Need to print this document? Go to "Print Preview" in your web browser and select "Shrink to Fit."
Copyright 2007 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved.
Between 1929 and 1945, the people of the United States endured an economic depression and two world wars; experiences that inspired deep appreciation for peace and material comfort. The post-World War II era began as a time of prosperity and hope, tempered by gnawing fear of further loss, as tyrants in faraway lands gained access to devastating new weapons.
POSTWAR INTRIGUE AND TRANSFORMATION
Prior to the late 1990s, there was much speculation—but very little evidence—about the secret campaign waged against the constitutional structure of the United States by pro-Soviet advocates in high-level government positions. More than fifty years after the fact, newly declassified National Security Agency documents shed light on America’s Venona project, an intelligence program to intercept and decipher encoded messages between the Soviet Union and its western spies during the 1940s. Since the Soviets were wartime allies of the United States, and because US intelligence personnel devoted their time and energy on Japanese and German communications, Soviet messages were not studied until the Second World War concluded. During the late 1940s and early ‘50s, American code breakers began learning of the extensive infiltration of communist spies in virtually every level of American government. However, these findings were not made public, as doing so would alert the Soviets to the fact that their code had been broken.
Decades passed before it was publicly revealed that many of President Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisors were Soviet agents, and many continued to serve under his successor, Harry S. Truman. Subsequent release of intelligence archives in Moscow (following the collapse of Soviet rule) confirmed the Venona findings. Among the more influential spies were Roosevelt’s personal aides Harry Hopkins and Lauchlin Currie, Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White, and high-ranking State Department officials Laurence Duggan and Alger Hiss. These men directed presidential policy in shaping postwar Europe to favor the Soviets. Additionally, Alger Hiss, who accompanied President Roosevelt to the strategic Allied conference at Yalta, played a prominent role in drafting the United Nations charter and bylaws, subsequently serving as interim UN Secretary General during its founding in 1945.
communist operatives in the US were those who had grown increasingly alarmed by
the brutal tactics of their Soviet handlers.
Distraught by acts of betrayal and
murder within America’s espionage underground, Connecticut-born Elizabeth Bentley
surrendered to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), admitting she had managed
several Soviet KGB-sponsored spy rings in New York City and Washington, DC, during
the mid-1940s. Another defecting spy, Philadelphia native Whittaker Chambers, was
a prominent journalist who had conducted espionage activities in the nation’s capital
during much of the 1930s. His initial 1939 confession to the Roosevelt administration
was largely ignored, and it was not until Elizabeth Bentley’s November 1945 defection
that the FBI seriously studied Chambers’ claims.
Assisted by communist agents in the US government, Joseph Stalin drew postwar countries
in eastern and central Europe under the Soviet sphere of influence without American
interference. Pro-communist governments were installed, and because their votes
on United Nations resolutions were dictated by Stalin, the ballots of free-world
countries were often trumped. In addition to European acquisitions, the Soviet Union
also gained territories in Asia and the northern Pacific, most notably the northern
half of Korea.
Meanwhile, across the globe, postwar Japan became a model for the rehabilitation of a former enemy nation. Under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, war crimes trials were reserved solely for Japanese military leaders, while Emperor Hirohito, the spiritual symbol of Japan’s national identity, was spared from prosecution. In turn, the appreciative emperor publicly instructed his people to cooperate with US occupational forces. Traditionally perceived as a god by the Japanese, Hirohito admitted he was no deity; then assumed a posture of subservience to MacArthur. The American general struck a balance, holding Japan accountable for wartime deeds, while allowing its civilians to maintain their dignity. With totalitarian rule abolished, Japan was given its first democratic government. Free and open elections included the right of women to vote. MacArthur also directed the rebuilding of the Japanese economy, incorporating western practices to the nation’s industrial and agricultural enterprises. Educational systems were likewise modernized, and the quality of life was elevated to heights never previously experienced. During the course of the war, Douglas MacArthur had been a hated figure in Japan, but through postwar demonstrations of strength, mercy, and compassion, the conquering general quickly gained the respect and affection of the Japanese people.
By all rights, China’s Nationalist government, a faithful wartime ally of the United States, should have received greater postwar assistance than former enemy Japan. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts to restore worn-torn China were thwarted by Soviet-armed communist insurgents under Mao Tse-tung. Unbeknownst to President Truman—but later revealed by the Venona findings—the Far East section of the US State Department was extensively infiltrated by Soviet agents, and these operatives portrayed Chiang Kai-shek as corrupt and mentally unstable, while presenting Mao’s insurgents as little more than agrarian reformers seeking social justice. Trusting the slanted State Department reports, President Truman dispatched General George C. Marshall to China to compel Chiang Kai-shek to form a coalition government with Mao Tse-tung. Simultaneously, an arms and supplies embargo was imposed on Chiang’s Nationalists by the American director of the International Monetary Fund, Harry Dexter White (later exposed as a paid operative of the Soviet Union). Though arms deliveries to the Nationalists halted, the Soviets continued to deliver weapons to Mao’s communists, transforming his rag-tag band of three-thousand insurgents into the well-equipped, precision-trained Red Army of more than two million soldiers.
