DB66 1. The reflective comments may draw on your experiences or information from other readings Chapter 15 Coexistence and Crises, 1953–1961 On March 6

DB66 1. The reflective comments may draw on your experiences or information from other readings Chapter

Coexistence and Crises, 1953–1961

On March 6

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 1. The reflective comments may draw on your experiences or information from other readings 


Coexistence and Crises, 1953–1961

On March 6, 1953, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party announced with “profound sorrow” that Joseph Stalin was dead. Citizens of the USSR must have greeted the news with a mixture of relief and anxiety. Editorialists in the United States expressed undisguised joy at the demise of the “murderer of millions” but permitted themselves only a glimmer of hope. The great struggle of the century would continue, they averred. Stalin’s successors could be as bad or worse. The world might be plunged into an “era of darkest uncertainty.”1 In fact, Stalin’s death, along with the development of nuclear weapons with destructive capacity too awful to contemplate, changed the Cold War fundamentally in the 1950s. The conflict shifted to new battlegrounds, took new forms, and required new weapons. New leaders on both sides struggled to cope with a more complex and, in some ways, more menacing world.2 While speaking of peaceful coexistence, they lurched from crisis to crisis. The end of the decade brought simultaneously major steps toward substantive negotiations and one of the most dangerous periods of the postwar era.


The Cold War remained the dominant fact of international life in the 1950s. It was still primarily a bipolar affair between the United States and the Soviet Union, with blocs massed around each of the central combatants. It resembled traditional power struggles between nation-states, but it was also a fierce ideological contest between two nations with diametrically opposed worldviews. The two sides saw each other as unremittingly hostile. They used every imaginable weapon: alliances; economic and military aid; espionage; covert operations including targeted assassinations; proxy wars; and an increasingly menacing arms race. The conflict extended across the world and even below the earth—the CIA dug a tunnel deep beneath East Berlin to better intercept Soviet bloc communications. With the advent of missiles and satellites in the late 1950s, the Cold War soared into space. The possession by each side of thermonuclear weapons and delivery systems capable of reaching the other’s territory meant that any crisis risked escalation to a nuclear confrontation. Ironically, what Winston Churchill called the mutual balance of terror also provided a powerful deterrent to great-power war. The adversaries chose to wage the conflict largely through client states, diplomacy, propaganda, and threats of force. The challenge was to gain advantage without provoking a nuclear conflagration.3

The international system became more complex during this period. Fissures began to appear in Cold War alliances. Rebellions against Soviet rule broke out in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. By the end of the decade, a long-simmering feud between the Soviet Union and China boiled to the surface. The Suez Crisis of 1956 provoked bitter conflict between the United States and its major allies, Britain and France.

During this heyday of decolonization, more than one hundred new nations came into being, creating a fertile breeding ground for great-power competition. The Cold War thus increasingly shifted to a battle for the allegiance of what a French demographer labeled the Third World. As with the United States in the Napoleonic era, some leading Third World nations sought to insulate themselves from great-power struggle and also exploit it through what came to be called neutralism, a refusal to take sides in the conflict that raged about them. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito assumed leadership of a budding neutralist movement that posed major challenges for the great powers. The advent of the Cold War to the Third World sometimes brought with it proxy wars causing massive physical destruction, loss of life, and disruption of domestic politics. While often victims of the Cold War, Third World leaders in seeking to exploit it for their own ends sometimes expanded, intensified, and prolonged the great-power conflict.4

Events in the Third World cannot be viewed solely through the prism of the Cold War.5 To be sure, U.S. policymakers generally looked at issues this way, distorting their understanding of what was happening. They also perceived, however dimly, the equally or even more disturbing possibility that the non-white masses with or without the Soviet Union might align against the industrialized nations. East-West conflict could be augmented or possibly supplanted by North-South conflict. Some U.S. officials worried that pan-Arabist and Islamic movements might provoke a clash of civilizations. Race played an increasingly important role in world politics. In April 1955, at Bandung, Indonesia, delegates from twenty-nine nations gathered for the first worldwide meeting of peoples of color, raising fears among U.S. diplomats of a “rip-tide of nationalism” among Africans and Asians, even a new “yellow peril.”6

