North Korea and China. The Soviet Air Force had already engaged American warplanes over Korea, who knew how far they would go to spread their ways. American military advisors also told the President that nuclear weapons may have to be used just to keep the communist back. The President dismissed this for fear that it may draw the Soviet Union and its nuclear weapons further into the war. After three long years of fighting, the Americans and North Koreans ended their fighting with an armistice that created borders that were almost the same as those at the beginning of the war. The United States fought its first limited war to stop the spread of communism, and it came away with a free South Korea, and a prosperous Japan.
The result in Indochina was not the same as in Korea and Japan. The communist government of North Vietnam attacked and defeated the French troops that were protecting the South. The President assessed the situation and decided that Vietnam was also too important to fall to the communists. Once again the United States was being brought into a war to defend a nation that had vital interests to the Unites States, over ninety percent of Americas rubber came from Vietnam. The loss of Vietnam would cause countries throughout Asia to fall to the communists. Due to errors of the American Department of Defense, the United States fought for over ten years and came away with nothing. The communists had beaten the United States and spread their system throughout Indochina. Some countries did indeed fall like dominoes to communism as Dulles predicted.
The biggest problem to the security of America came when countries in Latin America began to turn towards communism as a means of economic recovery. When Cuba fell in 1959, Castro quickly nationalized the industries in his country and sought military and economic aid from the Soviet Union. Since Cuba was so close to the United States, the Soviet Union decided to exploit the situation and give aid to Castro in return for Soviet bases in Cuba. In 1962, Krushchev placed strategic nuclear weapons inside Cuba after Castro requested more military aid for fear that the United States was planning to invade again. Krushchev was after all know for his support of wars of liberation.(The American Age, Walter LaFeber, page 595) This clearly represented a real threat to the United States and its sovereignty. The American government and John Kennedy would not back down from the communists, the threat of a global nuclear war was very real. Tensions rose high in the Western sector of Berlin and West Germany where there was the fear that the Russians were going to come across at any time. After all, the Soviets tried to squeeze the Americans out in 1961 when they erected a wall between East and West Berlin and cut off all supplies going into the city. American forces were placed at their highest level of peace time alert. The Strategic Air Command had planes flying in the air at all times loaded with nuclear bombs. The Soviets clearly were ready to risk it all, but at the last minute they backed down when Kennedy got tough. Krushchev took the missiles out of Cuba only after the United States promised to never invade Cuba again. Although Cuba remained communist, its importance was drastically reduced. American determination was the only things that was able to keep the Western Hemisphere free from the tyrannical control of the Soviet Union.
The spread of communism into the Western Hemisphere was only kept in check by the overwhelming military and economic strength of the United States. The executive branch was able to lend monetary and military supplies to countries of Latin America in their time of need. The United States often conducted or supported military actions to help put down communist uprisings in Latin America. When the United States trained Cuban nationals to help overthrow Castros communist regime in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, it was clearly reacting to a threat to its security. The United States also used its military and economic might to help overthrow or put down communist regimes in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Brazil. The American government played a strong role in keeping communism out of its own backyard under the creation of the Johnson Doctrine, which authorized the president to use military force in Latin America to put down communist uprisings.
The massive American military buildup was the only reason that our country was able to survive the Red Tide and exist as a nation as it did throughout its history. If not for the leadership of the United States in its fight against communism, the world would have certainly fell victim to the spreading waves of Marxism. With an isolated United States after World War Two, the Soviet Union would have no one to check its power and could spread its grip through the Eurasian land mass. Even though the United States was the only country to posses atomic weapons at the end of World War Two it would not be in a position to use them if we became isolated. Unless our bombers had bases to takeoff and land at, they would not be able deliver the weapons to the heart of the Soviet Union. The intercontinental ballistic missile and the long-range strategic bombers had not yet been invented, so we would have a great weapon, but no means of delivering it to the enemy. That is why the United States had to pursue the course it did during the aftermath of the war. The Cold War was not a result of American aggression, but that of the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union did not have an equal power in the world, the vast economies that now exist in Europe and Asia would have never existed. The United States would never have grown to the strength and prestige that it now posses and we would be living under harsh political rule at home.
For over forty years the United States was locked in a battle with such an overwhelming force that appealed to the peasants and working classes of the nations around the world. The United States was only able to defeat the Soviet Union by exploiting its economy and citizens. President Reagan sent the United States military into one of its greatest buildups of all time. Our armed forces grew so great in strength that the Soviet Union went bankrupt trying to match our buildup. When the Soviet economy began to stumble, Premier Gorbachev stared to introduce economic reforms. The people of the Soviet Union got a glimpse of what life was like in the West, and they would not tolerate their repressive governments any longer. Communist regimes in Europe broke apart in favor more democratically elected governments.Only by the strength, determination and courage of our leaders were we able to come out of the Cold War not only victorious, but as leader of the free world and an example for developing countries to look at instead of communism.
LaFeber, Walter; The American Age, Second Edition; W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., NY;
Leffler, Melvyn P.; The Specter of Communism; HarperCollinsCandaltd; 1994.
Random House Websters College Dictionary; page 1285; Random House, Inc., NY; 1992.