Communism likewise advanced in other regions of the world. Whenever newly liberated republics in central Europe and Africa held elections, Soviet operatives were present to secure victories for Joseph Stalin’s puppet regimes. Great Britain’s elder statesman, Winston Churchill, warned the civilized nations of the encroaching menace, evoking imagery of an “iron curtain” spreading across Europe, dividing democratic republics from authoritarian communist satellites.
CHANGES—FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC
On July 4, 1946, the United States formally recognized the Philippines as a sovereign nation. The independence ceremony was attended by General Douglas MacArthur, who had led the military operation to free this South Pacific island cluster from Japanese occupation. Another expanse of land liberated from Japan was the Korean peninsula, divided along the 38th latitudinal parallel, with the northern half controlled by the Soviets and the southern half by the United States. Shunning imperialism in favor of independence, the U.S. government aided the South Koreans in inaugurating their own legislative assembly in December of 1946.
On the domestic front, the spirit of patriotic unity between workers and employers in American industry dissipated with the cessation of global conflict. Labor unions resumed prewar tactics, attacking the very business owners who had provided them jobs. In two of the larger 1946 strikes, the United Auto Workers Union halted operations at General Motors, while U.S. Steel employees staged a similar walk-out. In 1946 alone, more than 4.5 million workers across the country participated in work stoppages, stifling manufacturing. Because the labor unions were closely associated with the Democratic party, disgusted American voters, in the 1946 midterm elections, restored a Republican majority to Congress for the first time in sixteen years.
Despite his unintentional crippling of the Nationalist government in China, General
George Marshall held a reputation as a master administrator, and Harry Truman appointed
him Secretary of State in January of 1947. Congressional Republicans supported the
president’s efforts to prevent Greece from falling under communist rule—a fate that
had befallen its central European neighbors. At the urging of Great Britain, the
Truman Doctrine was issued in March of 1947, allocating 400-million dollars to bolster
both Greece and Turkey. In this era of international intrigue, Congress subsequently
passed the National Security Act, creating a National Military Establishment, the
National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Intelligence
During the summer of 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall announced plans to revitalize war-torn Europe. Through a series of legislative bills, the Marshall Plan delivered approximately thirteen billion dollars worth of surplus American goods to Europe. The program increased European dependence on US products, while turning the hearts of many postwar Europeans away from communism. Nevertheless, the Soviets soon thereafter installed a puppet government in Hungary.
Despite the political shift in the legislative branch of government, America’s federal judiciary remained a bastion of New Deal ideology. In its 1947 decision, Everson versus Board of Education, the Supreme Court applied Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “a wall of separation between Church and State,” to a decree restricting the free exercise of religious expression in schools and public arenas. However, Jefferson’s phrase had not come from any official policy document, but rather an 1802 personal letter written to assure a Baptist church association that the federal government would never endorse one Christian denomination over another. Nevertheless, the 1947 Court brazenly extracted Jefferson’s words from their original context and used them for opposite effect.
THE “RED MENACE”
The American public was largely distracted by the impending threat of communism, both overseas and at home. In November of 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee, a congressional panel assigned to investigate domestic espionage and anti-American propaganda activities, summoned a group of ten Hollywood motion picture writers and directors who were purportedly engaged in subversive communist activities. After refusing to testify, the group was cited for contempt of Congress. This prompted Hollywood studio bosses to unite with the Screen Actor’s Guild in compiling a series of “blacklists” on film industry professionals identified as either communist party members or sympathizers. Though the studios initially refused to hire blacklisted professionals, popular actors eventually returned to work, and banned screenwriters wrote scripts under different names.
Overseas, the Soviet Union installed a puppet regime in Czechoslovakia during February of 1948. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin also maintained a grip on the Eastern half of the former German empire, despite the decision of the US, France, and Great Britain to relinquish their territories, permitting the West German Republic to form. The German capital of Berlin was likewise split into two entities, with West Berlin a free democracy and East Berlin ruled under communism. Geographically, West Berlin was isolated within communist East Germany, and in June of 1948, Joseph Stalin ordered a military blockade around its perimeter, closing road and rail access to the free city. By choking off West Berlin, Stalin hoped its people would submit to communist authority. However, the United States implemented the Berlin Airlift, dispatching transport planes on an hourly basis to deliver food and supplies to the West Berliners. The airlift continued for fifteen months until the Soviets finally lifted their blockade.
During the summer of 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committee held a series of hearings to reveal the extent of communist infiltration in the federal government. Former communist spies Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers were among the key witnesses, and hundreds of espionage agents were exposed in every government department of strategic military, diplomatic, and economic importance. Investigators also provided evidence that Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and other physicists and engineers on America’s atomic bomb project had delivered atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, through the influence and assistance of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Additionally, aviation documents, spirited away by aeronautical scientist William Perl, were used by the Soviets to develop their MiG-15 jet fighter planes.
