Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.
The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, captured global attention and achieved the initial victory in what would soon become known as the space race. This impressive technological feat and its broader implications for Soviet missile capability rattled the confidence of the American public and challenged the credibility of U.S. leadership abroad. With the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik, and then later the first human spaceflight in 1961, U.S. policymakers feared that the public and political leaders around the world would view communism as a viable and even more dynamic alternative to capitalism, tilting the global balance of power away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.
Reactions to Sputnik confirmed what members of the U.S. National Security Council had predicted: the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences. By signaling Soviet technological and military prowess, Sputnik solidified the link between space exploration and national prestige, setting a course for nationally funded space exploration for years to come. For over a decade, both the Soviet Union and the United States funneled significant financial and personnel resources into achieving impressive firsts in space, as part of a larger effort to win alliances in the Cold War contest for global influence.
From a U.S. vantage point, the space race culminated in the first Moon landing in July 1969. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, a lunar exploration program, as a tactic for restoring U.S. prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. To achieve Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade, the United States mobilized a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. Project Apollo became the most expensive government funded civilian engineering program in U.S. history, at one point stretching to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The United States’ substantial investment in winning the space race reveals the significant status of soft power in American foreign policy strategy during the Cold War.
Military assistance programs have been crucial instruments of American foreign policy since World War II, valued by policymakers for combating internal subversion in the “free world,” deterring aggression, and protecting overseas interests. The 1958 Draper Committee, consisting of eight members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluded that economic and military assistance were interchangeable; as the committee put it, without internal security and the “feeling of confidence engendered by adequate military forces, there is little hope for economic progress.” Less explicitly, military assistance was also designed to uphold the U.S. global system of military bases established after World War II, ensure access to raw materials, and help recruit intelligence assets while keeping a light American footprint. Police and military aid was often invited and welcomed by government elites in so-called free world nations for enhancing domestic security or enabling the swift repression of political opponents. It sometimes coincided with an influx of economic aid, as under the Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress. In cases like Vietnam, the programs contributed to stark human rights abuses owing to political circumstances and prioritizing national security over civil liberties.
Gregory A. Daddis
For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Counterinsurgency (known as COIN) is a theory of war that seeks to describe a proven set of techniques that a government may use to defeat a violent, internal, organized challenge to its authority and legitimacy. The term is sometimes also used to describe the set of activities itself (e.g., “conducting counterinsurgency”). The term originates from the middle of the 20th century, when it emerged from officials in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration, as well as from British and French thinkers and practitioners with whom these officials were consulting. The Kennedy Administration and its allies were grappling with how to deal with what they viewed as Soviet attempts to destabilize post-colonial governments in the Third World and bring those nascent countries into the Soviet orbit. Encouraged by British and French experience in post-colonial rebellions and prior experience of imperial policing, the Kennedy administration hoped to apply their lessons learned to Cold War problems, most notably the growing challenges in Vietnam.
Rebellions, “irregular warfare,” “guerrilla warfare,” or “small wars,” or for that matter, thinking about means to put them down, go back to the beginnings of organized conflict itself. But 20th-century thinkers were informed most especially by British and French theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as British Colonel Charles E. Calwell and future Marshal of France, Hubert Lyautey. The most significant influence came from veterans, such as Sir Robert Thompson, of Britain’s “Emergency” in Malaya, from 1948–1960, and from David Galula, veteran of France’s conflict in Algeria from 1954–1960. Though these theorists differ on a number of points and on emphasis, the intellectual paternity is clear.
At its heart, the premise of counterinsurgency theory is that rebellions can only be eliminated by gaining the support of the population. Because rebels can hide amongst the people, influence them, and convince “fence sitters” to join in an insurgency, the government can only succeed when the majority of the population rejects the rebels and their message, refuses to offer them assistance, and ultimately turns them over to the authorities. Counterinsurgency theorists often invoke an image from a work by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, On Guerrilla Warfare, in which he described the people as water and guerrilla fighters as fish swimming in it.
Theorists argued for decades (indeed, the argument goes on) about whether America’s war in Vietnam failed because the nation was unable or unwilling to fully implement proper counterinsurgency practices. When the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century began to falter, counterinsurgency and its proponents were once again center stage. Indeed, many maintain that, in 2007, the United States began to implement COIN, and that this turned the tide. But this argument remains in dispute, as do the theoretical and historical foundations of COIN more broadly.
