Collision Courses, Abroad and at Home, 1946–1960
The Postwar Economy. Economists feared that the end of the war would result in a return of the depression. Pent-up consumer demand for houses, automobiles, and other consumer goods, however, spurred production. The G. I. Bill of Rights (1944) enabled veterans to pursue education, learn a trade, or start a business. The first issue he confronted after the war was reconversion of the economy.
Truman Becomes President. After Roosevelt’s death, Truman became president and attempted to follow Roosevelt’s policies at home and abroad. How well he did so was another matter. Rather than convincing or appeasing opponents, he often insulted them. Complications tended to confuse him, which caused him to dig in his heels or strike out blindly. Inflation and labor unrest helped the Republicans win control of Congress in 1946. In 1947, Congress enacted over Truman’s veto the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed “closed shops” and authorized the president to order an eighty-day cooling off period in strikes that threatened the national interest. While the act made it more difficult to organize industries, it did not hamper existing unions.
The Containment Policy. Stalin seemed intent on expanding Soviet power into central Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. By January 1946, Truman moved toward a tougher stance with respect to the Soviet Union. George F. Kennan, a foreign service officer, contended that the origins of Soviet expansionism lay in the instability and illegitimacy of the Soviet regime. He proposed that the United States firmly but patiently resist Soviet expansion wherever it appeared. Kennan never elaborated on how, precisely, the Soviet Union should be contained or in what parts of the world the policy should be applied.
The Atom Bomb: A “Winning” Weapon? Although Truman authorized the use of the atom bomb to force the surrender of Japan, he also hoped that it would serve as a counterweight to the numerically superior Red Army. Stalin, however, refused to be intimidated. In addition, horrifying accounts of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left Americans uneasy. Truman came to doubt that the American people would permit the use of atomic weapons for aggressive purposes. In November 1945, the United States proposed that the United Nations supervise all production of nuclear energy. The U.N. created an Atomic Energy Commission, which put forward a plan for the eventual outlawing of atomic weapons backed by unrestricted U.N. inspections. The Soviets rejected the American and U.N. plans.
A Turning Point in Greece. In 1947, the policy of containment began to take shape. Responding to a communist threat in Greece, Truman asked Congress for economic and military aid for Greece and Turkey. The Truman Doctrine promised “to support free peoples resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” In selling his proposal, Truman overstated the threat and couched the request in ideological terms.
The Marshall Plan and the Lesson of History. The economies of European countries remained unstable after the war. In 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a plan by which the United States would finance the reconstruction of the European economy. Western European powers eagerly seized upon Marshall’s suggestion. Although initially tempted, Stalin declined to take part and insisted that eastern European nations do so as well. After the fall of Czechoslovakia in a communist coup in February, 1948, Congress appropriated over $13 billion for the European recovery effort. The results were spectacular; by 1951, the economies of western Europe were booming. Western European nations moved toward social, cultural, and economic collaboration. Britain, France, and the United States created a single West German Republic from their zones of occupation. When the Soviets closed ground access to Berlin, the United States responded with an airlift that forced the Soviets to lift the blockade.
The Election of 1948. By spring of 1948, public opinion polls revealed that most Americans considered Truman incompetent. He had alienated both southern conservatives and northern liberals. Truman still managed to win the nomination; but southern Democrats, known as “Dixiecrats,” walked out when the convention adopted a strong civil rights plank and chose Strom Thurmond to run on a third-party ticket. Compounding matters, the left wing also defected; Henry A. Wallace ran on the Progressive ticket. The Republican nominee, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, anticipating an easy victory, ran a listless campaign. Truman, by contrast, launched a vigorous campaign. His strong denunciation of the “do nothing” Republican Congress and the success of the Berlin Airlift aided his reelection bid. Many Democratic liberals thought Wallace too pro-Soviet and voted for Truman. Truman surprised everyone and won a narrow victory in the popular vote and a more substantial one in the electoral college. After the election, Truman put forward a number of proposals, which he called the Fair Deal. However, little of his program was enacted into law.
Containing Communism Abroad. During Truman’s second term, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union increasingly dominated attention. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, designed to protect the West from Soviet aggression, was formed in 1949. The Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in September, 1949 led Truman to authorize development of a hydrogen bomb. Containment failed in Asia. In China, Mao’s communists defeated the nationalists. Chiang’s forces fled in disarray to Formosa in 1949. Right-wing Republicans charged that Truman had not supported the Chinese nationalists strongly enough and had therefore “lost” China. Truman ordered a review of containment. The resulting report, NSC-68, called for a massive expansion of the nation’s armed forces. Although Truman initially had reservations about the document, events in Korea changed his mind.
