A Cold War Begins (1945–1964)


In early 1948, college and university students made plans for summer break. Jeanne Holm, a 26-year-old student at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, planned to serve her country. A volunteer in the Women's Army Corps, or WAC, during World War II, she yearned to wear the uniform once again. While Congress debated legislation on the “permanent status” of women in the military, she checked a box on a recruiting postcard to indicate her interest in “Air Force – Regular” and dropped it in the mail.

That summer, Holm borrowed $600 from her grandmother and steered her 1940 Chevy toward Fort Lee, Virginia. She sought the assistance of her former WAC commander, Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth C. Smith, to obtain commissioned service. On the cross-country trip, she picked up another former WAC, Evelyn Nicholson. Short of money but longing for adventure, they slept in her car each night. After arriving at Fort Lee, she returned to active duty while awaiting her commission. “You are not going to receive a commission in the Army,” the commander finally informed her. To her great surprise, someone took note of her previous postcard.

Commissioned in the newly organized Women's Air Force, or WAF, Captain Holm reported to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Within days, she boarded an airplane heading for Erding Air Depot near Munich, Germany, where she became a “wing war plans officer.” Discovering that no one else knew any more about war plans than she did, she carefully studied top-secret documents at the American forward base in Europe.

Holm and her fellow officers anticipated the outbreak of World War III at any moment. While the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, she assumed that the Red Army would “just walk in one day and take us all prisoners.” Her male counterparts suggested evacuating all of the WAF, but she disagreed. “No, the WAF is military,” she declared, insisting that “they need to stay here and do the jobs assigned to them.”

Figure 13.1 Recruiting poster for women in the Air Force, 1951. The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project, Martha Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University of North Carolina at Greensboro


Holm, who later became the first female two-star general in American military history, started her Air Force career at the beginning of the Cold War. Once the dreaded Axis Powers collapsed, the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the U.S. unwound. An ideological contest sparked a series of international crises, which began in occupied Germany. At the same time, anti-colonial uprisings in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America exacerbated the mounting tensions. A series of miscalculations resulted in armed conflict between opposing forces on the Korean peninsula. With the dawning of an atomic age, the clash of the superpowers created a bi-polar world rife with danger.

As the world seemed to split between communist and anti-communist countries, the American military attempted to guard the far-flung lines between them. Committed to containment, U.S. presidents abandoned the strategic concepts of unilateralism and isolationism. The lessons of Munich – that liberal democracies failed to stand against Nazi aggression before World War II – shaped the assumptions of policymakers in Washington D.C. The totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin, who seemed as brutal as the deceased Adolf Hitler, exploited the power vacuums that emerged around the globe. The U.S. assumed a right and a responsibility for preventing the appeasement of aggressors, even if it required another war.

In the shadow of war, the U.S. focused energies and resources on military power. The Pentagon attempted to provide a nuclear deterrent, which triggered an arms race that lasted for decades. While amassing huge stockpiles of weaponry for defense, the nation competed with the “Reds” in everything from science to sports. Most of all, men and women in uniform glimpsed the ominous signs of an enemy near the Brandenburg Gate. Denouncing Soviet actions only a year after the Allied victory, Winston Churchill warned Americans in Fulton, Missouri, that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent” of Europe.

Department of Defense

After World War II ended in 1945, the U.S. began to slash the annual budgets of the War and Navy Departments. Within two years, the number of service members fell to fewer than 1.5 million. While thousands performed constabulary duties in Germany and in Japan, many more awaited their discharges at military bases in the Philippines, China, France, Great Britain, and the continental U.S. Rapid demobilization drained manpower from national defense.

Alarmed by the impact of demobilization, prominent officers endorsed the concept of universal military training. Swayed by the writings of retired General John McAuley Palmer, President Harry Truman acknowledged that the nation needed a reservoir of well-trained citizen soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The commander-in-chief asked Congress for legislation that required male citizens to undergo a year of military training upon reaching the age of 18 or after completing high school. While legislators debated the form and the function of national service, various proposals for compulsory “self-improvement” floundered. Despite the general popularity of the concept, objections ranged from the projected costs to the social implications of a “Nazi program.” Regardless of the justifications that made it more palatable, the federal government failed to find a legislative remedy that, as Truman put it, fostered “the moral and spiritual welfare of our young people.”

Though Congress eventually extended the Selective Service system, the American military depended almost entirely upon the reserve component for reinforcements. Each branch trained reservists for activation. However, they numbered less than a million. The National Guard contained the bulk of the personnel, but several divisions remained undermanned and underfunded. Though disregarded by the professional cadre in the Army, the Organized Reserve Corps contained many experienced officers from World War II. ROTC programs readied cadets at land-grant colleges and universities, where two years of training and membership in the reserves remained common. Whether assigned to combat or support units, service members in the reserve component often drew equipment and supplies from outdated stocks.

The Truman administration weighed measures to improve the federal oversight of all service members. While most military leaders wanted to unify the command and control of the armed forces, Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal advocated a looser, more decentralized system. Dubbed the “Battle of the Potomac” in the American press, months of bureau­cratic squabbling and congressional hearings produced the National Security Act on July 26, 1947.

The controversial law created the National Military Establishment, which designated the Army, Navy, and Air Force as three executive departments led by civilian secretaries. Accordingly, the Air Force became an independent, coequal branch of service with jurisdiction over strategic air power, air transport, and air support. While the Army maintained primary responsibility for conducting ground campaigns and for providing occupation and security garrisons, the Navy directed surface and submarine operations, sea-based aviation, and the Marine Corps. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, which formulated inter-service plans, included the top brass of each service. The Joint Chiefs lacked a formal chairman initially, although later revisions to the law authorized one. In theory, all military affairs were supervised by the Pentagon – the headquarters for the Department of Defense, or DOD. With the former Secretary of War, Robert P. Patterson, retiring to private life, Forrestal became the nation's first Secretary of Defense.

While underscoring the idea of “unification,” the National Security Act effectively enlarged the bureaucracies that assisted Forrestal. It authorized the National Security Council, or NSC, which coordinated the diplomatic and military policies of the executive branch. A successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services, the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, gathered information abroad while coordinating intelligence activities. Governmental authorities assembled powerful mechanisms for national defense without achieving much clarity, firmness, or efficiency.

A more unified administration strengthened aspects of national defense, but inter-service rivalries remained a critical weakness. The Navy defended its tactical air capabilities against budget reallocations, which seemed to favor the strategic bombing assets of the Air Force. Moreover, the Army's claims in regard to land-based missions ostensibly threatened the Marine Corps. Because Forrestal failed to achieve cooperation among the competing services, Truman abruptly asked him to resign after only 18 months on the job. On May 22, 1949, he committed suicide while in a state of mental depression.

