World War I

“I do not hesitate to say that the war we have just been through, though it was shot through with terror of every kind, is not to be compared with the war we would have to face next time.”

-Woodrow Wilson

When World War I broke out in Europe in August 1914, the overwhelming majority of Americans agreed that the United States should stay out of the fighting. President Woodrow Wilson established a policy of strict neutrality to avoid U.S. involvement. Like most Americans of his era, Wilson distrusted the great powers of Europe. He believed that the United States occupied a unique place in the world as a beacon of democracy, freedom, and justice and that we should lead by example not intervention. In 1914, this belief lay at the foundation of Wilson’s policy on neutrality. By April 1917, however, Wilson evoked the same ideals of democracy, freedom and justice in calling on Congress to declare war against Germany.

World War I was a military success for the United States. Fresh American troops helped tip the balance of power in Europe against Germany, leading to an Allied victory in 1918. After the war, Americans were left with vital questions about their country’s role in the world.

President Wilson was at the center of the debate that ensued and lasted from 1918 to 1920. In seeking to define his country’s role in the post-war world, Wilson called for international cooperation to maintain world peace. In his peace proposal, known as the Fourteen Points, Wilson envisioned an association of nations that would permit all peoples to exercise self-rule. He imagined that the United States would join the proposed League of Nations and play a prominent part in safeguarding the peace of the new international order. This did not play out as the president had hoped.

Wilson underestimated the long-standing reluctance of Americans to commit their country abroad. At the heart of the debate was the proposed structure of the League of Nations that required all league members to come to the defense of any member nation under attack. Republican senators, the leading opponents of Wilson, argued that the United States might be obligated to fight to preserve the borders of a French colony in Africa or protect British imperial interests in India. They were unwilling to have the United States join an organization that required this commitment.

Rather than negotiate with his opponents in the Senate, Wilson decided to try to rally public support for his vision for U.S. foreign policy. In 1919, he traveled 8,000 miles by rail, giving forty speeches in twenty-nine cities during the course of a three-week speaking tour. Wilson’s voice, however, was silenced by a crippling stroke. Partially paralyzed, the President watched as the Senate in 1920 rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations by a vote of 38-53, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to approve the treaty. One of the treaty’s foes, Republican Warren G. Harding, went on to win the 1920 presidential election by pledging to return the country to “normalcy.”

Wilson’s hope that the United States would lead the League of Nations in establishing world peace was squelched before it ever got off the ground. Not only did the Senate vote against American membership in the League, but the bitter contest between Wilson and Republican senators turned many Americans against any level of participation in international affairs. The establishment of communism in the Soviet Union and the emergence of fascism in Europe added to American distaste for foreign policy. As the prosperity of the 1920s gave way to the depression of the 1930s, many Americans sought ways to shield their country from the turmoil that was building in Europe. In the mid-1930s, Congress passed a series of laws to prevent the United States from becoming caught up in another war.

The League of Nations proved weak and largely ineffective without U.S. involvement. In the 1930s, the League failed to stop Japanese, Italian, and German aggression. The overseas conflicts from which the United States hoped to isolate itself were becoming a mounting threat to world peace.

Strategic Bombing in World War II

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany began a war of conquest and expansion when it invaded Poland. Three days later Great Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. World War II was under way and air power was a new and integral element of military strategy. The Nazi’s air bombing raids early in the war shocked U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. As the death tolls rose, President Roosevelt strongly condemned Germany’s deliberate bombing attacks on civilians.

“The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population…has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity…. I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every Government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.”

-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Hitler paid no heed to Roosevelt’s condemnation, however, and by the time the United States entered the war in December 1941 the Allies had rejected Roosevelt’s plea as well. Hitler’s barbarity terrified Allied citizens and leaders alike. Worried that the Axis powers might prevail, American and British military strategists developed more accurate and more deadly bombing tactics, seeking to cripple both war industries and urban centers, forcing the Nazis to concentrate on defending their homeland.

In February 1942, the British Bomber Command gained approval from Churchill to target Germany’s industrial cities and their civilian populations. The policy of dropping bombs on large, typically heavily populated areas rather than narrowly defined targets became known as “strategic bombing.” The practice expanded and was utilized by both sides as the war years went on.

While Churchill publicly referred to the policy of “de-housing” German workers, neither he nor Roosevelt told their peoples about the extent or the intent of the Allied bombing of German population centers. The war objective remained, as President Roosevelt stated, “a policy of fighting hard on all fronts and ending the war as quickly as we can on the uncompromising terms of unconditional surrender.”

