On March 4, 1953, Americans woke to the news that Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had been paralyzed by a cerebral hemorrhage. The seventy-four-year-old dictator died the following day. Americans held their breath. The Soviets were in shock. Despite Stalin’s extraordinary brutality, most of them revered him for having led the nation to victory over the Nazis and having turned the Soviet Union into a modern industrial state. While the public mourned, Soviet leaders secretly decided to ease tensions with the capitalist West so they could focus on improving conditions at home. Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s successor, speaking at Stalin’s funeral, called for “international cooperation” and economic relations with all countries – a peace based on “prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition” between capitalism and socialism. The new Soviet leaders held out an olive branch. Would the United States’ newly elected president, Dwight David Eisenhower, and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, accept it?
Following the end of World War II, the United States slowly built its stockpile of atom bombs from thirteen in mid-1947, only one of which could have been operational with two weeks, to three hundred by mid-1950. At the same time, it enhanced its ability to deliver those bombs. The advent of the atomic age revolutionized strategic thinking. Airpower would now reign supreme. The United States Air Force (USAF) became an independent service in 1947. One of the USAF’s three units, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), assumed primary responsibility for delivering the new weapons. In 1948, Lieutenant Curtis LeMay, the mastermind of the United States’ terror bombing of Japan, took charge of SAC and set out to turn it into a first-rate fighting force – one that would be ready to do battle against the Soviets at a moment’s notice. “We are at war now!” he declared. When fighting began, he intended to simply overwhelm Soviet defenses, dropping 133 atomic bombs on seventy cities, knocking out 40 percent of Soviet industry, and killing 2.7 million people. The SAC Emergency War Plan he designed called for delivery of the entire stockpile “in a single massive attack.”
The army and navy both challenged the ethics of deliberately targeting civilians in this way, finding it antithetical to U.S. moral principles. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff sided with the air force and approved the plan in late 1948. Despite some misgivings, Truman went along with this decision, motivated, in part, by budgetary concerns. Reliance on atomic weapons was less costly than maintaining the level of conventional forces needed to defend the United States and Western Europe from potential Soviet aggression.
A report commissioned by Secretary of Defense James Forrestal cast serious doubt upon U.S. prospects of defeating the Soviet Union based upon atomic warfare alone. The destruction caused would pale in comparison to the horrific levels of suffering the Soviets had sustained in the recent war. In fact, the committee warned, atomic bombardment “would validate Soviet propaganda…stimulated resentment against the United States, unify these people increase their will to fight.” It would also set the dangerous pattern for future use of “any weapons of mass destruction.” But by the time the study arrived, Forrestal was long gone, and his successor, Louis Johnson, withheld the report from Truman.
In August 1949, the USSR successfully tested an atomic bomb, delivering a crushing blow to the United States’ sense of military superiority and invulnerability. The stunning news caught most U.S. war planners by surprise. Truman flatly disbelieved the evidence. Once convinced, he quickly approved plans to expand U.S. inventory of atomic bombs.
The Joint Chiefs, supported by physicists Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, and Luis Alvarez, demanded development of a hydrogen, or “super” bomb. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) head David Lilienthal described scientific proponents as “drooling with the prospect and ‘bloodthirsty.’” In secret session, General James McCormack, director of the AEC’s Division of Military Application, told members of Congress that the bomb would be “infinite. You can have it any size up to the sun.”
Lilienthal and many of the leading scientists were appalled at the prospect. In October, the eight scientists on the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, unanimously opposed building the hydrogen bomb because is primary effect would be “exterminating civilian populations.” The majority considered it to be “in a totally different category from an atomic bomb” and “might become a weapon of genocide.” With its unlimited destructive capability, it would represent “a threat to the future of the human race.” Committee members Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi declared it to be “a danger to humanity as a whole…an evil thing considered in any light.”
Among those vehemently opposed to building the hydrogen bomb was State Department Soviet expert George Kennan, who believed that the USSR might be ready for a comprehensive nuclear arms control agreement and urged Secretary of State Dean Acheson to pursue that course instead. Acheson contemptuously suggested that Kennan “resign from the Foreign Service, assume a monk’s habit, carry a tin cup and stand on the street corner and say, ‘The end of the world is high.’” Disgusted by the increasingly militaristic bent of U.S. policy, Kennan resigned as State Department director of policy planning on December 31, 1949.
On January 31, 1950, Truman announced his decision to proceed with the hydrogen bomb. Two weeks later, Albert Einstein appeared on Eleanor Roosevelt’s television show to warn, “If these efforts prove successful., radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and, hence, annihilation of all life on earth will have been brought within the range of what is technically possible.” Physicist Leo Szilard soon delivered more terrifying news when he told a national radio audience that the fusion of five hundred tons of deuterium in a hydrogen-cobalt bomb would be enough to “kill everybody on earth.”
Such warnings took a tremendous toll on the human psyche. As writer William Faulkner observed in his December 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?”
Kennan’s replacement, Forrestal’s protégé Paul Nitze, had been a vice president of the powerful Wall Street investment banking firm Dillon, Read when Forrestal was the firm’s president. Nitze immediately took to lead in preparing NSC 68, a document that would fundamentally revamp the nation’s defense posture. NSC 68 posited that the Soviet Union, armed with atomic bombs and “a new fanatic faith,” was seeking “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” Faced with an existential threat, the United States had to base its response not on what the Soviet Union was likely to do but on what, in its most malign moments, it was capable of doing: “(a) to overrun Western Europe…; to drive toward the oil-bearing areas of the Near and Middle Ease; and to consolidate Communist gains in the Far East; (b) To launch air attacks against the British Isles and air and sea attacks against the lines of communications of the Western Powers in the Atlantic and the Pacific; (c) To attack selected targets with atomic weapons, now including…Alaska, Canada, and the U.S.” No area outside the U.S. defense perimeter because, as the document stated, “The assault on free institutions is world-wide now, and…a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” National security and global security were now one and the same. If the Soviet Union “calculates that it has a sufficient atomic capability to make a surprise attack on us, nullifying our atomic superiority and creating a military situation decisively inn its favor, the Kremlin might be tempted to strike swiftly and with stealth.”
Facing such a dangerous foe, Nitze concluded, U.S. survival depended on vastly increasing its nuclear and conventional arsenals, strengthening its armed forces, bolstering its military alliances, and expanding its covert operations and psychological warfare capabilities. Over the next five years, military spending would have to quadruple to $50 billion, or 20 percent of GNP. Truman agreed with NSC 68’s assessment of the overall strategic situation and endorsed its conclusions but blanched at the cost, having already announced plans to cut defense spending in the next fiscal year. Acheson and Nitze countered that quadrupling military spending would stimulate the economy and safeguard against another depression. The State Department’s leading Soviet experts, George Kennan and Charles Bohlen, opposed such a buildup, contending that Stalin had neither the will nor the means to the kind of world conquest Acheson and Nitze envisioned. Much to Acheson and Nitzes’s disappointment, such a stupendous increase in military spending seemed dead in the water in early 1950.
Escalating tensions abroad triggered a new onslaught of Red-baiting at home. Truman’s loyalty-security program in 1947 had opened the door. Highly publicized charges o espionage and treason fed the hysteria. In January 1950, former State Department official Alger Hiss, who had been relentlessly pursued by Congressman Richard Nixon, was convicted of perjury. Later that month, physicist Klaus Fuchs was apprehended for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Fuchs divulged the existence of a wider spy ring, which led to the arrests in July of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
In February 1950, little-known Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy gained notoriety by telling members of the Ohio Country Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, “I have here in my had a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” The next day, in Salt Lake City, he lowered the number to 57. Though his numbers continued to fluctuate, he garnered headlines with outlandish accusations that provoked a new round of high-profile hearing. His victims included State Department Asia experts accused of assisting Mao’s victory in China. Their ouster would cripple U.S. understanding of Asia for decades to come.
Though the shamelessly self-promoting Wisconsin senator, known mockingly as “tail gunner Joe” for his fabricated war exploits, became the ugly face of this repression, the real power was exercised by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who kept a file incriminating evidence on members of Congress, which he trotted out when it was necessary to keep someone in line. One of Hoover’s top aides described how this worked: “The other night we picked up a situation where senator was seen drunk, in a hit-and-run accident, and some good-looking broad with him. By noon the next day the good senator was aware that we had the information and we never had any trouble with him on appropriations since.
Officials and the media cautioned Americans that vicious, fanatical Communists bent on destroying the American way of life lurked around every corner. Truman’s attorney general warned, “There are today many Communists in America. They are everywhere – in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners, in private business.” And, indeed, scientists, writers, actors, directors, artists, teachers, and people from all walks of life were persecuted for their political beliefs as a climate of fear descended upon the nation. A few hundred people served time in prison, and as many as twelve thousand may have lost their jobs. After they failed political screenings administered by the Coast Guard, almost three thousand longshoremen and seamen alone were dismissed under a port-security program allegedly implemented to defend the nation’s waterfronts form saboteurs during the Korean War but actually designed to wipe out the Communist-led maritime unions.
Many suspects were hauled before congressional committees, where investigators demanded they finger other Communists and fellow travelers. Writer Mary McCarthy observed that the purpose of these hearing was not to combat subversion to convince Americans to accept “the principle of betrayal as a norm of good citizenship.” Journalist I. F. Stone condemned the “tendency to turn a whole generation of Americans into stool pigeons.” Many refused to testify and were blacklisted, fired, or jailed. More than a hundred college and university teachers were fired for refusing to cooperate with anti-Communist investigations. Dashiell Hammett, one of Hollywood’s leading writers, was incarcerated for refusing to name contributors to the Civil Rights Congress’s bail bond fund, of which he was an honorary trustee. Writer Lillian Hellman later disclosed that Hammett “did not know the name of a single contributor” but would not say so in court because he denied the government’s right to demand such information.
In 1947, the so-called Hollywood Ten were charged with contempt of Congress and, despite a series of appeals to both the judicial system and the public, were sentenced to a year in prison. Along with another nine Hollywood radicals who had also been subpoenaed by HUAC in 1947 but never called to the stand, the ten became the first victims of a film industry blacklist. Other high-profile Hollywood progressives joined those nineteen on the blacklist. HUAC returned to investigating the film industry in 1951, and by 1954 the blacklist had increased to include 212 men and women who had refused to cooperate with the committee. No studio would hire blacklisted screen artists or studio workers. Many were left jobless. Only ten percent of the people driven out of the film industry ever found work there again. A number of individuals, however, escaped that fate by informing on their colleagues. Fifty-eight of the 110 men and women called before HUAC in the spring of 1951 “named names.”
By the time all was said and done, McCarthyism had decimated the U.S. Left. The Communist movement was destroyed. The party itself endured, but many of the groups in and around it simply vanished. The Red Scare eviscerated the labor unions, political organizations, and cultural association that had spurred the reforms of the 1930s and 1940s. With the exception of the civil rights and antinuclear movements, left-wing dissent and progressive reform would remain quiescent for more than a decade but would reemerge with new vigor and fresh approaches in the 1960s. The labor movement, however would never recover, leaving American workers weaker and less well off in many respects than their European counterparts.