Truman turned to an aspiring political ally, Louis A. Johnson, as the next Secretary of Defense. Hoping to enhance the intercontinental capabilities of the Air Force, he approved funding for the acquisition of the new B-36 bombers in place of fighters and intermediate-range bombers. Furthermore, he cancelled funding for the 58,000-ton supercarrier, the United States, and reduced the active carrier forces and naval air groups. Fleet operations could not support heavy jets without a substantial refitting. With newspaper headlines announcing a “revolt of the admirals,” the Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan resigned from his civilian post.

Congressional hearings followed, but the Navy failed to stop the reductions. General Omar Bradley, the newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs, denounced the Navy's apparent attempt to undermine civilian control over the military. Eventually, Johnson removed the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, who tried to discredit the B-36 program. In spite of grousing from the Navy Department, the Pentagon held the upper hand.

The growing demand for non-combat personnel prompted the Pentagon to turn to women. With the support of senior military leaders, Congress began discussing passage of a bill for the re-entrance of females into commissioned service. During 1947, Captain Joy Bright Hancock of the WAVES testified in a Senate hearing about the role of women in the military. “It would appear to me that any national defense weapon known to be of value,” she asserted, “should be developed and kept in good working order and not allowed to rust or to be abolished.” Though General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz publicly endorsed legislation regarding “woman power,” congressional action stalled in the cloakrooms.

Throughout the spring of 1948, Congress held additional public hearings on the permanent role of women in the military. The Retired Military Officers Association recommended flag rank for the directors of the women's corps, but the National Council for the Prevention of War opposed any measures that would “militarize women.” No member of Congress worked more tirelessly on behalf of legislation than Maine Representative Margaret Chase Smith, who also served in the Air Force Reserve. When the Women's Armed Services Integration Bill reached the floor, it promised opportunities for females to pursue military careers in fields such as nursing and administration. However, it precluded women from “having command authority over men.” After Congress finally passed it, Truman signed Public Law 625 on June 12, 1948.

Given the prior service of African Americans in uniform, civil rights leaders urged Truman to push for the desegregation of the military. Rather than pursuing congressional legislation, though, he decided to use his inherent powers as commander-in-chief. On July 26, 1948, he issued Executive Order 9981. It declared that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Afterward, the first Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall, resigned in protest. Segregationists called Truman a communist for promulgating the order.

To implement the order as rapidly as possible, Truman established the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. Chaired by jurist Charles Fahy, the seven-member advisory body examined the rules, procedures, and practices of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. During public hearings in 1949, the Fahy Committee compelled the military brass to discuss desegregation. That summer, the DOD approved the desegregation plans of both the Air Force and the Navy. However, the Army continued to drag its boots for several years. Eventually, manpower shortages forced it into full compliance. After delivering a final report during 1950, the Fahy Committee was disbanded by Truman.

At the same time, a number of committees, commissions, and studies called for changes to the system of military justice. In early 1950, Congress approved the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, which established a single set of regulations for all of the services. Once implemented, it protected the rights of individuals in uniform, restricted the influence of commanding officers, and curbed the instances of arbitrary discipline. By extending civilian concepts of jurisprudence to military affairs, it provided any accused service member with legally qualified counsel and recourse to appellate review. For example, a three-person, all-civilian Court of Military Appeals ultimately rendered judgment in most cases. With few revisions, the UCMJ provided the foundation for military law governing free speech as well as sexual behavior.

To a great extent, Washington D.C. made the DOD responsible for military power. While driven by urgent demands to manage human resources, the recalibration of the war machine also reflected the national preoccupation with geopolitical imperatives. Militarization touched nearly every aspect of civil society in the U.S., but the readiness of the armed forces remained uncertain.

Containment Strategy

With the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund stabilizing overseas markets, many Americans wanted the United Nations, or UN, to ensure peace and security abroad. The international organization held its first meeting in 1946, although the UN General Assembly wielded little power. As the principal organ for making decisions, the UN Security Council initially included 11 members – five of them permanent and empowered with a veto. The U.S. submitted a plan to members for establishing multilateral oversight of nuclear weapons, but the Soviet Union balked. Bernard Baruch, the American propo­nent of the plan, worried that the former Allied nations were “in the midst of a cold war.”

Soviet actions dashed American hopes for peaceful cooperation over a wide array of international issues. Holding dictatorial powers, Stalin pulled eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania into the Soviet's “sphere of influence.” While indirectly supporting rebel forces in Greece, the Kremlin tried to intimidate Turkey into making territorial concessions. Whatever the impulse behind the aggressive moves, communist ideologues intended to promote revolutions worldwide. George Kennan, counselor of the U.S. embassy in the Soviet Union, sent a long telegram to Washington D.C. warning of relentless communist aggression. Therefore, he recommended “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” The strategy of containment dovetailed with the views of Truman, whose closest advisors urged him to prepare for a “war on all fronts.”

On March 12, 1947, Truman addressed Congress to request aid for Greece and Turkey. In addition to sending military personnel as advisors, he wanted to provide $400 million in direct assistance. “I believe,” the commander-in-chief announced, “that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” Simply stated, the Truman Doctrine committed the nation to opposing the spread of communism in Europe primarily.

Echoing the principles of the Truman Doctrine, Secretary of State George C. Marshall called for a robust effort to support European recovery. According to the Marshall Plan, all of war-torn Europe was eligible for billions of dollars in economic aid from the U.S. “Our policy,” Marshall posited in a Harvard commencement address, “is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” Moscow disliked stipulations regarding free markets, denouncing them as an “imperialist” scheme. Nevertheless, the aid from the Marshall Plan drew the non-communist nations of Europe closer together. In contrast to the communist satellites under Soviet domination, they experienced economic growth and significant prosperity over the next several years.

The Truman administration confronted a crisis in Germany, where the Soviets wanted to create a unified but demilitarized regime. On June 24, 1948, they began stopping traffic and electricity flowing into the western sectors of Berlin. General Lucias D. Clay, the American military governor of the U.S. occupation zone, considered testing the Soviet blockade with an armed convoy but instead opted for air transports. For the next 324 days, the U.S. conducted the Berlin airlift to deliver food, medicine, fuel, and supplies. Irrespective of the threats from Moscow to stop them, more than 275,000 flights reached West Berlin. Truman also sent two bomber groups to Great Britain but refused to give the Pentagon control over atomic weaponry. The British, French, and U.S. forces combined their zones into the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany. After the Soviets finally lifted the blockade, a separate “democratic” republic arose in the communist zone of East Germany.

