Modern history

The Cold War Hardens, 1948-1952

After 1947, the Cold War intensified. Both sides increased military spending and took measures to enhance their military presence around the world. Fueled by growing distrust, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in inflammatory rhetoric that added to the danger that the conflict posed to world peace. In 1950 the United States, in cooperation with the United Nations, sent troops to South Korea to turn back an invasion from the Communist North. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the president gained expanded power to initiate wars and increase spending for military and national security agencies.

Military containment

The New Deal and World War II had increased the power of the president and his ability to manage economic and military crises. The Cold War further strengthened the presidency and shifted the balance of governmental power to the executive branch, creating what has been called the imperial presidency.

As the Cold War heated up, Congress granted the president enormous authority over foreign affairs and internal security. The National Security Act, passed in 1947, created the Department of Defense as a cabinet agency (replacing the Department of War), consolidated control of the various military services under its authority, and established the Joint Chiefs of Staff, composed of the heads of the army, navy, air force, and marines. To advise the president on military and foreign affairs, the act set up the National Security Council (NSC), a group presided over by the national security adviser. The NSC also consisted of the secretaries of state, defense, the army, the navy, and the air force and any others the president might choose to designate.

In addition to this panel, the National Security Act established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as part of the executive branch. Because of the nation’s poor experience analyzing intelligence prior to World War II, the CIA was given the responsibility of coordinating intelligence gathering and conducting espionage abroad to counter Soviet spying operations. Another new intelligence agency, the National Security Agency, created in 1949, monitored overseas communications through the latest technological devices. Together, these agencies enhanced the president’s ability to conduct foreign affairs with little congressional oversight and out of public view.

By 1948 the Truman administration had decided that an economically healthy Germany, with its great industrial potential, provided the key to a prosperous Europe and consequently a depression-proof United States. Rebuilding postwar Germany would also fortify the eastern boundary of Europe against Soviet expansion. In mid-1948, the United States, United Kingdom, and France consolidated their occupation zones, created the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and initiated economic reforms to stimulate a speedy recovery. This prompted the Soviet Union, which saw a strong Germany as a threat to its national security, to respond in a belligerent manner. Stalin closed the access roads from the border of West Germany to Berlin, located in the Soviet zone of East Germany, effectively cutting off the city from the West.

The Soviet blockade of West Berlin turned the Cold War even colder. Without provisions from the United States and its allies in West Germany, West Berliners could not survive. In an effort to break the blockade, Truman ordered a massive airlift known as “Operation Vittles,” during which American and British planes transported more than 2.5 million tons of supplies to West Berlin. After nearly a year of these flights, the Berlin airlift ended in the spring of 1949 when the Russians backed off and once again allowed their adversaries to supply West Berlin on the ground.

MAP 24.1

The Cold War in Europe, 1945-1955 In 1946, the four major victorious wartime allies divided Germany and Berlin into distinct sectors, leading to increasing conflict. Between 1949 and 1955, the descent of what Winston Churchill called the "iron curtain" of communism and the creation of rival security pacts headed by the United States and the Soviet Union hardened these postwar divisions into a prolonged Cold War.

Although the two superpowers narrowly avoided war over Berlin, their subsequent actions kept the conflict alive. Both nations fashioned military alliances to keep the other at bay. In April 1949, the United States joined eleven European countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A peacetime military alliance, NATO established a collective security pact in which an attack on one member was viewed as an attack on all (Map 24.1). Pledging to defend Europe, Truman dispatched four army divisions to Western Europe to show his resolve against Soviet aggression. In 1949 the Russians followed suit by organizing the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance to help their satellite nations rebuild and six years later by creating the Warsaw Pact military alliance, the respective counterparts in Eastern Europe to the Marshall Plan and NATO.

Amid the growing militarization of the Cold War, 1949 brought two new shocks to the United States and its allies. First, in September the Russians successfully tested an atomic bomb. Second, Communist forces within China led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai succeeded in overthrowing the U.S.-backed government of Jiang Jieshi and creating the People’s Republic of China. These two events convinced many in the United States that the threat posed by communism was escalating rapidly.

In response, the National Security Council met to reevaluate U.S. strategy in fighting the Cold War. In April 1950, the NSC recommended to Truman that the United States intensify its containment policy both abroad and at home. The document it handed over to the president, entitled NSC-68, spelled out the need for action in ominous language. “The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony,” NSC-68 warned, “is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. It is in this context that this Republic and its citizens . . . stand in their deepest peril.” Having sketched out the dire threat posed by Russia’s acquisition of the atomic bomb, the NSC made specific recommendations to combat this new challenge. NSC-68 proposed that the United States develop an even more powerful nuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb; increase military spending; and continue to negotiate NATO-style alliances around the globe. Departing from the original guidelines for the CIA, the president’s advisers proposed that the United States engage in “covert means” to foment and support “unrest and revolt in selected strategic [Soviet] satellite countries.” At home, the government should prepare Americans for the Communist danger by enhancing internal security and civil defense programs.

Truman agreed with many of the principles behind NSC-68 but worried about the cost of funding it. The problem remained a political one. Though the Democrats once again controlled both houses of Congress, there was little sentiment to raise taxes and slash the economic programs established during the New Deal. However, circumstances abruptly changed when, in June 1950, shortly after the president received the NSC report, Communist North Korea invaded U.S.-backed South Korea. In response to this attack, Truman took the opportunity to put into practice key recommendations of NSC-68.

The Korean War

Like Germany, Korea emerged from World War II divided between U.S. and Soviet spheres of influence. Above the 38th parallel, which divided the Korean peninsula, the Communist leader Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea with support from the Soviet Union. Below that latitude, the anti-Communist leader Syngman Rhee governed South Korea. The United States supported Rhee, but with American forces occupying Japan and the Philippines, in January 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson did not regard South Korea as part of the vital Asian “defense perimeter” that the United States guaranteed to protect from Communist aggression. Truman had already removed remaining American troops from the country the previous year. On June 25, 1950, an emboldened Kim Il Sung sent troops to invade South Korea, seeking to unite the country under his leadership.

In the aftermath of the invasion, Korea took on new importance to American policymakers. Drawing a parallel between the situation in Korea and the appeasement of the Nazis before World War II, Truman remarked that he had seen strong nations invade the weak before and that the failure of democracies to act only encouraged aggressors. If South Korea fell, the president believed, Communist leaders would be “emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.” Thus the Truman Doctrine was now applied to Asia as it had previously been applied to Europe. This time, however, American financial aid would not be enough. It would be up to the U.S. military to contain the Communist threat.

Truman did not seek a declaration of war from Congress. According to Acheson, consulting Congress would delay matters and “weaken and confuse [our] will.” Instead, Truman chose a multinational course of action. With the Soviet Union boycotting the United Nations over its refusal to admit the Communist People’s Republic of China, the United States obtained authorization from the UN Security Council to send a peacekeeping force to Korea. In the absence of a declaration of war, Truman, as commander in chief, sent American troops to enforce what he called a “police action.” Fifteen other countries joined UN forces, but the United States supplied the bulk of the troops, as well as their commanding officer, General Douglas MacArthur. In reality, MacArthur reported to the president, not the United Nations.

Before MacArthur could mobilize his forces, the North Koreans had penetrated most of South Korea, except for the port of Pusan on the southwest coast of the peninsula. In a daring counterattack, on September 15, 1950, MacArthur dispatched land and sea forces to capture Inchon, northwest of Pusan on the opposite coast, to cut off North Korean supply lines. Joined by UN forces pushing out of Pusan, MacArthur’s Eighth Army troops chased the enemy northward in retreat back over the 38th parallel.