The African-American civil rights movement suffered as well. Under the intense antiradical pressure of the era, organizations ousted leftist members, some of whom had long been leaders in the fight for racial justice. In 1948, the NAACP went so far as to expel civil rights pioneer W. E. B. Du Bois for actively supporting Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign and calling for the United Nations to address racism in the United States. Paul Robeson was similarly marginalized. Many of the left-wing organizations eliminated by McCarthyite attacks were those that had linked the issues of class-based equality and U.S. foreign policy with domestic racism. Red baiting also dissolved alliances between civil rights organizations and labor unions, diminishing the calls for racial equality on the part of the unions, and isolating the civil rights organizations from battles over wages and workplace rights. In the wake of McCarthyism, the movement’s most influential leaders departed from past broad-based agendas to focus on achieving narrower legal reforms, abandoning the drive for deeper structural reforms of the economy or attacks on the ravages of imperialism abroad. It is important to remember, though, that throughout the period, African Americans played a leading role in efforts to halt the nuclear arms race and make sure that Americans never lost sight of the dangers of nuclear war.
Individual radicals and movements for social, economic, and racial justice were not the only victims of the mid-twentieth-century scourge of political repression. Concomitant with the Red Scare was a “Lavender Scare,” in which homosexuals were purged from the federal government. Under the guise of national security – ostensibly because “sexual perverts” were particularly susceptible to blackmail by foreign and domestic subversive – government agencies fired gays and lesbians, or forced them to resign. Historian David Johnson estimates that as many as five thousand federal employees might have lost their jobs in the early Cold War. In 1953, Undersecretary of State Donald B. Lourie told a congressional committee that in his department alone, dismissals of homosexuals were proceeding at an average rate of “about one every day.” Those numbers account only for a portion of the jobs lost to the Lavender Scare. The reason for dismissals was sometimes not recorded, supposedly to save the employee from embarrassment. Others chose to resign before their sexual orientation was uncovered. Additionally, thousands of people applying for federal jobs were rejected on the basis of their sexual orientation. As with the Red Scare, the anti-homosexual purge extended to the private sector. Some businesses even hired professional investigators to ferret out “undesirable,” including gays and lesbians.
Throughout those years, the FBI was busy on a number of fronts. It fanned the flames of anti-Communist hysteria by leaking information to its “assets” in the press, including the likes of Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, Westbrook Pegler, Fulton Lewis, Jr., and the Washington bureau chiefs of the United Press and Chicago Tribune.
Its program to alert employers as to the political affiliations of their employees cost hundreds of people their jobs. People with dissenting views were subjected to surveillance on a massive scale. By 1960, the FBI had begun investigations of more than 430,000 individuals and groups. The 26,000 considered the greatest risks in 1954, predominantly members of the Communist Party, made it onto Hoover’s Security Index, which designated them for detention in the event of an emergency. And in 1956, the FBI launched COINTELPRO, a panoply of dirty tricks designed to disrupt left-wing organizations engaged in completely legal and constitutionally protected activities.
On June 24, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and the Cold War suddenly turned red hot. Nestled between Japan, China, and the Soviet Union, Korea had long been a point of contention among those three Asian powers. Japan had occupied and ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945, when it was divided into a Soviet zone north of the 38th parallel and a U.S. zone to the south. Drawn up hastily by Colonel Dean Rusk the day after Nagasaki was bombed, the arrangement was meant as a temporary one until unification and independence could be restored. In the north, the Soviets installed General Kim Il Sung, who had led guerrilla forces against the Japanese in Manchuria during the war; the Americans installed Syngman Rhee in the south. Border skirmishes occurred frequently. The Joint Chiefs had warned repeatedly against getting drawn into a war in Korea – a place of little strategic importance bordering on the Soviet Union and China – and recommended that it be excluded from the United States’ defense perimeter. Acheson also excluded Korea in an important speech in January 1950, leading some critics to charge that he deliberately invited the attack.
The Soviets watched nervously as the United States strengthened Japan economically and militarily, stationed troops on Japanese territory, and inched toward a peace treaty without Soviet participation. The chiefs cautioned that excluding the Soviets from the peace treaty might provoke a Soviet attack on Japan. The Soviets struck instead in Korea.
Rhee’s repressive policies and economic blunders made him a very unpopular figure in South Korea. Under U.S. pressure, he allowed elections to proceed in 1950. His supporters received a thrashing at the polls. Despite the setback, he continued to discuss plans to militarily unify Korea under his own command in the coming months. Kim, too, spoke of reunification, but under Communist controls. Rhee’s electoral setback and overall unpopularity gave Kim the opening he was looking for.
In spring 1950, Stalin, after repeated entreaties from the North Korean leader, gave Kim the green light invade the South. Believing that a South Korean attack on the North was coming, Stalin decided to act first. He was feeling a new burst of confidence. He now had the atomic bomb and had just concluded a formal alliance with Mao. Kim promised a swift victory.
Truman was in Missouri when word of the North Korean invasion reached him. Immediately concluding that the attack represented a new stage of Communist aggression, he decided that the United States must respond militarily. The New York Times urged Truman to act decisively or risk “los[ing] half a world.” Acting decisively would also silence the Republicans, who blamed Truman for losing China. He quickly pushed a resolution through the UN Security Council, which the Soviets had been boycotting over its refusal to seat Communist China. Despite deploying tens of thousands of troops, Truman refused to call the intervention a “war,” instead latching on to the terminology of a reporter who asked if it would “be possible to call this a police action under the United Nations.” Although it was nominally a UN effort, the United States provided half the ground forces and almost all of the naval and air power. Most of the other ground forces came from South Korea. Truman also opted to bypass congressional authorization, setting the precedent for future wars.
In a memo he wrote a month before the attack, John Foster Dulles pessimistically surveyed the declining U.S. strategic position. “The situation in Japan may become untenable,” he wrote, “and possibly that in the Philippines. Indonesia, with its vast natural resources, may be lost and the oil of the Middle East will be in jeopardy. None of these places provide holding grounds once people feel that Communism is the wave of the future.” But he offered a glimmer of hope: “This series of disasters can probably be prevented if at some doubtful point we quickly take a dramatic and strong stand that shows our confidence and resolution. Probably this series of disasters cannot be prevented any other way.”
The United States would take that stand in Korea. Truman told congressional leaders, “If we let Korea down, the Soviet will keep right on going and swallow up one piece of Asia after another. WE had to make a stand some time, or else let all of Asia go by the board. If we were to let Asia go, the Near East would collapse and no telling what would happen in Europe. Therefore,…[I have] ordered our forces to support Korea…and it…[is]equally necessary for us to draw the line at Indo-China, the Philippines, and Formosa.”
Truman particularly feared a Soviet incursion into Iran. On June 26, he called Korea “the Greece of the Far East.” Spinning a globe and pointing to Iran, he told staffers, “here is where they will start trouble if we aren’t careful. … If we are tough enough now, if we stand up to them like we did in Greece three years ago, they won’t take any next steps. But if we just stand by, they’ll move into Iran and they’ll take over the whole Middle East.”
The Communist victory in China had raised the stakes in Korea. Having lost the China market, Japan now looked to Korea and Southeast Asia, where conditions were also volatile. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s Communist-led forces were challenging French rule. A powerful insurgent movement was completing for power in the Philippines. British colonial interests were under attack in Malaya. Acheson explained, “It became apparent in Washington that the U.S. [had to] adopt a very firm stance in the Far East,” especially since “the governments of many Western European nations appeared to be in a state of near-panic, as they watched to see whether the United States would act or not.”
More than 100,000 Soviet-trained and -equipped North Korean troops overwhelmed U.S. and South Korean forces, pinning them down around Pusan. MacArthur had turned a blind eye toward CIA warnings and other evidence that the attack was coming.
Facing defeat, MacArthur requested and received permission to push past the 38th parallel and liberate the North. He staged a surprise amphibious landing of 17,000 men at Inchon in September. Truman lauded MacArthur’s “brilliant maneuver” and described his Korean campaign as being rivaled by “few operations in military history.” Truman bent over backward to placate the prickly MacArthur. Republicans seized on any hint that Truman might hesitate to send U.S. troops across the border as a sign of “appeasement.”
MacArthur assured Truman that the Chinese would not enter the fight but agreed to use only Korean troops as he moved toward the Chinese border. Acheson had also dismissed the possibility of Chinese involvement as “sheer madness.” MacArthur even spoke about the fighting ending by Thanksgiving and having the troops out by Christmas. He dismissed repeated warnings by Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai that the Chinese would enter the war if the United States persisted in its advance northward. The Chinese were also incensed over the U.S. led campaign to deny them UN representation and the United States’ decision to defend Formosa with the Seventh Fleet. Mao wanted to send troops, but the Chinese Politburo remained divided. Stalin sent encouragement. He assured Mao that the Soviets and Chinese were stronger than the United States, Great Britain and their European allies, especially now, before Germany and Japan had been rearmed. Stalin had earlier told Kim that launching the war was a way to get back at “the dishonest, perfidious, and arrogant behavior of the United States in Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and especially its decision to form NATO.”
MacArthur blithely disregarded his agreement to use only Korean troops and ordered the air force to bomb near the Chinese border. When the Joint Chiefs demanded that he not bomb within five miles of the border, he responded, “I cannot overemphasize the disastrous effect, both physical and psychological, that will result from the restrictions which you are imposing.”
Chinese forces attacked UN troops at Unsan on October 25. On November 8, the Joint Chiefs cabled MacArthur to suggest that his mission might need to be reconsidered. MacArthur replied that the pressure from British, French, and many Americans to stop at the 38th parallel found its “historic precedence in the action taken at Munich.” “To give up any part of North Korea to the aggression of the Chinese Communists,” he blustered, “would be the greatest defeat of the free world in recent times.”
Truman and the Joint Chiefs acceded to MacArthur’s demands. On November 24, MacArthur launched the major offensive that he believed would end the war. But suddenly hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops streamed across the Yalu River, sending U.S. and Allied troops into a frantic retreat. The setback was devastating. MacArthur solemnly announced that “we face an entirely new war.” Acheson told Congress that the United States was on the brink of World War III. Truman agreed. “It looks like World War III is here,” he wrote in his diary. General Omar Bradley called it “the greatest military disaster in the history of the United States.” Time reported that it was the “worst defeat the U.S. had ever suffered.”
China’s UN Security Council spokesman heralded the resurgence of liberation movements throughout the region: “Regardless of the savagery and cruelty of the American imperialist aggressors, the hard struggling people of Japan, the victoriously advancing people of Vietnam, the heroically resisting people of Korea, the people of the Philippines who have never laid down their arms, and all the oppressed nations and peoples of the East will certainly unite in close solidarity. … They will fight dauntlessly on to win the final victory in their struggle for national independence.” The British government favored ending the war as quickly as possible, believing, according to the Chicago Tribune, that it was “being conducted in near-hysteria and with prodigal waste.” But U.S. leaders decided to first lay waste to North Korea.
