A Cold War and a Korean War (1944-1954). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

A Cold War and a Korean War (1944-1954). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

The U.N. and other postwar peace programs

Descent of the “Iron Curtain” and start of the Cold War

The CIA and McCarthyism

The Korean War

 Rejoicing at the end of World War II was intense, but brief. The Soviet Union, portrayed by U.S. politicians and press alike as a valiant ally during the war, once again became an ideological and political enemy. The eastern European nations occupied by the Red Army became satellites of the U.S.S.R., and the postwar world found itself divided between the western democracies, led by the United States, and the eastern communist “bloc,” dominated by the Soviets. It seemed as if the seeds of yet another war—World War III?—had been sown. At least Americans could take comfort in their sole possession of the atomic bomb…but that, too, would soon change.

Winning the Peace. It was clear to America’s leaders that the Allies had won World War 1, only later to “lose the peace.” They were determined to not make the same mistake again.

The Birth of the United Nations. During World War II, the powers aligned against the Axis called themselves the “United Nations.” The concept that label conveyed held great promise; after all, had the League of Nations been a more effective body, World War Il might have been averted altogether. From August to October 1944, the United States, Great Britain, the U.S.S.R., and China met at a Washington, D.C., estate called Dumbarton Oaks to sketch out plans for a new world body. The wartime allies-plus France-would constitute a peacekeeping (“security”) council, while the other nations of the world, though represented, would play secondary roles.

The Dumbarton Oaks Conference was remarkably successful, except in regard to two major issues: the principle of unanimity among the security council members (Should action require unanimous consent?) and the Soviet demand for separate membership for each of its 16 republics. Meeting at Yalta in the Crimea, February 4-11, 1945, the Big Three—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—resolved their differences. The principle of unanimity was upheld, but Stalin reduced his separate membership demand from 16 to three: Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia. Later in the year, a formal United Nations Charter was drawn up and adopted by 50 nations at the San Francisco Conference. The charter became effective after a majority of the signatory nations ratified it on October 24, 1945. The United Nations, the most significant world body in history, had become a reality.

Germany Divided. Another element vital to winning the peace was the postwar treatment of Germany. American, British, and French leaders, mindful of how the punitive Treaty of Versailles had created the conditions that brought Hitler to power and plunged the world into the second great war of the century, did not clamor for revenge. On the other hand, the Soviet Union wanted more than revenge; it demanded the utter subjugation of Germany. For the present, Germany was carved up into four “zones of occupation,” each under the control of a different ally: the United States, Britain, the U.S.S.R., and France. All the Allies agreed on instituting programs to “de-Nazify” Germany, purging it of individuals who might seek to resurrect the National Socialist party. The Allies further agreed to establish a tribunal for the trial and prosecution of those who committed war crimes.

Secretary Marshall’s Plan. he single boldest step toward winning the peace was proposed on June 5, 1947, by George C. Marshall. The former army chief of staff, now secretary of state, described in an address at Harvard University a plan whereby the nations of Europe would draw up a unified scheme for economic reconstruction to be funded by the United States. Although the Soviet Union and its satellite nations were invited to join, in the growing chill of the Cold War, they declined. Sixteen western European nations formed the Organization for European Economic Cooperation to coordinate the program formally known as the European Recovery Program, but more familiarly called the Marshall Plan.

Winston Churchill called the Marshall Plan the “most unsordid” political act in history, but it was, above all, a political act. Although Marshall assured the Soviets that the plan was riot directed “against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos,” it was a powerful economic salvo fired against communism. Having witnessed totalitarian regimes rush to fill the void of postwar economic catastrophe, Marshall and other U.S. leaders were eager to restore the war-ravaged economies of the West and even to stimulate growth. Economic well-being, they felt, was the strongest ally of democracy.

The United States poured some $13 billion into Europe and also established a massive Displaced Persons Plan, whereby almost 300,000 homeless Europeans (including many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust) immigrated to the United States and became citizens.

Curtain of Iron. On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill addressed tiny Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he declared, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The former prime minister’s eloquent phrase took root, and Iron Curtain was used for more than 50 years to describe the economic, social, and military barriers created against the West by the Soviet Union and the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

“Containing” Communism. In 1823, President James Monroe issued his famous “Monroe Doctrine,” warning European powers that the United States would act to halt any new attempts to colonize the Americas. In 1947, President Harry S Truman promulgated the “Truman Doctrine,” warning the Soviet Union—which supported a threatened communist takeover of Greece and Turkey—that the United States would act to halt the spread of communism wherever in the world it threatened democracy.

