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The Korean War was the first armed conflict of the Cold War, the first "hot war" to grow out of the Soviet-American rivalry.
At the end of World War II, American and Soviet troops each occupied half of Korea, which had been ruled by Japan since the 1930s. At the war's end, the Americans controlled the southern part of the country and the Soviets the North, with the 38th parallel serving as a dividing line. When the Russians and Americans withdrew their armies in 1949, they left behind two Koreas, with each section organized according to the respective communist or anticommunist orientation of its former occupiers.
The new South Korean regime under Syngman Rhee was militarily weak and very much a dictatorship, and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung saw an opportunity to reunify the nation under his own communist command. In March 1950, Kim went to Moscow to receive Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's blessing for an invasion of South Korea, and on June 24th, 1950, the North Korean army poured across the 38th parallel to invade South Korea. Communist forces quickly captured almost the entire Korean Peninsula, including the South Korean capital city of Seoul.
According to the American doctrine of containment, the United States could not allow this invasion to go unanswered. Just one year earlier, China had fallen to the communists under Mao Zedong, and American leaders did not want to "lose" another Asian nation to the communist orbit. President Harry Truman could not afford to look "soft on communism," and he came to view Korea as an important test of American resolve in the Cold War.
So, the United States went to the United Nations on June 27th, 1950 to seek approval for a military intervention to aid South Korea. Because the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN at the time due to the organization's refusal to recognize communist China, the Americans faced no opposition on the Security Council. On June 30th, General Douglas MacArthur led U.S. forces—under the aegis of the United Nations—into Korea.
Although American forces suffered several defeats in their early battles, initially managing to hold only the southern city of Pusan, MacArthur's forces surprised the North Koreans on September 15th with a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, a place far to the North, behind enemy lines. Once the Americans established their beachhead at Inchon, they quickly recaptured the South Korean capital of Seoul and began to sweep communist forces back north, toward the 38th parallel.
Success for MacArthur's forces soon led to expanded American war aims. As American troops began to dominate their North Korean foes, American policy-makers began to imagine that the war could end not with containment (pushing the communists back across the 38th parallel) but with liberation (the total conquest of the North Korean regime). With President Truman's authorization, MacArthur's forces captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 19th, 1950, and continued to push on toward the Yalu River, which marked the border between North Korea and China.
However, by pushing northward to the Yalu, MacArthur all but ensured that China would intervene in the war. Earlier in the fall, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had requested aid from Moscow, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin delegated responsibility for assisting North Korea to its communist neighbor, China. Chinese leader Mao Zedong became increasingly nervous that the Americans would not stop their advance at the Yalu River, but would push on into Chinese territory in an attempt to "liberate" China.
Mao sent Chinese army divisions into battle against American forces on October 25th. The Chinese assault caught MacArthur flatfooted, and Chinese and North Korean forces soon began driving the American army back to the south. By the spring of 1951, the battle line fell into stalemate at a location remarkably close to the 38th parallel.
After nearly a year of intense warfare, the two sides found themselves dug in pretty much where they had started. North Korean and American troops have been staring each other down across the 38th parallel ever since. The two sides agreed to a truce half a century ago but never negotiated a formal peace treaty. Technically, the Korean War continues to this day.
Americans and Soviets both viewed popular culture as an important weapon in the struggle to win influence in Europe during the Cold War. Each thought that increasing the vitality of its culture could play a key role in winning support for its side.
In terms of American culture, as a matter of policy, the United States sought to promote its high culture in Europe, believing that Europeans would share the tastes of American elites more than they would respond to popular culture, which politicians viewed as belonging to the lower classes.
So, the American government sponsored highbrow cultural exports like the American opera Porgy and Bess, which toured through western Europe in 1955. The newly created Information Services Branch of the government served to promote American culture and anticommunist sentiments in Europe. In the late 1940s, it created U.S. Information Centers, called "America Houses," which had free lending libraries of American literary classics. But the most frequently checked out books proved not to be great works of literature but contemporary potboilers (a.k.a. guilty pleasure reads that appealed to the masses and made some fast cash, or "boiled the pot," for the writer). On a similar note, Europeans flocked not to the American philharmonic concerts, but to record stores where they could buy American rock and roll albums.