At the start of the war, MacArthur and others had advocated atomic bombs in support of combat operations. “I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb – to strike a blocking blow – which would require a six-months repair job. Sweeten up my B-29 force,” he enthused. General Charles Bolte figured that ten to twenty atomic bombs from the U.S. arsenal could be spared. In July, Truman sent nuclear-configured bombers to Great Britain and Guam. The Joint Chiefs decided, however, that, given the small size of most Korean cities, conventional bombing would suffice. They also expressed concern about Soviet retaliation and public revulsion at such acts. But now, following the entry of the Chinese into the conflict, the United States was desperate and the Chinese offered more suitable targets. Truman stunned the press corps in late November 1950 by announcing that all options, explicitly including atomic devastation, were on the table:
If aggression is successful in Korea, we can expect it to spread throughout Asia and Europe to this hemisphere. We are fighting in Korea for our won national security and survival…
Q.Will that include the atomic bomb?
THE PRESIDENT. That includes every weapon that we have.
Q. Does that mean that there is active consideration of the use of the atomic bomb?
THE PRESIDENT. There has always been active consideration of its use…
Q. Does that mean, Mr. President, use against military objectives, or civilian –
THE PRESIDENT. It’s a matter that the military people will have to decide. … The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has.
That day, Air Force General George Stratemeyer ordered SAC commander General Hoyt Vandenberg to dispatch atomic-capable bomb groups to the Far East. LeMay volunteered to direct the attacks. Representative Mendel Rivers of South Carolina declared, “If there ever was a time to use the A-bomb, it is now.” Senator Owen Brewster from Maine proposed using it against the Chinese. Representative Tom Steed of Oklahoma preferred “the Kremlin.” Representative Joseph Bryson of South Carolina just wanted to make sure it was dropped on somebody: “The hour is at hand when every known force, including the atomic bomb, should be promptly utilized.” Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the future Democratic vice presidential candidate, proposed that the president “advise the commander of the North Korean troops to withdraw…beyond the 38th parallel within one week or use that week to evacuate civilians from a specified list of North Korean cities that will be subjected to atomic attack by the United States Air Force.”
Gallup found that, by 52 to 38 percent, the public supported using atomic bombs, reversing earlier poll results. UN delegates warned that the Asian people would be “horrified” by such use. Attlee rushed across the Atlantic to tell Truman that the Europeans shared that horror. Following Attlee’s visit, Truman told a group of congressmen that it would be wrong to hit Moscow’s surrogates when the Kremlin was the real culprit, but that using atomic bombs against the Soviet Union would provoke retaliation against London, Berlin, and Paris.
On December 9, 1950, MacArthur requested authorization to use atomic bombs at his discretion. On December 24, he submitted a list of twenty-six targets. He also requested four bombs to drop on invading forces and four more for “critical concentration of enemy air power.” He calculated that dropping thirty to fifty atomic bombs “across the neck of Manchuria” could produce “a belt of radioactive cobalt” that would win the war in ten days. But that was just the short-term effect. The rest of radioactive cobalt would spread “from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.” Therefore, he figured, “For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North.”
While MacArthur was conjuring up visions of atomic Armageddon, others were bemoaning the tremendous setback to the United States’ international prestige caused by the debacle in Korea. New York Times correspondents in capitals across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East reported on the “loss of confidence in the United States.” In France, “The decline in American prestige has been little short of disastrous.” In India, where U.S. “prestige has suffered immensely,” many people were “secretly pleased to see the Westerners trounced by Asians.” Some questioned U.S. ability to halt a Soviet occupation of Europe, given how poorly U.S. forces had performed against China.
With U.S. and South Korean casualties mounting rapidly, MacArthur began issuing statements from Tokyo blaming others for the military debacle and pushing for all-out war with China. On March 10, 1951, MacArthur requested a “ ‘D’ Day atomic capability” in response to the Soviet bolstering of air capabilities in Korea and Manchuria and a buildup of Chinese forces near the Korean border. “Finletter and Lovett alerted on atomic discussions. Believe everything is set,” Vandenberg wrote on March 14. On March 24, 1951, knowing that Truman was pressing for a cease-fire, MacArthur broadcast his own ultimatum to China. Truman bristled, “I’ll show that son-of-a-bitch who’s boss,” but let the incident slide. But when Republican Congressman Joe Martin read to the entire House a letter that MacArthur had written in which he stated that “if we lose this war to Communism in Asia, the fall of Europe is inevitable,” The Joint Chiefs unanimously recommended that MacArthur be relieved of his command. On April 11, the White House announced MacArthur’s firing.
MacArthur’s eagerness to use atomic weapons did not factor into this decision. Just the week before, the Chiefs had ordered atomic attacks on Manchurian bases if the Chinese sent in another large contingent of forces. On April 6, Truman approved that order and authorized the transfer of nine atomic weapons from AEC to military custody on Guam and Okinawa.
Firing MacArthur proved calamitous for Truman, whose approval rating sank below 30 percent. “Seldom has a more unpopular man fired a more popular one,” Time magazine noted.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate met to discuss impeachment. Senator William Jenner accused the administration of treason: “this country today is in the hands of a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union. Our only choice is to impeach President Truman.” Joseph McCarthy also wanted to impeach the “son of a bitch” for firing MacArthur and said that Truman must have been drunk at the time on “bourbon and Benedictine.” He accused Truman of signing “the death warrant of western civilization.”
The public sided with MacArthur. Seven and a half million spectators cheered him at a New York parade. He received a hero’s welcome in Washington, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago. MacArthur emotionally defended his conduct of the war before a joint session of Congress and bade a final farewell:
It has been said…that I was a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes. … The world has turned over many times since I took the oath…at West Point, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of the day which proclaimed most proudly that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away>’ And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, on old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good bye.
The address was broadcast live on national radio. “We saw a great hunk of God in the flesh and we heard the voice of God,” gushed Congressman Dewey Short of Missouri. Truman, however, chided the “damn fool Congressmen crying like a bunch of women” over “nothing but a bunch of bullshit.”
MacArthur’s reference to the ballad “Old Soldiers Never Die” touched off a popular music frenzy. An executive at Remick Music Corporation, which owned the copyright, described the reaction as an “earthquake” and ordered publication of fifty thousand copies of the sheet music. Gene Autry rushed off his movie set to record a version for Columbia Records, which sold twenty-five thousand copies a day. Decca Records quickly issued two versions, one by Red Foley, the other by Herb Jeffries. RCA Victor issued a version sung by Vaughn Monroe. Capital Records put one out by Jimmy Wakely. Bing Crosby sang it live on his radio show. Columbia and RCA Victor recordings of MacArthur’s speck were selling as fast as they could be stocked.
Congressional hearings on MacArthur’s firing and Asia policy went on for two months. Congressional Democrats and top military brass effectively rebutted MacArthur’s arguments. General Bradley rejected MacArthur’s proposed war with China as “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” After that, MacArthur’s luster faded rapidly. Truman’s popularity never recovered. His approval rating sank to a record low of 22 percent. Acheson said that the war “was an incalculable defeat to U.S. foreign policy and destroyed the Truman administration.”
MacArthur was replaced by General Matthew Ridgway, who requested thirty-eight atomic bombs in May 1951. But that spring and summer, with Stalin’s help, the United States, China, and the two Koreas began negotiations, which dragged on for two years. The U.S. air war continued unabated, unleashing a firebombing campaign similar to the one the United States had visited upon Japan five years earlier. Now the weapon of choice was napalm. New York Times reporter George Barrett described the effect of a napalm attack on a hamlet of two hundred people north of Anyang, which he characterized as “a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war”:
The inhabitants throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed and kept the exact postures they had held when the napalm struck – a man about to get on his bicycle, fifty boys and girls playing in an orphanage, a housewife strangely unmarked, holding in her hand a page torn from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue crayoned at mail order number 3,811,294 for a $2.98 “bewitching bed jacket – coral.”
Almost every major city in North Korea was burned to the ground. Survivors sought shelter in caves. South Koreans fared little better. The British armed forces yearbook reported for 1951, “the war was fought without regard for the South Koreans, and their unfortunate country was regarded as an arena rather than a country to be liberated. As a consequence, fighting was quite ruthless, and it is no exaggeration to state that South Korea no longer exists as a country. Its towns have been destroyed, much of its means of livelihood eradicated, and its people reduced to a sullen mass dependent upon charity. The South Korean, unfortunately, was regarded as a ‘gook,’ like his cousins north of the 38th parallel.” Casualty estimates vary widely, but approximately 3 to 4 million Koreans died, out of a total population of 30 million, as did more than a million Chinese and 37,000 Americans.
By February 1951, only 39 percent of Americans still supported the war. It ended in a stalemate. Americans wondered how their powerful, modern military could fail to defeat an ill-equipped army of Korean and Chinese peasants.
LeMay objected to the restraints placed upon the military, recalling that when the war started,
We slipped a note kind of under the door into the Pentagon and said, “Look, let us go up in there…and burn down five of the biggest towns in North Korea – and they’re not very big – and that ought to stop it.” Well, the answer to that was four or five screams – “You’ll kill a lot of non-combatants” and “Its too horrible.” Yet over a period of three years or so…we burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea, too. … Now, over a period of three years this is palatable, but to kill a few people stop this from happening – a lot of people can’t stomach it.
Korea was only one piece of a rapidly unraveling situation in Asia. In Indochina, the United States had decided to bolster its support for the French, making $10 million available for the French puppet Emperor Bao Dai in Vietnam. Trouble was also brewing in the Philippines, where the U.S.-backed president Manuel Roxas and his successor Elpidio Quirino had been battling the Huk peasant insurgency. After collaborating with the Japanese during the war, Roxas aligned himself with the large landowners and the Catholic Church. The United States built up the Philippine army and began a successful counterinsurgency campaign spearheaded by Major Edward Lansdale and fortified by U.S. airpower. A flamboyant advertising executive who served in the OSS and CIA and was immortalized in two famous novels, Lansdale would later lead similar counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam and Cuba but with decidedly less success. And even in the Philippines, primary credit for undercutting the Huks should go not to Lansdale but to President Ramon Magsaysay, who instituted land reform and welcomed the Huks back into the political system.
The Korean War paved the way for the dramatic remilitarization of U.S. society. Truman approved NSC 68, and the defense budget for fiscal 1951 almost quadrupled, from $13.5 billion to $48.2 billion. Within six months of the start of the war, U.S. defense spending soared to $54 billion, providing a tremendous boost to the aerospace and defense sector across the country and particularly in California. In Los Angeles County, 160,000 people worked in aircraft production, and 55 percent of county residents worked in the defense and aerospace sectors. In San Diego, the defense sector accounted for nearly 80 percent of all manufacturing. NATO was transformed into a full-fledged military structure with a U.S. supreme commander and U.S. troops stationed in Europe.
U.S. decisions to re-arm Germany and sign a peace treaty with Japan, regardless of Soviet participation, further hardened the enmity between the United States and the USSR, leading the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan, to worry that “we had…contributed…by the over-militarization of our policies and statements – to a belief in Moscow that it was war we were after.”
