Cold War Part 2: From Johnson & Nixon through George H.W. Bush

The Johnson Years: America in Turmoil

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in American political history. He was a man of extraordinary talents, appetites and ambition. He first came Washington from Texas in 1931 as secretary to a Texas congressman, where he caught the attention of Franklin Roosevelt and was appointed as Director of the Texas National Youth Administration. He was elected to a full term in the House of Representatives in 1938 and served there until 1948, when he was elected to the United States Senate.

In 1951 Johnson was elected majority whip of the Democratic Party in the Senate, and in 1955 he became the Senate Majority Leader, a position he held until being elected vice president under John F. Kennedy in 1960. Johnson was an extraordinarily persuasive man, and in dealing with his fellow legislators, his methods were so direct and forceful that his political dealings became known as the “Johnson treatment.” He could be both charming and heavy-handed, but when he was determined to get votes for a bill he favored, he could exert relentless pressure in persuading colleagues to follow his lead.

Although the negotiations were carried out in private, considerable evidence exists that John Kennedy did not really want Johnson as his vice president, but since Johnson, as majority leader of the Senate, was the most powerful man in Washington in 1960, Kennedy and his aides felt that Johnson should be offered the job. They also counted on Johnson to deliver the electoral votes of his native Texas as well as other Southern states. The Kennedy team was apparently shocked when Johnson decided to accept the position. The vice presidency of the United States has been described in less than glowing terms by more than one occupant of the office, and there is no question that Lyndon Johnson was frustrated over his lack of meaningful responsibilities. President Kennedy made him overseer of the American space program, but that did not really satisfy Johnson's longing to be in the center of political action in Washington.

The vice president accompanied President Kennedy on his fateful trip to Texas in 1963. Shortly after Kennedy was pronounced dead at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital following his assassination, Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One, as President Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, stood by in her bloodied pink suit.

The transition from the Kennedy to the Johnson administration was understandably wrenching, first of all because Kennedy's cabinet and staff were in a state of shock following the sudden death of their leader. In addition, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were about as far apart as two politicians of the same party could get in style and personality. Kennedy, the wealthy scion of an old Boston political family and Harvard graduate, epitomized everything glamorous and attractive about Washington politics. Mrs. Kennedy conducted herself with enormous dignity during the ceremonies following her husband's death. Pictures of her standing side-by-side with her two young children, her son John being too young to comprehend what was happening, deeply touched the American people.

Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, had come from humble beginnings, He attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College and, after teaching for a year, worked his way up through the political ranks by his own means. Whereas the Kennedys suggested candlelit tables with fine glassware and china, Lyndon Johnson and his family conveyed the image of a rousing Texas barbecue. Johnson moved slowly and carefully during the weeks and months following Kennedy’s death, looking forward to the election of 1964 as he renewed contacts with political colleagues in Congress and elsewhere. As president, with the full apparatus of the White House at his disposal, he commanded attention and demanded loyalty.

Johnson’s forte was not foreign affairs, but the Cold War was a continuing reality, and the situation in Vietnam following the assassination of Premier Diem was murky at best; he could not afford to ignore the realities of international events. Johnson's interests, however, lay in his dreams for domestic programs, as he planned an all-out assault on what he saw as America's social skills: racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a host of other issues first addressed by Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal. Johnson later told biographers that his goal had been to dance with the lady he called the “Great Society,” but instead he was distracted by what he called that “bitch goddess of Vietnam.” Although his legislative achievements in pursuing his goals for domestic improvements were stunning, in the end his legacy was determined by the Vietnam War. (See section on Vietnam War)

High on President Johnson’s agenda was progress in the area of civil rights, something which President Kennedy had started, but which was still far from completion upon his death. As a Southerner Johnson was in a strong position to push civil rights legislation. Though it took all his powers of persuasion, Johnson's achievements in civil rights were of major significance.

