Series: Origins of the Cold War

American Cold War Policy

By 1947 it had become apparent to most observers that the world was splitting in two—East and West—leaving the inevitable conflict of the Cold War. Quickly the lines in the sand were drawn even deeper as the Soviets and Americans clashed ideologically and militarily on a number of fronts. In February, for example, Britain’s decision to cease aid to Greek forces fighting a Communist insurgency prompted the Truman Administration to assume new responsibilities throughout all of Southern Europe. The ensuing “Truman Doctrine” committed $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey–a huge sum given Congressional fiscal conservatism at the time–and offered a precedent for further American assistance to any “free peoples” engaged in a struggle against “terror and oppression” and “the suppression of personal freedoms.” Truman’s Manichean worldview pitted the world in two, good against evil, for to American policymakers, Communism seemed everywhere on the march. “Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained, “the corruption of Greece would infect Iran, and all to the East.” Without American aid, Europe and Africa would be next, he continued and “we and we alone could break up the [Soviet] play.” Western Europe subsequently received its own brand of American economic stimulus later that year, with the Marshall Plan designed to promote economic recovery and stability as a vaccine against the Communist “infection.” The Soviets refused to participate in the plan, which Foreign Minister Molotov denounced as a “new venture in American imperialism.” The Soviets offered their own aid package for Eastern Europe and, with dollars flowing to one half of the continent and rubles to the other, the division of East and West grew even deeper. The Truman Administration later followed-up this aid program to Europe with “Point Four,” a program similarly designed to spread American technical know- how and dollars throughout the developing world as a means of countering Soviet expansion.

Conflict continued with the Soviet Union determined to push the United States and its allies out of West Berlin. In June 1948, the Soviets imposed a blockade on West Berlin in an attempt to cut off supplies to the city. The United States and its allies began to supply the city with a massive airlift of unprecedented size, and the Soviets ended the blockade in May 1949. The United States’ commitment to Western Europe’s defense, exemplified by efforts during the Berlin Blockade, led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. NATO provided for a collective defense of its members, as the organization’s charter promised that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all. NATO represented the United State’s commitment to its European allies and would become an important key to containing the Soviet Union in Europe.

Shortly after the lifting of the Berlin Blockade, in August 1949, the Soviet Union broke the American nuclear monopoly by developing its own atomic bomb. The Soviets had matched the United States’ key technology sooner than most expected. This development forced the United States to reevaluate its defense posture and accelerated the creation of even more powerful weapons, such as the hydrogen bomb, to regain its nuclear superiority. An analysis of the United States’ defense position was presented to President Truman in the National Security Council Paper Number 68 (NSC 68). NSC 68, authored largely by Paul Nitze of the State Department policy staff, would come to shape American policy for many years. NSC 68 outlined that the United States needed to be prepared globally for Soviet or communist expansionism and that containment should become a global policy. The directives outlined in NSC 68 were written prior to the North Korean invasion across the 38th parallel but were not adopted until September 1950, after this conflict proved to many the necessity of American military buildup.

By the early 1950s American foreign policymakers knew that the Cold War was here to stay. Communism seemed everywhere on the move, exemplified by the crises described above and then most dramatically with the North Korean invasion of June 1950 that began the Korean War. Western policymakers believed countries at risk from Communist aggression might fall if their neighbors succumbed, like the rotten apples of Acheson’s metaphor or, more commonly, like so many dominoes: if one country was lost to the Communists, so too would be the next, and the next. Communism had to be stopped, but at what cost? The increasing conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and the arms race would shape the United States strategic defense program and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development. In the Cold War, the United States would maintain its stance that the only way to halt the expansion of communism was through development of increasingly advanced weapons systems.