Among the many government officials exposed as Soviet espionage agents were International
Monetary Fund Director Harry Dexter White, Franklin Roosevelt’s advisor Lauchlin
Currie, and Maurice Halperin, head of the research section of the Office of Strategic
Services, the precursor of the CIA. Many
of the accused vehemently asserted their innocence. In a highly publicized testimony
before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Alger Hiss, the strategic
State Department official and presidential advisor, directly confronted his accuser,
Hiss then followed with a slander lawsuit, finally prompting
Chambers to produce evidence kept hidden since his days as a Soviet operative. Among
the items were roles of microfilm showing top secret U.S. documents with Hiss’ handwritten
margin notes to Soviet officials. The evidence was sufficient to convict Alger Hiss
of perjury, and though he was imprisoned for this crime, he declared his innocence
for the remainder of his life. During the 1990s, however, the release of Soviet
intelligence archives, combined with the US declassification of the Venona findings,
confirmed the charges made by Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. Because
these documents remained unseen by the public in late 1940s and early ‘50s, the
credibility of the House hearings was challenged in a number of political circles.
Lack of substantial evidence enabled many accused communists in the State Department
to maintain their positions, and they were able to erect bureaucratic barriers to
thwart the defense of China from communist insurgents. Though the Republican Congress
had allocated 125 million dollars in military aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist
government, State Department officials blocked its expenditure for nine months.
Among the officials, Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State after George
Marshall resigned the post in opposition to Harry Truman’s support for Israel. Marshall,
nonetheless, remained in fair standing with the president, and was named Secretary
Chinese Nationalists were not alone in their struggle against communism. Though
South Korea achieved full independence, holding democratic elections in 1948, its
fledgling government under President Syngman Rhee was threatened by communist insurgents
from North Korea. By decree of the United Nations, American troops were ordered
to withdraw from South Korea.
During the presidential election of 1948, Harry Truman issued an executive order
to end racial segregation in America’s armed forces, prompting a faction of southern
Democrats to break away from the party. Calling themselves Dixiecrats, the defectors
named South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond their presidential candidate. The party
rift imperiled Democratic incumbent Truman’s prospects of maintaining office, leaving
many to assume victory was inevitable for the Republican challenger, New York Governor
Thomas Dewey. Such an assumption led to embarrassment for a prominent newspaper
that went to press on election night proclaiming a Dewey win. When the votes were
tallied, however, Harry Truman retained the presidency by a narrow margin.
Truman’s attempts to reinvigorate New Deal policies under his “Fair Deal” banner were thwarted by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress. In 1949, this majority passed the Organization Act to restore presidential powers within their constitutional parameters. The measure was designed to prevent Truman and future presidents from repeating the actions of the Franklin Roosevelt, who had brazenly overstepped the bounds of his authority, turning the presidency into a virtual dictatorship.
On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed as a defensive alliance between the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Iceland, and Canada. Its creation was largely a counter-measure to Soviet encroachments in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Military resources of member nations were pooled to discourage the communists from further conquests. On September 3, 1949, a B-29 flyer on NATO patrol in the Pacific gathered evidence that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb. For the first time, the free world faced the threat of atomic attack.
In December of 1949, the most populous nation in the world fell to communism, as Mao Tse-tung’s forces overthrew China’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalists were forced to evacuate to the nearby island of Formosa (later known as Taiwan). In a January 1950 policy speech, Secretary of State Dean Acheson omitted Formosa and South Korea when specifying the Asian-Pacific countries the United States would defend. Many Americans concluded that the Truman administration was lax on communism, and began pressuring the government to take stronger measures to counter its spread.
Revelations soon emerged that the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) had established
a number of pseudo-humanitarian front groups that, on the surface, appeared to support
causes as noble-sounding as global peace, civil rights, and charity to the poor.
But far from being a mere grassroots political organization, the CPUSA was financed
and controlled by the Soviet Union. In light of these findings, Congress passed
the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, requiring all communist front organizations
to register with the US Attorney General’s office. During that same period, Soviet
espionage agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and sentenced to death
for delivering atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets.
THE KOREAN WAR
Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s dismissive public posturing toward the defense
of South Korea convinced Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that the United States would
do little to thwart a communist takeover of the entire peninsula. As Stalin’s puppet,
North Korean leader Kim Il-sung was authorized to launch an invasion. On June 25,
1950, 135-thousand Soviet trained North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel,
accompanied by 150 Soviet tanks. South Korea’s 16-thousand-man constabulary force
was ill-equipped to repel the invaders, and Syngman Rhee’s government was forced
to vacate the capital of Seoul on June 28th.
In the early morning hours of September 14, 1950, MacArthur’s armada of 230 warships
arrived at the outlying harbor of Inchon, accompanied by scores of lighter vessels.
