Eisenhower and members of his cabinet, many of whom criticized the Truman administration for playing the role of defeatist or appeaser, promised Americans a different approach to foreign policy. In 1952, the Republican platform denounced the previous administration's policy of Communist containment. Instead, Republicans promoted a policy of liberation that would "inevitably set up strains and stresses within the captive world which will make the rulers impotent to continue in their monstrous ways and mark the beginning of the end." Eisenhower did not want to merely contain communism, he wanted to destroy it.
To oversee the foreign policy changes as secretary of state, Eisenhower selected John Foster Dulles, the grandson of one former secretary of state and the nephew of another. Dulles offered a wealth of legal and diplomatic experience. He built a career as an international lawyer, assisted the American delegation at the Versailles Conference in 1919, and served as counselor to the Truman State Department where he negotiated the Japanese peace treaty.
Dulles believed that the Democratic containment plan was expensive, ineffective, and implied approval of the status quo. Instead of accepting the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, and waiting for the Communists to act before "containing" them, Dulles believed that the U.S. should liberate the Europeans from Soviet control. Realizing that the United States could not match the Red Army man for man or tank for tank, the secretary of state advocated that the American military place more emphasis on nuclear technology and less on conventional weapons.
Dulles reasoned that a fleet of bombers—called the Strategic Air Command—equipped with nuclear bombs would have the same, if not greater, effect than would thousands upon thousands of troops. A formidable nuclear arsenal would also act as a deterrent to countries contemplating military action against the United States. And by paring the size of the military, he argued, the government would save money.
The first test of Eisenhower's new foreign policy came when the president failed to negotiate an end to the war in Korea. Dulles implied America's willingness to use nuclear weapons by openly transferring nuclear warheads to the Far East. In July 1953, Chinese leaders agreed to a settlement that ended the aggression in Korea. With the Chinese withdrawal, the Eisenhower administration declared Dulles's strategy a success.
In 1955, Eisenhower and Dulles again threatened nuclear retaliation when Communist China bombed two small Nationalist China islands near Taiwan, which the U.S. interpreted as a precursor to an invasion of the islands. Chinese leaders stopped the shelling and backed down. Years later, the secretary of state boldly announced that his tough and unyielding tactics had repeatedly brought the United States to the brink of war.
Flaws in Dulles's strategy were soon uncovered when the Cold War began to heat up. The threat of massive retaliation did not work against the Soviet Union, which now possessed hydrogen weapons. When the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission casually mentioned that the Soviets were now capable of annihilating New York City, panic spread throughout the country. Downtown buildings posted signs for air raid shelters, and schools conducted air raid drills. Terrified Americans built backyard bomb shelters and waited anxiously for news of a Soviet attack.
The battle for superiority quickly shifted from developing powerful bombs to stockpiling the most weapons. American and Soviet leaders discussed the possibility of preemptive strikes as both countries increased their nuclear missile cache. The focus on growing arsenals marked the beginning of the arms race between the two superpowers that would continue for decades.
Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, confusion and conflict swept through the Kremlin as several Soviet politicians struggled to claim control of the nation. Nikita Khrushchev eventually emerged as the new Russian leader and promptly started the process of "de-Stalinizing" the country. In a speech before the Communist Party Congress, Khrushchev acknowledged the criminal activity that took place during the Stalin era, and suggested that he might relax policies "so different countries could take different roads to socialism."
Khrushchev then took aim at capitalists by promoting anti-Western policies and offering economic aid to countries willing to follow Russia's Communist lead. By gathering the support of many nations and publicizing Soviet achievements in technology and science, the stocky, uncompromising leader hoped to eliminate the capitalist system without using military force.
President Eisenhower, skilled in analyzing military capability, determined that Khrushchev was trying to hide the Soviet Union's weaknesses—most notably its weak economy and poorly organized armed forces. For years the USSR kept pace with the United States in the arms race, but it never fully matched America's potential. The U.S. strategically placed thousands of bombers in key cities in Europe, Turkey, and northern Africa, well within striking distance of Russian targets. Conversely, for a Soviet attack on American soil, heavy bombers faced traveling thousands of miles through well protected regions.
