American Foreign Policy 1941-75


America's Contribution to World War II

1. America's economic and industrial might

  • The War Production Board was established in January 1942, which changed production priorities to the needs of the military. E.g. car factories began producing tanks and planes.
  • The War Management Commission was set up in 1942, which recruited workers where they were needed most.
  • New industries for synthetic materials like rubber were created.
  • Research into improving military weapons like the atomic bomb.
  • Agriculture became more mechanised as farm workers joined the fight.
  • Labour unions increased their membership, agreeing to a no strike pledge with employers to aid war production in 1941.
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America's Contribution to World War II

2. America's military contribution (EUROPE)

  • America's entry brought a significant number of weapons, transport, aeroplanes and ships.
  • A number of conferences took place between the allied leaders during the war, namely Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, agreeing to cooperation to defeat German and Japanese forces.
  • Allied forces fought in Operation Overlord and D-day.
  • Together, the allies liberated Paris in August 1944, and pushed towards Germany.
  • Defeated in the Battle of the Bulge, and surrounded by the Soviet Union in the east and the US, British and other allied forces in the west, Germany surrendered in May 1945.
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America's Contribution to World War II

2. America's military contribution (PACIFIC)

  • By the end of 1942, Japan controlled three-quarters of the world's natural rubber reserves, and two-thirds of tin and vital oil supplies due to victories in areas such as the Philippines and parts of New Guinea.
  • The US were successful in the Battle of Midway (1942-43), in which they destroyed Japanese aircraft carriers, marking a turning point in conflict in the Pacific.
  • US troops were able to take control of the Philippines by 1945.
  • Japanese Kamikaze attacks damaged around 350 US ships, but also depleted the Japanese air force.
  • Despite the Japanese's retreat of South-East Asia by the summer of 1945, President Truman decided to use atomic bombs to end the war as soon as possible.
  • Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and within a week, the Japanese government agreed to unconditional surrender.
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How did WWI change US economy and foreign policy?

  • The war established America as a military and economic superpower.
  • It was unclear how relations between a communist USSR and a democratic USA would develop after a war alliance ended.
  • The American continent was untouched by physical destruction.
  • It ended the Great Depression.
  • America was no longer isolationist, as demonstrated by their defense of democracy and defeat of totalitarianism under a fascist regime.
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Why did the US become involved in the Cold War?

The USA and USSR only worked together out of necessity - to defeat Nazi Germany.

Fear of communism - The Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, alongside their goal to spread communism globally, evoked fear in Americans.

Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe - After liberating most of Eastern Europe from the Nazis, the Soviet Union established communist governments in this area, known as Soviet satellite states, including Poland and Hungary.

Attitude of Truman - Truman feared Stalin wished to expand into Western Europe.

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Why did the US become involved in the Cold War?

Yalta Peace Conference, January 1945 - Though it was agreed Germany should be demilitarised and divided, Stalin took everything he wanted. Problems arose at the conference as the leaders had different views on what 'democracy' was, with Stalin viewing it as communism.

The Potsdam Conference, July 1945 - Germany and Berlin were to be divided, with the allies each occupying sections of both. Democracy would be established in Germany, and the country would pay the majority of reparations to the Soviet Union, who would supply food and coal in return.

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Why did relations become cooler by 1946?

Economic needs of the Soviet Union - The US cancelled the Lend-Lease scheme, affecting both Britain and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union viewed the act as an economic desire to use strength against other nations, and had to rely upon reparations as a result.

Spheres of influence - Competition developed over 'spheres of influence'. The Soviet Union wanted to protect its land border, whilst the USA was not prepared to give up its influence in German zones and Western Europe.

Ideology - The American ideology was of capitalism. The US viewed this as the best representation of freedom, whereas the Soviet ideology was of communsim, which believed in equal contribution and distribution.

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Causes of the Cold War

What was the 'Iron Curtain'?

An imaginary barrier to the passage of people and information between Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and the West.

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Causes of the Cold War

What was the policy of 'containment'?

