Unit 8 - Period Review (Part A) | Sherpa Learning

Unit 8 - Period Review (Part A)

U.S. History Skillbook

Unit 8: The Cold War & the American Dream

Review of Period 8: 1945-1980

Part A - America Wages the Cold War

The alliance between the United States and Soviet Union barely survived the final shots of World War II. Neither side relinquished its prewar views of world affairs. The United States maintained an Open Door/Atlantic Charter policy of promoting capitalism and dismantling spheres of influence around the world. The Soviets wanted friendly (Communist) governments on its borders with total control over these nations. Lingering wartime grievances also eroded the alliance. Joseph Stalin retained anger over the lack of a second front during the war, and over the amount of Lend Lease aid offered by the United States. Trouble surfaced at the Yalta Conference and at Potsdam when the Soviets refused to evacuate Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Later, President Truman denied Stalin’s aid request and adopted a truculent approach towards the Communists. The Soviets clanked down an “Iron Curtain” of repression across Central Europe in violation of most wartime agreements. The United States began to use its financial resources and atomic monopoly to challenge potential Communist threats around the world.

Containment in Europe and Asia

In 1947, the United States decided to contain Soviet expansion. Based on the ideas of George Kennan, this policy recognized the USSR as an aggressive threat to American interests in many parts of the world. Containment became the conceptual framework for America’s Cold War strategy. Truman made the concept operational between 1947 and 1950 with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Containment began as economic aid and matured into a military alliance to protect Western Europe. It was successful in Europe, with only Czechoslovakia slipping behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

Stopping the spread of Communism in Asia was more problematic. In November 1949, Mao Zedong, a Chinese Communist, won his struggle with Chiang Kai Shek; Chiang and his followers fled to Taiwan and Mao allied with the Soviet Union. In June 1950, Communist-supported North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman responded decisively by sending Douglas MacArthur and hundreds of thousands of American troops to defend the South. The United States, with token assistance from the United Nations, fought a seesaw three-year struggle in Korea. Finally, in July 1953, the fighting ceased with Korea divided again at the 38th parallel but at a cost of 33,000 American lives and with great frustration in the United States over the war’s outcome.

New Look Foreign Policy

Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president in twenty years, proposed a “new look” foreign policy in 1953. Supported by John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower called for a reduction in military spending and the avoidance of Korean-type military stalemates. The Republicans continued containment, using the threat of massive retaliation to block aggression, covert activities to achieve American goals, and restraint in military interventions. Eisenhower found Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev willing to accept a period of “peaceful coexistence” with the United States. While rhetorically calling for a rollback of Communism, Dulles accepted the status quo in Europe. Eisenhower used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow unfriendly governments in Iran and Guatemala and to plan an end to Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Eisenhower’s foreign policy record was mixed. He ended the Korean War, avoided involvement in Indochina after Dien Bien Phu, and reduced the defense budget by 16 percent. Yet, he encouraged Ngo Dinh Diem to repudiate the Geneva agreement and to refuse to hold elections in Vietnam in 1956. Citing the domino theory, the President established Vietnam as critical to American security and identified Ho Chi Minh and the Communists as the enemy. In short, he deepened America’s Asian commitment.

JFK’s Foreign Policy

When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he offered a more aggressive approach to the Cold War, as he proclaimed America “would bear any burden” to protect its interests. He increased defense spending and proposed a “flexible response” in fighting Communism. He had trouble quickly as the Bay of Pigs invasion failed to remove Castro in April 1961, Khrushchev erected the Berlin Wall, and Diem’s regime became increasingly repressive in Vietnam. His greatest crisis occurred in October 1962 when the Soviets put missiles into Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis). Rejecting immediate military action, the president imposed a blockade around Cuba, and after thirteen tense days, the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles.


Vietnam became an increasing problem from 1961 to 1963, as Diem’s unpopular regime lost ground to the Viet Cong. By November 1963, Kennedy wanted Diem out and supported a coup to oust him. Despite years of aid and over 16,000 American advisers in the country, South Vietnam fell into chaos. Before the president could react to the crisis, he was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

Lyndon Johnson inherited the Vietnam dilemma and it became his great presidential nightmare. Hoping to honor Kennedy’s memory, fearing political repercussions at home, seeing Vietnam as a test of America’s will, and believing in the domino theory, Johnson gradually sent 540,000 troops to South Vietnam. Using the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as justification, he Americanized the war and attempted to achieve a political settlement with a confused military response.

By 1968, over 400 Americans per week were dying in Vietnam, and the United States was divided between hawks (supporters of the war) and doves (opponents). When the Tet Offensive shocked Americans who believed victory was at hand and destroyed the political will to continue escalating the war, Johnson’s approval rating fell to 35 percent, and within weeks, he decided to retire from politics.

Richard Nixon followed Johnson to the presidency in 1969 and pursued “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Both he and Henry Kissinger realized America must leave Vietnam, but they hoped to preserve an appearance of success for the United States. Through Vietnamization, Nixon withdrew American troops, reinforced the South Vietnamese army, and negotiated with North Vietnam. After long diplomatic haggling, a treaty was signed in January 1973. Yet, by 1975, the North had violated the treaty and conquered the South.

Post-Vietnam Foreign Policy

Nixon was more successful with the Soviet Union and China. Reversing his past hardline position with both nations, he opened diplomatic ties with China and negotiated an arms limitation treaty with the Soviets. He used the rivalry between the Soviets and China to achieve détente and to pursue better relations with the communist giants.

After Gerald Ford’s presidential interlude, Jimmy Carter entered the White House. Basing his policies on morality and human rights, his international approach often seemed confused. He cut off aid to several allies for human rights violations, urged the return of the Panama Canal to Panama, and negotiated another arms treaty with the Soviets. His greatest success was the Camp David Accords, which established a framework of peace between Israel and Egypt. Despite his good intentions, by 1979 détente was in shambles, fifty-two Americans were held hostage in Iran, and America was frustrated and uncertain about its place in the world.

In 1980, the nation rejected Carter and turned to Ronald Reagan, who promised to restore America’s confidence and standing in the world. Reagan viewed the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and embarked on a massive military buildup. He actively supported anti-communist forces in Central America, which resulted in the controversial Iran-Contra Affair in 1986–1987, which tarnished his presidency. Although he amassed large deficits, many people credited Reagan’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union with speeding up its demise and ending the Cold War.