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Unit Overview

By the end of World War II, the defeat of the Axis Powers had removed any pretext of unity within the uneasy alliance that had defeated Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. The Allied Powers included the United States, the United Kingdom, and the newly liberated France, three capitalist democracies, and the Soviet Union, a communist dictatorship. With the Fascists’ threat gone, the Western democracies and the communist state quickly went back to their mutual antagonism, highlighting some major differences. The conflict dominated this period of American history and contributed to many of the economic, social, and cultural changes that took place over these thirty years.

International affairs were not the only influence on a changing nation. The Civil Rights movement also intensified during this period, and a major nonviolent revolution took place. African Americans moved from the status of second class citizens to positions of legal equality with the white majority in a short few decades.

The Empires Fade as the America Ascends to a Global Role

In the wake of the war, Britain and France, once dominant imperial powers, had extensive damage to address. Britain’s new leader Clement Atlee rejected Winston Churchill’s desire to maintain or reestablish a vibrant British Empire. Instead, he worked to reduce Britain to a second level power, focusing on domestic social concerns. Both France and Britain had been overshadowed by the United States, which came into the war late, suffered much lower casualties and experienced virtually no physical damage on its home soil. The Soviet Union, clearly the most damaged of the Allied Powers, came out of the war much stronger than expected. The Soviets had lost more than 20 million people during World War II and had 500,000 German soldiers on its soil for more than a year. By the end of the war, however, Soviet industries were producing as many, if not more, tanks and planes as the United States.

After demobilizing and looking forward to a more insular postwar period of prosperity, the United States quickly realized the real threat of Communist expansion into Greece and Turkey. The British could no longer serve as a bulwark against Communist growth. President Truman issued the Truman Doctrine in 1947, reassuring Greece, Turkey, and the free world that the United States would work to contain any Soviet and Communist subjugation. Americans continued to worry about the dangerous conditions in Europe caused by World War II. Later that summer, the United States established an aid plan to rebuild Western Europe. Called the Marshall Plan, for its creator General George Marshall, the United States would feed, cloth, and rebuild Europe. By providing economic support, the United States could help establish vibrant, free-market based democracies, thus keeping Europeans from adopting Communism. The Marshall Plan also brought a major economic bounce to the American economy. As the only major nation not severely damaged by the war, American companies had no real competition in the global market. 

American – Soviet Cold War

The United States and the Soviets quickly divided the post-war world into spheres of influence where they each might have some measure of control. Future flashpoints between them were apparent by 1948 and 1949. Germany was divided into one Communist and three democratic sectors, as was Berlin. In 1948, the Soviets decided to blockade West Berlin to starve the Allied forces into leaving and the West Berlin population into surrendering, thus reuniting the city under Communist rule. The Americans and the British countered with an airlift of supplies into West Berlin, daring the Soviets to shoot them down and start World War III. By May 1949, it was obvious that the airlift had been successful. The embarrassed Soviets subsequently lifted the blockade. As a result, the allied three sectors became the independent nation of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and Communist sector became the German Democratic Republic.

Asia also became an area of contention. With a strong American presence in Europe, by 1950 Stalin started to believe he could weaken the resolve of the United States and other Western nations by supporting Communist insurgents in Malaya, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In 1949 the French were fighting pro-Communist insurgents in their former colony in Indochina. In Korea, withdrawing Japanese troops had turned over the northern part to Russian troops and the southern part to Americans. Stalin gave the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung the green light to invade South Korea. The United States was forced to react in defense of South Korean independence.

Perhaps one of the most significant events in Asia was the fall of China to Communism. In 1949, the 20-year-old Communist revolution in China was successful in overthrowing the pro-American government and setting up a Communist state under Chairman Mao Zedong. Records now reveal that a Soviet agent within the American government, Harry Dexter White, a senior United States Department of the Treasury official had delayed financial support mandated by law to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese government, causing the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist Chinese government. The Communist infiltration of the American government was addressed by the government during the early Cold War period.