The First Marine Division stormed the beachhead shortly thereafter. By afternoon,
forty thousand Americans occupied central Inchon. Two days later, General Walker’s
Eighth Army advanced from the Pusan perimeter in the southeast. In the course of
the Walker’s drive, more than 100-thousand North Koreans were captured.
The Yalu River served as a natural boundary between North Korea and Manchuria. In
anticipation of a potential Chinese assault, General MacArthur ordered the bombing
of bridges spanning the Yalu, only to have his directive countermanded by Defense
Secretary George Marshall. Livid that his front-line commands were reversed by a
government bureaucrat, the general contacted President Truman, who thereafter compromised
by allowing bridge sections on the Korean side of the Yalu to be targeted. As bombing
commenced on November 8th, an American F-80 Shooting Star shot down a Soviet-built
MiG-15, marking the first aerial dogfight by jet propelled planes.
FREE WORLD CHALLENGES
Already dismayed by China’s fall to the communists, many Americans were further bewildered by their government’s apparent unwillingness to pursue victory in Korea. In his mind, Senator Joseph McCarthy reasoned that since communists had infiltrated the highest civilian levels of government, they must have likewise embedded themselves in the military services. With an alcohol addiction clouding his judgment, the Republican senator embarked on a public inquiry of the United States Army during the autumn of 1953. After berating a World War II hero, General Ralph Zwicker, McCarthy received a stinging rebuke from President Eisenhower. Army attorneys thereafter retaliated against the senator, launching the Army-McCarthy hearings in April of 1954, on charges that McCarthy’s chief council, Roy Cohn, used his influential position to obtain preferential treatment for an intimate male companion serving in the Army. The televised proceedings allowed the American people to witness Cohn’s arrogant demeanor and the alcohol-fueled belligerence of Senator McCarthy. The hearings concluded in June of 1954 with Joseph McCarthy’s credibility in shambles. As a consequence, the entire domestic anticommunist movement was branded a “witch hunt,” despite the legitimacy of many findings. The term “McCarthyism” was coined to reflect the issuance of careless, unsupported accusations. Joseph McCarthy was censured by Congress at the end of 1954.
The increasing military might and
geopolitical influence of the Soviet Union and China remained a primary concern
of free-world nations. By 1954, Greece, Turkey, and West Germany were added to the
NATO membership roster, solidifying the pro-democracy alliance of western nations.
However, political trends remained uncertain in Southeast Asia—specifically Indochina,
French colony for nearly a century, except for a period of Japanese occupation during
the Second World War. In the postwar era, the region was divided into the countries
of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. When Moscow-trained communist insurgent Ho Chi Minh
led an uprising against the French colonial government in Vietnam, neighboring countries
called for peace negotiations.
July of 1954, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China signed the Geneva
Accords, temporarily dividing Vietnam into two regions along the seventeenth parallel.
Ho Chi Minh’s coalition government was requested to withdraw north of this boundary
to permit a non-communist government to organize in the South. General elections
were scheduled for July 1956, at which time the Vietnamese people were supposed
to determine which government would rule them all. Refusing to completely relinquish
power, France sponsored a puppet government in South Vietnam, under the leadership
of emperor Bao Dai. With negative feelings toward French colonialism, the South
Vietnamese people refused to unify under this leader.
BIRTH OF THE MODERN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Though Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was a Republican president, his first two appointees
to the Supreme Court—Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate Justice William J.
Brennan—liberally interpreted laws far beyond their original contexts. In terms
of intentions, the Warren court endeavored to be noble, but methods to achieve some
objectives vastly exceeded the constitutional limits of judicial authority. For
example, the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka,
Kansas, was virtuous in its honest assessment that educational facilities for non-whites
were substandard to those of white-skinned Americans. However, instead of allowing
Congress to pass laws to racially integrate schools, the Court, in 1955, took it
upon itself to order law enforcement agencies to physically enforce school desegregation.
The Court’s decision was based on an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s
“equal protection” clause, an erroneous basis since the amendment itself had been
co-authored by segregationists and ratified by states where school segregation was
upheld. For his part, President Eisenhower vigorously championed civil rights, dispatching
National Guard troops to protect minorities as they entered public realms formerly
reserved exclusively for white Americans.
THE EISENHOWER DOCTRINE
Apart from the existence of institutionalized racism, domestic life in America improved dramatically during the 1950s. Crime rates dropped to new lows for the twentieth century, leaving families feeling safe in their homes and communities. Because divorce and illegitimate births were rare, most children, regardless of race and income level, were raised in two-parent homes. The primary worries of the nation’s people generally centered on foreign threats. Tensions between free world democracies and communist dictatorships continued to escalate, but because hostilities did not degenerate into full-scale warfare, the term “Cold War” was used to describe the era of unease.