So, American cultural diplomacy didn't quite have its intended effect. Not only did Europeans consume mass popular culture instead of American high culture, but they also didn't translate that enjoyment of culture into overwhelming support for American politics. Just like American parents in the period, European adults were concerned about the effects of rock and roll on their youth, and the youth interpreted and experienced the culture in their own way.
The Soviets, on the other hand, weren't merely concerned, but were downright alarmed by the spread of American popular culture. Trying to promote their own culture in Europe through carefully disseminated propaganda, the Soviets were dismayed to see their own youth sneaking around, listening to American rock and roll. East German teens tuned into broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, a radio station founded and funded by Americans in 1950 to counter communist propaganda with American propaganda. Russian youth secretly obtained records and formed listening clubs.
Soviet rulers first tried to ban jazz and rock music, but when they realized the music kept creeping into nations under their control, they changed strategies. Instead of trying to ban popular music, they sought to compete with Western influences by promoting alternatives under their own control. They developed their own radio programming in the 1960s and promoted homegrown bands, a few with lyrics written by party officials.
If it seems like a stretch, it was. They had limited success with these tactics as Radio Free Europe continued to receive letters from Eastern Europe requesting many of the same bands popular in the West.
In 1946, a young American diplomat named George Kennan sent to his superiors in Washington a lengthy memorandum that has since become known as "The Long Telegram." Building his analysis upon his own observations of Soviet affairs, made from his post in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Kennan judged that the Soviet Union was inherently bent on expanding its sphere of influence around the world.
In considering how the Americans should respond, Kennan wrote, "It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies [...] It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena." (Source)
Kennan's idea of containment became the basis for American foreign policy during the Cold War. As he later elaborated (writing under the name "X" to maintain his anonymity) in the journal Foreign Affairs, the United States should seek to contain communism within its present boundaries, blocking any Soviet attempts to expand its sphere of influence through "the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy."
Kennan's doctrine became official United States policy on March 12th, 1947, when President Harry Truman gave a well-publicized speech to announce the Truman Doctrine. "We shall not realize our [foreign policy] objectives," he said, "unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States."
Though the Truman Doctrine, construed in the narrowest sense, only applied to crises then unfolding in Greece and Turkey, in practice it committed the United States to a global policy of containment by pledging American resources toward halting the spread of communism anywhere in the world.
In support of Truman's policy of containment, Secretary of State George C. Marshall put forth the Marshall Plan. Marshall feared that European nations, which had experienced so much destruction in World War II, might fall into economic crisis and become susceptible to communism. He proposed a massive program of financial assistance for European nations struggling to rebuild from the war and emphasized that the assistance was available to all nations.
Of course, he structured the program so that the communist nations of Eastern Europe would have no realistic prospect of participating.
The plan required any interested nation to open its economy up to foreign capitalist investment, and the Soviets and their allies could not allow that without undermining communism itself. Charging that the aid program would violate national sovereignty, Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov walked out of the Marshall Plan conference and withdrew the entire Soviet bloc from participation. However, sixteen Western European nations accepted the aid. As American leaders had hoped, most of that aid money ended up returning to the U.S. as the Europeans used it to buy imported American goods. Therefore, the Marshall Plan was both good diplomacy and good business; it helped Europe recover from World War II and cemented alliances with the United States while also boosting the American economy. The Marshall Plan may have been the most successful foreign policy in American history.
In 1950, Truman's National Security Council issued a report, known a NSC-68, that broadened the scope of containment by emphasizing use of the military to limit communist expansion. "It was and continues to be cardinal in this policy," the report read, "that we possess superior overall power in ourselves or in dependable combination with other likeminded nations. One of the most important ingredients of power is military strength." NSC-68 called for a massive military buildup with sharply increased peacetime military spending.
