Chapter 29 - Protest and Stagnation: The Western World, 1965-1985

The Cold War: The Move to Détente

FOCUS QUESTION: What were the main events in the Cold War between 1965 and 1985, and how important was the role of détente in those events?

The Cuban Missile Crisis led to the lessening of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. But within another year the United States had been drawn into a new confrontation that had an important impact on the Cold War-the Second Vietnam War.

The Second Vietnam War

After Vietnamese forces had defeated their French colonial masters in 1954, Vietnam had been divided. A strongly nationalistic regime in the north under Ho Chi Minh received Soviet aid, while American sponsors worked to establish a pro-Western regime in South Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy maintained Eisenhower’s policy of providing military and financial aid to the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem (NGOH din DEE-em) (1901-1963), the autocratic ruler of South Vietnam. But the Kennedy administration grew increasingly disenchanted with the Diem regime, which was corrupt and seemed incapable of gaining support from the people. From the American point of view, this lack of support simply undermined the ability of the South Vietnamese government to deal with the Vietcong, the South Vietnamese Communist guerrillas backed by the North Vietnamese. In November 1963, the U.S. government supported a military coup that overthrew the Diem regime.

The new military government seemed even less able to govern the country, and by early 1965, the Vietcong, their ranks now swelled by military units infiltrating from North Vietnam, were on the verge of seizing control of the entire country. In desperation, President Lyndon Johnson decided to launch bombing raids on the north and send U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam to prevent a total defeat of the anti-Communist government in Saigon and keep the Communist regime of the north from uniting the entire country under its control. Although nationalism played a powerful role in this conflict, American policy makers saw it in terms of a domino theory concerning the spread of communism. If the Communists succeeded in Vietnam, so the argument went, all the other countries in Asia freeing themselves from colonial domination would fall, like dominoes, to communism.

Despite their massive superiority in equipment and firepower, U.S. forces failed to prevail over the persistence of the North Vietnamese and especially the Vietcong. These guerrilla forces were extremely effective against American troops. Natives of Vietnam, they were able to live off the land, disappear among the people, and attack when least expected. Many South Vietnamese villagers were so opposed to their own government that they sheltered and supported the Vietcong.

The growing number of American troops sent to Vietnam soon produced a persistent antiwar movement in the United States, especially among college students of draft age. As described earlier, a similar movement also arose in Europe. Although Europeans had generally acquiesced in American leadership of the Cold War, some Europeans recognized the need for Europe to play its own role in foreign affairs. Under President Charles de Gaulle, France grew especially critical of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. De Gaulle believed that the Vietnamese should be allowed to live in their own unified country and in 1965 called the United States “the greatest danger in the world today to peace.” After President Johnson escalated the American war effort, antiwar protests broke out all over France in 1966 and 1967 and soon spread throughout Europe.

The mounting destruction and increasing brutalization of the war, brought into American homes every evening on television, also turned American public opinion against the war. Finally, in 1973, President Richard Nixon reached an agreement with North Vietnam that allowed the United States to withdraw its forces. Within two years, Vietnam had been forcibly reunited by Communist armies from the North.

Despite the success of the North Vietnamese Communists, the domino theory proved unfounded. A noisy rupture between Communist China and the Soviet Union put an end to the idea of a monolithic communism directed by Moscow. Under President Nixon, American relations with China were resumed. New nations in Southeast Asia also managed to avoid Communist governments. Above all, Vietnam helped show the limitations of American power. By the end of the Second Vietnam War, a new era in American-Soviet relations, known as detente, had begun to emerge. China and the Cold War

