Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein
(Note: The following is an abbreviated version of a talk given by Dr. Donald E. Nuechterlein to the Political Science Forum at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, May 14, 1999. The presentation was based on experiences recorded in his recent book, "A Cold War Odyssey")

Between 1947 and 1990 five U.S.presidents made six crucial decisions that affected the outcome of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and profoundly changed America's role in the world following the conclusion of World War II.

1. President Harry Truman's decision in early 1947, to provide economic and military assistance to Greece and Turkey (Truman Doctrine) to help them resist mounting Soviet pressure and his approval of a massive aid program for Western Europe (Marshall Plan) to assist these countries to recover from World War II, were fundamental factors in preventing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from extending Moscow's influence into Western Europe. Some historians say the Cold War started in 1948 when Moscow imposed the Berlin Blockade, but I believe that the decision of President Truman to rebuild the West European economies was the factor that triggered Stalin's moves against Czechoslovakia and Berlin the following year.

Your professor asked that I relate my personal experiences at the time of these events. In this case, 1946-47, I was working in the U.S. Office of Military Government (OMGUS) in Berlin. This was an excellent vantage point from which to observe the beginning of the Cold War. I had been released from active naval duty in Bremerhaven, Germany, where the Navy had assigned me as a young ensign early in 1946. During that year in Berlin I watched as the mood changed between Russians who were assigned to their occupation forces and those of us who worked for the British, French, and American forces. I was also able to travel on vacation to many European countries and get a good education about postwar Europe, which resulted in my decision to study international relations at the University of Michigan. In 1948 my wife, who too had worked at OMGUS, were married and we have continued our "odyssey" for fifty years.

2. President Truman's decision in June 1950 to resist North Korea's invasion of South Korea prevented the expansion of Soviet and Chinese communist influence in East Asia. Mr. Truman made this courageous move knowing that the United States had nearly disarmed itself after 1945 and was in a poor position to engage either China or the Soviet Union in an Asian conflict. After nearly three years of war with North Korean and Chinese forces, the United States and its allies, acting under a United Nations mandate, concluded a cease-fire that reestablished South Korea's territorial integrity and led to a cold war in U.S.-China relations that lasted for two decades. In 1972 President Nixon visited China and opened relations with the People's Republic.

In late June and July 1950 my wife and I were living in Oxford, England, where I attended the Commonwealth Seminar on European History Since 1870. We arrived a day after the attack on South Korea occurred, and I recall vividly how the war dominated the British press and radio and affected our discussions at Balliol College. The British government quickly decided to send troops to Korea as part of the United Nations effort to stop this aggression. But during that summer, there was much fear in Britain, as well as the United States, that our troops would be forced out of South Korea by advancing North Korean troops who were well armed with Soviet tanks and equipment. As we left Britain to return home at the end of August, I fully expected to be called back into the Navy and sent to the Pacific.

3. President Kennedy's decision in October 1962 to confront Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis was probably as close as the world came to full-scale war during the long Cold War period. After the United States had suffered a serious humiliation over the Bay of Pigs episode in Cuba in 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became overconfident and thought he could intimidate the president into making political concessions in Europe. But he miscalculated and was forced to withdraw his missiles from Cuba. When Khrushchev was eventually ousted from the Soviet leadership, a period of detente began in U.S.-Soviet relations.

My family and I were at that time living in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was assigned as Cultural Attache in the American Embassy. We frequently entertained guests at receptions and dinner parties in the lovely garden of our home. On an evening in October 1962, a Thai friend whom I had come to know at the Bangkok Rotary Club, arrived early at our reception with news that war with the Russians might break out in Cuba. It was the first word I received about what had happened in Washington that afternoon. Soon a friend from the embassy's political staff arrived but said he would have to leave soon because he had been called to the office to await instructions. These were anxious days for the Americans in Bangkok, even though we were far from the area of danger. When word finally came after a few days that the crisis was over, that Moscow had agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, we were vastly relieved. However, only when we arrived back in Washington the following year and talked with friends there did my wife and I realize how dangerous the situation in October 1962 had been.

4. President Johnson's decision in August 1965 to send 180,000 ground troops to South Vietnam was courageous because there was no assurance that this action, along with massive bombing raids on North Vietnam, would persuade Hanoi to stop its infiltration in and guerrilla warfare against South Vietnam with its objective of uniting the whole country under tight communist rule. The alternative, the president concluded, was to place all of Southeast Asia, not just South Vietnam, in jeopardy of falling under the so-called Asian Communist menace that included the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. By showing U.S. resolve, with ground troops, not to be ousted from its security role in South Vietnam and Thailand, the Johnson administration expected that Hanoi would negotiate a political settlement permitting South Vietnam to remain a noncommunist country.