The Truman Doctrine had its basis in a proposal by State Department official George F. Kennan (b. 1904). The proposal stated that the most effective way to combat communism was to contain it, confronting the Soviet Union whenever and wherever it sought to expand its ideological influence. Thus the “Cold War” began in earnest, and with it, a National Security Act, passed in 1947. The act reorganized the War Department into the Department of Defense and also created the Central Intelligence Agency—perhaps the most controversial federal agency ever established. The CIA had as its mission covert intelligence gathering, which meant that the CIA sometimes functioned with neither executive nor legislative knowledge, let alone approval. In the name of fighting communism, the National Security Act had created the closest thing to a secret police (long a mainstay of oppressive eastern European regimes) this nation ever had.

Airlift to Berlin. Truman’s policy of containment prompted the United States and its western allies to take a strong stand in Germany after the Soviet Union began detaining troop trains bound for West Berlin in March 1948. (Although Berlin was deep inside the Soviet sector of occupied Germany, the city, too, was divided into zones of Allied occupation.) In response, on June 7, the western allies announced their intention to create the separate, permanent capitalist state of West Germany. Two weeks later, the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin, protesting that because of its location in Soviet-controlled territory, West Berlin could not serve as the capital of West Germany.

Would the West back down? Would this be the start of World War III? President Truman did not take armed action against the Soviets. Instead, he ordered an airlift, a spectacular chain of round-the-clock supply flights into West Berlin—272,000 flights over 321 days, carrying tons of supplies. The airlift was a political as well as logistical triumph, which caused the Soviet Union to lift the blockade. The event was also a vindication of the policy of containment, and in April 1949, it led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—NATO—a key defensive alliance of the western nations against the communist East.

Witch Hunts. While national leaders and the military were scrambling to “contain” communism abroad, certain Americans looked homeward. Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957) was a thoroughly mediocre senator from Wisconsin whose popularity was flagging. McCarthy made a provocative speech to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. He held up a piece of paper, which he said was a list of 205 known communists in the State Department.

The audience was electrified. The speech was reported nationally, and the nation likewise was stunned. McCarthy suddenly became famous and, over the next four years, spearheaded a legislative crusade to root out communists in government and other positions of power. Crusade is a word McCarthy and his followers would have been comfortable with. Others called what happened a witch hunt. (And no one ever bothered actually to examine that piece of paper the senator waved in Wheeling.) McCarthy pointed fingers, raised suspicions, leveled charges. Due process of law, the rules of evidence, and the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty mattered not at all to “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy. He gained chairmanship of the powerful Senate Subcommittee on Governmental Operations and, from this post, launched investigations of the Voice of America broadcasting service and the U.S. Army Signal Corps. That McCarthy pointed a finger was quite enough to ruin a reputation and destroy a career—even if no actual evidence of subversion or disloyalty was presented. Those called to testify before the committee were asked to “name names,” expose other individuals with communist affiliations. If the witnesses refused, they were found to be in contempt of Congress and subject to imprisonment. If a witness exercised his constitutional right not to testify against himself—a right guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment-McCarthy (and much of the public, it seemed) presumed him guilty.

McCarthy was aided in his witch hunt by a slick young lawyer named Roy Cohn, who was instrumental in one of the most highly publicized phases of the witch hunt, an investigation of communist influence in the Hollywood film industry. A parade of executives, producers, directors, and movie stars appeared before the Senate committee. Some witnesses “named names.” Some refused. Those who failed to “cooperate” with the committee and those who stood accused were blacklisted—which meant that no studio would hire them.

The McCarthy witch hunts were certainly not born of fantasy. Many influential Americans did have ties to communist organizations—though most of these associations had come and gone with the 1930s, when intellectuals and liberals flocked to socialist and communist groups in order to oppose fascism, which was then menacing the world. The Cold War also spawned a veritable legion of spies, including those who communicated U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets, thereby enabling the U.S.S.R. to develop an atomic bomb in 1949 and a hydrogen bomb in 1954.

McCarthy, however, made no real effort to separate fact from fantasy, and even after the Republican party captured the White House in 1952, he continued his strident attacks. In 1954, McCarthy accused the entire U.S. Army of being riddled with communists. This blow was sufficient to provoke President Eisenhower—a career army man—to encourage Congress to form a committee to investigate McCarthy’s attempts to coerce army brass into granting preferential treatment for a former aide, Private G. David Schine.

