Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.
The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, captured global attention and achieved the initial victory in what would soon become known as the space race. This impressive technological feat and its broader implications for Soviet missile capability rattled the confidence of the American public and challenged the credibility of U.S. leadership abroad. With the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik, and then later the first human spaceflight in 1961, U.S. policymakers feared that the public and political leaders around the world would view communism as a viable and even more dynamic alternative to capitalism, tilting the global balance of power away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.
Reactions to Sputnik confirmed what members of the U.S. National Security Council had predicted: the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences. By signaling Soviet technological and military prowess, Sputnik solidified the link between space exploration and national prestige, setting a course for nationally funded space exploration for years to come. For over a decade, both the Soviet Union and the United States funneled significant financial and personnel resources into achieving impressive firsts in space, as part of a larger effort to win alliances in the Cold War contest for global influence.
From a U.S. vantage point, the space race culminated in the first Moon landing in July 1969. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, a lunar exploration program, as a tactic for restoring U.S. prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. To achieve Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade, the United States mobilized a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. Project Apollo became the most expensive government funded civilian engineering program in U.S. history, at one point stretching to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The United States’ substantial investment in winning the space race reveals the significant status of soft power in American foreign policy strategy during the Cold War.
Military assistance programs have been crucial instruments of American foreign policy since World War II, valued by policymakers for combating internal subversion in the “free world,” deterring aggression, and protecting overseas interests. The 1958 Draper Committee, consisting of eight members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluded that economic and military assistance were interchangeable; as the committee put it, without internal security and the “feeling of confidence engendered by adequate military forces, there is little hope for economic progress.” Less explicitly, military assistance was also designed to uphold the U.S. global system of military bases established after World War II, ensure access to raw materials, and help recruit intelligence assets while keeping a light American footprint. Police and military aid was often invited and welcomed by government elites in so-called free world nations for enhancing domestic security or enabling the swift repression of political opponents. It sometimes coincided with an influx of economic aid, as under the Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress. In cases like Vietnam, the programs contributed to stark human rights abuses owing to political circumstances and prioritizing national security over civil liberties.
Gregory A. Daddis
For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Counterinsurgency (known as COIN) is a theory of war that seeks to describe a proven set of techniques that a government may use to defeat a violent, internal, organized challenge to its authority and legitimacy. The term is sometimes also used to describe the set of activities itself (e.g., “conducting counterinsurgency”). The term originates from the middle of the 20th century, when it emerged from officials in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration, as well as from British and French thinkers and practitioners with whom these officials were consulting. The Kennedy Administration and its allies were grappling with how to deal with what they viewed as Soviet attempts to destabilize post-colonial governments in the Third World and bring those nascent countries into the Soviet orbit. Encouraged by British and French experience in post-colonial rebellions and prior experience of imperial policing, the Kennedy administration hoped to apply their lessons learned to Cold War problems, most notably the growing challenges in Vietnam.
Rebellions, “irregular warfare,” “guerrilla warfare,” or “small wars,” or for that matter, thinking about means to put them down, go back to the beginnings of organized conflict itself. But 20th-century thinkers were informed most especially by British and French theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as British Colonel Charles E. Calwell and future Marshal of France, Hubert Lyautey. The most significant influence came from veterans, such as Sir Robert Thompson, of Britain’s “Emergency” in Malaya, from 1948–1960, and from David Galula, veteran of France’s conflict in Algeria from 1954–1960. Though these theorists differ on a number of points and on emphasis, the intellectual paternity is clear.
At its heart, the premise of counterinsurgency theory is that rebellions can only be eliminated by gaining the support of the population. Because rebels can hide amongst the people, influence them, and convince “fence sitters” to join in an insurgency, the government can only succeed when the majority of the population rejects the rebels and their message, refuses to offer them assistance, and ultimately turns them over to the authorities. Counterinsurgency theorists often invoke an image from a work by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, On Guerrilla Warfare, in which he described the people as water and guerrilla fighters as fish swimming in it.
Theorists argued for decades (indeed, the argument goes on) about whether America’s war in Vietnam failed because the nation was unable or unwilling to fully implement proper counterinsurgency practices. When the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century began to falter, counterinsurgency and its proponents were once again center stage. Indeed, many maintain that, in 2007, the United States began to implement COIN, and that this turned the tide. But this argument remains in dispute, as do the theoretical and historical foundations of COIN more broadly.
