The world views held by American policy makers were the direct cause of the escalation of the Cold War. The unfeigned optimism of Wilsonian idealism was quelled by the stark realism to create a world foreign policy view that placed the United States at the center of all major activity. Only after was the world view significantly changed in way that would help the US to acheive its goals with the termination of the Cold War.
There were three primary features of the American view of the world that contributed to the escalation of the Cold War. First, Americans overestimated their own strength. This resulted in an optimistic entry in an to war zones such as Vietnam, in which the United States had very little experience or expertise (McNamara, 1995). Second, Americans overestimated the enduring united strength of Soviet Communism. The post-World War II era saw the birth of more new nations than any other time in an history. It would only be natural that these nations experiment with various types of leadership. However, American policy makers failed to see the possibility of any communist power coming to power without the backing of the Soviets. Closely related to this belief was a third major aspect of the American world-view, namely that the American bread of capitalistic democracy was the best system, and any non-capitalistic system was inherently against the interests of the people.
Prior to the first world war, the United States was nothing but a minor factor in the world of international affairs. The participation in the war in Europe imbibed Americans with the concrete proof that they could in fact be an important player in the world affairs. Americans had a more idealistic world view than other nations. Wilsonís attempt at a world peace, though more idealistic than other Americans, helped show the unique American view of the world. Americans looked with disgust at the constant war in Europe, and saw that they were the only ones whoknew how to bring about peace. Wilson took a view of such to the negotiation table and attempted to impose a peace on Europe. However, while Americans would love to see Europe at peace, they were realists. They did not want to be forced in to the inevitable bickering of Europe. They wanted peace, but didnít want to be forced against their will to defend it.
Only after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour and (Hitlerís subsequent declaration of war) did the administration have the public support needed to enter in to World War II. Though on the surface the United States supported idealistic concepts of peace; underneath, the Americans saw the rest of the world as inherently evil. The United States was the only country capable of saving the world from the tyrants. The United Nations would help the other nations to bond together in an peace. However, the United States needed to continue to exercise its force to protect them from slipping.
Following the victory in World War II, the United States had proved itself to be the most powerful nation on earth. It had the atomic bomb and was capable of using it. Europe could never be at peace by itself. Only the force and wisdom of the United States was capable of leading a lasting post-war peace. Thus the United Nations was formed with idealistic goals and realistic measures to aid their implementation. Furthermore, as the Cold War began, the United States took upon itself the duty of entering alliances to protect its interests. Without positive influence, the newly formed nations were likely to fall victim to the evils of the communist system. It was the responsibility of the United States to protect the newborns from the evil systems.
The atomic bomb helped to unify public opinion and allow the United States to carry out its leadership roll. In the view of the policy makers, it was obvious that the democratic system was the superior system and should be desired by all people. Communism was an evil system inflicted unjustly on nations by the Soviets and their mercenaries. The preferred means ofcapitalism had to originate from the Western model. Any deviation from the willful acceptation of this capitalism was seen as a Soviet attempt to infiltrate the system. Thus, even though Ho Chi Minh appeared to have liberal democratic ideals for a free Vietnam, Americans thought it was nothing more than a Soviet-backed front. After suffering under oppressive Japanese totalitarianism, the Vietnamese should be grateful to be restored to the auspices of the more democratic French. The leftist talk of the leaders of the independence movement was clear evidence that they were mere Soviet pawns.
Had the US and French policy makers been willing to negotiate a settlement for gradual self-rule and freedom for the Vietnamese, the course of the Cold War would have been greatly altered. Instead, Eisenhower explained the domino theory in an which upholding democracy in an Vietnam would prevent the continuing string of dominoes from falling. He observed that "Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship, and we simply canít afford greater losses." (Eisenhower, 1989: 541) Extending his domino theory, it becomes apparent that the dominoes had already started falling. Trying to stop one domino in a falling string is a formidable task. With hindsight we can see that it would have been easier to let all the dominos fall, and then turn back and pick up the pieces. In 1954, however, Eisenhower, like most Americans, saw the United States as an invincible power, capable of doing the impossible and stop the dominos from falling.
The administrationís view was shaped by earlier failures in an Europe. When the United States failed to help Hungarian nationals overthrow the bonds of communism, Hungary reverted back to communism. Other attempts to shake off communism in an Europe failed because of the United Stateís failure to enter the conflict. It became obvious that the US was the only nation capable of prevented the world from falling to the communists. It was obvious that the SovietUnion was backing all the communist regimes in an Eastern Europe. Thus it logically followed that unless the United States stopped it, the Soviet Union would continue to spread communism until it dominated the world. As the great power, it was a moral obligation of the United States to protect the rights of people worldwide from the monolithic Soviet oppression.
Another critical policy error resulted from an overestimation of the unity and strength of communism. Communism was seen as a great force that could allow all nations to settle their long-standing differences and live peacefully aligned. If Chinese and Russians could unite together under the bands of communism, other nations would soon follow, and one giant Soviet-controlled empire would result. With such a view of communism itís surprizing Americans did not embrace it. Was it not the avenue to the idealistic world peace that the United States had been seeking? This paradox would not have resulted if the United States had realistically estimated the strength of communism. If communism were left to spread on its own, eventually it would self destruct. The many different nations of the world could not accept control from Moscow anymore than they could accept it from Geneva. Furthermore, the threat of retaliation by the United States was the one factor that kept communist nations unified. Without this threat, the Soviet empire would have had no overwhelming goal, and would have crumbled much sooner than it did due to the substance that the Soviets were sucking from the satellites.
Policy makers also failed to consider that the people might actually desire to live under communism. To the American, communism was an oppressive evil manipulative institution. However, in communist countries, many of the common men did not see the oppression of communism. The average factory worker was thrilled to be guaranteed a job with food on the table. Heíd already endured severe war-time limitations on personal freedom. Even a restrictive communist regime granted him more freedom than he had had during the war. American policymakers had failed to consider that many of the people were actually grateful for the communist presence. As an extension, Americans were unable to believe that leftist movements could arise from areas outside of Moscow. American policy makers could not imagine a people willingly deciding out of its own free-will to implement a communist system. Even though Americans detested the communist system, they activily supported many socialistic reforms at home and abroad (such as Johnsonís "Great Society"). Thus another paradox in the world view arose due to the conflict between between the adoptation of reforms and the origin of these reforms.
The conflicts in Asia finally helped to alter the American view of the world. In China, Korea, and Vietnam, the United States tried to support a corrupt, yet more democratic official in his quest against a more popular communist foe. The intervention of a major foreign power on behalf of the non-communist forces automatically gave legitimacy to the communist forces. They were no longer fighting a civil war, they were fighting a nationalist war of native Asians against foreign aggression. In the three major revolutions in Asia, the best the United States could do was engineer a return to the divided status quo in Korea.
Following involvement in Vietnam, American military efforts abroad were restricted to minor peace-keeping efforts. Instead of sacrificing ground troops, the new America began a great military build up, coupled with negotiations of arm treaties. The United States reduced its roll as the worldwide police force, and watched as the Soviet Union slowly began to crumble due to its own internal problems. The US escalation in Vietnam and other areas only served to delay the end of the cold war.
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Cohen, Jeff and Norman Solomon. "30-Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War." Media Beat, July 27, 1994. [ http://www.igc.org/fair/media-beat/940727.html]
McNamara, Robert. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York, 1995.
Eisenhowever, Dwight. "Dwight Eisenhower explains the Domino theory". Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Volume II: Since 1914, 4th Ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company, 1989.