FC143: The Height of the Cold War (1957-72)

Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants? Khrushchev, on his decision to put missiles in Cuba

Rising tensions

As we have seen, Khrushchev’s efforts to ease East-West tensions were unable to overcome the inertia of Stalin’s legacy.  Therefore, relations between the two super-powers continued to deteriorate into the 1960s, as one side’s actions would lead to a reaction by the other side, which would only trigger a reaction by the first side and so on.  The following years would see the United States and Soviet Union competing in two ways: military build-ups and a new phenomenon, the space race.

In the 1950s the Soviets developed the Bison Bomber and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), both of which could deliver nuclear weapons to the United States.  The American public became increasingly concerned about the so-called “bomber gap.” Reaction to this was two-fold.  For one thing, the U.S. increased testing of nuclear weapons as a way to flex its muscles.  Unfortunately, the Soviets did the same,

Secondly, the U.S. increased its spy flights over the Soviet Union to determine how large the “bomber gap” was.  Such a gap did indeed exist, but it was in America’s favor.  However, the top-secret nature of his information and how it was obtained kept President Eisenhower from silencing Democrats who criticized him for being soft on defense.  His situation was further complicated in 1960 when a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union.  Khrushchev was furious and had the American pilot, Gary Powers, publicly tried and sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

While Eisenhower had to worry about concealing how much he knew about Soviet defenses, Khrushchev also had to worry about how much the U.S. knew, in particular how vulnerable the Soviet Union was.  Therefore, he increased Soviet nuclear testing to deflect public attention, detonating a 57-megaton H-bomb (1961), the largest man-made explosion in history. Increased nuclear testing by both sides accomplished nothing except for increasing worldwide concern about the higher levels of radiation being released into the atmosphere.  Meanwhile, Khrushchev had one more ace up his sleeve: Sputnik.

On October 4, 1951, the Russians launched Sputnik, the world’s first space satellite, into orbit around earth.  Although it was only a small metal ball emitting a weak radio signal, it shocked Americans who saw this as a threat to their security.  Once again, the response was two-fold.  In 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act.  From this point on, American schools would stress math and science in their curriculum in order to compete with Soviet science and technology.

The second American response was to launch its own space program.  After an embarrassing initial failure, the Americans launched their own space satellite in 1958.  The Space Race was on.  Over the next decade, the two powers competed to achieve the first manned space flight, the longest space flights, the first walk in space, the first manned orbiting of the moon, and ultimately the first lunar landing.  On July 16, 1969, millions of Americans watched a live broadcast of the first human to walk on the moon.  Although the space race itself accomplished little of value, it spawned a technology revolution, especially in communications as television broadcasts and telephone calls could now span the globe.

The Berlin Wall

Ever since 1945, the West’s control of West Berlin had presented major problems, since it was situated in the middle of East Germany with several very vulnerable routes there from West Germany.  In 1948, Stalin had tried to gain control of West Berlin by cutting off its land corridors to the West, but the Americans and British had successfully air-lifted supplies into the beleaguered city until Stalin gave in.  However, West Berlin continued to present a growing problem for the Soviets, since it was a constant reminder to East Germans all around of the much better standard of living in the West.  Complicating this was the fact that there was free access between East and West Berlin.  This and the lure of a better lifestyle caused growing numbers of East Germans to defect to the West, which only hurt the East German economy more and made the West that much more enticing.  This led to Soviet demands for the West to abandon West Berlin, but this only increased tensions that drove even more East Germans to flee to the West and so on.

People worried that Berlin would be the spark to ignite World War III.  Then, on August 13, 1961, Berlin awoke to find the East Germans building a wall to cut off all access between the two parts of the city.  Despite public indignation, Western leaders breathed a sigh of relief, because the Berlin Wall solved the problem of mass defections to the West without damaging their prestige.  However, the Berlin Wall would separate families for nearly thirty years and stand as the most visible symbol of the Cold War until its fall on November 9, 1989.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

