The “Post-War,” 1945-2022 : Part III

The “Post-War,” 1945-2022

Part III


John M.Lane

The “Twilight Struggle”: Cold War, 1947-1991

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

John F. Kennedy, Inauguration Address, January 20, 1961                                               

                               In the winter and spring of 1945, the unspoken question considered in Moscow, London, and Paris, among other capitals, was: Once the war was over, would the Americans leave Europe as they had after the first war?  Stalin and the Soviets wanted the Americans out of Europe for obvious reasons. De Gaulle also wanted the Americans out. Even Churchill was doubtful about how much of an American presence in Europe there should be, as he outlined his thoughts about the possibility of European cooperation and integration. (A process many in Britain opposed). It appeared the Americans would leave through the end of 1945 and going into 1946. “Rank-and-file” American soldiers participated in “we-want-to-go home” rallies in Paris. There was a call to draw down American forces and “bring the boys home.” The situation changed in 1947 and 1948. Britain no longer had the means to support its security policies, especially in Greece. The Americans, under Truman, stepped in to provide aid to Greece. It was an unprecedented move that some isolationist Republicans even supported. Next, in 1948, Stalin decided it was time for the Western Allies to leave their Berlin occupation zones. The Soviets blocked Western Allied rail and road access to West Berlin. Rather than pull out of Berlin, the Americans and British launched a massive airlift to supply West Berlin with food, fuel, and other essential supplies. After eighteen months, the Soviets gave in and lifted the blockade. The Cold War was “officially” underway.

“We Wanna Go Home” : Risking court-martial for Insubordination hundreds of Americans troops march down the Champs Elysees in Paris, 1946. In US History these demonstrations have kept in the background.

                                  As the war ended in 1945, with the use of the atomic bomb, American officials believed that the Soviets would not be able to develop a bomb of their own until at least 1965. They were off by seventeen years. The Soviets got their atomic bomb in 1949 through scientific development and espionage (they were able to steal critical bomb development information through a sophisticated intelligence operation against the Manhattan Project).  That same year, the Communists won the civil war in China and took power, and it appeared that the world was going to choose Marxism-Leninism as the path for government and economic development.     

                            In 1949, at a conference in Washington D.C., twelve European and North American countries created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO. It was a defensive alliance to deter or stop Soviet expansion into Western Europe. The original members of NATO were the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Norway, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland, and Luxembourg. NATO was initially headquartered in Paris (after 1966, the headquarters moved to Brussels). An American military officer has always been the military Supreme Commander of NATO, and a European official has always been the civilian head. 


                                In June 1950, North Korea, a Soviet/Chinese client state, invaded South Korea to unite the country under communist rule. As the Second World War ended in 1945, Red Army forces had occupied the Korean peninsula north of the 38th Parallel, and American troops did the same in the south. Elections to unify the peninsula never happened. The Americans and the Soviets blamed each other for that outcome. However, it was evident that the Soviets had no intention of allowing Korea to unite under what could become a pro-western democracy on their border. Stalin’s choice for the leader of Korea was Kim Il-Sung, who trained and educated in the finer points of Stalinist communism in the Soviet Union. Kim began putting pressure on Stalin to allow him to invade the south and unify the country. In 1948 the occupational split on the Korean peninsula became a complete political separation. In the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was created, led by Kim-Il Sung, with its capital in Pyongyang. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was founded in the South, led by Syngman Rhee, Seoul’s capital city. The Soviets trained and equipped the North Korean Army, including supplying them with T-34 tanks, the best overall battle tank used by any army in the Second World War.

                            The South Korean military was trained and equipped by an American Advisory command in Seoul. From the end of 1948 into 1949 and early 1950, both sides carried out border raids and strikes against each other along the 38th Parallel. In 1949, the communists, under Mao Zedong, defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and won the Chinese Civil War. The most populous country in the world was now under Communist control. The shock waves in the United States from Chiang’s defeat increased the “Red Scare” intensity as the hunt for domestic “Red” sympathizers reached into more and more areas of American life. The debate over who “lost China” would color American politics into the 1970s. The victory of Mao changed Stalin’s thinking about Korea. If the Americans did not intervene in China to save their great ally, Chiang, there was a high probability that they would not intervene to stop a North Korean invasion of the South. Stalin finally relented to Kim Il-Sung and gave his approval for a North Korean attack on the South. Kim assured Stalin that a lightning attack would overwhelm the South before the Americans could intervene, which appeared highly unlikely. In a January 1950 speech, Secretary of State Dean Acheson indicated that Korea was outside American defense priorities in Asia. (That was not the purpose of the address; however, that is how it has been interpreted until recently).

                               On June 25, 1950, North Korean infantry and armor surged across the 38th Parallel behind a massive Soviet-style artillery barrage. They crushed spirited but overmatched South Korean resistance, taking Seoul days after the initial attack. The United States went before the Security Council of the United Nations to present the case that the invasion violated the UN Charter and that the international body needed to intervene to stop North Korean aggression. The Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council; consequently, it did not exercise what would have been a veto of the measure. The five-year-old United Nations, led by the United States, was about to launch a multi-national military operation to stop an illegal invasion of a sovereign, independent nation. Since 1953, the United Nations has never been able to mount a similar military operation.

                           President Truman had already authorized American air and naval forces to attack North Korean formation as they advanced southwards. There would be no need for a congressional declaration of war. American military activities would be a “police action.” In his seventies, General Douglas MacArthur was still on active duty as commander of American forces in occupied Japan and was named United Nations commander.  MacArthur flew to South Korea and watched the South Korean retreat across the Han River. He later said that he got the idea for what would be the most significant operation (the Inchon landing) of his long career while observing the Han River retreat. Upon his return to Japan, MacArthur notified the US Joint Chiefs of Staff that American ground forces would be needed to stop the North Korean advance. American command authorities granted permission to send ground forces to Korea. The United States was now in a ground war on the Asian mainland.              

                        The only ground forces that could quickly deploy to Korea were the four understrength American occupation-duty divisions stationed in Japan. American training had become deficient, as their duty responsibilities took on the look and actuality of a nine-to-five job. The weapons and equipment they took to Korea were of Second World War vintage. Production of new aircraft, equipment, weapons, and uniforms, already on the drawing boards and in development, would have to begin immediately. Upon arriving in Korea and facing the North Koreans, the Americans fought bravely, although they were, for the moment, outgunned and “out-tanked” (this situation would soon change). The Americans and South Korea conducted a fighting withdrawal to a perimeter around the southeast port city of Pusan. The North Koreans tried to break through with determined attacks in July and August 1950, especially along the Naktong River. As the Allies slowly established air superiority, supplies and reinforcements arrived in Pusan. A multi-national army was developing inside the perimeter. Eventually, over 19,000 UN troops would fight in Korea. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, and Turkey were significant contributors to UN ground, sea, and air forces, fifty-three United Nations members had promised to make some contribution to the war effort. Make no mistake; however, the Korean War was fought mainly by the South Koreans and Americans, and the Americans did most of the “heavy lifting” for the rest of the war. 

