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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

For the West, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was a tangible symbol of communist oppression. Nikita Khrushchev and his successors, however, maintained that the forces of history were on their side and American participation in the Vietnam War was evidence of U.S. imperialism. The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations expressed confidence in their way of life and pointed to the decadence and contradictions inherent in capitalism. Yet a widening split between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, which led to outright warfare between the two communist powers in 1969, offered a new wedge for western diplomacy.

War of Ideology in a MAD World

In 1959, then vice president Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow to the American National Trade and Cultural Exhibition. Premier Nikita Khrushchev challenged him to what has been named the Kitchen Debate, in which Nixon insisted that freedom was represented in the displays of American refrigerators and stoves, and Khrushchev, while sipping a Pepsi, insisted that in the Soviet Union people also had a high standard of living. The debate, later broadcast in the United States and the Soviet Union, largely ignored the ongoing nuclear conflict.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States were compiling stockpiles of nuclear weapons and exploring strategies that would erase the formula of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that served as deterrence to the use of atomic weapons. Planners at think tanks, such as the RAND Corporation, devised scenarios in which a "first strike" on the Soviet Union might be so successful that it would not be followed up by the enemy's "second strike" or by a weakened response that would leave some cities intact.

Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis

In 1959, after four years of warfare, Fidel Castro's military drove Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile. Many wealthy Cubans fled to the United States as Castro nationalized industries and redistributed land. In the context of the Cold War, Castro's communist regime—approximately 100 miles from the Florida Keys—was seen as both an annoyance and a threat to the mainland United States.

When John F. Kennedy came into office, he inherited and approved a flawed scheme to mount a Cuban counterrevolution. The Bay of Pigs invasion, overseen by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in April of 1961, was a debacle. About 1,500 counterrevolutionaries landed on a beach but were unable to rouse Cubans to their cause. The Cuban armed forces shot down ten support bombers and sunk the invader's ships.

When the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for support. Khrushchev and other Soviet officials were impressed with Castro, whose successful revolution confirmed their belief in communism's superiority. Wishing to encourage other revolutionary movements in Latin America, Khrushchev made a miscalculation and moved nuclear missiles to Cuba.

U.S. spy planes sighted Soviet nuclear missiles as they were being transported. The United States instituted a naval blockade, including a blockade of Soviet vessels. The standoff lasted for 13 days, and included the Cubans shooting down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane—a nuclear war seemed imminent. The United States and the Soviet Union ultimately reached an agreement. Khrushchev would remove the missiles from Cuba; in return the United States promised, privately, to remove medium range missiles based in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union. The U.S. also made a public declaration that it would not invade Cuba.

One positive aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a new determination to limit nuclear arms. Several treaties followed, including the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1968), which forbade sharing of nuclear weapons technologies.

Vietnam War

As decolonization proceeded in Africa and Asia, proxy wars ensued—often involving anticolonial rebellions, as in Algeria; or civil wars when colonial powers left, as in Vietnam. The two superpowers backed opposing forces in these proxy wars. Because of its alliance with France and Great Britain, the United States rarely supported nationalists seeking self-determination.

When the Japanese were driven out of Indochina, France attempted to regain its colonies, leading to bitter fighting in Vietnam between the French and the nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh. In 1954, the French withdrew for good, acknowledging Vietnamese independence. The United States stepped into the vacuum created by the French withdrawal and began a misadventure in nation-building. They backed Ngo Dinh Diem, a member of the Catholic minority in a majority Buddhist country, whose main qualification was his fierce anti-Communism. A ruthless dictator, Diem was assassinated in 1963 during a coup that the CIA supported.

Three weeks later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Inheriting the war, Lyndon Johnson felt there was no way to leave Vietnam without a loss of credibility regarding America's commitment to its allies—in this case, to members of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (SEATO). By 1965, Johnson had sent 184,000 U.S. ground troops into Vietnam. The war escalated, student protests in opposition to the war erupted across the U.S., and Johnson—despite passing landmark civil rights legislation—chose not to run for reelection in 1968. Richard Nixon eventually brought the war to an end, in part through overtures to China—with which he opened diplomatic relations in 1971—to put pressure on North Vietnamese negotiators. Peace accords were signed in 1973, and South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese two years later.

Brezhnev Doctrine

In response to the war in Vietnam, student demonstrations broke out not only in America, but in Mexico, Japan, and across Europe, with particularly violent protests in 1968. A politicized youth counterculture also developed in Soviet satellite states, particularly Czechoslovakia. There, the Stalinist leader was ousted and a liberalized government established. The Soviet Union's premier Leonid Brezhnev moved Soviet troops into Prague to crush the uprising, establishing the Brezhnev Doctrine—the Soviet Union had the right to militarily enforce the survival of socialism in all countries where it was threatened.

Six years later, in 1974, Brezhnev moved troops into Afghanistan to support a beleaguered Communist coup, and the Soviet Union became mired in a decade-long, costly, and ineffective war that drained its treasury and morale—and aided its eventual collapse.

Fred R. Nadis
Fred Nadis has a PhD in American studies from the University of Texas, Austin and writes about technology, science, and popular culture. At ABC-CLIO, he was a project editor for the 21-volume World History Encyclopedia (2011). He also is the author of Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion (Rutgers University Press, 2005), and The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013).

MLA Citation

Nadis, Fred. "Expansion of Soviet Influence." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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