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Cold War (1962-1991)

 This article is part of
Cold War series.
 Cold War (1947-1953) and its origins
 Cold War (1953-1962)
 Cold War (1962-1991)

Table of contents
1 The Vietnam quagmire
2 The challenges of Détente
3 Reagan and a dangerous escalation of tensions
4 The collapse of the Soviet Union
5 The post-Cold War world
6 Related topics:

The Vietnam quagmire

For details see the main article Vietnam.

U.S. Slaughter of civilians at My Lai

The years between the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the arms control treaties of the 1970s marked growing efforts for both the Soviet Union and the United States kept an iron-gripped control over their spheres of influence.

President Lyndon Johnson landed 22,000 troops in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent the unlikely emergence of another Castro. Under Leonid Brezhnev, troops from the Warsaw Pact Allies—the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, and Hungary—intervened in Czechoslovakia in accordance with a new Soviet doctrine about the "international duty" of socialist countries to protect the gains of socialism, wherever they may be threatened. In the same year Johnson stationed 575,000 troops in South Vietnam to prop up the faltering anticommunist regime and curb Chinese influence in the region.

The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel" was shattered, however, on January 30, 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the verge of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive (named after Tet Nguyen Dan, the lunar new year festival which is the most important Vietnamese holiday) in South Vietnam (and, to a lesser degree, in the 1969 Post-Tet Offensive). Although neither of these offensives accomplished any military objectives, the surprising capacity of an enemy that was supposedly on the verge of collapse to even launch such an offensive convinced many Americans that victory was impossible.

Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement from the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army so that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine." As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was called "Vietnamization." The goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army.

The morality of U.S. conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the Nixon Presidency. In 1969, it came to light that Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians (including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai, Calley was given a light sentence after his court-martial in 1970, and was later pardoned by President Nixon.

Aside from this massacre, millions of Vietnamese died as a consequence of the Vietnam War. The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced North Vietnamese statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed. Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. Around 58,000 U.S. solders also died.

The casualties inflicted by the U.S.-backed, Khmer Rouge were even higher. Though adherents to a twisted form of Maoism, the Khmer Rouge were anti-Soviet. In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in order to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. Many feel that the Khmer Rouge would probably not have come to power and killed so many (from 900,000 to 2 million) of their people without the destabilization of the war, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to "clear out the sanctuaries" in Cambodia.

The challenges of Détente


In 1972-1973 the superpowers sough each other's help. After making a surprise trip to China, President Richard Nixon signed the SALT I treaty with Brezhnev to limit the development of strategic weapons.

Détente had both strategic and economic benefits for both superpowers. Arms control enabled both superpowers to slow the spiraling increases in their bloated defense budgets. Before, the Johnson administration failed to defeat Communist forces, his deficit-spending to sustain the war effort weakened the US economy for decades to come, contributing to a decade of "stagflation." Meanwhile, Brezhnev could neither stop bloody clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops along their common border nor bolster a Soviet economy declining, in part because of heavy military expenditures. They also agreed to respect the newly emerging states in Africa and Asia.

But the détente suffered amid outbreaks in the Middle East and Africa, especially Southern and Eastern Africa. The two nations continued to compete with each other for influence in the resource-rich Third World, most notably in Chile.

While most US citizens believed the propaganda claims that the Cold War was a struggle of the free world against totalitarianism, the United States continued, as it did in the 1950s, to target and vilify governments elected through the ballot box, such as Chile's elected socialist president Salvador Allende, who was ousted by a CIA-engineered coup in 1973.

President Jimmy Carter, however, tried to move beyond these setbacks for peace and place another cap on the arms race with a SALT II agreement in 1979, but his efforts were undercut by three surprising developments: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

The political assault on Détente in the United States

The 1970s inflicted damaging blows to the American confidence characteristic of the 1950s and early 1960s. The War in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis shattered confidence in the presidency. International frustrations, including the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the growth of international terrorism, and the acceleration of the arms race raised fears over the country's ability to control international affairs. The energy crisis, unemployment, and inflation, derided as "stagflation," raised fundamental questions over the future of American prosperity.

During the same period of time, the Soviet Union improved living standards by doubling urban wages and raising rural wages by around 75%, building millions of one-family apartments, and manufacturing large quantities of consumer goods and home appliances. Soviet industrial output increased by 75%, and the Soviet Union became the world's largest producer of oil and steel.

Even abroad, the tide of history appeared to be turning in favor of the Soviet Union. While the United States was mired in recession and the Vietnam quagmire, pro-Soviet governments were making great strives abroad, especially in the Third World. Vietnam had defeated the United States, becoming a united, independent state under a Communist government. Other Communist governments and pro-Soviet insurgencies were spreading rapidly across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. And the Soviet Union seemed committed to the Brezhnev Doctrine, sending troops to Afghanistan at the request of its Communist government. The Afghan invasion in 1979 marked the first time that the Soviet Union sent troops outside the Warsaw Pact since the inception of the Eastern counterpart of NATO.

Reacting to a tide in the Cold War not favorable to the United States, a group of American academics, journalists, politicians, and policymakers, labeled by many as "new conservatives" or "neoconservatives", since many of whom were still Democrats, rebelled against the Democratic Party's leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, harped on America's geo-political decline, blaming liberal democrats. Many clustered around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat, but then they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who promised to confront charges of Soviet expansionism.

Their main targets were the old policies of "containment" of Communism (rather than "rollback") among the US foreign policy orthodoxy and especially Détente with the Soviet Union, with its aims of peace through negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control.

