Communism: US containment
After the communist take-over of Eastern Europe, US governments were preoccupied with the need to stop the spread of communism. This policy was called containment.
The fall of China: 1949
Led by Mao Zedong, communists took power in China in 1949. Communist success in China convinced American leaders that they needed to be more energetic in a worldwide struggle against communism. This led to a huge increase in American spending on defense.
The Korean War: 1950-3
At the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided in two at the 38th parallel - North Korea was communist, South Korea was anti-communist. North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. The Americans won UN support for a war against the invading North Koreans. General MacArthur led a fight-back that drove the North Koreans out of South Korea. MacArthur then continued to push deep into North Korean territory. This was going beyond 'containment' and became an attempt to 'roll back' communism.
A massive Chinese army invaded to help the North Koreans in November 1950. The US army was driven back close to the original border in early 1951. There was then a military stalemate. MacArthur wanted to widen the war by attacking China itself. President Truman disagreed and dismissed MacArthur. Peace talks dragged on for two years. The war finally ended in July 1953.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: 1962
Led by Fidel Castro, there was a revolution in Cuba in 1959. Castro introduced communist ideas to Cuba. The US attempted to invade and overthrow Castro, but this ended in disaster at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
In 1962 Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, placed nuclear missiles on Cuba. American spy planes discovered them and the American President, Kennedy, insisted that the missiles should be removed. There was a real possibility of a nuclear war. Eventually Khrushchev gave way and agreed to remove the missiles in return for a US promise to remove missiles in Turkey. The ending of the crisis was seen as a victory for Kennedy and a defeat for Khrushchev.
Restricting Soviet influence in the Middle East
Both the USA and the Soviet Union tried to influence states in the Middle East. The US encouraged the new Jewish state of Israel, set up in 1948. Some Arabs, including the governments of Egypt and Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), looked for Soviet help in their conflict with Israel.
With American money and weapons, Israel was able to defeat its Arab enemies in a series of wars (1948-9, 1967,1973). These defeats convinced the Egyptian president, Sadat, to break with the USSR. The US government enabled Israel and Egypt to sign a peace treaty in 1979.
The Vietnam War: 1965-1975
Vietnam had been a French colony before the Second World War. The French pulled out in 1954 and Vietnam was divided between a communist state in the North, and an anti-communist state in South Vietnam. The leader of North Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh.
After 1958 communist guerillas, known as the Vietcong, helped by troops of the regular army of North Vietnam, tried to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. At first the Americans supplied the South with money and weapons and in March 1965 President Johnson sent US combat troops to Vietnam. Eventually there were 540,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam.
The defeat of the USA
The USA was unable to defeat the Vietcong. Many people in the USA were opposed to the war. In January 1968 the Vietcong launched a massive series of attacks called the Tet Offensive. This was not a military success but it convinced American leaders that they would never win in Vietnam.
President Johnson was replaced by Richard Nixon, who was determined to pull out of Vietnam. Nixon tried 'Vietnamisation' - a policy of reducing American troops and trying to strengthen the forces of South Vietnam. In 1973 the US signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam and American troops left the country.
Vietnamisation did not work - without American forces the government of South Vietnam was overthrown by communist forces in 1975. Vietnam became a single, communist state. After the fall of Vietnam several neighboring countries also became communist.
After Vietnam: detente
The US presidents of the 1 970s - Nixon, Ford and Carter pursued a policy of 'detente'. This involved establishing peaceful relationships with the two great communist powers: the USSR and China.
Defeat in Vietnam reduced American self-confidence. Further disasters followed:
• The pro-American government in Iran was overthrown in a revolution in 1978. American diplomats were taken prisoner and were held hostage from 1979-81.
• A Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support its new communist government.
The end of detente
The new US President, Ronald Reagan, restored some of America's self-confidence in the 1980s. He ended detente. He aggressively challenged the Soviet Union and began a new arms race. This period has been called the Second Cold War. Reagan invested in 'Star Wars' (officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative). This was intended to be a system for shooting down Soviet missiles in space. The Soviet Union could not compete.
Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and established good relations with Reagan. The arms race came to an end and the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988-9.