History of the United States (1945-1964)

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The Cold War

Main article: Cold War (1953-1962).

The origins of the Cold War

The wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was an aberration from the normal tenor of Russian-U.S. relations. Strategic rivalry between the huge, sprawling nations goes back to the 1890s when, after a century of friendship, Americans and Russians became rivals over the development of Manchuria. Tsarist Russia, unable to compete industrially, sought to close off and colonize parts of East Asia, while Americans demanded open competition for markets. In 1917 the rivalry turned intensely ideological. Americans never forgot that the Soviet government negotiated a separate peace with Germany in the First World War in 1917, leaving the Western Allies to fight the Central Powers alone. Lasting Soviet mistrust stemmed from the landing of U.S. troops in Russia in 1918, which became involved, directly and indirectly, in assisting the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the Russian Civil War. In addition, the Soviets never forgot the repeated assurances from Franklin D. Roosevelt that the United States and Britain would open a second front on the European continent; but the Allied invasion did not occur until June 1944, more than two years after the Soviets had demanded it. In the meantime, the USSR suffered horrendous casualties, as high as twenty million dead.

The "Big Three"  Allied leaders at Yalta: British Prime Minster  (left), U.S. President  (center), and Soviet First Secretary  (right)
The "Big Three" Allied leaders at Yalta: British Prime Minster Winston Churchill (left), U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), and Soviet First Secretary Joseph Stalin (right)

When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (US, British, and French) troops were located in particular places, essentially, along a line in the center of Europe that came to be called the Oder-Neisse Line. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the "iron curtain" of the Cold War. In hindsight, Yalta signified the agreement of both sides that they could stay there and that neither side would use force to push the other out. This tacit accord applied to Asia as well, as evinced by U.S. occupation of Japan and the division of Korea. Politically, therefore, Yalta was an agreement on the postwar status quo in which Soviet Union hegemony reigned over about one third and the United States over two thirds.

There were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism; those contrasts had been simplified and refined in national ideologies to represent two ways of life, each vindicated in 1945 by previous disasters. Conflicting models of autarky versus exports, of state planning against free enterprise, were to vie for the allegiance of the developing and developed world in the postwar years.

The United States, led by President Harry S. Truman since April 1945, was determined to open up the world's markets to capitalist trade and to shape the postwar world according to the principles laid down by the Atlantic Charter: self-determination, equal economic access, and a rebuilt capitalist Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. Franklin D. Roosevelt had never forgotten the excitement with which he had greeted the principles of Wilsonian idealism during World War I, and he saw his mission in the 1940s as bringing lasting peace and genuine democracy to the world. His vision was equally a vision of national self-interest. World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, with almost no country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in the world to emerge intact—and even greatly strengthened from an economic perspective—was the United States, which moved swiftly to consolidate its position. The United States also led the effort to impose its vision of the world with new international agencies: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which were created to ensure an open, capitalist, international economy. The Soviet Union opted not to take part.

The Soviets, too saw their vital interests and national security at stake in the post-war world, which motivated their determination to shape postwar Europe. Stalin imposed Moscow-dominated governments in Poland, Romania, East Germany, and Bulgaria. Winston Churchill, long a staunch anticommunist, condemned Stalin for cordoning off a new Russian empire with an "iron curtain."

Containment and the escalation of the Cold War

In the United States, containment of the Soviet Union soon became doctrine, following the advice of people like State Department officer George Kennan who argued that the Soviets had to be "contained" using "unalterable counterforce at every point," until the breakdown of Soviet power occurred. This policy was further articulated in the Truman Doctrine Speech of March 1947, which argued that the United States would have to contribute 4 billion dollars(2005 currency) to efforts to "contain" communism.

The United States capitalized on the Cold War fears to launch massive economic reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well as in South Korea and Taiwan). The Marshall Plan began to pump $12 billion into Western Europe. Stalin responded by blocking access to Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone although subject to four power control, hoping to extract concessions for the blockade to be ended. However, it greatly backfired. Military confrontation loomed while Truman embarked on an impressive, provocative move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally: flying supplies in over the blockade during 1948-1949.

Truman joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), America's first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin retaliated by integrating the economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan, exploding the first Soviet atomic device in 1949, signing an alliance with the People's Republic of China in February 1950, and forming the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's counterpart to NATO.

In 1949, the Nationalist Chinese Government of Chiang Kai-shek was overthrown by Communist leader Mao Tse-tung, who proclaimed the People's Republic of China. Mao then travelled to Moscow, where he negotiated the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance.