From April to June 1954, the “Army-McCarthy Hearings” were carried on an infant medium called television. The nation was riveted—and, not incidentally, sales of television sets soared. Joseph McCarthy was exposed for the reckless, self-serving demagogue that he was. Censured by action of the Senate later that year, he was overtaken by the alcoholism that had always dogged him. McCarthy died in 1957, at the age of 49.

Police Action in Korea. The Cold War was not just a contest of rattling sabers and strong language. As eastern Europe had fallen behind an Iron Curtain, so China, the world’s most populous nation, became a communist nation in 1949. China was long the subject of a struggle between communist forces (led primarily by Mao Tse-tung) and capitalist-nationalist forces (whose strongest leader was U.S. World War II ally Chiang Kai-shek). Elsewhere in Asia, communist factions were positioning themselves to take power. After World War II, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel between a Soviet occupation zone in the north and a U.S. zone in the south. In November 1947, the United Nations resolved to create a unified independent Korea, but the communists barred free elections in the north. Only in the U.S. southern zone were elections held, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was born. In North Korea, the communists created the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in September.

Invasion, Counterstrike, Invasion. On June 25, 1950, communist-backed forces from the north invaded South Korea. The United States secured a United Nations sanction against the invasion and contributed the lion’s share of troops to repel it. World War II hero Douglas MacArthur was put in command of the U.N. forces.

The North Korean troops—trained by the Soviets and the Chinese—quickly pushed the South Koreans back toward the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. MacArthur struggled to hold the critical southern port of Pusan to buy time until reinforcements arrived. He then executed a controversial landing at Inchon, on the west coast of Korea, behind North Korean lines. The landing was a stunning success—perhaps MacArthur’s single greatest military feat—and by October 1, 1950, the North Koreans had been pushed out of South Korea. U.N. forces were now arrayed along the 38th parallel.

Within the Truman administration debate raged over whether to cross the 38th parallel and invade North Korea. President Truman compromised, authorizing the crossing, but taking steps to avoid provoking the Chinese and the Soviets directly. No U.N. troops would enter Manchuria or the U.S.S.R., and only South Koreans would operate along international borders. On October 7, the U.N. General Assembly called for the unification of Korea and authorized MacArthur to invade. On October 19, the North Korean capital of Pyongnang fell, and the North Korean armies were pushed far north, to the Yalu River, the nation’s border with Manchuria.

The war seemed to be over—but then, between October 14 and November 1, some 180,000 communist “volunteers” crossed the Yalu from China. MacArthur launched an offensive on November 24, only to be beaten back by massive Chinese resistance, which pushed U.N. troops back across the 38th parallel. The South Korean capital of Seoul fell to the communists in January 1951.

Meatgrinder. Halting their retreat south of Seoul, U.S. and other allied troops began probing northward once again in an offensive that front-line soldiers dubbed the “meatgrinder.” By March 1951, U.N. forces had returned to the 38th parallel and established a strong defensive position.

Old Soldiers… In light of the Chinese intervention, General MacArthur demanded permission to retaliate against the Chinese by bombing Manchuria. President Truman and the United Nations-fearing that direct aggression against China would trigger nuclear war with the Soviets—turned MacArthur down. The confrontation was controversial, and many Americans—including Senator Joseph McCarthy—vociferously sided with the general against the president. Contrary to the accepted military practice of refraining from publicly differing with the civilian administration, MacArthur loudly blamed his military setbacks in Korea on Truman’s policies. Finally, on March 25, 1951, just after Truman had completed preparation of a cease-fire plan, MacArthur broadcast an unauthorized and provocative ultimatum to the enemy commander. In response to this insubordination, Truman relieved MacArthur of command in Korea on April 11.

Thrust, Counterthrust, and Stalemate. General Matthew B. Ridgway assumed command of U.S. and U.N. forces after the dismissal of MacArthur, and Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet led the U.S. 8th Army northward. But on April 22, nearly half a million Chinese troops initiated an offensive, driving the 8th Army to within five miles of Seoul. On May 10, the Chinese launched a second offensive, concentrating on the eastern portion of the U.N. line; however, Van Fleet counterattacked in the west, north of Seoul, taking the communists entirely by surprise. In full retreat, the communists suffered their heaviest casualties of the war and withdrew into North Korea. By the beginning of summer 1951, the war was stalemated at the 38th parallel. For the next two years, both sides, now dug in, pounded one another fruitlessly.

