First Gulf War

“While hoping to cow Saddam into submission, the [George H.W. Bush] administration prepared, if necessary, to drive him from Kuwait with force.  It imposed economic sanctions and applied diplomatic pressure but in full recognition that war might be necessary, Bush used his famous Rolodex and his personal ties with world leaders to assemble a broad coalition, including Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to remove Iraq from Kuwait.  Gorbachev was the key, and his assent left Saddam isolated.  Throughout the fall of 1990, the United States mobilized in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf an awesome array of air, sea, and land power, the fruits of Carter’s and Reagan’s military buildup.  On November 29, it gained UN Security Council approval of a resolution authorizing the use of ‘all necessary means’ if Iraq had not left Kuwait by January 15, 1991.  The possibility of war provoked vigorous opposition in the United States, a revival in many ways of the Vietnam anti-war movement.  The president wisely rejected Cheney’s argument that congressional approval for war was unnecessary and might not be won.  On January 12, after a heated debate suffused with reference to Vietnam, Congress endorsed the use of force to uphold the UN resolution, 250-183 in the House, 52-47 in the Senate.  Drawing the wrong lessons about Iraqi military prowess from his recent war with Iran and about U.S. willingness to fight from Vietnam, Saddam remained defiant to the end.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 909-10


Discussion Questions

  • What lessons should policymakers draw from the coalition-building experience engineered by the Bush Administration during the First Gulf War?
  • How did the First Gulf War both reshape and fail to reshape the dynamic in the Middle East?

 

Star Wars

“Reagan complicated matters still further with a bombshell speech in March 1983 proposing a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense system employing lasers from space-based platforms that could intercept and destroy enemy missiles before they struck U.S. or allied soil…. SDI proved a typically Reaganesque stroke of political genius.  Scientists and many national security experts promptly dismissed it as outrageously costly and wildly impractical and dubbed it ‘Star Wars’ to highlight its chimerical nature.  But it also touched a responsive chord with the public.  Reagan shrewdly couched his appeal for SDI as a way to restore the sense of security Americans had enjoyed before World War II.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 869-70


Discussion Questions

  • How was SDI or Star Wars characteristic of what Herring calls President Reagan’s “political genius”?
  • Over the course of his two terms, how did Reagan’s approach to the Soviet threat evolve? What were the key turning points?

Iran Hostage Crisis

“The [Iranian] revolution abruptly changed from a serious problem for the United States to an all-out crisis on November 4, 1979, when young radicals stormed the U.S. embassy –the ‘Den of Spies’– and took hostage the sixty-six Americans still residing there.  The immediate provocation was Carter’s decision to allow the shah into the United States, but the hostage takers also feared a CIA plot to restore him to power, suspicions encouraged by Jackson’s statement and the Algiers meeting.  Some former hostage-takers now admit, moreover, their real purpose was to push the Bazargan government in more radical directions.  They had no idea the takeover would lead to a prolonged crisis; some now concede it to have been a mistake.  Khomeni at first opposed the takeover, but when he recognized its popularity he exploited it to get rid of Bazargan and solidify his own power.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 850


Discussion Questions

  • How did historic US ties to the Shah of Iran limit its ability to negotiate a solution to the Iranian hostage crisis?
  • Assess President Carter’s failed efforts to end the crisis with Iran in the context of other elements of his foreign policy legacy.

 

Helsinki

“The Helsinki summit of July 30-August 1, 1975, is a classic example of a pivotal event whose short- and long-term consequences were strikingly different, even contradictory.  Although it would eventually play a crucial role in ending the Cold War, its immediate effects were to further weaken detente and damage Ford at home.  One of the largest such meetings ever, the conference included representatives from thirty-five nations and ratified the results of almost three years of intensive negotiations.  Through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the Soviet Union sought recognition of its position in Eastern Europe.  The Western Europeans hoped to advance the relative stability that had grown out of detente.  With the United States, they also pushed for human rights and a freer flow of ideas, people, and information.  Out of this melange of often conflicting aspirations emerged by 1975 three sets of agreements, in diplomatic parlance, ‘baskets.’  A security basket included agreements to uphold basic human rights and ‘refrain from assaulting’ the European boundaries established after World War II, a tacit concession to the Soviet position that stopped short of recognition.  An economic basket provided for breaking down inter-European barriers by tourism, expanded trade, and scientific and technical exchange.  A ‘Humanitarian and Other Fields’ basket called for the freer flow of information, ideas, and people through travel, better access to media information, and reunification of families separated by the Cold War.  A ‘Final Act’ provided for monitoring observance of the agreements.  The Soviet Union, Western Europeans, and the United States were unhappy with some of the provisions but accepted the entire package to secure those items they considered most important.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 826-27