The Johnson administration had sent U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam in 1965 in an effort to prevent the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia. The primary concern of the United States, however, was not the Soviet Union but Communist China. By the mid-1960s, U.S. officials viewed the Soviet Union as an essentially conservative power, more concerned with protecting its vast empire than with expanding its borders. Mao Zedong’s attempt to create a totally classless society had received much attention; now, despite his failures with the Great Leap Forward (see Chapter 28), he launched China on an even more dramatic forced march toward communism. THE GREAT PROLETARIAN CULTURAL REVOLUTION Mao was convinced that only an atmosphere of constant revolutionary fervor would enable the Chinese to overcome the past and achieve the final stage of communism. Accordingly, in 1966 he unleashed the Red Guards, revolutionary units composed of unhappy Communist Party members and discontented young people who were urged to take to the streets to cleanse Chinese society of impure elements guilty of taking the capitalist road. Schools, universities, factories, and even government ministries were all subject to the scrutiny of the Red Guards. This so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (literally, the Chinese name translates as “great revolution to create a proletarian culture”) lasted for ten years, from 1966 to 1976. Red Guards set out across the nation to eliminate the “four olds”-old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits (see the box on p. 917). They destroyed temples, books written by foreigners, and jazz records. They tore down street signs and replaced them with new ones carrying revolutionary names. Destruction of property was matched by vicious attacks on individuals who had supposedly deviated from Mao’s thought. Those accused were humiliated at public meetings where they were forced to admit their “crimes.” Many were brutally beaten, of ten to death.

Mao found, however, that it was not easy to maintain a constant mood of revolutionary enthusiasm. Key groups, including Party members, urban professionals, and many military officers, did not share Mao’s desire for “permanent revolution.” People began to turn against the movement, and in September 1976, when Mao died, a group of practical-minded reformers seized power from the radicals and adopted a more rational approach to China’s problems. U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS For years U.S. policy toward Communist China was determined by American fears of Communist expansion in Asia. Already in 1950, the Truman administration had adopted a new national policy that implied that the United States would take whatever steps were necessary to stem expansion of communism in the region, a policy that Truman invoked when he sent troops to Korea in 1950 (see “The Korean War” in Chapter 28). The Second Vietnam War raised additional concerns about Communist China’s intentions.

President Richard Nixon, however, opened a new door in American relations when he visited China and met with Mao Zedong in 1972. Despite Nixon’s reputation as a devout anti-Communist, the visit was a success as the two leaders agreed to put aside their most bitter differences in an effort to reduce tensions in Asia. During the 1970s, Chinese-American relations continued to improve. In 1979, diplomatic ties were established between the two countries, and by the end of the 1970s, China and the United States had forged a “strategic relationship” in which they would cooperate against the threat of Soviet intervention in Asia. The Practice of Détente

By the 1970s, American-Soviet relations had entered a new phase known as detente, marked by a reduction of tensions between the two superpowers. An appropriate symbol of détente was the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972, in which the two nations agreed to limit their systems for launching antiballistic missiles (ABMs). The U.S. objective in pursuing the treaty was to make it unlikely that either superpower could win a nuclear exchange by launching a preemptive strike against the other. U.S. officials believed that a policy of “equivalence,” in which there was roughly equal power on each side, was the best way to avoid a nuclear confrontation.

In 1975, the Helsinki Accords provided yet another example of reduced tensions between the superpowers. Signed by the United States, Canada, and all European nations, these accords recognized all borders that had been established in Europe since the end of World War II, thereby acknowledging the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The Helsinki Accords also committed the signatory powers to recognize and protect the human rights of their citizens. The Limits of Détente

This protection of human rights became one of the major foreign policy goals of the next American president, Jimmy Carter. Although hopes ran high for the continuation of detente, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, undertaken to restore a pro-Soviet regime, hardened relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. President Carter canceled American participation in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and placed an embargo on the shipment of American grain to the Soviet Union.

The early administration of President Ronald Reagan witnessed a return to the harsh rhetoric, if not all of the harsh practices, of the Cold War. Calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan began a military buildup that stimulated a renewed arms race. In 1982, the Reagan administration introduced the nuclear-tipped cruise missile, whose ability to fly at low altitudes made it difficult to detect. President Reagan also became an ardent proponent of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed “Star Wars.” Its purpose was to create a space shield that could destroy incoming missiles.

By providing military support to the anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration helped maintain a Vietnam-like war in Afghanistan that would embed the Soviet Union in its own quagmire. Like the Second Vietnam War, the conflict in Afghanistan resulted in heavy casualties and demonstrated that the influence of a superpower was limited in the face of strong nationalist, guerrilla-type opposition.


Next Reading: 29-4 Society and Culture in the Western World