Complicating matters further was a growing crisis in the Middle East. After Egyptian President Gamal Nasser purchased arms from the Soviets, the United States and Great Britain backed away from their commitments to financially support the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River. Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal, the vital, man-made trade link between European ports and those of southern and western Asia. Nasser’s decree nullified Britain’s 44 percent investment share in the canal, prompting the British to invade Egypt in late October 1956, accompanied by French and Israeli allies. Britain and France seized the canal zone in early November, as Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. These military incursions occurred almost simultaneously to the Soviet Union’s armed assaults against supporters of democracy in Poland and Hungary. In order for President Eisenhower to maintain credibility in protesting Soviet aggression, he was forced to criticize the similar actions of British, French, and Israeli allies. In an action he would later regret, the American president threatened economic repercussions against Great Britain unless all invading forces withdrew from Egypt. The British, French, and Israeli troops cooperated, and in their place, United Nations forces occupied the region to maintain the peace. As an unintended consequence of Eisenhower’s stand, Britain’s conservative government fell in disrepute, and its military prominence was vastly diminished. Nevertheless, the Suez crisis was resolved, and most Americans remained pleased with their president. In the 1956 election, Dwight D. Eisenhower easily won a second term, again defeating Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson.
In January 1957, the Eisenhower Doctrine
was issued, proclaiming the president’s willingness to send troops to the Middle
East to prevent communist aggression. Turning to domestic policies, Eisenhower established
a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, along with a permanent Civil
Rights Commission in his administration. He then called upon Congress to draft a
new Civil Rights Act to further the cause of racial equality.
EMPOWERING A NEW GENERATION
The Civil rights issue continued to gain momentum when four students, in February
1960, staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina,
after they were refused service on the basis of their skin color. Their silent,
nonviolent protest—often in the face of verbal and physical abuse—inspired similar
demonstrations at discriminatory lunch counters across the nation, bringing conviction
to the hearts of many Americans over the moral iniquity of racism. For its part,
the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, enforcing the voting
rights of all Americans, regardless of race. The bill came near the end of Dwight
D. Eisenhower’s second term. His administration had seen the doubling of the country’s
postwar Gross National Product, and a 50 percent increase in home ownership. The
average work week shrank from six to five days, while the postwar “baby boom” contributed
to a 30 percent increase in the population. All ethnic races fared better. During
the New Deal era of the 1930s and ‘40s, 87 percent of Americans of African heritage
had lived below the poverty line. By the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, that figure
was reduced to 47 percent and continued to fall.
The presidential race remained close between Kennedy and Nixon, with a televised debate becoming a determining factor. Americans listening by radio declared Nixon the winner based on the substance of his statements. Television viewers, however, were swayed by appearances. Kennedy was tanned, wearing make-up, and looking muscular from secret steroid injections to conceal a chronic medical condition. Conversely, Nixon declined make-up, and a recent illness had left him prone to perspiration outbreaks. Public appeal for the Republican candidate dropped drastically as a result. Nevertheless, John F. Kennedy won the popular vote by a narrow margin of two-tenths of one percent, and evidence of rampant voter fraud in Chicago indicated that Illinois’ electoral points—which secured Kennedy’s victory—should have rightfully gone to Nixon. To spare the American people the anxiety of a national scandal, Richard Nixon selflessly refused to challenge the election results.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) represented a new breed of Democrat. Fervently opposed to communism, the new president and his brother Robert had been the close friends of anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy during the 1940s and early ‘50s. JFK had also been critical of the Truman Administration’s refusal to act against the communist takeover of China. Now that he was in charge, the new president refused to sit idly by as the shadow of communism fell over Cuba. However, the people he entrusted to oversee the mission of Cuban liberation would fail catastrophically.
Instead of seeking the well-tested advice of experienced military leaders, Kennedy surrounded himself with corporate statisticians, longtime government bureaucrats, and university scholars; all of whom articulated lofty ideas on paper, but had little real-world logistical experience. For his Secretary of State, Kennedy appointed Dean Rusk, a former State Department official who advocated military action against Castro’s regime in Cuba. Rusk also encouraged the continuation of former President Eisenhower’s secret military training program for fifteen hundred Cuban exiles. The proposed Cuban liberation mission was then placed under the authority of the new Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who joined the administration after serving as president of the Ford Motor Company. Though a brilliant administrator and statistician, McNamara and his staff of corporate “Whiz Kids” condescendingly dismissed the advice of top military experts and proceeded with their own Cuban invasion plan.
FOREIGN POLICY MISSTEPS
On April 16, 1961, the armed brigade of Cuban exiles departed for their homeland, but before reaching the targeted landing site at the Bay of Pigs, the operation was prematurely leaked to the press, ruining the element of surprise. During the course of the invasion, the Kennedy administration reversed its decision, canceling the air and naval support promised to the liberation brigade. Of the thirteen hundred freedom fighters that landed at the Bay of Pigs, twelve hundred were taken captive, while the remaining hundred were killed. Fidel Castro held the survivors for ransom.