The first task President Johnson faced in the civil rights arena was getting passage of the civil rights bill introduced by President Kennedy in 1963. Johnson spent most of his time early in 1964 working to get Congress to pass the bill. The House passed the bill by a comfortable margin, but it faced an uphill fight in the Senate. Johnson was aware that Southern Senators would lead a filibuster against the bill, and a vote of two thirds of the Senate was required to end it. Johnson kept a list of where every member of the Senate stood on the issue, and pulled out all the stops in an effort to persuade his former Senate colleagues to come around. The filibuster lasted three months, the longest one in Senate history, but eventually the bill passed.

As discussed in the Civil Rights section, above, two more major civil rights bills were passed during Johnson’s term: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. All three acts reflect Lyndon Johnson’s sincere commitment to racial equality. As a Texan, he had seen racial discrimination up close and detested its effects on blacks and Mexicans. As a Congressman and Senator, he had worked hard to see that minorities were fairly treated under federal economic policies. His achievements in this area provide a stark contrast to his unfortunate policy in Vietnam.

Additional Achievements of Lyndon Johnson included bills to establish the Medicare and Medicaid programs; the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964; creation of the Job Corps, a sort of domestic Peace Corps; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and the Head Start program. Johnson also sponsored legislation that revised immigration policies, toughened anti-crime systems, and sought to improve public housing and clean up urban slums and the environment at large. Although many of these programs failed to meet their objectives, it was the greatest reform movement since the early days of FDR’s New Deal. Lyndon Johnson presided over much of the “the sixties,” however, and the times were indeed a-changing.

The 1960s: America in Revolt

The decade of the 1960s began chronologically in January 1961, a month that saw John F. Kennedy inaugurated as president of the United States. Kennedy’s inaugural address was highlighted by the memorable call to arms, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In those early days of the Kennedy administration the world seemed relatively calm. Still, the shooting down of the U-2 aircraft over Russia, the continuing threat of nuclear war, and the Cold War environment kept people on edge. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the erection of the Berlin wall, the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s confrontations with Khrushchev added to the tension that people felt, but the storm had not yet struck. Issues in French Indochina, rioting in the streets, and all the turmoil that has come to characterize the 60s was hardly a whisper on the horizon.

The sixties really began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald. Young and vibrant, with a lovely wife and two small children, the President was extremely popular among young Americans. With his untimely death the nation began a descent into one of the most chaotic decades in American history. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, was a powerful President who achieved a great deal of what Kennedy had intended, and much more. His “Great Society” even went a step or two beyond the New Deal in terms of fundamental reform, but lingering doubts over Kennedy’s death remained alive.

While the fifties were a “laid back” decade, the 1960s were in many ways the opposite. Whereas in the 1950s a popular television program proclaimed that “Father Knows Best,” by the end of the 1960s young people had convinced themselves that father did not know much of anything. Beginning with the “free speech” movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, a series of rebellions spread from campus to campus. The issues included such matters as women’s rights, the Vietnam War, and the nature of the university itself. Although in retrospect people think of those rebellions in terms of the “anti-war” movement, the student protests were much wider in their scope. In fact, Vietnam protests comprised only a minority of campus disturbances, many of which were directed at societal problems in general. The more strongly the police reacted, the more rebellious the students became, and the larger their numbers grew. Across the nation, at hundreds of campuses, buildings were damaged or even destroyed, offices were ransacked, and professors unsympathetic to the students demands were driven from classrooms. In many cases the university was obliged simply to shut down. Following the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, hundreds of campuses were shut down because of student protests. While cynics may have noted that the level of student protest seemed to rise the closer it got to exam time, the students were often addressing serious issues in a thoughtful manner. On the other hand, many leaders of the student movement—men and women whose names became well known beyond their own campuses—had fairly obvious political agendas; they sometimes seemed to be exploiting the rebellious conditions for their own purposes. The Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, had chapters on many campuses and often orchestrated demonstrations and other disruptive activities. (The organization still exists.)

