History - The Cold War, 1945-1975

Notes about the Cold War, 1945-1975 section of the OCR History GCSE course.

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 Cold War, 1945-1975

Key Question 1

Who was to blame for the Cold War?

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Why did the USA-USSR alliance begin to break down

Differences and tensions between the USA and USSR existed long before two nation's wartime alliance, meaning it was quick to break down after the war. 

  • The USSR had been a communist country for almost 30 years - the majority of business leaders and politicians in the USA hated and feared communist ideas, as they were so different to those that formed the base of the Western capitalist system:
    • USSR - one party state; USA - democratic state
    • USSR - strict limits on many human rights; USA - fewer limits, some guaranteed by law
    • USSR - in theory, wealth distributed evenly; USA - average living standards much higher, more uneven wealth distribution
    • USSR - government run economy, profits used for public good; USA - free market economy, profits go to company
    • USSR - media owned by government; media owned by private companies/individuals
  • Soon after the communists took power in 1917, there was a civil war, in which the USA sent troops to fight against the communists. 
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Why did the USA-USSR alliance begin to break down

  • During the 1920s, the fear of Communism caused a Red Scare in the US.
  • During the 1930s, Britain's policy of Appeasement harmed relations further between the USA/UK and the USSR.

The two powers formed an alliance during WW2, but it was merely strategic:

In February of 1945, the Yalta Conference was held to plan what would happen after Germany's defeat. Despite their differences, the Big Three - Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill - managed to agree on some important matters. 

  • Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan once Germany had surrendered; Germany, and Berlin would split into four zones; they would hunt down and punish war criminals; countries liberated from occupation would be able to hold free elections; the Big Three would join the UN; Eastern Europe should be seen as a 'Soviet sphere of influence'
  • They disagreed about the border of USSR/Poland - Stalin wanted it pushed westwards. Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to accept Stalin's terms, provided that the USSR did not interfere in Greece. 
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Why did the USA-USSR alliance begin to break down

In July 1945, the Potsdam Conference was held. 

  • In the five months between the two conferences, much had changed:
    • Stalin's army now occupied most of Eastern Europe
    • Truman had become president after Roosevelt died on 12th April. He was much more anti-communist than his predecessor
    • On 16th July 1945, the Allies had tested an atomic bomb. 

The Potsdam Conference didn't go as smoothly as the Yalta Conference, and Stalin and Truman had a number of major disagreements:

  • Stalin wanted to cripple Germany but Truman didn't want to repeat the mistake of the Treaty of Versailles
  • Stalin wanted compensation from Germany (20 million had died in the war) but Truman was again determined not to repeat the mistakes of WW1
  • They disagreed over Soviet Policy in Eastern Europe

It was clear, at this point, that the wartime alliance was running thin. There were too many differences between the two powers for them to remain allies. 

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How had the USSR gained control of Eastern Europe

After the Yalta Conference, when it was agreed that Eastern Europe would be seen as the Soviet Union's 'sphere of influence', Stalin's troops had liberated country after country in Eastern Europe, but instead of withdrawing his troops, he had left them there. 

  • By July 1945, Stalin's troops had control of the Baltic states, Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, and refugees were fleeing these countries fearing a communist take over.
  • Stalin had set up a communist government in Poland, ignoring the wishes of the the majority of Poles.
  • He insisted his control was a defence measure against future attack.

The Potsdam Conference ended without agreement on many issues (see earlier) and over the following nine months, Stalin had implemented Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. 

  • In March 1946, Churchill described the border between Soviet controlled countries and the West as an 'iron curtain' 
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How had the USSR gained control of Eastern Europe

In the following years, Stalin tightened his control over Eastern Europe. 

  • The secret police imprisoned anyone who spoke out against the Communist rule, or might do in the future.

In October 1947, Stalin set up the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) to co-ordinate the work of communist parties across eastern Europe.

  • Cominform regularly brought leaders of each communist party to Moscow to be briefed by Stalin and his ministers. 
  • This also allowed Stalin to keep a close eye on them. He spotted independently minded leaders and replaced them with those who were more loyal to him. 
    • The only communist leader who escaped his control was Tito in Yugoslavia. He resented being controlled by Cominform and was expelled for his hostility in 1948. 
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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (1)

After the war the USA and USSR had emerged as the two world 'superpowers'.

  • In the 1930s, other countries such as France and Britain had been as important in international affairs, but this changed after the war. 

USA recognised the responsibility of being a 'superpower' and set itself firmly against the policy of 'isolation' that it had followed during the 1930s.

  • From then on, every Communist action would meet an American reaction. There would be no more appeasement of dictators. 

As such, American's reaction to Soviet expansion was strong - while Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman had accepted that Soviet security needed 'a sphere of influence' they had not expected such complete Communist domination.

  • Stalin argued that he was just making himself secure, but Truman could only see the spread of communism.
  • By 1948 only Greece (see below) and Czechoslovakia remained uncontrolled by Communist governments. 
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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (2)

Greece was to have a strong impact on America's policy towards Europe:

After German retreat in 1944, there were two rival groups in Greece - the monarchists and the Communists - who wanted to rule the country. 

  • The communists wanted Greece to be a Soviet republic; the monarchists wanted the return of the King of Greece. 
  • In 1945, Churchill sent troops in order to 'restore order' but in fact the British supported the monarchists, and the King was returned to power. 

In 1946, the USSR protested to the UN that British troops were a threat to peace in Greece. 

  • The UN took no action so the communists tried to take control by force. A civil war quickly developed. 
  • The British could not afford the cost of such a war and announced in February 1947 that they were withdrawing their troops. 

Truman stepped in, and paid for British troops to remain in Greece. 

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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (3)

American intervention in Greece marked a new era in the USA's attitude to world politics, which became known as 'the Truman Doctrine'.

  • Under this policy, the USA was prepared to send money, equipment and advice to any country threatened by a Communist take over. 
  • Truman accepted Eastern Europe was now communist. He wanted to stop it spreading any further. This policy was known as containment. 