                               In September 1950, the 1st Marine Division sailed from California, bound for Korea. They were to conduct an amphibious landing near the Korean port city of Inchon. The Inchon landing was highly problematic. The tides in the landing area were some of the highest in the world. The landing caught the North Koreans by surprise, and the Americans quickly overwhelmed their small, heavily outnumbered garrison. The re-taking of Seoul would not be that easy. The fighting in the city was brutal and costly. Like the battle for Manila in 1945, civilians were caught in the middle as the Marines fought street-by-street and house-by-house. North Korean resistance in Seoul ended on September 28. By early October, the Marines held lines south of the 38th Parallel. In the south, the Eighth Army broke out of the Pusan Perimeter as the North Koreans began to retreat to the North.

                              In Washington, the President made a fateful decision. The President’s National Security Council advised that UN forces not cross the 38th Parallel to pursue and finish the North Korean Army. The Council believed that UN forces had achieved their objectives: North Korean troops had been ejected, and South Korea was now secure. The uniformed military command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disagreed. In keeping with American tradition, they believed that UN forces must destroy the North Korean Army to ensure North Korea could no longer threaten South Korea. President Truman sided with the uniformed military. The UN mission would now be to unify the peninsula under the rule of South Korea. In early October 1950, the UN approved the movement of UN forces into North Korea. Eighth Army troops (US 25th Infantry Division, 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, 27 and 29th British Brigades, and ROK 6, 7, and 8th Infantry Divisions) crossed the 38th Parallel. With little resistance, they began advancing toward the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. They took the city on October 19.

                                       As a fighting force, the North Korean Army was becoming irrelevant. On the east coast of North Korea (Wonsan), X Corps (the 1st Marine Division, US 7th Infantry Division, and the 3rd Infantry Division) landed and began moving North along with a South Korean corps. Army General Edward Almond commanded X Corps. As the brutally cold Korean winter approached, the two undermanned forces pushed north along the coasts, separated by mountainous terrain. They would soon face an even deadlier opponent.

                              Under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the new Chinese government began planning what to do if UN forces (especially Americans) crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea. This planning started in August 1950, a month before the Inchon landings. The Chinese then issued warnings, through intermediaries, that the advance of Western-led forces toward their border was unacceptable. Mao and Zhou Enlai saw the advance as a direct threat to China, especially the industrial areas of Manchuria. In October (the 19th), Chinese combat forces (250,000) began quietly entering North Korea (completely undetected by UN Intelligence, including the newly created (1947) Central Intelligence Agency), as Mao informed Stalin that China was going to intervene in the Korean War. The warnings reached American command authorities; however, they considered them to be empty rhetoric. 

                             On October 15th, as Chinese forces were about to cross the Yalu River and move into positions in the mountainous North Korean terrain, President Truman met face-to-face with his “subordinate,” General MacArthur, on Wake Island. The President flew over halfway across the Pacific to meet with MacArthur. The General could not afford to be too far away from his command. MacArthur barely tried to conceal his contempt for the President, especially a Democratic president, (In 1948, MacArthur’s supporters had tried to secure the Republican presidential nomination for him. It was an effort he again, as in 1944, made little effort to stop). There was no agenda for the meeting between Truman and MacArthur. The talks were almost negotiations between two hostile camps seeking agreement. Truman wanted to answer the central question: whether the Chinese would intervene in the war. MacArthur was confident that no Chinese intervention would occur: “I believe that the formal resistance will end throughout North and South Korea by Thanksgiving. There is little resistance left in South Korea- only about 15,000 men- and those we do not destroy; the winter will… The North Koreans are making the same mistake they have made before. They have not deployed in depth. When the gap is closed, the same thing will happen in the north as happened in the south. It is my hope to be able to withdraw the Eighth Army to Japan by Christmas…We longer stand hat in hand. The Chinese have 300,000 men in Manchuria. Of these, probably not more than 100/125,000 are distributed along the Yalu River. Only 50/60,000 could be gotten across the Yalu River. They have no Air Force. Now that we have bases for our Air Force in Korea, there would be the greatest slaughter if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang”. (Quoted in Horne 296)

President Truman and General MacArthur, Wake Island, 1950

                                In late November, the Chinese attacked lead elements of UN forces along the Chinese-Soviet frontier. The first battles between Chinese and American troops took place in early December, as the units of the First Cavalry Division barely escaped encirclement and destruction. The Chinese offensive hit UN forces in three areas along the frontline as of November 24, 1950: In the west, against Eighth Army near Kunu-RI, Anju, and Sinaju; in the east, against X Corps near Hagaru-RI, Yudam-ni, and the Chosin Reservoir, and a massive attack out of the hills and mountains of central North Korea designed to envelop and trap the two separate UN forces. Along the thinly- manned line across the Peninsula, UN forces were massively outnumbered and had to retreat. At the Chosin Reservoir, only 1stMarine Division commander General O.P. Smith’s foresight saved a bad situation from becoming a catastrophe. Smith had refused to rush headlong into what he correctly perceived to be a Chinese ambush at the urging of the corps commander, General Almond. While advancing northwards, Smith had established strong points and built airstrips, just in case a retreat was necessary. After recovering from the initial Chinese attacks, the Marines began a coordinated withdrawal to the south. The plan was to reach the coast for evacuation.

                            The Marines’ fighting withdrawal began with the remnants of the Army units that the Chinese had nearly destroyed on the reservoir’s west side. With strong air support, the Americans fought to Hungnam, where they were evacuated by ship on Christmas Eve, 1950, and taken to Pusan. In one of the great epics in US Marine Corps history, the column fought off and survived attacks by at least twelve Chinese divisions. They had brought out as many of their dead and wounded (thanks to the plans of General Smith, many wounded were evacuated by air) as they could and most of their equipment. 

