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Eisenhower and the Cold War, 1953-54

As the US went toward the presidential election of 1952 many saw President Truman as a failure. In October, those approving was 30 percent and disapproving was 56 percent. Many saw Truman as having "lost" China and as having failed in Korea. Following the big victories of World War II nothing but success was expected. The US had Senator Joe McCarthy talking about the "twenty years of treason," of Democrats and the delivering of America to the Reds, including Franklin Roosevelt having given everything to Stalin at Yalta. In 1950 a State Department official, Alger Hiss, had been convicted of treason.

Truman withdrew from the race following his defeat in the New Hampshire primary by the Senator from Tessessee, Estes Kefauver, and it was the Governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, who won the Democratic Party's nomination.

A big name in the Republic Party, Tom Dewey, a moderate, worked for the nomination of the former Supreme Commander in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower accepted the scrappy anti-Communist Richard Nixon to balance the ticket. General Douglas MacArthur, whom Truman had fired in 1951, had been a candidate. He had delivered the convention's keynote address, but he did poorly in the balloting. It would be written that veterans didn't like him much and were more happy with the less pompous and more affable Eisenhower.

During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower called Stevenson an egghead, and Stevenson did sound more professorial. Eisenhower appeared honest and without affectations. He left the politically nervous campaigning to Nixon. But close to election day Eisenhower said, "If elected I shall go to Korea," suggesting he would end the war without saying how — considered by Truman in the White House as a cheap campaign trick.

Eisenhower won a landslide victory. Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. As for Korea, Stalin had met with China's Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai back in August 1952, before the US elections, and they had agreed that the war should be ended (accepting less than the unification that North Korea had wanted). Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had been opposed to a negotiated settlement, preferring an escalation of the war and victory. But Eisenhower defied Dulles's wishes, and an armistice was signed in late July 1953 (an agreement not signed by South and North Korea, the two to remain technically at war well into the 21st century).

Secretary of State Dulles rejected the "containment theory" that had been accepted by President Truman. He spoke of rolling back the iron curtain and liberating Eastern Europe and described blocking Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan from attacking the Chinese mainland as immoral. Dulles told the father of the containment theory, George Kennan, there would be no place for him in the State Department.

On January 12, Secretary of State Dulles alarmed people in the Soviet Union and Western Europe by announcing that the US was going to rely on "massive retaliatory power," including its nuclear capability, rather than allow itself to be drawn into limited conflicts similar to the war in Korea. The way to deter aggression, he said, was for "the free community" to be willing to "respond vigorously and at places and with means of its own choosing."

The world was being threatened by nuclear annihilation. The Soviet Union had tested a deliverable hydrogen bomb on August 1953. In March 1954, the US tested its first deliverable hydrogen bomb on the island of Bikini in the Pacific — a blast 750 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Communism was still being thought of as a monolithic movement, with China's communists seen as agents of Moscow. That Europe's communists might mellow (as with the Prague Spring in the 1960s or the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s) was beyond the imagination of many. Communists were seen as devoid of humanity and focused like devils on destroying freedom, including the freedom to worship. The Republican-controlled Congress thought it was defending the United States from the Communist menace by passing the Communist Control Act, signed by Eisenhower in August 1954. This made membership to the Communist Party as a criminal act and stipulated that all Party members would be sanctioned with up to a $10,000 fine or imprisonment for five years or both.

John Foster Dulles was an experienced diplomat. He had helped draft the UN constitution and had negotiated the peace treaty with Japan. He believed Communism would prove to be a failure, but this didn't diminish his opposition to "containment." Eisenhower's ambassador to Italy, Clare Booth Luce — wife of the conservative founder of Time, Life and Fortune magazines — wrote that the US would probably lose the war against communism. She complained that Western Europe was becoming neutralist and that Italy was on the verge of surrendering to communism. By 1959, she predicted, half of the nations in NATO would be under Soviet control.

In September 1954, Dulles pushed ahead with his strategy against the Communist menace by putting together an alliance called the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The Philippines and Thailand were the only Southeast Asian nations aside from Australia that signed on – Thailand in response to a border issue with China that it was concerned about. Pakistan joined as did Britain and France. Members were to consult with one another and to unite against an aggressor if they could unanimously agree on who that aggressor was.

The Overthrow of Democracy in Iran

Britain was still struggling with empire, in Kenya with the Mau Mau uprising that had begun in 1952. And Britain in 1954 was negotiating with Egypt regarding the Suez Canal. Communists were seen as trying to take advantage of anti-colonialism. The Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid associations with colonialism. But it became entangled with Britain's defense of its oil interests in Iran.

Since early in the 20th century, British Petroleum had a monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil. What was to be known as the Abadan Crisis began in 1951 with Iran's Prime Minister Mosaddegh wanting to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Stephen Kinzer writes that one British diplomat scoffed at the idea of nationalization and said, "We English have had hundreds of years of experience on how to treat the natives" and added that "Socialism is all right back home, but out here you have to be the master." (Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow, p 118.)

