Modern US History

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Category: Gray Wilson


During World War Two, many of Europe’s largest industrial centers were destroyed in both Axis and Allied nations. The continent also faced agricultural challenges and large swaths of the continent were on the verge of famine. These dire circumstances provided the United States an opportunity to exert the might of a nation that avoided almost any damage on the home front. Secretary of State George C. Marshall planned, fought for and executed what came to be known as the Marshall Plan. Formally known as the European Recovery Plan, the Marshall Plan set out to encourage free trade and cooperation between nations in Europe by removing trade barriers and reconstructing industries across the continent. The primary tool of the Plan was the $15 billion allocated to numerous nations to be used at the discretion of the nations leaders with some restrictions. On June 5, 1947 the details of the plan were drafted at a meeting of the participating European nations. Aide was also offered to the Soviet Union and some of its allies, but they refused in order to limit the impact of the United States over the Communist world. The spread of American aide and with it, American influence across Europe, is often referred to as the start of the Cold War.

Even if the Marshall plan was not the start of the Cold war, it certainly framed the USSR as the enemy of the United States. Not long before the signing of the Marshall Plan by Harry Truman, the Truman Doctrine, the early stages of Domino Theory had converged to draw the United States in to the Greek Civil war. The Truman Doctrine saw the necessity of the limiting Soviet influence in Greece and Turkey and domino theory suggested that if Greece were to fall in to the hands of the Greek Communist Party Turkey would follow suit. Once aide began to flow from the United States into Greece, the necessity of a victory over communism only increased. After Stalin openly condemned the Greek Communist Party and their role in the descent of Greece in to civil war, The United States could claim a first victory for the Truman doctrine, Domino Theory and the Marshall Plan. This initial boost of confidence cemented the concept of intervention in wars involving Communist factions in order to prevent further spread of the economic dogma being pushed aggressively by the USSR and compounded by the domino effect such a spread can have on surrounding nations. This type foreign policy had lasting impact not only on the Cold War but on the foreign policy challenges being faced today.

In June of 1950 the Communist Korean People’s Army crossed in to South Korea signaling that start of the Korean War. President Truman was left with no choice as the tacitly Chinese backed North Korean forces drove further to the south and began to threaten the South Korean capital of Seoul. After the United State’s began to make meaningful strides towards defeating the communist forces China more aggressively intervened in the fighting, providing the Communist Korean People’s Army territory from which to resupply and launch strikes on UN and United States lines. The United States could not cross in to China for fear of sparking a third world war and were eventually driven back to the 38th parallel and forced in to a stalemate that still exists today. This mixed bag of successes and failures in the Korean peninsula has had a lasting impact on the foreign policy challenges facing the United States and still exists today. George W. Bush went as far as to call North Korea a member of the new “Axis of Evil” in 2002. (Bush 2002)

The United States’ problem with communist expansion in Asia did not end with the resolution of the Korean War. The United States began limited intervention in Vietnam as early as 1950 to limit the spread of communist forces, but following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, American troop levels increased eight fold to 184,000. After almost twenty years of intense fighting and more than 53,000 dead Americans the war in Vietnam had largely been a failure punctuated by the fall of Saigon in 1975. This failure was expedited thanks in large part to logistical, material, and intelligence support provided by China and the Soviet Union to the Viet Cong. While the military and foreign policy impacts of Vietnam were great, many of the most meaningful outcomes were felt at home in response to the unpopular war. The war in Vietnam activated the student population of the United States in a way that had not been seen before and this political engagement was accelerated by the Kent State Massacre. Civil rights leaders also expressed opposition to the war citing that African-Americans were no equal to whites so they should not be drafted to fight for a cause largely dictated by white men. Muhammad Ali risked his career and jail time by openly opposing being drafted. These currents of social and political activism were key to major civil rights advancements that came after the war.

As the Cold War marched on with varying points of escalation and de-escalation, one of the more consequential wars fought in the name of containment would be the Soviet-Afghan War that began in 1979. After the murder of the American ambassador to USSR friendly tensions between the United States and the Afghan Government were near a breaking point. Ronald Reagan’s slight modification of the Truman doctrine (the “Reagan Doctrine”) mandated that when Pakistan asked the US to arm and finance the Mujahedeen the CIA would be there to provide assistance. The massive support provided eventually led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces making the operation an expensive success. The power vacuum left by Soviet withdrawal combined with the influx of high end weaponry provided by the US combined to bolster Islamic forces in the region including Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. These al-Qaeda and Taliban factions supported by local tribal leaders would go on to enact some of the most violent acts of terror in world history and leave a lasting impact on the United States through the attacks on September 11 and the ensuing decades long War on Terror.

While Truman and Marshall surely could not have imagined the impact that their policies would end up having on the world, their collective influence is undeniable. Throughout the Cold War iterations of these policies led to various turning points in American history many of which have had consequences still being felt today. Despite the varying degrees of success with which the policies were applied, the United States was able to come out the victor of the Cold War in the near term. Whether or not the consequences of the policies that led to this short term victory will be worth the victory itself is a question that still looms large, especially with the increasing appearance that the Cold War never really came to an end.