The Marine withdrawal from The Chosen Reservoir, 1950

                               The Chinese pushed the UN out of North Korea. The retreat was a humiliating rout. It did not stop until UN forces finally dug in south of Seoul (the Communists regained control of the city) in January 1951. There would be no unification of Korea under the supervision of a friendly government based in Seoul.  UN and Allied leaders needed a new strategy to end the war and bring about a new status quo. The war needed to end because of the Soviet threat in Europe. Very few people wanted an expanded war that would involve attacking China or the use of atomic weapons. Not everyone, however, was against expanding the war.  In the United States, the bi-partisan political situation deteriorated as support for the war plummeted. Truman’s popularity “tanked” as he and the Democrats came under withering attack for not pursuing victory in Korea as American tradition saw it. MacArthur, still in overall command, joined the attack. According to Thomas E. Ricks: “MacArthur responded to his military setback by launching blistering public attacks on the Truman administration. Most notably, he told US News & World Report that he had been handicapped by Washington’s limits on him, “without precedent in military history,” and accused Western leaders of being “somewhat selfish” and “short-sighted.” (Ricks 174)

                                MacArthur’s final act of insubordination occurred in the spring of 1951. “On April 5, Representative Joseph William Martin Jr., the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, read aloud on the floor of the House a letter from MacArthur critical of Truman’s Europe-First policy and limited-war strategy in the Far East. The letter concluded with the clarion call: We must win. There is no substitute for victory.” (Horne 304) With the concurrence of the uniformed military leaders of the nation, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Truman, on April 11, 1951, relieved Douglas MacArthur from his duties in the Far East:

“I deeply regret that it becomes my duty as President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States military forces to replace you as Supreme Commander, Allied Powers; Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; and Commanding General. US Army, Far East. You will turn over your commands, effective at once, to Lt. General Matthew B. Ridgway. You are authorized to have issued such orders as are necessary to complete desired travel to such place as you select. My reasons for your replacement will be made public concurrently with the delivery to you of the foregoing order and are contained in the next following message…” (As quoted in Horne 305-306)

                                Matthew Ridgway had taken over command of the Eighth Army upon the death of General Walton Walker in January. Ridgway immediately began to change the atmosphere and fighting spirit of the Eighth Army. Re-equipped, reinforced, and resupplied the UN, under Ridgway, pushed the Chinese back, and recaptured the rubble of what was left of Seoul.


                                MacArthur returned to the United States as a conquering hero. He had left the country in 1937 and was now returning fourteen years later. The “America” MacArthur envisioned no longer existed. However, he received rapturous welcomes and “ticker-tape parades across the country. Truman’s approval poll ratings dipped into the “30s” and “20s”. MacArthur’s “farewell” speech before a joint meeting of Congress brought tears to the eyes of those who heard it and to those who read it today, it still does. He had a remarkable, illustrious, and controversial career. It was time to “fade away.”  


                               Between the summers of 1951 and 1953, the battle lines in Korea began, in many ways, to resemble the trench battles of the First World War. The front moved very little in either direction, becoming a war of attrition. The war became increasingly unpopular in the United States and the other Western combatants. President Truman decided not to seek a second term as President. The Republicans chose Dwight Eisenhower as their nominee to run against Adlai Stevenson. Peace talks began and continued through the 1952 election campaign. Eisenhower promised that if elected, he would go to Korea. He was elected in a landslide and went to Korea as President-Elect. The idea that Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons to end the war has never been substantiated. Churchill, way past his prime, was returned to power in 1951. He was absolutely against any expansion of the conflict and sought assurance from Truman and Eisenhower. Stalin died in 1953; it has also never been proven that he pressured the North Koreans and Chinese into a settlement.

President-Elect Eisenhower in Korea, 1952

                                   The Chinese needed to end the war to consolidate their “revolution” at home, and the North Koreans were happy that they still had a country to rule and rebuild. On July 27, 1953, the fighting stopped when a truce/ceasefire went into effect. The border had changed very little from the original 38th Parallel line. There has never been a legally recognized peace treaty between the combatants (the United States/South Korea. and China/North Korea.) In the 21st century, a “state of war” remains along the most heavily fortified border in the world. 

                              Today, most Americans have no idea that the United States and China have already fought a brutal land war on the Asian continent. 

Korean War (1950-1953) Casualties

United States:

Military Killed and Missing                                           36,568

Military Deaths Outside War zone                                 17,678  

Total                                                                                54, 246 

Military Wounded                                                          103,284  

South Korea:

Civilian Dead and Missing                                             1,000,000

Military Killed and Missing                                           217,000

Military Wounded                                                          429,000  

Other United Nations Forces:

Military Killed and Missing                                     3,063

Military Wounded                                                    11,817

North Korea:

Civilian Dead and Missing                                       600,000

Military Killed and Missing                                     406,000

Military Wounded                                                    1,500,000


Military Killed and Missing                                    600,000

Military Wounded                                                   716,000


                               By 1960, the United States military stood like a colossus astride the globe. American bases were in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. The US Navy controlled every sea lane and vital chokepoint in the world. American airpower was beyond challenge. Technology had allowed the Americans to build a high-altitude spy plane, the U-2, that regularly flew over the USSR, between Norway and Pakistan, and photographed their military installations. The Soviets were able to shoot one down in 1960, to the great embarrassment of the US government. (It was a U-2 that spotted the Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962.)  From 1953 to 1963, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union continued to grow, with Britain, France, and China acquiring their independent arsenals. 

                         The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to destruction than any other time during the Cold War struggle. The Soviets were determined to gain a strategic advantage like the Americans (the US had placed medium-range “Jupiter missiles in Turkey) and placed medium-range missiles of their own in Cuba. This move was meant to neutralize the huge American advantage in ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, contrary to the 1960 presidential campaign, there was no missile gap. The problem for the Americans was that their missiles were designed to carry satellites and, eventually, people into space. Many of their missiles continued to blow up shortly after launch.) For “Thirteen Days,” the world stood on the brink of destruction before both sides compromised. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, as the Americans (secretly) agreed to withdraw theirs from Turkey. In addition to Cuba, the Kennedy Administration dealt with a major crisis in Berlin in 1961 (the year the Soviets constructed the “Wall”) and continuing instability in South Vietnam. 2,000 American advisers were in South Vietnam by the end of 1961 (the first American combat death occurred in the same year). 