The Soviet Union appeared to close the gap in the arms race when they launched the satellite Sputnik into space showcasing the country's technological prowess. The Soviet leader spitefully announced that Russia could successfully destroy any American city with intercontinental missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. While Americans panicked and critics accused Eisenhower of allowing the Soviets to catch up with, and surpass, United States military might, the president knew Khrushchev was bluffing. The two most powerful leaders in the world anticipated and monitored each other's every move.
During a speech in 1958, Khrushchev announced his intention to relinquish the Soviet Union's control in Berlin to the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—a socialist party that mirrored Soviet political views. The Russian leader also demanded that western powers enter into negotiations to transform West Berlin into a demilitarized free city and withdraw from the region. If progress was not made within six months, Khrushchev threatened to sign a separate treaty with the GDR and grant it control over all communication with West Berlin. Western powers would then be forced to go through East German authorities to communicate with West Berlin. Eisenhower called Khrushchev's bluff and refused to yield to the demand. The United States, England, and France remained in West Berlin, determined to maintain their legal right of free access to that city.
In 1959, as Cold War tensions remained high, Khrushchev and Vice President Nixon toured the U.S. Trade and Cultural Fair in Moscow. As Nixon stopped in front of a replica of a typical American kitchen to show off modern appliances, he and the Soviet leader participated in a lively discussion about differences in technology and ideology between the two countries. Dubbed the "Kitchen Debate," Khrushchev started the exchange by stating that the Russians were not impressed with the American exhibit. Nixon replied that they were not there to astonish the Russian people, but to show that a free society gives all citizens choices and the right to make their own decisions. The conversation quickly turned to military capabilities as Khrushchev vowed that the Soviets would answer every U.S. threat with one of its own.
Later that year, Khrushchev visited Eisenhower in the United States. At Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, the two world leaders discussed the Berlin Ultimatum. Citing the positive "spirit of Camp David," the Soviet leader eventually withdrew the time limit and sought a meeting with the Western leaders.
Eisenhower planned to attend the Paris conference in May followed by a visit to the Soviet Union in June. Neither trip would be completed. The Paris summit disintegrated before the first handshake or speech took place. On the evening before the conference, Russian military forces shot down an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. The Eisenhower administration repeatedly denied Soviet reports of U.S. espionage. Finally, when the Russians displayed evidence of the crash and photographs of Soviet military installations taken by Powers, Eisenhower took full responsibility for the mission.
Irate that the United States conducted spy campaigns while the two nations planned friendly negotiations, Khrushchev left Paris and cancelled his meeting with Eisenhower in the USSR. Later that year, the Soviet leader angrily told the United Nations that the Soviet Union was turning out nuclear missiles "like sausages from an automatic machine." The Cold War would continue for another 30 years.
Once he was elected to a second term, Eisenhower's stance on communism began to resemble the policies of the Truman administration—the U.S. government would concentrate on blocking the growth of communism rather than try to destroy it. The administration tolerated Communist nations in eastern Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, but forces—primarily the CIA—would be dispatched to deal with anti-American governments in the Third World. Of utmost interest to Eisenhower were political disturbances in nations considered prime markets for U.S. products and sources of essential raw materials, including Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
During his first term, Eisenhower's administration undermined two legitimate governments that threatened U.S. policies and interests. In Iran, 70-year-old premier Mohammed Mossadegh rallied against British control of Iranian oil production and then took control of the foreign properties. By confronting Western countries, the nationalist leader won the support of the Tudeh, Iran's Communist Party. The relationship alarmed American intelligence directors who received the go ahead from the Eisenhower administration to remove Mossadegh from power.
In 1953, Kermit Roosevelt, Mideast CIA agent and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, was given the responsibility for devising the plan to replace Mossadegh with the young Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had been forced into exile years earlier. Code named Operation AJAX, Roosevelt and his CIA operatives worked closely with the British Intelligence Service (MI6) and members of the Iranian military still loyal to the deposed Shah to force Mossadegh from power.
Angry Iranians protested the removal of Mossadegh and rioted in the streets. In an attempt to stop the public uprising from growing, and to generate support for the ouster of the Iranian premier, Roosevelt bribed a large number of people to fill the streets and rally against the fallen leader. The group plundered Mossadegh's house before burning it to the ground.