While often high-minded, the student demonstrations were frequently violent, and they triggered responses from university officials that ranged from acquiescence, to forcible resistance, to what many students perceived as outright oppression. When college police forces proved inadequate to handle the growing level of disruption, local police forces and even national guard troops were called in, with predictable results. Taunted by what they viewed as foul-mouthed, “spoiled brats” of the upper classes who shouted epithets such as “pigs,” and worse, at them, the police often reacted with violence of their own, and the riots often turned bloody, even deadly.

In the best sense, the students and their sympathizers were trying to bring about positive change in American society. They saw themselves as friends of the working classes, a voice for the oppressed, and many of them made positive contributions to the civil rights movement. In the South, black students led the sit-ins and freedom marches and were on the front line when things got rough, as they usually did. For most white students the Vietnam War, while not the only issue, was the biggest issue. Their feelings were probably complicated by the fact that as college students they were deferred from the draft. Draft eligible young man had to remain in good standing, however, and professors often went out of their way to see to it that they did. The Vietnam protests also called attention to what many saw as an unholy alliance between universities and government—more particularly the military establishment. Weapons research, for example, was attacked by students who felt that such work was morally objectionable in a university setting. (President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex was cited often by sixties students.)

President Johnson marked time until his overwhelming reelection over Barry Goldwater in 1964, and then all hell began to break loose. As American troops were sent to Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers, as the civil rights demonstrations grew ever more bloody and violent, and as protests seem to erupt almost on a daily basis, mostly on college campuses, the 60s turned into a time of turmoil and trouble. Although a few early campus rallies were held to support the troops, their days were numbered.

The focus of much unrest on the campuses often dealt with civil rights. For example, in the spring of 1968, Columbia University in New York City erupted in part over plans by the University to build a facility in a housing area in neighboring Harlem. Although the design had been hailed as progressive, it was later judged to be discriminatory, as local residents were o be permitted to use only part of the building. Students soon took over the college, occupied administration offices, and eventually caused the university authorities to call for the assistance of the New York City police. Although today, in the aftermath of September 11, policemen and firemen are generally viewed favorably by most Americans of all generations, during the 60s student protesters saw cops, whom the called “pigs,” as the enemy. During an uproar at Boston University, the Boston tactical police were called in and blood was shed as the students resisted the police. At the University of Maryland in College Park, a campus generally not known for political activism, students shut down the main traffic artery of U.S. Highway 1 during rush hour. Fire bombs directed at ROTC buildings, mass protests, break-ins at draft boards, and marches on the Pentagon became part of the culture of the 1960s.

The year 1968 was the peak of the turmoil as violence broke out in Chicago during the Democratic national convention. The Chicago police under Mayor Daley carried out what came to be known as a “police riot.” Protesters threw rocks, chunks of concrete and bags of urine at police, and the police responded with force. Blood was shed by demonstrators and occasional innocent bystanders. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968; it seemed to many that the country had not only lost its moral compass, but was rapidly running amok. The year 1969 saw the inauguration of President Richard Nixon, and as he seemed to be working to try to end the war, the turmoil also seemed to abate for a year.

In 1970 President Nixon authorized an invasion of Cambodia in 1970 to attack communist sanctuaries, four students were shot by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio, and the protests erupted anew. Then came the confusing and frustrating end of the American involvement in Vietnam, followed closely by the growing Watergate scandal, and it seemed that once again, things were as bad as ever. (See The Nixon Years section.)

In 1973 the American POWs came back from Vietnam, Senator John McCain among them, and the escalating Watergate crisis led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974. Although South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, and the city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, most Americans viewed it from a distance. In 1976 the country rallied from its despondency in order to celebrate the bicentennial of American independence, and it seemed that by then the 60s were well over. But the nation did not go back to the way it had been in the 1950s—too much had changed. Civil rights legislation opened doors that had been closed for a century. Women had begun to assert themselves and move into areas previously unheard of for the “gentle sex.” Coed dormitories were common on college campuses, thus indicating that the sexual revolution had been, in effect, rubber stamped by university authorities. If parents were distressed, there wasn't much they could do about it; and, in fact, they had lived through the 60s themselves and had been changed by the experience, as had all Americans.