Given the hyper-militarization of American life, it was only fitting that one of the nation’s top military men run for president. The 1952 election pitted Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson against General Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower chose anti-Communist hatchet man California Senator Richard Nixon as his running mate. During the campaign, Nixon did Ike’s dirty work, denouncing “Adlai the appeaser” who “carries a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment.” Senator Joseph McCarthy struck a similar theme, referring to the Democratic candidate as “Alger,” a reference to Alger Hiss. McCarthy had a particular vendetta against General George Marshall, whom he blamed for “losing” China during his tenure as Truman’s secretary of state. Eisenhower was set to defend his friend and mentor against such scurrilous attacks while campaigning in McCarthy’s home state of Wisconsin. But Eisenhower backed off from a confrontation with the anti-Communist demagogue, pusillanimously dropping a passage defending Marshall from his speech. He was apparently aware of the fact that an astounding 185 of the 221 Republican members of the House had requested appointment to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The Eisenhower campaign, which had inveighed against Democratic corruption, reached its nadir in September, when it was rocked by the news that conservative businessmen had given Nixon a secret donation of $18,000. Eisenhower’s advisors echoed the public in demanding Nixon’s ouster. In a last-minute effort to rescue his candidacy, Nixon delivered his famous “Checkers speech” to 55 million television viewers.
That bit of sentimentality saved the day for Nixon. But Eisenhower let Nixon twist in the wind a bit longer. He told Nixon to meet him in West Virginia. Nixon composed a letter of resignation and barked at an aide, “What more does he want? I’m not going to crawl on my hands and knees to him.” The next day Eisenhower met him at the airport and said, “Dick, you’re my boy.” Nixon broke down and cried.
Eisenhower won the election handily, carrying thirty-nine states. U.S.-Soviet relations were extremely tense when he took office in January 1953. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, his new secretary of state, had done little to lower the temperature during the campaign, fanning the flames of anti-Sovietism with their calls to move beyond Democratic “containment” to Republican “liberation.”
But Eisenhower had not always been such a perfervid anti-Communist. He had pushed hard for opening a second front in 1942 and later developed a friendly relationship with Soviet Marshall Georgi Zjukov. After the war, he remained confident that U.S.-Soviet friendship would endure. Stalin, who held him in high regard, told U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, “General Eisenhower is a very great man, not only because of his military accomplishments but because of his human, friendly, kind, and frank nature.” Eisenhower visited Moscow in August 1945 and received a hero’s welcome from the Soviet people. Stalin accorded him the special honor of being the first foreigner to witness a parade in Red Square from the platform atop Lenin’s tomb. Later, in his farewell report as army chief of staff, he rejected the facile equation of military strength and national security:
National security does not mean militarism or any approach to it. Security cannot be measured by the size of munitions stockpiles or the number of men under arms or the monopoly of an invincible weapon. That was the German and Japanese idea of power which, in the test of war, was proved false. Even in time of peace, the index of material strength is unreliable, for arms become obsolete and worthless; vast armies decay while sapping the strength of the nations supporting them; monopoly of a weapon is soon broken.
During his time in office, Eisenhower would be confronted with repeated opportunities to roll back the Cold War and arms race. Presiding over the world’s most powerful nation during perhaps the tensest extended period in history, he could have taken bold action that could have put the world on a different path. Signs emanating from Moscow indicated that the Kremlin might be ready to change course. But because of ideology, political calculations, the exigencies of a militarized state, and limited imagination, he repeatedly failed to seize the opportunities that emerged. And although he deserves credit for avoiding war with the Soviet Union at a time when such a war seemed quite possible, he left the world a far more dangerous place than when he took office.
Eisenhower didn’t have to wait long for an extraordinary opportunity to reverse the course of the Cold War. On March 5, 1953, barely a month into Eisenhower’s presidency, Josef Stalin died. Some of Eisenhower’s close advisors urged him to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Moscow and “scare the daylight out of the enemy.” The National Security Council (NSC) called for psychological exploitation of this event,” and C. D. Jackson, Eisenhower’s advisor on psychological warfare, proposed “a general political warfare offensive.” But the new Soviet leaders moved quickly to ease tension with the United States, instructing China and North Korea to compromise on an armistice agreement. On March 15, Georgi Malenkov publicly declared, “there is no disputed or unresolved question that cannot be settled peacefully.” The new CIA director, Allen Dulles, reported that Soviet leaders seriously desired to “lessen the dangers of global war.” They even took preliminary steps toward liberalization within the Soviet Union. Churchill, who had been reelected prime minister in 1951, had grown wary of the nuclear threat. He urged Washington to seize this unprecedented opportunity to end the Cold War conflict. He pressed for a summit with Soviet leaders. Eisenhower held his tongue for six weeks while his advisors crafted a response. He finally broke his silence, offering one of the most lucid statements ever made by a U.S. president on the toll the Cold War was taking on the nation:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world…is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is…a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concreate pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. … This is not a way of life at all. … Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
In what seemed a dramatic departure, Eisenhower called for peace, disarmament, and third-world development. But in equally fundamental ways, he remained an orthodox Cold Warrior, blaming the Soviets for the troubled state of the world.
The New York Times called the speech “magnificent and deeply moving.” The Washington Post hoped that it signaled a rejection of Truman’s “provocative words,” “belligerent gesturings,” “militarization of policy,” and “aid…to everybody who would turn anti-Communist.” Eisenhower, the Post felt, still needed to repudiate “the theory that a crack of the whip from Moscow produces automatic obedience in the far corners of the satellite states and throughout Red China and Communist-infected Asia.”
The Soviets reprinted the speech widely and offered some hopeful measures of their own. But the optimism proved short-lived. Two days later, Dulles dismissed Malenkov’s “peace offensive” as a “peace defensive” taken in response to U.S. strength. He accused the Communists of “endlessly conspire[ing] to overthrow from within, every genuinely free government in the world.”
Perplexed, the Soviets wondered whether Eisenhower of Dulles spoke for the administration. They applauded Eisenhower for detailing the costs of U.S. militarism but chided him for leaving out the astronomical cost of accumulating a vast nuclear arsenal and constructing hundreds of military bases around the world.
Nor did the steps taken to end the fighting in Korea necessarily augur well for future relations. Despite making progress in the negotiations, Eisenhower threatened to widen the war and considered using tactical atomic weapons, which the United States first tested in January. At an NSC meeting in February, Eisenhower identified the Kaesong area in North Korea as a good place to use the new weapon. In May, when Army Chief of Staff General J. Lawton Collins said that he was “very skeptical about the value of using atomic weapons tactically in Korea,” Eisenhower callously replied, “it might be cheaper, dollar-wise, to use atomic weapons in Korea than to continue to use conventional weapons.” That month, the Joint Chiefs recommended and the NSC endorsed atomic attacks on China. Eisenhower and Dulles made sure the Communist leaders knew of those threats.
The United States also began bombing the damns near Pyongyang, causing enormous floods and destroying the rice crop. The Nuremberg tribunal had condemned similar Nazi actions in Holland in 1944 as a war crime. Finally, in June, the two sides signed agreements settling the POW issue and agreeing on a truce demarcation line, but fighting intensified and casualties skyrocketed on both sides. The morale of the UN forces plummeted. Desertions increased. Self-inflicted wounds reached epidemic proportions. On July 27, 1953, an armistice was finally signed by North Korea, China, and the United States, two years and seventeen days after talks began. South Korea has still not signed. In August, Eisenhower kept up pressure, instructing LeMay to dispatch twenty nuclear-armed B-36 bombers to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa as part of Operation “Big Stick.” LeMay invited the press to observe their arrival.
Eisenhower used atomic bombs as repeatedly throughout his presidency in the same sense, as Daniel Ellsberg has argued, that a robber holding a gun to someone’s head uses the gun without pulling the trigger. Among those who learned the lesson that nuclear threats could frighten an enemy into capitulating was Richard Nixon. In 1968, Nixon explained his strategy for dealing with North Vietnam to Bob Haldeman: “I call it the madman theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ – and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
“It worked,” Nixon insisted. “It was the bomb that did it.” He credited Eisenhower with teaching him the value of unpredictability. “If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash,” he wrote, “he will be deterred from pressing you too far. The odds that he will fold increase greatly and the unpredictable president will win another hand.” Eisenhower was certainly not a “madman,” but he paid little heed to how someone like Nixon might mimic his actions.
The Korean War had its winners and its losers. Rhee’s and Jiang’s shaky regimes survived. Japan profited. China had stood up to the Americans, enhancing its international prestige, but the Soviet had not, accelerating the Sino-Soviet split. And Churchill grasped the real meaning for the United States: “Korea does not really matter now. I’d never heard of the bloody place until I was 74. Its importance lies in the fat that it had led to the re-arming of America.”
Among the war’s victims were the accused atomic spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Upon sentencing them to death in a highly controversial ruling, the judge charged, “your conduct has already caused the communist aggression in Korea with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 Americans.”
A casualty of a different sort was Henry Wallace. The Progressive Party’s ranks had dwindled sharply after the 1948 election debacle, leaving it largely in the hands of the Communists who, for the most part, remained uncritical of the Soviet Union. Wallace had seen enough of Stalinism to know how abhorrent it was. He told delegates to the Progressive Party convention in late 1950, “The United States and Russia stand out today as the two big brutes of the world. Each in its own eyes rests on high moral principles, but each in the eyes of other nations is guided by force and force alone.”
The North Korean invasion of South Korea proved the final straw for Wallace. When Progressive Party leaders opposed UN action, he issued his own “statement of conscience.” Insisting that the Soviets could have blocked the North Korean invasion in the first place if they’d wanted and could stop it now, he declared, “I hold no brief for the past actions of either the United States or Russia but when my country is at war and the United Nations sanctions that war, I am on the side of my country and the United States.” But he urged U.S. leaders to break with recent policies, which he continued to deplore: “The United States will fight a losing battle in Asia as long as she stands behind feudal regimes based on exorbitant charges of land lords and money lords. Russia is using a mightier power than the atom bomb as long as she helps the people get out from under their ancient aggressors. But we in the United States have a still mightier power if we will only use for the people.” Three weeks later, he resigned from the Progressive Party. After years of waging an often lonely, though courageous, struggle against overwhelming odds, the indomitable visionary leader had finally enough. Stalin’s betrayals, when combined with the growing influence of domestic Cold Warriors, had sapped him of the strength needed to continue the fight. He retreated to his farm in upstate New York and spent his remaining years largely tending to his corn and chickens, which were then feeding much of the world.
The final casualty of the war, some feared, was American manhood. One postwar study found that 70 percent of U.S. POWs had “collapsed” and collaborated with their captors. Some attributed the phenomenon to Communist brainwashing. Others pointed to something more troubling. One army doctor who traveled about the camps to treat U.S. prisoners reported, “the strong regularly took food from the weak. … Many men were sick, and these men, instead of being helped and nursed by the others, were ignored, or worse. … On winter nights, helpless men with dysentery were rolled outside the huts by their comrades and left to die in the cold.” An astounding 38 percent of U.S. prisoners died. Most withdrew into themselves and made little effort to find food or keep clean. The doctor attributed this to “some new failure in the childhood and adolescent training of our young men – a new softness.”