With relations between the Americans and the Soviets chilling in 1949, the Senate ratified the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. The U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands pledged military cooperation to achieve collective security. Later, Greece, Turkey, and West Germany joined the alliance. Henceforth, an attack on one member would constitute an attack on all. To earmark support for NATO, Truman requested legislation from Congress for Mutual Defense Assistance, or MDA. Composed of Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel, an advisory group assisted a host government and helped to train and to equip their armed forces. By extending the logic of the Monroe Doctrine across the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. pledged to protect anti-communist nations under a nuclear umbrella.

Late that summer, the nuclear monopoly held by the American military came to an end. Bolstered by the work of “atomic spies,” the Soviets successfully detonated their own bomb on August 29, 1949. To win back the preponderance of power, Truman ordered the construction of a megaton hydrogen bomb and the development of tactical nuclear arms. Under the auspices of the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, the Air Force prepared to conduct offensive strikes inside the Soviet Union as part of a war plan known as Operation Dropshot. With Europe endangered by the threat of Soviet dominance, the Truman administration needed the American military to make containment credible.

The Soviet gains accompanied another setback for the Truman administration that year. Communists led by Mao Zedong pushed Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek from mainland China. They fled to the island of Formosa, which later became Taiwan. Whereas the U.S. refused to recognize the communist regime on the mainland, the People's Republic of China signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union early the next year.

Shocked by the turn of events, the National Security Council conducted a critical reassessment of American military commitments around the world. They prepared NSC-68, which offered a top-secret “blueprint” for strategic defense. Calling for American rearmament, the document recommended the expansion of national conscription and an increase in federal taxes. Accordingly, the U.S. needed to build more nuclear weapons as well as to expand conventional forces. Defense spending was projected to range as high as $50 billion per year and to generate as much as 20 percent of the gross domestic product. In sum, military strength represented the key to containing the “Soviet totalitariat” during the Cold War.

Police Action

Before the 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union temporarily divided the narrow, mountainous Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. In the south, the Republic of Korea elected its first president, Syngman Rhee, an ardent nationalist with American support. To the north, the Soviet Union and Communist China backed the Democratic People's Republic of Korea led by Kim Il Sung. While communists governed North Korea from Pyongyang, the South Koreans located their capital at Seoul near the dividing line. Although the Truman administration desired Korean reunification, Secretary of State Dean Acheson publicly omitted the peninsula from the American “defense perimeter.”

Focused on containing communism elsewhere, the Truman administration failed to foresee the aggression of adversaries in Asia. In addition to providing arms and supplies, Stalin helped North Korea design war plans to invade South Korea. The North Korean People's Army, or NKPA, raised 135,000 soldiers and equipped them with Soviet T-34 tanks, heavy artillery, and attack aircraft. Moreover, Mao assumed that Americans would deem any military action “an internal matter” for the Korean people. As Pyongyang sent guerrillas southward with greater frequency, the U.S. downplayed signals that communist forces massed near the 38th parallel.

At 4:00 a.m. on June 25, 1950, Pyongyang launched an all-out offensive with artillery and mortar barrages near Seoul. The NKPA overwhelmed the 95,000 soldiers of the Republic of Korea Army, or ROKA. In a matter of days, nearly half of the ROKA disappeared from the battlefield. Due to the 14-hour time difference, the news of the sudden attack actually reached Washington D.C. on the afternoon of June 24.

The next day, the Security Council of the United Nations approved a resolution that censured North Korea. While denouncing the “breach of peace” on the peninsula, the resolution demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and a communist withdrawal to the 38th parallel. Boycotting the meeting for refusing to seat Communist China in place of Nationalist China, the Soviet delegation failed to veto the resolution. Consequently, the United Nations rallied to the defense of South Korea.

“Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had acted 10, 15, and 20 years earlier,” concluded Truman, who responded quickly. First, he directed General Douglas MacArthur, head of the Far East Command in Japan, to evacuate Americans from Korea. Second, he ordered U.S. and allied forces to supply South Korea with ammunition and equipment. Third, he redeployed the Seventh Fleet from Philippine and Ryukyu waters to Taiwan. While the Joint Chiefs formulated plans for air and naval operations, Truman's decisiveness surprised communist leaders from Moscow to Peking.

Since Pyongyang ignored the admonishment of the United Nations, the Security Council passed another resolution on June 27. At the urging of the U.S., it voted for members “to furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.” Accordingly, Truman dispatched air, naval, and ground forces to Korea without seeking a declaration of war by Congress.

Conducting a press conference a few days later, Truman declared: “We are not at war.” One reporter suggested calling it “a police action under the United Nations,” to which the commander-in-chief retorted: “Yes, that is exactly what it amounts to.” The phrase “police action” remained in public circulation for years, albeit derisively.

One of the most controversial military figures in U.S. history, MacArthur wanted to turn the “police action” into a showdown with international communism. In the Cold War, he believed that America's vital interests lay in Asia rather than in Europe. At the age of 70, his headquarters at the Dai Ichi building in Tokyo became a regal palace. Whatever his flaws, his eminence earned him the label, “American Caesar.” Within days of the NKPA invasion, he flew to the Korean peninsula to personally inspect the ROKA defenses near the Han River. While puffing a corncob pipe, he toured the area for eight hours by jeep and returned to the landing strip for a flight back to Japan. “South Korean casualties as an index to fighting have not shown adequate resistance,” he concluded as Seoul fell, “and our best estimate is that complete collapse is imminent.” In a cable to Washington D.C., he recommended the immediate insertion of American troops drawn from the Army of Occupation in Japan.

Though woefully unprepared for the unfavorable circumstances, the 24th Division deployed from their barracks in Japan to the battlefields of Korea. Their commander, General William F. Dean, established his headquarters at Taejon. On July 5, Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith positioned 403 infantrymen on the main road between Suwon and Osan. Called Task Force Smith, they suffered 155 casualties in a futile blocking action. When struck by NKPA tanks and mortars, scores ran for their lives. Dean reported with alarm that “our troops were bugging out.” As the enemy seized Taejon, he hunted a T-34 tank through the streets with a 3.5-inch bazooka. After fleeing to the hills, he became the highest-ranking officer captured by the enemy. In their first encounters with communist forces in Korea, the American lines disintegrated amid haste and uncertainty.

Figure 13.2 The Korean War


Trading space for time, the United Nations attempted to form a new defensive line with additional American reinforcements. On July 10, it appointed MacArthur as the supreme commander of UN forces deployed to Korea. General Walton H. Walker took command of the Eighth Army, which protected the southeastern corner of the peninsula and guarded the approaches to the major port at Pusan. However, “bug-out fever” remained an irresistible urge among the ineffective units facing direct fire. Mile by mile and day by day, the ROKA and the American troops fell back to a 140-mile line known as the Pusan perimeter. Near the Natkong River, Walker stiffened the Eighth Army with supplies and replacements. With their backs against the Sea of Japan, UN forces held the Pusan perimeter throughout the summer.