In the 1952 presidential election, Republicans attacked the Truman administration for weakness in the fight against communism. Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower, renowned for his successes as a general in World War II, suggested that containment was not enough, that the United States needed to take more aggressive measures to roll back communism. Republicans faulted Truman for "losing" China and for failing to win the war in Korea.
As Truman's popularity plummeted to the lowest ratings of any modern president, he decided not to run for office again in 1952. Eisenhower easily defeated the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson.
President Eisenhower built his strategy of rolling back communism upon covert action by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which began mounting operations to oust communist regimes or provide assistance to anticommunist rebels. Under Eisenhower's administration, the CIA engineered coups in Iran and Guatemala, deposing popularly elected leaders in both countries who strayed too far towards friendship with the Soviet Union. While these covert interventions were successful in the short term, they seemed to betray America's professed ideals of self-determination, and had serious long-term consequences for the United States: lingering resentment over the CIA's role in overthrowing the popular Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 played a large role in fueling the rabidly anti-American Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979.
American policy in Germany in the early years of the Cold War was symbolic of America's commitment to containment. As the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union began to break down, the two powers clashed over the roles they would play in occupied Germany, and each sought to counter the other's moves there.
Having won the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Allied powers—Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union—determined to ensure that an aggressive, militaristic Germany would never be able to threaten Europe again.
At the Yalta conference, in February 1945, Allied leaders agreed to divide postwar Germany into four zones, each to be administered by one of the Allies. The German capital city, Berlin, which sat in the Soviet zone, would itself also be split into four zones among the four allies. For the duration of the occupation, the Allied powers would cooperate to make major policy decisions jointly, with each having veto power.
The plan soon fell apart, however, as the emerging Cold War made cooperation difficult and the erstwhile Allies sought to enact very different policies in their respective occupation zones.
The Soviet Union suffered more bloodshed and destruction in World War II than all the other Allies combined. Four long years of brutal fighting along the Eastern Front left most of western Russia in ruins. More than twenty million Soviet citizens—both soldiers and civilians—died in the conflict. By way of comparison, that's more than sixty times the number of Americans who died in the war. After suffering such losses, Stalin wanted to keep Germany weak and disunited forever to ensure that another German invasion of his country would never happen again. Stalin had little interest in helping to rebuild Germany into a thriving nation-state, instead looting the country's valuable industrial machinery while endeavoring to prevent its political reunification.
The Western Allies had a very different vision for postwar Germany. Britain, France, and the United States hoped to stimulate rapid economic recovery in the conquered nation, both to help the German people and to relieve the economic burden placed upon their own economies by the occupation. As Cold War tensions began to mount, the Western Allies began to see a reconstructed Germany as a counterbalance to the rising Soviet threat. By 1948, the Western Allies had combined their three zones of occupation under a single administration and created a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, for use in all three zones. West Germany had become a country in all but name.
Stalin could see that his former allies—and new rivals—in the West were working to build up West Germany as an anti-Soviet anchor in Central Europe, and in the summer of 1948 he sought to retaliate by imposing a blockade upon West Berlin. West Berlin—comprising the British, American, and French sectors of the German capital—was an anticommunist island, surrounded on all sides by Soviet-controlled East Germany; the geography made it easy for Stalin to cut off access. On June 24th, 1948, Stalin blocked all traffic into and out of West Berlin and cut off the city's electricity.
President Harry Truman did not want to start World War III by challenging Stalin's blockade with force, so instead he ordered General Lucius Clay to organize a rescue mission, known as "Operation Vittles," which we now know as the Berlin Airlift. For nearly a year, the population of West Berlin would survive entirely upon food and supplies flown into the city aboard British and American military aircraft. Over the course of the Berlin Airlift, cargo planes touched down in the besieged city an average of once every three minutes, 24 hours a day.