President John F. Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, center, in the White House, Oct. 18, 1962. At left is Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

                           The United States and the Soviet Union were making massive expenditures on defense spending.  That cost was seen in the economies of the western countries, especially the United States. “By the 1980s, 30 percent of the engineers in the United States worked in defense-related industries, while civilian firms suffered from shortages of such personnel. It is not coincidental that those industrialized states with the lowest per capita expenditure on defense between 1970 and 1990, like Japan, Germany, and Canada, had higher rates of economic growth than those with the highest rates of defense expenditures- the United States and Britain.” (Archer et al. 567)  

                              The Cold War arms race was detrimental to both sides; in the short term, the Americans could afford it, but the Soviets could not. “America’s economic superiority allowed it and its allies to prevail in the Cold War, as in the world wars. The United States was able to bankrupt the Soviet Union, which spent between a third and a half of its smaller economy on the military while spending no more than an average of 7.5 percent of GDP on defense between 1948 and 1989.” (Lind 333)


                                  Two world wars had permanently weakened Britain and France, and their empires would collapse sooner rather than later. Winston Churchill had vowed that he would not preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. The compromises, however, he had to make with the Americans during the war guaranteed that the dissolution would happen. Both FDR and Truman were not disposed to assist in saving the Empire. Again, the “special relationship” was not going to help Britain. India became independent in 1947. The incompetently handled partition creating two countries, India and Pakistan, caused millions of deaths and displaced millions. At the same, fighting intensified in Palestine as the British were in the middle of a struggle of their own making; the earlier promises they had made to the Jews and Arabs were incompatible and unworkable. The British left in 1948, and Israel became an independent state. The wars, attacks, killing, and misery continue into the 21st century.

                               Other than the bitter fighting in Kenya and Malaya, the British had learned their lesson and quietly gave independence to the rest of their empire that wanted it. France chose to fight, with disastrous results, to maintain their imperial holdings in Indochina and Algeria. American support for the French efforts in Indochina… (In September 1951, the US shipped to French forces in Indochina “130,000 tons of equipment, including fifty-three million rounds of ammunition, eight thousand trucks, and jeeps, 650 fighting vehicles, two hundred aircraft, fourteen thousand automatic weapons, and 3,500 radios…by the end of 1953 the new Eisenhower Republican administration was paying 80 percent of the cost of the war, a billion dollars a year.”) (Hastings 35) … and would lead to a second Indochina war, resulting in a military and foreign policy catastrophe for the United States.

                            In the de-colonizing “Third World,” the West told the populations that if their new governments joined the anti-communist bloc, they would reap the rewards of “Liberty” and “Freedom.” Instead, they usually got coups, bloodshed, and economic misery, as kleptocratic gangs fought over who would control the commodity, resource, or crop formerly owned by a Western colonial government or corporation (or both). Whatever gang won the most recent revolution (especially if they overthrew a government that attempted to implement some measure of economic equality) would declare themselves to be fervently anti-communist, guaranteeing a continuous flow of arms, military training, and financial assistance. This pattern continued unabated throughout the Cold War in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. After the Cold War, Western “neoliberal globalization” economic development efforts only worsened living and financial situations for most of the population. In the 21st century, the cynical “soft diplomacy” (it’s really about control of oil resources and strategic minerals) efforts of the Chinese, as they seek to show the “Third World” how excellent their system is, will also fail. The poverty imposed over the last seventy-plus years (plus climate change) drives the “global south” population to the North. No wall will stop them. The colonizers are becoming the colonized.


                       As the European empires collapsed, those newly independent nations had to choose sides in the ideological struggle. The French gave up in Indochina in 1954 after a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu.  Free elections never happened in Vietnam. The country was divided North and South at the 17th parallel: North, Communist, South, Free. The National Liberation (NLF), also known as the “Viet Cong,” was founded in the 1950s by South Vietnamese communists who wanted to overthrow the hated corrupt regime of the Diem (who were Christians, ruling an overwhelmingly Buddhist country).  The North wanted to unite Vietnam under their rule and supported the efforts of the NLF. From 1961 to 1964, American advisors’ role in guerrilla actions in the South steadily increased. In 1962, the US created MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) to coordinate their advisory effort, which was now up to 9,000 personnel. In 1962 and 1963, the NLF out-fought the better-equipped South Vietnamese army (ARVN). Throughout 1963, Buddhist protests against the Diem regime continued, including the self-burning suicide of a Buddhist monk in downtown Saigon. American officials looked the other way as ARVN generals plotted against and overthrew the Diem regime on November 1, 1963. The plotters killed Diem and his brother. President Kennedy was dead three weeks later, assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

                                 Four days after being sworn in as President, Lyndon Johnson affirmed that the US would continue to support South Vietnam against what the administration believed was an international communist conspiracy. Going into 1964, North Vietnam increased its support of the NLF and began moving troops and supplies, through Laos, into South Vietnam. The NLF now controlled most of the South Vietnamese countryside. In early August 1964, US ships on an intelligence-gathering mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, came under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. One attack took place; however, it remains highly doubtful whether the second attack occurred. The Americans retaliated and bombed targets near the North Vietnamese city of Vinh. On August 7, 1964, President Johnson went before Congress for authorization (not a declaration of war) for action in Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed in the House (414-0) and the Senate 88-2), would be used by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as permission for all future military deployments in Southeast Asia.

                                 1964 was an election year, and Johnson (LBJ) wanted to focus on his ambitious domestic plan, the “Great Society.” LBJ, however, was the consummate politician. He feared that he could meet the same fate as Truman and the Democrats in the late 40s and early 50s over, who “lost China” and did not fight for “victory” in Korea if he appeared to be “weak,” therefore he simply could not walk away from the Vietnam situation. Sadly, the situation became the dilemma that would be his political undoing. Johnson’s advisers believed that a bombing campaign could deter North Vietnamese aggression. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) wanted to begin a “Second World War” type bombing attack on the North. The civilian advisers wanted to gradually increase the intensity of the bombing to bring pressure on Ho Chi Minh to negotiate a settlement. The gradual pressure idea won the day. LBJ won the election in a landslide. He felt he had two years to get his ambitious domestic agenda through Congress; however, Vietnam always lurked in the background.

                              In February 1965, the Americans launched the bombing campaign, “Operation Rolling Thunder,” as Air Force and Navy aircraft bombed selected military targets in North Vietnam and infiltration targets in Laos. Fearing a communist takeover, the Americans launched a full-scale intervention in March 1965; US ground forces arrived in Vietnam. General Westmoreland, the new MACV commander, requested 150,000 troops. Marines guarded the Da Nang airbase and soon began conducting “search and destroy” operations in the provinces around the airbase.  In the Central Highlands area of South Vietnam, the Army started using the concept of airmobile (helicopter) combat operations. The 1st “Air” Cavalry Division fought a major engagement against the NVA. One American battalion was nearly wiped out, and another almost met the same fate; it would be called the Battle of Ia Drang Valley. By December 1965, 184,300 American military personnel were in South Vietnam.

