Communism and Anticommunism

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Since the Russian Revolution in 1917, the conflict between communism and anticommunism has played a significant role in shaping American society and culture. The Red Scare of 1919–1920 was partly due to American fears of communist subversion. Until 1933 the United States refused to have diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. In the 1930s some Americans viewed the Soviet Union as a potential ally against Nazi Germany. These views changed with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in August, 1939 that opened the way for Germany's attack on Poland and the division of that country between the Nazis and Soviet Union.

In the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact critics argued that Communism and Nazism were not at opposite poles of a straight-line ideological continuum. Rather, Communism and Nazism had to be understood as the totalitarian ends of a horseshoe that bent toward each other. Democratic societies were situated in the center of the horseshoe, far away from where the Left and the Right nearly converged.

In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. After Germany declared war on the United States, a few weeks after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt joined England as an ally of the Soviet Union in defeating Germany and later Japan. This alliance of convenience did not persist after the conclusion of World War II. The first disputes between the reluctant allies erupted over their occupation of Germany and their agreements concluded at Yalta and Potsdam over the restoration of independent governments in Eastern Europe. Stalin, in part to defend Soviet borders, insisted on occupying Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe, which Soviet troops had liberated from Nazi occupation. He also believed that if Germany were to be rendered weak economically, Western Europe would not recover, thereby spawning unrest that might lead to communist victories through the ballot box.

the truman doctrine and containment

U.S. President Harry Truman was in no position in 1945 to confront Stalin militarily. Americans insisted on the rapid demobilization of the nation's armed forces and the conversion of defense plants into producers of consumer goods. Moreover, thanks to efforts by the U.S. Office of War Information and cooperative media outlets, many citizens regarded Stalin as a kindly "Uncle Joe" figure. Although Americans of Eastern European Roman Catholic descent (most of whom were Democratic voters) did not trust Stalin, they too wanted their men home. When former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 warning that an "Iron Curtain" had descended over Eastern Europe, few Americans outside Washington, D.C., expressed concern.

By 1947, economic misery and social unrest in Western Europe, along with a Soviet-backed insurgency in Greece, forced Truman to act. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall announced the creation of the European Economic Recovery Plan, popularly known as the Marshall Plan. That same year, President Truman enunciated the "Truman Doctrine"—providing diplomatic and military assistance to nations struggling against communist insurgencies. The "Truman Doctrine" established a policy of containment that was aimed at creating a military shield to prevent further Soviet expansion while taking political action to promote the collapse of the Soviet system from within. The containment policy assumed that over time the internal flaws of communism would cause its own downfall without war.

Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States increased dramatically after 1947. Fearing that Marshall Plan funds would subvert his power in Eastern Europe, Stalin prohibited his dependencies from accepting American aid. A coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 brought that country into the Soviet Bloc. Also in 1948, Stalin blockaded Berlin which, though 110 miles inside the Soviet zone, had portions set aside for occupation by the Americans, British, and the French. Realizing that Americans were incensed over the Soviet blockade of Berlin but were unlikely to support a war that would result from U.S. armored columns smashing their way to the city, Truman opted to airlift fuel and food to the former Nazi capital. Faced with firm opposition, Stalin lifted the blockade in 1949.

the atomic bomb and the korean war

A stressful year, 1949 found Americans slowly adjusting to the "Cold War"—an ideological struggle that could erupt into a global "shooting" war at any moment. The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, ending the American monopoly on nuclear weapons. That same year communist insurgents led by Mao Tse-Tung seized control of China from Chiang Kai-Shek who then fled to Formosa (Taiwan).

While a few U.S. diplomats regarded Mao as a nationalist with whom America could work, he was a dedicated communist, ally of Stalin, and, through the next two decades, an implacable enemy of Western democracies. Mao, believing that America did not have the stomach for war, saw the United States as vulnerable in three areas of Asia: Taiwan, South Korea, and French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). Stalin, whose ambitions in Western Europe were contained, encouraged Mao to probe American weak points in Asia.

The invasion of South Korea in June 1950 by Soviet-backed North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung heated up the Cold War. The United States immediately sent troops to South Korea and was able to get United Nations support to lead a coalition of forces to repel the aggressors. The war expanded in December after UN forces crossed into North Korea where they were repelled by a massive force of "volunteers" from China. Between 1951 and 1953 communists and American-led UN forces waged a bitter war, ultimately claiming the lives of over 54,000 American and perhaps one million Chinese.


At home, Democratic politicians withered under attack by Republicans who sought a more aggressive policy against communism abroad and at home. In 1950 the Truman administration adopted NSC #68, which tipped the nation's policy from containment to rollback of Soviet influence. NSC #68 called for a buildup of American power and a "political offensive" including psychological, economic, and covert actions to "support unrest and revolt in selected strategic satellite countries." In February, 1950, before the outbreak of the Korean War, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had accused the Truman Administration of harboring communist agents. Given that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been exposed as communist espionage agents, some Americans were prepared to believe McCarthy's conspiracy theories and accusations of communist subversion in the government and various parts of society.

Against the backdrop of Soviet espionage and the Korea War, McCarthy's accusations gained traction. To the dismay of veteran anticommunist activists, however, McCarthy discredited their cause with many inaccurate charges. The term "McCarthyism" entered the U.S. vocabulary and was applied to anyone who engaged in irresponsible partisan attacks against dissenters and thereby endangered civil liberties.

khrushchev's challenges

The death of Stalin in 1953 commenced a thaw in relations between the West and the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev went so far as to criticize Stalin's domestic and foreign policies in a secret speech to Communist Party leaders in 1956 that became public in the spring. In October 1956 Hungarians overthrew their communist government. They believed they would receive help from the West because of the American policy of "rollback" that encouraged "captive peoples" to revolt. Under the pretext of being called in to restore order by the deposed communist government, the Soviet Union sent armored units into Hungary to crush the revolt. Nearly 40,000 Hungarians died in the fighting and about 200,000 fled the country. The refusal of the West to aid the rebels not only ended their revolution but also the policy of rollback. The Soviet grip over the Eastern bloc became stronger. In 1961 East Germany constructed a wall in Berlin to stop its citizens from fleeing west and the eastern borders of Soviet bloc countries were made more secure.