Discussion Questions

  • Describe what Herring means above when he calls the short- and long-term consequences of the Helsinki accords as being “contradictory.”
  • How did Helsinki inaugurate a new era of human rights-focused diplomacy and how did such an emphasis further undermine detente?

China Opening

“Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger inched cautiously toward normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China.  United States elites, including much of the foreign policy establishment, had long argued that the policy of isolation and containment were outdated.  Liberal Democrats such as Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts had taken up the cause.  A slowing economy revived century-old dreams of a potentially limitless Chinese mark as a solution.  Nixon and Kissinger saw geopolitical gains in the form of leverage with the Soviet Union and with North Vietnam in ending the war.  Ever the political animal, Nixon relished the prospect of being the first American president to visit China, in part because of the exquisite irony given his reputation as a hard-core anti-Communist, also for the likely political advantage.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 775


Discussion Questions

  • How did secrecy and deception contribute to the move toward opening of US-Chinese relations in 1971 and 1972?
  • Explain the mindset of the various forces –both inside and outside the US– who opposed the normalization of relations between the US and Communist China.

 

Detente

“Nixon moved detente to the top of his foreign policy agenda.  By the time he took office [in 1969], the one-time ardent Cold Warrior viewed the Soviet Union as a ‘normal’ world power more intent on maintaining its position than upsetting the international status quo and therefore a nation that could be negotiated with.  He recognized that the relative decline in U.S. power required major adjustments in its relations with other nations and that Soviet needs and especially the Sino-Soviet conflict provided openings a skillful diplomatist might exploit.  He perceived that his reputation as a hard-liner enabled him to do things other U.S. politicians could not –indeed, by making him appear statesmanlike they might even win him points at home.  In pursuing detente, Nixon and Kissinger did not abandon containment.  Rather, they hoped through negotiations on key issues to create linkages that would enable them to influence Soviet behavior in other areas.  Through what Kissinger called the ‘subtle triangle of relations between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow,’ they sought to ‘improve the possibilities of accommodations with each as increase our options with both.’  They viewed detente not as an end in itself but rather, in Nixon’s words, a means to ‘minimize confrontation in marginal areas and provide, at least, alternative possibilities in the major ones.’  They hoped it would enable them to manage Soviet power and thus get the USSR to accept the emerging world order.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 771


Discussion Questions

  • Explain how detente affected US policy in Asia, in regard to attempts to negotiate an end to the war in Vietnam or to explore an opening in relations with Communist China.
  • How did the Nixon-Kissinger approach to detente compare to their policies in other areas of the world, like Latin America, the Middle East, or Africa?

 

Gulf of Tonkin

“[President Johnson] deflected proposals from the Joint Chiefs to bomb North Vietnam and even China and commit U.S. combat troops to the war.  But he sent more aid and advisers.  And when North Vietnamese gunboats on August 2 and 4 [1964] allegedly attacked U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, he retaliated by bombing military installations across the seventeenth parallel.  Claiming on August 4 an unprovoked attack on U.S. ships in international waters, an assertion later disputed and now known to be false, he rushed through a compliant Congress with near unanimous consent a Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing him to use ‘all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the United States and to prevent further aggression.’ The president’s decisive action helped seal a landslide victory over Goldwater in November.  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave him authority to expand the war.  But when doubts were later raised about the August 4 attack, legislators cried deceit, widening LBJ’s credibility gap.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 738-39


Discussion Questions

  • How did domestic political considerations affect Lyndon Johnson’s decision-making during the early years of the Vietnam War?
  • Herring does an especially good job of situating the Vietnam War in a global context.  How did controversies surrounding the war effort affect US policies in other areas of the globe between 1963 and 1968?