By the mid-1950s, the Cold War had altered beyond recognition America’s national security apparatus and global presence. In 1953, the defense budget exceeded $85 billion, constituted 12 percent of the gross national product, and consumed 60 percent of federal expenditures. Conscription was an established feature of postwar life; the nation had some 3.5 million men and women under arms. A State Department with five thousand prewar employees expanded to more than twenty thousand. Through a global network of alliances, the United States was committed to defend forty-two nations, a level of commitment, Paul Kennedy has observed, that would have made those arch-imperialists Louis XIV and Lord Palmerston a “little nervous.”7 More than a million U.S. military personnel manned more than eight hundred bases in a hundred countries. The Sixth Fleet patrolled the Mediterranean; the Seventh Fleet, the Pacific. The foreign aid budget averaged $5 billion per year between 1948 and 1953. Henry Stimson had snarled in the 1920s that gentlemen did not read each other’s mail. In the intelligence agencies, gentlemen—and ladies—now regularly read each other’s mail and listened in on telephone conversations and radio transmissions. The CIA illegally opened the mail of U.S. citizens corresponding with people in the USSR. To win the global competition for hearts and minds, Americans stationed abroad helped grow crops, build schools, train military personnel, and manipulate the outcome of elections. The wives of servicemen became unofficial ambassadors, sometimes repairing the public relations damage done by rowdy GIs and seeking to inculcate local women in the American way of life. Foreign governments hired U.S. public relations firms to boost their image and secure maximum economic and military assistance.8

As part of the Cold War quest for influence, the embassies built in other countries became political statements. The government recruited top architects such as Edward Durrell Stone and Walter Gropius to produce designs reflective of the nation’s values and capable of boosting its prestige. The Cold War and modern architecture joined forces with sometimes stunning results. Designers sought to win goodwill from host nations by avoiding ostentatious display and where possible conforming with local architecture. Their buildings employed the glass curtain wall to stress openness and transparency, a sharp contrast with drab Soviet styles—a glass curtain juxtaposed against an Iron Curtain. They sought to capture the nation’s spirit of freedom and adventure, self-confidence and prosperity. Stone’s embassy in New Delhi achieved worldwide acclaim. Ironically, the structures built to symbolize the United States of the 1950s became easy targets for anti-American attacks in the next decade.9

The Cold War defined American domestic life in the 1950s. A huge spurt in population growth—the postwar baby boom—along with continued high demand for U.S. products abroad, fueled a period of sustained economic prosperity. What economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the “affluent society” produced a certain complacency and retreat from the reformist spirit of the New Deal. Abundance brought the fruition of American consumer culture.10

The Communist threat produced a mood of near hysterical fear, paranoiac suspiciousness, and stifling conformity. Top government officials—including the attorney general of the United States—ominously warned that the Communists were everywhere—”in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private businesses . . . they were busy at work ‘undermining your government, plotting to destroy your liberties, and feverishly trying, in whatever way they can, to aid the Soviet Union.’ ” Filmmakers, television producers, newspaper editors, and novelists spewed forth fear-mongering products with such suggestive titles as The Red Menace, I Was a Communist for the FBI, and I Married a Commmunist. Federal and state governments harassed, investigated, and deported real and suspected Communists and even encouraged citizens to spy on each other.11 The danger posed by godless Communism spurred a religious revival. Church membership soared; religious motifs suffused the popular culture. President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged this phenomenon with outward displays of faith, the addition of “In God We Trust” to coins, and the inclusion of religious themes in his speeches. For Eisenhower, his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and other U.S. leaders, the Cold War was the equivalent of a holy war. Even the administration’s national security statements affirmed that religious principles should inspire and direct U.S. domestic and foreign policies.12

Various segments of society joined in waging the Cold War. Universities welcomed government contracts for defense-related research and dispatched technical and agricultural missions to Third World countries to win friends for the United States. “Our colleges and universities must be regarded as bastions of our defense,” Michigan State University president John Hannah exclaimed in 1961, “as essential to the preservation of our country and our way of life as supersonic bombers, nuclear-powered submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles.”13 Private charitable organizations such as CARE and Catholic Relief Services willingly sacrificed their independence by accepting government funds and some measure of government supervision to expand their good works in priority areas.14

Race relations—the most divisive issue in American life in the 1950s—became inextricably entangled with the Cold War. The persistence of virulent racism in the United States and its most blatant manifestation in rigid, legalized segregation in the South gave the lie to U.S. claims for leadership of the “free” world and became a stock-in-trade of Communist propaganda. Diplomats from non-white countries encountered humiliating experiences in the United States, even in Washington, D.C., which remained a very southern city and for diplomats of color a hardship post. Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. labeled racial discrimination “our Achilles’ heel before the world.”15 Even the Eurocentric Dean Acheson conceded that the United States must address the issue of racial injustice to deprive the Communists of “the most effective kind of ammunition for their propaganda warfare” and eliminate a “source of constant embarrassment to this government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations.”16