Led by Norman Podhoretz, these "neoconservatives" used charges of "appeasement", alluding to Neville Chamberlain at Munich, to attack the foreign policy orthodoxy in the Cold War. They Compared negotiations with relatively weak enemies of the United States as appeasement of "evil," these increasingly influential circles attacked Détente, most-favored nation trade status for the Soviet Union, and supported unilateral American intervention in the Third World to stem the rise of governments whose aims did not coincide with those of the United States. Before the election of Reagan, the neoconservatives sought to stem the antiwar sentiments caused by the US defeats in Vietnam and the massive casualties in Southeast Asia that the war induced.

During the 1970s Jeane Kirkpatrick, a prominent political scientist and later US ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, a position she held for four years, increasingly criticized the Democratic Party, of which she was still a member since the nomination of the antiwar George McGovern. Kirkpatrick became a convert to the ideas of the new conservatism of once liberal Democratic academics.

Against the backdrop of inflation and American "weakness" abroad, Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, received the Republican nomination in 1980 and won the presidency, beating Jimmy Carter. Hawks saw his victory as an electoral mandate for the escalation of the Cold War.

Reagan promised an end to the drift in post-Vietnam and post-Iran hostage US foreign policy and a restoration of the nation's military strength. Reagan also promised an end to "big government" and to restore economic health by an experiment known as "supply-side" economics. However, all these aims were not reconcilable through a coherent economic policy.

Reagan and a dangerous escalation of tensions

With Reagan's promises to restore the nation's military strength, the Reagan years saw massive increases in military spending, amounting to about $1.6 trillion over five years. Combined with his massive tax cuts, the nation paid a high price for his defense policies. Enormous deficits to pay for the bloated defense budgets, inducing high levels of government borrowing, resulted in high interest rates and an overvalued dollar, which stifled economic growth, resulted in a very unfavorable balance of trade, and depressed the US steel and automotive sectors. However, the Soviet Union paid a far higher price for Reagan's commitment to the Cold War.

The neoconservative movement was a strong influence on Reagan's foreign policy adventures. The Kirkpatrick Doctrine was an especially strong influence. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, known for her anticommunist stance and for her tolerance of rightwing dictatorships, argued that Third World social revolutions favoring the poor, dispossessed, or underclasses are illegitimate, and thus argued that the overthrow of leftist governments (such as the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile) and the installation of right wing dictatorships was acceptable and essential. Under this doctrine, the Reagan administration actively supported the dictatorships of Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos and the racist apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Reagan administration was committed to stemming the advance of socialism in the Third World. Reagan, however, did not move toward protracted, long-term interventions like the Vietnam War to stem social revolution in the Third World. Instead, he favored quick campaigns to attack or overthrow leftist governments, favoring small, quick interventions that heightened a sense of post-Vietnam military triumphalism among Americans, such as the attacks on Grenada and Libya, disastrous interventions in the multisided Lebanese civil war, and the arming rightwing militias in Central America seeking to overthrow leftist governments like the Sandinistas.

In 1985 Reagan authorized the sale of arms in Iran in an unsuccessful effort to free US hostages in Lebanon; he has since claimed to not know that subordinates were illegally diverting the proceeds to rightwing death-squads in Central America.

On October 11, 1986 Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, in an effort to continue discussions about scaling back their intermediate missile arsenals in Europe. The talks broke down in failure.

The collapse of the Soviet Union

Moreover, the Reagan administration's hostile stance toward the Soviet Union, the so-called "evil empire" (despite significant changes since the Stalin-era), would contribute to the dangerous tensions between the two superpowers since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s before the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.

But while the Soviets enjoyed achievements in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa before Reagan came in office, its economy was mired in far worse structural problems. Reform stalled between 1964-1982 and supply shortages were notorious.

But the generational shift in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev gave new momentum for reform. However, cold warriors have since argued that the pressures from increased US defense spending was and additional impetus for reform.

While it was Carter who officially ended the policy of Détente following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Reagan years marked a new high in tensions between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, which probably strained the Soviet economy to the point of the union's undoing. Long before the Cold War, long-standing disparities in the productive capacities, developmental levels, and geopolitical strength existed between East and West. The "East", in many respects, had been behind the "West" for centuries. As a result, reciprocating Western military build-ups during the Cold War placed an uneven burden on the Soviet economy. The Soviet Union faced a disproportionate burden in the arms race, having to devote a much relatively higher segment of its economy to military expenditures to reciprocate those of the West. Especially amid the Reagan administration's talk of "star wars" missile defense, Soviet policymakers increasingly accepted Reagan administration warnings that the arms race was one that they could not win.

The result in the Soviet Union was a dual approach of concessions to the United States and economic restructuring (perestroika) and democratization (glasnost) domestically. But instead the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up into fifteen constituent parts and the Cold War was over. Today, over half the population in the former Soviet Union is now impoverished in a country where poverty had been largely non-existent; life expectancy has dropped drastically; and GDP has halved. Reaganite hawks relished in post-Cold War "triumphalism," idea of the "end of history," and a "new world order" based on American-style liberal democracy, while the "liberated" population of the former Soviet Union is mired in misery.

The post-Cold War world

The reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union led some to speak of a "short twentieth century" framed by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, marking the "end of history."

Some have argued that as the "world's policeman", the United States is left to fill the imperial role role of nineteenth century colonial powers, quelling instability or threats to its geopolitical interests wherever they arise much like Britain when it was building up its formal and informal empire in the Victorian era.

Prominent sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein expresses a less triumphalist view, arguing that the end of the Cold War is a prelude to the breakdown of US hegemony. In his recent essay "Pax Americana is Over", Wallerstein argued, "The collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of liberalism, removing the only ideological justification behind U.S. hegemony, a justification tacitly supported by liberalism's ostensible ideological opponent".

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