Given sufficient air and naval support to operate beyond the perimeter, MacArthur acted boldly to reverse the communist tide. He discerned the fragile logistics of the NKPA and decided to flank them up the western coast. Even though the Joint Chiefs in Washington D.C. preferred a less ambitious plan, he vowed to “crush” the enemy. He placed General Edward M. Almond, his protégé, in command of X Corps, which included members of the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 7th Division.

At 6:15 a.m. on September 15, X Corps launched an amphibious landing at Inchon, the main port closest to Seoul. During Operation Chromite, naval guns blasted the coastal defenses at high tide. Once the Marines took Wolmi-do Island, they faced sporadic resistance at Red Beach and Blue Beach along the Yellow Sea. At the seawalls and piers, officers used bullhorns to direct thousands through the smoke and drizzle. Remarkably, U.S. casualties numbered fewer than 200. While one column struck southward and seized Suwon, the other cleared Kimpo Airfield and crossed the Han River. Moving 25 miles inland, Americans liberated Seoul within two weeks. After initially hoisting the Stars and Stripes, they soon replaced it with the blue flag of the United Nations. In a solemn ceremony, MacArthur returned the capital city to Rhee on September 29.

While X Corps seized the initiative, MacArthur ordered the Eighth Army to break out from the Pusan perimeter. Maneuvering in a driving rain, Walker steered a synchronized advance northward. The skies cleared to permit bombing by the Air Force, which caused the communist troops to break quickly. With enemy supply and communication lines severed, UN forces captured as many as 100,000 prisoners. By the end of September, the NKPA had ceased to exist as an organized fighting force south of the 38th parallel.

A New War

Communist aggression started the war in Korea, but the United Nations acted responsibly to end it. Soldiers from the British Commonwealth, Turkey, Greece, France, Ethiopia, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines, and the Netherlands entered the fray. While the U.S. provided around 90 percent of the military personnel, 15 countries contributed at least token units to UN forces.

From his headquarters at the Dai Ichi, MacArthur directed UN forces north of the 38th parallel. The Joint Chiefs approved his military plan to occupy North Korea and to reunify the peninsula. However, they prohibited the use of non-Korean ground troops near the Manchurian and Soviet border. Furthermore, no aerial or naval actions were permitted against communist targets beyond the Yalu or Tumen Rivers. Endorsing the offensive operations of the supreme commander, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution calling for appropriate steps to achieve “stability throughout Korea.”

Truman summoned the supreme commander to Wake Island for a meeting on October 15, 1950. MacArthur assured the commander-in-chief that China was in no position to intervene, that victory was imminent, and that he harbored no political ambitions. The latter presented the former with a fourth Oak Leaf Cluster to add to his Distinguished Service Medal. Unimpressed by the president's grandstanding, the general left for Tokyo.

Once again, MacArthur pushed his command to move with audacity. While the Eighth Army pressed northward from Seoul, a ROKA division quickly captured Pyongyang. Unfortunately, the mountainous terrain left UN forces dispersed and isolated. Launching another amphibious assault, X Corps attempted to land at Wonsan, a seaport on the east coast. Because Soviet mines blocked the harbor, the Marines waited offshore for days. They finally landed on October 25, although the ROKA already occupied the town. Indeed, entertainer Bob Hope staged a show for American troops in Wonsan the night before the Marines stormed the beach. At Iwon, the Army’s 7th Division went ashore a few days later. After advancing units reached the banks of the Yalu River, the ROKA sent a bottle of its waters to Rhee in Seoul.

The NKPA withdrew to the Yalu, where their retreating outfits reformed into new divisions before a winter counteroffensive. Mao dispatched an expeditionary force to support them across the Manchurian border, as hundreds of Chinese units infiltrated North Korea. Dressed in quilted cotton uniforms without rank insignias, the average soldier required little more than 8 pounds of supplies a day. When U.S. commanders on the ground began reporting the presence of the Chinese, MacArthur initially refused to believe it.

On November 1, the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division near Ansung heard the unsettling sounds of Chinese bugles in the darkness. Private Carl Simon, a member of G Company in the 8th Cavalry Regiment, witnessed “mass hysteria” moments later. Waves of yelling communists charged his defensive position while firing rifles and hurling grenades. “It was every man for himself,” the 21-year-old from New York recalled. Along with 35 fleeing comrades, he shuffled southward for 14 days before locating a British brigade in a valley.

As the Chinese pulled back to the Yalu, MacArthur directed UN forces to regroup and to renew the drive. American troops paused for a Thanksgiving meal on November 24, when the “fanatical hordes” struck them again. As many as half a million Chinese engulfed the ROKA, the Eighth Army, and X Corps. Outclassing the American F-80 Shooting Stars, Soviet MiG-15 jet fighters also appeared in the skies over Korea. “We face an entirely new war,” MacArthur reported to Washington D.C.

Most of MacArthur's command retreated hundreds of miles during the “Big Bug-out.” After the Battle of the Chongchon River, Walker's withdrawal of the Eighth Army left behind stores of supplies and equipment. The 2nd Division fought a delaying action on the road from Kunuri to Sunchon, where they suffered almost 5,000 casualties while screening the retreat. Already weakened by several days of combat in frigid weather, soldiers staggered southward through a gauntlet of enemy fire that decimated units. Abandoning Pyongyang to the communists, Walker established a new position north of Seoul. Tragically, he perished after his jeep collided with a truck on December 23.

Elsewhere in Korea, Almond's X Corps narrowly avoided complete disaster. Near the frozen Chosin Reservoir, the 1st Marine Division under General O. P. Smith faced China's IX Army Group. Temperatures dropped below zero in late November, while snow and ice covered the ground. Loading weapons, operating machinery, and digging foxholes became almost impossible. In arguably the worst combat environment ever experienced by the American military, the Marines made a heroic stand in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Though outnumbered 10 to 1, they demonstrated great individual courage and exceptional small-unit leadership. Marine Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller allegedly snarled that “we can shoot in every direction now.” During their breakout from November 27 to December 11, they lost 561 dead, 182 missing, 2,894 wounded, and thousands more injured by frostbite. “Gentlemen, we are not retreating,” Smith remarked at Hagaru, but “merely advancing in another direction.”

Smith grew insubordinate toward Almond, who foolishly dismissed the capabilities of “a bunch of Chinese laundrymen.” Leading 2,500 men from the Army’s 7th Division, Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith directed Task Force Faith on a retrograde maneuver near the Chosin Reservoir. While Faith died after striking a roadblock, no more than 400 of his men recovered from the Chinese thrust. Finally, MacArthur ordered Almond to withdraw to a beachhead around the east coast port of Hungnam, north of Wonsan. On Christmas Eve, the remainder of X Corps boarded ships at Hamnung and sailed for Pusan.