                         The United States was in another land war on the Asian continent. Out of fear of intervention from China and the Soviet Union, there would be no invasion of North Vietnam. The American government believed that the bombing campaign in the North and the continued arrival of American forces in the South could convince North Vietnam to negotiate. So, the entirety of South Vietnam became a battlefield as the Americans began bombing the North. The South Vietnamese population had little, if any confidence, in their governments. The coups and turnovers of power were a constant feature faced by the Americans. The corruption was rampant, as the battle to skim from massive American financial, material, and military aid became a practice at all South Vietnamese “government” and service levels.

22 Dec 1964, LBJ Ranch, Texas, USA — While hosting Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at the LBJ Ranch, President Lyndon B. Johnson reacts to news of new problems in Vietnam. 1964. — Image by © CORBIS

                         In the United States, leadership decided to keep American life as “normal” as possible. There would be “guns and butter.” Americans are paying the decision’s long-term economic and cultural costs to the United States in the 21st century. Against the wishes of the JCS and the Defense Department, the reserves and the National Guard would not mobilize. Instead, the size of the “Draft” would increase. At the end of 1966, there were 385,000 Americans in South Vietnam. Since territory was not occupied, the war became a war of “attrition.” Victory in Vietnam was measured by “body counts.” Body count numbers could make or break an officer’s career. The enemy was engaged through “search and destroy” missions designed to find the enemy and kill him. Undermanned American units took heavy casualties in more than a few of these missions because of well-planned NVA ambushes. Areas of South Vietnam became “free-fire zones” where everything moving in that area was considered fair game for attack and bombing, including villages and the civilians in them.

                                 1967 saw the continuation of “search and destroy” missions; however, they were on an even larger scale. The data (today, we call it “analytics”)  accumulated (enemy dead, bombing sorties, etc.) at MACV headquarters seemed to indicate that the Americans were winning, and the end was in sight. When General Westmoreland returned to the United States at the end of 1967 and addressed Congress, it seemed that the war was nearly over. In 1968 it would become painfully evident that the war was far from over. The NVA besieged the Marine firebase at Khe Shan in January; the drama there captivated the American public as the Marines fought a daily battle not to be overrun. LBJ was so concerned about the battle that a scale model of the firebase was placed in the White House for his examination. (During the battle, North Korea seized an American spy vessel and took the crew prisoner. Because of Vietnam, there was no possibility that the Americans would respond militarily.) 

The image of the Vietnam War: Helicopters and Infantry on a “search and destroy operation ” The Elephant chasing the Ant”

                              On January 30, 1968, during the Tet holiday, the NLF launched a nationwide offensive in South Vietnam. Urban areas were attacked, as well as areas in the countryside. NLF fighters were attacked and entered the compound of the US embassy in Saigon. In the north, the ancient imperial capital of Hue was overrun by NVA forces, who then proceeded to find previously identified civilians by the hundreds, who were considered traitors to the Vietnamese nation. In the only urban battle of the Vietnam War, US Marines had to engage in a savage fight to regain control of the city. The American public was stunned as the Tet offensive unfolded on television every evening. CBS News “anchor” Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam to see for himself. He reported from Hue as the battle continued. Upon his return, Cronkite, often referred to as the “most trusted man in America,” declared that the war could not be won militarily, and negotiations had to begin. As in Korea, there would not be a “victory” in Vietnam. Because of that fact, beyond any other factor, much of the American public quietly turned against the war. Most never demonstrated against or protested the war. They would continue to support the forces in Vietnam; however, they wanted the war to end.

                            The Tet Offensive was a strategic victory for the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. After Tet, the NLF (“Viet Cong”) was so devastated that they ceased to be an effective fighting force. The NVA would be the primary foe for the rest of the war for the Americans and ARVN. LBJ brought together senior, elite, and retired members of the foreign policy and military establishment, including Omar Bradley and Dean Acheson (“the Wise Men”), to advise him on how to proceed in Vietnam. Their advice was to scale back on the war and begin negotiations. In March 1968, word leaked that the American commander in Vietnam was requesting an additional 250,000 troops for Vietnam deployment. The new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, advised LBJ not to authorize an increase in the force fighting in Vietnam.

                                Most political experts assumed LBJ would run for re-election in 1968. He had, however, a primary challenger; Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who was running as a peace candidate. LBJ won the New Hampshire Primary, but the margin of victory was much smaller than expected. In mid-March, New York Senator Robert F.   Kennedy (President Kennedy’s brother and Attorney General. LBJ and RFK despised each other.) entered the race for the Democratic nomination. On March 31, 1968, in one of the most dramatic and consequential moments in American political history, LBJ announced that the bombing of North Vietnam would be limited to encourage the North Vietnamese to begin negotiations. The “bombshell” followed as LBJ announced that he would not seek another term as President. 

                              Richard Nixon was the Republican candidate for President in 1968. Nixon ran on the promise of ending the war by bringing “peace with honor” to the American people. He had a plan to end the war; however, the specifics were never disclosed. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey ended up with the Democratic nomination after the horrifying, disastrous events of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. McCarthy supporters felt that the “establishment” had stolen the nomination from their candidate and were in no mood to support Humphrey. Kennedy’s supporters were still in mourning. Senator Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles in June, moments after winning the California primary.

                                 Peace talks began in Paris in May, as the Americans and ARVN started the most extensive ground campaign of the war against the NVA and the NLF. General Creighton Abrams replaced General William Westmoreland as the American commander in Vietnam. MACV began initial steps to prepare ARVN for when American forces would no longer be in Vietnam. In October, it seemed possible that a deal between the combatants to end the war might be in reach. On October 31, LBJ announced that “all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam is to cease as of 8 AM, Washington time, Friday morning.” Both the NLF and the South Vietnamese government were invited to the talks. Behind the scenes, representatives (and based on information from a “mole” with the Johnson administration) of Nixon had secretly been meeting with Anna Chan Chennault, the widow of General Claire Chennault, a member of the “China lobby.” Mrs. Chennault passed the following message to the South Vietnamese government: “Stay out of the Paris talks; the Democrats were planning to sell out South Vietnam; a Nixon administration would stand by America’s ally.” (Ward and Burns 347) The plan worked: South Vietnam would not participate in the resumed talks.