Truman believed that Communism succeeded when people faced hardship and poverty. In 1947, he sent General George Marshall to assess the economic state of Europe. 

  • What he found was a ruined economy. The countries of Europe owed $11.5 billion to the USA. There were extreme shortages of all goods. 

Marshall suggested about $17 billion would be need to rebuild Europe's prosperity. This became known as 'the Marshall Plan'

In December 1947, Truman put his plans to Congress - they were refused for a short time before events in Czechoslovakia changed many American attitudes. 

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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (4)

Until 1948, Czechoslovakia had been ruled by a coalition government which, although including some communists, had tried to act independently of Moscow. 

However, in March 1948, Communists came down hard, taking over the government.

  • Anti-Soviet leaders were purged and one pro-American leader, Jan Masaryk, was found dead below his open window. The communists said that he had jumped; the Americans suspected that he had been pushed. 

Immediately, Congress accepted the Marshall Plan and made $17 billion available over a period of four years. 

  • While on the one hand, Marshall Aid was extremely generous, one the other, it was self motivated. America wanted to create new markets for American goods. 

After some consideration, Stalin forbade any European states from accepting Marshall aid. 

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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (5)

The Berlin Blockade of 1948 brought the two superpowers dangerously close to was key, in terms of the start of the Cold War. 

The two powers had different ideas about Germany: the Soviet Union wanted to keep it crippled, but the USA knew it was an important trading partner.

As such, the USA and UK combined their zones of Germany into 'bizonia' and introduced a new currency. Soon, there were signs of an economic recovery. 

Stalin felt that the USA's handling of Western Germany was provocative; that the new currency was trying to undermine his influence in the East. He could do nothing about the reorganisation of their zones, or the new currency, but he could stamp his authority on Berlin.

  • It was deep in the Soviet zone and linked to the western zones of Germany by vital roads, railways and canals.
  • In June 1948 he blocked all these supply routes, cutting of the 2 million strong population of Western Berlin from Western help. 
    • Stalin believed that by isolating Berlin he could drive the allies out. 
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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (7)

As a result of the Berlin Blockade, Germany was firmly divided into two nations:

  • West Germany, or 'trizonia', formed by the combination of the zones of France, the UK and the USA in May 1949. It was officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany
  • East Germany, formed from the Soviet zone in October 1949. It was officially known as the German Democratic Republic. 

Germany would remain divided for 41 years. 

  • Throughout that time it remained a powerful symbol of Cold War tensions
    • From the American point of view, it was an oasis of democratic freedom in the middle of Communist repression
    • From the Soviet point of view, it was an invasive cancer growing the workers paradise of East Germany.
  • More importantly, the Berlin Blockade set out a pattern for Cold War confrontations. Neither power seemed willing to start an outright war. 
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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (6)

Stalin's plan was clever: if US tanks did try to break down the road or railway blocks, Stalin would see it as an act of war. 

However, America was not prepared to give up.

  • They saw Berlin as a test case. If they allowed Stalin to take control then the Western zones of Germany might be next.
  • Truman wanted to show that he was serious about containment.

Instead of backing down, in June 1948 the Allies began airlifting supplies into Berlin. 

  • Now, if the USSR shot down one of the planes, the Soviets would have committed an act of war. 
  • However, no shots were fired, and for the next ten months supplies continued to be airlifted into Berlin

By May 1949, it was clear that the Blockade of Berlin would not make the Western allies give up, so Stalin reopened communications. 

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How did the USA react to Soviet expansionism? (8)

After the Berlin Blockade, the two superpowers realised more than before that they were in competition for world domination. 

  • They began to build up their armies and weapons, and this eventually turned into a nuclear arms race. 

As a result of the blockade, the US and Western Allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This was the first time the US had signed up to a peacetime military alliance.

  • It represented, perhaps, just how far America was prepared to go to prevent the spread of communism.
  • It also showed that Western powers believed war was a realistic and maybe even imminent possibility. 

In 1955, the USSR created the Warsaw Pact - an alliance of communist states.

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Who was more to blame for the start of the Cold Wa

Arguably, both sides were to blame for the Cold War - it was based on mutual mistrust of the others intentions. Often, one side unfairly interpreted the other's actions as provocative and aggressive, and what was seen by one side as a justified act of self-defence, was seen as a threat by the other.

  • NATO and its atomic bomb.
  • Soviet expansionism / Western support for a prosperous Germany
  • The Berlin Blockade
  • The Marshall Plan/Cominform

Furthermore, differences in their systems of government - communism versus capitalism - meant war, or conflict at the very least, was inevitable. 

There was much mutual hostility between leaders - notably Truman, Roosevelt and Churchill, and Stalin.

The countries had many natural disagreements which could not be resolved, such as how to deal with Germany. 

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Who was more to blame for the start of the Cold Wa

However, blame could also be placed with either one of the superpowers.

The USA:

  • At Yalta, Roosevelt didn't define the 'sphere of influence'.
  • Greece - America shouldn't have got involved in such a war
  • The atomic bomb
  • Truman actively suspicious of Stalin, and unafraid to air his views publicly 
  • Truman Doctrine and Marshall Aid
  • Interprets Soviet expansionism as trying to take over Europe, etc. 
  • Set up 'bizonia', 'trizonia', and then NATO


  • Control of eastern Europe - takes over countries freed from German occupation, ruthlessly eliminates opposition, rigs elections etc.
  • Cominform and Comecon
  • Berlin Blockade 
  • Warsaw Pact
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Cold War, 1945-1975

Key Question 2

Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis?

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Background - Containment (1)

Although the USA was the world's most powerful nation, in 1950, it seemed to President Truman that events were not going America's way. 

  • During the late 1940s, most of Eastern Europe fell to the USSR
  • In 1949, Communist forces, under Mao Zedong, took control of China
  • Also, Stalin announced that the USSR had developed its own atomic bomb
  • In 1950, Communist North Korea invaded the South, and after several years, US troops were only able to push the Koreans back to the original border. 