By the end of the year, all UN forces had backpedaled to the 38th parallel. The communists drove them from Seoul during the New Year's offensive, but the battle lines stabilized near Suwon. General Matthew B. Ridgway assumed command of the Eighth Army and launched a counteroffensive known as Operation Thunderbolt on January 25, 1951. In the Battle of Chipyong-ni, American troops not only defeated Chinese infantry but also revived their own flagging morale. While inflicting high casualties with heavy artillery and air strikes, Operation Killer led to the reoccupation of the Han River. That March, Operation Ripper resulted in the recapture of the South Korean capital. With their long and vulnerable supply lines exposed, the Chinese and the NKPA withdrew northward under a barrage of massive firepower.

MacArthur wanted to take full advantage of massive firepower, but the Truman administration insisted upon a limited war. To fight communists in Korea, the supreme commander asked for 34 atom bombs and proposed air strikes on Manchuria. In addition, he suggested a blockade of China by the Navy as well as an invasion of the mainland by Taiwan. With the Joint Chiefs promising no more reinforcements, he complained “off the record” to correspondents about the restrictions imposed upon his command. Civilian authorities desired a negotiated settlement based upon the prewar boundaries, but he publicly remarked that “the concept advanced by some that we establish a line across Korea and enter into positional warfare is wholly unrealistic and illusory.” Disregarding the decisions of Washington D.C., he issued an ultimatum for China to make peace or to face an attack. Finally, the Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives read aloud a letter from MacArthur, who stated in a defiant tone that “there is no substitute for victory.”

On April 11, Truman relieved one of the nation's most renowned military figures from command. “I could no longer tolerate his insubordination,” wrote the commander-in-chief. Marshall, now the Secretary of Defense, agreed to the sacking. Bradley also supported it, later testifying that “taking on Red China” would involve the U.S. in “the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong enemy.” Eight days later, MacArthur made his last public appearance before a joint session of Congress. After delivering his farewell address, a long and distinguished career in uniform came to an end.


Ridgway, who succeeded MacArthur as the supreme commander of UN forces in Korea, demanded that Americans show “a toughness of soul as well as body.” He wore grenades on his webbing, which became his personal hallmark when appearing before troops and reporters. During the spring of 1951, he turned over command of the Eighth Army to General James A. Van Fleet and departed for his headquarters in Tokyo.

As Ridgway called upon UN forces to “stand and fight,” the communists focused their attacks on a demarcation north of the 38th parallel known as the “Kansas” line. In the Iron Triangle between Chorwon, Pynongyang, and Kumhwa, the 1st Marine Division bent but did not break. Nearly 25 miles to the west, a British brigade delayed several Chinese crossings in the Battle of the Imjin River that April. Next, Van Fleet regained a few miles of rock during Operation Piledriver. The opposing sides stalemated at the “No Name” line.

With casualties mounting, the stalemate pressured all sides to arrange peace talks. As Ridgway continued to pound communist forces that June, the Soviet delegate at the United Nations proposed a ceasefire along the 38th parallel. After China and North Korea responded favorably, Secretary of State Acheson endorsed the general concept. Representatives of the belligerents initially met in the communist-held town of Kaesong on July 10. The hosts claimed that their foes came to surrender, even seating Admiral C. Turner Joy of the UN delegation in a lower chair at the table. In one session, negotiators stared silently at each other across the table for over 2 hours. When the North Korean General Nam Il claimed that UN forces had attempted to murder his delegation, the peace talks abruptly ended.

UN forces renewed their battle for the Hwachon Reservoir, which provided water and electricity to Seoul. Almond's X Corps assailed a group of nearby hills and ridges that Americans dubbed “the Punchbowl.” By the fall, the 2nd Division had finally secured Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. With the communists losing ground, they retreated farther north of the 38th parallel. At the neutral site of Panmunjom, peace talks resumed on October 25.

While the parleys at Panmunjom accomplished nothing for months, the boots on the ground fortified the “main line of resistance” – the MLR. Their forward positions featured barbed wire, minefields, trenches, and bunkers. Fighting involved patrols, raids, and skirmishes, which Ridgway termed “active defense.” Outposts and checkpoints ensured that refugees remained clear of the battlefield, though some prostitutes plied their trade in “rabbit hutches” a few hundred yards away. Less than 20 miles from the front, a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, provided emergency medical care to the sick and wounded. Although most arrived at units via ambulances or jeeps, the use of helicopters for medical evacuation contributed to lower fatality rates. During the second year of the war, the Marine Corps began using “choppers” to transport infantrymen around the MLR.

In the skies over Korea, UN forces achieved almost undisputed superiority. F-84 Thunderjets conducted thousands of air strikes. B-29s dropped conventional ordnance to “strangle” the communists, but areas north of the Yalu River remained off limits. Interdiction missions racked up long lists of destroyed targets, including bridges, roads, trucks, trains, rails, dams, and hydroelectric plants. The northwestern corner of the peninsula formed “MiG alley,” where aerial “dogfights” occurred regularly between the Soviet jet fighters and the American aircraft such as the new F-86 Sabre. In fact, the Air Force downed 810 MiGs while losing only 78 Sabres. Among the most famous American “aces,” Captain Joseph C. McConnell counted 16 “kills” in fighter combat. Naval and Marine attack squadrons delivered close air support, but U.S. commanders did not regard the sortie rate as sufficient to break the stalemate on the ground.

Given the limitations of their operations, U.S. commanders awaited the results of negotiations at Panmunjom. After abandoning their demands for territorial concessions, both sides quarreled about exchanging prisoners of war. The UN delegation insisted upon the return to freedom of all combatants held by the communists. Furthermore, they objected to the forced repatriation of Chinese and NKPA prisoners. Conversely, the communist delegation produced a dubious prisoner list that left unaccounted more than 8,000 Americans. They also claimed that thousands of ROKA soldiers in their custody were slain in air raids or were unavailable. With the impasse over prisoner exchanges, the negotiations stalled.

Communists began infiltrating UN prison camps, which held some 170,000 Chinese and NKPA combatants. Surrendering to UN forces on the battlefield, subalterns carried orders to organize prison riots and to discipline potential repatriates. While interned on the island of Koje-do, some captives attempted to create a “second front” during 1952. To the delight of propagandists from Peking to Moscow, the casualty lists that emerged from the prison camps became the focus of an international controversy.

The controversy served to deflect attention from the systematic brutality of communist prison camps. Of the 7,140 American POWs, 2,701 perished in captivity. Though noted for massacring prisoners immediately, the communists interned most captives in Manchuria. Dysentery, pneumonia, starvation, and abuse took a terrible toll, which contributed to what survivors dubbed “give-upitis.” Amid the filth and squalor, a few drowned in latrine pits. Owing to the indoctrination program behind the wire, “brain-washing” techniques became the subject of American novels such as The Manchurian Candidate (1959).