This was a vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies, which would halt Soviet aggression through politics and diplomacy. However, this policy became an aggressive, militarist one, which was totally opposed to communist influence or expansion of territory.

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Causes of the Cold War

What was the Domino Theory?

The belief that if one country fell to communism, this would trigger the fall of its neighbouring countries, which originated with the expansion of Russia into Eastern Europe.

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Causes of the Cold War

The Truman Doctrine (1947)

This was an American foreign policy to counter Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War. Truman established that the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces.

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Causes of the Cold War

The Marshall Plan (1948)

This was an American initiative passed to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $12 billion in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II.

However, the Plan was seen by the Soviet Union as a lure to get at its Eastern European states, and suspicion prevented co-operation and stiffened the Iron Curtain.

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Causes of the Cold War

Defending the division of Germany and Berlin

In June 1948, the USA, Britain and France fused their occupied German areas into one to encourage the political unity of Berlin.

Fearful of its impact, the Soviet Union imposed a blockade on all road, rail and river traffic to West Berlin.

The US and British air forces flew in food and fuel for eleven months, known as the Berlin Airlift, until May 1949.

The areas of Western occupation became the Federal Republic of Germany, whilst the Soviet zone later became the German Democratic Republic.

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Causes of the Cold War

The Creation of NATO

In April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was established. This was a military alliance between most of Western Europe with North America. The founding countries agreed that an attack on one was an attack on all. The NATO agreement tied the USA to defence of Europe, and hence to international affairs.

The Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact with other Eastern European states in response. The creation of NATO confirmed a Cold War was now in existence, and this and the Warsaw Pact fuelled tensions.

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Causes of the Cold War

In 1947, the National Security Act was passed, establishing the Department of Defence, the CIA and the National Security Council.

The NSC-68 policy of 1949 advocated a massive expansion of US spending on military power. Neither appeasement nor isolation were regarded as possible policies.

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Causes of the Cold War

The Nuclear Bomb

As a result of the Soviet Union's success in developing an atomic bomb, Truman approved the development of a much more powerful hydrogen bomb.

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  • Soviet-US conflict was inevitable with their differing ideological, political and economic systems.
  • Truman favoured a continuity of the internationalist ideals of Roosevelt and the creation of the UN, fostered foreign aid and reconstruction in the form of the Marshal Plan, and sought to avert entanglement in wars.
  • From the Potsdam Conference to NSC-68 in April 1950, Truman contributed significantly to the growing Cold War and militarisation of US foreign policy.
  • Truman's belief in problems being the root of Stalin and the Soviets led him to promote an ideology that became the system for successive administrations such as Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
  • The division of Germany and the sharing of Berlin caused continual friction.
  • The USA used its economic strength through the Marshall Plan and its military strength through NATO to keep Western Europe allied to American interests.
  • The Soviet's ability to successfully build a nuclear weapon in 1949 threatened America's superiority.
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Background to the Korean War

  • Following the defeat of the Japanese in August 1965, Korea was occupied by US and Soviet armed forces.
  • Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, with US forces in the South and the Soviet forces in the North.
  • In 1948, the Soviets and the USA established two separate states in Korea - The Republic of Korea in the South (USA), and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea in the North (USSR).

The Korean War was a significant turning point in the Cold War because it reflected the changing balance of power in the Pacific region.

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Causes of the Korean War

On June 25th, 1950, North Korea invaded the South following Stalin's approval. This was an attempt by the North to unite Korea under the leadership of Kim II Sung, who was determined to align Korea with communist ideologies.

US foreign policy in Korea was ill-conceived, and was reluctant to supply large quantities of weapons.

The Soviet Union played a key role in the outbreak of war, but can be seen as the facilitator, not the originator. The Soviets agreed to supply military equipment, but not direct intervention.

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Causes of the Korean War

The Red Scare and McCarthyism - Senator Joseph McCarthy fuelled American fears of communism by stating he had a list of names of those who supported the Communist Party.