As a result of these events, America, under Truman, was determined to stop the further spread of communism under a policy of containment

  • In practice, this policy had two underlying features - Allies and Arms. 
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Background - Containment (2)


 The USA, through the work of Secretary of State Dulles, established a network of anti-Communist alliances around the world

  • NATO was formed in 1949, followed by the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in 1954 and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) in 1955. 
  • To keep the allies, the USA gave them money and practical support. 

The USSR responded by forming its own alliance. It felt threatened by the American alliances, and accused the USA of trying to encircle the Communist world. 

  • The Warsaw Pact was set up in 1955 between the USSR and all Eastern European countries apart from Yugoslavia. 
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Background - Containment (3)


The USA built up a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, and strengthened their conventional forces.

  • They kept soldiers and weapons constantly ready for action
  • The American Strategic Air Command kept a fleet of 12 B52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons in the air 24 hours a day.
  • They supplied arms and soldiers to allies, and sited some of their own nuclear weapons in friendly countries. 

The Soviet Union responded by building up its own conventional and nuclear forces.

Throughout the 1950s, the USA and USSR competed with each other to produce bigger, more powerful, quicker and cleverer nuclear weapons. 

  • This became known as the Nuclear Arms Race (see below)
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Background - The Nuclear Arms Race (1)

The Nuclear Arms Race developed throughout the 1950s.

The Soviets took the lead in missile technology in the early 50s, building on the achievements of their successful space programme. 

  • The new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a strong supporter of the space and missile programmes, and convinced his colleagues in the Communist Party that nuclear missiles were the key to the USSR's future security. 
  • Engineer from around the Soviet Union were brought together in a remote location in Kazakhstan to build the top secret rocket base of Baykonyr
  • On 15th May 1957, they began testing the world's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)
    • This technology allowed Soviets to launch a missile into space and bring it down on a specific target in the USA.

The success of the missile programmes helped Khrushchev to silence his critics. 

The arms race strengthened fears of a nuclear war in both countries. 

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Background - The Nuclear Arms Race (2)

The American public was alarmed by the idea of a 'Missile Gap', which was widely reported in the American media during the 1950s. 

With hindsight we know that this Missile Gap was a myth.

  • Khrushchev wasn't going to admit this as he would look foolish and it would help his critics in the USSR.
  • American military commanders were happy to play along, as it helped them to get funding from the government for new weapon systems. 
  • By the early 1960s, Eisenhower too, knew that the Missile Gap didn't exist as he had a source in the Soviet military who had defected to the CIA.

Still, the US carried on with its missile programme to 'narrow the Missile Gap'

  • By 1959 the Americans had developed their own ICBM systems - Atlas and Minuteman missiles were as fast to reach their target as Soviet missiles. 
  • The USA developed Polaris missiles, fired undetectably from submarines 
  • The USA stationed missiles in Europe and Turkey which could reach the USSR in just a few minutes. 

By the early 1960s, the USA was pulling ahead in the Nuclear Arms Race

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How did the USA react to the Cuban Revolution? (1)

Until the Cuban Revolution, Cuba (a small island 160km of the coast of Florida), had been an American ally. 

  • Americans owned most of the businesses on the island, and they had a huge naval base there. 
  • The Americans also provided the Cuban ruler, General Baptista, with economic and military support (as he was strongly opposed to Communism)
    • Baptista was a corrupt dictator, very unpopular in Cuba. 

There was plenty of opposition to Baptista, and in 1959 after a three year guerilla campaign, Fidel Castro overthrew Baptista.

  • Castro was a charming, clever but ruthless politician - he had many of his political opponents killed, arrested or exiled - and his vision for a better Cuba won over the majority of Cubans. 

At first, the USA was taken by surprise by the revolution, and so decided to recognise Castro as the new leader of Cuba. However, this soon changed.

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How did the USA react to the Cuban Revolution? (2)

After a short period of time, relations between the two countries grew worse as:

  • thousands of Cuban exiles in the USA who had fled from Castro's rule formed powerful pressure groups demanding action against Castro
  • Castro took over some American owned businesses in Cuba, particularly the Agricultural businesses. He took their land and shared it between his supporters in Cuba's peasant population.

As early as June 1960, Eisenhower authorised the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to investigate ways of overthrowing Castro.

  • The CIA provided support and funds to Cuban exiles
  • They also investigated way of disrupting the Cuban economy
  • American companies in Cuba refused to co-operate with any Cuban businesses using materials that had been imported from the USSR.
  • The US media broadcast a constant stream of criticism towards Castro

In January 1961, President Kennedy cut off all diplomatic relations with Cuba, no longer willing to tolerate a Soviet satellite in the US 'sphere of influence'

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How did the USA react to the Cuban Revolution? (3)

The Bay of Pigs

Rather than a direct invasion, President Kennedy supplied arms, equipment and transport for 1400 anti-Castro Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow the Cuban leader. 

They landed at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

  • They were met by 20000 Cuban troops, armed with tanks and modern weapons.
  • The invasion failed disastrously - all had been captured or killed within days

The half hearted invasion suggested to Cuba and the Soviet Union that the USA was still unwilling to get directly involved in Cuba. Soviet leader Khrushchev was particularly scornful of Kennedy's weak attempt to oust Communism from Cuba.

Historians argue that the fiasco further strengthened Castro's position in Cuba. It suggested to the USSR that Kennedy was weak, and made Khrushchev and Castro very suspicious of US policy. 

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Why did Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba? (1)

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Soviet arms flooded into Cuba.

  • In May 1962, the Soviet Union announced publicly for the first time that it was supplying Cuba with arms. 
  • By July 1962, Cuba had the best equipped army in Latin America
  • By September, it had thousands of Soviet missiles, plus patrol tanks, radar vans, missile erectors, jet bombers, jet fighters and 5000 Soviet technicians to help maintain the weapons. 

The USA seemed ready to tolerate the supply of conventional weapons, but the big question was whether the USSR would but nuclear missiles on Cuba. Kennedy's own Intelligence Department did not believe that they would. 