Weary from a war that nobody seemed able to win, Americans paid for the stalemate in blood and treasure. The size of the armed forces doubled prewar levels, reaching 3.6 million personnel in 1952. Although the Selective Service system and the reserve call-ups addressed most of the manpower needs, the Truman administration worked with governors to activate more than 1,000 National Guard units during the war. Citizen soldiers reinforced defenses in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, while the 40th and 45th Divisions entered combat against the Chinese and the NKPA. Overall, the American military maintained eight fighting divisions in Korea – one Marine and seven Army. Outfits generally observed the “one winter rule,” that is, no man was expected to endure more than a season of cold at the front. To dampen complaints about deployment, the Pentagon instituted an individual rotation policy with long-term implications. Rather than remaining on active duty for the duration, American troops earned points to rotate out of service in Korea.

Figure 13.3 Fighting with the 2nd Infantry Division north of the Chongchon River, November 20, 1950. Integration of Armed Forces in Korea, U.S. Army, http://www.army.mil/media/32791/


Under the banner of the United Nations, American troops persevered in a “forgotten” war. Whenever the Chinese and NKPA attacked the forward positions, UN forces conducted delaying actions. Once they paused, a counterattack began. The counterattacks rarely involved tanks, because the slopes and knots of the rugged terrain made them ineffective. Instead, infantrymen maintained constant contact with the enemy and directed massive firepower against them. They fought night and day in places named Old Baldy, White Horse, Triangle Hill, Hill Eerie, Outpost Harry, and the Hook. They battled with bayonets, knives, grenades, and rifles – even their bare hands. Their only relief from the frigid winters and sweltering summers was a cold shower in the rear or “R&R” in Japan. Despite occasional breaches, neither side made significant advances beyond the MLR in Korea.

As a presidential candidate during 1952, Eisenhower pledged to “go to Korea” if elected. Soldiers knew war best and hated it most, or so he claimed. With frustration feeding a “Red Scare” nationwide, he offered to resolve the unpopular conflict as soon as possible. On November 5, the U.S. elected Eisenhower to the presidency.

Less than a month later, Eisenhower fulfilled his campaign promise by visiting Korea for three days. Upon his return to the U.S., he cryptically remarked: “We face an enemy whom we cannot hope to impress by words, however eloquent, but only by deeds – executed under circumstances of our own choosing.” After his inauguration, the Joint Chiefs recommended direct air and naval operations against Manchuria. John Foster Dulles, the new Secretary of State, communicated a back-channel threat to China regarding the possible use of an atom bomb. At a meeting of the National Security Council, the commander-in-chief suggested that Kaesong in North Korea represented “a good target” for tactical nuclear weaponry. While the Eisenhower administration rattled sabers, the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953, appeared to increase the odds for peace.

Unfortunately, peace talks at Panmunjom deadlocked over the fate of the prisoners of war. As a “gesture of peace,” the UN agreed to a Red Cross proposal for the exchange of the sick and wounded. With pressure from Moscow, Peking and Pyongyang finally consented to Operation Little Switch. Accordingly, the opposing sides exchanged a limited number at Panmunjom from April 20 to May 3. When the delegations restarted their negotiations at the table, they disagreed about procedures to “quarantine” those refusing to repatriate. By early June, they worked out an agreement in principle that placed most in the hands of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission. However, Rhee attempted to disrupt the agreement by suddenly releasing over 25,000 prisoners – many of them South Koreans previously impressed into service by the NKPA. Eventually, he relented to an armistice upon receiving assurances of more economic and military assistance from the U.S.

As the belligerents finalized an armistice, the Battle of Pork Chop Hill raged on the MLR. General Maxwell D. Taylor, who took command of the Eighth Army in February, pulled his troops back after the Chinese attacked the high ground. Nevertheless, he soon ordered them to retake it. Back and forth, the combatants exchanged the position multiple times. With an armistice imminent, he finally abandoned Pork Chop Hill on July 11. The firing ceased within weeks, but the weaponry remained locked and loaded.

At 10:00 a.m. on July 27, the UN and communist delegations met at Panmunjom without a word or a gesture to one another. In less than 12 minutes, each affixed signatures to documents and exited the building on opposite sides. General Mark Clark, who succeeded Ridgway in command of UN forces in Korea, signed nine blue-backed copies of the armistice a few hours later at Mansan-ni.

To fulfill the armistice terms, Operation Big Switch commenced inside a demilitarized zone on August 5. The UN sent 75,823 prisoners northward, while the communists reciprocated by releasing 3,597 Americans and 7,862 South Koreans. Of the 22,604 prisoners of the UN handled by the Repatriation Commission, only 137 agreed to return to their homeland. Whatever their motives, 325 South Koreans, 21 Americans, and one Brit adopted the nations of their captors. “We went away to Glenn Miller,” noted an American POW after returning to the U.S., and “came back to Elvis Presley.”

From an American perspective, the war in Korea represented one of the nastiest conflicts in the twentieth century. During 37 months of fighting, the U.S. sent 1.3 million service members to the peninsula. While 33,629 of them were killed in action, another 105,785 suffered wounds. The ROKA reported 415,000 fatalities and 429,000 wounded. Though estimates varied, NKPA and Chinese losses reached as many as 2 million. Few doubted that the American military saved South Korea from doom.

No More Koreas

While maintaining close to 30,000 troops in Korea, the U.S. began to refine the containment strategy of the Cold War. Given the likelihood of future confrontations with the Soviet Union, national security experts anticipated that 1954 would be the “year of maximum danger.” For years, the Soviets appeared to ready their forces for an impending nuclear attack against the continental U.S. The threat of a swift but fatal blow raised doubts about the capabilities of the United Nations to deter communist aggression. Unwilling to fight another indecisive war, the American military wanted “no more Koreas.”

The Eisenhower administration concluded that the costs of fighting in hot spots such as Korea actually represented a threat to national security. Worried that military expenditures undermined American affluence, the president and Congress agreed to reduce appropriations for conventional forces. Beginning in 1954, the Army downsized from 20 to 15 divisions. Furthermore, the Navy and the Marine Corps reduced their personnel lines. Over the course of the decade, the defense budget fell from 64 percent of federal spending to 47 percent. Since 10 reservists in uniform matched the expense of one full-time soldier, the reserve component actually expanded in order to save money. Attempting to balance the demands of the armed forces with the constraints of fiscal discipline, Eisenhower called for “security with solvency.”