Through Espionage, the Communists Get an Advantage

By 1950, the stakes in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union had been dramatically raised. In the previous year, the Soviets had successfully developed their own atomic weapons. During the war, the Soviets had over three hundred spies in Washington while the United States had none in Moscow. The Soviets had stolen secrets for the atomic bomb by having British and American traitors, such as Morris Cohen, Klas Fuchs, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, among others, show that their loyalties to their Communist principles were stronger than their loyalties to their countries. Now, a shooting war between the United States and the Soviet Union would become even more dangerous. A conventional war could lead to possible mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.), in which neither side could really “win,” and both would sustain grossly unacceptable levels of death and destruction. An espionage network for both sides kept their eyes and ears secretly on one another. The Soviets, however, practiced more than just espionage, they also employed a strategy known as “active measures.” They actively worked to caused public doubt and mistrust of the United States government, the churches, and American institutions. The Soviets were able to capitalize on this strategy most effectively during the 1960s into the 1970s. 

During the 1950s, many Americans looked at treason by White and the Rosenbergs with fear. Those acts and acts of other traitors in the government unnerved the public. It was discovered that the Soviets had paid agents, such as Alger Hiss in the State Department. Though not paid agents,  other powerful officials such as former Vice President Henry Wallace and Roosevelt friend and advisor Harry Hopkins were considered “unconscious agents.” They had helped the Soviets and justified American fear that the Soviets had too much access to state military and diplomatic secrets. Meanwhile, the state-controlled media in the Soviet Union demonized Americans to its citizens, to Eastern Europeans and to people in developing nations.

Bipolar Competition and Containment

The competition went on, with surrogate allies fighting limited but bloody wars with various levels of support from the two superpowers. They both did just enough saber-rattling to let the opposition know they were serious, but always stopping short (sometimes just short) of pushing the nuclear trigger. In Korea, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, West Berlin, Taiwan, and many other places, the Americans tried to stem further Communist expansion. The Soviets tried to expand where the Americans had not set up firewalls. American Presidents followed a policy of containment. They all worked to stop Soviet expansion, until Ronald Reagan attempted to outright defeat Soviet Communism through other means besides war. Some Presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower took an asymmetrical approach and challenged the Communists where they immediately threatened American interests. Others, such as John F. Kennedy, took a symmetrical containment approach to stop Communist expansion in every theater. The Soviets, their allies, and their agents actively angled for power and influence while the people of the world anxiously hoped the missiles would never come.

An interesting variation on the arms race was the “space race,” in which United States and Soviet scientists and engineers competed over which country could send people into outer space and to the moon first. The Soviets launched a man into space first. They were also able to orbit a man around the Earth first. The United States, however, beat them to the moon in 1969, during the first year of the Nixon administration. This peaceful competition also gave both sides a chance to refine the power and accuracy of their missiles. The superpowers were now capable of launching nuclear warheads as well as satellites and lunar landers.

Little Hot Wars

As time passed, both sides learned their limits. The United States learned some bitter lessons about fighting a counter-insurgency war of attrition with political objectives, as opposed a war with clear military objectives. The American government also learned the importance of maintaining the support of the national media during the Vietnam War during the 1960s, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Tet had been a major and complete American victory that had eliminated the Viet Cong from the war. Back home, however, the media reported Tet as a major American defeat and turned American elite, and eventually popular opinion, against the war. After eleven years of fighting in Indochina, the Americans forced the reluctant Communists to the peace table in 1973. Unfortunately, two years after the North Vietnamese had acquiesced, the United States Congress decided to not honor its obligations to the South Vietnamese people. The North Vietnamese Communists invaded the South, while the Khmer Rouge Communists took Cambodia. Unfortunately, more people were slaughtered by the Communists in the first year of “peace” than during the entire Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese fled the nation by hanging onto boats as they put out to drift in the open sea. American allies had to wonder if they could trust the United States, who had just turned its back on a longtime ally. 