Confronted with growing Soviet successes, U.S. officials quickly moved to escalate and expand "containment." In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda campaign to convince Americans to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb. In early 1950 came the first U.S. effort to opposing communist forces in Vietnam, plans to form a West German army, and proposals for a peace treaty with Japan that would guarantee long-term U.S. military bases.

The Korean War

For details see the main article Korean War.

In early 1950 came the first U.S. commitment to form a peace treaty with Japan that would guarantee long-term U.S. military bases. Some observers (including George Kennan) believed that the Japanese treaty led Stalin to approve a plan to invade U.S.-supported South Korea on June 25, 1950. Fearing that a united Communist Korea could neutralize U.S. power in Japan and lead to an expansion of Soviet influence, Truman committed U.S. forces and obtained help from the United Nations to drive back the North Koreans to Stalin's surprise. In a historic diplomatic blunder, the Soviets, boycotted the UN Security Council, and thus its power to veto Truman's action in the UN, because it would not admit the People's Republic of China.

However, Truman would offset this with his own error: allowing his forces to go to the Chinese-Korean border. The People's Republic of China responded with human-wave attacks in November 1950 that decimated U.S.-led forces. Fighting stabilized along the thirty-eight parallel, which had separated the Koreas, but Truman now faced a hostile China, a Sino-Soviet partnership, and a bloated defense budget that quadrupled in eighteen months. The Korean War was also costly in human lives, with over 50,000 American military deaths, and nearly a million Korean casualties on both sides.

The Eisenhower administration and "massive retaliation"

Missing image
John Foster Dulles

In 1953, Stalin died, and the new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower used the opportunity to end the Korean War, but continued Cold War policies. His Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the dominant figure in the nation's foreign policy in the 1950s. He denounced the "containment" of the Truman administration and espoused an active program of "liberation," which would lead to a "rollback" of communism. The most prominent of those doctrines was the policy of "massive retaliation," which Dulles announced early in 1954, eschewing the costly, conventional ground forces characteristic of the Truman administration in favor of wielding the vast superiority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and covert intelligence. Dulles defined this approach as "brinksmanship."

Both countries continued to try to expand their sphere of influence, using both overt and covert means. The new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, expanded Moscow's policy by establishing new relations with India and other key non-aligned, noncommunist states in the Third World. Khrushchev also increased Soviet power by developing a hydrogen bomb and, by launching the first earth satellite in 1957.

At the same time, the Soviets consolidated their hold on many of their allies and clients, while expanding their influence. They built the Berlin Wall in 1961 to stop the Germans from leaving the communist East. While the Berlin Wall was a propaganda setback, the Soviets garnered a huge victory when Khrushchev formed an alliance with Cuba after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in 1959. In 1956, however, the Soviets intervened to quell an anti-Soviet rebellion in Hungary, foreshowing weaknesses in the Soviet bloc. Moreover, Sino-Soviet ties were deteriorating; no longer was there even the illusion that the Communist world was a monolith.

The Soviet Union was not alone in its attempts to influence other nations. The United States thwarted Soviet intervention wielding U.S. nuclear superiority and used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow unfriendly governments, such as Iran. The United States reacted with alarm as it watched Mohammed Mossadegh, the nationalist prime minister of Iran, nationalized his nation's British-owned oil wells in 1951. Convinced that Iran, a Western client state, was shifting toward an independent foreign policy, Eisenhower used the CIA, joining forces with Iran's military leaders, to overthrow Iran's government in what became known as "Operation Ajax." To replace him, the U.S. favored elevating the young Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, from his position as that of a constitutional monarch to that of an absolute ruler. In return, the Shah allowed U.S. companies to share in the development of his nation's reserves.

The U.S. used the CIA to overthrow other governments suspected of turning procommunist, such as Guatemala in 1954, another democratizing regime. In 1958 the U.S. sent troops into Lebanon to maintain its pro-U.S. regime, and between 1954 and 1961 the Eisenhower dispatched economic aid and 695 military advisers to South Vietnam.

The first major strain among the NATO alliance occurred in 1956 when Eisenhower had to force Britain and France to retreat from a badly planned invasion with Israel intended to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt, (see Suez crisis). The Eisenhower administration opposed French and British imperial adventurism in the region due to sheer prudence, out of fear that Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's standoff with the region's old colonial powers would bolster Soviet power in the region.

Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cold War reached its height during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The crisis began on October 16, 1962 and lasted for thirteen days. It is regarded by many as the moment when the Cold War was closest to becoming nuclear war.

The "Affluent Society" and the "Other America"

The immediate years unfolding after World War II were generally ones of stability and prosperity for the white American middle class. The growth of consumerism, the suburbs, and the economy, however, overshadowed the fact that prosperity did not extend to everyone. Many Americans continued to live in poverty throughout the Eisenhower years. The Cold War rhetoric of freedom and democracy was especially far from reality for a large segment of the population, African-Americans in the South, who continued to suffer from social, economic, and political discrimination.

At the center of middle-class culture in the 1950s was a growing obsession with consumer goods. Not just a result of the postwar prosperity, it resulted from the increase in variety and availability of consumer products, for which advertisers were increasingly adept at creating demand. Affluent Americans in the 1950s and 1960s responded to consumer crazes such as automobiles, dishwashers, garbage disposals, televisions, and stereos. To a striking degree, the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was consumer-driven (as opposed to investment-driven).

Aerial view of Levittown, Pennsylvania circa 1959
Aerial view of Levittown, Pennsylvania circa 1959

As the population of suburbia, with its increased mobility, swelled to account for a third of the nation's population by 1960, U.S. auto-manufacturers in Detroit responded to the boom with ever-flashier automobiles. The growth of suburbs was not only a result of postwar prosperity, but innovations of the single-family housing market. William Levitt began a national trend with his use of mass-production techniques to construct a large "Levittown" housing development on Long Island. Meanwhile, the suburban population swelled due to the baby boom. Suburbs provided larger homes for larger families, security from urban living, privacy, and space for consumer goods.

Most suburbs were restricted to whites. While few African Americans could afford to live in them, even affluent African Americans with the wherewithal to afford a home in the suburbs faced informal and formal barriers. The few African Americans who ventured into suburbs were generally shunned in every passive and overt manner. Touted for their sense of community, suburbia has been attacked by later critics for its conformity and homogeneity. Indeed, suburbs were inhabited by many of similar age and background.

The Civil Rights Movement

Historical context

Following the end of Reconstruction, many states adopted restrictive laws which enforced segregation of the races and the second-class status of African Americans. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases 163 US 3 1883, effectively destroying many of the radical-Republican-driven reforms. Later Supreme Court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 1896 further eroded African American civil rights.

The status of African Americans in the Deep South

Voting rights discrimination remained widespread in the Deep South into the 1950s. African American sharecroppers were often evicted by white farmers for trying to vote. Voter registration boards used discriminatory practices such as these to limit the number of eligible African American voters, such as holding African American applicants to a higher standard of accuracy than whites; allowing white applicants to register in their cars and in their homes; processing black applicants last, even when they were first in line; establishing separate registration offices in different parts of the courthouse; offering assistance only to white applicants in completing the registration form; and refusing to notify African American applicants about the status of their applications.

In the Deep South even harsher methods of preventing African Americans from voting were employed; black applicants were often jailed and centers for voting education, such as Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia, were firebombed. They threatened, beat, and in some cases, murdered black applicants.

Southern blacks, who resisted segregation, especially sharecroppers who were often evicted for registering to vote, and especially rural blacks, lived in constant fear of their employers, who vowed to fire them; of white "citizens' councils," who adopted policies of economic reprisal against demonstrators; of white vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which exerted an often-unchecked reign of terror across the South, where lynching of African Americans was a common occurrence and rarely prosecuted. Nearly 4,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and the early 1950s.

Brown v. Board of Education and "massive resistance"

Alabama police attacking civil rights demonstrators on "" (March 7, 1965)
Alabama police attacking civil rights demonstrators on "Bloody Sunday" (March 7, 1965)

In the early days of the civil rights movement, litigation and lobbying were the focus of integration efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 1954, Powell v. Alabama 287 US 45 1932, Smith v. Allwright 321 US 649 1944, Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 1948, Sweatt v. Painter 339 US 629 1950, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents 339 US 637 1950 led to a shift in tactics, and from 1955 to 1965, "direct action" was the strategy—primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and social movements.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) was a landmark case of the United States Supreme Court which explicitly outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites, ruling so on the grounds that the doctrine of "separate but equal" public education could never truly provide black Americans with facilities of the same standards available to white Americans. 101 members of the House of Representatives and 19 Senators signed "The Southern Manifesto" condemning the Supreme Court decision.