By early 1945, Adolf Hitler’s ambitions had been smashed. Allied forces were marching into Germany from the west while the Soviet army was pushing back the Nazis in the east. Nonetheless, to ensure Germany’s unconditional surrender and to assist the Soviet advance in the east, the Allies staged one of the largest raids of the war against the German city of Dresden, involving nearly 2,800 aircraft. The firestorm that resulted was visible for two hundred miles. Approximately one hundred thousand Germans, mostly civilians, were killed-the largest loss of life in a single day up to that point of the 20th century. Three months later, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally after U.S. and Soviet forces met in central Germany.

The War in the Pacific

In East Asia, the world war had begun with the Japanese invasion of China in August 1937. In the fall of 1937, Japan staged bombing raids against the Chinese commercial center of Shanghai. A few weeks later, the Japanese captured Nanjing, the Chinese capital. As hundreds of foreign residents watched, Japanese troops took part in a rampage of murder, rape, and looting against the civilian population. More than two hundred thousand Chinese were killed and the city was burned to the ground. Japan, like Germany, was on a quest of territorial expansion.

American newspapers reported widely on Japanese efforts to terrorize the city’s residents and printed photos of orphaned children and maimed civilians. The American press labeled the atrocity the “Rape of Nanking.” Though the brutality horrified the American public, a determination to remain neutral kept America out of the war. This changed on December 7, 1941 when Japan staged a surprise attack on the U.S. navel base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war on Japan, thereby joining World War II.

Events during the next few months of the war deeply hardened American attitudes toward the Japanese. In the Philippines, American soldiers who surrendered were treated mercilessly by their Japanese captors. More than seven thousand American and other Allied prisoners of war died during what came to be known as the “Bataan Death March.” In the first thirty-one months after Pearl Harbor, 106,000 Americans either died or were severely wounded in the Pacific war. From July 1944 to July 1945, U.S. casualties rose beyond 185,000. As was feared with the war in Europe, many worried that fierce Japanese tactics might overwhelm American efforts.

By 1944, despite growing death tolls, the United States was working hard to dismantle Japan’s island empire in the Pacific. After capturing the islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, the United States built bases for long-range bombers and began an intense air campaign against Japanese cities. As was the case in the air war against Germany, military planners experimented with different bombing tactics in order to maximize the damage inflicted on Japan and force a surrender.

In March 1945, an air raid on Tokyo, Japan’s capital, demonstrated the power of the U.S. bombing campaign. The targets were the industrial districts of Tokyo, where factories were often flanked by working-class neighborhoods. Since the labor and morale of Tokyo’s workers were viewed as central to Japanese resistance, U.S. officials believed that the “necessity of war” concept justified their decision to strike against Japanese citizens.

More than three hundred B-29 superfortress bombers, each carrying two tons of incendiaries packed in 100-pound and 6-pound gelled gasoline (napalm) bombs, descended on Tokyo. At least fifteen square miles of the city were consumed in the resulting firestorm. A column of superheated air rose into the sky, generating turbulence so strong that it flipped over U.S. bombers flying more than one mile above Tokyo. In the first six hours of the firestorm, more than one hundred thousand Japanese civilians died.

“I think the issue is: in order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night, by firebombing or any other way?”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

U.S. General Curtis E. LeMay viewed the attack on Tokyo as a major success. His answer to McNamara’s question would clearly be “yes.” Before the month was over, LeMay ordered the firebombing of three more Japanese cities. The assaults came to a temporary halt only when the supply of bombs was exhausted. More would follow.

In the spring of 1945, most U.S. strategists assumed that the United States would have to stage a ground troop invasion of Japan’s home islands to force the unconditional surrender of their enemy. Japanese resistance was expected to be ferocious. Island battles in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945 gave American military officials an idea of what awaited their troops.

To avoid sending troops to the beaches of Japan, President Truman approved a directive authorizing the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities. An ultimatum was issued demanding that the Japanese government surrender unconditionally, though no mention was made of the nuclear bomb or description of the awaiting destruction. When the Japanese did not surrender, President Truman ordered the use of nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. These instances marked the first time that nuclear weapons were used in the history of warfare. The consequences were massive. More than 170,000 Japanese died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or within a few months. More would die in later years as a result of the bombings.

