home | history

Cold War and Opinion to 1960

In the Soviet Union, political prisoners remained, but millions were released. In early 1955, tensions arose concerning two islands in the Taiwan Strait just off China's coast, and the US had defense policy called "massive retaliation." It appeared that the US might be willing to go to war to maintain Chiang Kai-shek's control of the two little islands, useful in harassing China. But China stopped shelling the islands and the crises faded.

In May 1955, the US, Soviet Union, Britain, and France signed an agreement that reestablished Austria's independence, with the proviso that Austria would remain "forever neutral" in foreign affairs. The Kremlin lived up to the agreement by pulling its troops out of Austria, and Austria became the first nation divided at the end of World War II to achieve reunification. Eisenhower was impressed and agreed to attend a summit meeting at Geneva in July. Some Republican Party hardliners were reminded of the Yalta summit meeting and didn't approve.

At the Summit meeting, Eisenhower and Khrushchev discussed the arms race, trade barriers, diplomacy and nuclear warfare. Britain's Anthony Eden discussed disarmament and European security. Eisenhower announced his "Open Skies" proposal, and the British and French were enthusiastic. But Khrushchev believed that "Open Skies" would help the US in military targeting. Also he didn't want exposure of his bluff concerning the Soviet Union's retaliation capability, and he described the "Open Skies" proposal as spying.

It was with Egypt and Gamel Abdel Nasser that the next crisis arose. In January he vowed to conquer Palestine. His support for Algerian independence annoyed the French, and he was a leading proponent of neutralism and disliked by Dulles. In July, the US and Britain withdrew their offer to finance construction of Nasser's Aswan Dam project (on the Nile River). Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France (the largest shareholders in the Suez Canal Company) and the Israelis sent tanks and aircraft against Egypt. The Eisenhower administration was afraid of anti-imperialist opinion and supported a United Nations resolution demanding withdrawal and a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to be stationed in Sinai. The British, French and Israelis halted their advance less than 48 hours after it had begun.

The next crisis had Soviet origins. In October an uprising began in Hungary with university students and Communists who opposed Soviet policy. Hungary's prime minister, Imre Nagy — a Communist put in power by the Soviet Union — wanted a multi-party democracy for Hungary. The Soviet Union did not, and it replaced Nagy with Janos Kader, who had been in prison for his hostility to Stalinism. In late October the Soviet Union sent in tanks that crushed the uprising. Nagy disappeared into the Soviet Union (and would be secretly executed in 1958.) This left many in the US unimpressed regarding the Soviet Union's liberalization. The US Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, believed that the US should have intervened militarily, and he criticized President Eisenhower for his willingness to talk to Khrushchev.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

In late December 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty or so followers on board the Granma chugged from Mexico and ran aground in a swamp at the foot of the Sierra Maestra Mountains in eastern Cuba. An airplane had spotted them, and the army of dictator Batista was waiting for them. Only a few of the rebels made it into the Sierra Maestras – among them Fidel, his brother Raul and a gun-toting, asthmatic Argentinean physician, Che Guevara, age twenty-seven.

Guevara was hostile toward the United States. He had gone to Guatemala in 1953, where a popular former army officer Jacobo Árbenz had been elected president. Communists were active in peasant organizations and labor unions, and Árbenz allowed it. He supported a land reform bill that transferred unused agricultural land from owners of large properties to landless rural workers. A landowner himself, Árbenz gave up 1,700 acres. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles of the CIA decided to get rid of Árbenz. The CIA trained Guatemalans in Nicaragua (ruled by the dictator Anastasio Somoza. Árbenz feared an invasion and wanted weapons for his army. The US disrupted deals being made to buy arms and ammunition from Canada and Germany. The Árbenz regime offered to buy weaponry that originated in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. Secretary of State Dulles described this as proof of Communist infiltration, and the US public was told that a Communist revolution in Guatemala was being hatched. On June 18, an exile army of around 400 men invaded Guatemala across the Honduras-Guatemala border. Aircraft dropped a few bombs. Árbenz believed that resistance would be futile, resigned and sought asylum in Mexico. According to Britannica:

The overthrow of the Árbenz regime persuaded Che Guevara that the US would always be hostile to progressive governments. This became the cornerstone of his plans to bring about socialism by means of a worldwide revolution.

Cold War, in 1957-58

A cultural exchange had begun between the US and the Soviet Union: the Soviet magazine USSR appearing on magazine racks in major US cities. Eisenhower wanted undergraduates from the Soviet Union to come and study in the US, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover talked him out of it.