  • Nonetheless, on 11th September, Kennedy said that he would prevent 'by any means necessary' Cuba becoming an offensive military base (ie, a nuclear missile base)
  • On the same day the USSR assured the USA it had no need, or intention, to put nuclear missiles on Cuba. 
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Why did Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba? (2)

Despite Khrushchev's claim, it was soon discovered that the USSR had been building nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

  • On Sunday 14th October 1962, an American spy plane flew over Cuba, taking detailed photographs of missile sites in the country
  • To the military experts, two things were obvious - that there were nuclear missile sites, and that they were being built by the USSR. 

More photo reconnaissance followed over the next two days.

  • This confirmed that some were nearly finished but others were still being built. Experts said that the most developed would be able to launch missiles in just seven days. 
  • Some were already supplied with missiles and other were awaiting them. 

American spy planes also reported that twenty Soviet ships were on their way to Cuba carrying missiles. 

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Why did Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba? (3)

The USSR had supplied many of its allies with conventional weapons but this was the first time any Soviet leader had placed nuclear weapons outside Soviet soil. There are several possible reasons for his actions:

  • The Missile Gap - Khrushchev was acutely aware of the fact that the USA had more long range missiles than the USSR, as well as medium range missiles in Europe and Turkey. Missiles in Cuba would help restore balance.
  • Khrushchev probably hoped to strengthen his own position in the USSR by forcing Kennedy to allow the missiles or at least to get Kennedy to give some concessions. He had already had some success against Kennedy. 
    • Furthermore, the superiority of US missiles undermined Khrushchev's credibility in the USSR - he was the one who had urged the USSR to rely on nuclear missiles. 
  • Khrushchev was anxious to defend Cuba. It was the only Communist state in the West, and had become willingly Communist rather than as a result of an invasion by the Red Army. Also, Cuba was in 'Uncle Sam's Backyard'
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Why did Kennedy react as he did? (1)

On Tuesday 16th October, President Kennedy was informed of the discovery. He formed a special team of advisors called Ex Comm. They came up with several options:

  • Do nothing
    • The Americans still had a vastly greater nuclear power than the USSR. The USA could still destroy the Soviet Union so the USSR would never use the missiles in Cuba. 
    • However, the USSR had lies about the missiles. Kennedy had already issued his solemn warning to the USSR. To do nothing would be a sign of weakness
  • Surgical air attack
    • It would destroy the missiles before they were ready to use.
    • However, destruction of all sites could not be guaranteed. The attack would inevitably kill Soviet soldiers, and the USSR might retaliate at once. To attack without advance warning was immoral. 
  • Invasion
    • It would get rid of both the missiles and Castro as well. 
    • It would almost certainly guarantee an equivalent Soviet response.
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Why did Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba? (2)

  • Diplomatic pressures
    • It would avoid conflict and the USSR might be forced to back down. 
    • However, if the USA were forced to back down, it would be a sign of weakness.
  • Blockade
    • It would show that the USA was serious, but it would not be a direct act of war. It would put the burden on Khrushchev to decide what to do next. The USA had a strong navy and could still take the other options if the blockade didn't work.
    • However, it would not solve the main problem - the missiles were already on Cuba. They could be used within a week. The Soviet Union might retaliate by blockading Berlin as it had done in 1948. 

On Saturday 20th October, Kennedy decided on a blockade of Cuba

  • This option wasn't as likely to result in an all out war as an alternative would have been.
  • Furthermore, it gave the Soviet Union time to come to the negotiating table.
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Why did Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba? (3)

On Monday 22nd October, Kennedy announced the blockade and called on the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles. 

On Tuesday 23rd October, Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev saying that Soviet ships would not observe the blockade. Khrushchev does not admit the presence of nuclear missiles on Cuba.

On Wednesday 24th October, the Blockade began - the first missile carrying ships, approach the 500 mile blockade zone. Then, suddenly, at 10.32am, the twenty nearest Soviet ships stop or turn around. 

On Thursday 25th October, intensive aerial photography revealed work on the missile bases was still continuing rapidly. 

On Friday 26th October, Kennedy received a long, personal letter from Khrushchev, claiming that the missiles are purely defensive, but which goes on

  • 'If assurance are given that the USA would not participate in an attack on Cuba and the blockade was lifted, then the question of the removal or destruction of the missile sites would be an entirely different question.'
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Why did Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba? (4)

On Saturday 27th October:

  • In the morning, Khrushchev sent a second letter - revising his proposals - stating that the condition for the removal of the missiles is the removal of US missiles from Turkey. 
  • An American U-2 plane was shot down later in the morning over Cuba. The pilot was killed. The president was advised to launch an immediate reprisal attack on Cuba. 
  • In the afternoon, Kennedy decided to delay an attack. He also decided to ignore Khrushchev's second letter, but accepted the terms suggested in the letter of the 26th October. He said that if the Soviet Union does not withdraw, an attack will follow.

On Sunday 28th October, Khrushchev replied to Kennedy, agreeing to remove the missiles

  • 'In order to eliminate as rapidly as possible the conflict which endangers the cause of peace...the Soviet government has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you have described as offensive and crate and return them to the Soviet Union'
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Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis? (1)

There was no real winner of the Cuban Missile Crisis - for each of the parties involved, there were both positive and negative outcomes:

For the USA

  • Kennedy came out of the crisis with a greatly improved reputation in the US and the West. He had stood up to Khrushchev and made his back down. 
  • Kennedy had also stood up to the hardliners in his own government. Critics of containment had wanted the USA to invade Cuba and turn back Communism - the Cuban Missile Crisis highlighted the weaknesses of their case.
  • Kennedy did have to remove the missiles from Turkey, though it was done in secret. 
    • This was slightly embarrassing, as technically the decision to remove the missiles was a decision for NATO. 
  • Kennedy also had to accept that Castro's Cuba would remain Communist in America's own backyard. 
    • Economic restrictions still remain in place against Cuba today.
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Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis? (2)