Moreover, the stage was set for the half century long confrontation between two nuclear powers, the U.S. and the USSR, in what is called the Cold War. This first introduction of nuclear weapons significantly changed the course of history.

“I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history-kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time-and today-has not really grappled with what are, I’ll call it, “the rules of war.” Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Cold War

Following the defeat of Hitler in 1945, U.S.-Soviet relations began to deteriorate. Between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union (current day Russia) were locked in the Cold War. Because both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons and were in competition around the world, nearly every foreign policy decision was intricately examined for its potential impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. During this period, both the Soviet Union and the United States devoted vast resources to increasing their military might and competed to extend their influence in every corner of the globe. Because neither country engaged in direct military action against the other the war was characterized as “cold.” The fact that each country developed nuclear arsenals large enough to completely destroy the world many times over causes some to question just how “cold” the war actually was.

“During the Kennedy administration, they designed a 100 megaton bomb. It was tested in the atmosphere. I remember this. Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

At the heart of U.S. strategy were the ideas of George Kennan, the State Department’s principal expert on the Soviet Union. Kennan proposed that the United States work to halt both overt Soviet military expansion and the covert spread of communist influence through subversion and armed insurrection. The United States adopted a policy of containing the spread of Soviet communism, leading to U.S. intervention around the world in the decades to follow-most notably, in Vietnam.

“It’s impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my seven years as Secretary, we came within a hair’s breath of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year for seven years as Secretary of Defense, I lived the Cold War.”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

The U.S. policy of “containment” was first applied to defeat Soviet-supported rebels in Greece and to counter Soviet political pressure against Turkey. In a speech before Congress on March 12, 1947, President Harry S Truman outlined what would later become known as the “Truman Doctrine.”

“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

-President Harry S Truman

In the early 1960s the United States entered a violent conflict between North and South Vietnam for fear that a victory by the Communist North could lead to the spread of communism. U.S. involvement came at a grave cost. Tens of thousands of American soldiers (along with countless Vietnamese) died in the Vietnam War, a war that ended over a decade later with few decisive outcomes to show for the struggle.

“[The Vietnamese] believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Another critical moment of the Cold War came in 1962 when President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union had placed several nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. The thirteen days that ensued are known as the Cuban missile crisis and were defined by extraordinary tension between the two nuclear superpowers in their mutual effort to protect their national interests, however necessary, while at the same time recognizing that the outbreak of nuclear war would spell disaster for all of humanity.

“On the calendar are engraved the dates: October 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23,24, 25, 26, 27, and finally 28, were the dates when we literally looked down the gun barrel into nuclear war.”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

This heightened level of mutually-felt military threat that comes with the inclusion of nuclear weapons in warfare has come to be expressed in the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The idea of MAD is that if one nuclear power attacks another, a nuclear response on behalf of the originally attacked is sure to occur. With the United States and the Soviet Union, for example, each country knew when considering military action that an attack would be a decision not only to destroy the enemy but also to destroy themselves.

“It horrifies me to think what would have happened in the event of an invasion of Cuba! . It would have been an absolute disaster for the world…. No one should believe that a U.S. force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Cuban Missile Crisis

Perhaps the tensest phase of the Cold War commenced on October 12, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy was confronted with an earth-shattering revelation: the Soviet Union was placing missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from the United States.

Under a cloak of deceit, the Soviet Union introduced nuclear missiles into Cuba, targeting 90 million Americans. The C.I.A. said the warheads had not been delivered yet. They thought twenty were coming on a ship named the Poltava. We mobilized 180,000 troops. The first day’s air attack was planned at 1080 sorties, a huge air attack.

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States had been high since the late 1940s and had only grown stonger as the Cold War unfolded. For every U.S. president since Truman, this ideological standoff known as the Cold War had shaped foreign and domestic policy. Kennedy had worried for months about Soviet intentions toward West Berlin and in Southeast Asia, but the news from Cuba indicated that the threat was much closer to home than anyone had expected. Kennedy realized that, if launched, these missiles could hit the United States in minutes. The Cold War seemed about to boil over.

Cuba presented a thorny problem for the president. Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, welcomed in the United States with open arms just a few years before, had recently aligned himself with the Soviet Union and fallen from U.S. graces. At the time that Kennedy realized that Cuba would have nuclear missiles, feelings in the United States were already running high against Castro and Cuba. Many Americans felt that Castro’s revolution was a rejection of the U.S. effort to bring American skills and values to the region. The island had become a focal point for U.S. anxiety about the world. In 1961, Kennedy had authorized a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Castro. Known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, it was a disastrous failure. Castro’s forces overwhelmed the invaders within days and forced them to surrender.