Peace Table. Armistice negotiations began at the behest of the Soviets in June 195 1 and dragged on for two years. It took until July 26 even to establish an agenda for the conference. The participants decided that an armistice would require agreement on a demarcation line and demilitarized zone, impartial supervision of the truce, and arrangements for return of prisoners of war. The toughest single issue involved the disposition of POWs. U.N. negotiators wanted prisoners to decide for themselves whether they would return home; the communists, fearful of mass defection, held out for mandatory repatriation. In an effort to break the negotiation stalemate, General Mark Clark, who had succeeded Ridgway, stepped up bombing raids on North Korea. At last, during April 1953, the POW issue was resolved; a compromise permitted freed prisoners to choose sides, but under supervision of a neutral commission.

The Unhappiest Ally. After this long and frustrating process, the only individual who remained thoroughly displeased was Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), president of South Korea. Rhee desired nothing less than unification of Korea and wholly voluntary repatriation as absolute conditions for cease-fire. So he threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings by suddenly ordering the release of 25,000 North Korean prisoners who wanted to live in the South. To regain Rhee’s cooperation, the United States promised him a mutual security pact and long-term economic aid. Nevertheless, the armistice signed on July 27, 1953, did not include South Korea. Still, the cease-fire held, and the shooting war was over.

The Korean War did succeed in containing communism—confining it to North Korea—but in all other respects, this costly conflict was inconclusive, except that it provided a precedent for intervention in another Asian war. This time the war would take place in a divided Vietnam, beginning in the next decade.

The Least You Heed to Know. Jubilation at the end of World War II was short lived, as the Western capitalist nations and the eastern European and Asian communist nations squared off for a Cold War.

A policy of “containing” communism and a fear of touching off a nuclear World War III dominated American foreign policy in the postwar years.

Main Event. The major German war criminals were prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials, which took place in that German city from November 1945 to October 1946, presided over by jurists from the Allied nations. The principal trial brought 22 German Nazi leaders to justice, of whom 12 were sentenced to death, including Wilhelm Keitel (Hitler’s closest military adviser), Joachim von Ribbentrop (German foreign minister), Alfred Rosenberg (a principal architect of Nazi genocide programs), and Martin Bormann (Hitler’s secretary). Bormann vanished after Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, and was tried in absentia; in 1972, a skeleton identified as his was discovered in West Berlin. Hermann Goering, second only to Hitler in authority, committed suicide before he could be executed. Three other war criminals were given life sentences, and four received 20-year terms. Three of the first 22 tried were acquitted. Over the succeeding months, lesser criminals were tried in a series of 12 proceedings.

Word for the Day. Coined in 1947 by journalist Herbert Bayard Swope in a speech lie wrote for financier Bernard Baruch, cold war refers to the postwar strategic and political struggle between the United States (and its western-European allies) and the Soviet Union (and communist countries). A chronic state of hostility, the Cold War was associated with two major “hot wars” (in Korea and Vietnam) and spawned various “brushfire wars” (small-scale armed conflicts, usually in Third World nations), but it was not itself a shooting war. The end of Cold War was heralded in 1989 by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Voice from the Past. The crux of the North Atlantic Treaty, which created NATO, is Article 5: “The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Main Event. On June 19, 1953, Julius Rosenberg (born 1918) and his wife, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (born 1915), became the first United States civilians in history to be executed for espionage. Their trial and their punishment were sources of great bitterness and controversy during the Cold War.

Julius Rosenberg, a member of the Communist party, had been employed as an engineer by the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. He and Ethel were accused of supplying Soviet agents with atomic bomb secrets during 1944-45. Their chief accuser was Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who had worked on the “A-bomb” project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and had fed the Rosenbergs secret information. Because Greenglass turned state’s witness, he received a 15-year sentence, whereas, under the Espionage Act of 1917, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death on April 5, 1951. The sentence provoked protests worldwide—including accusations of anti-Semitism—but President Eisenhower, convinced of the couple’s guilt, refused to commute the sentences.

Word for the Day. The A-bomb, or atomic bomb, first tested and used in 1945, operates on the principle of nuclear fission—the splitting of the nuclei of uranium or plutonium atoms—which suddenly releases an incredible amount of explosive energy. The H-bomb (hydrogen bomb), first tested in 1952, is a fusion rather than fission device, joining the nuclei of hydrogen atoms together in an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The hydrogen bomb releases about 1,000 times more energy than an atomic bomb.

Word for the Day. Congress never declared war against North Korea or China. Officially, the conflict was called a police action–a localized war without a declaration of war.


Stats. Just how many Chinese and North Korean troops were killed in the Korean War is unknown, but estimates range between 1.5 and 2 million, in addition to at least a million civilians. The U.N. command lost 88,000 killed, of whom 23,300 were American. Many more were wounded. South Korean civilian casualties probably equaled those of North Korea.


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