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Post-war problems: 1945-60

With the war over, there are two problems inherited by President Truman as the leader of the western or 'free' world. The first and most immediate is the rebuilding of the economies that have been devastated by Nazi occupation or, in the case of Britain, by the struggle against the aggressors. This can potentially be achieved quite quickly if the USA adopts a policy of subsidizing the relevant countries by large and immediate loans. The second issue, likely to prove a longer-term problem, is how to prevent Stalin implementing a known political objective of the Soviet Union to install Communist governments in as many parts of the world as possible, thus greatly extending Russia's power in the world.

The rebuilding of nations is the purpose of a post-war plan developed by the US state department under the guidance of the secretary of state, George Marshall. He announces it in 1947; it soon becomes known by his name and wins him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.The economic support is offered at first to all the European nations that are in distress, including the Soviet Union and those in eastern Europe liberated at the end of the war by Soviet troops. But Stalin refuses to allow them to accept any Marshall Plan money, since it will give the USA a degree of influence within each nation.

The US fight against the spread of Soviet influence around the world, soon to become known as the Cold War, is largely achieved by a proactive policy of similarly involving nations, particularly in central and south America, in close relationships with the USA. But there are two crises during Truman' s presidency when more specific action becomes necessary in keeping with a policy declared by him in 1947, known subsequently as the Truman Doctrine. He tells Congress that the principle involved is that the USA will 'support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures'. The implication is that the pressures will be Communist. The immediate reason for the doctrine is Truman's decision to support Greece and Turkey with economic and if necessary military aid to prevent them falling into the Soviet sphere.

The first crisis concerns Berlin. The agreement at Potsdam has provided for four zones of occupation within Germany except that Berlin itself, deep inside the Russian zone, will similarly be divided between the four powers. [qob if needed] Friction between the three other powers and the USSR escalates until in March 1948, in an effort to impose their will, the Russians block the access corridor from the western zones to Berlin. The Allies respond with the Berlin airlift, bringing in by air (from June 25) everything required, from food to medicine, coal and gasoline. This lasts for a year before the corridor is opened again to traffic in June 1949.

The other provocative event requiring a fast reaction is the sudden invasion of south Korea, on 25 June 1950, by Communist north Korea. The response is immediate. On 27 June the Security Council passes a resolution asking member states to provide military assistance to the republic of Korea. On the same day Truman gives the order for the US navy and air force to intervene. The three-year Korean War has begun.

An equally immediate but more controversial response by Truman in an important foreign context is his very rapid recognition of Israel in 1948 (just eleven minutes after the Declaration of the territory held by the Jews in Palestine as a new independent state). This action is strongly opposed by his secretary of state, George Marshall, who fears that the gesture will look like an attempt to gain the Jewish vote in the US presidential election due later that year. More significantly he argues that the creation of the state of Israel will lead to war in the Middle East. This does indeed happen on the following day, but not as a result of Truman's gesture of support.


Communism within the USA: from 1948

In these tense post-war years there is as much fear of Communism at home as in foreign affairs. It is not new. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) has been created in Washington in 1938 as a committee to seek out subversive activities by anyone with links to Communism.

HUAC's activities acquire a much higher profile after the war, particularly when it investigates Hollywood on the premise that many Hollywood films contain subtle Communist propaganda. Scriptwriters are particularly suspect and membership of the Communist party at any time is now in itself regarded as subversive. For many of them an honest answer to the question posed to all, 'Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?' would in itself end their career in Hollywood. Those who refuse to answer on the basis of the First Amendment (freedom of speech and assembly) or the Fifth (no compulsion to give evidence against oneself) are then convicted of contempt of Congress. Some escape this fate, but ruin their reputation, by admitting membership and then 'naming names' providing details of colleagues who they know to be Communists. The investigations lead to an ever-growing 'Hollywood blacklist', making employment impossible and including eventually more than 400 actors, authors and directors, many of them well known examples include Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson and Orson Welles.

The witch-hunt becomes even more extreme and alarmist in the hands of a little-known Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy comes to sudden national attention when, at an obscure meeting in 1950 of the Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, he produces a piece of paper that he claims is a list of Communists working in the State Department. He adds that the Secretary of State has been given the names and the proof that they are Communists, yet they are still employed and helping to shape national foreign policy.

The nation-wide press response to this gives McCarthy an opening to develop a strong personal characteristic, that of a demagogue. He is soon making wild accusations that both fascinate and alarm the public. His most frequent target is the much respected George Marshall, former Secretary of State and now Secretary of Defence in Truman's administration. A good example of McCarthy's wild hyperbole is his declaration in a Senate speech that Marshall is the perpetrator of 'a conspiracy so immense and infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man'.

In 1953 McCarthy, by now one of the best-known members of the Senate, is made chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, of which one of the roles is responsibility for 'investigations'. His enquiries now have official status, and he spreads his net wider. In addition to his main target so far, the media, he begins in autumn 1953 investigations of the United States Army. But the army fights back and in April 1954 the Senate holds what are now known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, to be shown live on television. McCarthy is greatly popular with the public and he must have been delighted at the level of interest about to be shown in him, with a television audience estimated at about 20 million. But the two-month hearings turn out to be the beginning of his downfall. His approval ratings have grown from 15% in 1951 to 50% in January 1954, shortly before the hearings. Five months later, after his frequent appearances on television, they have fallen to 34%. The public have been appalled by his arrogance and his bullying technique, and before the end of 1954 the Senate votes to censure McCarthy. He continues his obsessional anti-Communist campaign until his death in 1957, but he is widely regarded by now as a dangerous clown and as an embarrassment both to the Senate and to the nation.