In 1951, a suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas on behalf of Linda Brown, a third grader from Topeka, Kansas who was forced to walk a mile to her segregated black school, while a white school was only seven blocks from her house. Brown's suit had the backing of the NAACP, whose chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, himself appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, argued the case. The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 1896, which allowed state laws requiring "separate but equal" facilities in railway cars for blacks and whites.

Governor Orval Eugene Faubus of Arkansas used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent school integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, and Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama physically blocked school doorways at their respective states' universities. E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state representative, stalked and killed a black farmer for attending voter registration classes. Birmingham's public safety commissioner Eugene T. "Bull" Connor advocated violence against freedom riders and ordered fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators. Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Alabama loosed his deputies on "Bloody Sunday" marchers and personally menaced other protesters. Police all across the South arrested civil rights activists on trumped-up charges. All-white juries in several states acquitted known killers of local African Americans.

Civil rights organizations

King speaking at the 1963 DC Civil Rights March
King speaking at the 1963 DC Civil Rights March

Although they had white supporters and sympathizers, the modern civil rights movement was designed, led, organized, and manned by African Americans, who placed themselves and their families on the front lines in the struggle for freedom. Their heroism was brought home to every American through newspaper, and later, television reports as their peaceful marches and demonstrations were violently attacked by law enforcement. Officers used batons, bullwhips, fire hoses, police dogs, and mass arrests to intimidate the protesters. The second characteristic of the movement is that it was not monolithic, led by one or two men. Rather it was a dispersed, grass-roots campaign that attacked segregation in many different places using many different tactics.

While some groups and individuals within the civil rights movement advocated Black Power, black separatism, or even armed resistance, the majority of participants remained committed to the principles of nonviolence, a deliberate decision by an oppressed minority to abstain from violence for political gain. Using nonviolent strategies, civil rights activists took advantage of emerging national network-news reporting, especially television, to capture national attention and the attention of Congress and the White House.

The leadership role of black churches in the movement was a natural extension of their structure and function. They offered members an opportunity to exercise roles denied them in society. Throughout history, the black church served not only as a place of worship but also as a community "bulletin board," a credit union, a "people's court" to solve disputes, a support group, and a center of political activism. These and other functions enhanced the importance of the minister. The most prominent clergyman in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. Time magazine's 1964 "Man of the Year" was a man of the people. His tireless personal commitment to and strong leadership role in the black freedom struggle won him worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Students and seminarians in both the South and the North played key roles in every phase of the civil rights movement—from bus boycotts to sit-ins to freedom rides to social movements. Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational and sustaining structures. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), founded in 1957, coordinated and raised funds, mostly from northern sources, for local protests and for the training of black leaders. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, founded in 1957, developed the "jail-no-bail" strategy. SNCC's role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize freedom rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. These three new groups often joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the National Urban League. The NAACP and its Director, Roy Wilkins, provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators, helped raise bail, and continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts as it had been doing for half a century. CORE initiated the 1961 Freedom Rides which involved many SNCC members, and CORE's leader James Farmer later became executive secretary of SNCC.

The administration of President John Kennedy was a mixed blessing. Kennedy supported enforcement of desegregation in schools and public facilities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy brought more than 50 lawsuits in four states to secure black Americans' right to vote. However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned about possible Communist influence in the civil rights movement and personally antagonistic to Martin Luther King Jr., used the FBI to investigate King and other civil rights leaders.

The Kennedy administration

Kennedy was president for only about 1,000 days. This brief tenure was marked by such notable events as the acceleration of the United States' role in the space race, the beginning of the escalation of the American role in the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; these events aggravated the Cold War with the USSR. He appointed his brother Robert F. Kennedy to his Cabinet as Attorney General.

President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald, apprehended for the crime, was himself fatally shot by Jack Ruby before he could be formally charged or brought to trial. Four days after Kennedy and Oswald were killed, President Lyndon Johnson created the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. See John F. Kennedy assassination for further details of the circumstances surrounding Kennedy's death.

After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson served out the remainder of the term in manner he felt was consistent with Kennedy's agenda. He convinced Kennedy's cabinet to serve out the rest of the term, including Robert Kennedy (despite the acrimonious relationship between Johnson and Kennedy). He also used his considerable political savvy to ensure passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These actions allowed Johnson to easily win the 1964 presidential election.

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