The Cold War
Even before World War II ended in 1945, the world divided into two power blocs, East and West. The United States and its Western European allies believed that the communist Soviet Union was an aggressive power that would seek to expand its influence throughout the globe. In 1946, George Kennan, who was then the American charge´ d’affaires in Moscow, wrote a dispatch about the intentions of the Soviet Union that was to have a profound influence on President Harry Truman and other U.S. policy makers. Kennan wrote that the Soviet Union was a serious threat to the United States (quoted in Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945–1948, by Robert J. Donovan):
“[The Soviet Union is] committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”
According to Donovan, by the end of 1946, the image of the Soviet Union as ‘‘powerful, ruthless and deceitful’’ was fixed in the minds of U.S. policy makers. The stage was set for the emergence of the cold war, in which U.S. policy was the ‘‘containment’’ of the Soviet Union. Whenever the Soviets appeared to be exploiting regional conflict or instability for their own gain, the United States tried to counter what it perceived as a threat.
One of the most alarming features of the cold war was the nuclear arms race, which began in earnest when the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949. By 1953, both the superpowers possessed the much more powerful hydrogen bombs. In 1954, the United States launched its first nuclear-powered submarine. In that same year, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the U.S. would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in retaliatory strikes against Soviet aggression. During this decade, both superpowers also developed intercontinental ballistic missiles that could fire nuclear weapons to any part of the globe. This meant that no American or Soviet city was safe from nuclear attack by the other side. Europe was not safe either, since, divided between East and West as it was, it would certainly be a major battlefield in any future world war. As a consequence of these huge and deadly arsenals, everyone in the world had to face the possibility that should World War III break out, human civilization would be destroyed. Although during the 1950s there was talk of ‘‘peaceful coexistence’’ between the two superpowers, this had little effect on the escalating arms race. In the late 1950s, the United States feared it was falling behind in the arms race. This was referred to at the time as the ‘‘missile gap’’ between the United States and the Soviet Union. This so-called gap later turned out to be false, but it was an important factor in the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy was elected president. Kennedy claimed in the campaign that the Soviet Union would soon possess nuclear superiority and that the United States should therefore increase its own stockpile of nuclear weapons.
One of the few factors that created some political stability during this time was that the certainty of massive retaliation by the other side in the event of a nuclear attack was a deterrent to using such weapons. This deterrent effect became known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). One of the consequences of MAD was that the superpowers did try to manage their potentially deadly rivalry without recourse to open warfare. This does not mean, however, that the use of nuclear weapons was not contemplated or advised in situations of crisis during the 1950s. Two relevant cases were the crises in the Taiwan Straits in 1954–1955 and 1958–1959, in which the communist forces that controlled the Chinese mainland confronted Chinese nationalist forces that ruled Taiwan in a dispute over islands in the Taiwan Straits. In 1955, Secretary of State Dulles said that the United States was considering using atomic weapons against communist China. In the second Taiwan Straits crisis, in 1958, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff asked President Dwight Eisenhower to give the Seventh Fleet Commander authority to order nuclear strikes against China. Eisenhower, who was warned by the Soviet Union that it would come to China’s aid in the event of a nuclear attack, refused to give permission.
In another crisis, when Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 during the crisis over the Suez Canal, the Soviet Union threatened rocket attacks on those three countries. The Western powers at the time considered these threats a bluff, and historians tend to agree with them. Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev, who was in office from 1953 to 1964, often used brinkmanship (attempting to get the other side to back down by bluffing) to try to win concessions from the United States, but he also wanted to avoid war at all costs.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Ray Bradbury – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.