The outcomes are hard to assess. The Vietnam War did come to an end, and substantial progress was made in civil rights and other areas. Perhaps those changes would have come about anyway, maybe more slowly, but maybe without arousing as much resentment. One outcome is certain: the university was changed forever. In the 1950s the university stood in loco parentis—in the place of the parent, knowingly accepting the responsibility not only for students’ education, but for their moral behavior as well. Dormitories were segregated by sex, use of alcohol and drugs was at least officially frowned upon, and male students were allowed to visit females in their dormitories only under controlled conditions. Students were expected to behave in class, obey the college rules and the law, and generally to conduct themselves as ladies and gentlemen.

By 1966 or 1967 all that had begun to change. Although the memory of the student protests seems retroactively to have centered on the Vietnam War, the students were angry about many more things. The university was now obliged to recognize that its students were adults, that they had rights, and that it was not proper for college officials to dictate student lifestyles, no matter how well intentioned such guidance might have been.

The Nixon Years

Richard Milhous Nixon was elected to Congress from California in 1946 and to the United States Senate in 1950. Selected as General Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate in 1952, Nixon served eight years in that office and was narrowly defeated by John F. Kennedy for President in 1960. Nixon then ran for governor of California in 1962 and was defeated once again. In a bitter farewell to the media he proclaimed that, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon's comeback, however, began when he made a rousing nomination speech for Barry Goldwater for president at the Republican National Convention in 1964.

Following Goldwater's landslide defeat, Nixon worked quietly within the Republican Party and in 1968 was able to secure the nomination for president, running against incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was saddled with Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War legacy, but the election was nevertheless very close. Former Governor George Wallace of Alabama created a diversion for frustrated Southern conservatives and carried five states in the Electoral College as he ran on the American Independent Party.

Richard Nixon campaigned on what he called a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, which was in fact nothing more than turning the conduct of the war over to the Vietnamese, in other words “Vietnamization.” He eventually got the United States out of Vietnam and achieved what he called “peace with honor.” (See Vietnam Section.) He and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who later became his Secretary of State, saw the Vietnam War as something of a sideshow to the larger issue of the Cold War tension between the United States and Russia and China.
Pursuing a policy which they called “détente,” Kissinger and Nixon sought to reduce tensions among the three major powers. Nixon made a famous visit to Communist China in 1972, the first step in establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two nations. He also had a summit conference with Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin in 1972, at which various diplomatic agreements were reached. During his meeting with the Soviet Premier, President Nixon said in a toast, “We should recognize that great nuclear powers have a solemn responsibility to exercise restraint in any crisis, and to take positive action to avert direct confrontation.”

The U.S. entered several treaties with the two Communist nations during Nixon’s first term and supported China’s admission to the United Nations. A Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was also signed in Moscow. Better relations between the U.S. and China and the Soviets may also have facilitated the end to America’s participation in the Vietnam War. Just after 1972 presidential election Kissinger signed a peace agreement with Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator. Whatever flaws Richard Nixon may have had, his foreign policy achievements have been considered notable. Although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union remained high, neither side wanted a nuclear war. The consensus among both the American and Russian people was that Nixon's policies had made the world safer.

Foreign Affairs Under Presidents Ford and Carter

President Nixon's achievements in the foreign policy arena were overshadowed by Watergate in the immediate aftermath of his resignation. Years later, however, his role in making the world safer was recognized, not only by Americans but by the Russian people as well. Perhaps because of the focus on domestic issues, underscored by the Watergate crisis, foreign policy under Presidents Ford and Carter received less attention that they deserved.

Gerald Ford was appointed by Richard Nixon to replace Vice President Agnew, who resigned in disgrace following allegations of financial improprieties. When President Nixon resigned because of Watergate, Gerald Ford became the first unelected president in American history. As a Congressman and Vice President, Gerald Ford had not been deeply involved with foreign affairs, but as a leader of Congress he was certainly familiar with American foreign policy in a general way. Because he was first seen as likely to be president only for the remainder of President Nixon's term, he decided to continue with Nixon's foreign-policy team. About one year into his term, however, President Ford made some changes, among which was the appointment of future President George H.W. Bush to direct the CIA.