The Soviets learned a poignant lesson themselves in Afghanistan during the 1980s at the hands of Afghan Islamic rebels. Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had invaded Afghanistan to enforce his Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that once a nation had gone Communist, the Soviets would not let them change back. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to defend the Communist government there that was falling to rebels. The Soviets did not have real popular support at home and met strong opposition from around the world. Many Islamic militants from around the Middle East and North Africa saw the Afghan rebellion against the Soviet superpower as an opportunity to resurrect Islam and free a Moslem nation from western domination. During the 1980s, the United States supplied and heavily supported the Afghan rebels and their Moslem allies, greatly contributing to the Soviet defeat. 

Civil Rights

After the war, the United States also experienced a major and relatively peaceful Civil Rights revolution – peaceful when compared to other liberation movements throughout the world. Brave African Americans had returned to their respective states where governments had instituted legal segregation after Reconstruction. They had just fought for the freedom of oppressed people all over Europe and Asia, and they were not afforded those same rights in the land of their birth. Similarly, white veterans had returned from war and had witnessed the brutality of the Holocaust and the Japanese treatment of Pacific islanders and other Asians. Many Americans began to question the justice of government-imposed segregation. Most Americans believed that the famous words of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” made them Americans, and that these words stood in stark contrast to the reality of a segregated America. The horrors of the Holocaust also discredited notions racial superiority so prevalent in the pre-war popular cultural, in the settled racial science of that time, and in most leading academic circles. African Americans could more easily begin to demand justice, as the white population also began to realize how contrary a segregated society was to the documents and rhetoric that expressed the high ideals of the American founding.

Eisenhower Administration

Big changes began to take place during the 1950s concerning civil rights. After World War II, Harry Truman had issued an executive order to integrate the military. Faced with party reluctance, however, the order was not implemented until 1953, the first year of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was illegal, in the landmark case Brown v Board of Education.

In addition to working to end segregation in Washington D.C. and within the federal workforce, on November 25, 1955, Eisenhower outlawed racial segregation on interstate bus travel. One month later, African Americans began a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus company after Rosa Park was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white person. As a result, in 1956 the Supreme Court decided the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional. Also in 1956, the Republicans endorsed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on their party platform. During 1957, the Eisenhower administration worked to pass a bill, which included both voting rightsfor African Americans and a provision authorizing the Attorney General to protect all civil rights. Democrats filibustered the bill until Lyndon Johnson was able to remove the teeth from the enforcement provisions of the bill. He made sure that the Attorney General could not enforce it. Instead, it was left to local juries would make decisions, ensuring that all white juries could impose Jury Nullification on any case in which an African American was denied his or her right to vote. Local juries could exonerate anyone who had disenfranchised blacks. While this first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction finally passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1957, it lacked the strengths and protections that Eisenhower had advocated. In 1960, he was finally able to get Congress to pass additional voting rights legislation, despite another 125 hour epic Democratic filibuster. African Americans would now be able to get federal help if their voting rights were denied.

As President, Eisenhower also showed a willingness to take immediate action for civil rights. In 1957 Orval Faubus, the Democratic Governor of Arkansas, refused to allow African American students to enter Little Rock schools. In response, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision and authority. Arkansas guardsmen had to decide to follow the President’s orders or to stay loyal to their governor and to Arkansas. Eisenhower’s weight as former Allied Commander during World War II won out, and they obeyed his orders. To ensure compliance, Eisenhower also sent the 101st Airborne division of the regular army to enforce his orders.

Kennedy- Johnson Years

African Americans continued to protest and push for equal civil rights throughout the early 1960s. Many times they faced fierce, violent resistance. Southern Democratic governors such as Mississippi’s Ross R. Barnett, Alabama’s George Wallace, and Georgia’s Lester Maddox stood at the doors of universities to deny African Americans’ equal access. President John Kennedy had to stand up to his fellow Democrats, and he federalized state national guards, as Eisenhower had in Little Rock. He took tremendous political risks by alienating many Democratic voters. 

During this time Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to a position of leadership of the African American Civil Rights movement. Leaders like King rallied supporters of the Civil Rights Movement in nonviolent protests such as boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. In August 1963, he organized almost 200,000 blacks and whites to meet at the Washington Monument during the March on Washington. During the March, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, Reverend King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech advocating racial equality.