Sarah B. Snyder
In its formulation of foreign policy, the United States takes account of many priorities and factors, including national security concerns, economic interests, and alliance relationships. An additional factor with significance that has risen and fallen over time is human rights, or more specifically violations of human rights. The extent to which the United States should consider such abuses or seek to moderate them has been and continues to be the subject of considerable debate.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Thomas A. Reinstein
The United States has a rich history of intelligence in the conduct of foreign relations. Since the Revolutionary War, intelligence has been most relevant to U.S. foreign policy in two ways. Intelligence analysis helps to inform policy. Intelligence agencies also have carried out overt action—secret operations—to influence political, military, or economic conditions in foreign states. The American intelligence community has developed over a long period, and major changes to that community have often occurred because of contingent events rather than long-range planning. Throughout their history, American intelligence agencies have used intelligence gained from both human and technological sources to great effect. Often, U.S. intelligence agencies have been forced to rely on technological means of intelligence gathering for lack of human sources. Recent advances in cyberwarfare have made technology even more important to the American intelligence community.
At the same time, the relationship between intelligence and national-security–related policymaking has often been dysfunctional. Indeed, though some American policymakers have used intelligence avidly, many others have used it haphazardly or not at all. Bureaucratic fights also have crippled the American intelligence community. Several high-profile intelligence failures tend to dominate the recent history of intelligence and U.S. foreign relations. Some of these failures were due to lack of intelligence or poor analytic tradecraft. Others came because policymakers failed to use the intelligence they had. In some cases, policymakers have also pressured intelligence officers to change their findings to better suit those policymakers’ goals. And presidents have often preferred to use covert action to carry out their preferred policies without paying attention to intelligence analysis. The result has been constant debate about the appropriate role of intelligence in U.S. foreign relations.
Kelly J. Shannon
Historian James A. Bill famously described America’s relationship with Iran as a tragedy. “Few international relationships,” he wrote, “have had a more positive beginning than that which characterized Iranian-American contacts for more than a century.” The nations’ first diplomatic dealings in the 1850s resulted in a treaty of friendship, and although the U.S. government remained largely aloof from Iranian affairs until World War II, many Iranians saw Americans and the United States positively by the early 20th century. The United States became more deeply involved with Iran during the Second World War, and the two nations were close allies during the Cold War. Yet they became enemies following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. How did this happen?
The events that led to the Islamic Republic of Iran dubbing the United States the “Great Satan” in 1979 do indeed contain elements of tragedy. By the late 19th century, Iran—known to Americans as “Persia” until the 1930s—was caught in the middle of the imperial “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia. Although no European power formally colonized Iran, Britain and Russia developed “spheres of influence” in the country and meddled constantly in Iran’s affairs. As Iranians struggled to create a modern, independent nation-state, they looked to disinterested third parties for help in their struggle to break free from British and Russian control. Consequently, many Iranians came to see the United States as a desirable ally. Activities of individual Americans in Iran from the mid-19th century onward, ranging from Presbyterian missionaries who built hospitals and schools to economic experts who advised Iran’s government, as well as the United States’ own revolutionary and democratic history, fostered a positive view of the United States among Iranians. The two world wars drew the United States into more active involvement in the Middle East, and following both conflicts, the U.S. government defended Iran’s sovereignty against British and Soviet manipulation.
The event that caused the United States to lose the admiration of many Iranians occurred in 1953, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service staged a coup, which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, because he nationalized Iran’s oil industry. The coup allowed Iran’s shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to transform himself from a constitutional monarch into an absolute ruler. The 1953 coup, coupled with the subsequent decades of U.S. support for the Shah’s politically repressive regime, resulted in anti-American resentment that burst forth during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The two nations have been enemies ever since. This article traces the origins and evolution of the U.S. relationship with Iran from the 19th through the early 21st centuries.
Justus D. Doenecke
For the United States, isolationism is best defined as avoidance of wars outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; opposition to binding military alliances; and the unilateral freedom to act politically and commercially unrestrained by mandatory commitments to other nations. Until the controversy over American entry into the League of Nations, isolationism was never subject to debate. The United States could expand its territory, protect its commerce, and even fight foreign powers without violating its traditional tenets. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought membership in the League, however, Americans saw isolationism as a foreign policy option, not simply something taken for granted. A fundamental foreign policy tenet now became a faction, limited to a group of people branded as “isolationists.” Its high point came during the years 1934–1937, when Congress, noting the challenge of the totalitarian nations to the international status quo, passed the neutrality acts to insulate the country from global entanglements.