For the USSR

  • In public Khrushchev was able to highlight his role as a peacemaker.
  • There was no question that keeping Cuba safe from American action was a major achievement for Soviets. Cuba was a valuable ally and base. 
  • Khrushchev managed to get the USA to remove its missiles from Turkey. 
    • However, he could not use this victory for propaganda purposes as it was agreed that the removal would be kept secret
  • The crisis exposed the USA to criticism among some allies, who thought it unreasonable of USA to have missiles in Turkey but object to those in Cuba
  • However, there was no denying that Khrushchev had been forced to back down and remove the missiles. 
    • The Soviet military was particularly upset about the terms of the withdrawal. They were forced to put the missiles on the decks of their ships so that the Americans could count them. It felt like humiliation
  • Khrushchev's actions in Cuba made no impact on the underlying problem of the Missile Gap, and the USSR never caught up with the USA. 
  • In 1964, Khrushchev was forced from power by enemies inside the USSR
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Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis? (3)

For the Cold War

  • It is widely agreed that the Cuban Missile Crisis helped to thaw relations between the two superpowers. 
    • Both leaders had seen how their game of brinksmanship had nearly ended in nuclear war
  • Both were subsequently more willing to take steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war
    • A permanent 'hot line' was set up between the White House and the Kremlin. 
    • The following year, in 1963, they signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It did not stop the development of weapons but it limited tests and was an important step forward.
  • Although it was clear that the USSR could not match the USA in terms of weapons, it was also clear that it did not need to. 
    • The Soviet arsenal was enough to make the USA respect the USSR.
    • It is noticeable that for the rest of the Cold War, the two nations avoided direct confrontations and fought through their allies where possible. 
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Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis? (4)

For Castro's Cuba

  • Castro was upset by the deal that Khrushchev made with America, but he had little choice. He needed the support of the Soviet Union. 
  • Cuba stayed Communist and highly armed. The nuclear missiles were removed by Cuba remained an important base for Communist supporters in South America. 
    • Cuban forces also intervened to help the Communist side in a civil war in Angola (in South-West Africa) in the 1970s
  • Castro also kept control of the American companies and other economic resources that he had nationalised after the revolution. 
    • This remains a source of dispute between Cuba and the USA, but Castro has never backed down. 
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Cold War, 1945-1975

Key Question 3

Why did the USA fail in Vietnam?

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Before WW2, Indochina (Vietnam) was ruled by France, but during the war it was conquered by the Japanese who ruled savagely.

  • Their rule gave rise to a strong resistance movement (the Viet Minh) under the leadership of communist Ho Chi Minh.
    • In 1930, he had founded the Indochinese Communist Party. He inspired the Vietnamese people to fight for independence. 

When WW2 ended, the Viet Minh controlled the north of the country, and in 1945 they entered Hanoi and declare Vietnamese independence. 

Between 1945 and 1954, France fought to take back control of Vietnam

  • Ho was supported by China, who had turned Communist under Mao Zedong in 1949
  • France was supported by the USA, who poured $500 million into the war each year. Despite this, France had to withdraw in 1954. 

A peace conference was held in Geneva in 1954, and the country was split into North and South Vietnam until elections could be held to decide its future. 

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Why did the USA get increasingly involved in Vietn

Following the Geneva conference, America began to become increasingly involved in Vietnam:

  • Under the terms of the ceasefire between the French and the Viet Minh, an election was to be held within two years to reunite the country.
    • However, the USA prevented this, fearing a Communist victory.
  • In 1955, the USA helped Ngo Dinh Diem to set up the Republic of South Vietnam.
    • America supported him because he was bitterly anti-Communist and was prepared to imprison or exile Communists.
    • He belonged to the landlord class, treating peasants with contempt
    • He was Christian, and showed little respect for most peasant's Buddhist religion
    • His regime was extremely corrupt: he appointed family members of other supporters to positions of power and refused to hold elections
    • The USA supported his regime with around $1.6 billion in the 1950s.
    • Diem was overthrown by his own army leaders in November 1963, but the governments that followed were equally corrupt, and received equal support from the US. 
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Why did the USA get increasingly involved in Vietn

The actions of these governments increased opposition to the South Vietnamese government (among ordinary people and influential Buddhist priests).

  • It also increased support for the Communist-led National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (known as the Viet Cong) formed in December 1960
    • It included South Vietnam opponents of the government, but also large numbers of Communist North Vietnamese taking their orders from Ho Chi Minh. 
    • Peasants who didn't support the Viet Cong faced intimidation/violence

The Viet Cong started a guerilla war against the South Vietnamese government.

  • Using the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Viet Cong send reinforcements and ferried supplies to guerilla fighters.
  • The fighters attacked South Vietnamese government forces, officials and buildings, gradually making the countryside unsafe for government forces. 
  • They also attacked American air forces and bases. 
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Why did the USA get increasingly involved in Vietn

By 1962, President Kennedy was sending military personnel ('advisers') to fight the Viet Cong.

In 1963 and 1964 tension between North and South Vietnam increased and so did American involvement (11500 troops by the end of '62; 23000 by the end of '64) 

However, Kennedy said that the USA would not 'blunder into war, unclear about aims or how to get out again'

In 1963, Kennedy was replaced by Johnson, who was more prepared to commit the USA to a full scale conflict to prevent the spread of Communism. 

In August 1964, North Vietnamese patrol boats opened fire on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. 

  • Congress immediately passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving Johnson the power to 'take all necessary measures to prevent further aggression and achieve peace and security. 

On 8th March 1965, 3500 US marines came ashore at Da Nang. America was at war.

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Why did the USA get increasingly involved in Vietn

There were four main reasons for increased American involvement in Vietnam:

Containment - The USA wanted to stop the further spread of communism. They supported France in Vietnam and opposed the Viet Cong and Viet Minh. 

Domino Theory - Closely linked to the idea on containment. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State JF Dulles were convinced that China and the USSR were trying to spread Communism throughout Asia. They believed that if Vietnam fell to Communism, then so would many other Asian countries. 

American Politics - In the 1950s and 1960s it was a sure vote winner for election candidates to talk tough about Communism, and a sure vote loser to look weak on Communism. For example, in his 1960 campaign, JF Kennedy promised to continue the tough policies of President Eisenhower. 

