Ideas, fears, and norms are influential in any event in history, but none more so than during the Cold War, when a savage war of peace was fought in lieu of bombs and guns to prove the superiority of estranged principles and competing values. For both sides, the enemy became a faceless foe to whom they applied their own created image of, and whom informed their decisions and actions made in response to the moves of the eagle or the bear. Both the Soviet Union and the United States crafted an image of their rival and rarely thought to walk outside the lines of the mental prison into which they structured themselves, and even more rarely to attempt to see through the eyes of their opponents. For both, the consequences would be profound.
What were the fears and the superstitions that the United States held about the Soviet Union during the Cold War? They were many in number, and deep in import. Perhaps none was more clouding for the lens of American foreign policy than that of the belief that the USSR was omnipotent master of all of international communism, with control and influence over every Communist movement, orchestrating a macabre plot for world domination. Assuredly, many were influenced by Moscow and held tight within her talons, and some might even deserve the moniker of Soviet puppets, but for many Communist movements, they were citizens of their nation first, for better or for worse. This world plot meant that the loss of any country was inherently a loss for the United States which decreased its security. This meant that every kilometer around the world was inherently a cold war battleground where defeat for the Free World hurt America. Even nations where the US had no direct involvement, such as China, would be catastrophic defeats of prestige if they were lost. This raises a second blindness of American foreign policy: the occasional inability to distinguish between nationalist and Communist movements in countries belonging to the “third world” - - in this sense, the regions not dominated by any superpower. These movements, opposing themselves to foreign control over their nation, also often opposed themselves to the grip of foreign capital and aimed to instead place goods in the hands of the national population. The Americans, unable to see the difference between Communist and nationalist efforts, treated all too often the latter as the former, further proof of a pervasive international Communist conspiracy. This Communist enemy could not be negotiated with, driven as it was in American minds by the basic tenets of its ideology, the racial and cultural nature of the Russian people, and the foul memory of craven British appeasement before German militarism. After all, as George Kennan proposed, Russia itself was incapable of compact or compromises by its historical education. Hence the only way to defeat it was by demonstration of strength, either reserved or used to check Soviet ambitions - - it was all that the enemy understood. That the Soviet Union might feel the same sense of fear and anxiety about US objectives was unimaginable. Without an ability to properly understand the dynamics of Communist movements that opposed it, American success when it arrived could be misattributed to this policy, while failure served only to herald the need of its reinforcement. A spectre was haunting American foreign policy, the spectre of a mindless, faceless, and immovable Communism. All of the cold-warriors of the United States entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Kennan and Truman to insist that strength was the most effective argument of all, Eisenhower and Dulles to insist that he could not be reasoned with, and American CIA-men and US-backed rebels to play their game of knives and daggers in the name of liberty by the cultivation of oppression, one where there could be but one winner and the loss of one was the profit of the other.
These fears were not merely academic, but rather had dangerous effects upon the ground in many countries as well. Our eyes are drawn irrevocably to a country to which American doctrines throughout the rest of the Cold War would hold such a debt (haha) to - - Greece. The land where the cities once echoed to the voice of Pericles and the words of Socrates was in a dismal state in the 1940s, as the fascist Metaxas regime, long-backed by the English, had collapsed under the barbaric aggression of German militarism. The retreat of the Germans led to the liberation of Greece, but this merely plunged this unhappy country into a conflict where yet more blood would be soaked upon the land of the Hellenes - - the Greek Civil War. Fought between the Greek Communists and the Greek Monarchists, the latter were at first supported by the English, while the Greek Communists received assistance from Yugoslavia. Notably, the Greek Communists did not receive support from the Soviet Union. At the end of the Second World War, agreements had been reached between Churchill and Stalin concerning a percentages agreement for Eastern Europe and Greece had been placed into the English sphere.
The United States belief in the existence of an international communist front aligned against it, without alterations for local terrain, had led to its intervention in the conflict in Greece by supplying a tremendous amount of aid to the Greeks (as well as to the Turks across the crystal waters of the Aegean). This was not directly disastrous, as the American allies secured a victory in Greece, but it would have important effects due to the way that the Americans perceived how the victory was achieved. With little focus upon internal dynamics in the Communist world, the Americans missed the real reason for the Greek rebels’ defeat. It was not simply them providing support to the Greek government, but rather that Yugoslavia, upon Stalin’s pressure, stopped its support of the Greek rebels, anxious to attempt to prevent a complete break with the West. The Americans became further convinced that it would be a policy of strength, rather than of negotiations, that would render them victory in their confrontation with the USSR. Furthermore, it increased their belief that military victory could substitute for practical policy. Much like the notorious incompetence of the German military in linking strategy and battles, the Americans on the basis of their operations in Greece thought that communist rebels could be defeated in the field, and that reforms of social conditions or political structures, while otherwise pursued, could be separated from their military actions. And finally, at a basic level, it confirmed the American belief that the new emerging cold war would be fought at a global level.
Vietnam, unlike Greece, would not pass so silently from American memory. This poor country, so beleaguered by the winds of fate which have rendered it adrift upon the sea and beset upon all sides, would be bound to play a greater and more tragic rôle in the events of the 20th century. Vietnam was part of French Indochina, which passed under Vichy control with the fall of France. It then was occupied by the Japanese with French administration continuing to exist, albeit in a militarily powerless form. This uneasy relationship existed until 1945, when the Japanese struck the French from the face of Indochina in a lightning coup which eradicated the French government and remaining military forces, installing native collaborationist governments. Fighting against the Japanese were a leftist organization, the Viêt Minh. Although the Viêt Minh, under their leader Hô Chi Minh, had Communist influences, they also grouped together nationalist factions into a united front. With the defeat of Japan, Hô Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2nd, 1945, expecting American support for his anti-colonialist stance, and borrowing extensively from American rhetoric utilized in the Declaration of Independence. During the war, President Roosevelt had been a supporter of some form of eventual Vietnamese independence, and was fiercely opposed to the French, but American policy in 1945 would offer no succor, preferring a policy which supported French reconquest of the colony. A thirty years war would drench the banks of the Mekong in blood.