Once World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly sought American participation on the side of the Allies. Isolationists unsuccessfully fought FDR’s legislative proposals, beginning with repeal of the arms embargo and ending with the convoying of supplies to Britain. The America First Committee (1940–1941), however, so effectively mobilized anti-interventionist opinion as to make the president more cautious in his diplomacy.
If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor permanently ended classic isolationism, by 1945 a “new isolationism” voiced suspicion of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. participation in the Korean War. Yet, because the “new isolationists” increasingly advocated militant unilateral measures to confront Communist Russia and China, often doing so to advance the fortunes of the Republican party, they exposed themselves to charges of inconsistency and generally faded away in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, many Americans have opposed various military involvements— including the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but few envision returning to an era when the United States avoids all commitments.
James I. Matray
On June 25, 1950, North Korea’s invasion of South Korea ignited a conventional war that had origins dating from at least the end of World War II. In April 1945, President Harry S. Truman abandoned a trusteeship plan for postwar Korea in favor of seeking unilateral U.S. occupation of the peninsula after an atomic attack forced Japan’s prompt surrender. Soviet entry into the Pacific war led to a last minute agreement dividing Korea at the 38th parallel into zones of occupation. Two Koreas emerged after Soviet-American negotiations failed to agree on a plan to end the division. Kim Il Sung in the north and Syngman Rhee in the south both were determined to reunite Korea, instigating major military clashes at the parallel in the summer of 1949. Moscow and Washington opposed their clients’ invasion plans until April 1950 when Kim persuaded Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that with mass support in South Korea, he would achieve a quick victory.
At first, Truman hoped that South Korea could defend itself with more military equipment and U.S. air support. Commitment of U.S. ground forces came after General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. occupation commander in Japan, visited the front and advised that the South Koreans could not halt the advance. Overconfident U.S. soldiers would sustain defeat as well, retreating to the Pusan Perimeter, a rectangular area in the southeast corner of the peninsula. On September 15, MacArthur staged a risky amphibious landing at Inchon behind enemy lines that sent Communist forces fleeing back into North Korea. The People’s Republic of China viewed the U.S. offensive for reunification that followed as a threat to its security and prestige. In late November, Chinese “volunteers” attacked in mass. After a chaotic retreat, U.S. forces counterattacked in February 1951 and moved the line of battle just north of the parallel. After two Chinese offensives failed, negotiations to end the war began in July 1951, but stalemated in May 1952 over the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war. Peace came because of Stalin’s death in March 1953, rather than President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s veiled threat to stage nuclear strikes against China.
Scholars have disagreed about many issues surrounding the Korean War, but the most important debate continues to center on whether the conflict had international or domestic origins. Initially, historians relied mainly on U.S. government publications to write accounts that ignored events prior to North Korea’s attack, endorsing an orthodox interpretation assigning blame to the Soviet Union and applauding the U.S. response. Declassification of U.S. government documents and presidential papers during the 1970s led to the publication of studies assigning considerable responsibility to the United States for helping to create a kind of war in Korea before June 1950. Moreover, left revisionist writers labeled the conflict a classic civil war. Release of Chinese and Soviet sources after 1989 established that Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Zedong approved the North Korean invasion, prompting right revisionist scholars to reassert key orthodox arguments. This essay describes how and why recent access to Communist documents has not settled the disagreements among historians about the causes, course, and consequences of the Korean War.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, living primarily on the West Coast of the continental United States. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing formal apologies and checks for $20,000 to those still alive who had been unjustly imprisoned during WWII. In the interim period, nearly a half century, there were enormous shifts in memories of the events, mainstream accounts, and internal ethnic accountabilities. To be sure, there were significant acts of resistance, from the beginning of mass forced removal to the Supreme Court decisions toward the end of the war. But for a quarter of a century, between 1945 and approximately 1970, there was little to threaten a master narrative that posited Japanese Americans, led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), as a once-embattled ethnic/racial minority that had transcended its victimized past to become America’s treasured model minority. The fact that the Japanese American community began effective mobilization for government apology and reparations in the 1970s only confirmed its emergence as a bona fide part of the American body politic. But where the earlier narrative extolled the memories of Japanese American war heroes and leaders of the JACL, memory making changed dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s. In the years since Reagan’s affirmation that “here we admit a wrong,” Japanese Americans have unleashed a torrent of memorials, museums, and monuments honoring those who fought the injustices and who swore they would resist current or future attempts to scapegoat other groups in the name of national security.