Despite Castro’s victory, the American-backed attack convinced him that the United States would soon make another, more forceful attempt to attack Cuba. As a result, Castro believed that he needed to strengthen the island’s defenses. In a quest to protect Cuba from the might of the United States, Castro turned to the other super power, the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having already made a committment to defending Cuba against a U.S. invasion, backed up this commitment by supplying the Cuban military with sophisticated weapons along with officers and technicians to teach Cuban soldiers the tactics of modern warfare.

“…the Cold War [will] not be won in Latin America, it [might] very well be lost there.”

-President John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy had met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev the previous year in an effort to improve relations between the two nuclear powers but with little success. Khrushchev, convinced that the Soviet Union was an ascendant power and emboldened by advances in Soviet rocket technology, saw little reason to compromise with the United States. Nonetheless, Khrushchev had promised not to do anything that might affect the upcoming U.S. elections. Furthermore, he had promised not to place offensive weapons in Cuba.

When U.S. leaders discovered that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, they were stunned. No one was sure of Khrushchev or Castro’s intentions. Would the nuclear missiles be used to threaten Cuba’s Latin American neighbors, or even intimidate the United States? Did the communist leaders believe that the United States would not oppose their plan?

The White House was shocked that the Soviets had ignored U.S. warnings against putting missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy was especially indignant at the secrecy surrounding the Soviet operation. Kennedy administration officials recognized that members of Congress and the American media would press for a strong U.S. response.

In the White House, there was little disagreement that nuclear missiles in Cuba would pose a grave threat to U.S. security. For the first time, American territory would be highly vulnerable to Soviet nuclear attack. From the U.S. perspective, the question was not whether the missiles should be removed but how.

President Kennedy and his advisers were particularly concerned about the operational status of the missiles in Cuba. The original U-2 reconnaissance photos had shown that the missiles and their silos were not yet ready for use. Kennedy, however, was uncertain of the progress being made on the missile bases. As far as the president and his advisers were concerned, they were maneuvering in a minefield.

Initially, President Kennedy and his advisers decided to keep their knowledge of the missiles secret from the Soviets and the American public. On October 16, the president called together his closest and most trusted advisers to help him manage the crisis. This group was the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or “ExComm.” Several options from invasion to diplomacy were considered.

On October 20, President Kennedy decided on a blockade of Cuba by the U.S. Navy to prevent further shipments of military supplies to the island. This option allowed the president to steer a middle course between ExComm’s varied options. On the evening of October 22, Kennedy announced in a televised speech to the American public that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. He then informed the nation of his decision to enforce a “quarantine” of Cuba until the missiles were removed.

As the crisis intensified, many Americans feared that war, possibly nuclear war, was probable. The U.S. naval quarantine went into effect October 24. Initially, Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships to race toward the quarantine line. The Soviets threatened to sink any U.S. vessel that tried to prevent their passage to Cuba. That same day, U.S. nuclear forces were placed on DEFCON 2 alert for the first and only time in history: bombers remained airborne, and missile silo covers were opened in preparation for launching. On October 25, at least a dozen Soviet ships en route to Cuba turned back, but preparations at the missile sites on the island accelerated. Soviets and Cubans started working around the clock to make the missiles operational.

The tension was reaching a breaking point. If the Soviets refused to back down, the United States would be faced with the options to allow the missiles to remain in Cuba, launch an air strike, or to invade the island.

Two letters written by Khrushchev to Kennedy marked a new stage in the crisis. The first letter, received October 26, was an emotional appeal apparently composed by Khrushchev himself, calling on Kennedy to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear war. Khrushchev indicated that the Soviet Union would take its missiles out of Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade the island. On October 27, a second letter arrived signed by Khrushchev. This letter took a much more hardline position, insisting that the United States remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey in return for a withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Kennedy found the demands contained in the second letter unacceptable because Turkey and other U.S. allies on the Mediterranean counted on U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles to deter an attack by the Soviet Union.

After hours of analyzing and discussing the two letters, Kennedy and his advisers decided to respond only to the first letter and to ignore the second one. On the evening of October 27, the president offered to “give assurances against the invasion of Cuba” and to “remove promptly” the quarantine measures that were in effect. In return, Kennedy expected the Soviet missiles to be removed from Cuba under international observation and supervision.