The Military-Industrial Complex - A controversial view is that some powerful groups in the USA wanted a war. In 1961, President Eisenhower himself warned that American had developed a powerful 'military-industrial complex'. The government gave huge budgets to military commanders, which were spent on weapon contracts with big businesses. Thus, both the military and big businesses gained from conflict. 

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What were the different ways that the USA and the

Vietcong Tactics

In early 1965, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had about 17000 soldiers. 

  • While they were well supplied with weapons and equipment from the USSR and China, they were outgunned and outnumbered by the South Vietnamese and US forces. 
    • For example, in November 1965 in La Dreng Valley, US forces killed 2000 Viet Cong for the loss of just 300. 

This didn't daunt Ho Chi Minh - he believed superior forces could be defeated by guerilla tactics, which he had used successfully before against the Japanese and French. The principles were simple:

  • Retreat when the enemy attacks
  • Raid when the enemy camps
  • Attack when the enemy tires
  • Pursue when the enemy retreats
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What were the different ways that the USA and the

Guerilla warfare was a nightmare for the US army:

  • Guerillas didn't wear uniform and so were hard to tell apart from the peasants.
  • They had no base camp or headquarters.
  • They worked in small groups with limited weapons
  • They disappeared into the jungle, villages or tunnels after attacking. 

Not only were the guerilla tactics effective at destroying US forces and arms, but they were designed to wear down the US soldiers and wreck their morale. 

  • US soldiers lived in constant dear of ambushes or booby traps. These booby traps could be as simple as trip wires or pits filled with sharpened bamboo sticks. Weapons were cheap and easy to make, and very effective.
  • One of the least popular jobs was going 'on point' (leading the patrol)
  • There were also more sophisticated traps, such as The Bouncing Betty land mine, which would be thrown into the air when triggered and then explode. 
    • Overall, booby traps accounted for about 11% of US casualties. 
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What were the different ways that the USA and the

Another 51% of casualties were caused by 'firefights' (small arms fire in ambushes)

  • The Viet Cong and NVA knew they could not compete with American firepower, so when they did attack they made sure fighting was at close quarters. 
    • This meant that the Americans could not use their artillery or air power because of the danger of hitting their own troops. 
    • This tactic was sometimes known as 'hanging on to American belts'

Ho knew how important it was to keep the peasant population on his side. They, after all, made up the majority of people in both North and South Vietnam. 

  • As such, the VC fighters were expected to be courteous and respectful to peasants. 
  • They often helped the peasants in the fields in busy periods. 
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What were the different ways that the USA and the

However, the Viet Cong could also be ruthless.

  • They were prepared to kill any peasants who opposed them or stood in their way. 
  • They also conducted a campaign of terror against the police, tax collectors, teachers and other employees of the South Vietnamese government. 
    • Between 1966 and 1971, the Viet Cong killed an estimated 27000 civilians. 

Arguably the greatest strength of the Viet Cong fighters was that they simply refused to give in. 

  • The VC depended on supplies from North Vietnam that came along the Ho Chi Minh trail. US and South Vietnamese planes bombed this constantly, but 40000 Vietnamese worked tirelessly to keep it open whatever the cost. 
  • The total of VC and North Vietnamese dead in the war has been estimated at 1 million, far higher than US losses.
    • However, whatever the casualties, there were always replacement troops available. 
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What were the different ways that the USA and the

US Tactics

Extensive bombing was a key part of the US strategy, and on 7th February 1967, the USA launched Operation Rolling Thunder, which involved the extensive and sustained bombing of military and industrial targets in North Vietnam. 

  • It was the beginning of an air offensive that was to last until 1972
  • The lists of targets soon expanded to include towns and cities in North and South Vietnam, as well as sites in Laos and Cambodia along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 
  • More bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than were dropped in the whole of the second world war on Germany and Japan. 

During the war, the US developed a powerful chemical weapon called Agent Orange (a highly toxic 'weedkiller'). It was used to destroy the jungles where the Viet Cong hid. 

  • The Americans used 82 million litres of Agent Orange. 
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What were the different ways that the USA and the

Napalm was another widely used chemical weapon, used to destroy jungles where guerillas might hide. It also burned skin to the bone. 

  • Many soldiers and civilians were also killed by the chemical weapons.

Bombing could not defeat a guerilla army, so US commander General Westmoreland developed a policy of search and destroy.

  • He established secure and heavily defended bases in the South, from which US and South Vietnamese forces could launch search and destroy raids from helicopters.
  • They would defend on a village and destroy any Viet Cong forces that they found. 
  • Soldiers had to send back reports of body counts. 

Overall, the US tactics throughout the conflict in Vietnam were much more conventional than those of the Communists, who largely employed a style of guerilla warfare. This unadaptability may ultimately have cost them the war. 

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Whose tactics were the most effective - the USA's

The tactics of the Communists' were arguably the most effective:

The use of guerilla warfare suited the Vietnamese terrain, which was largely covered with forest/jungle. Furthermore, it turned the Communists' superior knowledge of their surroundings into a significant advantage.

Guerilla attacks and booby traps succeeded to some extent in destroying US forces and equipment.

  • More importantly, they wore down US soldiers and contributed to their deteriorating morale.
  • Furthermore, close quarter attacks eliminated the US advantage of advanced artillery and air power. 

Guerilla fighter didn't wear uniform, meaning they were often unidentifiable. 

  • It also resulted in many massacres. This helped to turn US public opinion against the war, which contributed to America's withdrawal. 

Guerilla fighters won the support of the Vietnamese peasant population.

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Whose tactics were the most effective - the USA's

The USA's intense bombing campaign was only successful to a certain extent:

  • It damaged North Vietnam's war effort and disrupted supply lines
  • It enabled the USA to strike even when reducing their ground forces
  • Strong campaigns against Hanoi and the port of Haiphong forced North Vietnam to negotiate.
  • The US air power couldn't defeat the communists, only slow them down.
    • The VC still managed to launch a major assault on the South after an intense bombing campaign
  • The cost of air warfare was horrendous
    • Life magazine estimated in 1967 that it cost the USA $400000 to kill on VC fighter, a figure that included 75 bombs and 400 shells 

Search and destroy missions also had a number of problems: 

  • Raids were based on inadequate information; inexperienced US troops often walked into traps; innocent villages were mistaken for Vietcong strongholds; civilian casualties were high, and it made the US very unpopular.
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (1)

The US had problems aside from fighting against a committed guerilla army. 