For years, Cuba had suffered under the corrupt dictatorship of Juan Batista while serving as a playground for rich Americans.  In the 1950s Fidel Castro started a small insurgency that gradually grew into a full-fledged revolution and overthrew Batista in 1959.  Although Castro had socialist leanings, he was not a declared communist.  However, the United States, in the midst of the Cold War, tended to see red when any leader with the slightest socialist leanings appeared in the Western Hemisphere.  When it refused to recognize Castro’s regime, he formed closer ties with Russia. The U.S. responded by refusing to refine imported Soviet oil in its Cuban refineries, spurring Castro to nationalize those refineries.  When the U.S. put an embargo on all Cuban goods, Castro retaliated by nationalizing all American owned businesses in Cuba.  Then it turned nasty, with the CIA launching air raids on Cuban sugar fields and plotting against Castro by putting chemicals in Castro’s cigars to make his beard fall out and spraying LSD into a studio he was visiting to make him act crazy.  Finally, Castro declared his movement a communist revolution.

Under Eisenhower, the CIA had organized an invasion of Cuban émigrés to overthrow Castro.  However, in 1961, a new president, John F. Kennedy, took office. When presented with the CIA’s plan for an invasion, he agreed to go ahead with it, but cut critical American air support, fearing to expose American involvement in this plan.  Consequently, the ensuing Bay of Pigs invasion was an unmitigated disaster that embarrassed Kennedy and infuriated Castro. Khrushchev convinced Castro to let him put medium and intermediate range missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Cuba.  For the first time in the Cold War, most American cities were within range of Russian missiles.  Therefore, when American U-2 spy planes spotted these missiles in October 1962, Kennedy treated this as a major threat.

The question was how to get rid of the missiles.  Just as appeasement had led to World War II in 1939, a mere diplomatic response seemed too mild and ineffective for this situation. By the same token, while the generals pressured Kennedy to invade Cuba or launch an air strike against the Soviet missiles, he remained acutely aware that such aggressive actions could trigger a third world war and nuclear holocaust.  (At the time, Kennedy was reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August that told how aggressive diplomatic actions had led to World War I.) Along those lines, he saw that it was unclear as to who was the “home team” defending its turf, because, while Cuba was geographically closer to the U.S., it was firmly allied with the Soviet Union.

He finally decided on the strong but less provocative course of a naval blockade to stop more Soviet missiles from reaching Cuba.  While the United States and Britain had been able to airlift supplies into West Berlin over Stalin’s blockade in 1948-9, airlifting heavy missiles into Cuba over such a long distance was not an option for Khrushchev.  A few days later, the policy bore fruit when an approaching Soviet convoy turnedback rather than trying to crash the American blockade. However there was still the much stickier issue of how to remove the missiles already in Cuba.

By late October tensions were near breaking point as the American military moved to Def-Con 2, signaling that war seemed imminent. Civilians made plans to evacuate major cities that might be targeted for a nuclear strike. The military was pressuring Kennedy to invade Cuba, unaware that the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons on Cuba that would have immediately destroyed any invading force.  Just to add to the tension, on several occasions false alarms nearly launched our bombers.  Then Kennedy received two messages from Moscow, one fairly conciliatory, the other more provocative.  Such mixed signals further confused him about the proper response, there even being speculation that a military coup had seized power in the Kremlin in the interim between the two messages.  Kennedy decided to respond to the more conciliatory message and ignore the other one, thus establishing a calmer basis for negotiation.  On this basis he struck a deal with Khrushchev. Russia would publicly remove the missiles in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba. Privately, Kennedy agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey that posed a similar threat to Russia.  Therefore, publicly it seemed that the U.S. had won, while behind the scenes the net result was that fewer missiles threatened Russia than before 1961 and no more missiles threatened the U.S.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a major turning point in the Cold War.  It was the closest we ever came to unleashing a nuclear holocaust that would have devastated civilization.  Both sides clearly saw this and worked harder to avoid such a scenario.  They installed the “Hot Line” to ensure better communications between the two sides and avoid unnecessary speculation, such as whether the other side had had a military coup.  In 1963, the two sides agreed to a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, thus putting an end to such ridiculous saber rattling.  The Cold War would continue for almost another thirty years, but the two sides had planted the seeds of at least some level of mutual trust that would form the basis of more substantial progress in the years to come.

