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Setting the Stage

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) enjoyed a long and distinguished military career and attained the rank of five-star general before becoming the 34th president of the United States. One of the most serious problems Eisenhower faced during his eight years in office (1953-61) was the Cold War, a struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. While the Soviet Union tried to spread communism throughout the world, the United States used its energies to help countries fight against it.

Under Soviet-style communism, the rights of the individual were always secondary to the intentions and needs of the state. Farms and factories were owned by the government. The government chose what was shown on television, printed in newspapers, or taught in schools. To speak out against the government was to risk going to prison. Soviet leaders argued that their dictatorship of the proletariat was the wave of the future. Once the whole world became communist, there would be no cause for war. But until that time they saw themselves in permanent conflict with the democracies of Europe and America. The United States, with its constitutional guarantees of individual rights, was widely recognized as the leader of the Western democracies, and was the natural and inevitable enemy of communism.

The Cold War began at the end of World War II when the Soviet Union attempted to create its own "sphere of influence" by refusing to remove its troops from eastern Europe. It was a war of mutual propaganda, espionage, and encroachment on neutral territory. Each side used spies to steal the other's military secrets. Covertly, both countries helped smaller nations in their fights for or against communism by supplying them with weapons and economic aid.

What made the Cold War so frightening was the very strong possibility that it could turn into a "hot" war--nuclear war--at any moment. By 1953 both the United States and Soviet Union had produced nuclear weapons. To allay both countries' fears, Eisenhower proposed in 1955 an Open Skies plan of mutual overflights. The plan was flatly denounced by Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader of the Soviet Union, who, in 1958, further heightened Cold War tensions by issuing the Berlin Ultimatum. He insisted that if the United States and its Western European allies would not recognize East Germany as a separate nation, he would deny them access to Berlin.

Eisenhower knew that diplomacy could ease the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although he intended to invite Khrushchev to visit the United States only after Khrushchev backed down on Berlin, the State Department made a mistake and issued the invitation too early. Eisenhower was furious, but Khrushchev was coming to the United States.




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