The most significant event during the president Ford's years was the fall of Vietnam to the Communists. Although there was no possibility that the United States would send troops back to Vietnam, President Ford still wanted to provide assistance to the South Vietnamese government in the face of a North Vietnamese invasion. Congress, however, would not authorize any funds for that purpose, and following a swift offensive, the Communist forces entered Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. As the war ended, the remaining Americans in Vietnam scrambled to leave Saigon by helicopter, and thousands of Vietnamese who had opposed the Communists and supported America fled from the country by any means possible. Tens of thousands of them—many called the “boat people”—eventually found refuge in the United States and elsewhere.

Following the fall of Saigon Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge, captured an American cargo ship, the Mayaguez. President Ford ordered American forces to free the captured Americans, and although a number of American lives were lost in the raid, the operation was seen as a success. In a bizarre twist during the operation, military affairs reached a new level of top-down controla; the White House was put in direct communication with the crews of the naval vessels overseeing the raid as well as with Air Force personnal on the scene. The rescue operation was seen as successful despite the loss of American lives.

Relations with the Soviet Union remained testy during the Ford years, even though Preisdent Ford did his best to continue President Nixon's policy of détente with the Communist government in Moscow. Further attempts were made to reduce strategic arms by mutual agreement, but those negotiations ran into difficulty because of differences between the sides on concessions to ne made. In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress paid close scrutiny to all administration activities, making president Ford's job more challenging. Although no major crises occurred during president Ford's term, his handling of foreign-policy did not help him in his attempt to win reelection over Jimmy Carter.

President Jimmy Carter was even less experienced in foreign relations than his predecessor had been. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy and veteran of the Navy's nuclear power program, President Carter was more than capable of dealing with the challenges he faced in foreign-policy. President Carter's foreign-policy team was headed by Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security advisor. Brzezinski was a hard-line opponent of the Soviet Union while Cyrus Vance, an experienced foreign-policy troubleshooter, favored a less aggressive approach to foreign affairs. President Carter's approach to foreign policy was driven by an idealistic desire to further the cause of human rights around the world, both in nations with hostile attitudes toward the United States, and with America's allies. The controversial policy made relationships with some of America's allies, and with President Carter's Republican opponents in Congress, very uneasy.

A major achievement of Carter's foreign-policy was the opening of diplomatic relations with the Communist government of China. Recognizing the difficulty of improving relations with the Asian nation without having formal diplomatic relations, President Carter moved aggressively in that direction, even though it meant the formal cessation of relations with the Chinese Republic of Taiwan. Although mechanisms were put in place to continue relationships between the United States government and Taiwan, President Carter nevertheless faced criticism for theoretically abandoning one of America's friends. The lessening of tensions between the United States and Communist China, however, was seen as a positive step in advancing the causse of peace in Asia.

Another of President Carter significant achievements was the result of an event that became known as the Camp David Accords. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli leader Menachem Begin met with the president at the presidential retreat at Camp David. After more than a week of talks facilitated by President Carter, the two leaders agreed to formalize a peaceful relationship betwen the two nations. President Carter worked diligently with each side to negotiate concessions and make promises that would benefit both sides, while at the same time strengthening America's presence as well as moral authority in that highly volatile region of the world. The Camp David Accords were hailed as a major step towards lowering tensions in the Middle East.

President Carter was aware that United States control of the Panama Canal needed to be addressed. Panamanian dissidents had openly demonstrated in opposition to what they saw as an American intrusion upon Panamanian sovereignty. President Carter negotiated agreement with Panama, but he failed to take into account the role of the Senate in approving the treaty. No senators were privy to the negotiations, and when the terms of the agreement were revealed, congressional opposition was quite strong. President Carter did everything possible to win public approval for the agreement, even going so far as to direct members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak on behalf of the new treaty. The Senate eventually approved the treaty, but only after amendments were added asserting America's right to unilaterally defend the Panama Canal zone if and when necessary.