That same evening, President Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. During the course of his meeting, Robert Kennedy warned Ambassador Dobrynin that events were spiraling out of control. Unless the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, Kennedy stated, the president would order U.S. forces to destroy them. He also revealed to Dobrynin that the U.S. missiles in Turkey were outmoded and that the United States had already made plans before the crisis to remove them. However, he advised Dobrynin that if the Soviets tried to present the withdrawal as a missile trade, the United States would deny that any such agreement existed.

Neither the president nor his advisers were confident that Khrushchev would accept the final American offer. U.S. preparations for an air strike against the missile sites and an invasion of Cuba intensified. Over 100,000 battle-ready troops had massed in Florida to await the president’s orders.

Khrushchev was faced with a difficult decision. Should the Soviet leader refuse the U.S. offer, risk military confrontation, and a possible invasion of Cuba? Should he stick to his proposed swap of Turkish missiles for Cuban missiles and hope that the United States would give in? Or should he accept President Kennedy’s offer?

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were very anxious about the possibility that events could spiral out of control and into nuclear war. Disaster was avoided only at the last moment when Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, U.S. President Kennedy agreed not to attack Cuba, and Cuban President Castro agreed to permit the Soviets to remove the weapons.

What We Know Now

Newly discovered evidence suggests that their fears of a nuclear war were justified. At a 1992 meeting in Havana, Cuba, General Anatoly Gribkov, the head of operational planning for the Soviet General Staff in 1962, disclosed information that shocked United States officials at the meeting.

“It wasn’t until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, “Mr. President, let’s stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I’m not sure I got the translation right.”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Gribkov confirmed that there were not only missiles on the island of Cuba in 1962 but that some of them (approximately 90) were short-range tactical nuclear warheads and that, it the expected U.S. attack and invasion had come, they could have-and probably would have-been launched by the Soviet commander in Cuba without authorization from Moscow. Although the members of President Kennedy’s ExComm had debated the possibility that medium range missiles might be on the island and potentially operational, they had not considered the possibility that there were tactical nuclear weapons on the island at the time. Americans at the 1992 meeting knew that the attack may have been just hours away. What they had not known at the time was that ships carrying the invading forces would likely have been destroyed and any U.S. marines making it to the beaches would have been incinerated.

“We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

“The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7,500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2,500 are on 15 minute alert, to be launched by the decision of one human being?

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


In contrast to its active, interventionist role in Europe, the United States was very wary of becoming involved in Asia at the beginning of the Cold War. However, this determination to stay out of Asia changed dramatically after the Communists drove the Nationalist from mainland China in September 1949, claiming The Peoples Republic of China. In the judgment of Washington, the new communist leaders were puppets of the Soviet Union.

France, meanwhile, was attempting to reassert its control over French colonial possessions in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) lost to Japan during World War II. During the Japanese occupation, a Vietnamese anti-colonial movement led by Ho Chi Minh had grown in strength. In September 1945, less than a month after the Japanese surrender, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in a speech patterned after the American Declaration of Independence. By December 1946, a full-blown insurgency campaign by Ho’s forces, the Vietminh, was underway. By January 1950, Ho Chi Minh’s forces had declared a “Communist state on China’s southern border, the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam.”

In the United States, there was little interest at first in the French colonial war in Indochina. Even before the defeat of the Japanese, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other U.S. leaders had been critical of French colonial practices.

“I [have] for over a year expressed the opinion that Indochina should not go back to France but that it should be administered by an international trusteeship. France has had the country-30 million inhabitants-for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning.”

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Chinese communist conquest of the Chinese mainland in October 1949 and the communist North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950 recast the U.S. perspective on the war in Indochina and led to the first of many U.S. commitments in the area.

By December, 1950, the war in Indochina was no longer seen as just a colonial war having little impact on American strategic interests. Instead, it was viewed as part of the U.S. effort to contain the influence of communism in Asia. U.S. economic and military aid to France soon accounted for nearly 80 percent of the cost of the war. Uncomfortable with the role of supporting a colonial power, U.S. leaders continually prodded the French to grant real independence to the Vietnamese. The French, who were fighting to preserve their colonial empire, refused to accept the American advice.

