Origins of the Cold War
Bad news played across American newspapers in 1949-1950. Russia had set off its own atomic bomb. China was lost to communism. Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury and by inference a Soviet spy. Joe McCarthy began charging that Hiss was just the tip of the iceberg – the State Department was loaded with communists. In June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, and U.S. troops faced communist troops for the first time. Behind the headlines was a growing conviction that America was in a global war with Communism. Only 10 years before there had been a debate whether the U.S. should involve itself in a European war. Now, in 1950, the Truman administration committed to total long-term military superiority and active participation in regional conflicts all over the globe.
No war has ever destroyed so much, or changed the world so completely, as WW2. Fifty million people died. Much of Europe and Asia were in ruins. In a span of just 30 years, Europe had experienced the first world war, a depression, and now the most devastating war of all. Many of the world’s great cities were destroyed. Japan and Germany were in ruins and it was unclear what form of government and what kind of country they would become. Two powers emerged, Russia and America.
Robert Payne, British historian, wrote in 1949, “There never was a country more fabulous than America…the decisions of the American government affect the lives.. of the remotest people. Half the wealth of the world, more than half the productivity… are concentrated in American hands… She bestrides the world like a Colossus: no other power at any time in the world’s history has possessed so varied or so great an influence on other nations…” (qtd in McCullough 733)
Russia in WWII had twenty million dead. The German army had destroyed cities, towns, roads, rail lines, electric plants, bridges, farms and livestock. Michael Forrestal, son of the Navy Secretary, went to Moscow in April 1947. He reported after touring the countryside, “the standard of living and mental attitude brought about by the worst depression [in the U.S.] must be a kind of paradise unimagineable in comparison to official prosperity here.”(qtd in Leffler 6)
Many of the men who made American policy after WW2 had been young men after WW1. They had seen the toleration of Germany and Japan invading and controlling nearby countries. Appeasement, they called it. They had learned from WW2, that relatively small countries could control large areas by annexing the resources of other lands. War required industrial ability, resources and skilled populations. Near the end of WW2, American policy makers warned against any post-war entity controlling all the resources of Europe.(Leffler 11) This was at the heart of post-war American policy – Russia must not be allowed to bring all of Europe into her sphere of influence. This is also what drove Roosevelt in 1940 – a victorious Germany with all the resources of Europe would directly threaten America at a time of Germany’s choosing.(Leffler 22)
Sitting astride both Europe and Asia, Russia was a brutal totalitarian regime with a ground army dominating eastern Europe and northeast Asia. In the political chaos after WWII, leftist movements were on the rise in Greece, Italy, France, China, and Korea (Leffler 497). Communists might seize any of these countries by internal politics. With the colonial masters largely weakened, nationalist movements that might be attracted to Marxism were on the rise in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.(Leffler 497) The devastation of Germany and Japan left a power vacuum that could have been filled by extreme nationalists or economic agreements with Russia. American planners were both the most powerful group in the world and tremendously concerned about possible scenarios. (Leffler 497)
Russia had been invaded twice by Germany in one generation, and feared a strengthened Germany as much as America feared a strong Russia. Roosevelt had made the best deal he could at Yalta. The Russian army was deployed across eastern Europe in superior numbers and unlikely to be removed by any action short of outright war. In 1948, fearing the loss of their buffer, the Russians sponsored a brutal overthrow of the democratic government in Czechoslovakia. This shocked the American public and pushed forward congressional approval of the Marshall plan (Leffler 205).
The struggle with Russia was not just political, but for many it was a religious war against godless communism. When the iron curtain came down on eastern Europe, the church lost territory it had felt was its own for centuries. Cardinal Francis Spellman, Archbishop of New York, in his annual St. Patrick’s day speech, 1948, warned of “civilization threatened with crucifixion by communism”. (Spellman)
In his inauguration speech, Jan 1949, Truman spoke only of foreign policy (McCullough 729). Communism is a false doctrine, he said. Communism believes mankind to be weak and unable to make its own decisions. Democracy believes mankind has the capacity and right to govern itself (McCullough 730). The NATO treaty, signed April 4, 1949, was the first peacetime military alliance since Washington had warned against entangling alliances. In 1949 the act unifying the armed forces and creating the Central Intelligence Agency was passed.
Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China in December 1949, leaving behind the victorious and communist Mao Zedong in the most populous country in the world. The so-called China Lobby in America was an alliance consisting of religious, military figures and prominent republicans that had fought hard to keep China from becoming communist. MacArthur had written an article warning if China fell to the communists, it would imperil half the world. In August 1949, the Truman administration tried to counter the concern about losing China with a thousand page State Department report analyzing the entire record. The conclusion – China is a huge country with its own internal political reality. Despite more than $2 billion in aid, the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalist regime was incompetent and corrupt. “The civil war in China was beyond the control of the United States” (qtd in McCullough 743). It caused a sensation. The less restrained criticism called it a whitewash of the pro-communists in the State Department. The chief targets were Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. McCullough says that Acheson was the target of “vilification such as few in American public life had ever known.”(756)
In September 1949 Truman received word that Russia had exploded its first atomic bomb. In October highly secret meetings were held in Washington to discuss a new theoretical super bomb, the hydrogen bomb. When fully briefed to the feasibility and magnitude, Acheson remarked, “what a depressing world” (qtd in McCullough 749). In January 1950 the Truman administration announced they would develop this new bomb. Einstein went on TV and spoke of atmospheric poisoning and the annihilation of life. A few days later the British spy Klaus Fuchs confessed to passing atomic secrets from the Americans to the Russians.
Alger Hiss was an American-born, high respected official in both the Truman and Roosevelt administraitions, and charged with being a Soviet spy. The drama played out on the front pages for a year and a half, from testimony before the House Un-American Committee, through two trials. During the first trial, Truman says to reporters, the country is not going to hell, read some history (McCullough 742). Because the statute of limitations had run out, on Jan 21, 1950, Alger Hiss was found guilty of perjury. Richard Nixon accused the Truman administration of deliberately trying to cover up the Hiss conspiracy. (McCullough 759). Secretary of State Dean Acheson was a personal friend of Hiss and did not accept the slim evidence presented. He said at a press conference that he will not turn his back on Alger Hiss. Joe McCarthy asked, will he not turn his back on other communists in the State Department as well? Richard Nixon called Acheson’s statement disgusting (McCullough 760). After decades of debate, historians have concluded that Hiss did indeed pass information to the Soviets (Uebelhor 241).
On Jan 7, 1950, Joe McCarthy had lunch with a Catholic priest, Father Edmund Walsh, dean of Georgetown’s foreign service school. Walsh, who had a long history as an anti-communist, suggested to McCarthy, who was Irish Catholic, that he make communist subversion in the U.S. an issue (McCullough 765). At a Lincoln day speech in 1950, just after the Alger Hiss conviction, McCarthy made the first of his wild charges, waving a list he said of 205 known communists in the State Department. The next week it was a list of 57 card carrying communists, and later it was 81. McCarthyism, defined today as exaggerated unsubstantiated character assassination, would last until his censure by the Senate in 1954.
In 1950, McCarthy was not up for re-election, but he helped campaign against Millard Tydings. Tydings had chaired hearings on McCarthy and called his charges a hoax. McCarthy circulated a faked photo of Tydings with Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist party (McCullough 814). Tydings lost the election. McCarthy -“You have to play rough if you are going to root out this motley crew.” (Time Magazine, Oct 22, 1951) Richard Nixon was first elected Senator in 1950. His opponent, Helen Douglas, he said, was “pink down to her underwear.” (McCullough 814) Republicans would sweep the elections in both 1950 and 1952.
The 1950 military budget was planned to be 13.5 billion (McCullough 759). More than that was set aside to pay WW2 bills. Truman still believed in balanced budgets, though he was planning a 5 billion deficit. After the deluge of bad news – Hiss, McCarthy, the Soviet bomb, the Chinese victory, and the belief that Russia was committted to worldwide aggression – Acheson argued that the 13.5 billion defense budget was no longer enough. Truman ordered a new review of military policy (McCullough 765).