The US was concerned about the vulnerability of Japan after the fall of China. Plans were made to ensure communism was contained and the power of the Soviet Union was reduced.

Truman put pressure on the United Nations for a resolution to the North's hostilities. A UN Joint Command Force (UNC) was created to fight alongside South Korean troops to remove the NKPA from South Korea.

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Events of the Korean War

Major turning point - The Inchon attack (1950): General Douglas MacArthur planned a surprise assault on the Korean port of Inchon, leading to the recapture of the South Korean capital of Seoul.

MacArthur wanted to reunify Korea, and change foreign policy from containment to rollback, seeking to take over North Korea and destroy the communist government.

The change in policy triggered Chinese entry into the Korean War in October 1950, which reduced American military successes.

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Events of the Korean War

By March 1951, America had a thermonuclear bomb.

However, when MacArthur tried to persuade Truman to use atomic bombs against China, he was removed.

Under pressure to negotiate, Truman reverted to the policy of containment. He had turned the country away from the 1930s policy of isolationism and neutrality through containing America's enemies rather than destroying them. Truman's successors maintained his policies.

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End of the Korean War

Why did the war end?

  • When Eisenhower was elected president, he made it clear he would engage in peace talks to end the war. He accepted an armistice that restored the status quo ante bellum.
  • Fear that America would use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China.
  • There had been tens of thousands of Chinese casualties and prisoners of war by the summer of 1951.
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End of the Korean War

The results of the Korean War:

  • The 38th parallel remained the border between the communist North and democratic South.
  • Nearly 5 million Koreans and Chinese died and 120,000 were prisoners of war.
  • North Korea suffered damage to crops, transport and factories.
  • The USA failed to unify Korea despite their military superiority.
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End of the Korean War

What impact did the Korean War have on foreign policy?

  • It set the pattern for US foreign policy for the rest of the decade, and brought the Cold War to the Pacific and to Asia.
  • Truman's threat to use nuclear weapons in 1952 led to worldwide protest and raised the question of whether such weapons should ever be used.
  • The notion of a limited war developed during the Korean War and would have implications for the Vietnam War.
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President Eisenhower (1953-61)

  • Worked closely with the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, the republican expert on foreign policy. Both rejected containment.
  • Aggression had to be met with aggression.
  • Eisenhower and Dulles strongly believed in the domino theory.

Arms Control - In 1955, Eisenhower proposed 'Open Skies', which allowed the USA and USSR to allow aerial surveillance to check disarmament, though Khrushchev dismissed it as a form of spying.

Eisenhower's doctrine (1957) - The US would intervene in the Middle East if any government threatened by a communist takeover asked for help.

US foreign policy was to offer aid to enable economic development and support anti-communist countries.

Massive Retaliation - This meant the nuclear destruction of the Soviet Union or China if either took action deemed to be aggressive.

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John Foster Dulles (1953-59)

  • Dulles used the threat of massive retaliation as a tactic to support containment.
  • He was aware, however, that this policy was a game of brinkmanship (pursuing a dangerous policy to the limits of safety before stopping).
  • At the end of the Korean war, Dulles hinted to the Chinese that if there was not peace, the US would make use of atomic weapons, and 11 days later, the Chinese returned imprisoned troops - brinkmanship was successful.
  • Dulles set up the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) to protect the middle and far east, uniting 8 nations in a neutral defence pact.
  • His legacy was his movement away from containment to a more aggressive policy - massive retaliation, which had a long term impact, such as during the Vietnam War.
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The New Look

  • Term Eisenhower used to describe his military policy.
  • Supported the policy of containment.
  • Eisenhower abandoned the idea of fighting wars like the Korean War.
  • Policy emphasised the importance of tactical nuclear weapons and the role of strategic air power as a deterrent to aggression.
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President John F Kennedy (1961-63)

JFK's Cold War Strategy:

Peace Corps - Established in 1961 in the hope that American generosity and practical involvement in the Third World would deter them from seeking communist aid. Food for Peace and Alliance for Progress had similar motives.