Vietnam (1954-75)

Since the 1880s Vietnam had been part of a larger French colonial holding known as Indo-China.  After World War II a popular revolt with strong communist elements broke out which eventually surrounded and defeated French forces at Dien Bien Phu, and won independence in 1954.  Vietnam was divided between North and South at the 17th parallel, with planned elections to reunite the country in 1956.  However, The United States, fearing a communist victory, prevented the elections from taking place, thus keeping Vietnam divided between the communist North and a “democratic” South that actually functioned under a series of American-backed dictators.  Civil War soon erupted with North Vietnam supporting a communist insurgency known as the Viet Cong in the South.

The U.S. viewed this struggle in purely Cold War, communist vs. capitalist, terms, ignoring its more nationalist character,.  This blinded it to two important facts.  One was that the government it supported in Saigon (the South Vietnamese capital) was a brutal dictatorship and anything but democratic.  Secondly, ignoring the centuries-long animosity between the Chinese and Vietnamese, it saw North Vietnam as a pawn in a Chinese plot to to conquer all of Asia.

Acting on these assumptions, the U.S. felt it imperative to support the government in Saigon against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam.  At first, Eisenhower sent only a few hundred military advisors and Kennedy slightly increased this commitment.  However, it was President Johnson who heavily committed American forces and aid to South Vietnam in the 1960s.

Unfortunately for American forces, this was very different from any war they had ever fought in before.  Instead of the traditional head-on clashes between clearly identifiable armies, this was a guerilla war where insurgents would attack American soldiers and then melt back into the civilian population, often making it impossible to identify and catch them.  Out of frustration, American troops would retaliate against any civilians in the area of the attack, inevitably killing innocent people in their efforts to find the Viet Cong.  This would increase public support for the Viet Cong and feed more guerilla attacks which, in turn, would trigger both increased American involvement in Vietnam and more retaliation against innocent civilians, and so on. Vietnam’s jungles also made it virtually impossible for American forces to sweep through the countryside or even effectively disrupt enemy supply lines, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  This trail ran largely through neighboring Cambodia and Laos to avoid American attacks, unless the U.S. wanted to complicate its situation further by sending forces into those countries.

Another factor in this war was television coverage.  This was the first television war, where Americans would watch updated accounts and images of the war every night on the evening news.  This can make progress in any war seem unbearably slow, but especially so in Vietnam where the nature of the fighting eliminated the traditional measure of success: geographic advance along a front towards a stated goal, typically the enemy capital.  However, there were no geographically defined fronts in this war, only isolated raids where American troops would be airlifted by helicopters into remote villages, try to identify and catch the enemy, and then get airlifted out, abandoning control of the villages to the enemy once again.  This daily repetition of seemingly identical raids with no apparent progress or purpose increasingly frustrated the American public.

Added to this frustration was the media’s portrayal of the war as a losing cause, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968.  This was a surprise attack that did catch U.S. and South Vietnamese forces off guard, but turned into a major defeat for the communists.  However, the media’s portrayal of this battle as a defeat (because of its initial surprise) turned much of the American public against the war.  This generated another vicious cycle where media portrayal of the war as a losing cause would trigger student protests that also got heavy TV coverage.  These would reinforce the media’s negative portrayal of the war, causing more protests and so on.

The war’s unpopularity forced President Johnson out of the presidential race in 1968.  The winner was Richard Nixon who told the public he had a secret plan for ending the war while he was secretly telling the North Vietnamese to keep fighting while Johnson was still in office, saying they could get a better deal with him if he were elected.  When Nixon took office, he pushed for “Vietnamization” of the war, replacing American troops with South Vietnamese conscripts, many of who proved unreliable in the fight to defend a corrupt and failing dictatorship.  However, this gave Nixon the chance to negotiate a “peace with honor” (1973), which left communist forces still operating in South Vietnam intact, but gave American forces enough time to exit Vietnam before the Saigon government fell.  In 1975, North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon, thus reuniting Vietnam.  Three years later, as if to underscore the nationalist nature of this prolonged struggle and debunk the idea that the war was a Chinese plot, Chinese and Vietnamese forces were firing at each other as they had for centuries.