Many of those accused by either HUAC or McCarthy, indeed probably the majority, have at one time been members of the Communist party. The flaw in their persecutors' arguments is the failure to acknowledge that membership of a party is, in itself, a political act rather than a subversive one.


Dwight Eisenhower: 1953-61

Eisenhower, an immensely popular national hero from World War II, has no known party affiliation and both Republicans and Democrats want him as their candidate in the 1952 presidential election. Truman approaches him for the Democrats, but he decides to stand for the other side. He easily defeats the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, ending a twenty-year term with a Democrat in the White House. His vice-president is Richard Nixon.

One of his campaign promises has been to end the Korean War. Visiting the US army there between his election victory and inauguration, he decides that the situation has become stalemate neither side can win the war. Using a nuclear threat if China and Korea refuse to negotiate, Eisenhower succeeds in starting discussions of an armistice. An end to the fighting is agreed and takes place in June 1953. Inevitably the leader of North Korea, Kim il-Sung, claims that his country has won the war, but in fact the armistice is a capitulation on both sides (the border between the two countries remains where it was before the war, at the 38th parallel). This early diplomatic success in Eisenhower's presidency differs in approach from his later policy in relation to Communist states, as expressed in the 'Eisenhower Doctrine' announced in 1956. This declares that the United States is prepared to use military force to counter 'aggression from any state controlled by international communism' and, if necessary, to 'stop the spread of communism in the Middle East'.

This is in tone more aggressive than the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which had a less specific emphasis on military intervention. But in practice Eisenhower, the experienced general, is extremely cautious about getting into military engagements. A good example is South Vietnam, a previous French colony in which France is fighting to defend the non-Communist south against the Communist north in a conflict that will develop into the Vietnam War. In 1953 the French ask the USA for assistance. Eisenhower provides them with aircraft and civilian non-combat advisers. In 1954, when the capital of the south Dien Bien Phu falls to the Communists, he resists strong pressure from the US chiefs of staff and the vice-president to escalate the US response to military intervention. In 1955, as the French situation gets worse, he sends US soldiers but again only in advisory roles. By the end of his presidency, in 1961, the total strength of US military personnel in south Vietnam is still only 900 advisers. He had stated as early as 1953 that war in Vietnam 'would absorb our troops by divisions'.

By contrast Eisenhower reacts extremely quickly when success looks possible in the short term. In Lebanon in 1958 a pro-western government is in danger of being replaced by a hostile alternative, inspired by Nasser's example in the Suez crisis of 1956. A US non-combat peace-keeping mission is immediately despatched, but this time it consists of 15,000 troops of which the first to arrive are marines, landing suddenly and dramatically on the beaches of Beirut. The point is effectively made, and the troops leave again after three peaceful months.


Civil rights: from 1955

There is in the USA a long history of legislation for civil rights, beginning after the victory of the north in the American Civil War. The first Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing the legal rights of African Americans, is passed in 1866. In the same year Congress proposes the 14th Amendment, declaring that all people born or naturalized in the USA have equal rights as citizens. These measures are increasingly disregarded in the south, where aggressive segregation and even lynching will survive into modern times.

A symbolic moment, a concert by the famous African-American contralto Marian Anderson in 1939, is often quoted as the start of the modern civil rights movement. The reactionary Daughters of the American Revolution had refused permission for a concert featuring Anderson to be heard by an integrated audience. Instead, with the strong support of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. She attracts an open-air audience of more than 75,000 people and millions hear the concert on radio.

The issue of civil rights remains very much alive in subsequent US politics. President Truman passes legislation outlawing segregation in areas under government control, the army and the civil service. But the first two pieces of legislation since the Civil War period specifically called Civil Rights Acts are proposed to Congress by Eisenhower in 1957 and 1960, and he is determined to enforce them. In 1957, in a situation receiving wide publicity, the state of Arkansas disregards a federal court order to integrate the classes in their public schools. Eisenhower sends in the 101st Airborne Division. They escort nine black children into an all-white public school in Little Rock. His action is in keeping with a strong developing movement at this time against racial inequality.

The most prominent figure is a black Baptist minister, Martin Luther King. He takes a leading role in the bus boycott of 1955-6 in Montgomery, Alabama. It begins with a dramatic incident. Rosa Parks is a passenger in the black section at the back of a bus. When the bus is full a white passenger enters. Under the prevailing system in this situation the front row of black passengers has to stand to make available a new white row. Rosa Parks refuses to do so, is arrested, appears in court four days later and is fined $10. The black community rapidly agree on a boycott of the buses, costing the company a great deal of money as they are 75% of the passengers. The boycott lasts a little more than a year, ending with a Supreme Court ruling against Alabama's racial segregation law for buses. The city of Montgomery authorizes black passengers henceforth to sit anywhere they choose.

The most dramatic event in the campaign for civil rights is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which more than 200,000 people, about 75% of them black, assemble peacefully on 28 August 1963 between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument demanding civil and economic rights for African Americans. It is notable above all for the famous speech by Martin Luther King, standing in front of the highly significant Lincoln Memorial. Beginning with a reference to the past and to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, he ends with a vision of the future enshrined within the repeated phrase 'I Have a Dream'.

Gradual steps towards eliminating the barriers to King's dreams are achieved in a series of acts passed during the 1960s, outlawing in turn different aspects of discrimination. The most significant is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson, with Martin Luther King at the centre of the group watching him. But the pace is too slow for some activists, to whom the aims of the broader civil rights seem tame and even misguided. This results in the emergence in the mid-1960s of the Black Power movement, arguing that the African-American community should be more self-sufficient, not so much integrating as creating a powerful different group within society. The most famous moment in their campaign is when two medal-winners in the 1968 Olympic 200-metres event, standing side by side on the podium, perform a Black Power salute, each raising one arm with the hand in a black glove.


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