Another difficult series of events for President Carter resulted from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The president responded by cutting off grain shipments to the Soviet Union and directing the American Olympic team to boycott the 1980 Olympic gamesin Moscow. American aid to the Afghan resistors, however, fell far short of offering substantive assistance to the beleaguered nation. Only later, when Congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas became involved, did United States support for the Afghan fighters reach a level sufficient to hamper Soviet operations. Once again, Carter's critics argued that his foreign-policy was weak.

The final event in President Carter's term was the taking of hostages by anti-American government officials in Iran. The hostage crisis dominated the latter weeks of President Carter's administration, and although an agreement was eventually worked out for the release of the hostages, the actual did not occur until after Ronald Reagan had defeated President Carter in the election of 1980. An attempted rescue by helicopter commandos had also ended in failure. In all President Carter's foreign-policy was seen as perhaps too long on idealism and short on what has been called realpolitik—the politics of reality. Although his achievements were notable, his critics nevertheless felt that his shortcomings outweighed his gains, and his foreign-policy record was certainly a factor in the election of 1980.

Ronald Reagan ad the Cold War

President Reagan’s Foreign Policy. President Reagan’s policy with regard to the Soviet Union was guided by what he called peace through strength. He continued President Carter’s policy of building up American defenses and placed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. In 1983 he announced that the United States would develop a new high-tech defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles. The controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as “Star Wars,” was a plan to use space-based weapons to intercept incoming missiles. Critics felt that the program would be excessively expensive and doubted that it would be technologically feasible. Supporters argued that Reagan’s hard-nosed approach to defense strengthened his position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

In fact, American defense spending placed a strain on an already struggling Soviet economy. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was therefore amenable to discussions regarding reductions in strategic arms and other agreements between the two superpowers. During his second term Reagan agreed to two treaties with the Soviets that significantly reduced nuclear armaments and rendered the Soviet Union less threatening to the United States. With his motto of “trust but verify,” President Reagan promised to be fair but firm in his dealings with the Soviets. He developed friendly personal relations with Chairman Gorbachev, whose visits to the United States resulted in very favorable coverage by the media.

President Reagan’s policies toward Latin America, while not as prominent as those of U.S.—Soviet relations, still played a significant role during the 1980s. When the government of the island of Grenada in the Caribbean was taken over by a leftist political party, neighboring countries requested intervention by the U.S. President Reagan sent United States forces to Grenada to protect American citizens and students threatened by the disturbances. They soon discovered large amounts of Soviet-made Cuban weapons and remained in Grenada for about two months. Democratic elections were held a few months later. The United States also intervened in El Salvador to assist of the democratic government, though violence continued in that country for some time.

In Nicaragua the United States supported the Contras—opponents of the left-wing Sandinista government. Although Congress officially ceased providing funds to the Contras in 1984, members of the administration continued sending arms to the Contras in secret. Although a congressional investigation led to the resignation or firing of administration officials, Congress found no reason to begin impeachment hearings against the president. The investigation determined that the United States government had secretly sold arms to Iran and used part of the funds from the arms sales to support the Nicaraguan Contras. The Iran-Contra scandal kept Americans glued to the television for a number of weeks.

In 1983 a terrorist bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, killed over 200 US Marines who had been sent to the country to help support a pro-western government. In 1986 American air forces bombed targets in Libya in response to a Libyan supported series of terrorist attacks against American military personnel stationed in Europe. In the Persian Gulf U.S. naval vessels helped keep shipping lanes open by protecting convoys in the region. In Asia, the democratic government Corazón Aquino replaced the dictatorship of Philippine Ferdinand Marcos. Under American pressure, South Africa began to end its policy of apartheid.

President Bush’s Foreign Policy. With the experiences of being director of the Central intelligence agency and vice president behind him, President Bush was well-prepared to continue overseeing progress toward the end of the Cold War. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s struggles with the Soviet economy revealed the weakness inherent in the Soviet system. As communist governments in the Soviet bloc broke down Gorbachev found himself challenged by hardline Communists. Nevertheless he continued to advance his policies of economic reform called perestroika (restructuring) and increasing openness, called glasnost, to include things as freedom of the press.

