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american history
the arms race and the red scare

*in 1949 china was taken over by communists.  in the same year, the soviet union tested its first atomic bomb. 

*the united states exploded the world’s first hydrogen bomb (or h-bomb) on november 1, 1952, on an atoll of the marshall islands, code-named mike. it yielded 10.4 megatons of explosive power (equal to 10.4 million tons of tnt), which was over 450 times the power of the bomb million tons of tnt), which was over 450 times the power of the bomb that fell on nagasaki. the detonation obliterated the tiny island, leaving an underwater crater 6,240 ft wide and 164 ft deep where an island had once been. 

*a year later the soviets tested a smaller (and thus more easily delivered) h-bomb a year later.  thenceforth both the usa and ussr would seek ‘nuclear superiority,’ hoping to have more atomic weaponry than the other.  britain announced the possession of atomic bombs in 1952, and france and red china also developed atomic weapons later during the cold war.

*this arms race—and escalation and proliferation of nuclear armaments—characterised the cold war for decades to come.  in schools children learnt to duck and cover in drills that might have protected them from an a-bomb like those dropped on japan, but would have done nothing to save them from a h-bomb.  the balance of power had become the balance of terror, in which neither side dared attack the other directly for fear of mutual assured destruction. 

*this approach was favoured by president eisenhower and his secretary of state, john foster dulles, who thought it was more cost-effective to build and store bombs than to employ thousands of soldiers who had to be trained, fed, clothed, and housed.

*the good news in 1953 was that after 29 years, stalin died.  he was replaced by nikita khrushchev, who soon began a programme of de-stalinisation and proposed peaceful co-existence with the west, which led many people in the soviet satellite states to hope that they might be allowed a little more freedom.

*strikes broke out in east berlin (1953) and poland (1956), but were put down.  a more serious uprising began in hungary in october of 1956, and khrushchev sent in the red army which brutally crushed the uprising, earning him the name the butcher of budapest.  although americans wanted to help, this was a problem too small for nuclear weapons, which had been the focus of the us military under eisenhower.

*the cold war also spread to the middle east, where egypt tried to play the us and uk against the ussr, getting aid from each side when egypt could convince them it was on their side.  this helped egypt build the aswan high dam, then the largest dam in the world.  furthermore, when president nasser nationalised the british and french-owned suez canal, eisenhower let him, despite requests for help from the british and french during the suez crisis in 1956.

*however, eisenhower did issue the eisenhower doctrine, promising the help any middle eastern country threatened by communism.  he did also use the cia (formed in 1947) to help support friendly governments and overthrow unfriendly ones.

*in october, 1957, the soviet union launched the first satellite in space, sputnik.  although it was a tiny device that only beeped, it demonstrated that the soviets could launch anything—even a nuclear missile—into space, and thus to any point on earth in less than an hour. 

*in response the united states founded the national aeronautics and space administration to compete against the soviets in the space race.  on 1 february, 1958, nasa launched explorer 1, america’s first satellite.  at the same time, money was given to schools to promote teaching math and science, because it was assumed that american students must not have been as strong in those subjects as their soviet counterparts.

*on 25 may, 1961 john f kennedy pledged that the united states would place a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

*on 20 february, 1962, john glenn became the first american to orbit the earth.

*on 20 july, 1969, the apollo 11 mission landed on the moon, and the next day, neil armstrong became the first man to walk on it.  the ussr never landed a man on the moon, despite plans to do so.  twelve americans on six missions eventually did walk on the lunar surface.

*the cold war was a time of terrible fear for many americans.  people built bomb shelters (see page 531) in hopes of avoiding nuclear destruction.  people went to bed with the fear that they might be annihilated before they awoke.  in the grip of this fear, americans looked for someone to blame, and a red scare swept america in the late 1940s and the 1950s.

*among other things, it seemed inconceivable that the soviets could have discovered the secret of atomic bombs themselves.  it was assumed that they had help from america.  in 1950, julius and ethel rosenberg were convicted of giving atomic secrets to the soviets and were executed.  two years earlier, alger hiss, a long-time, high-ranking government employee was accused of spying for the soviets, and although not enough evidence emerged to execute him, he was imprisoned for five years.  many people though hiss was innocent, and some thought the rosenbergs were, but it has since been proven that they were guilty (although ethel rosenberg may not have really done enough to be executed for).

*there was plenty of reason to think they might be innocent, however.  fear of communism was so wide-spread that many politicians and other people used it against their enemies or simply to get attention for themselves.

*the house un-american activities committee investigated hundreds of people, from government employees to hollywood stars, and in some cases, ruined their careers forever with the question ‘are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party,’ even if nothing was conclusively proven.

*the most famous red-hunter was senator joseph mccarthy from wisconsin.  he made a career of accusing his enemies of communism, and claimed to have a list of communists in the government, although the number of communists on the list kept changing and he never showed his list to anyone.  the scare tactics he used came to be known as mccarthyism.

*his attacks became so widespread and so absurd that he eventually made a fool of himself when he called military leaders to testify about communists in the army.  he was unable to prove anything or frighten the generals who appeared before him, and, because the hearings were televised, americans saw how he tried to intimidate witnesses and twist the truth.  this brought his career to an end.

*another man who began his career looking for communists, though, got much farther:  richard nixon served two terms as vice-president for eisenhower, and later became president himself.

this page last updated 31 october, 2009.
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