A phenomenal feat of military coordination and humanitarian assistance, the Berlin Airlift demonstrated American resolve to not give in to communist expansion. In May 1949, a frustrated Stalin lifted his embargo upon the city. Soon after, the western zones of the country officially united into a new country, the Federal Republic of Germany (a.k.a. West Germany). In October 1949, the Soviets followed by announcing the organization of the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany) to take over the former Soviet zone of occupation. Germany would remain divided for the next forty years.
During the decade that followed Germany's division, West Germany's economy grew so quickly that West Germans began speaking of an "economic miracle." Meanwhile Soviet-dominated East Germany languished. The growing disparity between prosperous West Germany and impoverished East Germany led many people in the East to begin to envy the success of the West.
Increasingly, that success began to draw young, educated East Germans to West Germany. Between September 1949 and August 1961, nearly 2.7 million East Germans migrated to the West by crossing from East to West Berlin, and then flying out to West Germany.
To stop this bleeding of his country's population, East German leader Walter Ulbricht sought Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's approval to build a physical barrier between the two sides of Berlin. On August 13th, 1961, East German troops began to build the infamous Berlin Wall. The wall, a massive bulwark of concrete and barbed wire that divided families and isolated West Berlin, became the enduring symbol of Germany's brutal division and the hardships of life behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
During World War II, the United States poured more than $2 billion dollars into the Manhattan Project, a crash program to build the world's first atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could acquire the deadly weapon.
Ironically the Germans abandoned their atomic project soon after the Americans began theirs, and the Americans' bomb was not ready for use until after Germany had surrendered. A weapon built to subdue Hitler would end up being dropped on Japan instead.
While the Manhattan Project employed more than 100,000 workers, the secret nature of the atomic program remained a tightly-guarded secret, as many of those workers never learned the true purpose of their work. Knowledge of the program was restricted only to the atomic scientists themselves and to a handful of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's most trusted political allies. Even Vice President Harry Truman was kept in the dark. But Roosevelt did share information about the atomic program with his close friend and ally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In their correspondence, the two leaders discussed the bomb under the codename, "Tube Alloys."
As for the third of the "Big Three" Allied leaders, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin? Roosevelt and Churchill kept their lips sealed.
With the Manhattan Project such a closely guarded secret, the sudden detonation of the world's first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945 truly shocked the world. Human ingenuity had found a way to weaponize the most elemental forces of nature, and humanity could never turn back. The nuclear age had begun.
At first, American leaders enjoyed the prospect of maintaining a nuclear monopoly, hoping that the threat of atomic attack would not only force Japan into an early surrender but also might help persuade the Soviets, America's uneasy wartime allies, to be more accommodating to American proposals for the postwar order. It's going too far to suggest, as some revisionist historians have done, that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan primarily in order to intimidate the Soviet Union.
But if dropping the bomb had the side-effect of cowing the Soviets, American leaders surely wouldn't have complained.
American experts predicted that it would take other nations at least twenty years to develop their own atomic weapons, ensuring an American monopoly over the terrifying new technology for a full generation. So, the Soviets' successful detonation of a prototype bomb in 1949—just four years after Hiroshima—came as a terrible shock to the American people. Americans soon latched onto a scapegoat for the loss of their nuclear superiority: espionage.
Investigations revealed that Soviet scientists had been helped in their pursuit of the bomb by information smuggled in from spies within American laboratories, and these discoveries gave rise to the Red Scare and espionage hysteria in the United States. Post-1991 revelations from Soviet archives suggest that espionage did not, in fact, provide much of a boost to the Soviet atomic program, mainly because the Soviets did not trust the information their spies sent over.
Some of the atomic spies—including the most famous, Klaus Fuchs—were communists who chose to aid the Soviets for ideological reasons. Others were motivated less by a desire to strengthen communism than by a conviction that no one nation—even the United States—could be trusted with sole and total control over such a powerful weapon. A young scientist named Theodore Hall gave the Soviets detailed information about the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki—which closely resembled the first bomb detonated by the Soviets in 1949—because he felt that "it was important that there should be no monopoly, which could turn one nation into a menace and turn it loose on the world [...] There seemed to be only one answer to what one should do. The right thing to do was to act to break the American monopoly" (source).