Dwight David Eisenhower in many ways epitomized the zeitgeist of the 1950s. A product of rural nineteenth-century America, he personified the values the nation clung to under external threat. Conservative in his politics, he was also moderate in his approach to life and avuncular in demeanor. He brought to the presidency a lifetime of experience in the national security matters that now held top priority. His leadership of Allied forces during World War II had “internationalized” him, setting him apart from the isolationist wing of the Republican Party. Though he was often dismissed as an intellectual lightweight and a political bumbler, his seemingly placid disposition and clumsy rhetoric concealed a clear mind, a firm grasp of issues, instinctive political skills, and a fierce temper. His casual attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons was balanced by his innate caution. His basic integrity won the trust of Americans and allies alike.

John Foster Dulles became the nation’s chief diplomat almost as a matter of inheritance. The grandson and namesake of late nineteenth-century secretary of state John W. Foster and nephew of Wilson’s chief diplomat, Robert Lansing, he carried out his first diplomatic assignment at the age of thirty when he drafted the notorious reparations settlement at the Paris peace conference. As a partner in the powerful New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, he joined the world of corporate wealth and international finance. Like Woodrow Wilson the son of a Presbyterian minister, Dulles applied his intense religiosity to analyzing the tumultuous international politics of the 1930s and ’40s. A great bear of a man, stern and unsmiling, he could appear brusque, even rude—”the only bull who carried his own China closet with him,” Winston Churchill once snarled (and indeed Dulles was a collector of rare china).17 An indefatigable worker, as secretary of state he set a record by traveling more than a half million miles. Once viewed as the dominant force in policymaking in the Eisenhower years, he and the president in fact formed an extraordinarily close partnership based on mutual respect in which the latter was plainly preeminent. Dulles’s strident anti-Communist rhetoric and penchant for “brinkmanship” stamped him as an ideologue and crusader. He often served as a lightning rod for his boss. He was also a cool pragmatist with a sophisticated view of the world and ample tactical skills.18

The new administration restructured the mechanisms of policymaking. Confident in his own judgment on defense issues, Eisenhower kept his military advisers at arm’s length. From extensive managerial experience in the army, he believed that careful staff work was essential for sound policy. He created the position of special assistant for national security affairs, a step with enormous long-range implications. He expanded attendance at NSC meetings and established separate planning and operations boards to facilitate decision-making and oversee implementation of policies. The full NSC met weekly, more often in times of crisis. In addition, the president met regularly, sometimes daily, in informal sessions over drinks with Dulles, often accompanied by his brother, CIA director Allen W. Dulles, and a kitchen cabinet of White House advisers.19

Especially in Eisenhower’s first two years, Congress posed major challenges, ironically with Republicans giving the president the most headaches. Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy, now chairman of a Government Operations Committee, wreaked havoc through investigations of alleged Communist influence in the government. McCarthy’s very success led directly to his failure. Televised hearings of his investigations of the army displayed to the nation the ridiculousness of some of his charges and the viciousness of his methods. Eisenhower eventually intervened to help check McCarthy. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure him, ending his meteoric career in disgrace. The administration also fended off a constitutional amendment proposed and pushed doggedly by isolationist senator John Bricker of Ohio intended to thwart an alleged UN threat to U.S. sovereignty that would have sharply limited executive power in foreign policy. Eisenhower took a firm stand against the so-called Bricker Amendment and with crucial assistance from Texas Democratic senator Lyndon Baines Johnson secured its defeat. The Democrats regained control of Congress in 1954. Unwilling to challenge the president directly on major foreign policy issues, different groups of legislators used the power of the purse to chip away at foreign aid spending and push for a larger defense budget.20

Even before the administration could formulate a national security strategy, Stalin’s death raised new and troublesome issues. More tyrannical than ever in his final years, the dictator suffered extreme paranoia and ruled by sheer terror. His successors, Lavrenty Beria and Georgi Malenkov, were products of the Stalinist system and loyal henchmen. Each had played a key role in building Soviet military power. Beria had run the nuclear program. Beria nearly matched Stalin’s cruelty toward subordinates—”our Himmler,” the dictator called him.21 A shrewd and capable administrator, Malenkov was the more pragmatic of the two men. Both were technocrats rather than ideologues. Insecure at home, they saw themselves surrounded and threatened by U.S. bases. Soviet intelligence even warned that the United States might attempt to exploit the succession by starting a war. Against opposition from old-guard stalwarts like V. M. Molotov, Beria and Malenkov attempted to shift toward a less confrontational mode. At Stalin’s funeral, Malenkov asserted that there was no “contested” issue that could not be resolved by “peaceful means.” Fearing escalation of the Korean War, the new Soviet leaders talked to China about ending it. They sought to repair relations with Israel, Yugoslavia, and Greece. They warned that the emergence of new and more menacing nuclear weapons made war unthinkable and spoke of “peaceful coexistence.” Hailing a “new breeze blowing on a tormented world,” British prime minister Churchill urged Eisenhower to test the USSR’s intentions by meeting with the new leaders.22

The administration responded coolly to Soviet overtures. Establishing a pattern that would be repeated time and again in Cold War presidential elections, Republicans in 1952 had blasted the Democrats for weakness, promising to combat Communism more vigorously, even to liberate “captive peoples.” In light of its own belligerent rhetoric, the new administration could not jump into negotiations so soon after taking office. In any event, U.S. officials saw no real opportunity to ease tensions or negotiate substantive agreements. From Eisenhower down, they viewed the Soviet peace offensive, in the words of a State Department study, as a “treacherous stratagem of as yet indiscernible proportions” designed to undermine Western morale, expose divisions in the alliance, and hold back Western rearmament.23 Eisenhower responded with a major speech on April 16, warning of the dangers of war and vowing his personal commitment to peace. Pointing to numerous hot spots, he insisted that Soviet words must be matched by deeds. Mainly, he appealed to Americans and allies to rally behind U.S. leadership for victory in the Cold War.24 Whether an opportunity for peace was missed, as diplomat Charles Bohlen later argued, can never be known for certain. Divisions within the Soviet leadership would have made major agreements at best difficult to achieve. The fact remains that the United States never tried.

Over the next six months, Eisenhower and his advisers formulated a grand strategy to fight the Cold War. Despite their 1952 attacks on the Democrats and promises of a “policy of boldness,” the changes they initiated were more of means than ends. In office, the administration mollified the Republican right wing with fierce anti-Communist rhetoric. Dulles presided benignly over a purge of suspected leftists from the State Department, in the process ruining the lives of numerous dedicated public servants and eliminating much of its expertise on East Asia. For the most part, however, the administration’s rhetoric was not matched by equally bold changes in policy. A fiscal conservative, Eisenhower was appalled by the enormous expenditures necessitated by NSC-68. Certain that the Cold War would last for many years, he feared that runaway defense spending could destroy the nation from within. He had no enthusiasm for further Korea-like military entanglements in peripheral areas. After an extended and painstaking review of options by several task forces, the administration settled on its New Look strategy. Despite Dulles’s dismissal of European leaders as “shattered ‘old people,’ ” it upheld the Democrats’ commitment to collective security.25 It sustained the principles of containment while altering the methods used. Superior military forces would be maintained to deter aggression. To permit substantial budget cuts without weakening the nation’s defense posture, the New Look relied on nuclear weapons—”more bang for the buck,” it was called. Dulles publicly outlined a concept of “massive retaliation” by which the United States would respond to aggression at times and places and with weapons of its own choosing, leaving open the use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union itself. Conventional forces would be cut dramatically. New alliances would be formed to deter and contain Communist expansion and provide manpower for regional or global conflicts.26

Eisenhower believed that a shooting war was unlikely and that the enemy would rely mainly on subversion to achieve its goals. NSC-162/2 of October 1953 thus put great emphasis on the importance of propaganda and psychological warfare, calling for the use of “feasible” political and economic pressures, propaganda, and covert operations to “create and exploit troublesome problems the USSR, impair Soviet relations with Communist China, complicate control in the satellites, and retard the growth of the military and economic potential of the Soviet bloc.” All weapons would be considered available for use. If the nation were to survive, a commission headed by World War II hero Gen. James Doolittle concluded in 1954, it must reconsider its long-standing concepts of fair play. “We must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective means than those used against us.”27 While sticking to established foreign policy goals, Eisenhower’s New Look significantly altered the means to achieve them.


The strategy of massive retaliation was immediately put to the test in East and Southeast Asia. In its first two years, the Eisenhower administration contemplated or threatened the use of nuclear weapons in responding to crises in Korea, French Indochina, and the Taiwan Straits. In each case, Dulles claimed the strategy had worked. The reality is far more complicated.

