US Foreign Policy in the Modern Era

Foreign Policy from 1950-1993

In the half-century following World War II, the presidency changed eight times. Both Republicans and Democrats came to power. Each administration-that is, the president and those working with him in the executive branch-had its own position on foreign policy. Until the 1990s, the primary focus of US foreign policy was the containment of communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the focus of US foreign policy shifted to Latin America and the Middle East.

The Korean War

After World War II ended, Japan was forced out of its colony in Korea. The Soviet Union occupied the northern part of Korea, and the United States occupied the southern part. Both countries eventually withdrew their troops, but very different governments were left behind. In the south, elections were held and a democratic government was formed. In the north, a communist government was formed.

In June 1950, communist forces from the north invaded South Korea. President Truman did not ask Congress to declare war, but he did take action. The United Nations, at Truman’s request, agreed to send troops to defend South Korea. The majority of the troops were from the United States.

By the time troops arrived, North Korean forces had taken over most of South Korea. Over the next several months, UN forces pushed them back beyond the 38th parallel, the line of latitude that was considered the border between the two countries.

Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961

Dwight Eisenhower was a World War II hero, a Republican, and a political conservative. During his presidential campaign, he promised to end the war in Korea. Negotiations (discussions to end a dispute) had been going on since 1951. Finally, in July 1953, a cease-fire agreement was reached. The agreement created a demilitarized zone around the 38th parallel. In this area, no military troops were allowed.

The Korean War showed the Soviet Union that the United States was willing to fight to stop the spread of communism. However, despite his commitment to ending the war, Eisenhower continued the arms race with the Soviet Union. A new form of political strategy called brinkmanship began. Brinkmanship pushed each side to the brink, or edge, of war.

The United States continued its policy of containment. When the French left Vietnam in 1954, Vietnam was divided in two. North Vietnam was a Communist country led by Ho Chi Minh. It sponsored guerrilla (independent armed forces) activity in South Vietnam. The United States sent aid to South Vietnam so the Communists would not take over.

Space Race

The Soviet Union launched its first space satellite in 1957, during Eisenhower’s second term in office. This began a “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States that lasted for the next 40 years. Each nation wanted to be the most advanced in space exploration. The first US venture into space was the launching of the Explorer in 1958. Then, in 1961, the Soviet Union put the first human into space. The space race would continue until the fall of the Soviet Union almost 20 years later.

John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963

The United States put its first human into space in 1962, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a Democrat. He was the youngest president ever elected. He inherited a continuing Cold War, an arms race, and the first communist takeover in the Western Hemisphere: Cuba. Fidel Castro, a Communist, seized power in Cuba in 1959. Thousands of Cubans took refuge in the United States. In 1961, Kennedy approved a CIA plan to invade Cuba by using the Cuban refugees as soldiers. This invasion, called the Bay of Pigs after the soldier’s landing spot in Cuba, was a failure.

Berlin Wall

After World War II, Germany had been divided into two sections: West Germany and East Germany. East Germany was under Soviet control. Even though Berlin, the capital, was well within East Germany, it was also divided into East and West. Great Britain, the United States, and France merged their occupied zones to form West Germany. West Germany, including West Berlin, was controlled by the Germans.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded that the West sign a treaty, a written agreement between countries, giving all of Berlin to the Soviet bloc. In August 1961, the Soviets began to build a wall between East and West Berlin. The intent was to keep people in East Germany from escaping to the West. The wall became a symbol of communist repression, or control by force. Anyone caught climbing over the wall was killed. East Germans who tried other means of escaping were imprisoned.

Cuban Missile Crisis

In October 1962, a US spy plane found signs of Soviet nuclear missile bases in Cuba. President Kennedy began a US naval blockade of Cuba. The blockade attempted to cut off all communications and supplies moving to and from Cuba. Kennedy warned that if the Soviets launched any missiles from the Cuban bases, the United States would strike back with an attack on the Soviet Union.

When the Soviets were shown US photographs of the Cuban bases, they agreed to negotiate. Ultimately the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw the missiles and tear down its bases in Cuba. In turn, the United States ended its blockade and agreed not to invade Cuba. The United States also agreed to remove missiles it had in Turkey, near the border of the Soviet Union.

Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969

Lyndon Johnson came to ‘the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He inherited all the Cold War issues that Kennedy had been dealing with, including increasing tensions in Vietnam. In August 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The resolution gave Johnson the go-ahead to send troops to Vietnam. Soon after, North Vietnamese forces attacked US bases in South Vietnam.

Vietnam War

US troop strength in Vietnam reached more than 537,000 by 1968. More tons of bombs were dropped by air on North Vietnam than had been dropped on Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II. It did little good. The North Vietnamese could not be defeated.

Richard Nixon, 1969-1974

Richard Nixon was a Republican conservative and an anticommunist.However, he had won the presidency in part because he promised to end the Vietnam War. In 1973, the United States signed the Paris Peace Agreement and pulled out of Vietnam. Two years later, the communists united Vietnam under their leadership. All the military and economic support had not worked to contain communism.

Another of Nixon’s important achievements was his policy of détente. Détente is a French word that means “relaxing.” In politics, it signifies easing the tensions between nations. Nixon’s policy called for peaceful cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Nixon Visits China

The United States did not recognize, or acknowledge, China as an independent nation after the communists took over that country in 1949. But Nixon visited China and re-established our relationship. He then turned his attention toward the Soviet Union. Nixon traveled to Moscow and met with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. They signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). This treaty agreed to limit nuclear weapons. It was the first step toward ending the Cold War.

Space Race Continues

The space race continued during the Nixon years. In 1969, American Neil Armstrong became the first person to land on the Moon. The Soviet Union never tried to land a man on the Moon. Instead, in 1971 it placed the first space station into orbit.

Gerald Ford, 1974-1977

In 1973, Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew had been forced to resign. Nixon chose Gerald Ford, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, to fill the position. When Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 over the Watergate scandal, Ford became president. During his two-year term, Ford followed Nixon’s policy of détente.

Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981

Jimmy Carter was a little-known Democratic governor from Georgia when he defeated Ford. He based his foreign policy on his concept of right and wrong. He was a strong advocate for human rights.

Camp David Accords

The creation of Israel after World War II led to continuing tensions in the Middle East. Several small wars broke out between Arab nations (such as Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) and the Israelis. Israel usually won. In 1978 President Carter invited the prime ministers of Israel and Egypt to meet with him at Camp David to talk about peace. In 1979, they signed a formal treaty called the Camp David Accords.

Iran Hostage Crisis

In 1978-1979, there was a revolution in Iran. The shah, the Persian term for king, was overthrown. The United States had supported the shah, hoping to keep Islamic religious leaders from coming to power. Later in 1979, the US embassy in Iran was invaded. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage. Failure to gain the release of the hostages led to Carter’s defeat in the election of 1980.

Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989

Conservative Republican Ronald Reagan felt the way to deter communist threats was to support guerrillas fighting against communist regimes. This policy was called the Reagan Doctrine. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Reagan sent aid to the Afghan guerrilla forces. The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988 after being unable to defeat the guerrillas.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. He encouraged reforms to the Soviet system. Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to new arms-control treaties. Relations between the two superpowers improved.

Total Economic Assistance ( in millions of dollars )

  1960 1970 1980 1990
Cambodia 128.7 0.0 86.2 0.1
Colombia 63.8 579.8 52.1 31.0
Israel 314.2 181.8 1,769.5 1,758.1
South Korea 1,229.1 622.3 69.3 0.1
Vietnam 1.035.0 2,108.4 ( < 550,000 ) 0.1

George H. W. Bush, 1989-1993

George H. W. Bush was Reagan’s vice-president. Bush succeeded, or came after, Reagan. During Bush’s administration, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and Germany was reunited. Within two years, the Soviet Union broke into 15 independent republics. Communism survived in only a few countries, such as North Korea and China. Market economies-economies based on goods and services exchanged in free markets-were introduced in nearly every former communist country. The Cold War was over.

Persian Gulf War

In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The UN demanded that Iraq withdraw by a set date. Hussein refused. UN forces launched air and ground attacks. Only 100 hours later, the war was over. Iraqi forces withdrew and accepted the UN cease-fire agreement.

While communism was breaking up, other problems arose that required the attention of the United States. Fighting broke out in Yugoslavia, which split into several independent countries. Many African countries faced hunger, economic decline, and heavy debt. The Middle East continued to be a battleground. Acts of terrorism occurred all around the world. As the United States moved toward the twenty-first century, it faced a vast assortment of political, social, and environmental issues.