The Geneva Conference of 1954 produced a solution to the military conflict in Indochina, but did not resolve the political status of Vietnam. In what would become known as North Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh held undisputed power. In the south, the Republic of Vietnam was led by Ngo Dinh Diem, an anti-communist Roman Catholic appointed prime minister by Bao Dai in June 1954. The accords signed at Geneva called for Vietnam-wide elections to be held within two years for the purpose of achieving political unification. While the United States was clearly displeased with the apparent partial communist victory and refused to sign any formal declaration after the conference, the United States did pledge to respect the settlement and “view with grave concern any renewal of aggression in the area.”

Diem was viewed in Washington as the only alternative to communist control over all of Vietnam. With the backing of his American advisers, Diem rejected in July 1955 the provisions of the Geneva Accords that called for Vietnam-wide elections within two years. Washington believed that the popularity of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh would guarantee a communist victory. Shortly thereafter, Diem defeated Bao Dai in a South Vietnamese referendum, receiving 98 percent of the vote. The United States continued to implement its plan to transform South Vietnam into a strong, independent, anti-communist nation that would block any further communist expansion into Southeast Asia.

By early 1960, the United States had sent more than $1 billion in economic and military aid to support Diem’s regime. In addition to the aid, nearly one thousand U.S. military personnel were stationed in Vietnam to serve as advisers to the Diem government and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Even with all of the U.S. aid, Diem’s increasingly dictatorial governing style triggered several failed coup attempts. Violence in the countryside increased. By the late 1950s, remnants of Vietminh units (now called Vietcong) in South Vietnam had begun to attack local government officials. The Vietcong campaign was supported by the National Liberation Front, a collection of groups formed in December 1960 with North Vietnam’s encouragement to oppose Diem’s rule. During 1961, more than 4,000 government officials, mostly lower ranking village chiefs, were assassinated.

President Kennedy had no intention of backing down from the U.S. commitment to an independent, anti-communist South Vietnam. In fact, a high-level U.S. report reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam. “If Vietnam goes,” the report argued, “it will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to hold Southeast Asia.” President Kennedy sent helicopters, enlarged the aid package, and dramatically increased the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam. At the same time, officials were concerned about the growing political opposition to Diem’s rule in South Vietnam. Diem was told to reform his government and build popular support for the war against the communists – or else.

By August 1963, the situation seemed beyond hope. U.S. officials told ARVN generals dissatisfied with Diem that the United States would condone a coup against the government, so long as the anti-communist struggle continued. On November 2, 1963, Diem and his brother were overthrown in a military coup and assassinated. President Kennedy himself would be dead from the bullets of an assassin within three weeks.

Before Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson had not played a major role as vice president in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. Johnson had not been part of the inner circle of decision-makers who had shaped the growing U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

Johnson was a master of domestic politics who wished to focus on an ambitious agenda to create a “Great Society.” Inheriting most of Kennedy’s foreign policy advisers, Johnson quickly found himself drawn deeply into the worsening crisis in Vietnam.

The replacement of Diem by a military government in Saigon did not turnaround the war effort. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. military advisers grew to more than 23,000 by the end of 1964. Frustrated by the hit-and-run tactics of the Vietcong in South Vietnam, many American military leaders were convinced that only heavy bombing of North Vietnam could stop the communists. Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay argued that “we are swatting flies when we should be going after the manure pile.”

North Vietnam continued its support for the insurgency in the south, matching step-by-step the gradual escalation of U.S. involvement. U.S. leaders told the Saigon government that “we are prepared to furnish assistance and support to South Vietnam for as long as it takes to bring the insurgency under control.”

From the summer of 1965 to the beginning of 1968, the Vietnam War became America’s War. U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam steadily increased. The bombing campaign against North Vietnamese and Vietcong bases and supply routes in the south intensified.

Meanwhile, beginning in early 1968, the Vietcong stepped up their attacks, launching a large-scale campaign against cities throughout South Vietnam. In response, the United States stepped up their attacks.

In early 1968, the Vietcong launched a large-scale attack against cities throughout South Vietnam. What came to be known as the Tet offensive (named for the Vietnamese New Year, or Tet) produced the heaviest fighting of the war. By late February 1968, U.S. forces had reversed most of the Vietcong’s military gains. Although President Johnson publicly tried to minimize the significance of the attack, privately he and other top U.S. officials were stunned. They had believed army assessments that the communists were nearing the breaking point. Suddenly, they were faced with the prospect of a longer, bloodier war.