Sarah B. Snyder
In its formulation of foreign policy, the United States takes account of many priorities and factors, including national security concerns, economic interests, and alliance relationships. An additional factor with significance that has risen and fallen over time is human rights, or more specifically violations of human rights. The extent to which the United States should consider such abuses or seek to moderate them has been and continues to be the subject of considerable debate.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Justus D. Doenecke
For the United States, isolationism is best defined as avoidance of wars outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; opposition to binding military alliances; and the unilateral freedom to act politically and commercially unrestrained by mandatory commitments to other nations. Until the controversy over American entry into the League of Nations, isolationism was never subject to debate. The United States could expand its territory, protect its commerce, and even fight foreign powers without violating its traditional tenets. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought membership in the League, however, Americans saw isolationism as a foreign policy option, not simply something taken for granted. A fundamental foreign policy tenet now became a faction, limited to a group of people branded as “isolationists.” Its high point came during the years 1934–1937, when Congress, noting the challenge of the totalitarian nations to the international status quo, passed the neutrality acts to insulate the country from global entanglements.
Once World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly sought American participation on the side of the Allies. Isolationists unsuccessfully fought FDR’s legislative proposals, beginning with repeal of the arms embargo and ending with the convoying of supplies to Britain. The America First Committee (1940–1941), however, so effectively mobilized anti-interventionist opinion as to make the president more cautious in his diplomacy.
If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor permanently ended classic isolationism, by 1945 a “new isolationism” voiced suspicion of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. participation in the Korean War. Yet, because the “new isolationists” increasingly advocated militant unilateral measures to confront Communist Russia and China, often doing so to advance the fortunes of the Republican party, they exposed themselves to charges of inconsistency and generally faded away in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, many Americans have opposed various military involvements— including the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but few envision returning to an era when the United States avoids all commitments.
James I. Matray
On June 25, 1950, North Korea’s invasion of South Korea ignited a conventional war that had origins dating from at least the end of World War II. In April 1945, President Harry S. Truman abandoned a trusteeship plan for postwar Korea in favor of seeking unilateral U.S. occupation of the peninsula after an atomic attack forced Japan’s prompt surrender. Soviet entry into the Pacific war led to a last minute agreement dividing Korea at the 38th parallel into zones of occupation. Two Koreas emerged after Soviet-American negotiations failed to agree on a plan to end the division. Kim Il Sung in the north and Syngman Rhee in the south both were determined to reunite Korea, instigating major military clashes at the parallel in the summer of 1949. Moscow and Washington opposed their clients’ invasion plans until April 1950 when Kim persuaded Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that with mass support in South Korea, he would achieve a quick victory.
At first, Truman hoped that South Korea could defend itself with more military equipment and U.S. air support. Commitment of U.S. ground forces came after General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. occupation commander in Japan, visited the front and advised that the South Koreans could not halt the advance. Overconfident U.S. soldiers would sustain defeat as well, retreating to the Pusan Perimeter, a rectangular area in the southeast corner of the peninsula. On September 15, MacArthur staged a risky amphibious landing at Inchon behind enemy lines that sent Communist forces fleeing back into North Korea. The People’s Republic of China viewed the U.S. offensive for reunification that followed as a threat to its security and prestige. In late November, Chinese “volunteers” attacked in mass. After a chaotic retreat, U.S. forces counterattacked in February 1951 and moved the line of battle just north of the parallel. After two Chinese offensives failed, negotiations to end the war began in July 1951, but stalemated in May 1952 over the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war. Peace came because of Stalin’s death in March 1953, rather than President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s veiled threat to stage nuclear strikes against China.
Scholars have disagreed about many issues surrounding the Korean War, but the most important debate continues to center on whether the conflict had international or domestic origins. Initially, historians relied mainly on U.S. government publications to write accounts that ignored events prior to North Korea’s attack, endorsing an orthodox interpretation assigning blame to the Soviet Union and applauding the U.S. response. Declassification of U.S. government documents and presidential papers during the 1970s led to the publication of studies assigning considerable responsibility to the United States for helping to create a kind of war in Korea before June 1950. Moreover, left revisionist writers labeled the conflict a classic civil war. Release of Chinese and Soviet sources after 1989 established that Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong approved the North Korean invasion, prompting right revisionist scholars to reassert key orthodox arguments. This essay describes how and why recent access to Communist documents has not settled the disagreements among historians about the causes, course, and consequences of the Korean War.
Luke A. Nichter
Assessments of President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy continue to evolve as scholars tap new possibilities for research. Due to the long wait before national security records are declassified by the National Archives and made available to researchers and the public, only in recent decades has the excavation of the Nixon administration’s engagement with the world started to become well documented. As more records are released by the National Archives (including potentially 700 hours of Nixon’s secret White House tapes that remain closed), scholarly understanding of the Nixon presidency is likely to continue changing. Thus far, historians have pointed to four major legacies of Nixon’s foreign policy: tendencies to use American muscle abroad on a more realistic scale, to reorient the focus of American foreign policy to the Pacific, to reduce the chance that the Cold War could turn hot, and, inadvertently, to contribute to the later rise of Ronald Reagan and the Republican right wing—many of whom had been part of Nixon’s “silent majority.” While earlier works focused primarily on subjects like Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, the historiography today is much more diverse – now there is at least one work covering most major aspects of Nixon’s foreign policy.