On October 4, 1957, the world turned its attention to the world's first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union. People in the US were shocked. The Soviet Union's rocket capabilities were obvious and seen as a threat. The question of which economic system was superior intensified.

Also in 1957, the novel Doctor Zhivago was published — in Italy. Its Russian author, Boris Pasternak, was to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, which enraged Soviet patriots who accused the Nobel committee of engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda. Years later, Khrushchev would express regret that he had not read the book and said there was "nothing anti-Soviet in it". But for now, in 1958, Pravda described the book as a "low-grade reactionary hackwork." Pasternak was expelled from the Writer's Union and was not allowed to travel to Norway to accept the award.

In Guatamala, the regime of Castillo Armas, which had come to power with US help, was returning land to large landowners, cracking down on unions and peasant organizations and arresting and killing thousands. A "National Committee of Defense Against Communism added 10 percent of the population to a list of suspected communists. The Armas regime was plagued by corruption and soaring debt. In July Armas was assassinated by a palace guard with leftist sympathies. Political instability and a prolonged armed insurrection followed that was to continue for decades.

Regarding Latin America, the Eisenhower administration decided that an eight-nation goodwill tour was needed to demonstrate US commitment to the region. Vice President Nixon agreed to go, alongside his wife and security entourage. Latin Americans who disliked US support for dictatorial regimes were blaming the United States for Latin America's social ills. Nixon was harassed by law students in Uruguay. Nixon's limousine was stoned by university students in Peru, and he was attacked by a mob in Caracas, Venezuela. Nixon described the demonstrators in Caracas as having been led "without any doubt" by Communists. That the protesters chanted the same slogan "was absolute proof," he said, that the demonstrations had been "directed and controlled by a central Communist conspiracy."

Nixon helped enunciate a new policy toward Latin America, declaring that there would be "a formal handshake for dictators, [and] an embraso (embrace) for leaders in freedom." Secretary of State Dulles was not in total agreement the new soft approach. He said that when Latin America's uneducated masses take over they were "not going to practice democracy as we know it." He spoke of his fear of dictatorships of the proletariat and of populists of the Nasser type. But Dulles lost the argument. The Eisenhower administration planned to compete with Communism in Latin America by being concerned with "hearts and minds" and the sufferings of oppressed people.

Crisis in the Taiwan Strait return in August 1958. The two little islands, Quemoy and Matsu, were claimed by Beijing. China's airforce was clashing with Chiang Kai-shek's US-made aircraft, and China was shelling the islands. Eisenhower ordered reinforcement of the US Seventh Fleet in the area and protection of the supply line between the little islands and Taiwan. The Soviet Union dispatched its foreign minister to Beijing to discuss actions and to advise caution. Chiang Kai-shek's aircraft shot down numerous MIG aircraft using the new sidewinder missiles. Beijing's shelling of the islands was reduced to shells containing propaganda leaflets. And the Island of Quemoy started a profitable business making meat cleavers from spent shell casings.


The year 1959 began with the dictator Batista fleeing Cuba. Castro and rebel troops entered Havana on January 10. On Castro's agenda was his version of war-crime trials. Around 700 of Batista's enforcers were executed, shown on US television and disturbing for many in the US, their discomfort described by Castro a result of not having experienced the Batista regime's repressions and tortures.

In April, Castro accepted an invitation to visit the US by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Eisenhower snubbed Castro, leaving town to play golf. Vice President Nixon invited Castro to his office where they chatted. Then Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial. He was invited to meet the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told them that he would not expropriate the property of Americans and that he was against dictatorships and for a free press.

Some in the Eisenhower administration favored loans to Cuba with the idea that good relations might tame Castro. Others in the administration disliked Castro's talk of neutralism, and some saw Castro's as a danger to the standing of the United States in Latin America.

Castro returned to Cuba, and he told a Social Democrat friend that he was not a Communist because Communism was the dictatorship of a single class and meant hatred and class struggle. On television he told the Cuban people that extremists had no place in the Cuban revolution.

In July 1959, Nixon traveled to the American National Exhibition in Moscow — part of the cultural exchange between the two countries. On display for Soviet citizens was the latest in US consumer goods, including automobiles, art, and an American kitchen. Almost three million Soviets citizens are said to have visited an exhibition. There, Nixon and Khrushchev had their "kitchen debate," Nixon annoying Khrushchev with his boasting. Khrushchev proposed a toast "to the elimination of all military bases on foreign lands." Nixon responded with, "I am for peace. We will drink to talking – as long as we are talking we are not fighting." The debate would be described as fueling Khrushchev's desire to catch up with Western consumerism.