In late March 1968, Johnson brought together a group of fourteen veteran advisers to assess the war. At their meeting, most of the group’s members concluded that the United States should find a way out of Vietnam. Many conceded that the events of the preceding weeks had changed their minds about the war.

Reluctantly, Johnson accepted their advice. On March 31, 1968, he announced that he would halt U.S. bombing over most of North Vietnam and called for peace negotiations to begin. Johnson also declared that he would not run for re-election.

By the time President Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, more than 30,000 Americans had died in Vietnam along with countless North and South Vietnamese. Nixon had won a narrow victory, in part on the appeal of his pledge to end the Vietnam War.

Nixon rejected plans to relentlessly pursue a military victory. At the same time, he opposed calls for a settlement “that would amount to a disguised American defeat.” In the war zones of South Vietnam, communist forces were quick to test Nixon’s resolve. In the spring of 1969, they launched a string of fierce attacks. Before the year was over, nearly 10,000 more Americans were to die in the fighting.

Nixon’s main initiative focused on gradually turning the war effort over to the South Vietnamese army. The president called his program “Vietnamization.” In July 1969, he announced the withdrawal of 25,000 American soldiers-the first cut in U.S. troop strength since the start of the conflict.

While Vietnamization won public support, the anti-war movement also gained momentum. In October 1969, large, well-organized anti-war demonstrations were held in several major cities. In Washington D.C., 250,000 protesters called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

Like Johnson, Nixon found that there was no easy way out of Vietnam. In his first two years in office, he cut U.S. troop strength in Vietnam nearly in half and sharply reduced casualties. To maintain America’s military weight, he relied heavily on air attacks. Nixon made little progress in achieving his broader policy goals. Negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam – both at the public level and in secret sessions – went nowhere. The South Vietnamese government remained unpopular and corrupt, while its army proved incapable of defending the country against the communists.

Despite setbacks to his strategy, Nixon felt compelled to continue withdrawing American troops. Even as the U.S. presence in Vietnam shrank, protests against the war grew louder. By 1971, many of Nixon’s staunchest supporters were urging the president to push for a quick end to the war.

Nixon emphasized the need to achieve “peace with honor” in Vietnam. For him, that meant reaching an agreement that recognized the independence of South Vietnam, at least on paper. Much of 1971 and 1972 were devoted to pressuring North Vietnam to accept America’s peace terms.

However, the tools at Nixon’s disposal were limited. The withdrawal of American soldiers from South Vietnam continued at a steady pace. By August 1972, the last ground troops had gone home. Meanwhile, communist forces advanced against the South Vietnamese army. Nixon turned increasingly to air power to gain leverage against Vietnam.

As the 1972 presidential election neared, the Nixon administration pressed harder for a settlement. Expectations of a peace treaty helped Nixon win a landslide victory in the November elections. Peace, however, proved more difficult to attain. South Vietnamese President Thieu strongly objected to the draft agreement, claiming that the treaty would pave the way for a communist takeover of his country. Kissinger raised Thieu’s objections with his North Vietnamese counterparts. In turn, the North Vietnamese sought changes in the settlement that would have allowed their troops to remain in South Vietnam.

To break the deadlock, Nixon launched in December 1972 the most intense bombing campaign of the war against North Vietnam. After twelve days of attacks and the loss of fifteen American B-52 bombers, the two sides returned to negotiations and agreed in large part to accept the draft treaty they had prepared in October 1972.

Thieu’s fears turned out to be well-founded. After the release of the last American prisoners of war (POWs) in April 1973, fighting in South Vietnam gradually increased. In early 1975, 300,000 North Vietnamese troops spearheaded a massive offensive. Within three months, they had overwhelmed the South Vietnamese army and were tightening the noose around Saigon.

Thieu again appealed to the United States for support, but by then his regime had few backers in Washington. Nixon had resigned in disgrace in August 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. The influence of top military officials had been tarnished by the Vietnam experience. After North Vietnam’s offensive, Congress turned down President Gerald Ford’s request for $552 million in emergency military aid to South Vietnam.

In the end, the United States was forced to evacuate by helicopter the remaining American personnel in Saigon. On April 30, 1975, the last Americans lifted off from the roof of the U.S. embassy to close the chapter in the United States’ involvement in Vietnam

Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons were first developed by the United States. The United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 killing more than 150,000 people and forcing Japan to surrender. The Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in 1949.