In the 1960s the United States confronted a crisis in Indochina and an assertive Khrushchev. In 1962 the soviets began construction of bases in Cuba to house intermediate-range missiles that could carry nuclear weapons. President John F. Kennedy ordered a U.S. naval quarantine of Cuba and demanded the removal of the Soviet missiles. After a tense confrontation, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba. A secret provision stated that the United States would reciprocate by removing its intermediate-range missile from Turkey, which was done some months later. A humiliated Khrushchev retreated, which led to his replacement by Leonid Brezhnev.

vietnam and the cold war

Brezhnev inaugurated a policy of supporting communist insurgencies, drawing comfort from the 1955 Bandung Conference in Java that had placed many developing countries on record as being opposed to American efforts to recruit them as allies against the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 1970s the Soviet Union and China encouraged "wars of national liberation" to assist communist insurgencies in Angola, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Yemen, and Zaire. The United States, through the CIA, operated its own covert and insurgency campaign against communist and unfriendly countries. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s communists and non-communists were engaged in the civil war in Angola. The Soviet Union provided financial support and Cuba sent military advisors to aid the leftist government against right-wing guerrillas, known as UNITA, who were aided by the United States via the CIA and by South Africa.

Beginning in 1961 the United States increased its military support of the South Vietnamese government to resist armed overthrow by communist rebels. The importance of the struggle in South Vietnam was described in terms of dominos: should that country fall, those around it would fall like a row of dominos. Vietnam became a battlefield test of insurgency and counterinsurgency in the Cold War, according to strategists.

In 1968, following the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese, Americans increasingly opposed the war in Vietnam. Promises of victory appeared illusory. The Cold War rhetoric that had justified the war no longer united the nation behind its massive military involvement. The war divided the Democratic party and helped to elect as president Richard Nixon, who promised peace with honor. In 1973 the Peace of Paris ended America's military involvement at a cost of 58,000 lives.

While seeking a way out of Vietnam, Nixon made dramatic moves to reduce Cold War tensions. In 1972 he made a trip to China to open relations, concluded an arms reduction agreement (SALT) with the Soviet Union, and visited Moscow to meet with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev's visit to the United States in 1973 reinforced the relaxation of tensions, known as détente, between the Cold War adversaries. In 1975, through the Helsinki accords, the Western powers officially recognized Soviet territorial gains in World War II in exchange for Soviet guarantees of human rights.

Tensions increased again in 1979, however, after the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to support a coup by communists who fought to retain their hold on the government against insurgents. President Jimmy Carter demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops and withheld American participation at the Olympic Games in Moscow to protest that Soviet actions. More than symbolic protest, the United States provided arms to insurgents. The Soviet Union experienced a military quagmire similar to America's experience in Vietnam.

reagan and the end of the cold war

When Republican Ronald Reagan, who had been verbally battling American communists since the 1940s, was elected President in 1980, he repudiated Carter's and Nixon's foreign policies. Peaceful coexistence with a system dedicated to the destruction of democracy and capitalism, Reagan believed, was an act of dangerous self-deception.

Extending the anticommunist arguments first employed by Truman, Reagan set out not to contain Communism but to win the Cold War. The "Reagan Doctrine" pledged support to anticommunist resistance fighters in Africa, Asia, and Central America and challenged the Soviet Union to keep pace with U.S. military spending. A scandal erupted in 1988 when Congress discovered that a secret unit in the National Security Council was selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund rightwing rebels, contras, in Nicaragua, in clear violation of Congress's ban against such activities. Despite the scandal, many Americans, enjoying a booming economy and not having to worry about a military draft, supported Reagan's foreign policy because it required no sacrifice. Others welcomed the &Reagan Doctrine for religious and ideological reasons.

The Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, recognized the weaknesses in the Soviet system that were accentuated by the renewed arms race. In 1985 he tried to preserve that system by reforming it through programs of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (opening discussion and dissent). These programs stirred even more criticism of the failing Soviet economy and resistance to Soviet control in the Eastern bloc countries, particularly Poland. In 1989, with Soviet control weakening, East Germans tore down the Berlin wall, the principal symbol of the "iron curtain." Within three years former satellites of the Soviet Union broke from Soviet control and the Soviet Union itself dissolved into several independent countries, such as Ukraine and Lithuania. The remaining parts of the Soviet Union were reconstituted as the Russian Federation. The Communist Party lost control and Russia began to adopt democratic and market principles.

In 1992, after nearly fifty years of political, ideological, economic, and military conflict, the Cold War ended without a shot, but, in the United States, at the cost of social policies once promised but never delivered. With the end of the Cold War, America society appeared ready to reap the rewards of the "peace dividend" that was expected to follow a reduction of military expenditures.


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Internet Resources

"Cold War Connection." Carnegie Mellon University. Available from <>.

"Political History On-Line." University of Illinois-Chicago. Available from <>.

Kenneth J. Heineman

See also:Americanism vs. Godless Communism; Containment and Détente; McCarthyism; Neo-isolationism; Olympics and Cold War; Peace Movement; Vietnam Syndrome .

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Communism and Anticommunism

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