Following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, President Lyndon Johnson was able to make an 180o change on his position on segregation. He had voted against every civil rights bill during his tenure in the Senate. Now, with more African Americans being allowed to vote, Johnson saw the opportunity to recruit more African Americans into the Democratic Party. As a result, he was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Great Society

On May 22, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson gave the commencement address at the University of Michigan. During the address he presented “The Great Society” – a vast set of domestic programs. These social programs were massive expansions of many New Deal programs, with a much larger growth of the Federal Government into what had previously been the purview of the private realm. The Great Society looked to eliminate poverty in the United States. It also provided major spending programs for education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation. Due to the Democratic landside in 1964, the Congress in 1965 was the most liberal House since 1938. Still, far left anti-war Democrats loudly complained that spending on the Vietnam War would hurt the Great Society. Meanwhile conservatives complained about the amount of government spending, and they made great gains in the election of 1966.

While some Great Society programs have been eliminated over time, many, such as Medicare and Medicaid, have continued to grow under later Administrations. By the early twenty-first century, many of these programs were on the brink of collapse. Since its creation the Great Society has been debated. Proponents of the Great Society explain that the programs have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Opponents and small government advocates, on the other hand, point out that after spending $17 trillion dollars, the poverty rate of 14% in 1965 has risen to 16% by 2012.

Nixon Years

Despite changes in many laws, enforcement of desegregation laws did not earnestly take place until the Nixon administration began to enforce desegregation in 1969. In 1968, 68% of all African-American students attended all-black schools. Within two years, only 18.4% of African-American students attended all-black schools. The Nixon administration also broke the back of discriminatory building trades by initiating affirmative action plans. Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan imposed formal racial quotas and timelines to integrate the unions. The government took these actions in response to aggressive racial discrimination by construction unions. Nixon had recommended these plans back during the Eisenhower administration, but was not able to enact them until his own Presidency.

The Changing Times

Although the Cold War and Civil Rights dominated this period of American history, it was a time of major change in American culture. As America grew as an economic superpower, millions of people moved to the suburbs along Eisenhower’s new interstate highway system. The baby-boom generation began coming of age in 1965. Many upper middle class students of the boomer generation rebelled against the Vietnam War draft and their parents’ culture. A counter culture developed that advocated social and cultural rebellion. Rock and Roll was born during the 1950s and morphed into folk rock, psychedelic rock, Motown and rhythm and blues, by the late 1960s. The women’s movement also developed during the 1960s and many people began to reject what they called the “establishment.” A new political right originated with the Sharon Statement in 1960 while the New Left began with the Port Huron Statement in 1962. These movements dominated national politics for more than half a century. The period ended with Richard Nixon winning a second term with the largest landslide in American history. His Presidency, however, crumbled with the Watergate scandal, resulting in the first presidential resignation. In addition, the victory he had won in Vietnam also dissolved when the North Vietnamese invaded South Vietnam in 1975 and the American Congress refused to honor its obligations and promises to the South Vietnamese and Cambodians.