“The president (LBJ) had a clear picture of what Nixon’s agents had been up to. The National Security Agency had intercepted cable traffic between Saigon and its Washington embassy. The CIA had placed a bug in President Thieu’s office. The FBI tapped Bui Diem’s telephone at the South Vietnamese embassy. The president ordered the Bureau to tail Mrs. Chennault and record who came and went at the embassy. Saturday evening, with just three days before election day, Johnson called his friend and former colleague Everitt Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate minority leader, and the highest elected Republican official in the country, trusting that he would tell Nixon that the president was on to him and was considering telling the voters what he knew.” (Ward and Burns 349)

                       Nixon called LBJ the next day and denied everything: “…I would never do anything to encourage Hanoi- I mean Saigon- not to come to the table because, basically, that was what you got out of your bombing pause, that good God, we want them over in Paris. Peace… I just want you to know, I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I mean I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do, but I’ll do anything…” (Ward and Burns 350). Nixon was lying, and LBJ knew it. Johnson did not “go public” with the information he had. Why? We will probably never know for sure.  Nixon won a close election in a three-way race over Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace (his running mate was Curtis LeMay).

                 16,899 Americans were killed in combat in Vietnam in 1968. The war did not lessen in 1969. It would end up being the second bloodiest year of the war, as Nixon’s plan for “Peace with Honor” was put into effect.


                               The fighting and dying continued almost unabated through 1969. The anti-war demonstrations grew more extensive and more pronounced.  The “Vietnamization” program began in June 1969. With great fanfare, Nixon announced the first American troop withdrawals: 25,000. In the field, the discipline and morale of American troops, both combat, and support, began to collapse. Alcohol and drug abuse were widespread (the heroin came in neat plastic vials; the author believes they were probably shipped in from Thailand). Incidents of insubordination increased. The most common ones were not saluting officers and refusing to advance under orders. Incidents of “fragging” (attacks on officers and non-commissioned officers) did happen; however, the numbers were overblown by a media looking for a sensational story. Racial tensions increased, and incidents primarily occurred in base camps and rear support areas. The display of Confederate flags was not discouraged, as most African American troops responded with “Black Power” salutes and “daps” and grew their “Afros” right up to the regulation limit. As 1969 (with the US force level dipping below 500,000) ended, the effectiveness of the US Army and, to a lesser extent, the Marine Corps was seriously questioned. The “hollowing out” of units in the United States, Germany, and South Korea, to send officers (“career” officers needed combat experience to get promoted) and “NCOs” to Vietnam; weakened the ability of NATO to stop a Warsaw Pact attack on Western Europe or another North Korean invasion of South Korea. The Americans had to get out of Vietnam.

President Nixon in Vietnam, 1969

                             Going into 1970, the Americans were becoming frustrated by the slow progress of the Paris peace talks. American commanders had always wanted to attack Cambodia’s NVA/NLF sanctuaries; however, they had always been off-limits out of fear of expanding the war. In 1969, the “secret” bombing of Cambodia and Laos had increased in the areas adjacent to South Vietnam. In the spring of 1970, Nixon authorized an attack on Cambodia to knock out the sanctuaries. On April 29, 1970, a force that would eventually reach approximately 48,000 troops (including over 19,000 Americans) entered Cambodia. Nixon announced the incursion on national television that night. The domestic US reaction was swift. Polls indicated that 60% of the public opposed the operation.

                                   Protests exploded on college campuses across the country.  As at many universities, protests occurred at Kent State University in Ohio. The campus ROTC building was burned down, and however, for the most part, the demonstrations were peaceful.  Ohio’s governor sent National Guard units to Kent State to help restore order. On May 4, 1970, the protests at Kent continued. Guard units were ordered to disperse a crowd gathered near an administration building. Tear gas was fired as the guard advanced. Then, amazingly, they opened fire. Sixty shots were fired from 28 National Guard personnel. Four students died. Nine other students were wounded. In the 21st century, it is still unknown who gave the orders to; first, load live ammunition and, second, open fire. (The author returned from Vietnam in 1972 and was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, where his unit received anti-riot training in preparation for the 1972 national political conventions. Our most crucial order was that under no circumstances was live ammunition to be loaded into our weapon unless under direct order.) The National Guard soldiers used antiquated Second World War/Korean War era M-1 rifles to shoot at the protestors. If this had been the Second World, instead of Vietnam, those soldiers would not have faced students on a college campus; they would have been in the field, fighting the enemy.  

                           On May 13, 1970, tensions over the continuation of the war and racism exploded on the campus of all-black Jackson State University in Mississippi. Incidents involving white motorists prompted the deployment of the Mississippi National Guard and highway patrol on the campus. On the night of May 14, more incidents took place (mainly rock throwing). Shortly before midnight, 150 rounds of ammunition were fired by law-enforcement personnel into a dormitory, killing two students. It was all over in 28 seconds.


                        By the end of 1971, the number of American personnel was 156,000. The American air campaign grew even larger and more intense to support ARVN forces, who now were doing most of the ground fighting. Presidential adviser Henry Kissinger continued to conduct secret talks with the North Vietnamese, unknown to America’s South Vietnamese allies. In a diplomatic move that resonates into the 21st century, Nixon went to China to meet directly with Mao and Chou- Enlai. In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam launched a major offensive across northern South Vietnam and the Central Highlands. Only American airpower, including the extensive use of B-52 strategic bombers and the mining of Haiphong harbor, saved the South Vietnamese from being completely routed. For the first time since the late 1960s, American aircraft bombed targets in and near Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. It was becoming clear that without direct American military support, the South Vietnamese would be unable to withstand any determined North Vietnamese effort. North Vietnam had not lost its determination to win the war and unite all of Vietnam under its control, no matter the price or the time it would take. After almost nine years of direct warfare and over twenty years of indirect involvement, Americans, because of their willful ignorance, not only of their history but, more importantly, that of other countries and cultures, never understood or grasped that immutable fact.

                       In October 1972, the United States and North Vietnam agreed to a ceasefire and the release of American prisoners of war. The South Vietnamese government hesitated to accept the terms, knowing that any agreement that brought about US disengagement would be their end. Knowing about South Vietnamese reservations, the Americans also hesitated. At the last minute, the North Vietnamese balked at accepting the settlement. With no final agreement, the Americans launched one more massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam. Nicknamed the “Christmas Bombing” because it took place in December, it forced the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. On January 27, 1973, all the warring parties signed an agreement in Paris to end the war. It was basically on the same terms agreed upon in October. By April 1973, all American forces had left Vietnam, and all US prisoners held by North Vietnam had been released. “Peace with honor” had been achieved. The South Vietnamese were now on their own, and their fate was sealed. It would not be if they were overrun; it was when. The 1973 agreement could have been achieved in 1968; it was the best deal the Americans would get.

                           In the spring of 1975, in what some would call the Third Indochina War, the North Vietnamese overran and crushed the ARVN in a matter of weeks; President Thieu fled, and as did millions of Vietnamese, by any means they could find. Americans watched on the evening news as NVA tanks crashed through government gates in Saigon and the last evacuations took place from the rooftop of the American embassy. (The Vietnam evacuation was just as “chaotic” as the 21st-century evacuation from Afghanistan; it was not on a 24-hour cable broadcast loop, with the scene of the same C-17 continuously taking off.)