In October 1952, Mosaddegh closed the British embassy and forced British agents out of the country. The British turned to the US for help. President Truman, in the words of Stephen Kinzer, had "contempt for old-style imperialists ... Besides, the CIA had never overthrown a government, and Truman did not wish to set the precedent." (Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men, p 3.)

The British had better luck with the Eisenhower administration. They convinced Secretary of State Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, that Mosaddegh was close to the communists and therefore a menace. Actually, Mosaddegh disliked communist doctrine and had excluded communists from his government.

Mosaddeq had a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Masters in International Relations from the University of Paris and he had a Doctorate in Law from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Since the early 1920s, he had risen in Iranian politics as a heroic man of principles. He had joined with others in founding the National Front of Iran, which aimed at establishing democracy and ending foreign influence — mainly British. He had been prime minister since April 1951, with Iran's young constitutional monarch, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, recognizing Mosaddegh's popularity and approving his premiership. As a believer in democracy, Mossaddegh had been allowing Iran's Communist Party to function politically, and Iran's Communists favored nationalization of their country's oil.

By 1954, people in Iran were blaming Mosaddegh for the country's economic crisis. He had been losing support among common working people, who had been his strongest supporters. He moved to strengthen in political alliance with the addition of Iran's Communist Party. Secretary of State Dulles had come to see the overthrow of Mosaddegh as a morally correct "rollback" of Communism. The British and his brother Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, launched what British intelligence called Operation Boot and the CIA called Operation Ajax.

The plan was to have the king, Mohammad Reza, who was friendly toward the United States, dismiss Mosaddegh and replace him with General Fazlollah Zahedi. About 200 people were killed in the coup. Mosaddegh was tried by a military tribunal for high treason. He was sentenced to three years in solitary confinement at a military jail and was exiled to his village, where he was to remain under house arrest on his estate until his death in 1967.

General Zahedi was made Prime Minister on 19 August 1953, and Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah was able to rule more firmly as monarch. A description of the CIA's role in the coup appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, explaining that "the strategic little nation of Iran was rescued from the closing clutch of Moscow."

The coup would be widely believed as having contributed to the 1979 rise of the anti-Western" Islamic republic.

War or Peace in Vietnam

Eisenhower wanted the US disassociated from colonialism, but he also favored France's struggle to maintain its rule Vietnam. After Eisenhower took office in January 1953, US aid to the French effort in Vietnam increased, and by 1954 the US was paying 80 percent of the financial cost of the French effort.

The Communists were receiving heavy weaponry from China, which was no longer bogged down in Korea. The Viet Minh Communists were defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu (13 March to 7 May 1954). The French asked the US to contribute air and naval power. Admiral Radford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to help the French with a force of planes from the aircraft carriers Essex and Boxer. Army Chief of Staff, Matthew Ridgway, complained to Eisenhower that US bombing would need to be followed by US ground troops – around 500,000 – and that Vietnam was a mess not worth getting into. Eisenhower listened to Ridgway and also heard a chorus of calls for intervention from the let's-be-strong members of Congress, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council.

If the Communists win in Vietnam, said Secretary of State Dulles on 26 March 1954, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand would be threatened. In his "domino theory" speech on April 7, Eisenhower agreed.

The Eisenhower administration decided that if the US was to intervene in Vietnam it had to have allies. Secretary of State Dulles went to Britain, where Prime Minister Churchill (now eighty) turned him down. Churchill's view of the communist menace had changed since his "iron curtain" speech in 1946. On 1 January 1953 he had spoken of the Soviet Union having digestive problems regarding its satellites in Eastern Europe, and he had predicted that Eastern Europe would be free of communism in about thirty years or so. Churchill did not fear that the Russians were out to conquer the world or that the free nations were so weak that they were about to crumble. He saw weakness instead in the Soviet Union's position in Eastern Europe. Churchill was opposed to joining Britain to a US intervention in Vietnam. He said it was better to "jaw-jaw" than to "war-war" and that "we ought to have a try for peaceful coexistence – a real good try." And some in the United States dismissed Churchill as having become senile.

The French at Dienbienphu surrendered to the Viet Minh on May 7. A new premier in France, Pierre Mendès-France, chose to negotiate an end to France's seven years of war in Vietnam. From late April to July 1954 at Geneva, Switzerland. Moscow had sent Molotov, and the Chinese were there, barely one year since the settlement regarding Korea, with China wanting stability rather than war on its southern border, and Molotov favoring peace coexistence with the West.

in July 1954, the French and Viet Minh signed a settlement for Vietnam, the Viet Minh not happy about another division between North and South but taking what it could. The agreement held that Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel until 1956, when elections were to be held under international supervision. All parties attending the Geneva agreement agreed except the US. Secretary of State Dulles believed that nothing could be gained from the agreements at Geneva. (See the Pentagon Papers.) The Republican leader in the Senate, William Knowland, called the Geneva Accords the "greatest victory the Communists have won in twenty years." President Eisenhower said he would neither accept responsibility for the agreements at Geneva nor try to overthrow them.

CONTINUE READING: Cold War and Opinion to 1960

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