Military build-up - Kennedy promised to make a flexible military policy to any threat, and increased the military budget in 1961 and the number of nuclear weapons.

Kennedy condemned the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, but did not take action against it.

Space Programme - The Russians won the space race by putting a man in space for the first time in April 1961, but America became the first country to land a man on the moon in 1969.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962)

  • Cuba was in America's sphere of interest according to the Monroe Doctrine.
  • Cuba's leadership was overrun by Nationalists in 1959, who allied themselves with the USSR.
  • Russia promised weapons to defend Cuba against America in September 1962.
  • Missile sites were discovered in Cuba in October 1962, which brought every town in the US within range of Soviet nuclear missiles.
  • Kennedy imposed a naval blockade around Cuba, and threatened war against the USSR if the missiles were not withdrawn by the Soviets.
  • Khrushchev eventually agreed to remove the missiles if the US promised not to invade Cuba.
  • Kennedy agreed, and also removed missiles previously placed in Turkey, averting the crisis.
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Events following the Cuban Missile Crisis

  • In 1963, a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed, with both America and the USSR agreeing to stop testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, and helped to reduce potential for another crisis.
  • In 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed - the superpowers promised not to supply nuclear technology to other countries.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis was an example of brinkmanship.
  • The establishment of a telephone hotline was highly important in allowing instant contact between the Soviet and American leaders.
  • Kennedy's Crisis Management in the short term prevented a more sinister situation, whilst the crisis in the long term had an impact on the conduct of foreign policy during the Cold War.
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US Involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-75)

  • American involvement in Vietnam was driven and influenced by the Cold War.
  • American foreign policy was shaped by the Truman Doctrine, which stated that communism must be contained and governments susceptible to communist infiltration and takeover must be assisted.
  • Asian nations had a lower capacity for resisting communist invasions, and, having spread from China to North korea, America believed communsim would move further south to nations like Vietnam.
  • After being financially supported by the US, France's failure to resume control in Vietnam led to direct US involvement in Vietnam.
  • America did not sign the Geneva Accords in 1954, and preferred to support the formation of a democratic South Vietnam to serve as a defence against communists in the North, though this was unstable.
  • America's chosen leader of South Vietnam, Diem, was unpopular and ineffective.
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President Kennedy and the Vietnam War

  • Kennedy was worried that if Laos fell to communism, it would provide the Vietcong with a military base from which to launch attacks to South Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The US became involved in Laos to prevent the Viet Cong using Laotian territory for bases and supplies. This is important in showing that the Vietnam War did not remain in the borders of Vietnam.
  • This fear was framed by the domino theory, which had influenced American foreign policy since after WWII.
  • Kennedy decided to try to create a more flexible policy, using economic aid and counter-insurgency forces (the Green Berets) against Guerrilla forces.
  • He continued to support Diem and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVM) by dollar aid and air support.
  • However, the Viet Cong continued to pursue their independence campaign, creating the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.
  • Kennedy and Diem were both assassinated in November 1963.
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President Johnson (1963-69) and the Vietnam War

  • Johnson's choices were limited, which were worsened by his inexperience in foreign policy.
  • The 'Gulf of Tonkin Resolution' which allowed the president to use force without permission from Congress. As a result, the president directed the war.
  • Johnson continued JFK's flexible response policy by bombing the North, believing a firm stand was needed against communism promoted by China and the USSR.
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President Nixon (1969-74) and the Vietnam War

  • When Nixon was elected, he promised to achieve peace by ending the Vietnam War.
  • In 1969, he announced his new policy of Vietnamisation, the gradual withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and an enlargement and modernisation of the ARVN's forces.
  • In 1971, America began peace talks with China, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam.
  • In 1975, North and South Vietnam were finally reunified as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
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Key features of US involvement in Vietnam

Operation Rolling Thunder - US bombing campaign from 1965-68 which hoped to destroy Viet Cong supply routes to the South, though it actually boosted North Vietnamese support for the war.