If American men were getting soft, American technology would compensate. Just three days before Eisenhower’s election, the United States tested its first prototype hydrogen bomb on the island Elugelab in the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Island burned for six hours under a mushroom cloud a hundred miles across and then disappeared. The more-than-10-megaton blast exceeded all expectations. A sailor commented, “You could swear the whole world was on fire.” Physicist Harold Agnew was aboard ship twenty-five miles away. He observed, “something I’ll never forget was the heat. Not the blast…the heat just kept coming on and on and on. And it was really scary.” Eisenhower acknowledged the new reality in his inaugural address. “Science,” he warned, “seems ready to confer upon us…the power to erase human life from this planet.” Yet his policies over the next eight years propelled us ever more disastrously toward realizing that threat. It was as if Lewis Mumford’s brilliant 1946 essay about the madness of American leaders had been written with the future Eisenhower in mind.
As with his anticommunism, Eisenhower’s embrace of nuclearism came later in life. He had opposed the atomic bombing of Japan on both military and moral grounds. He was actually in Moscow when he learned about Hiroshima. He told a journalist, “Before the atom bomb was used,…I was sure would could keep the peace with Russia. Now, I don’t know. I had hoped the bomb wouldn’t figure in this war. Until now, I would have said that we three, Britain…,America…, and Russia…could have guaranteed the peace of the world for a long time to come. But now, I don’t know. People are frightened and disturbed all over. Everyone feels insecure again.”
After the war, he supported efforts at international control, wanting atomic bombs to be turned over to the United Nations and destroyed. He spoke out consistently for civilian rather than military control of the bomb. And he continued to raise moral concerns about the use of such a weapon. In 1947, he told a luncheon, “I decry loose and sometimes gloating talk about the degree of security implicit in a weapon that might destroy millions overnight.”
As David Rosenberg notes, “Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the presidency win January 1953 with a more thorough knowledge of nuclear weapons than any President before or since.” As army chief of staff, temporary chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and NATO supreme commander, he had been intimately involved in early nuclear-war planning. During those years, his abhorrence of nuclear weapons had abated considerably, but it had not disappeared. In March 1953, he warned his cabinet not to think of the bomb as “a cheap way to solve things.” He reminded them, “It is cold comfort for any citizen of Western Europe to be assured that – after his country is overrun and he is pushing up daisies – someone still alive will drop a bomb on the Kremlin.”
He was determined to build on the United States’ lead in the nuclear arms race. In summer 1953, the CIA reported reassuringly that there was no evidence that the Soviets were working on a hydrogen bomb. On August 12, 1953, much to the CIA’s chagrin, the Soviets exploded what was believed to have been a 400-kiloton hydrogen bomb in Kazakhstan. Though far less powerful than the U.S. model, the Soviet bomb was not only deliverable, it was “dry,” needing no refrigeration. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight. It had stood at three since the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. The Soviets were closing the gap at a stunning pace.
The New York Times took “comfort in the fact that” the United States still possessed a lead in atomic and hydrogen bomb production but recognized that “these advantages are bound to diminish with time.” The Times noted that even Secretary of State Dulles had declared that “the central problem now is to save the human race from extinction.”
Dulles and his relatives had helped design the American Empire. John Foster Dulles’ maternal grandfather John W. Dulles, and his uncle Robert Lansing had both served as secretary of state. John W. painstakingly tutored his eldest grandson throughout his childhood, instilling a firm belief in the United States’ global role. John Foster Dulles’ paternal grandfather and his father had both been Presbyterian ministers, his grandfather serving as a missionary in India. His younger brother, Allen, became director of the CIA. When his uncle Lansing served as Wilson’s secretary of state during and after the First World War, Dulles was secretary-treasurer of the government’s new Russian Bureau, whose main function was to assist anti-Bolshevik forces challenging the Russian Revolution. Financier Bernard Baruch, an old family friend, next tapped the young lawyer to serve as legal advisor to the U.S. delegation to the Inter-Allied Reparations Commission at Versailles, after which he returned to practice law at Sullivan and Cromwell, overseeing the accounts of some of the pillars of the emerging empire: J. P. Morgan & Company; Brown Brothers Harriman; Dillon, Read; Goldman Sachs; United Fruit Company; International Nickel Company; United Railways of Central America: and the Overseas Securities Corporation.
Though journalistic accounts of Dulles’ unabashed affection for Hitler in the early years of the Nazi dictatorship are hard to verify, there is no doubt that he maintained some involvement in German business activities. He participated actively in the vast interwar cartelization, which afforded a means to stabilize the shaky U.S. economy, reduce competition, and guarantee profits. Dulles dealt extensively with I. G. Farben through the nickel and chemical cartels. Despite his later vehement denials of any dealings with the Nazi regime, he is known to have visited Berlin in 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939. In assessing Dulles’ involvement, award-winning New York Times and Boston Globe foreign correspondent Steven Kinzer, citing Nancy Lisagor and Frank Lipsius’ “exhaustive study” of Sullivan & Cromwell, writes that “the firm ‘thrived on its cartels and collusion with the new Nazi regime,’ and Dulles spent much of 1934 ‘publicly supporting Hitler,’ leaving his partners ‘shocked that he could so easily disregard the law and international treaties to justify Nazi repression.’”
Dulles never wavered in his commitment to maintaining U.S. hegemony and protecting U.S. business interests or in his hatred of communism. Despite outward appearances, the rigid, sometimes belligerent secretary of state and the affable president differed little on substantive policy issues. Eisenhower understood that even with income tax rates topping 90 percent for the wealthiest Americans, the nation’s bloated military budget would prove impossible to sustain, ultimately bankrupting the country. He worried, “This country can choke itself to death piling up military expenditures.” He decided to curb ballooning defense spending by relying on nuclear arms, which were cheaper than maintaining a large standing army. In late October 1953, he approved a new Basic National Security Policy, NSC 162/2, the core of his “New Look” defense policy, which stated, ‘In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions.” Based on the assumption that any war with the Soviet Union would quickly evolve into a full-scale nuclear war, the New Look downplayed conventional military capabilities and relied upon massive nuclear retaliation by the fortified Strategic Air Command. Thus, the savings made by reducing the size of the army were offset, in large part, by increased spending on the air force and navy. Eisenhower ended up cutting Truman’s 1954 defense budget from $41.3 billion to $36 billion.
Eisenhower felt constrained by the fact that neither the U.S. public nor his British allies were as sanguine as he and Dulles about the use of nuclear weapons. He set about to erase the line between conventional and nuclear weapons. According to the minutes of a late March 1953 NSC discussion of using nuclear weapons in Korea, “the President and Secretary Dulles were in complete agreement that somehow or other the taboo which surrounds the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed.”
Dulles called for breaking “down this false distinction” between conventional and nuclear weapons, which he attributed to a Soviet propaganda campaign. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Arthur Radford explained to listeners at the Naval War College in May 1954 that “atomic forces are now our primary forces…actions by forces, on land, sea or air are relegated to a secondary role…nuclear weapons, fission and fusion, will be used in the next major war.”
In meetings in Bermuda with Britain’s Churchill and French Premier Joseph Laniel in December 1953, Eisenhower sought his allies’ support for using atomic bombs if fighting started in Korea again. Churchill sent his private secretary Jock Colville to Eisenhower to express his concerns. Colville was taken aback by Eisenhower’s response: “whereas Winston looked on the atomic bomb as something entirely new and terrible, he looked upon it as just the latest improvement in military weapons. He implied that there was no distinction between ‘conventional’ weapons and atomic weapons: all weapons in due course become conventional.’” Colville later wrote, “I could hardly believe my ears.” Eisenhower similarly told Anthony Eden, “The development of smaller atomic weapons and the use of atomic artillery makes the distinction [between atomic and conventional weapons] impossible to sustain.”
In 1955, Eisenhower responded to a reporter’s question about using tactical atomic weapons: “Yes of course they would be used. In any combat where these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.” The very next day, Nixon reinforced the point: “tactical atomic explosives are now conventional and will be used against the targets of any aggressive force.” A few weeks later, Ike told Congress that “a wide variety” of tactical atomic weapons “have today achieved conventional status in the arsenals of our armed forces.”
Eisenhower prepared for their use by transferring control of the atomic stockpile from the AEC to the military. Truman had transferred nine weapons to Guam in 1951 but had otherwise insisted on retaining civilian control. He said he did not want “to have some dashing lieutenant colonel decide when would be the proper time to drop one.” Eisenhower had no such compunctions. In June 1953, he began transferring atomic bombs from the AEC to the Defense Department to enhance operational readiness and protect them from surprise Soviet attack. In December 1954, he ordered 42 percent of atomic bombs and 36 percent of hydrogen bombs deployed overseas, many menacingly close to the Soviet Union. By 1959, the military had custody of more than 80 percent of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The United States’ European allied were terrified that the United States would start a nuclear war, and they pressured Eisenhower to lower the tensions. He responded on December 8, 1953, mesmerizing the 3.500 delegates at the United Nations with his “Atoms for Peace” speech declaring that the United States would devote “its entire heart and mind to find the way which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his “life” by spreading the benefits of peaceful atomic power at home and abroad.
The U.S. media rang out with praise. New York Times military correspondent Hanson Baldwin wrote that Eisenhower’s “eloquent” and “moving argument for peace…represented an earnest attempt to halt the atomic arms race.” However, Baldwin regretted that the prospects for success remained bleak because “the Soviet Union’s whole concept is built upon world struggle and ultimate world domination.”
Eisenhower was so desperate to put a smiling face on the atom that he ignored numerous warnings about the danger of proliferation. The AEC’s only nuclear physicist, Henry Smith, dismissed Atoms for Peace as a “thoroughly dishonest proposal” that ignored proliferation risks and exaggerated the prospects of nuclear power. Other echoed his dissent.
Soviet leaders were particularly irked by the dangers of proliferation. Five top scientists, including nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, asserted that “the development of the industrial use of atomic energy by itself does not only exclude, but leads directly, to an increase of military atomic potential.” Foreign Minister Molotov reiterated this point in meetings with Dulles and in a note stating that it was “possible for the very application of atomic energy for peaceful purposes to be utilized for increasing the production of atomic weapons.” When Molotov again raised the proliferation risk at their May 1 meeting, Dulles couldn’t grasp the concept and replied that he “would seek out a scientist to educate him more fully.”
If Eisenhower’s UN address raised hopes for an easing of international tensions, Dulles’ January 12 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations dashed them thoroughly. He warned them that local defenses against communism would be backed by “massive retaliatory power” deployed “at places and with means of[our] own choosing.”
Reliance on nuclear weapons represented a fundamental departure from previous policy. Whereas Truman, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had viewed atomic bombs as weapons that would be used only in the most desperate circumstances, Eisenhower made the foundation of U.S. defense strategy. The Wall Street Journal reported, “There was a wide assumption that here was a reckless policy of turning every minor clash into an atomic Armageddon.” The New York Times’ James Reston was stunned that Eisenhower and Dulles were enacting a “ ‘new strategy,’ potentially graver than anything ever proposed by any United States Government,” and not a single congressman even questioned this commitment to “sudden atomic retaliation.” He worried about the constitutional implications of such expanded presidential powers. If the Chinese moved into Indochina or the Soviets into Iran, who, he asked, would give the order to deploy “massive retaliatory power” against Beijing or Moscow? How, he wondered, could the president “seek the consent of the Congress without alerting the Kremlin and risking a sudden atomic blow upon the United States?”
RAND analyst Joseph Loftus became concerned that the new SAC Emergency War Plan was targeting Soviet cities and civilian populations. While Loftus was visiting SAC headquarters in Omaha, General James Walsh, the director of SAC intelligence, invited him over to his house for cocktails and began lecturing him on the need to maximize destruction. Walsh suddenly exploded “Goddammit, Loftus, there’s only one way to attack the Russians, and that’ to hit them hard with everything we have and” – he shouted, pounded his fist on the enormous Bible on the table – “knock their balls off!” By the spring of 1954, SAC’s war plan called for attacking the Soviet Union with 600 to 750 bombs and turning it into “a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours.” The plan involved killing 80 percent of the population in 118 major cities, or 60 million people. Later that year, the United States began deploying nuclear weapons on the soil of its European allies. By 1958, almost three thousand had been placed in Western Europe.
Meanwhile, the U.S. arsenal continued to grow at a dizzying pace, expanding from slightly over 1,000 when Eisenhower took office to over 22,000 bombs when left office eight years later.
Massive retaliation might frighten the Soviets, but it would do little to thwart the revolutionary upsurge in the developing world, where the Soviet Union was poised to take advantage of widespread discontent. The most important third-world leaders – Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India – steered a neutral course between the capitalist and socialist blocs and thought it obscene to spend billions of dollars and rubles on arms when money for economic development was in short supply. On his first trip abroad, in May 1953. Dulles learned of hostility toward the United States in Asia, where the Soviet system had real appeal, and the Middle East. During his trip, he wrote to Eisenhower about the “bitterness” in the Arab world, where “the United States suffered from being linked with British and French imperialism” and from its blind support for Israel.
Dulles wasn’t sure that the United States could ever win the allegiance of third-world peoples. He noted that asking underdeveloped countries to embrace capitalism was like asking people who were undernourished and suffering from rickets to play rugby: “You say to them, ‘Have a free competitive system.’ And they say, “Good god, there must be a better way of doing things!’ ” Eisenhower was also troubled by the depth of animosity toward the United States among the world’s impoverished masses. He raised the issue at a March 1953 NSC meeting, wondering why it wasn’t possible “to get some of the people in these downtrodden counties to like us instead of hating us.”
The United States’ role in the Iranian conflict should have provided all the answer Eisenhower needed. Upon taking office, Eisenhower confronted a crisis in Iran, where the government of Mohammad Mossadeq was challenging the monopoly held by Britain’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the forerunner of British Petroleum (BP) and the world’s third largest crude-oil producer. The company, which was 51 percent owned by the British government, had developed cozy relations with Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had seized power after World War I and become shah in 1925, and with his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who replaced his father in 1941, when the elder’s Nazi sympathies had provoked a joint occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union.
Anglo-Iranian kept 84 percent of the revenue for itself leaving at most a paltry 16 percent for the Iranians. It paid taxes in Britain rather than Iran. In fact, its British taxes were more than double the amount that the Iranians received in royalties. While the British got rich off Iranian oil, the Iranians lived in poverty. Oilfield workers earned less than 50 cents per day and received no benefits or vacations. The Iranians’ outrage was ignited in 1950 when the U.S. oil company ARAMCO signed a contract giving Saudi Arabia 50 percent of the profits from Saudi oil. Under pressure, Anglo-Iranian offered improved terms. But Mossadeq so hated British colonialism that he refused to consider the company’s offer. The Iranian parliament, reflecting Iranians’ near-universal antipathy toward Anglo-Iranian, voted unanimously to nationalize the oil industry and compensate the British for their investment. Britain’s Labor government seemed hardly in a position to object, having nationalized Britain’s coal and electricity companies and railroads.
A former finance and foreign minister, Mossadeq, despite his legendary eccentricities, was an enormously popular figure inside Iran and a well-respected one internationally. He was the first Iranian to earn a doctor of law degree from a European university. He had attended the Versailles Conference in a futile attempt to block the assertion of British control and had led the decolonization fight in succeeding decades. Time magazine named him Man of the Year for 1951. The U.S. ambassador reported that Mossadeq “has the backing of 95 to 98 percent of the people of his country.” His defiance of the colonial masters thrilled the Arab masses throughout the region.
With Iran producing 40 percent of Middle Eastern Oil, the United States understood the importance of easing the tension. It had been pushing the British to improve their offer and avoid the crisis since 1948. Truman derided Sir William Fraser, the head of Anglo-Iranian as a “typical nineteenth century colonial exploiter.”
Members of the British cabinet responded in the fashion typical of twentieth-century colonial exploiters and debated the pros and cons of invading. It became clear that such an invasion would prove costly and might not succeed. But capitulating to the Iranians, some felt, could put the final nail in the empire’s coffin. “If Persia were allowed to get away with it, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries would be encouraged to think they could try things on,” Defense Minister Emanuel Shinwell feared. “The next thing might be an attempt to national the Suez Canal.” Opposition leader Winston Churchill told Prime Minister Clement Atlee that he was “rather shocked at the attitude of the United States, who did not seem to appreciate fully the importance of the great area extending from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf: it was more important than Korea.” Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison also deplored the policy of “scuttle and surrender.”
Acheson attempted to mediate, fearing that military action by Great Britain in the south might provoke a Soviet incursion in the north. Though frustrated by Mossadeq’s intransigence, Acheson sympathized with the Iranians’ position. He convinced Averell Harriman to go to Tehran to defuse the situation. Harriman reported that the “situation that has developed here is a tragic example of absentee management combined with world-wide growth of nationalism in underdeveloped countries.” The British put the invasion on hold, initiating economic warfare in its stead. They embargoed oil coming out of Iran and goods going in. With U.S. approval, the Bank of England halted the finance of and trade with Iran. The Iranian economy slowly ground to a halt.
Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party returned to power in October 1951, increasing the pressure for military intervention. Churchill had earlier written to Truman that “Mussy Duck” was “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to communism.” When Mossadeq got wind of British plans to launch a coup, he shut the British Embassy and expelled its employees.
When Eisenhower took office, the Dulles brothers met with Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson and the CIA’s top Middle East expert, to discuss eliminating “that madman Mossadeq.” John Foster Dulles acknowledged that Mossadeq wasn’t a Communist, but he feared a takeover by the Communist Tudeh party that would deliver Iran’s oil to Moscow. Soon, he argued the rest of Middle Eastern oil would come under Soviet control. Mossadeq had moved closer to Tudeh as the crisis unfolded. The new administration portrayed Moddadeq as an unstable extremist – “not quite sane,” according to U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson.
Behinds the scenes, the CIA went to work, launching “Operation Ajax” headed by Roosevelt. British Intelligence, MI6, provided support. But things did not go as planned. When the CIA’s Tehran station chief opposed this tawdry operation as being inimical to the United States’ long-term interests, Allen Dulles fired him. Mossadeq uncovered the shah’s collaboration with the coup attempt, forcing the shah to flee the country.
The CIA, meanwhile, had been buying up Iranian journalists, preachers, army and police officers, and members of parliament, who were instructed to foment opposition to the government. The CIA also purchased the services of the extremist Warriors of Islam, a “terrorist gang,” according to a CIA history of the coup. In August, Roosevelt began setting mobs loose to create chaos in the capital, Tehran. He spread rumors that Mossadeq was a Communist and a Jew. His street thugs, pretending to be members of the Tudeh party, attacked mullahs and destroyed a mosque. Among the rioters was Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, Iran’s future leader. On August 19, 1953, in the midst of the anarchy, Roosevelt brought General Fazlollah Zahedi out of his CIA hiding place. Zahedi announced that the shah, then in Italy, had appointed him the new prime minister. After an armed battle, coup plotters arrested Mossadeq and thousands of his supporters. Some were executed. Mossadeq was convicted of treason and imprisoned. The shah returned to Tehran. At a final meeting with Roosevelt, the shah offered a toast: “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army – and to you.”
The American oil companies were also grateful. Previously frozen out of Iranian oil production, five U.S. oil companies now received 40 percent ownership of the new consortium established to develop Iranian oil. And the United States opened its coffers to the shah. Within two weeks of the coup, the United States granted Iran $68 million in emergency aid, with more than $100 million more soon to follow. The United States had gained an ally and access to an enormous supply of oil but in the process had outraged the citizens of a proud nation whose resentment at the overthrow of their popular prime minister and imposition of a repressive regime would later come back to haunt it. The shah continued to rule for more than twenty-five years, with strong U.S. backing, by fixing elections and relying on the repressive power of SAVAK, his newly created intelligence service.
The CIA, having toppled its first government, now saw itself as capable of replicating the feat elsewhere and would attempt to do so repeatedly in succeeding years. The Soviets, therefor, instead of seeing a softening of U.S. policy in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, saw the United States impose another puppet government in a nation with which the Soviet Union shared a thousand-kilometer border as part of an ongoing strategy of encirclement.
On the heels of this “success” in Iran, the Eisenhower administration targeted the small, impoverished Central American nation of Guatemala. Guatemalans had suffered under a brutal U.S.-backed dictator, Jorge Ubico, whom they overthrew in 1944. Before the reform government took power, 2 percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, while 50 percent of the people eked out a living on only 3 percent of the land. The Indian half of Guatemala’s population barely survived on less than 50 cents per day. In 1950, Guatemalans elected the handsome, charismatic thirty-eight-year-old Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman president in an election remarkable for its fairness. At his March 1951 inauguration, he declared his commitment to social justice and reform:
All the riches of Guatemala are not as important as the life, the freedom, the dignity, the health and the happiness of the most humble of its people…we must distribute these riches so that those have less – and they are the immense majority – benefit more, while those who have more – and they are so few – also benefit, but to a lesser extent. How could it be otherwise, given the poverty, the poor health, and the lack of education of our people?
The U.S. media wasted little time in denouncing Guatemala’s Communist “tyranny,” beginning its assault long before Arbenz had time to start implementing his reform agenda. In June, the New York Times decried “The Guatemalan Cancer,” registering “a sense of deep disappointment and disillusionment over the trend of Guatemalan politics in the two months since Colonel Arbenz became President.” The editors took particular umbrage at the growth of Communist influence, complaining that “the Government’s policy is either running parallel to, or is a front for, Russian imperialism in Central American.” The Washington Post carried an editorial a few months later titled “Red Cell in Guatemala” that branded the new president of Guatemala’s Congress a “straight party liner” and dismissed Arbenz as little more than a tool.
Ignoring his critics, Arbenz set out to modernize Guatemala’s industry and agriculture and develop it mineral resources. To do so meant challenging the power of United Fruit Company, which dominated the Guatemalan economy. Called “the octopus” by Guatemalans, United Fruit reached its tentacle-like arms deep into railroads, ports, shipping, and especially banana plantations. Arbenz announced plans for a massive land reform program beginning with the nationalization of 234,000 acres of United Fruit Company land, more than 90 percent of which the company was not using. In all, the company’s 550,000 acres represented approximately one-fifth of Guatemala’s arable land. Arbenz offered to compensate United Fruit in the amount of $600,000, based on the company’s won greatly underpriced assessment of the land’s value in previous tax returns. The company demanded more. Arbenz took steps to appropriate another 173,000 acres. The public relations pioneer and master propagandist Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, had already launched a campaign to brand Arbenz a Communist. He found willing allies at the New York Times. Bernays paid a visit to Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Dutifully, the Times soon began publishing articles about the Communist threat in Guatemala. Leading congressmen, including Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, whose family had gorged on United Fruit for decades, decried this growing Communist menace.
Truman took heed of the alleged Communist threat emanating from Guatemala. In April 1952, he hosted a state dinner for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who had long been persona non grata in Washington. Somoza assured State Department officials that if the United States would provide arms, he and exiled Guatemalan colonel Carlos Castillo Armas would get rid of Arbenz. The Truman administration decided to overthrow Arbenz in September 1952 but reversed course when U.S. involvement was exposed.
Eisenhower had no such compunctions. He appointed Jack Peurifoy as his ambassador to Guatemala. Peurifoy, who spoke no Spanish, had been serving Greece, where his role in helping restore the monarchy to power had earned him the sobriquet “the butcher of Athens.” A photo of the Greek royal family still adorned his desk. His penchant for wearing a gun in his belt led his wife to nickname his “pistol packing Peurifoy.” Before Greece, he had helped purge the State Department of liberals and leftists. Arbenz invited the new U.S. ambassador and his wife to dinner. They clashed for six hours over Communist influence in the Guatemalan government, land reform, and treatment of United Fruit. Peurifoy sent Secretary of State Dulles a long cable detailing their discussion that concluded, “I am definitely convinced that if the President is not a communist, he will certainly do until one comes along.”
In Peurifoy’s mind, that equated to being a tool of Moscow: “Communism is directed by the Kremlin all over the world, and anyone who thinks differently doesn’t know what he is talking about.” In reality, Guatemalan communism was indigenous and the Partido Guatamalteco del Trabajo was independent of the Soviet Union. Communists held only four of the fifty-six seats in Congress and not cabinet posts. The party had approximately 4,000 members in a population of 3.5 million.
To suggest that United Fruit had friends among the high and mighty in the Eisenhower administration would be an understatement. The Dulles brother’s law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, had written United Fruit’s 1930 and 1936 agreements with Guatemala. Allen Dulles’ predecessor at the CIA, Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, would become a vice president of the company in 1955. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs John Moors Cabot was a major shareholder. His brother Thomas Dudley Cabot, the director of international security affairs in the State Department, had been president of United Fruit. NSC head General Robert Cutler had been chairman of the board. John J. McCloy was a former board member. And U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Robert Hill would later join the board.
Concerns about United Fruit interests reinforced the Eisenhower administration’s deep-seated anticommunism. In August 1953, administration officials decided to take Arbenz down through covert action. One U.S. official cautioned, “Were it to become known that the United States had tried a Czechoslovakia in Guatemala, the effect on our relations in this hemisphere, and probably in the world…could be…disastrous.” Undeterred, Allen Dulles asked Iran coup instigator Kim Roosevelt to lead “Operation Success,” but Roosevelt declined, not trusting that the operation’s title reflected the prospects on the ground. Dulles then chose Colonel Albert Haney, a former South Korea station chief, as field commander with Tracy Barnes as chief of political warfare. As Tim Weiner points out in his history of the CIA, Barnes had the classic CIA resume of the era. Raised on Long Island’s Whitney estate, replete with its own private golf course, he matriculated at Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law. Serving with the OSS in World War II, he captured a German garrison, earning him a Silver Star. But because Barnes had a reputation as a bumbler, former CIA director Walter Bedell Smith, a Dulles protégé, was tasked with overseeing the operation.
In late January 1954, word leaked out that the United States was collaborating with Colonel Castillo Armas to train the invading force. The Guatemalan government then turned to Czechoslovakia for a shipload of arms. The United States loudly decried Soviet penetration of the hemisphere. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Alexander Wiley, described the allegedly “massive” shipment as “part of the master plan of world communism.” The Speaker of the House deemed it an atom bomb in America’s backyard.
In a surprising reversal, New York Times correspondent Sydney Gruson began providing coverage of the unfolding Guatemalan crisis that accurately captured that nation’s outrage over U.S. bullying and accusations. Gruson had just been allowed back into the country after having been expelled by the government as “undesirable” in February. On May 21, he wrote that U.S. pressure had “boomeranged,” inspiring “a greater degree of national unity than [Guatemala] has experienced in a long time.” Even Guatemalan newspapers “that normally are in constant opposition,” he reported, “have rallied to defend the Government’s action.” “Both newspapers,” he noted, had “assailed what they termed the United States’ willingness to provide arms to right-wing dictators in the hemisphere while refusing to fulfill Guatemala’s legitimate needs.” In another front-page article the following day, Gruson recounted the Guatemalan foreign minister’s charge that the U.S. State Department was aiding exiles abroad and domestic dissidents who were trying to overthrow the government. He reported that the State Department had pressured Guatemala to raise its compensation to United Fruit to $16 million and quoted the foreign minister’s assertion that “Guatemala is not a colony of the United States nor an associated state that requires permission of the United States Government to acquire the things indispensable for its defense and security, and it repudiates the pretension of [the United States] to supervise the legitimate acts of a sovereign government.” On the twenty-fourth, Gruson insisted that the United States had chosen the wrong issue to make a stand on and had only sparked a “great upsurge in nationalism” and anti-Americanism. Gruson’s days as a Times reporter in Guatemala were numbered. Over dinner, Allen Dulles spoke to his friend Times business manager Julius Adler, who conveyed the administration’s complaints to publisher Sulzberger. Gruson was sent packing to Mexico City.
Meanwhile, Peurifoy and other U.S. officials waged a vigorous propaganda and disinformation campaign both inside Guatemala and in neighboring states to discredit the Arbenz government and weaken its hold on power. In June 1954, CIA-trained mercenaries attacked from bases in Honduras and Nicaragua, backed by U.S. air support. When the initial attack stalled, Eisenhower provided Castillo Armas with additional planes. Even British and French officials balked at the thought of supporting such naked aggression. Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, confronted his British and French counterparts and threated to withdraw U.S. support to Great Britain on Egypt and Cyprus and to France on Tunisia and Morocco if they failed back the United States on Guatemala.
On June 27, Arbenz, assuming that resistance was futile, handed power to a military junta headed by the army chief of staff. That night, he delivered a final radio address in which he charged, “The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States, is responsible for what is happening to us.” He warned about “twenty years of fascist bloody tyranny.” That night the CIA station chief and another agent visited the head of the junta and told him, “You’re just not convenient for the requirements of American foreign policy.” When he refused to step down, the CIA bombed the parade ground of the main military base and the government radio station. Castillo Armas, who had been trained at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, returned in a U.S. Embassy plane to head the new government. Dulles addressed the American public on June 30 and applauded the victory of “democracy” over “Soviet communism.” He announced that the situation was “being cured by the Guatemalans themselves.” One British official, gagging on Dulles’ mendacity, observed of the speech that “in places it might almost be Molotov speaking about…Czechoslovakia – or Hitler about Austria.”
Shortly thereafter, Castillo Armas visited Washington and assured Nixon of his featly. “Tell me what you want me to do and I will do it,” he promised the vice president. He received $90 million in U.S. aid in the next two years, 150 times as much as the reform government had received in a decade. He set up a brutal military dictatorship and was assassinated three years later. United Fruit got its land back.
Dulles said that the country had been saved from “Communist imperialism” and declared the addition of “a new and glorious chapter to the already great tradition of the American States.” One retired Marine colonel who had participated in the overthrow wrote later that “our ‘success’ led to 31 years of repressive military rule and the deaths of more than 100,000 Guatemalans.” The actual death toll might have been twice that number. Arbenz proved to have been optimistic when he predicted “twenty years of fascist bloody tyranny.” The fascist bloody tyranny in Guatemala actually lasted forty years.
While Eisenhower administration officials celebrated their victory, having fortified their belief that covert operations could be used to topple popular reform governments, others drew very different lessons. Among the witnesses to Guatemalan “regime change” was a young Argentinian doctor named Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was in the Guatemala City to observe Arbenz’s reform efforts. He wrote to his mother from the Argentinian Embassy, where he had taken refuge during the subsequent slaughter. Arbenz made one major mistake, he contended: “He could have given arms to the people, but he did not want to – and now we see the result.”
Che would not make that mistake when the time came to protect the Cuban Revolution a few years later. The revolution faced it main counterrevolutionary challenge when an invading force of U.S.-backed exiles was smashed in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. Several of those played leading roles in the Guatemala overthrow of 1954 would also figure prominently in the 1961 fiasco, including Ambassador William Pawley, CIA operative E. Howard Hunt and Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, and Allen Dulles.
Events of even greater significance were unfolding simultaneously in Vietnam. In April 1954, Ho Chi Minh’s peasant liberation army, commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap, and peasant supporters hauled extremely heavy antiaircraft guns, mortars, and howitzers through seemingly impassable jungle and mountain terrain to lay siege to desperate French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Incredibly, the United States was then paying 80 percent of the French costs to keep the colonialists in power. Eisenhower explained in August 1953, “when the United States votes $400,000,000 to help that war, we are not voting a giveaway program. We are voting for the cheapest way that we can to prevent the occurrence of something that would be of a most terrible significance to the United States of America, our security, our power and ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indonesia territory and from Southeast Asia.” He envisioned countries in the region falling like dominoes, ultimately leading to the loss of Japan. Nixon agreed: “If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of Southeast Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented towards the Communist regime.” And U.S. News & World Report cut entirely through any rhetoric about fighting for the freedom of oppressed peoples and admitted, “One of the world’s richest areas is open to the winner in Indochina. That’s behind growing U.S. concern…tin, rubber, rice, key strategic raw materials are what the war is really about. The U.S. sees it as a place to hold – at any cost.”
The French asked for help. Though Eisenhower ruled out sending U.S. ground forces, he and Dulles considered various options to stave off an imminent French defeat. Pentagon officials drew up plans for Operation Vulture, an air campaign against Viet Minh positions. They also discussed the possibility of using two or three atomic bombs. Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan Twining later commented,
what [Radford and I] thought would be – and I still think it would be a good idea – was to take three small tactical A-bombs – it’s a fairly isolated area. … You could take all day to drop a bomb, make sure you put it in the right place. No opposition. And clean those Commies out of there and the band could play the ‘Marseillaise’ and the French would come marching out of Dien Bien Phu in fine shape. And those Commies would say, ‘Well, those guys may do this again to us. We’d better be careful.’
Eisenhower discussed the use of atomic bombs with Nixon and Robert Cutler of the NSC on April 30, 1954. Foreign Minister Georges Bidault and other French officials reported that Dulles had offered them two atomic bombs one week earlier. Eisenhower and Dulles later disputed such reports, but the use of atomic bombs would certainly have been consistent with U.S. policy at the time. Neither the British nor the French thought this was wise or feasible. Evidence also suggests that the “new weapons” were vetoed because the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu were too close to French soldiers, who would be put in harm’s way. As Eisenhower told Walter Cronkite in 1961, “we were not willing to use those weapons that could have destroyed the area for miles and that probably would have destroyed Dien Bien Phu.”
Many scholars believe Eisenhower’s and Dulles’ disclaimers, but the United States’ offer is mentioned in the diaries and memoirs of French General Paul Ely, Foreign Minister Bidault, and Foreign Ministry Secretary General Jean Chauvel. France’s interior minister had asked Premier Laniel to request the bombs. McGeorge Bundy also thinks it likely that Dulles raised the possibility with Bidault, as Bidault claimed, in part because the alleged offer coincided precisely with Dulles’ comments to NATO about the necessity of making nuclear weapons conventional. In late April, the Policy Planning Staff of the NSC again discussed the prospect of using nuclear weapons. When Robert Cutler broached the subject with Eisenhower and Nixon, the record indicates that they again considered giving a few of the “new weapons” to the French. Years later, Eisenhower’s recollection was quite different. He told his biographer Stephen Ambrose that he had replied to Cutler, “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against the Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.”
Although no nuclear weapons were used at the time, Eisenhower did approve the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation that should the Chinese intervene, the United States would respond with atomic bombs, not ground troops.
The day before Eisenhower’s “falling dominoes” press conference, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy had taken the floor of the Senate to oppose the proposed U.S. military intervention. He dismissed the optimistic blather with which the U.S. and French officials had been regaling the public for the past three years, including recent assurances of French victory by Arthur Radford and Secretary Dulles: “No amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.” Senator Lyndon Johnson had recently said that he was “against sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man’s exploitation of Asia.”
On May 7, after fifty-six days, the French garrison fell. Representatives of the United States, France, Great Britain, and Soviet Union, and China met in Geneva. Dulles attended just long enough to make his displeasure apparent. He refused to shake hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai or to sit near any Communist delegates, and he objected to everything that was proposed, causing British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden’s secretary to describe his “almost pathological rage and gloom.” Depsite the fact that the Viet Minh controlled most of the country and believed it deserve it all, Viet Minh negotiators succumbed to Soviet and Chinese pressure and accepted a proposal that would briefly defer their nationwide takeover and allow France to save face. The two sides agreed to temporarily divide Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and Ho’s forces withdrawing to the north and French-backed forces retreating to the south. The final declaration clearly stated, “the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” The agreement also stipulated that neither side allow foreign bases on its soil or join a military alliance.
The Viet Minh accepted this, in large part, because a national election was scheduled for July 1956 to unify the country. The United States refused to sign the accords but promised not to interfere with their implementation. But, in fact, it was betraying that promise as the words were coming out of U.S. representative General Walter Bedell Smith’s mouth.
As long as Bao Dai remained in charge in the South, the United States’ prospects of holding Vietnam were virtually nonexistent. Bao Dai was unknown by the peasants and scorned as a French puppet and despised by the intellectuals, while Ho was heralded as a nationalist leader and adulated as the country’s savior. As French troops prepared to leave the country, Americans maneuvered to replace Bao Dai with Ngo Dinh Diem, a conservative Catholic fresh from four years in exile, whom Bao had named prime minister. With the aid of Edward Lansdale, Diem wasted no time in crushing rivals and unleashing a wave of repression against former Viet Minh members in the south, thousands of whom were executed.
In 1955, Diem called a referendum asking the South Vietnamese to choose between Bao Dai and himself. With the assistance of Lansdale, Diem “won” 98 percent of the vote. Diem’s U.S. backers formed the American Friends of Vietnam. Diem enthusiasts included Cardinal Francis Spellman and Joseph Kennedy, as well as Senators Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey, and John F. Kennedy. Blinded by their anticommunism and their faith that this ascetic Catholic nationalist could turn the tide against overwhelming odds, they ignored what was obvious to independent observers like University of Chicago political theorist and foreign policy expert Hans Morgenthau. After visiting Vietnam in early 1956, Morgenthau described Diem as “a man…who acts with a craftiness and ruthlessness worthy of an Oriental despot…who as a statesman lives by his opposition to Communism, but who is building, down to small details, a faithful replica of the totalitarian regime which he opposes.” Morgenthau outlined a situation in which nine of the eleven opposition parties dared not operate openly: “Freedom of the press does not exist,” and “nobody knows how many people are shot every day by the armed forces of the regime and under what circumstances.”
With the United States backing, Diem subverted the most important provision of the Geneva agreement, canceling the 1956 election that would have turned control over to the Communists. Eisenhower later commented, “I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indo-Chinese affairs who did not agree that had the elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai.” The insurgency was soon rekindled.
Growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam was taking place against a backdrop of heightened nuclear tensions. In late February 1954, U.S. authorities evacuated islanders and cleared all vessels from a large area of the Pacific in preparation for a new series of nuclear bomb tests. Even though the wind shifted, they decided to proceed as planned with the March 1 Bravo test, knowing that this would put many people in harm’s way. To make matters worse, the bomb exploded with twice the force predicted. At 15 megatons, it was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The cloud of radioactive coral drifted toward the Marshall Islands of Rongelap, Rongerik, and Utrik, contaminating 236 islanders and 28 Americans. Unaware of the danger, children played in the radioactive fallout. Many of the islanders were not evacuated for three days, by which time they were showing signs of radiation poisoning. Twenty-three fishermen aboard a Japanese trawler, Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), suffered a similar fate as they were blanketed by the deadly white ask that fell from the skies for three hours. When they pulled into port thirteen days later with their contaminated tuna, crew members were showing signs of advanced poisoning. The first died several months later.
The world was shocked by the United States’ negligence and by the incredible power of the latest generation of nuclear weapons. Panic set in when people realized that the Japanese ship’s contaminated tuna had been sold in four major cities and eaten by scores of people. Many people stopped eating fish entirely. Four hundred fifty-seven tons of tuna were eventually destroyed. AEC Chairman Lewis Straus told the White House press secretary that the boat had really been a “red spy outfit” conducting espionage for the Soviet Union, a blatant falsehood that the CIA quickly dispelled. Speaking at Eisenhower’s press conference, Strauss emphasized the test’s contribution to the United States’ “military posture,” blamed the fishermen for ignoring AEC warnings, and downplayed the damage to their health. The inhabitants of Utrik were allowed to return with two months. The Rongalapese did not return home until 1957. They remained in Rongelap until 1985, when scientific findings confirmed their suspicions that the island was still contaminated.
The international community was appalled. Belgian diplomat Paul-Henri Spaak warned, “If something is not done to revive the idea of the President’s speech – the idea that America wants to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes – America is going to be synonymous in Europe with barbarism and horror.” Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said publicly that U.S. leaders were “dangerous self-centered lunatics” who would blow up any people or country who came in the way of their policy.”
Eisenhower told the NSC in May 1954, “Everybody seems to think that we are skunks, saber-rattlers, and warmongers.” Dulles added, “We are losing ground every day in England and in other allied nations because they are all insisting we are so militaristic. Comparisons are now being made between ours and Hitler’s military machine.”
The bomb test had other unforeseen consequences. The terrifying power of hydrogen bombs and the slightly veiled threat of nuclear war now figured much more prominently in international diplomacy. The nuclear threat influenced the behavior of the major players at the Geneva Conference more than most people realized. Shortly after the test, Churchill told Parliament that the topic occupied his thinking “out of comparison with anything else.” Dulles met with him in early May, afterward telling Eisenhower that he “found the British, and particularly Churchill, scared to death by the specter of nuclear bombs in the hands of the Russians.” Anthony Eden connected this fear to the proceedings at the conference. “This was the first international meeting,” he noted, “at which I was sharply conscious of the deterrent power of the hydrogen bomb. I was grateful for it. I do not believe that we should have got through the Geneva Conference and avoided a major war without it.”
The Lucky Dragon incident also catalyzed a world-wide movement against nuclear testing and popularized the previously obscure term “fallout.” It sparked renewed questioning of Eisenhower’s New Look.
Nowhere was the reaction stronger than in Japan, where postwar U.S. efforts to censor discussion of the atomic bombings had not succeeded in extinguishing the memory of what the United States had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A petition circulated by Tokyo housewives calling for banning hydrogen bombs gathered 32 million signatures, and extraordinary total representing one-third of the entire Japanese population.
To counter this pervasive anti-nuclear sentiment, The NSC’s Operations Coordinating Board proposed that United States launch a “vigorous offensive on the non-war uses of atomic energy” and offer to build Japan an experimental nuclear reactor. AEC Commissioner Thomas Murray applauded this “dramatic and Christian gesture,” believing it “could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Washington Post offered it own hearty endorsement, seeing the project as a way to “divert the mind of man from his present obsession with the armaments race” and added, in an extraordinary admission, “Many Americans are now aware…that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan was not necessary. … How better to make a contribution to amends than by offering Japan the means for the peaceful utilization of atomic energy. How better, indeed, to dispel the impression in Asia that the United States regards Orientals merely as cannon fodder!”
In what would seem the cruelest irony yet, Murray and Illinois Representative Sidney Yates proposed building the first nuclear power plant in Hiroshima. In early 1955, Yates introduced legislation to build a 60,000 kilowatt generating plant in the city that less than a decade earlier had been the first target of the atomic bomb.
Over the next few years, the U.S. Embassy, the CIA, and the United States Information Agency waged a large-scale propaganda and educational campaign to reverse the Japanese people’s deep-seated hostility to nuclear power. The Mainichi newspaper denounced the campaign: “First, baptism with radioactive rain, then a surge of shrewd commercialism in the guise of ‘atoms for peace’ from abroad.”
A month after the powerful Bravo test, the New York Times reported that the recent tests confirmed Szilard and Einstein’s fear that the cobalt bomb could be built, leading to the widespread discussion of Szilard’s revised estimate that four hundred one-ton deuterium-cobalt bombs would release radioactivity to end all life on the planet.
A front-page article in the Los Angeles Times two days later offered the sobering news that Japanese scientist Tsunesaburo Asada had informed the Japan Pharmacological Society that the Soviets were producing a nitrogen bomb – a hydrogen bomb enclosed with nitrogen and helium – so dangerous that “if 30 such bombs were detonated simultaneously all mankind will perish in several years’ time.” As if that weren’t frightening enough, the following February, German Nobel Laureate Otto Hahn, the physicist who had first spit the uranium atom, lowered the requisite number from four hundred bombs to ten in a radio address that could be heard throughout most of Europe.
Although a cobalt bomb has never been built, the possibility that it could gave shape to the decade’s darkest nightmares. The Lucky Dragon crew members remained hospitalized for more than a year. While recuperating in the hospital, one issued a poignant warning: “Our fate menaces all mankind. Tell that to those are responsible. God grant that they may listen.” Next, Chapter 7 - JFK: "The Most Dangerous Moment in Human History"