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Reading 1: The Cold War Escalates

For four decades after the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became locked in what would become known as the Cold War. The Cold War would be quite different from past wars. Most wars had been "hot" wars where there had been direct armed conflict between opponents. However, the Cold War was a struggle between the Americans and the Soviets to determine which of their economic and ideological systems would govern world affairs. The United States system was based on democratic government (where citizens control government) and an economic system of "free enterprise" (or privately owned businesses). The Soviet Union was a "communist" state, where a single authoritarian party owned all property within the nation and controlled all production. Goods and services were then distributed to the people by the state. The democratic and communist systems were directly opposed to one another. Instead of engaging in military conflict, the two powers became engaged in political, economic, and cultural rivalry, and most alarmingly, competition to develop the greatest military power.

Containing the spread of communism in both Western Europe and Asia was the main focus of American foreign policy efforts. American political and military leaders became increasingly convinced that only a show of force would keep communist aggression from controlling the world. "Battlegrounds" had included the divided city of Berlin, which had been split between East and West Germany after World War II, and the Korean peninsula. By the mid 1950s many Americans wondered if it was just a matter of time before the Cold War would escalate into armed conflict with the Soviets. Because the United States had enjoyed a lead in developing scientific and military technologies the nation still felt confident it would eventually emerge victorious in this tense conflict. That illusion was shattered with the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957 in advance of the U.S. plan to launch a satellite by spring of 1958. A communist system once defined by economic and technological backwardness had been able to develop technologies that could not only threaten America's influence around the world, but also its own heartland. American fears were compounded by statements from the Soviet's chief political leader, Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the communists would soon be mass producing missiles. Americans began to ask the inevitable question: How could the United States regain their advantage?

At this point, Americans put their faith in President Dwight Eisenhower. He successfully led our military in Europe during World War II and oversaw a period of great prosperity during his first five years in office. If anyone could quiet the growing crisis of confidence in the American system, it would be the leader fondly nicknamed, "Ike." Eisenhower had long warned the nation about the consequences of a vast military build-up. Sure it was important for national security, but 40% of the national budget already went for military expenditures. Competing with the Soviets by further increasing the military budget had more than just financial costs. Eisenhower believed the economy could become so tied to military spending that it could threaten America's democratic values. Then the United States would be no different than the Soviet Union. Eisenhower began to speed up the development of ballistic missiles, both because of the threat they posed to the Soviet Union, and also because they were considered more cost effective than other forms of military buildup.

In late 1957, Eisenhower felt immense pressure. Americans growing displeasure after Sputnik increased after the failed launch of America's first satellite, Vanguard TV3. Americans watched the nationally televised event with horror on December 6, 1957 as the rocket rose a mere four feet off the pad, fell back to the ground, and exploded in flames. The nation was embarrassed. On January 9, 1958, Eisenhower gave a speech before Congress and the nation in an attempt to quiet the nation's concern. He outlined a plan for U.S. national defense that would eventually exceed Soviet efforts.

Now as to the period ahead: Every part of our military establishment must and will be equipped to do its defensive job with the most modern weapons and methods. But it is particularly important to our planning that we make a candid estimate of the effect of long-range ballistic missiles on the present deterrent power I have described.

At this moment, the consensus of opinion is that we are probably somewhat behind the Soviets in some areas of long-range ballistic missile development. But it is my conviction, based on close study of all relevant intelligence, that if we make the necessary effort, we will have the missiles, in the needed quantity and in time, to sustain and strengthen the deterrent power of our increasingly efficient bombers. One encouraging fact evidencing this ability is the rate of progress we have achieved since we began to concentrate on these missiles.

The intermediate ballistic missiles, Thor and Jupiter, have already been ordered into production. The parallel progress in the intercontinental ballistic missile effort will be advanced by our plans for acceleration. The development of the submarine-based Polaris missile system has progressed so well that its future procurement schedules are being moved forward markedly.

When it is remembered that our country has concentrated on the development of ballistic missiles for only about a third as long as the Soviets, these achievements show a rate of progress that speaks for itself.¹

Following Eisenhower's address, Congress passed legislation that began a series of programs to boost American technology. One hope was that an emphasis on educational incentives and programs would lead to an increased number of engineers. Financial support for scientific research tripled over the next year. Development of the Polaris submarine based missile program became a priority for naval operations. Finally, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Programs experienced budget increases. In just a few years the United States would be ready to deploy the first solid-fuel ICBM, the Minuteman. This missile would be one of the greatest technological breakthroughs in American history.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Define the Cold War. How was it different from other "hot" wars or armed conflicts?

2. Why did the launch of Sputnik cause Americans to fear for their own security?

3. Why was President Eisenhower worried about increasing military expenditures?

4. What actions and programs did President Eisenhower mention in his State of the Union Address that the United States was taking to regain their military advantage over the Soviets?

Reading 1 was compiled from The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War, Historic Resource Study, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota (Omaha: Mead & Hunt Inc., 2003); Downing, Taylor and Issacs, Jeremy, The Cold War: An Illustrated History 1945-1991 (Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1998).

¹ State of the Union Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. Congress, January 9, 1958.


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