                     The American war in Vietnam was over. The United States has never wholly recovered from the cost of the Vietnam War either: financially, politically, culturally, or psychologically. 

Vietnam War Casualties: (1956-2006) Major Operations: (1964-1973)

Killed in Action- by year

1956-1960:                  9               Eisenhower

1961-1963:                 191            Kennedy

1964-1968                  33,798       Johnson

1969-1973                  21,192      Nixon 

1974-2006                  67

KIA                                      40,934

Died of Wounds                   5,299

MIA- declared dead.            1,085

Captured- declared dead      116

Missing-Presumed dead       123

Total Non-Hostile Deaths    10,786

Total: 58,220

Wounded                           303,604

Wounded/Hospitalized.    155,303

North Vietnam/NVA- NLF/ “Viet Cong” Combat Dead          849,018

South Vietnam Civilian Dead                                                   340,000

North Vietnam Civilian Dead                                                     65,00

Number of Americans serving Worldwide:                         8,744,000

Number of Americans serving in Southeast Asia:               3,403,000

Number of Americans serving in South Vietnam:          2,594,000

Number of US Vietnam Veterans alive in 2021:                850,000 

Britain and France refused to send troops to fight in Vietnam, much to the anger of US government officials. The following countries agreed to send troops to fight in Vietnam. 

The country, number of troops, and year of largest deployment:

Australia         7,670       1969

South Korea   50,000      1968

New Zealand      500      1969

Philippines      2,500      1966

Thailand.       11,570     1970

(Source: National Archives)

                          For the rest of the 1970s, “détente” and “openings” were the Cold War themes. In June 1972, following his historic trip to China, President Nixon went to the USSR and signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) to limit the growth in American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. A second SALT agreement was signed in 1974 by President Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev. The second agreement specified the number of nuclear warheads each side could have. SALT II had not received US Senate ratification by the time the new US President, Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor, was sworn into office in January 1977. Carter changed the focus of US foreign policy, emphasizing human rights. He also went ahead with the effort to have better relations with China, recognizing the Beijing government in 1978 and establishing diplomatic relations.

                     Carter was also able to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978. Arab countries and Israel had fought major wars against each other in 1956, 1967, and 1973. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat felt that peace was in the best interest of Egypt and Egyptian economic development. In the Arab world, his was the minority viewpoint (except for Jordan). Sadat would pay for his peace efforts with his life in 1981. He was assassinated during a military parade. In Iran, the US continued its support for the Shah of Iran (whom they had restored to the throne in 1953 in a US/UK intelligence operation). Carter visited Teheran and toasted the Shah in what would eventually become a foreign policy disaster for the Americans. The Shah was deposed in the spring and summer of 1979 by fundamentalist clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini. (No country was willing to give him permanent refuge.) By the fall of 1979, the Shah was critically ill and needed medical care to save his life. He was admitted to the United States and treated at Wilford Hall Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The Khomeini government demanded that the Shah not be admitted to the US and that he be returned to Iran. Later in October 1979, “students” stormed the US embassy and took the embassy staff hostage. Eventually, all but 52 would be released. In April 1980, the US attempted a military raid to rescue the hostages in Teheran. The mission failed, leaving eight US personnel dead. A deal was finally reached to release the hostages. They were freed on January 20, 1981, moments after Ronald Reagan became President. 

                                  In December 1979, to prop up the pro-USSR government in Kabul, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter announced a significant increase in defense spending and that any USSR move toward the Persian Gulf would be met by American force. Détente was over. The Americans announced they would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and encourage other countries to do the same. The hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (along with sluggish domestic economic growth and inflation) were issues Carter could not overcome in his 1980 election race with Republican candidate, former California governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan won in a landslide. He promised to restore American greatness and prestige in the world. Reagan and his advisers believed that Nixon and Ford had been too accommodating to the Soviets and Chinese and that Carter had been too “weak” and had not shown enough “toughness” regarding both countries. The Reagan administration was determined to change the direction of the course of the Cold War back to the advantage of the United States. 

                             Upon taking office, Reagan proposed and Congress the largest peacetime military budget in American history. New missiles, aircraft carriers, aircraft, infantry weapons, armor, and something called the “Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), better known as “Star Wars.” The Soviets feared that the US was seeking to acquire “first strike” capability against their nuclear arsenal. It was a system designed to shoot down incoming Soviet warheads. The Soviets increased their defense spending to match the Americans. For them, however, it was a hopeless situation; they could not come close to matching American spending unless they wanted to wreck their economy. For all intents and purposes, the Americans, in the long run, did ruin theirs. The increase in defense spending was enacted simultaneously with substantial tax cuts, massively increased American budget deficits. In the 21st century, the fierce debate over deficits in the American budget continues to rage. 

                                          The Reagan administration showed his “toughness” throughout the 1980s. The US bombed Libya in 1981 and 1986 in response to terrorist attacks. It supplied weapons and aid to the “Mujahadeen,” fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. It invaded the Caribbean Island of Grenada in 1983 to prevent the Cubans from finishing an airfield while protecting the government of Grenada. (Grenada was a member of the British Commonwealth. The UK government was not notified beforehand of the attack by the Americans). In the Middle East, the US sent intelligence support and weaponry to Iraq in its war with Iran and intervened in Lebanon during the 1982-83 Israeli war with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). It is still unclear why US ground forces were at the Beirut airport.  In October 1983, terrorists using a truck bomb killed over 200 Marines at the airport and wounded many more. In the aftermath, the US did not retaliate. The mission ended, and the troops withdrew in February 1984. In Central America, the US sent aid and arms to anti-communist rebels in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In a bizarre scheme in 1987, weapons and money were funneled through Iran to circumvent a Congressional ban on aid to the “Contras.” In Africa, the Reagan administration maintained its support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa as a bulwark against communist expansion in Southern Africa. In 1983, NATO agreed to let the US station Intermediate-Range Missiles at bases in Europe, over the protest of many rank-and-file Europeans, especially in the United Kingdom.