 

U2 Affair

“On May 1 [1960], two weeks before the summit was to begin and just as May Day celebrations were starting up in Moscow, a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down a U-2 spy plane over the village of Povarnia in the Ural Mountains.  Both sides handled the incident badly.  Eisenhower had long been uneasy about the U-2 flights, recognizing that they constituted an act of war.  He consented to this particular flight only at the insistence of the military and the CIA and with assurances there would be no problems for the summit.  For Khrushchev, the overflights had been especially humiliating.  Still clinging to the hopes for a productive summit, he blamed hard-liners around Eisenhower. He hoped to capitalize on the triumph of shooting down the plane without destroying the summit, but he could not resist the temptation to overreach.  He initially concealed that the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been taken alive and parts of the aircraft recovered, catching Washington in a lie when the usual explanations were issued of a weather plane straying off course.  Eisenhower then compounded the problem by admitting to the spy flights without acknowledging he had approved Powers’s mission….What is certain is that the ‘U-2 mess,’ as Eisenhower referred to it, destroyed the summit, cost the president and the United States heavily in prestige, ended any chance of substantive negotiations before the November elections, and left Berlin more dangerous than ever.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 698-99


Discussion Questions

  • One critical context for the U-2 spy plane incident was the proliferation of espionage and clandestine operations during the Cold War.  How had US covert activity been escalating in the 1950s, prior to the collapse of the Paris summit.
  • How would you characterize President Eisenhower as a Cold Warrior?  Was he engaged in inveterate brinksmanship during the 1950s, or do you see in his evolution the makings of a more prudent statesman?

 

Suez Crisis

“The Suez affair was one of the most complex and dangerous of Cold War crises.  Walking a tightrope over numerous conflicting forces, Eisenhower and Dulles did manage to avert war with the Soviet Union and limit the damage to relations with the Arab states.  On the other hand, America’s relations with its major allies plunged to their lowest point in years.  Washington and London each believed they had been double-crossed.  The British and French resented their humiliation at the hands of their ally.  Eden and Dulles’s mutual hatred deepened –as ‘tortuous as a wounded snake, with much less excuse,’ an Eden still angry years later said of his by then deceased U.S. counterpart.  An already volatile Middle East was further destabilized.  Nasser remained in power –a fact Dulles later privately lamented to the British.  His noisy neutralism veered further eastward.  Soviet premier Khrushchev mistakenly concluded that his rocket-rattling had carried the day –those ‘with the strongest nerves will be the winner,’ he boasted –thus emboldening him to further and even more reckless nuclear gambits.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 676-77


Discussion Questions

  • Why was the Suez crisis so “complex,” as Herring put it?  What were the key geopolitical factors that drove the confrontation?
  • How does the Suez episode illustrate the alternative approach that US policymakers might have pursued during the 1950s –away from anti-communism and toward anti-colonialism?

 

Korean War

“Yet this war that Americans preferred to forget had enormous consequences.  For the Koreans, whose leaders’ suicidal ambitions had sparked it, the results were catastrophic, an estimated three million dead, roughly 10 percent of the population, their country laid to waste.  The nation remained divided after the ‘peace’ treaty, the South still occupied by foreign troops. For the major Communist nations, the war had mixed results.  By holding its own against the United States, Mao’s China achieved instant great-power status.  China’s dependence on the Soviet Union solidified their alliance for the short term, but that very dependence and sharp differences over the conduct of the war opened fissures in the Communist bloc that would widen in the coming decade.  For Stalin, who had gambled on Kim’s ability to win a quick victory, the Korean War was a major setback.  The pressures he imposed on his East European allies to produce war materials created strains that would provoke uprisings that in tern threatened Soviet control over its vital buffer zone. Korea also produced Stalin’s worst nightmare, a massive buildup of Western European defenses –including the first steps toward German rearmament –and U.S. mobilization for all-out war.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 645


Discussion Questions

  • Herring describes the origins and tragic duration of the Korean War as a series of miscalculations.  What were the most catastrophic faulty judgments in this narrative, especially by US policymakers?
  • How did the Korean War affect US Cold War policies in Asia?