The Cold War lasted 45 years and lasted through several administrations.
There were nine US Presidents in the White House during the Cold War. They each had very different policies towards the Soviet Union and the use of force against Communism. However, each in their way fought doggedly to promote American ideals and prevent Soviet expansion.
Though they made terrible mistakes, a series of Presidents from Truman to H.W. Bush managed to prevent nuclear war and guide the US to victory over its chief geopolitical rival.
The Cold Warriors
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt cooperated with the Soviet Union in the titanic effort to bring the Third Reich to its knees. He hoped to maintain that cooperation in the post-war world and maintain its stability through the newly established United Nations. However, by his death on April 12, 1945, tensions between the US and USSR over Eastern Europe’s future were high.
When Harry Truman took over the reins of power, he was far less ambivalent about the need to confront the Soviet Union. He was the first among many Cold War Presidents to formulate a doctrine. The Truman Doctrine trumpeted the need to contain Communist expansion, and it served as the blueprint for grand American strategy for decades to come.
Under his tutelage, the United States formed NATO spearheaded the Marshall Plan. It is fair to say that Truman was the architect of American Cold War foreign policy.
The Truman administration also got the US involved in its first major military adventure of the Cold War when North Korea invaded the South. The US-led a UN force to drive the Communist forces back and spent the next three years fighting the Korean War.
The two presidents that followed Truman followed in his footsteps. Dwight Eisenhower ended the war in Korea but maintained the principle of containment as the cornerstone of American foreign policy. John F. Kennedy was also determined to stand up to Communism and risked nuclear war in a confrontation with the Kremlin over missiles stationed in Cuba.
The Détente Presidents
Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson signed arms control agreements with the Soviet Union to prevent nuclear escalation. However, they also got the US involved in another military adventure. By the late 1960s, 500,000 American personnel were stationed in Vietnam, fighting against the Communist forces.
President Richard Nixon was known as a staunch opponent of Communism. Yet, he arguably did more than any other resident of the White House to improve bilateral relations. His administration negotiated the SALT arms control agreements and the Helsinki Accords, creating a US-Soviet cooperation framework.
In 1972 the US also ended its involvement in the Vietnam War and improved its relations with Communist China. After he was forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal, his former Vice President Gerald Ford continued to promote détente.
Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in the 1976 elections. However, the former Governor of Georgia vowed to continue to improve relations with the USSR. His administration also established diplomatic relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China. It seemed that a corner had been turned in this ugly geopolitical competition.
Return of the Cold War
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to help the socialist government there fight off rebels. They did not believe this move violated the spirit of détente, but the Carter administration did. The CIA began to support the rebels, and the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Tensions were once again as high as they had been in the early 1960s.
Ronald Reagan brought a new approach to the Cold War. He was probably the first President who believed the USSR could be overcome in the short term. Though he did not like to use military force, Reagan confronted the Kremlin in other ways. The President launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was mocked as ‘Star Wars.’
The Fall of the USSR
Towards the end of his second term, Reagan gave a speech in West Berlin in front of the Berlin Wall. He famously dared Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall.’
At that time, the USSR was already in serious trouble. The war in Afghanistan had turned into a disaster, and Soviet citizens had to wait in line to purchase the most basic consumer goods. Gorbachev knew that he had to reform the system seriously, and he did his best to oversee the process.
However, the reform forces he unleashed were uncontrollable, and the USSR proved unable to maintain its Communist economy and Empire. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the USSR and its puppet states in Europe collapsed.
It was up to Reagan’s former Vice President George H.W. Bush to oversee the end of this global conflict. He handled it magnanimously and helped Moscow and the former Soviet Republics negotiate the road to democracy and cooperation with the West.
Though much had changed in the interim, Bush picked up the project Roosevelt had hoped to complete. The construction of stable world order, led by American power.