Now Truman had to make a key decision. MacArthur wanted to invade North Korea, defeat the Communists, and unify the country under Syngman Rhee. Instead of sticking to his original goal of containing Communist aggression against South Korea, Truman succumbed to the lure of liberating all ofKorea from the Communists. MacArthur received permission to proceed, and on October 9 his forces crossed the 38 th parallel into North Korea. Within three weeks, UN troops marched through the country until they reached the Yalu River, which bordered China. With the U.S. military massed along their southern perimeter, the Chinese warned that they would send troops to repel the invaders if the Americans crossed the Yalu. Both General MacArthur and Secretary of State Acheson, based on faulty CIA intelligence, discounted this threat, figuring that the Chinese Communists did not want to fight another war so recently after winning their revolution. They were wrong. Truman approved MacArthur’s plan to cross the Yalu, and on November 27, 1950, China sent more than 300,000 troops south into North Korea. This proved disastrous for the United States; within two months, Communist troops regained control of North Korea, allowing them once again to invade South Korea. On January 4, 1951, the South Korean capital of Seoul fell to Chinese and North Korean troops (Map 24.2).

MAP 24.2 The Korean War, 1950-1953 Considered a "police action" by the United Nations, the Korean War cost the lives of nearly 37,000 U.S. troops. Approximately one million Koreans were killed, wounded, or missing. Each side pushed deep into enemy territory, but neither could achieve victory. When hostilities ceased in 1953, a demilitarized zone near the original boundary line separated North and South Korea.

By the spring of 1951, the war had degenerated into a stalemate. UN forces succeeded in recapturing Seoul and repelling the Communists north of the 38 th parallel. This time, with the American public anxious to end the war and with the presence of the Chinese promising an endless, bloody predicament, the president sought to replace combat with diplomacy. The American objective would be containment, not Korean unification.

Truman’s change of heart infuriated General MacArthur, who was willing to risk an all-out war with China and to use nuclear weapons to win. After MacArthur spoke out publicly against Truman’s policy by remarking, “There is no substitute for victory,” the president removed him from command on April 11, 1951. However, even with the change in strategy and leadership, the war dragged on for two more years until July 1953, when a final armistice agreement was reached. By this time, Truman’s term of office had ended.

The Korean War cost the United States 54,000 lives and $54 billion. This sacrifice of human lives and economic resources made the war unpopular among the American people. Few understood what good, if any, was accomplished. If American soldiers had to die and suffer, many Americans questioned why the Truman administration was satisfied with containment and not the expulsion of communism from Asia once and for all. When MacArthur returned to the United States, he was greeted as a hero, reflecting public dissatisfaction with a war in which fighting to a draw was represented as a victory.

The War and the imperial Presidency

The Korean War boosted the imperial presidency by allowing the president to bypass Congress and the Constitution to initiate wars in the name of “police actions.” The war allowed Truman to expand his powers as commander in chief and augmented the strength of the national security state over which he presided. As a result of the Korean conflict, the military draft became a regular feature of American life for young men over the next two decades. The expanded peacetime military was active around the globe, operating bases in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. During the war, the military budget rose from $13.5 billion to $50 billion, strengthening the connection between economic growth and permanent mobilization to fight the Cold War. The war also permitted President Truman to reshape foreign policy along the lines sketched in NSC-68, including the extension of U.S. influence in Southeast Asia. Consequently, he authorized economic aid to support the French against Communist revolutionaries in Vietnam.

Yet the power of the imperial presidency did not go unchecked. Congress deferred to Truman on key issues of military policy, but on one important occasion the Supreme Court stepped in to restrain him. The central issue grew out of a labor dispute in the steel industry. In 1952 the United Steel Workers of America threatened to go on strike for higher wages, which would have had a serious impact on war production as well as the economy in general. On May 2, after the steel companies refused the union’s demands, Truman announced the government seizure and operation of the steel mills to keep them running. He argued that as president he had the “inherent right” to take over the steel plants.

The steel companies objected and brought the matter before the Supreme Court. On June 2, 1952, the Court ruled against Truman. It held that the president did not have the intrinsic authority to seize private property, even during wartime. For the time being, the Supreme Court affirmed some limitations on the unbridled use of presidential power even during periods of war.


• What were the causes and consequences of the militarization of the containment strategy in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

• How did the Korean War contribute to the centralization of power in the executive branch?

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