At Eisenhower's behest, policymakers in Washington D.C presented a strategic framework known as the New Look. The Joint Chiefs agreed to reductions in end strength as long as atomic and hydrogen bombs enabled the nation to counter aggressors. In Project Solarium, teams of analysts came to the White House to thoroughly review strategic alternatives while underscoring the concept of deterrence. Moreover, an internal document known as NSC 162/2 offered guidelines for a nuclear option in either a general or a limited war. “The basic decision,” Secretary of State Dulles held forth, “was to depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing.” Essentially, the New Look offered a way to deter Soviet-sponsored wars around the globe with a credible bluff.

Because the New Look threatened massive retaliation, the U.S. attempted to maintain nuclear superiority over all rivals. Charles E. Wilson, the Secretary of Defense, said that it provided “more bang for the buck.” Receiving the lion's share of appropriations, the Air Force increased the intercontinental capabilities of SAC by procuring long-range bombers for around-the-clock delivery of ordnance. Though facing cuts to shipbuilding programs, the Navy soon concentrated on nuclear-powered submarines as invulnerable launch platforms for Polaris missiles. Since the defense budget divided along service rather than functional lines, political sniping over allocations reinforced inter-service rivalries.

Unsatisfied with the leftovers in the defense budget, the Army brass voiced concerns about the New Look. After becoming the Army Chief of Staff in 1955, General Maxwell D. Taylor foresaw a durable role for conventional forces as another deterrent to communist aggression. Accordingly, basic combat units gave the U.S. a reasonable option, if warranted, that complemented the grand strategy. The Army perfected tactical assets that included a 280-mm gun known as “Atomic Annie” as well as a radar-controlled antiaircraft rocket named Nike. In addition, they trained Special Forces to operate in unconventional battlefields. The plea for a “flexible response” resonated with intellectuals, who doubted the logic of mutually assured destruction.

Faced with scenarios of massive destruction, the Army began to reorganize its elements for both nuclear and nonnuclear combat. The “triangular” infantry and airborne divisions of 17,000 soldiers, which constituted the standard formation of the Army in Korea, no longer seemed appropriate for combat operations in the Cold War. Instead, the new “pentomic” divisions placed 13,500 soldiers into units of five battle groups capable of nimble yet quick action. Fighting from a circular battle position, divisional troops maneuvered with the fire support of artillery and missile units. They concentrated or dispersed based upon changes in enemy dispositions. Exploiting gaps created by a nuclear blast, they moved effectively in any direction with fast ground and air transportation, reliable communications, and better logistics. Thanks to the steady supply of manpower through conscription, the force structure adapted to fighting in complex environments.

The complex environment of French Indochina gave rise to the “domino theory,” that is, the belief that the fall of one regime to communism would inevitably topple others. In what was known as the Third World, developing countries contemplated alignment with models for either centralized economic planning or free market capitalism. The dominos in Southeast Asia might fall in any direction and thus threaten American interests stretching from Japan to the Philippines and from India to Southwest Asia. According to exponents of the Cold War, communists conspired to take over French colonies.

During 1954, the French government begged the U.S. to intervene in Vietnam. Admiral Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommended air strikes against communist guerrillas at Dien Ben Phu. In fact, Operation Vulture outlined the possible advantages of atomic warfare in an effort to rescue French forces from certain defeat. The dire situation prompted Dulles to posit that the U.S. needed to “go to the brink.” Recalling the lessons of his predecessor in Korea, however, the president refused to take military action without an authorization from Congress. He sent funds to assist France, but their troops lost decisively in Vietnam. “No one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting the United States involved in a hot war in that region than I am,” Eisenhower announced.

After Communist China began shelling the Nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait, Eisenhower sought a congressional resolution to protect Taiwan. In 1955, he received a sweeping authorization to wage war. In another example of brinkmanship, the administration ordered the Navy to escort Taiwanese ships and sent an Army–Marine task force to the islands. At the urging of the Kremlin, Peking avoided escalating the conflict.

With the waning of British power in the Middle East, the Kremlin attempted to gain influence among Arab nationalists in Egypt and Syria. During the Suez crisis of 1956, Eisenhower placed U.S. forces around the world on full alert. The next year, he pledged military and economic assistance to defend any Middle Eastern nation threatened by the aggressiveness of international communism. Congress endorsed the Eisenhower Doctrine, which sanctioned the use of force in the oil-rich region. The Sixth Fleet along with Army and Marine units deployed briefly, but all sides backed away from the brink.

Linking civil rights to the Cold War, Eisenhower stood at the brink again on September 25, 1957. The commander-in-chief sent elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas. Armed with bayonets against a howling mob, 1,000 paratroopers protected nine African American students entering Central High School. Across the Third World, people of color took note of the freedom struggle within the U.S.

The Arms Race

In late 1957, the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite heightened American fears of a nuclear attack. With U.S. missile development ostensibly lagging, Congress responded by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Moreover, the National Defense Education Act established federal grants for training in mathematics and science. Teaming with the Canadian government, the U.S. created the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, which provided a radar system across northern Canada and Alaska. Consequently, the Sputnik crisis spurred the Pentagon to seek increases in defense spending.

With the Pentagon worried that space-age technology threatened to make SAC wings obsolete, programs for surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles received additional funding. The Atlas, Vanguard, and Titan programs focused on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Even though the press exaggerated the capabilities of the Soviet arsenal, America's missile programs appeared in disarray by comparison.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force maintained separate plans for nuclear attack, which prompted the Eisenhower administration to request a single integrated operational plan called SIOP-62. It outlined a preemptive nuclear attack if an early warning system detected an imminent strike by an adversary. Identifying over 1,000 targets in the Soviet Union, China, and Warsaw Pact nations, it anticipated the delivery of 3,200 nuclear devices by the American military. The mighty warheads potentially would kill hundreds of millions in the blink of an eye. When reviewing a top-secret draft in 1957, Eisenhower recalled that it “frightened the devil out of me.”

As the decade closed, Eisenhower agreed to a Paris summit with British and French leaders that included Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier. While touring the U.S., Khrushchev endorsed the notion of “peaceful coexistence.” In addition to advocating “Atoms for Peace” and “Open Skies,” Eisenhower offered to talk about a ban against atmospheric and water testing of nuclear arms. Suddenly, another rocket interrupted their summit plans. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets fired a missile to down a CIA U-2 spy plane and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Khrushchev denounced the violation of Soviet airspace and left the summit early, although the Kremlin later exchanged Powers for a captured communist spy. Embarrassed by the U-2 incident, Eisenhower admitted to authorizing high-altitude surveillance but refused to halt the CIA's intelligence-gathering activities.

In a farewell address to the nation, Eisenhower reflected upon the issues of peace, prosperity, and power. The former soldier noted that the Cold War “absorbs our very beings,” which compelled the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.” A combination of interests not only provided national security but also generated civilian jobs. Nevertheless, he urged Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Unable to achieve disarmament, he retired from public service with “a definite sense of disappointment.”