What caused the United States, formally a country opposed to colonialism and to imperialism, to oppose the Viêt Minh and instead back the French recolonization of Vietnam? This stems from the American difficulty in discerning the difference between nationalist and communist organizations. The Americans viewed Hô Chi Minh as a Communist: and doubtless, the Viêt Minh included elements of communism.
The American policy makers who left such an unhappy burden to future generations can somewhat be exonerated. After all, they had to balance the difficult task of appeasing an important ally, one whose potential defection from dissatisfaction with U.S. policy would weigh more heavily upon U.S. interests than the misfortunes of the poor country of Vietnam, something they recognized. They were on guard against communism, and communists did exist in the Viet Minh. And of course, the U.S. was not all powerful. Other actors had their own agency and role in Vietnam, both the Vietnamese and the French. But it is still a shame that the US was unable to apply its influence and live up to its own ideals, so as to achieve a pacific solution between the parties, such as that which was almost achieved by the Ho-Sainteny agreement.
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Eisenhower would continue many of the same policies of Truman. The countries most vulnerable to Communist infiltration began to change under Eisenhower. Under Truman, the focus had been upon Europe in particular, where countries still labouring upon the wounds of war inflicted by German militarism had been perceived as potential weak-points for communism. Under Eisenhower, modernization theory’s popularity would proclaim that the countries most vulnerable to communism would be those in the midst of their transition from the old world to the new, as the old lies feeble upon its death bed while the new comes crying lustily yet uncertainly into the old world, this time where monsters would emerge from the shadows to prey upon this uncertain age. The United States would protect this weak new world from the demons that might assail it, aiming to complete a successful modernization of countries belonging to the third world - - those belonging neither the developed west nor the communist east - - and overthrowing the communist regimes that took roost there. Although the Eisenhower reduced its conventional armaments, it would still pursue positions of strength against the USSR, only now utilizing nuclear weapons.
Vietnam, already an object of attention under Truman, continued to be magnified under Eisenhower. The focus of the Eisenhower regime of guiding Vietnam through its process of modernization, as the French left Vietnam to the Americans after their long struggle there, manifested itself through projects for land-reform and through a new, energetic Vietnamese regime under Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem’s regime however, would showcase the continuing shortcomings of American policy. Land reform was a failure, and American economic aid was largely wasted, serving to enhance Diem’s own political position instead of to modernize the country. For the United States, abandoning Vietnam was an impossible loss of prestige, and yet the task of modernizing it was something at which the United States, always notoriously poor at dealing with complex politics that don’t fit into a clear ideological framework, was as equally impossible. The United States had chosen to put itself into a situation from which it could hardly emerge victorious, and the only way out - - negotiations with the Vietnamese communists - - was something forbidden by the American mindset. Just as Marianne before her, Columbia would fail to impose her will upon this distant land.
Other examples proliferate as demonstrations of Americans acting and drawing conclusions that supported their world view. In Iran, it was American firmness with the USSR, rather than clever Iranian diplomacy - - or indeed, Iranian action at all - - that was extolled as removing the USSR from the land of Cyrus. Perhaps instead of Iran becoming a battleground of the Cold War, it could have become a neutralized state, neither red nor blue, but for this to pass the world would have had to be something other than a zero-sum game. The same holds true for the Berlin airlift, when the Americans decided that it was their firm response that saved the day, instead of concentrating on what had brought such a situation to exist in the first place. If Soviet concerns had been seen as more legitimate, looking at the need of the USSR for reparations rather than simply ascribing to them the character of a hostile and grabbing bully, then perhaps both the economic redevelopment of Germany through a unified currency and Soviet demands for reparations could have been fulfilled, as the Americans considered and rejected. In Cuba, when Castro came to power, the need to negotiate from a position of strength and American fears over communism led to a vicious cycle, where the more American pressure was applied upon Castro, the more he was forced to turn to the USSR. If instead, if the US had accepted the legitimacy of the Castro regime and supported it, then the vicious escalation which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been avoided - - for the Eisenhower presidency, this was unimaginable. Unimaginable had become the word all too often to be used for the Americans when it came to the principles of diplomacy, for all that it took instead was the little green men with their games that could bring down a regime…
Thus we take our leave of the United States, as the sixth decade of the blood-drenched 20th century drew itself to a close, a nation lying chilled with fear of the bomb which hung over humanity’s head like the sword of Damocles, and which ever more feverishly pursued the red spectre, as the angel of history rushed forwards, its eyes frozen upon the rubble of the past, even as it sees not the horrors of the future. It sees not the atomic holocaust which so nearly felled it from the island of Cuba, it sees not the fires of war which left it reeling and hurt after a decade trying to win an impossible war in Vietnam. It sees nothing, despite it having plotted its own course, having itself created the ideas which imprisoned it on its woeful course. The greatest tragedy was that it need not have been - - but these are words which etch themselves with terrible frequency into the annals of time, and which bore themselves with shaking fury into the short and bloody 20th century.
Merrill, Dennis and Paterson G. Thomas. Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, Volume II: Since 1914. Wadsworth Publishing, 2009.
Paterson, G. Thomas, J. Garry Clifford, Robert Brigham, Michael Donoghue, Kenneth J. Hagan, Deborah Kisatsky, Shane J. Maddock. American Foreign Relations: A History, Volume 2: Since 1895. Stanford: Cengage Learning, 2015.
© 2017 Ryan Thomas
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