The Yalta Conference

“The Big Three at the Yalta Conference in 1945” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In 1945 in the Crimean resort town of Yalta three of the world’s most powerful men met to help shape the future of Europe and with it the world. One of the most headlining events of the Yalta conference would be the division of Germany after their complete and unconditional surrender, but would become of primary concern is the rebuilding of Europe not only economically but politically as, “the Americans and the British generally agreed that future governments of the Eastern European nations bordering the Soviet Union should be “friendly” to the Soviet regime while the Soviets pledged to allow free elections in all territories liberated from Nazi Germany.” (The Office of the Historian n.d.)

The Destruction of Europe

Little Boy Amongst the Rubble Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Before the rubble had even cooled from relentless bombing of London it was clear that a massive uphill battle would be faced in the rebuilding of both axis and allied nations. In this image of a young boy holding his stuffed elephant amongst the destruction it is particularly pointed. This little boy’s future will be determined by the ability of England to rebound from the War. In the increasingly globalized economy of the time, the world’s future was largely in lockstep with this distraught boy.

The Atomic Bomb

An Atomic Bomb Detonates Over Hiroshima (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

On August 6, 1945, the final shot of World War Two and the first shot of the Cold War was fired as an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima followed by a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki. These bombings brought a new weapon of war in to the fray and changed the calculus for all war fighting decisions going forward. As the cold war marched on the undercurrent of an increasingly tense arms race gripped both the United States in the USSR. The threat of mutually assured destruction affected the civilian populations of both nations, the possibility of a limited strike on a military target sparking world war two.



“Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full co-operation I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us. Furthermore, governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.” -George C. Marshall

In his speech at Harvard University, George C. Marshall lays out the necessity of economic intervention in Europe. Marshall argues that the political stability can only follow economic stability. One of the most important aspects of the plan is the fact that the money will be distributed to both axis and allied nations across Europe. This is clearly a lesson learned after World War One and the disastrous reconstruction attempt that led Europe in the rise of Nazism and World War Two.

Harry S. Truman Speech to Congress

On the back of serious communist uprisings in the nations of Greece and Turkey President Truman faced an important decision. How would the United States respond in the face of pressure from the USSR supported spread of communism. In his speech to congress Truman lays out the imperative for intervening in the Greek Civil war and preventing the spread of communism. Defending Greece against communism through funding anti-communist groups was a direct attempt to defend the positive outcome of the Marshall Plan.

The End of The Korean War

South Koreans protest the stalemate of the Korean War (Photo Courtesy of the New York Times)

The end of the Korean War culminated in much the same place it had started: the 38th parallel. This was disastrous for the people of South Korea as it locked in place an impassible line separating families and nearly guaranteed that the North and South would not be united. This stalemate was mostly negative for the United States as they had spent a great deal of money and lost the lives of numerous people. Ultimately, this was not the worst possible outcome as the US Military had contained communism mostly to the space it had occupied before the conflict.

American Propaganda Directed for North Korean Soldiers

American propaganda targeted at North Korean Soldiers (Photo courtesy of the Atlantic)

To Americans it was obvious that North Korea was a puppet of the USSR, but they sought to instill this belief in the minds of North Korean soldiers. The United States was seeking to increase desertion rate amongst the Korean People’s Army, but their leader, Kim Il Sung was able to maintain loyalty both through an iron fist and creating a God like complex around him.

Modern Relations with the DPRK

President Trump and Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

The stalemate that existed at the end of the Korean War still exists to this day and has presented varying levels of challenge for different presidents. As the threat of a nuclear strike on the mainland United States has increased North Korea has presented a more legitimate threat. While President Trump appeared to make progress towards better relations between the US and North Korea much of this progress has been undone by increased aggression on the part of North Korea.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

On August 10, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Tonkin Resolution. The resolution is particularly significant because it gave the President authority to exercise military force, without a declaration of war. The resolution came after a series of murky events in the Gulf of Tonkin that led the US military to report that they had been fired upon by the North Vietnamese military. The truth of that version of events has been called in to question numerous times. This resolution launched the United States in to another confrontation with USSR backed forces.

“Peace with Honor”

On January 23, 1973, President Richard Nixon issued a statement to the American people updating them on the outcome of the Paris Peace Talks. President Nixon stated that this was an opportunity for “peace with honor.” This phrase is particularly poignant considering the deaths of 50,000 American soldiers and violent civil unrest.

Osama Bin Laden

Osama bin laden speaks with fellow mujahideen (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

When looking to arm the Mujahideen, the US government sought out a leader to distribute the millions of dollars of weapons and logistical support to help fight the Soviets, they were left with few options. The Pakistani government offered up the name Osama Bin Laden as a powerful man in the fragmented world of Afghan governance. The United States and particularly the CIA had some idea that he was building up his specific brand of Islamic extremism, but could not have imagined the impact the decision to arm Afghan Mujahideen would have on the United States.

The Stinger

Mujahideen fighter demonstrates the proper use of the Stinger Weapons system. (Photo courtesy of the Atlantic)

When looking to arm the Mujahideen, the US government sought out a leader to distribute the millions of dollars of weapons and logistical support to help fight the Soviets, they were left with few options. The Pakistani government offered up the name Osama Bin Laden as a powerful man in the fragmented world of Afghan governance. The United States and particularly the CIA had some idea that he was building up his specific brand of Islamic extremism, but could not have imagined the impact the decision to arm Afghan Mujahideen would have on the United States.

9/11 Attack

A second plane approaches the World Trade Center

On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda, commanded by Osama Bin Laden executed a four pronged attack on American landmarks that lead to the death of almost 3,000 Americans. This attack, it could be argued, was ultimately a consequence of the actions of the United States globally during the Cold War.

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