The shock of the Soviet bomb spurred the United States to develop even more powerful bombs. Hoping to regain a nuclear advantage, in 1952 the Americans exploded the world's first hydrogen bomb, a much more powerful type of nuclear weapon that derived its power from fusion rather than fission. Fission releases energy by dividing an atom, while fusion releases energy by bonding two smaller atoms together, creates a much more powerful explosion than fission, and is what happens inside the sun (wowza). The Americans' first hydrogen bomb exploded with the force of 10.4 million tons of TNT, making it more than 100 times more powerful than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Scientists debated whether or not it was a good idea to work toward building such tremendous weapons. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer told President Truman that the project's scientists had "blood on their hands." Oppenheimer was unsettled by Truman's joking response: "It'll all come out in the wash."
By the early 1950s, Oppenheimer had become a prominent opponent of the development of the hydrogen bomb, advocating for international arms control as an alternative to the arms race then being waged by the United States and the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer's dissent from Cold War orthodoxy made him a target for retaliation from foes within the scientific community, who cited Oppenheimer's past social contacts with left-wingers as grounds for revoking his security clearance.
In 1953, the federal government's Atomic Energy Commission dug deep into Oppenheimer's past, catching the physicist in a series of evasions over past associations with communists. In the end, the commission ruled Oppenheimer to be a national security risk and stripped him of his clearance to access classified information. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man often called "the father of the atomic bomb," would no longer be able to enter the federal weapons laboratories he had helped to build. Oppenheimer's forced departure served as a warning to other scientists with qualms over the arms race, quieting opposition to the hydrogen bomb within the scientific community. Oppenheimer's status as the country's most prominent atomic physicist passed to Edward Teller, a man who had no doubts about the desirability of ever more powerful weaponry.
The development of more powerful nuclear warheads gave impetus to competing American and Soviet projects to create better unmanned technology—rockets and missiles—to deliver the new weapons. Atomic bombs like those used on Japan in 1945 were designed to be dropped by airplanes. But both the Americans and Soviets sought to replace manned bombers with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which could travel through space at high speeds before reentering the atmosphere to rain down destruction on faraway targets. The development, on both sides, of ICBM technologies increased substantially the anxiety level of the nuclear era because the missiles not only made it easy to launch massive nuclear attacks in the heat of a crisis, but they also (unlike planes) could not be called back if launched erroneously. If a nuclear-armed ICBM were ever launched, worldwide destruction would be certain to follow.
As the number of nuclear weapons in Soviet and American arsenals rose and rose through the 1950s, both sides found themselves desperate to maintain nuclear parity with the other, yet simultaneously alarmed at the pace of the arms race and the growing possibility of nuclear holocaust. Edward Teller, the "father of the hydrogen bomb," later expressed regret at his role in the creation of those destructive nuclear weapons, which made the arms race into such an international obsession.
President Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, sought to use anxieties about nuclear weapons to his diplomatic advantage through his policy of "Massive Retaliation." In a 1954 speech, he said, "We want, for ourselves and the other free nations, a maximum deterrent at a bearable cost [...] The way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing" (source).
According to the policy of Massive Retaliation, the United States would respond to any attack against its allies not with conventional forces—as it had done in 1950 in Korea—but with "massive retaliation," a clear allusion to nuclear weapons. So, a foray by Soviet allies against, say, Taiwan, might result in an American nuclear strike against the Soviet Union itself. Dulles believed that by threatening nuclear annihilation, he would deter attacks, making the actual use of nuclear weapons unnecessary. That way, the United States would use the atomic bomb as a tool for brinksmanship, threatening to unleash a worldwide nuclear holocaust as a means of deterring its enemies from undertaking more limited attacks against American interests.
The bomb's true power would be found not in its use but in its capability to induce psychological terror.