That same month, the Soviet Union contributed to America’s humiliation by putting
the first human, Yuri Gagarin, in space. The United States followed three weeks
later with the launch of astronaut Alan Shepard in space aboard a Mercury capsule
called Freedom 7.
THE KENNEDY LEGACY
As foreign relations debacles mounted
one upon the other, the Kennedy administration embarked on projects of a more positive
and hopeful nature. The Peace Corps was established in 1961 as a government sponsored,
secular alternative to the work traditionally performed by Christian missionaries.
In this organization, civilian volunteers were dispatched to provide assistance
to impoverished and needy people in underdeveloped countries.
The president’s domestic agenda was
briefly interrupted by new crisis in Cuba. On October 11, 1962, JFK was shown Air
Force reconnaissance photographs that indicated the probable presence of Soviet
missiles on Cuban soil. Follow-up photographic missions supported these findings,
and on October 22nd,
imposed a naval blockade of Cuba, demanding that Soviet Premier Khrushchev order
the dismantling of the missile installations, along with the removal of all weapons
capable of attacking the United States. Meanwhile, secret negotiations were conducted
between the president’s brother Robert and the Soviet ambassador to the United States.
To secure Soviet cooperation, the Kennedy administration agreed to remove all US
Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Additionally, the White House pledged never to invade
Cuba. These concessions were concealed from the American public, and when the Cuban
missile crisis ended with the withdrawal of Soviet missiles, the matter was disingenuously
portrayed as a triumph of the Kennedy presidency. Though boasting that “Khrushchev
blinked,” the administration’s undisclosed compromises actually doomed Cuba to decades
of communist oppression under Fidel Castro.
By the summer of 1963, Kennedy had placed nearly 17-thousand US military advisors
in South Vietnam. All the while, that nation’s devout Catholic leader, Ngo Dinh
Diem, endured constant criticism from the international press for his heavy-handed
reaction to Buddhist uprisings. In an effort to gain bipartisan support for his
Vietnam policy, Kennedy assigned the US ambassador’s post in South Vietnam to former
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a Republican who had run as Richard Nixon’s vice
presidential candidate against the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960. Hastily branding
the South Vietnamese president as corrupt and incompetent, Lodge convinced JFK to
support a covert operation to overthrow Diem’s government. With White House approval,
Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated by his own officers on November 1, 1963. As an unintended
consequence of the fateful decision by Ambassador Lodge and President Kennedy, South
Vietnam quickly plummeted into a state of political chaos from which it would not
JOHNSON’S “GREAT SOCIETY” AND THE VIETNAM DILEMMA
During the weeks of national mourning that followed Kennedy’s death, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) settled into the presidency, keeping his predecessor’s advisory team intact. Determined to secure his own place in history, Johnson devoted the bulk of his time and attention toward the creation of a domestic agenda reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In March of 1964, he declared a “war on poverty,” despite the fact that most Americans he defined as poor were healthier and had more comforts and material possessions than many affluent people in less developed nations. In May, the new president outlined his “Great Society” agenda, a series of spending programs to eliminate poverty, improve education, and alleviate urban blight. Unlike the New Deal, which addressed the Great Depression of the 1930s, Johnson’s Great Society came at a time of national prosperity. John F. Kennedy’s proposed tax cuts, implemented shortly after his death, rapidly boosted the Gross National Product by 10 percent, resulting in a 15 percent rise in personal domestic income. Business production was stimulated, bringing increased revenues into the federal treasury.
The attention of the American people resided largely with racial issues in their own country, and Lyndon Johnson’s effort to build upon the Kennedy civil rights agenda was jeopardized by uncooperative southern Democrats in Congress. Republican Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen presented the cause to his own party members, reminding them that earlier civil rights acts had been Republican initiatives, and that the party itself had been founded during the previous century for the purpose of freeing the slaves. Through the unified efforts of northern Republicans and Democrats, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on July 2nd, expanding laws to further prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Under the provisions of the bill, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to enforce the ban on discrimination in the workplace.
Lyndon Johnson viewed the deteriorating
situation in South Vietnam as an irritating nuisance, in that it threatened to derail
his domestic agenda. The overthrow of the Diem regime depleted the South Vietnamese
government of officials experienced in dealing with Vietcong guerrillas.
the communists seized power in 45 percent of South Vietnam. With the 1964 presidential
campaign season underway, the president realized that although it was politically
suicidal to remain passive toward the Southeast Asian crisis, decisive US military
strikes would likely be condemned by the antiwar faction in his own party. An opportunity
presented itself in early August, when a garbled radio message from the Gulf of
Tonkin, off the eastern coast of North Vietnam, indicated that a US naval patrol
had been fired upon by North Vietnamese gunboats. Without first verifying the validity
of the report, Johnson publicly decried the Gulf of Tonkin incident, extracting
a resolution from Congress
to grant him broad powers to escalate American military presence in Southeast Asia.
Limited air strikes were authorized on benign North Vietnamese targets, simply to
demonstrate the president’s resolve against communism, tempered by his equivalent
desire to avoid full-scale war.
To gain support for his sweeping domestic agenda, the president avoided controversial decisions associated with Vietnam. On February 7, 1965, Vietcong guerrillas attacked the airfield at Pleiku, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, killing eight US servicemen and wounding over a hundred others. The airstrip was demolished and twenty planes were destroyed. Though generals in the field requested decisive reprisals, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara interceded with his own plan to merely demonstrate American resolve without provoking full-scale war. Operation Rolling Thunder was the codename for a series of bombing raids on carefully selected enemy targets. McNamara’s idea was to apply gradual pressure to compel the North Vietnamese government to withdraw its support of Vietcong insurgents in the South. Astoundingly, American airmen were ordered to turn away at the sight of enemy fighter jets and avoid bombing North Vietnamese airfields.
When the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines,
informed the defense secretary that his strategy would only result in a long, protracted,
and futile war, their warnings were met with ridicule. Under McNamara’s reign, the
Joint Chiefs’ role was reduced from influencing military policy to merely fulfilling
White House whims without question. With the Korean controversy between Harry Truman
and Douglas MacArthur still fresh in memory, the Chiefs chose to exhibit loyalty
to the president, whether they felt his decisions were right or wrong. Above all
else, Lyndon Johnson wanted to present a public image of consensus among his top
military and civilian advisors. Funding for his ambitious domestic programs could
only be obtained either through an enormous tax increase or a substantial reduction
in military expenditures. Although Johnson preferred the latter solution, he feared
the political fallout that would result from South Vietnam’s fall to communism.
Thus, instead of trying to win the war, the administration settled on a strategy
to do only that which was necessary to avoid losing the war. Consequently, the lives
of many American servicemen were sacrificed for political expediency.
In August of 1965, Marxist agitators
incited a six-day riot among minority urban residents in the Watts district of Los
Angeles, California, prompting National Guard intervention. Thirty-four people were
killed, while 850 were wounded. The Watts area sustained nearly 200-million dollars
in property damage.
Because every military action in Southeast Asia required White House approval, reaction times in combat zones were delayed and largely ineffective. Opportunities to prevail in battle were missed time and again, due to the president’s insistence that every operation be cleared through his office. The fragmented, erratically executed Rolling Thunder bombing campaign did nothing to diminish the will—or the military capability—of the North Vietnamese. Although thousands of bombs were dropped, their targets were of little consequence. The United States possessed the military strength to sufficiently defeat the communist forces; yet the White House objective was to simply maintain US credibility and avoid failure, employing as few resources as necessary. Enemy forces suffered little harm and were able to continually build troop numbers and armaments. With every communist escalation, President Johnson was forced to dispatch additional US troops to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam. By the summer of 1965, 125-thousand American troops were committed to the struggle, plunging the nation into a war that had never been declared by Congress. New troop acquisitions were largely due to the imposition of an unpopular military draft. As increasing numbers of US forces arrived, fighters from the North Vietnamese Army advanced into the South, uniting with Vietcong guerillas. Military officials insisted that it would take 500-thousand troops and nearly 13 billion dollars to bring the North Vietnamese government to its knees. The president, however, knew that Congress would not be willing to pay for both “guns and butter.” Thus, until all of his Great Society programs were enacted, Johnson limited further troop deployment, holding defense spending to one billion dollars.
Far removed from the specter of battlefield death, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara took the least expensive course of action (in terms of money, not human life), dispatching a fraction of the weapons and personnel requested by his commander in the field, General William Westmoreland. Blinded by arrogant presumption, McNamara esteemed his own ideas far above those of experienced military experts, failing to realize that sharp business skills were no substitute for well tested battlefield methods. Refusing to strike a fatal blow on the enemy, he insisted on pursuing his strategy of graduated pressure on the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. Unbeknownst to the American people at the time, McNamara imposed a series of self-defeating restrictions, known as the “rules of engagement,” on US forces in Vietnam. His intention was to deflect criticisms of brutality and display enough self-restraint to encourage peace negotiations with the communists. Under the rules of engagement, US troops were prohibited from shooting at the enemy until fired upon; North Vietnamese war planes were not to be destroyed while on the ground; enemy missile launchers could not be targeted while under construction; North Vietnamese government facilities could not be bombed; enemy supply vehicles could not be attacked beyond two hundred yards of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and communist forces could not be pursued across the borders of Laos or Cambodia. From the comfort of his executive office, Defense Secretary McNamara was sheltered from the consequences of his own poor decisions, leaving American service personnel to pay the cost of his “goodwill” restrictions with their own blood. The Vietnam War was doomed from the beginning.