Chemical warfare, including weapons like 'Agent Orange' and napalm were used by the USA.

From 1967, 'search and destroy' tactics would destroy villages suspected of helping the Vietcong, though innocent villages were also destroyed.

These events of the Vietnam war are significant as they demonstrate America's interventionist and highly aggressive foreign policy during this period.

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Why was the Vietnam War a failure for the US?

  • The Vietcong used guerrilla tactics very successfully, which reduced the effect of high-tech methods used by the US.
  • Many in the South supported the North and the Vietcong. Some believed in communism, whilst others were alienated by US brutality.
  • US tactics such as chemical warfare encouraged Vietcong support and was met with opposition from home.
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Reasons for US withdrawal from Vietnam

  • The Tet Offensive (1968) caused a decline in public opinion of the war, and was a turning point because it showed the Vietcong could fight at the heart of American-held territory.
  • The war was vastly expensive, costing $30 billion each year.
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Effects of the war

  • The inability to win the war pushed Nixon to consider different diplomatic strategies that affected the Cold War. His decsion to visit China to establish closer relations and to develop detente with the Soviet Union were attempts to drive a wedge between the two main supporters of North Vietnam.
  • From the war emerged the Nixon Doctrine, which stated that the US expected her allies to take care of their own military defence. The Vietnam War had been the first war they had lost, leading to a unwillingness to involve themselves in future conflicts.
  • There was an immense loss of life - 50,000 US troops died and 300,000 were wounded.
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President Nixon (1969-74)


  • Despite promising to end the Vietnam War, Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia and Laos in Operation Menu with the aim to cut off North Vietnamese supply routes.
  • His plan of Vietnamisation was ineffective because the ARVN did not have the troops or expertise to fight against North Vietnam.
  • Nixon's lack of support led to the ARVN making poor decisions, leading to a huge defeat.
  • In 1973, Nixon pulled troops out of Vietnam after the Paris Peace Agreement.
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Policies of Detente with China and the USSR

  • The policy of Detente can first be seen in Nixon's decision to go to Beijing and Moscow to negotiate peace talks.
  • He aimed to achieve Detente by increasing trade and slowing down the arms race by limiting the number of nuclear missiles on both sides.

Nixon's instigation of SALT 1 (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) was significant as it limited the number of missiles for each nation and imposed a 5 year freeze on the number of offensive missiles each side could possess.

However, the Watergate Scandal (1972-74), in which illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration were discovered, severely impacted the USA's reputation abroad. The USSR was able to use the scandal as an example of the corruption of the capitalist system.

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US relations with China 1945-72

  • The defeat of the nationalists during the Chinese Civil War of 1949, who were heavily supported by the USA militarily and economically, was significant as China then became part of the US policy of containment.
  • Relations with China worsened under Eisenhower, particularly during the Korean War (1950-53). The USA saw the Korean War as a sign that Chinese-sponsored communism was expansionist and threatened US security. China saw US involvement in Korea as aggressive and feared that the US wanted to gain territory in Asia. The Inchon attack was a major turning point as it triggered Chinese entry into the Korean War in October 1950.
  • One of Nixon's greatest achievements in foreign policy was his improved relations with China.
  • He sought closer relations with China because he felt they would help end the Vietnam War. Nixon lifted the trade embargo imposed on China in 1954 and after going to China in 1974, the Chinese encouraged more cooperation with the North Vietnamese government.
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US relations with the USSR 1945-72


  • Nuclear arms race - 1945 atomic bomb.
  • Yalta and Potsdam (1945) highlighting Stalin's desire for increased reparation in comparison with its allies, imposing communism on liberated countries.
  • 1947 Truman Doctrine and 1948 Marshall Plan.
  • Berlin Airlift Crisis (1948-49)
  • NATO (1949) and the Warsaw Pact.
  • Korean War (1950-53)
  • Massive retaliation (Eisenhower)
  • Berlin Wall (1961)
  • Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)
  • Vietnam
  • SALT 1 (1972)
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