President Bush met with Premier Gorbachev and helped oversee the end of the Cold War. The Berlin wall was torn down and East and West Germany were reunited in September 1990. The US and Russia—the Soviet Union no longer existed—also agreed to a reduction in nuclear weapons. The lowering of tension and the end of the period known as the “balance of terror” was offset by the fact that thousands of us who warheads existed and the threat of nuclear proliferation remained a concern to all nations. By 1991 Boris Yeltsin had gained control of the government and dissolved the Soviet Union.

The End of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War was not greeted with the same sort of public display of enthusiasm that accompanied the end of the Second World War. On the other hand, there was none of the bitterness that accompanied the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the only real high point of which had been the return of America’s prisoners of war from Hanoi. True, there was much excitement as German citizens and others smashed the Berlin wall to pieces, and certainly there were great feelings of relief among those who were now free to travel unimpeded into places that had been closed to them for decades. Although German reunification was seen as a happy event, the transition challenged the German government because of economic differences between the two regions.

See the Berlin Episodes of the Cold war Era.

Some American commentators were bothered by the fact that too few Americans seemed to know what had really been achieved. Having come through the time when the “balance of terror” never burst into a nuclear holocaust, Americans should have been on their knees thanking God or good fortune that the feared balloon had never gone up. Instead of celebrations, there was much somber reflection. As one historian wrote, “It is not certain that the United States won the Cold War. … It was Gorbachev and the East Europeans themselves, not the Americans, who rolled back the iron curtain and ended the cold war.”

Another commentator was skeptical of the unalloyed joy over the end of the Cold War. He claimed that the America foreign policy establishment was “stupefied by the pace of events … clinging to the remains of an obsolete strategy and incapable of defining a new one.” The End of the Cold War did call for a reevaluation of America’s role in the world. Soon enough, it would become apparent that forces still existed in the world capable to inflicting terrible casualties on other nations, whether or not they possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” a term that would emerge later in our history. The essential truth of the end of the Cold War remains the fact that thousands of nuclear weapons still exist, and it will require the most diligent application of the intelligence resources of the international community to prevent an act of nuclear terrorism.

Desert Storm. Focus on the end of the Cold War was diverted by the invasion of Kuwait conducted by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in August, 1990. Iran and Iraq had been at war with each other throughout much of the 1980s, and the United States had generally maintained favorable relations with Iraq. The invasion of Kuwait, which was seen as a threat to Saudi Arabia, change the situation. A special session of the United Nations resulted in a series of resolutions condemning the Iraqi action and authorizing military responses.

President Bush called upon other nations to join in a coalition in preparation for driving in Iraq out of Kuwait. The president began dispatching thousands of American troops to Saudi Arabia in an operation called Desert Shield. The presence of American troops on Arabian soil raised issues with historic roots. When asked by an American news man how the Saudi government was dealing with the thousands of Americans in his nation, he responded that his government was trying to convince the Saudi people that the Americans were not crusaders. The significance of his reference to an event that had happened centuries earlier was lost on most Americans.

The issue of the deployment of American troops in combat was vigorously debated in Congress. Early in 1991 they passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use armed force to restore Kuwaiti independence. American commanders skillfully planned an operation that resulted in the swift destruction of Iraqi forces, driving them out of Kuwait. Within a few days of the opening battles, President Bush declared that the objective of the war, to free Kuwait, had been achieved, and the fighting was halted. Saddam Hussein, however, was still in power, a fact that the next President George Bush would have to deal with. His repression of the Kurds in Northern Iraq and Shiites in the South and his defiance of the United Nations would lead to another confrontation a decade later.

President Bush also worked to reduce tension in the Middle East, overseeing the signing of an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization at the White House in September, 1993. He also ordered the invasion of Panama and the seizure of General Manuel Noriega as part of his war on drugs. Noriega was later tried and convicted of drug trafficking in a U.S. Federal Court in Florida.

Cold War Home Updated January 3, 2023