Hot War in Korea. American policymakers had decided that a land war on the Asian continent would be impracticable. Yet when communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June, 1950, Truman decided on a military response. Despite early gains by the North, U.N. forces (90 percent American) under the command of MacArthur turned the tide and began pressing north. MacArthur proposed the conquest of North Korea. Despite opposition from his civilian advisors, Truman authorized an advance as far as the Chinese border. In November, 1950, 33 divisions of the People’s Republic of China army crossed the Yalu River and shattered U.N. lines. MacArthur urged the bombing of Chinese installations north of the Yalu and a blockade of China. When Truman rejected his proposals, MacArthur openly criticized the administration. Truman removed MacArthur from command. In June, 1951, the communists agreed to negotiations, which dragged on interminably. Initially, this “police action” was popular with the American public, but the bloody stalemate eroded public enthusiasm.
The Communist Issue at Home. The frustrating Korean War illustrated the paradox that, at the height of its power, American influence was waning. The United States faced internal as well as external threats. Exposure of communist espionage in Canada and Great Britain fueled American fears of communist subversion. Hoping to allay allegations that he was “soft” on communism, Truman established the Loyalty Review Board in 1947 to ensure that no subversives found employment in the federal government. The Hiss and Rosenberg trials heightened the climate of fear.
McCarthyism. In February, 1950, Joseph R. McCarthy, an obscure senator from Wisconsin, charged that the State Department was “infested” with communists. Although he offered no evidence to support his claims, many Americans believed him. McCarthy went on to make more fantastic accusations. The enormity of his charges and the status of his targets convinced many that there had to be some truth in his accusations. Events of the early cold war and the public’s resulting fears made people more susceptible to McCarthy’s allegations.
Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican Party selected Eisenhower as their candidate in 1952. Aside from his popularity as a war hero, Eisenhower’s genial tolerance made a welcome change from Truman. His ability as a leader was amply demonstrated by his military career, and his campaign promise to go to Korea was a political masterstroke. Eisenhower easily defeated his Democratic opponent, Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. Eisenhower dismantled no New Deal programs and undertook some modest new initiatives. Moreover, he adopted an essentially Keynesian approach to economic issues. Eisenhower proved to be a first-rate politician who knew how to be flexible without compromising basic values. In spite of his political skills, however, he was unable to recast the Republican Party in his own, moderate, image.
The Eisenhower-Dulles Foreign Policy. The president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, formulated a “New Look” in foreign policy, which reduced reliance on conventional forces and relied instead on America’s nuclear arsenal to achieve international stability. This approach promised to save money and to prevent the United States from being caught up in another local conflict like the Korean War. Moreover, Dulles hoped the new approach would make it possible to “liberate” eastern Europe and “unleash” Chaing against the Chinese mainland. After the administration hinted at its willingness to use nuclear weapons, the Chinese signed an armistice that ended hostilities but left Korea divided. Threatened use of nuclear weapons also seemed to convince the Chinese to abandon their aggressive intent toward Quemoy and Matsu. The New Look did succeed in reducing the defense budget, but it did not lead to the liberation of eastern Europe. Further, unleashing Chaing would have been like pitting a Pekingese against a tiger. Above all, “massive retaliation” made little sense when the Soviet Union also possessed nuclear weapons.
McCarthy Self-Destructs. Even after it came under the control of his own party, McCarthy did not moderate his attacks on the State Department. Early in 1954, McCarthy finally overreached himself by leveling allegations at the army. Televised broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy Senate hearings revealed to the American public McCarthy’s disregard for decency and truth. With Eisenhower quietly applying pressure behind the scenes, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy in 1954.
Asian Policy After Korea. Both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations provided aid to France’s efforts to defeat the Viet Minh in Indochina. However, during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Eisenhower refused to commit American personnel to the struggle. France soon surrendered; and France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China signed an agreement that divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel and called for a national election in 1956. In North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh established a communist government. In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem overthrew the emperor, and the United States provided support and advice to his new government. The planned election was never held, and Vietnam remained divided. Dulles organized the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO).