Luke A. Nichter
Assessments of President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy continue to evolve as scholars tap new possibilities for research. Due to the long wait before national security records are declassified by the National Archives and made available to researchers and the public, only in recent decades has the excavation of the Nixon administration’s engagement with the world started to become well documented. As more records are released by the National Archives (including potentially 700 hours of Nixon’s secret White House tapes that remain closed), scholarly understanding of the Nixon presidency is likely to continue changing. Thus far, historians have pointed to four major legacies of Nixon’s foreign policy: tendencies to use American muscle abroad on a more realistic scale, to reorient the focus of American foreign policy to the Pacific, to reduce the chance that the Cold War could turn hot, and, inadvertently, to contribute to the later rise of Ronald Reagan and the Republican right wing—many of whom had been part of Nixon’s “silent majority.” While earlier works focused primarily on subjects like Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, the historiography today is much more diverse – now there is at least one work covering most major aspects of Nixon’s foreign policy.
The development of military arms harnessing nuclear energy for mass destruction has inspired continual efforts to control them. Since 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa acquired control over these powerful weapons, though Pretoria dismantled its small cache in 1989 and Russia inherited the Soviet arsenal in 1996. Throughout this period, Washington sought to limit its nuclear forces in tandem with those of Moscow, prevent new states from fielding them, discourage their military use, and even permit their eventual abolition.
Scholars disagree about what explains the United States’ distinct approach to nuclear arms control. The history of U.S. nuclear policy treats intellectual theories and cultural attitudes alongside technical advances and strategic implications. The central debate is one of structure versus agency: whether the weapons’ sheer power, or historical actors’ attitudes toward that power, drove nuclear arms control. Among those who emphasize political responsibility, there are two further disagreements: (1) the relative influence of domestic protest, culture, and politics; and (2) whether U.S. nuclear arms control aimed first at securing the peace by regulating global nuclear forces or at bolstering American influence in the world.
The intensity of nuclear arms control efforts tended to rise or fall with the likelihood of nuclear war. Harry Truman’s faith in the country’s monopoly on nuclear weapons caused him to sabotage early initiatives, while Dwight Eisenhower’s belief in nuclear deterrence led in a similar direction. Fears of a U.S.-Soviet thermonuclear exchange mounted in the late 1950s, stoked by atmospheric nuclear testing and widespread radioactive fallout, which stirred protest movements and diplomatic initiatives. The spread of nuclear weapons to new states motivated U.S. presidents (John Kennedy in the vanguard) to mount a concerted campaign against “proliferation,” climaxing with the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Richard Nixon was exceptional. His reasons for signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Moscow in 1972 were strategic: to buttress the country’s geopolitical position as U.S. armed forces withdrew from Southeast Asia. The rise of protest movements and Soviet economic difficulties after Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office brought about two more landmark U.S.-Soviet accords—the 1987 Intermediate Ballistic Missile Treaty (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)—the first occasions on which the superpowers eliminated nuclear weapons through treaty. The country’s attention swung to proliferation after the Soviet collapse in December 1991, as failed states, regional disputes, and non-state actors grew more prominent. Although controversies over Iraq, North Korea, and Iran’s nuclear programs have since erupted, Washington and Moscow continued to reduce their arsenals and refine their nuclear doctrines even as President Barack Obama proclaimed his support for a nuclear-free world.
Jessica M. Chapman
The origins of the Vietnam War can be traced to France’s colonization of Indochina in the late 1880s. The Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, emerged as the dominant anti-colonial movement by the end of World War II, though Viet Minh leaders encountered difficulties as they tried to consolidate their power on the eve of the First Indochina War against France. While that war was, initially, a war of decolonization, it became a central battleground of the Cold War by 1950. The lines of future conflict were drawn that year when the Peoples Republic of China and the Soviet Union recognized and provided aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, followed almost immediately by Washington’s recognition of the State of Vietnam in Saigon. From that point on, American involvement in Vietnam was most often explained in terms of the Domino Theory, articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Franco-Viet Minh ceasefire reached at Geneva divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel, with countrywide reunification elections slated for the summer of 1956. However, the United States and its client, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to participate in talks preparatory to those elections, preferring instead to build South Vietnam as a non-communist bastion. While the Vietnamese communist party, known as the Vietnam Worker’s Party in Hanoi, initially hoped to reunify the country by peaceful means, it reached the conclusion by 1959 that violent revolution would be necessary to bring down the “American imperialists and their lackeys.” In 1960, the party formed the National Liberation Front for Vietnam and, following Diem’s assassination in 1963, passed a resolution to wage all-out war in the south in an effort to claim victory before the United States committed combat troops. After President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he responded to deteriorating conditions in South Vietnam by militarizing the American commitment, though he stopped short of introducing dedicated ground troops. After Diem and Kennedy were assassinated in quick succession in November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson took office determined to avoid defeat in Vietnam, but hoping to prevent the issue from interfering with his domestic political agenda. As the situation in South Vietnam became more dire, LBJ found himself unable to maintain the middle-of-the-road approach that Kennedy had pursued. Forced to choose between escalation and withdrawal, he chose the former in March 1965 by launching a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment, coupled with the introduction of the first officially designated U.S. combat forces to Vietnam.
Laura A. Belmonte
From the revolutionary era to the post-9/11 years, public and private actors have attempted to shape U.S. foreign relations by persuading mass audiences to embrace particular policies, people, and ways of life. Although the U.S. government conducted wartime propaganda activities prior to the 20th century, it had no official propaganda agency until the Committee on Public Information (CPI) was formed in 1917. For the next two years, CPI aimed to generate popular support for the United States and its allies in World War I. In 1938, as part of its Good Neighbor Policy, the Franklin Roosevelt administration launched official informational and cultural exchanges with Latin America. Following American entry into World War II, the U.S. government created a new propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI). Like CPI, OWI was disbanded once hostilities ended. But in the fall of 1945, to combat the threats of anti-Americanism and communism, President Harry S. Truman broke with precedent and ordered the continuation of U.S. propaganda activities in peacetime. After several reorganizations within the Department of State, all U.S. cultural and information activities came under the purview of the newly created U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1953. Following the dissolution of USIA in 1999, the State Department reassumed authority over America’s international information and cultural programs through its Office of International Information Programs.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it.
A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West.
These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
Since the social sciences began to emerge as scholarly disciplines in the last quarter of the 19th century, they have frequently offered authoritative intellectual frameworks that have justified, and even shaped, a variety of U.S. foreign policy efforts. They played an important role in U.S. imperial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scholars devised racialized theories of social evolution that legitimated the confinement and assimilation of Native Americans and endorsed civilizing schemes in the Philippines, Cuba, and elsewhere. As attention shifted to Europe during and after World War I, social scientists working at the behest of Woodrow Wilson attempted to engineer a “scientific peace” at Versailles. The desire to render global politics the domain of objective, neutral experts intensified during World War II and the Cold War. After 1945, the social sciences became increasingly central players in foreign affairs, offering intellectual frameworks—like modernization theory—and bureaucratic tools—like systems analysis—that shaped U.S. interventions in developing nations, guided nuclear strategy, and justified the increasing use of the U.S. military around the world.
Throughout these eras, social scientists often reinforced American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States stands at the pinnacle of social and political development, and as such has a duty to spread liberty and democracy around the globe. The scholarly embrace of conventional political values was not the result of state coercion or financial co-optation; by and large social scientists and policymakers shared common American values. But other social scientists used their knowledge and intellectual authority to critique American foreign policy. The history of the relationship between social science and foreign relations offers important insights into the changing politics and ethics of expertise in American public policy.
Ted R. Bromund
The Special Relationship is a term used to describe the close relations between the United States and the United Kingdom. It applies particularly to the governmental realms of foreign, defense, security, and intelligence policy, but it also captures a broader sense that both public and private relations between the United States and Britain are particularly deep and close. The Special Relationship is thus a term for a reality that came into being over time as the result of political leadership as well as ideas and events outside the formal arena of politics.
After the political break of the American Revolution and in spite of sporadic cooperation in the 19th century, it was not until the Great Rapprochement of the 1890s that the idea that Britain and the United States had a special kind of relationship took hold. This decade, in turn, created the basis for the Special Relationship, a term first used by Winston Churchill in 1944. Churchill did the most to build the relationship, convinced as he was that close friendship between Britain and the United States was the cornerstone of world peace and prosperity. During and after the Second World War, many others on both sides of the Atlantic came to agree with Churchill.
The post-1945 era witnessed a flowering of the relationship, which was cemented—not without many controversies and crises—by the emerging Cold War against the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War in 1989, the relationship remained close, though it was severely tested by further security crises, Britain’s declining defense spending, the evolving implications of Britain’s membership in the European Union, the relative decline of Europe, and an increasing U.S. interest in Asia. Yet on many public and private levels, relations between the United States and Britain continue to be particularly deep, and thus the Special Relationship endures.