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The Cold War, The Cold War Under Eisenhower

Geneva Accords, Eisenhower Doctrine, Aswan High Dam, massive retaliation, Isthmus of Suez

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, he moved to end the war in Korea, where peace talks had been going on since 1951. Eisenhower’s veiled threat to use nuclear weapons broke the stalemate. An armistice, signed in July 1953, set a boundary between the two Koreas near the 38th parallel. Eisenhower then reduced the federal budget and cut defense spending. Still, he pursued the Cold War.

When Stalin died in 1953, the United States and the USSR had an opportunity to ease tensions. However, the USSR tested a nuclear bomb in 1954, and Eisenhower needed to appease Republicans who urged more forceful efforts to defeat Communism. He relied on his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who called for “liberation” of the captive peoples of Eastern Europe and the end of Communism in China. Dulles was willing to bring the world to “the brink of war” to intimidate the USSR. With reduced conventional forces, Dulles’s diplomacy rested on threats of “massive retaliation” and brinksmanship, a policy of never backing down in a crisis even at the risk of war.

In 1955 the United States and USSR met in Geneva, Switzerland, to address mounting fears about radioactive fallout from nuclear tests. Discussions of “peaceful coexistence” led the two nations to suspend atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. Still, the United States spent more on nuclear weapons and less on conventional forces.

Dulles, meanwhile, negotiated pacts around the world committing the United States to the defense of 43 nations. The focus of the Cold War now shifted to the so-called Third World, where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) represented U.S. interests. Established in 1947 to conduct espionage and assess information about foreign nations, the CIA carried out covert operations against regimes believed to be Communist or supported by Communist nations. In 1954, for example, the CIA helped bring down a Guatemalan government that the United States believed was moving towards Communism.

Finally, to stop the USSR from spreading Communism, the United States became involved in Indochina and the Middle East. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist and a Communist, led a movement for independence from France. The Truman administration had aided France, but in 1954 the French were defeated. An international peace conference in Geneva divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The United States refused to sign the Geneva Accords, which it believed conceded too much to the Communists. Instead the United States sent economic aid and military advisers to South Vietnam from 1954 to 1961. Although Eisenhower feared further involvement in Vietnam, he supported what was called the domino theory: If Vietnam fell to Communism, all of Southeast Asia might follow.

In the Middle East, the United States promised a loan to Egypt’s new ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. But when Nasser bought arms from Communist Czechoslovakia, the United States canceled the loan. Nasser retaliated in July 1956 by nationalizing the Anglo-French Suez Canal, an artificial waterway across the Isthmus of Suez in northeastern Egypt. Britain, France, and Israel (formed in 1948) responded with force, which the United States condemned. The invaders of Egypt withdrew, and the Suez crisis was defused.

In reaction to the Suez crisis, the United States announced a new policy, the Eisenhower Doctrine: The United States would intervene in the Middle East if necessary to protect the area against Communism. In July 1958 the United States sent 14,000 marines to Lebanon during a civil war that the United States feared would destabilize the region.

In the USSR, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, did his part to keep the Cold War alive. He extended Soviet influence by establishing relations with India and with other nations that were not aligned with either side in the Cold War. In 1955 Khrushchev created the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance of seven European Communist nations, to secure the Soviet position in Europe. In 1956 he used force in Hungary and political pressure in Poland to ensure continued Soviet control of those countries. He increased Soviet power by developing a hydrogen bomb, and by launching the first earth satellite in 1957. Finally, he formed an alliance with Cuba after Fidel Castro led a successful revolution there in 1959.

At the end of Eisenhower’s second term, the Cold War still dominated American foreign policy. United States efforts around the world to quell Communist-inspired or nationalist insurgencies sometimes caused anger. In 1958 angry crowds in Peru and Venezuela stoned Vice President Nixon’s car. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane, and plans for a second summit collapsed. When Eisenhower left office, he warned against “unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.” But the nuclear arms race had intensified, and the Cold War seemed to be widening.

The Cold War brought divisiveness and discord in the United States. Americans of the 1950s clashed on the extent of the threat posed by Communism at home and abroad. Historians debate this question, too, as well as the origins of the Cold War. Some contend that Soviet aggression in the postwar era reflected valid concerns for security, and that a series of hostile acts by the United States provoked the USSR to take countermeasures. Others argue, variously, that Communism was inherently expansionist; that Soviet aggression was a natural outgrowth of Communism; that with Stalin in power, the Cold War was inevitable; that the USSR was bent on establishing Communist regimes in every region where a power vacuum existed; and that containment was a necessary and successful policy.

Starting in the early 1990s, scholars have gained access to Soviet evidence that was previously unavailable. New revelations from Russian archives—as well as declassification in 1995 and 1996 of U.S. intelligence files on interception of Soviet spy cables, known as the Venona decryptions—has recently made possible new scholarship on the Cold War era. For the moment, debates about U.S. Cold War policy are likely to remain.

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