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The United Nations and the United States  

Michelle Getchell

The United States was heavily involved in creating the United Nations in 1945 and drafting its charter. The United States continued to exert substantial clout in the organization after its founding, though there have been periods during which U.S. officials have met with significant opposition inside the United Nations, in Congress, and in American electoral politics, all of which produced struggles to gain support for America’s international policy goals. U.S. influence in the international organization has thus waxed and waned. The early postwar years witnessed the zenith of American prestige on the global stage. Starting in the mid- to late 1950s, as decolonization and the establishment of newly independent nations quickened, the United States began to lose influence in the United Nations owing to the spreading perception that its alliances with the European colonial powers placed it on the wrong side of history. As U.N. membership skyrocketed, the organization became more responsive to the needs and interests of the decolonizing states. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the American public responded to declining U.S. influence in the United Nations with calls to defund the organization and to pursue a unilateral approach to international challenges. The role of the United States in the United Nations was shaped by the politics of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. Throughout the nearly five decades of the Cold War, the United Nations served as a forum for the political and ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which frequently inhibited the organization from fulfilling what most considered to be its primary mission: the maintenance of global security and stability. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the peaceful end of the Cold War, the United States enjoyed a brief period of unrivaled global hegemony. During this period, U.S. officials pursued a closer relationship with the United Nations and sought to use the organization to build support for its international policy agenda and military interventionism.

Article

Arab-Israeli Wars and US Foreign Relations  

Seth Anziska

American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has reflected dueling impulses at the heart of US-Middle East relations since World War II: growing support for Zionism and Israeli statehood on the one hand, the need for cheap oil resources and strong alliances with Arab states on the other, unfolding alongside the ebb and flow of concerns over Soviet influence in the region during the Cold War. These tensions have tracked with successive Arab–Israeli conflagrations, from the 1948 war through the international conflicts of 1967 and 1973, as well as shifting modes of intervention in Lebanon, and more recently, the Palestinian uprisings in the occupied territories and several wars on the Gaza Strip. US policy has been shaped by diverging priorities in domestic and foreign policy, a halting recognition of the need to tackle Palestinian national aspirations, and a burgeoning peace process which has drawn American diplomats into the position of mediating between the parties. Against the backdrop of regional upheaval, this long history of involvement continues into the 21st century as the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Arab world faces a host of new challenges.

Article

Origins of the Vietnam War  

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.

Article

U.S.–Nigerian Relations  

Brian McNeil

The United States and Nigeria have a long history, stretching back to the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century and continuing today through economic and security partnerships. While the relationship has evolved over time and both countries have helped to shape each other’s histories in important ways, there remains a tension between hope and reality in which both sides struggle to live up to the expectations set for themselves and for each other. The United States looks to Nigeria to be the model of progress and stability in Africa that the West African state wants to become; Nigeria looks to American support for its development and security needs despite the United States continuously coming up short. There have been many strains in the relationship, and the United States and Nigeria have continued to ebb and flow between cooperation and conflict. Whatever friction there might be, the relationship between the United States and Nigeria is important to analyze because it offers a window to understanding trends and broad currents in international history such as decolonization, humanitarianism, energy politics, and terrorism.

Article

Iran-US 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.

Article

The Korean Peninsula and US Foreign Relations  

David P. Fields

The United States and the Kingdom of Joseon (Korea) established formal diplomatic relations after signing a “Treaty of Peace, Commerce, Amity, and Navigation” in 1882. Relations between the two states were not close and the United States closed its legation in 1905 following the Japanese annexation of Korea subsequent to the Russo-Japanese War. No formal relations existed for the following forty-four years, but American interest in Korea grew following the 1907 Pyongyang Revival and the rapid growth of Christianity there. Activists in the Korean Independence movement kept the issue of Korea alive in the United States, especially during World War I and World War II, and pressured the American government to support the re-emergence of an independent Korea. Their activism, as well as a distrust of the Soviet Union, was among the factors that spurred the United States to suggest the joint occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1945, which subsequently led to the creation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the American zone and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the Soviet zone. The United States withdrew from the ROK in 1948 only to return in 1950 to thwart the DPRK’s attempt to reunite the peninsula by force during the Korean War. The war ended in stalemate, with an armistice agreement in 1953. In the same year the United States and the ROK signed a military alliance and American forces have remained on the peninsula ever since. While the United States has enjoyed close political and security relations with the ROK, formal diplomatic relations have never been established between the United States and the DPRK, and the relationship between the two has been marked by increasing tensions over the latter’s nuclear program since the early 1990s.

Article

Russia-US Foreign Relations, 1917–1991  

Margaret Peacock

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.