During the presidential election cycle of 1960, Americans debated the perceived disparities in the respective armaments of the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Democrats nominated Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, who called for a concerted effort to close a “missile gap” with communist rivals. After winning the election, Kennedy learned from the CIA that the “missile gap” was nothing more than a fiction of the Cold War. With soaring rhetoric about “a long twilight struggle,” his inaugural address trumpeted the importance of national defense in the “hour of maximum danger.”

The Kennedy administration sought to depart from the all-or-nothing approach to the Cold War by underscoring a “flexible response.” As the Kremlin continued to support “wars of national liberation” around the globe, the Pentagon attempted to gear up for the full range of emerging threats. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara endorsed a nuclear “triad” that included SAC, ICBMs, and Polaris missiles, but he also created “Strike Command” to mesh the Army's mobile forces with the Air Force's tactical and airlift capabilities. However, a CIA operation at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba turned into a fiasco. The president refused to provide air support to anti-communist forces, which discredited the U.S. and emboldened the Soviets.

During 1961, Kennedy and Khrushchev met at the Vienna Conference. The Soviet premier informed the “youngster” that he would move on his own to resolve the Berlin impasse. He threatened to end American access to West Berlin, located nearly 100 miles within East Germany. By August, the Soviets began erecting the Berlin Wall to prevent refugees from escaping to freedom. Kennedy activated several National Guard and Reserve units and ordered more than 40,000 additional troops to Europe. U.S. armored divisions prepared to defend the Fulda Gap. The Berlin crisis intensified, but Khrushchev decided against war at the time.

Once the Berlin crisis abated, the Soviets moved next to bolster Fidel Castro in Cuba. Khrushchev dispatched military advisors, air defenses, and ballistic missiles to the island. Photographs from U.S. surveillance planes revealed the missile launchers on October 14, 1962, although the presence of offensive weapons only 90 miles off the Florida coast violated no law or treaty. Unwilling to accept the direct threat to national security, the Kennedy administration decided to remove the missile sites from Cuba.

After the National Security Council narrowed the military options to either an air strike or a naval blockade, Kennedy chose the latter. Though constituting an act of war, the commander-in-chief described it as a “quarantine” of Cuba. He also put SAC bombers on a 15-minute alert, while fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft batteries deployed to Florida. Moreover, submarines armed with Polaris missiles moved within range of the Soviet Union. With the approval of the Organization of American States, or OAS, the Navy's Second Fleet began enforcing the “quarantine” on October 24. Castro cabled Moscow and demanded an immediate nuclear strike. As five Soviet ships steamed toward the U.S. line in the water, Khrushchev imagined “the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.”

In the end, a last-minute compromise averted war. The Kremlin removed the missiles from Cuba, while the Kennedy administration promised not to invade the island. Though not part of a back-channel deal, the American military later removed outmoded Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The U.S. and the Soviet Union proceeded to negotiate the Limited Test-Ban Treaty, which pushed all nuclear testing underground. As the Cuban missile crisis faded from memory, the mushroom-shaped cloud eventually became a visual cliché of the arms race.


World War III did not happen, but anti-communist and communist nations engaged in a long and bitter contest to win the future. Even as the U.S. managed the armed forces for peacetime, the strategy of containment required that they assume a greater role in shoring up allies around the globe. The Korean peninsula at mid-century became a key flashpoint, where Americans fought for three years in a war without parallel. Imposing defense cuts in the aftermath, the federal government promised a New Look to military might. Nuclear arms that turned a hostile country into a radioactive desert seemed less expensive than maintaining conventional forces. The Army, which found it difficult to match the innovations of the Air Force and the Navy, promised a “flexible response” to a fluid state of international affairs. What Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex” generally met the challenges of the Cold War.

More often than not, the American military perceived the Cold War through a shadowy world that seemed remote from the realities of a combat zone. While coming to terms with the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, the Pentagon formulated strategic concepts with analogies about Munich and metaphors about dominos. An either-or mentality obscured the extent to which the U.S. fell short of its own rhetoric about freedom. At the same time, the dictatorship of Stalin evinced an authoritarian, paranoid, and narcissistic style that fueled distrust about the “iron curtain.” Beginning in 1945, the Kremlin sought to enhance the security of the Soviet Union by depriving other nations of any opportunity to seek their own. The crumbling of European empires multiplied the disagreements between the superpowers. In the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atomic age, the U.S. and the Soviet Union behaved like “two scorpions in a bottle.”

Throughout the atomic age, the U.S. committed assets to stop an aggressive rival from threatening freedom around the globe. The defensive barrier of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans no longer shielded North America from the terrors of jets, missiles, and satellites. Men and women in uniform strove to contain adversaries not only in Europe but also in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. By the early 1960s, the Army, Navy, and Air Force prepared to fight “two and a half wars” simultaneously. While providing direct and indirect aid to foreign governments, the military establishment planned for the long haul. The tools for national security included a tremendous arsenal that protected the country from any foe and safeguarded the interests of the American people. American warriors readied for action but found few precedents for the battles of the Cold War.

Looking for inspiration in the past, the Cold War generation remembered the battles of their forefathers. While military personnel placed a premium on massive firepower, only a handful of soldiers, sailors, or airmen witnessed first-hand the damage of an atomic blast. The remoteness of war, moreover, left civil society ambivalent about the meaning of popular catchphrases such as “sound patriotism” and “strong defense.” In 1962, the federal government formed a special committee chaired by Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to create a National Military Museum for educating the public. Projecting a cost of $40 million, the committee recommended locating several exhibits for tourists along the Potomac River. Under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, the grounds near the U.S. capital would include an airfield, ships, silos, bunkers, and trenches. Before the plans were shelved, critics of a military-friendly mall denounced it as a “Disneyland of destruction.”

Essential Questions

1 What caused the outbreak of the Cold War?

2 In what ways was the armed conflict in Korea limited?

3 Why did the American military shift from a New Look to a “flexible response”?

Suggested Readings

Aliano, Richard A. American Defense Policy from Eisenhower to Kennedy. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975.

Bacevich, Andrew J. The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army between Korea and Vietnam. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986.

Crane, Conrad C. American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950–1953. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Dobbs, Michael. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Vintage, 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Halberstam, David. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. New York: Hyperion, 2007.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Hoopes, Townsend, and Douglas Brinkley. Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.

Huebner, Andrew J. The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Mershon, Sherie, and Steven Schlossman. Foxholes and Color Lines: Desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Miller, David. The Cold War: A Military History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Monahan, Evelyn, and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee. A Few Good Women: America's Military Women from World War I to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Newhouse, John. War and Peace in the Nuclear Age. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Pearlman, Michael D. Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Sherry, Michael S. In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Strueck, William. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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