DECLINING AMERICAN MORALE
On the domestic front, a new spirit of cynicism swept through the United States, shepherded by a youth culture inexperienced in the hardships that had engendered maturity and self-control in the Depression-era, World War II generation. Pampered by material abundance, American youths were drawn toward pursuits of personal pleasure, and with the concurrent mockery of moral deterrents, new extremes of self gratification were pursued in the forms of rampant sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, and the overall abandonment of individual responsibility. Simplistic, childlike notions of compassion were embraced; standards of righteousness were ridiculed and vilified; and conformity to a spirit of rebellion was popularized. Though they preached love and tolerance, the youth culture of the 1960s treated their own country’s military servicemen with contempt—a position never before held by the civilian population.
Lyndon Johnson’s short-term political goals were achieved at the expense of military endeavors. With Great Society programs in place, he finally escalated the war effort, raising taxes and elevating the national debt to support both domestic and military programs. By the end of 1966, 385-thousand U.S. troops were present in Southeast Asia. The following year, an additional 100-thousand American fighters were deployed to keep pace with enemy escalations. Nevertheless, Defense Secretary McNamara remained unrealistically hopeful of imposing a stalemate that would bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table.
Despite the increasing polarization of American attitudes toward the Johnson administration’s domestic and foreign policies, the nation’s people remained unified in their enthusiasm for the rapidly advancing American space program. It had been John F. Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and though the US trailed the Soviet Union in achieving manned orbit around the earth and space walks outside the craft, gradual strides were made through the single-astronaut Mercury missions and the dual-astronaut Gemini flights. In time, Soviet innovation was stifled by its communist bureaucracy, while the Americans took the lead in developing rocket engines with the power to take three astronauts to the moon. However, a tragic setback occurred during the first mission of the Apollo moon program, when astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a flash fire that erupted in their space capsule during a launch rehearsal in January of 1967.
American morale fell further when the cynical news media portrayed US military strategy in Southeast Asia as a fiasco. On January 31, 1968, when the Vietnamese people celebrated Tet, the first day of the lunar new year, combined North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong guerrilla forces attempted to launch a wide-scale surprise offensive against various strategic cities in South Vietnam, including the capital, Saigon. American bases throughout the region were specifically targeted. US intelligence operatives were able to anticipate the enemy offensive, and the only "surprise" involved the broad scope and exact timing of the attack. Combined American and South Vietnamese forces prevailed while the North Vietnamese Army suffered catastrophic losses, failing every objective of the assault. Nevertheless, irresponsible members of the western press, steeped in bitter antiwar bias, deceptively portrayed the Tet Offensive as a US defeat. More than four years after the event, ABC News anchor Howard K. Smith, in an interview with TV Guide magazine, admitted: “Vietcong casualties were one hundred times ours. But we never told the public that. We just showed pictures day after day of Americans getting hell kicked out of them. That was enough to break America apart.”
The American people lost confidence
in their own president, who had announced a month prior to the Tet offensive that
the United States was on the verge of winning the war. The total number of US troops
in Vietnam exceeded the half-million mark in 1968.
NIXON’S PEAK YEARS
The prospect of change brought a
sense of relief to many Americans. Hope for the future was bolstered further in
late December, 1968, as the astronauts of the Apollo Eight space mission became
the first humans to orbit the moon. The nation’s space program was back on track.
The Apollo Twelve mission that followed
was equally successful, but during the Apollo Thirteen flight in April of 1970,
an oxygen tank explosion crippled the command vessel before it reached the moon.
With resourcefulness, innovation, and determination, the Apollo flight crew and
ground team at Mission Control worked together under harrowing circumstances, engineering
a safe return to earth.
Concurrent with domestic unrest were the economic consequences of Great Society legislation. Facing a mounting federal deficit and monetary inflation, Richard Nixon resorted to government intervention tactics more aligned with Democrat liberalism than Republican conservatism. In August of 1971, he imposed wage and price controls, and though these measures were initially effective in halting inflation, domestic producers encountered difficulties in covering the costs to bring their goods to market. Thus, the nation was plagued by shortages in consumer products until tax cuts were enacted to revive the economy. As a further measure to reduce inflation, Nixon severed remaining links between US currency and the gold standard, using the Gross National Product as the basis for the dollar’s value.
Richard Nixon held no illusions about the future of Vietnam. He was adamant that American troops should no longer be forced to defend a cause that even the South Vietnamese lacked the will to uphold. The president’s objective focused on preventing the spread of communism to Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Taking advantage of a growing rift between the two communist superpowers, China and the Soviet Union, Nixon stunned the world in February 1972 by traveling to China to establish diplomatic ties with the longtime Cold War adversary. The mission was a profound success, and the Chinese government encouraged North Vietnam to negotiate with the United States.
The president followed his China
mission with a journey to the Soviet Union in May of 1972. There, Richard Nixon
and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev entered preliminary talks for the Strategic Arms
Limitations Treaty (SALT). Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger,
referred to their diplomatic efforts as “détente,” a French word conveying the easing
In December of 1972, the American
moon program concluded with the Apollo Seventeen mission. In less than four years,
a total of twelve men walked the lunar surface. However, public enthusiasm over
these technological triumphs had waned by this time.