In July 1965, I started to work as a senior staff officer in the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (ISA). This small staff, made up of senior military officers and some civilians, was known as the "little State Department of the Pentagon." Its job was to be a bridge between the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department on international security issues that had both military and political aspects. We recommended to the Secretary of Defense what positions the Defense Department should take at the National Security Council, and in bilateral discussions with the State Department. I was responsible for security issues affecting the countries of the Southwest Pacific area, which included Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. During the three years that I held this position, Vietnam was, of course, the primary focus of our relations with those countries. Two months after moving into this job, I became the primary officer in the Pentagon who dealt on a day-to-day basis with developments regarding the attempted communist coup against the Indonesian government. General Suharto, who later became Indonesia's president, rallied his troops and put down this dangerous move to add Indonesia to the communist "Beijing-Hanoi axis." The strategic position of the United States in Southeast Asia soon improved markedly. When I visited Indonesia, as well as my other countries, on several occasions in 1966 and 1967, I was even more convinced about the importance of the change. I wrote a memorandum in 1967 that Secretary McNamara sent to the White House saying that a major benefit of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in mid-1965 was the Indonesian military's decision, after it took over control of the government, to reorient the country's foreign policy away from President Soekarno's pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing policy and toward an accommodation with the United States and Great Britain. Had the U.S. military not been in Vietnam, a different decision might have prevailed in Jakarta..

5. President Ronald Reagan's decision in the autumn of 1983 to confront Soviet leaders with the introduction of U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles into several European NATO countries proved to be the turning point in the Cold War. Four NATO leaders--Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Francois Mitterrand of France, Helmut Kohl of West Germany, and President Reagan--were united in their determination to place these medium range missiles into Western Europe in order to counter an earlier Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles targeted on European cities. Moscow responded with dire threats, but the parliaments of Italy, Germany, and Britain voted to accept the U.S. missiles which were deployed late in l983 and in l984. Moscow broke off disarmament negotiations with Washington, but in 1984 Reagan offered to renew these contacts and Moscow eventually accepted. In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. He soon recognized that the USSR could not prevail against a united NATO and he chose to reach an accommodation with President Reagan.

I was doing research on a book at Oxford University in the fall of 1983, at St. Antony's College, and found myself in the middle of a debate on whether Mrs. Thatcher's policy would precipitate an armed confrontation with the Soviet Union. There was much antinuclear sentiment in Britain at that time and a good bit of anti-American talk among some students. British media carried photos of mass demonstrations in London and at a U.S. air base at Greenham Common near Oxford. These antinuclear zealots had surrounded the entire base and tried to block its entrances. I admired the coolness of Mrs. Thatcher at that time as she and her Conservative government pushed through the House of Commons a bill to accept the American missiles. It was another example of the steadfastness of Britain in support of the United States in tough security decisions.

6. President George Bush's decision in 1990 to support German reunification, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, set the stage for a transformation of the political and strategic map of Europe. Despite the opposition of Soviet leaders and strong misgivings by the British and French governments, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker concluded that supporting Chancellor Kohl's plan for an early unification of East and West Germany was in the national interest not only of the United States but also in Europe's long-term interest. It was a courageous decision. Most Europeans were deeply concerned about an enlarged Germany again occupying the geographic center of Europe and dominating its economic and perhaps political future. Chancellor Kohl wisely assured his NATO partners that Germany wanted to help build a new united Europe in which Germany would be a part, instead of Germany again trying to dominate European politics. As a result, German reunification proceeded calmly in October 1990 and Germany has become a full partner with the other western countries, both in NATO and in the European Union (EU).

My wife and I were living in Kingston, Ontario, in Canada, in the fall of 1989 where I was a visiting professor at Queen's University. We watched on television one evening as young East Germans were jumping over the wall and being greeted by West Berliners. The news reported that East German guards were not, for the first time since the wall was erected in 1961, trying to stop people from going to West Berlin. What a sight that was for us. We had been in Berlin after World War II and had taken our sons through Checkpoint Charlie into the East in 1973. We were certain then, as most were, that this wall would be a long-term fixture in Berlin and Europe. Suddenly it was gone. A group of professors and graduate students held a forum at Queen's University a week later that was entitled: "The Political Earthquake in Berlin." Indeed it was. Early in 1990 we were in Australia where I was researching a book on U.S. policy following the end of the Cold War. The Australians were surprised at the sudden change occurring in Europe, but their concern was how America's success in Europe would affect its defense policy in East Asia and the Pacific Then, in June 1990 Soviet President Gorbachev came to Washington where he and President Bush signed major arms agreements. Their summit meeting was viewed as the final ending of the Cold War. A few days later Mr. Gorbachev addressed an audience at Stanford University and made this comment: "The Cold War is now behind us. Let us not wrangle over who won it."


1. The Cold War, which might have resulted in a world nuclear war, was finally ended through the tenacity of four determined NATO leaders and the acquiescence of a realistic Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The unity of NATO was crucial in bringing about this result.

2. After the Soviet Union agreed to the withdrawal of its troops from eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany within NATO, President Bush and his administration were wise not to declare victory but instead to help Moscow reform its nearly bankrupt economy and to invite Russia's new leader, Boris Yeltsin, to major summit conferences during the 1990s.

3. Germany, which was a totally defeated country in 1945, emerged from the Cold War as a democratic, prosperous, reunited country, and the strongest state within the new European Union. In 1999 Germany participated fully in NATO peace-enforcing operations in the Balkans and took a major role in helping to forge a strong European Union.

4. The United States should be proud of its record in helping to rebuild Western Europe after World War II, creating a NATO defense shield to prevent a Soviet drive to extend its influence over Western Europe, and preventing China from dominating East and Southeast Asia. These are extraordinary accomplishment for American foreign policy at the end of the 20th century.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

Feedback to Author