Low morale and inexperience was a serious problem as the war progressed. This was mainly due to the fact that, after 1967, an increasing number of troops were drafted; they had not volunteered for the forces as a career. 

  • Many of them were young men who had never been in the military before - the average age was just 19, and 60% of Americans killed were 17-21.
  • The soldiers knew very little about the country they were fighting for, and cared little for their cause, in contrast to the Viet Cong. 
  • The majority of troops were from poor and immigrant backgrounds, as those privileged enough to be going to university could delay the draft. 
  • There were tensions between officers and troops. There is evidence of 'fragging' - troops killing their own officers.

Many soldiers turned to drugs, and sold drugs, food etc. on the black market, and around 18% of deaths were from factors other than combat. Furthermore, there were over 500000 incidents of desertion.

  • To tackle these problems, General Westmoreland introduced a policy of giving troops just a one year service. However, this backfired - as soon as soldiers gained experience they were sent home. 
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (2)

Vietnam's neighbours were another problem for the US forces. 

Neighbouring countries were sympathetic to the Viet Cong, and political considerations meant that the US could not send its forces into Cambodia or Laos. 

  • This gave the NVA and VC a huge advantage. They could retreat to these other countries to reinforce their losses and get new equipment, ammo etc.
  • They also used these states to supply their forces along the Ho Chi Minh trail. 

'Hearts and Minds'

From early in the war, President Johnson spoke of the importance of winning Vietnamese 'hearts and minds'. Between 1964 and 1968, he mentioned it in 28 speeches.

However, the US tactics were based on attrition, and this inevitably led to large numbers of civilian casualties. As a result, the Vietnamese people inevitably began to support the Viet Cong rather than the US army. 

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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (3)

The My Lai Massacre marked a turning point in public opinion towards the war. It deeply shocked the American public and was the clearest evidence that the war had gone deeply wrong.

In March 1968, a unit of young American soldiers (Charlie Company) started a search and destroy mission in the Quang Ngai region of South Vietnam.

  • They had been told that My Lai was a Viet Cong headquarters and contained 200 Viet Cong guerillas.
  • They were told to destroy all houses, dwellings and livestock, and most were under the impression that they had been ordered to kill everyone they found in the village. 
  • They were also told that most villagers would have left for the market as it was Saturday.

Early in the morning of the 16th, Charlie Company arrived in My Lai. 

  • Over the next 4 hours, between 300 and 500 innocent, unarmed civilians were killed, most of them women, children and old men. 
  • No Viet Cong were found in the village; three weapons were discovered. 
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (4)

At the time, the operation was treated as a success. 

  • The commanding officers' report said that twenty non-combatants had been accidentally killed but the rest of the dead were recorded as Viet Cong
  • The officers involved were praised; soldiers took the event as a normal and inevitable part of war.

12 months later, a letter arrived in the offices of thirty leading politicians and government officials. 

  • It was written by Ronal Ridenhour, a soldier who had served in Vietnam and personally knew many of those who had taken part in the massacre. 
  • He had evidence of something 'dark and bloody' that had occurred in My Lai (or Pinkville, its code name), which he asked Congress to investigate
  • Soon after 'Life' magazine published photos of the massacre from an official army photographer. 

An investigation was subsequently carried out, which ended in the trial of Lieutenant William Calley for the murder of 109 people. In 1971, he was found guilty of 22 counts of murder, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent three and half years under house arrest before being released. 

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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (5)

The Vietnam War was covered extensively by the media, especially in its latter stages. The coverage undoubtedly contributed to the US withdrawal from Vietnam, as it had a massive effect on public opinion towards the war. 

In the early stages of the war, the media largely followed the official line of policy and on the whole, supported the government, though there was some disagreement when the media reported the Buddhist protests against Diem. 

Even when the US became directly involved in Vietnam, the media-government relationship remained good. 

  • The US Army created the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to liaise with journalists. Journalists could be accredited by the MACV and get transport to war areas, interviews, briefings with commanders etc. In return, they agreed not to reveal any information that could help the enemy. 

Editors in the US rarely wanted to publish bad news stories about Vietnam, for fear of being accused of undermining the war effort. There were also commercial considerations.

  • Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, had to try three newspapers before finding one that would accept his story
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (6)

By 1967-68, however, the tone and content of reporting was beginning to change, for two main reasons:

Television was taking over from newspapers as the most important source of news.

  • Television gave a more raw account of war
  • Also, improving technology meant cameras could be taken very close to conflict zones
  • As early as 1965, US TV network CBS had shown US Marines using Zippo lighters to set fire to Vietnamese villagers' homes
  • During the TET offensive (1968) TV viewers saw South Vietnamese police chief Colonel Nguyen Loan executing a Viet Cong suspect. 
    • Such casual violence was deeply shocking to most Americans. 

At the same time, doubts about the war effort were intensifying.

  • One of the most famous TV reporters was CBS' Walter Cronkite, who stated during a report that he though the war 'unwinnable'.
  • Other were quick to agree, Johnson remarking that if he lost the support of Walter Cronkite he would lose the support of 'Middle America'.
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (7)

Media coverage no doubt had a great impact on the war effort, but the exact impact is debated:

US Admiral Grant Sharp and General Westmoreland both claimed that the media undermined the war effort. 

  • Many other commentators have put forward the view that media crippled the war effort in Vietnam.

There are, however, many alternative views:

  • American attitudes were turning against the war by 1967 anyway. The media reflected the changing views rather than creating them.
  • Casualties and war weariness were the reasons why support for the war dropped, not the media.
  • Shocking scenes were very rarely shown on TV. Less than 25% of reports showed dead or wounded, and usually not in any detail.
  • Research shows that from 1965-70 only 76 out of 2300 TV reports showed heavy fighting.
  • In a sample of 800 broadcasts from the time, only 16% of criticisms came from journalists; most came from officials or the general public. 
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (8)

As opinions turned against US involvement in Vietnam, anti-war protests quickly gained momentum. 