National Security Council paper no. 68 (NSC-68) was given to Truman April 7, 1950. It was written by Paul Nitze, Dean Acheson and the Department of Defense. It was designed to shock – the United States was in deep peril. The U.S. was far behind the Soviets in conventional power. Nuclear power could not make up the difference, and regardless, Russia would achieve nuclear parity by 1954. A tremendous miltiary build-up was the only solution. Budget figures were discussed at 40-50 billion, 3 times the current defense spending. “The survival of the world is at stake.” The paper was set aside without action. (McCullough 771-772)
Communist North Korean troops attacked South Korea in June 1950. The Koreans, even the Chinese, were seen as agents of the Russians. The Chinese Communist armies we fight in Korea, Life magazine said, are “truly the armies of the Soviet Union as if they wore the uniform.”(qtd in McCullough 825) . In Korea, Russia was testing the U.S (McCullough 778) Truman on July 19, 1950, “Appeasement leads only to further aggression and ultimately to war.” (qtd in McCullough 784) The line must be held, or Japan and Southeast Asia could also fall. Omar Bradley and the Joint Chiefs thought Korea might be a decoy in a larger Russian strategy (McCullough 789). Korea was just one battle in the worldwide struggle with the Soviets.
In the first week of July 1950, MacArthur asked for 30,000 troops. A few days later, he asked for twice that many (McCullough 789). The war goes badly, then goes well, then goes badly again when the decision is made to chase the North Korean army to the Chinese border. Chinese troops enter the Korean peninsula with overwhelming numbers.
NSC-68 had not been adopted before the Korean War. In late summer 1950, Truman announced plans to double the men in uniform to 3 million, telling the American people this was the new reality which would have to be endured a long time. Congress raised military spending for 1950-51 to $48.2 billion, and 1951-52 to $60 billion (McCullough 792). The cold war was on and America would never again see defense spending like the $20 billion of 1948, much less the $2 billion of 1940.
MacArthur was fired by Truman in April 1951 for criticizing Truman’s conduct of the war, for giving the Chinese ultimatums, for making his views known we should take the war to China. In his penultimate moment, speaking before Congress after being recalled, MacArthur was unrestrained. The Washington politicians had brought a “new concept into military operations- the concept of appeasement…to go on indefinitely, indecisive, fighting with no mission.” “There is no subsitute for victory.”(McCullough 853) MacArthur if allowed to widen the war into China, said Bradley, “would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” (McCullough 854) Russia was the enemy behind all the trouble, not China, and Europe was the most important region in the world to be protected.
After the dramatic firing of MacArthur, and during Truman’s lowest popularity ratings, McCarthy made his most vitriolic attack on General Marshall and Dean Acheson in June 1951. They were part of a conspiracy so immense it surpassed any in history (McCullough 859). McCarthy said it was Marshall that created the China policy and the military strategy in Korea. Truman was no longer in control. He was a part of a conspiracy that was being guided from Moscow. He talked for 3 hours. By the end, only 3 senators had not walked out. It would still be 2 and a half years before the Senate would censure him. (McCullough 860)
Backed by military and religious factions, Democrat and Republican political doctrine, America never stood down after WW2. The American response after WW2 would have been appropriate if Russia was intent on world domination. There was a threat, but American leaders overestimated the appeal of the Russian-Marxist system in a disrupted and dysfunctional world. American leaders saw Russian influence behind every local uprising and every case of Marxist appeal.(Leffler, 508) Fearful of the bomb, fearful that Marxism was a contagious disease, fearful of those who did not fear God, America fought and spent its way to security, from a $2 billion defense budget in 1940, to nearly $1000 billion in 2011. For sixty years we have quartered troops overseas during peacetime. Eisenhower, the victor of WW2, warned the American people of the self-perpetuating nature of military spending. Truman also regretted creating a secret CIA agency empowered and energized to fight communism, where not even the President knew what they were doing (Miller 391). It all began in the first few years after WW2.
photo of tydings and browder
article Time 1951 on McCarthy (very good)
article Life 1950, War can Come, on lack of military preparedness
Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking: an Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: Berkley, 1973.
Spellman, Cardinal Francis. “Mankind’s Moment of Decision”. Vital Speeches March 17, 1948
Uebelhor, Tracy. Presidential Profiles: The Truman Years. New York: Facts on File, 2006