1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles: “America, Triumphant”

                                    Reagan ran for reelection in 1984. His “Morning in America” campaign hit a perfect note as the American economy improved, and it appeared that America’s standing in the world had been restored. It was the ideal backdrop for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In retaliation for 1980, the Soviets and their East-bloc allies boycotted the Los Angeles games. China and Romania, however, sent teams. Both received rapturous applause. They were the “good communists.” In 1985, the Soviets had a new, relatively young leader after a series of sick, frail older men. Mikhail Gorbachev, unknowingly, would oversee the end of the Soviet Union. Reagan had a fantastic turn of heart and prepared to discuss limiting, if not eliminating, nuclear weapons. In Iceland, in 1986, Reagan agreed to an INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty (the treaty was abrogated by Donald Trump in 2019) and the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty. The keyword was “Reduction,” and previous treaties had been about limitation. The discussion now was on reduction, which meant the elimination of nuclear weapons.  

Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan, Switzerland, 1985

               The end was near. The Soviet economy was a “basket case” by 1989. That same year, the Soviets gave up in Afghanistan and withdrew their troops after ten years of fighting. In the Eastern bloc, the collapse began in East Germany. Demonstrators pushed holes through the Berlin Wall. The East German government called Moscow for advice. Gorbachev’s answer was to do nothing. (A Soviet KGB officer in his late thirties named Vladimir Putin watched helplessly from his post in Leipzig, East Germany). The “collapse” spread in 1990 to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Gorbachev survived a coup attempt in 1991. The Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine declared their independence from the USSR. Gorbachev resigned as the final president of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The Russian flag replaced the “Hammer and Sickle” over the Kremlin. The great People’s experiment was over.

VP 1029992, GERMANY, BERLIN, 10.11.1989, Fall of the Berlin Wall. Our picture shows people from East and West Berlin climbing on the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany. [Each utilisation of our picture material is subject to royalties. A voucher copy is required. Photographer/Agency note must be published with the image. Only our terms of business are valid. Phone +49-(0)228-935650,]


                           The “Space Race” to put humans into space, explore the heavens, and land on the moon was part of the Cold War. It began with Sputnik, the satellite the Soviets put into orbit in 1957. The United States reacted by putting massive expenditures into science, engineering, and technology for universities and the military. The former Third Reich rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, led the effort to build rockets for the Americans. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was started in 1958. Soon seven military pilots were chosen to be the Astronauts. The Soviets beat the Americans by putting a man (Yuri Gagarin) into space (108 minutes) in 1961. President Kennedy then boldly expressed that the goal of the United States should be to place a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s:

 “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

President Kennedy, addressing a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961

                              The first two manned American flights would be flown by Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom. They were short, suborbital flights, going up for approximately 15 minutes and then splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. The first orbital flight of the original “Mercury” program took place in 1962 when Marine Colonel John Glenn orbited the earth three times.  The last Mercury flight on May 15, 1963, was flown by Air Force Major Gordon Cooper. Cooper was in orbit for over thirty-four hours. Each step in the program prepared for the ultimate goal: to land astronauts on the moon. The “Gemini” program would involve two-men crews, emphasizing “spacewalks,” longer flights, and docking procedures. James Lovell, John Young, Frank Borman, and Neil Armstrong were among the nine chosen to be “Gemini” astronauts. Ten “Gemini missions took place in 1965 and 1966. The next phase of the manned space program was the “Apollo” missions. The “Apollo” flights would take astronauts to the moon. The crew chose Apollo I, Roger Chaffee, Edward White, and “Gus” Grissom to begin their training. On January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the capsule, killing the three astronauts. Unknown to the Americans, another space-related disaster in the USSR had ended the Soviet desire to win the race to the moon. The Soviet N1 moon rocket exploded on the launchpad, killing valuable Soviet engineers and rocket designers. The Soviets were not going to the moon.

                             The first four “Apollo” flights (7-10), from October 1968 to May 1969, were used for testing, preparation, and training. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched. Its goal was to land on the moon. The crew included Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong. Armstrong was mission commander and was the first human to walk on the moon’s surface. The moon landing took place on July 20, 1969, a Sunday. The world watched a grainy, black-and-white image of Neil Armstrong stepping from the lunar module, “Eagle,” and into immortality. It took the Americans eight years to fulfill President Kennedy’s pledge. The moon landing proved, again, that a dedicated effort, combining American public and private resources with a united purpose, could achieve almost anything. 

July, 1969 – “Mission Accomplished”: Apollo 11 on the Moon

                             There would be six more “Apollo” missions to the moon, from November 1969 to December 1972. Apollo 13, launched in April 1970, almost ended in disaster as an oxygen tank exploded on the way to the moon. It was only the heroic efforts of the crew (James Lovell (4th space flight), John “Jack” Swigert (only flight), and Fred Haise (only flight), and ground personnel at the Space Center in Houston, that enabled Apollo 13 to return to Earth successfully. There were doubts about the “Apollo” program as far back as the “Gemini flights. Members of Congress thought it was too costly; even former President Eisenhower questioned whether the effort should continue. (He died four months, March 1969, before Apollo 11). In August 1971, President Nixon proposed canceling the remaining “Apollo” flights. NASA did cancel Apollo 18, 19, and 20. Manned space flight would continue with the Skylab and Soyuz missions for the rest of the 1970s. Regular manned flights would resume with the Space shuttle missions in 1981. The possibility of the exploration of Mars has always fascinated humans. Beginning in 1962, the Soviets sent nine probers to Mars; 3 were successful. The Americans began a Mars program in 1964 called “Mariner.” Mariners 3 and 4 did flybys of Mars in 1964 and 1965. An American probe, Viking 1, landed on Mars in 1976 and sent the first color pictures of the “Red Planet” to Earth.

                                   Was the Space effort worth the cost? The question is still being debated; however, the evidence of the space program is all around us in our daily lives: the technology we use, the science we study, the food we eat, and even the clothes we wear. 


                                   Having “survived” Vietnam, the Americans were triumphant in the “Space Race” and “victorious” in the Cold War. Despite its critical and potentially debilitating domestic issues, the United States could argue that its values could and should spread worldwide.  “Free Markets,” “Jeffersonian” democracy, “Liberty,” and “Freedom” would encompass the globe. It was time to cash in “the peace dividend” and begin the era of “A New World Order,” led and dominated by the United States.

Works Cited


Archer, Christon I, John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, Timothy H.E. Travers. World History of Warfare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002

Boyer, Paul S., ed. The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Branch. Taylor. Pillar Of Fire: America in The King Years 1963-65. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Cox Richardson, Heather. How The South Won The Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Hastings, Max. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.

Horne, Alistair. Hubris: The Tragedy of War in The Twentieth Century. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015.

Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies. New York: Vintage Books, 2018.

Kershaw, Ian. The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017. New York: Viking, 2018.

Lind, Michael. Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.

Lopez, Jean, ed. World War II Infographics. London: Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Ricks, Thomas E., The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

National Archives

%d bloggers like this: