The United States faced a heightened crisis state in the late 1940s and early 1950s in its dealings with the Soviet Union. What started out as simple disagreements at the end of World War II quickly grew to become a sustained period of diplomatic and later military hostility better known as the Cold War. And it was increasingly difficult to navigate the uneven foreign terrain. This was uncharted territory.
Neither America’s nuclear supremacy nor threats of massive retaliation prevented the Soviet Union from seeking to expand its influence in the developing world. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev supported wars of liberation wherever communist rebels were willing to accept Soviet aid. He sent military advisers, spies, money, and weapons all over the world, all the while remaining below the combat threshold that could trigger an overwhelming U.S. response.
The post-colonial era that emerged after World War II created new opportunities for both the U.S. and the Soviet Union as they sought to enlist more allies to their respective causes. Between 1946 and 1960, 37 new nations were created from the territories of shattered empires, and each one was a potential battleground in the worldwide struggle between democracy and communism. President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed, “As there is no weapon too small, no arena too remote, to be ignored, there is no free nation too humble to be forgotten.”1
In Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, conflict raged between local groups backed up by America and Russia. The Soviets supported communist insurgents in their attempts to overthrow democratic or dictatorial regimes. They exploited economic and political discontent that was often found in emerging post-colonial nations. The U.S., which prodded its allies France and Britain to relinquish their claims to empire after World War II, often found itself on the side of the dictators trying to defeat communist movements or overthrow popular communist regimes. As a result, America’s well-intentioned defense against communism was often seen in the third world as support of imperialism and dictatorship.
America’s involvement in the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 was the first of a string of interventions motivated by the U.S. promise to prevent the spread of communism. Mossadegh had nationalized assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and he accepted financial aid from the Soviets, prompting the CIA to stir up a coup that removed him from power in August. Hundreds were killed during the unrest that led to the installation of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as the pro-American leader of Iran. CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt noted afterward, “If we, the CIA are ever going to try something like this again, we must be absolutely sure that the people and the army want what we want. If not, you had better give the job to the Marines.”2
Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, popularly elected leader of Guatemala, had nationalized assets of the United Fruit Company in 1954 and was receiving military aid from the U.S.S.R. The U.S. was not comfortable with an overt communist influence in Central America, and trained an army of Guatemalan rebels in nearby Honduras and Nicaragua to launch a coup against Arbenz, who resigned on June 27.
In Asia, the U.S. became involved in the former French colony of Vietnam. The French had lost a bitter war with the communists in 1954, and the colony was divided into North and South Vietnam. The U.S. provided material and financial support to South Vietnam, which was combating an insurgency from the communist North. America’s ability to prop up the South Vietnamese government was made more difficult by the citizens’ lack of confidence in their president, Ngo Dinh Diem.
America’s overseas commitments became widespread during Eisenhower’s presidency. Defense pacts and bi-lateral security agreements linked the U.S. to nations on every continent. Historian Ronald E. Powaski writes, “By 1958, the United States had assumed the explicit obligation of defending some forty-five countries and, by implication, several more.”3
It seemed as if there was no territory on earth that did not measure some form of attention from the U.S. State Department or the U.S. military. Whether it be wisdom or folly, a waste of valuable resources or a prudent use of our abilities, the age of intervention had begun.
Material for this post is excerpted from my book, The Cold War, available on Amazon.
- ^ Dwight Eisenhower speech, Minneapolis, June 10, 1953, American Presidency Project Web site, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9871&st=&st1=
- ^ Quoted in John Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006, p. 107.
- ^ Ronald E. Powaski, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union 1917-1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 121.