Many Iranians never forgave the Shah, nor the United States, for what they believed was an illegitimate coup against their nation's leader. In exchange for U.S. assistance to return to power, the Shah became a strong American ally until 1979, when he was overthrown and again forced to flee the country.
In 1954, American leaders turned their focus to Guatemala where democratically elected president Jacob Arbenz set in motion a series of socio-economic reforms. CIA reports called the leader's strategy "an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the 'Banana Republic.'" Plans to remove Arbenz were under consideration as early as 1952 when Truman authorized military force to "neutralize" specific Guatemalan figures, including the country's president; however, no action took place until 1954.
American sources received reports that President Jacob Arbenz accepted weapons from Communist countries. Arbenz further irritated Americans when he nationalized the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, whose stockholders included Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles.
Members of his staff and Cold War concerns pressed Eisenhower to order the CIA-sponsored "Operation Sherwood." The $2.7 million plan, which included the use of a clandestine transmitter to broadcast in Spanish anti-Arbenz propaganda to Guatemalan citizens, resulted in the resignation of Arbenz. American forces then installed military general Castillo Armas and his U.S.-friendly regime to protect American business interests in the region. During the next few years the area experienced relatively little trouble, but by the late 1950s leftist insurgents challenged the new government and started a low-key civil war that would last for more than 30 years.
In 1945, Communist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed a Democratic Republic of Vietnam and named Hanoi its capital. During World War II, Ho secretly received American assistance against the Japanese, but the financial aid stopped when the war ended because Truman refused to continue offering support to a known Communist. In 1946, the French government recognized Ho's Viet Minh government as a "free state" within the northern portion of the French-controlled region. By the end of the year, however, Ho challenged attempts by the French to begin a new regime in southern Vietnam. The conflict damaged relations between the two governments and started the First Indochina War.
By 1950, Ho's Communist government, which was now dependent on the Soviet Union and Red China for help, challenged French control of the region. In 1954, French forces attempting to maintain colonial rule battled Ho's Communist rebels. Though President Eisenhower did not want to enter into another Asian war, the United States agreed to finance nearly 80 percent of France's military efforts.
As massive attacks weakened the position of the French military, representatives from France, Britain, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and the Viet Minh gathered in Geneva to establish a peace agreement. The Geneva Accords proposed to neutralize Cambodia and Laos and establish a dividing line across Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh were given control of the north while the French maintained authority over the southern region. The agreement stipulated that elections be held in 1956 and the country reunified. Eisenhower refused to sign the agreement because he worried about the domino effect it could create—if one country falls to communism, more will follow.
The growing Communist presence in Vietnam forced the United States to organize defense arrangements for Southeast Asia. During a 1954 meeting in Manila, representatives from the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Each country agreed that if one member were attacked, the rest would offer defense assistance. Critics believed that America would carry the burden of the defense agreement by supplying the majority of the military forces and financial aid.
At the urging of United States and French officials, Ngo Dinh Diem took control of South Vietnam. Eisenhower offered to help Diem "develop and maintain a strong, viable state, capable of resisting subversion or aggression through military means." The president also allowed CIA agents to train Diem's military and police forces. In return, America expected the new leader to introduce political and economic reforms.
After receiving assistance from the United States, Diem refused to follow through on the agreement. He tightened control of the country and allowed widespread corruption. In 1956, Diem also refused to permit elections to reunify the country, as stipulated in the Geneva Accords. Diem quickly lost the support of many South Vietnamese, many of whom were recruited by Communist organizations. In 1957, guerilla forces known as the Viet Cong, or the National Liberation Front (NLF), staged attacks on Diem's government, assassinating almost 2,000 officials.
The NLF demanded that the Catholic-dominated Ngo Dinh Diem regime be replaced with "a government that represents all social classes and religions." The group also vowed to take land away from the rich—which had been seized by the Vietminh during the Indochina War—to give to the country's peasants. This promise persuaded many poor South Vietnamese to join guerillas fighting against Diem's government. Civil War swept through South Vietnam. With Communist involvement on the other side of the war, the Eisenhower administration was forced to "sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem." The decision to become involved in the fighting in Vietnam deeply entrenched the United States in a political quandary that would span across five presidencies.
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