  • Mass movement starting in the 1950s that used nonviolent protest to end segregation and to promote civil rights.
  • Declaration of the United States’ commitment to providing aid to prevent the spread of communism.
  • all of the activities involved in running any type of organization (such as a school or a company); the group of people responsible for running an organization
  • the act of treating of some people worse than others because they are different in some way
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • having to do with the affairs, cultures or citizens of two or more nations
  • an autocratic government with absolute power given to the leader or dictator
  • freedom from the control, influence, or support of another person or group
  • The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or the Soviet Union was a constitutionally socialist state that existed between 1922 and 1991, ruled as a single-party state by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital
  • a weapon with great explosive energy due to a rapid chain reaction based on nuclear fission or the splitting of nuclei from heavy metals
  • a coalition of powers including Germany, Italy and Japan that opposed the Allied Powers during World War II
  • a contest between businesses to win the most customers or earn the most money
  • a law enacted by a governing body; process of lawmaking
  • the separation of a people based on race, class, religion or ethnic group in public places
  • cannot be taken away, surrendered, or violated; inalienable
  • Controversial conflict from 1964-1973 involving the United States and South Vietnamese forces against communist forces of North Vietnam.
  • the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring; a group of individuals born and living around the same period of time
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • a sudden and drastic change; the often violent attempt to end the rule of one government and replace it with a completely new government
  • the competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the mid to late 20th century for the supremacy of space exploration as a way to display superior technological and ideological developments
  • something, such as a trait or circumstance, that helps someone achieve a goal, especially over another person who does not have the benefit of that trait or circumstance.
  • a system in which goods and the means of production are owned in common in order to create a classless society
  • dealing with matters of money, capital, or credit
  • destruction consisting of an extensive loss of life; slaughter on a mass scale
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • open defiance of or resistance to authority; a violent uprising against the government
  • a one-party government with a government controlled economy in which government officials, not the free market, determine prices and wages. Communists oppose religion, limit civil liberties and desire the elimination of social classes.
  • This scandal involved illegal actions by members of the Nixon administration. It led to the resignation of President Nixon.
  • two or more people, parties, or nations that agree to help one another achieve a common goal
  • the use of troops or ships to close off a city, harbor, or port to prevent the movement of people or supplies
  • a period of sustained political and military tension between the United States and Soviet Union that stops short of full-scale war
  • a disagreement; opposition
  • the main lawmaking body in the United States that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • a ruler with absolute power
  • an official statement usually dealing with religion, the military or foregin affairs
  • pretaining to the home, family or the internal affairs of a country
  • a governing official who exercises influence over an organized body; a person who governs
  • a prominent feature in the landscape of a region which marks a specific location
  • the greater quantity; more than half the total number
  • a form of government where the head of state is not a monarch and officials are elected into office rather than inheriting their position
  • a long-term plan for achieving a particular goal
  • a formal speech, usually delivered on an important occasion or to a special audience
  • one way that a group of people can show that they are unhappy by promising not to buy, use, or participate until a change is made
  • a period of one hundred years
  • a culmination of knowledge, beliefs, and values developed through an individual's experiences in the world
  • the way people use what they have in order to get what they need or want
  • a judge; to bring in accordance with the law
  • favoring reform, new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others
  • freedom from the control, coercion, interference, or restriction of others; independence
  • to object or dissent
  • to search for suitable people and convince them to join a cause, company, the military, etc.
  • the crime of committing any act considered to be a betrayal of one's country such as an attempt to overthrow the government or giving valuable information to an enemy nation
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • a place that is ruled by a far away country; a group of people sent by their country to build settlements in such a place
  • one very large area or many separate areas under the control of one person or government
  • relating to or affecting the entire world
  • having the same relationship, feelings or circumstances as another; reciprocal
  • the highest house of Congress in the United States consisting of two representatives from each state who are elected by the people to serve a six year term
  • a name that refers to all of the states that did not secede from the United States during the American Civil War
  • the amount of a particular good or service that people want and have the ability to buy
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • people who aided slaves along the Underground Railroad to freedom
  • to officially make into law
  • a male monarch who inherits his position by right of birth
  • a former Asian country which was divided by the United States and Soviet Union into North Korea and South Korea after World War II
  • relating to the moon
  • the path a spacecraft, satellite, or planet takes around another object in space
  • command; authoritative instruction
  • a particular space with definite or indefinite boundaries that has a specific name
  • an area under someone's influence or power; a kingdom
  • from, in, or like the city
  • a straight center line through an object or body that displays symmetry
  • a proposed law
  • a group of people sworn to determin a verdict in a legal case based on evidence submitted to them in court
  • a rule established by custom or authority
  • an often customary method of achieving an end
  • the point on a compass that is directly opposite from east; the direction of sunset
  • a law
  • the amount of time a person has been alive; or a period of time usually named for a particular characteristic or condition shared by those who lived during that period; an era