  • Civil rights campaigners were prominent in the movement
    • The Vietnam war highlighted racial equality, as there weren't many African Americans in university so not many could escape the draft. 
    • This meant that 30% of African Americans were drafted compared to only 19% of white Americans. 
    • Furthermore, the money being spent on the Vietnam war couldn't be spent on improving social conditions in America. 
    • One high profile case was boxer Muhammad Ali, who refused to obey the draft on the grounds of his faith. He was stripped of his passport and world title. 
  • Students were also powerful sources of opposition to the war
    • Many did not want to be drafted into a war they did not believe in or found morally wrong
    • To them, Vietnam became a symbol of defeat and moral corruption rather than a crusade against communism. 
    • Students taunted LBJ with the chant 'Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today' and thousands began to 'draft doge'
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (9)

Anti-war protests reached their height between 1968 and1970. 

In the first half of 1968 alone, there were over 100 demonstrations involving 40000 students. 

  • Frequently, the protest would involved the burning of an American flag. A criminal offense in the USA, it was a powerful symbol of the students' rejection of their country's values. 

In November 2009, almost 700000 anti-war protestors demonstrated in Washington DC. 

  • This was the largest political protest in American history. 

Demonstrations often ended in violent clashes with the police.

  • At Berkeley, Yale and Stanford universities, bombs were set off
  • The worst incident came in 1970, at Kent State University, Ohio, when panicked National Guard Troopers opened fire on demonstrators, killing four and injuring eleven. 
    • 400 colleges were closed as 2 million students went on protest
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (10)

The Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war.

  • In many ways it forced the US leadership into a withdrawal from Vietnam, as it brought Johnson, and most of America, to the realisation that the war could not be won militarily (at least not quickly)

From 1965-67, the official view was that the war was going well - the US was killing significant numbers of Viet Cong, despite struggling against guerilla tactics.

In 1968, this confidence was shattered by the Tet Offensive (the attack of Viet Cong fighters on almost 100 cities and other military targets in the Tet New Year)

  • One Viet Cong commando unit tried to capture the US embassy in Saigon, and US forces had to fight to regain control room by room. 
  • Around 4500 VC fighters tied down a much larger force in Saigon for 2 days

In many ways, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the Communists:

  • The people of South Vietnam did not rise up and help them, as had been hoped. 
  • The Viet Cong lost around 10000 experienced fighters and were weakened
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (11)

The Tet Offensive raised hard questions in the USA about the war:

There were nearly 500000 troops in Vietnam and the USA was spending $20 billion a year on the war. So why had the Communists been able to launch such an offensive?

US and South Vietnamese forces quickly retook the towns captured in the offensive, but enormous amounts of artillery and air power were used, many civilians were killed and the ancient city of Hue was destroyed. Was this right?

Until this point, media coverage of the war had been generally positive, although some journalists had been starting to ask difficult questions in 1967. During the Tet Offensive, this changed.

  • CBS journalist Walter Cronkite asked 'What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war.'
  • Don Oberdorfer of The Washington Post later wrote (in 1971) that as a result of the Tet Offensive 'the American people and most of their leaders reached the conclusion that the Vietnam War would require greater effort over a far longer period of time than it was worth'.
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (12)

Following the Tet Offensive, President Johnson reduced the bombing campaign against North Vietnam and instructed his officials to begin peace negotiations with the Communists.

  • In March 1968, a peace conference began in Paris. 

Johnson also announced that he would not be seeking re-election as President. This was an admission of failure.

  • In the following election campaign, both Republican and Democrat candidates campaigned to end US involvement in Vietnam. 
    • The anti-Vietnam feeling was so strong that this was really their only choice - if they had supported continuing the war they would have had no chance of being elected. 

It was no longer a question of 'could the USA win the war?' but instead 'how can the USA get out of Vietnam without it looking like a defeat?'

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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (13)

Richard Nixon was elected in November 1968 as President of the United States. 

Between 1968 and 1973, he and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, worked tirelessly to end US involvement in Vietnam. 

  • This was not easy as the question of how to contain world communism, which had initially caused the USA to enter Vietnam, hadn't gone away. 
  • Nixon didn't want to appear to just hand Vietnam to the Communists. 

They used a range of strategies:

  • Pressure on the USSR and China. After falling out in 1969, both China and the USSR wanted to improve relations with USA. USA asked them both to pressure North Vietnam to end the war. 
  • Peace Negotiations. From early 1969, Kissinger had regular meetings with the chief Vietnamese peace negotiator, Le Duc Tho. In January 1973, in Paris, a peace agreement was signed by Nixon, Le Duc Tho, and Thieu. 
  • 'Vietnamisation'. In Vietnam, Nixon began the process of Vietnamisation - building up South Vietnamese troops and withdrawing US troops
  • Bombing. Nixon increased bombing campaigns against North Vietnam to show he was not weak. He also invaded VC bases in Cambodia, causing outrage across the world. 
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Why did the USA withdraw from Vietnam? (14)

It isn't clear whether Nixon really believed he had secured a lasting peace settlement. But within 2 years it was meaningless:

  • By April 1975, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, had fallen to North Vietnamese Communists after a major military offensive launched in December 1974
    • Without US funding or support, which had been refused by Congress under both Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford, the South Vietnamese government could not survive for long. 

One of the bleakest symbols of the American failure in Vietnam was the televised news images of desperate men, women and children trying to clamber aboard American helicopters taking off from the US embassy in Saigon. All around them, Communist forces swarmed. 

After 30 years of constant conflict, the struggle of opposing groups for control of Vietnam had finally been settled. 

And the Communists had won. 

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Thank you so much! :)


cheers dude


Really good notes. However, the podcast beside it is really quite funny...


This is brilliant, I found it very very very useful :D :D


is this all i need to revise about the cold war

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