Eisenhower managed to end the fighting in Korea, but his success owed as much to circumstances as to diplomatic proficiency. The president and Dulles did maneuver skillfully among their Communist enemies, allies who wanted to liquidate the war as quickly as possible, and South Korean president Syngman Rhee and the Republican right who clung to the chimera of victory. The administration later claimed that its threats to use nuclear weapons forced the Communists to settle. In fact, its warnings of nuclear escalation were notably vague—and may never have got to Beijing. The decisive event in the Korean settlement seems to have been Stalin’s death. Problems of succession and rising unrest in Eastern Europe compelled the new Soviet leaders to seek a breathing space through the relaxation of tensions. Eisenhower had insisted that peace in Korea was an essential first step. Mao Zedong seems grudgingly to have concluded that any possible gain from continuing the war would not be worth the cost. Rhee almost sabotaged the negotiations by releasing thousands of prisoners of war. He had to be appeased with promises of a U.S. mutual security pact, yet another entangling alliance. The Korean War officially ended in July 1953, but what amounted to an armed truce left a still bitterly divided nation and an international trouble spot that would outlast the Cold War.28

A crisis in Indochina the following year posed for the administration one of the sternest challenges in its eight years in office. By the spring of 1954, the outcome of France’s eight-year war against the Communist-led Vietminh hinged on the fate of a fortress at Dien Bien Phu, in the remote northwest corner of Vietnam, where twelve thousand French troops were besieged by vastly superior enemy forces. Facing certain defeat, France in late March appealed to the United States to intervene. Eisenhower and Dulles sympathized with the plight of French forces if not with French goals. Above all, they feared the consequences of French defeat. The loss of additional Asian real estate a mere five years after the fall of China would invite attacks from Democrats and the Republican right wing. A Communist victory in Vietnam would threaten the rest of Southeast Asia with its crucial sea routes, vital natural resources, and markets essential for Japanese economic recovery. The consequences might extend to Europe, where a French defeat could spell the end of Allied plans for mutual defense. Eisenhower and Dulles seriously contemplated air and naval intervention, even the use of nuclear weapons. To underscore the importance of Vietnam, the president unveiled publicly on April 7 the famous domino theory, warning that if it should fall to Communism the rest of Southeast Asia might soon follow, with reverberations extending to the Middle East and Japan. But Congress refused to endorse intervention without the participation of Great Britain and French pledges of independence for Vietnam. Despite weeks of frantic shuttle diplomacy and urgent appeals for “United Action,” Dulles could not secure the requisite pledges from either ally. Amidst angry recriminations among the Western nations, Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, 1954, just as a conference already under way at Geneva began to consider the fate of French Indochina.29

The continued threat of U.S. military intervention—largely bluff—appears to have helped the administration at Geneva snatch some semblance of victory from near certain and total defeat. Dulles made a brief and stormy appearance, more scowling than usual, conducting himself, in the words of a biographer, with the “pinched distaste of a puritan in a house of ill repute,” even reportedly turning his back when Chinese delegate Zhou En-lai extended a hand in greeting.30 To deter possible Chinese intervention and influence the outcome of the conference, the United States kept alive the possibility of military involvement. The U.S. threat may have helped bring about a settlement. The Chinese and Soviets each had their own reasons for ending the war. They compelled reluctant Vietminh leaders to accept much less in the way of peace terms than they believed their battlefield success entitled them to. Following Cold War precedents badly applied in Germany and Korea, the Geneva Accords of July 21, 1954, divided Vietnam temporarily at the 17th parallel and set elections for 1956 to unify the country.31

Most observers believed that Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh would easily win the elections and unify the country, but the United States and the fiercely anti-Communist South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem had other ideas. The “important thing,” Dulles insisted, was “not to mourn the past but to seize the future opportunity to prevent the loss in Northern Vietnam from leading to the extension of communism throughout Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific.”32 Despite universally gloomy prospects for success in South Vietnam, the United States made a high-stakes gamble by committing itself firmly to the imperious Diem in late 1954 and standing by him when he almost lost power the following year. Violating the letter and spirit of the Geneva Accords, the United States backed Diem’s refusal to participate in the national elections. Through a massive nation-building effort, it set out to construct in southern Vietnam an independent, non-Communist nation that could stand as a bulwark against further Communist expansion in a critical region. To further deter possible aggression, Dulles through extended negotiations in Manila in the fall of 1954 helped establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an eight-nation alliance committed to defending the region from Communism.33

A 1954–55 crisis in the Taiwan Straits posed another major test for massive retaliation and had enormous long-term consequences for

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