Israel and the Middle East. American policy in the Middle East was influenced by that region’s massive petroleum reserves and by the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Truman consistently made support for Israel a priority, partly out of sympathy for the survivors of the Nazi holocaust and partly because of the political importance of the Jewish vote. Eisenhower and Dulles de-emphasized support for Israel. The United States provided economic aid to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser but refused to sell him arms. The Soviets gladly provided the arms, and Nasser drifted toward the Eastern Bloc. In response, the United States withdrew its funding of the Aswan Dam. Nasser then nationalized the Suez Canal. An allied force of British, French, and Israeli forces attacked Egypt in October, 1956. The United States and the Soviet Union eventually compelled the invaders to withdraw, and the crisis subsided. In January, 1956, Eisenhower announced the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” stating that the United States would use armed force anywhere in the Middle East “to halt aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”
Eisenhower and Khrushchev. Eisenhower defeated Stevenson by an even greater margin in 1956 than he had in 1952. The Cold War escalated when United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb in 1952 and the Soviets followed suit within six months. After Stalin’s death in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, attempted to move the Soviet Union away from Stalinism. Abroad, Khrushchev courted many emerging nations by appealing to the anti-western prejudices of countries recently held as colonies and by offering economic and technological aid. Eisenhower understood that the United States maintained superiority in the nuclear arms race. Further, he was aware of the Soviet Union’s many weaknesses. Nevertheless, the Soviet success in placing the Sputnik satellite in orbit alarmed many Americans. Eisenhower knew that, militarily, the Soviet Union was no match for the United States and that Sputnik had not changed the equation appreciably. Eisenhower reassured the American people that they had little to fear and otherwise remained silent. Eisenhower exercised great restraint in the conduct of foreign policy, particularly when faced with a crisis. Although he had always guided foreign policy, Eisenhower took over much of the actual conduct of diplomacy after failing health forced Dulles to resign in 1959. Confronted with the threat of nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union moved toward accommodation. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down an American reconnaissance plane over Soviet territory, and Soviet-American relations quickly soured.
Latin America Aroused. The United States neglected Latin America in the postwar years. Like Truman, Eisenhower supported military governments in preference to communist revolutions. Violent anti-American rioting illustrated the depth of anti-Yankee sentiment and forced curtailment of Vice-President Nixon’s “good-will” tour in 1958. In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Although Eisenhower quickly recognized the new Cuban government, Castro soon began to spout anti-American rhetoric; he also confiscated American property. When Castro established close relations with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower banned the importation of Cuban sugar. Khrushchev announced that American intervention in Cuba would be met with nuclear retaliation by the Soviet Union. Near the end of his second term, Eisenhower broke off relations with Cuba.
Fighting the Cold War at Home. The Cold War had a number of consequences for American life. The Eisenhower administration used the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack to garner support for the interstate highway system. Similarly, the Soviet threat, and especially the launching of Sputnik, provided arguments for the Eisenhower administration’s initiative to reform education. The National Defense Education Act (1958) was one result. Partly from religious fervor generated by the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation and partly to distinguish American society from that of the officially atheistic Soviet Union, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and mandated that the words “In God We Trust” appear on all U.S. currency.
Blacks Challenge Segregation. During the Cold War, America’s treatment of its racial minorities took on added importance because of the ideological competition with communism. Moreover, America’s blacks became increasingly unwilling to accept their status as second-class citizens. Demand for change built during and after World War II. Its roots lay in the process of southern industrialization and the shift to large commercial farming in the South. Further, African Americans served in the military services during World War II, and they demanded the equality for which they fought. After the war, the G. I. Bill opened higher education to black veterans and contributed to the growing pressure for change.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted a legal challenge to segregation in the 1930s, and it gained momentum in the years after World War II. In Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public schools. That decision provoked considerable opposition in the South. Although Eisenhower believed that equality could not be legislated, he refused to countenance defiance of federal authority or the Constitution. When the governor of Arkansas used the National Guard to prevent the execution of a federal court order upholding the right of a handful of black children to attend Little Rock’s Central High School, Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas Guard and sent federal troops to enforce the order.
Direct Action Protests: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. On Friday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger, as laws and customs of Montgomery, Alabama required. She refused and was arrested. Over the weekend, Montgomery’s black leaders organized a boycott of the city’s buses. A young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as the leader of the boycott, which lasted over a year. The segregation of Montgomery’s public transportation system ended, however, when the Supreme Court declared the city’s segregation ordinance unconstitutional. King and others founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 dedicated to promoting nonviolent direct action.
The Election of 1960. Eisenhower somewhat reluctantly endorsed the candidacy of Vice-President Nixon. Nixon ran on the Eisenhower legacy and on his own reputation as a staunch anticommunist. The Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, and chose the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, as his running mate. Although he had not been a particularly liberal congressman, Kennedy sought to appear more forward-looking as a presidential candidate. Kennedy benefited from his television presence during several debates with Nixon. In the end, Kennedy won a paper-thin victory in the popular vote.