At his press conference on August 3, President Eisenhower announced that he had invited Khrushchev "to pay an official visit to the United States in September." He added that Mr. Khrushchev had "accepted with pleasure" and said that he had accepted with pleasure Mr. Khrushchev's invitation to pay an official visit to the Soviet Union."

Khrushchev's 13-day visit became on September 15. He and his wife were met coming off the Soviet airplane by President Eisenhower. Khrushchev says that he has arrived "with an open heart and good intentions. The Soviet people want to live in friendship with the American people." Elsewhere, out-of-sight, were demonstrators with signs that describe Khrushchev as the "butcher of Budapest." The visit provided Americans with great television. There were good-natured arguments and laughter. Khrushchev expressed anger over not being able to visit Disneyland. In Hollywood he was welcomed by a studio luncheon at 20th Century Fox, attended by anti-communist but friendly movie moguls and stars who liked a good show. There was the appearance of thaw in the Cold War. But hard times were ahead.

1960 and the Missisle Gap

The US defense establishment was concerned about the Soviet Union's production and distribution of rockets. Eisenhower wanted restraint on spending for weaponry and he wanted evidence that the US was had a missile advantage. On May 2, 1960, a Soviet rocket shot down a high-flying US U-2 spy-plane. Eisenhower didn't know that the U-2 pilot had been captured and he explained the U-2 as a weather plane that had gotten lost. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had not taken his poison capsule to avoid captivity. Eisenhower was caught lying. And Khrushchev had the opinions of hardliners in the USSR to worry about. He responded by demanding an apology from President Eisenhower, and it wasn't forthcoming. The scheduled Four-Power summit meeting scheduled for May 16 was cancelled. So too would be Eisenhower's visit to the Soviet Union. According to Walter Cronkite, Khrushchev eventually described the U-2 incident as the beginning of his political decline.

The collapse of the summit is said to have accelerated the arms race. Running for the president, Senator John F Kennedy was complaining about defense weaknesses and a missile gap with the Soviet Union. "They cannot hide the basic facts that American strength in relation to that of the Sino-Soviet bloc relatively has been slipping." Eisenhower arranged for Kennedy and his running mate Lyndon Johnson to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Strategic Air Command and finally with the Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles. But Kennedy continued with the same rhetoric, to be accused of willing to ignore the truth because it was useful to his campaign.

The Conflict with Cuba

In February 1960, the Soviet Union's Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba to inaugurate a Soviet trade exhibition. He signed a five-year trade agreement with Cuba, promising the purchase of one million tons of sugar annually. From the Soviet Union, Cuba was to receive petroleum products. The Eisenhower administration was upset and decided to work with anti-Castro groups inside Cuba to overthrow Castro. In March, a French ship carrying a shipment of Belgian small arms exploded in Havana harbor, killing dozens of workers and soldiers. Castro publicly accused the CIA of sabotage. Also in March, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba. Eisenhower approved $13 million for the project.

Soviet tankers arrived in Cuba with crude oil. The three oil refineries in Cuba – the Esso and Texaco refineries and a refinery owned by the British – refused to refine the oil. Castro nationalized the refineries. Castro saw the US as having declared economic war on Cuba. The following month – July – the Cuban government passed a nationalization law providing for the expropriation of foreign holdings in Cuba. Two days later, President Eisenhower reduced the purchase of Cuban sugar by 95 percent. The Soviet Union announced that it was willing to buy the sugar that had been destined for the United States.

On August 16, members of the CIA launched their first assassination attempt against Castro, with poisoned cigars. A leading journalist in the US, Walter Lippmann, criticized the Eisenhower administration for having "pushed the Cubans behind the iron curtain." The right thing to do, he wrote, "is keep the way open for their return."

Unaware of Eisenhower and the CIA organizing an invasion of Cuba, Kennedy criticized the Eisenhower administration for failing to support anti-Castro Cubans in their "fight for freedom." Nixon could not disclose the planned overthrow of Castro, but in his second televised debate with Kennedy (October 7) he sought credit for the decline of dictators in Latin America since the Eisenhower administration had taken office. On October 18, Kennedy spoke to an American Legion Convention and described the Eisenhower administration as having been weak regarding Castro and the Soviet Union as having "established a new satellite only 90 miles from American shores."


Winning the election in November and becoming President in January, the Bay of Pigs invasion set for April would Kennedy's rather than Nixon's.

CONTINUE READING: The Supreme Court, Segregation and Public Opinion

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.