The explosive force of nuclear weapons is measured in kilotons (thousands) or megatons (millions) of tons of TNT. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had an explosive force of the thirteen kilotons, equivalent to thirteen thousand tons of TNT. The largest bomb ever tested was a Soviet hydrogen bomb of fifty-nine megatons or about 4,500 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Today most nuclear weapons are between one hundred kilotons and one megaton.

What types of nuclear weapons are there?

Nuclear weapons are usually categorized as strategic (long-range), intermediate (medium-range), or tactical (short-range). Strategic nuclear weapons include land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) capable of hitting a target six thousand miles away in thirty minutes or less; submarine base SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), which generally have shorter ranges and less accuracy but are harder to attack than ICBMs; and gravity bombs on bombers. Another kind of strategic weapon is the cruise missile, which can be launched from land, sea, or air. Cruise missiles fly like airplanes, while ballistic missiles rise high above the atmosphere and fall towards their targets almost vertically. A cruise missile may take much longer to reach its target than a ballistic missile, but it is also easier to deploy and to conceal. Intermediate nuclear weapons are generally shorter-range versions of strategic weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons include nuclear land mines, artillery shells, anti-aircraft explosives, and other short-range systems. Some have explosive yields of less than a kiloton, actually smaller than some non-nuclear weapons.

What is mutually assured destruction?

With the development of nuclear weapons came pressing strategic, political, and moral questions about their use in warfare. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) has been a cornerstone of U.S. thinking on the nuclear arms race for many years. Although MAD got is name in the 1960s, the idea goes back to the earliest days of the atomic era. The idea is simply this: if one side were to attack the other with nuclear weapons, the other side would be able to launch a nuclear response that would devastate the original attacker. Knowing this, both sides are deterred from attacking.

MAD is not really a nuclear strategy. It does not tell either country what weapons to build or how to use them, Rather, it is a condition in which countries recognize that they cannot launch a nuclear attack without fear of a devastating response.

MAD has been criticized for its threat to civilians, because the best way to ensure that a nuclear response causes immense damage is to aim at people and industries. Since people and factories tend to be clustered in cities, many weapons in the United States and Russia are presumably aimed at cities.

Many people think of MAD as a basic and obvious truth of the nuclear era. As President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev said in a joint declaration in 1986, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Nevertheless, both the United States and Russia have plans for fighting-and, if possible, winning-a nuclear war.

What is nuclear proliferation?

Since the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon in 1945, it has tried to keep other nations from acquiring these weapons. Only seven nations have declared themselves to have nuclear arsenals: The United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, and Pakistan. Most experts believe that Israel has nuclear weapons, although Israel has never admitted this. North Korea exploded small nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and again in 2013.

Some experts argue that it makes little difference to the United States how many other countries have nuclear weapons. They argue that nuclear weapons can help keep the peace among other nations just as they have between the United States and Soviet Union. On the other hand, the spread of nuclear weapons increases the chance of an accident, of unauthorized use of those weapons, or that they will fall into the hands of terrorists.

What nuclear threats exist today?

Today, the two greatest nuclear powers remain Russia and the United States. Both the U.S. and Russian arsenals are capable of virtually destroying humanity. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and its neighbors inherited approximately 27,000 nuclear warheads and the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear bomb materials.

Tactical nuclear weapons had been widely dispersed throughout the Soviet Union. By early 1992, the authorities in Moscow had concentrated all of them in Russia. The strategic nuclear missiles presented a different problem as most of them could not be easily moved. Eighty-five percent of the missiles were based in Russia, but that still left sizeable forces in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.

Following the Soviet collapse, significant progress was achieved in reversing the nuclear arms race. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus agreed to turn their nuclear arsenals over to Russia. U.S. and Russian leaders in 1993 signed a breakthrough treaty, START II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This called for then-unprecedented cuts in nuclear weapons stockpiles.

In 2002, Presidents Bush and Putin signed the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions. This required each country to reduce its operational nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012.

In 2010, President Obama signed New START with Russia. The treaty aims to reduce deployed strategic nuclear weapons from 2,200 to 1,550 for each country by 2018.

Today, Russia and the United States have approximately 16,200 warheads of the approximately 17,300 nuclear weapons in the world. Not all are deployed with military units or ready for use. Some are kept in storage. The United States has 1,950 nuclear weapons that are deployed and ready to be used. Russia has approximately 1,740 nuclear weapons deployed and ready to be used.

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