The American Response to the Perceived Communist Threat in the World

The Red-Scare and Its Effects on the Perception of Communism

The red scare stemmed from the genuine fear of the Americans of the Soviet Union and their capability and real or alleged attempts to turn the American society into a communist one.

At the end of the Second World War, America had emerged as arguably the most powerful nation on earth with its successful deployment of nuclear weapons in Japan effectively ending the war [Levin, 1971]. The soviets did not hide their ambitions to compete directly with the US for the influence on the world’s political stage [Gaddis, 1990]. In fact the soviets went ahead and acquired the atomic bomb and two Americans were tried and executed for supplying the intelligence allowing the communists to attain this mile stone through espionage [Gaddis, 1990].

Past the Second World War, the only other frontier that the communist had in the developed world was the US; thus rose the morbid fear among the Americans that the soviets were conducting clandestine activities with the cooperation of communist Americans to effect these goals [Levin, 1971].

The result of this was a gradual redefinition of being American and patriotism; activities and utterance that were seen to be completely harmless a few years before were now being looked at in a different light of being pro-communism; thus began a crackdown on the communist elements in America [Levin, 1971].

The attempts to root out any communism elements in America led to the subversion of the very values of freedom and liberties that the activities sought to preserve; the jailing, deportation, blacklisting and red-baiting of people suspected to be communists spat in the face of the sacred foundations of democracy.

Additionally, the ‘witch-hunt’ type of inquisition fueled by paranoia rather than concrete intelligence led to a very broad definition of what communism was; consequently a large population of innocent people fell into this category and was persecuted as communists.

Additionally, the principle of due process, where the accuser has the burden of proving the guilt of the defendant, was reversed. Even in cases where the communism of the person could not be proved, the publicized hearings and innuendo was used to discredit the accused person regardless of the prevailing evidence suggesting the contrary [Gaddis, 2005].

Up to a point, the American society, blinded by the fear of the communists, accepted the red-scare as a necessary evil to prevent the advance of an unacceptable political system in their country; however, it was only a matter of time before the antics alienated the public which could no longer stomach the assault on their civil liberties in any form [Gaddis, 2005].

During the period, the anti-communist sentiments may have led to the misinterpretations of situations outside the borders of the United States. This stemmed from the opinion that the advance of communism was monolithic with the various fronts in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America being extensions of this monolith.

The truth is that each of the conflict zones that had incorporation of the cold war in them was a unique conflict whose motivation was more than just an advent of communism in them. This American misconception led to their ill-advised involvement in conflict in the name of fighting communism that did not have any gains to the interests of the US.

For example, the US arguably misinterpreted the communist activities in Vietnam as being exclusively motivated by Soviet-sponsored communist sentiment; in true sense, although the Soviet ambitions in the war were undeniable [Kolb, 2004], the Vietcong saw the US as an imperialistic invader rather than an enemy of communism; and fought to liberate their country rather than to advance communism. This may have been the greatest undoing of the US experience in Vietnam.

The Korean War

The Korean War was a significant point to the conduction of the cold war by the United States and the Soviet Union. It brought to light the far the two powers could fight a political supremacy without necessary having to suffer human and economic casualties in their respective countries. These consequences would be, on the contrary, felt by the countries where the proxy wars were fought.

The war also led to an escalation of the cold war to new frontiers separate to the traditional European engagements. When each of the superpowers committed its economic and military aid to the fighting factions of the Korean peninsular, they had committed themselves to a series of insidious engagements that would pop up all over the world with each trying to bring the largest number of countries under their respective ideologies; similar conflicts were to be seen in Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia and other third world countries.

It is important to note that the communist nature of the north Korean government rose not from an active infiltration and deposition of a legitimate capitalist government by communist elements as it had happened in other countries, but from a division of the peninsular into the north and the south segments by the US and soviets after the surrender of the Japanese in the second world war [Millett, 1997].

The 38 parallel therefore not only divided the country administratively but also ideologically as each of these powers sought to influence the respective administrations to favor its ideology. It would be illegitimate therefore for the United States to pursue a policy to ‘liberate the north’ while they gave up their window to do so by agreeing to the division in the first place [Millett, 1997].

The war in Korea was therefore not primarily a war to protect the right of a sovereign country from foreign aggression as the Second World War presiding it had; rather it was in a manner of speaking a civil war between two opposing factions of the sane country with the illegitimate interference of other countries whose aim was not the welfare of the citizens of Korea but achieving the supremacy of their respective political systems [Millett, 1997].

President Truman in my opinion recognized this and tried to limit the conflict to the Korean peninsular instead of driving the communist force to the Chinese border. The aim therefore of the US involvement was (and should have) been the maintenance of the 38th parallel division of the ideological and administrative division of the peninsular into the north and the south [Millett, 1997].

These aims do not warrant the deployment of the nuclear weapons in any form; the deployment would have inadvertently opened a door to the use of this weapons in cold war conflict and would have devastating effects in the respective countries where the war was waged.

The deployment would have also opened the door for the proliferation of nuclear weapons outside the US and the soviet arms race with every country anticipating the spill over of the cold war to its borders; in my opinion, this would have led to a nuclear war at some time before the end of the cold war. Alternatively, it would have led to a more unstable world now with many more countries being nuclear armed.

An all out against China in an attempt to liberate North Korea would mean a redeployment of military facilities that had been severely depleted by the disarmament policy of the allies that followed the end of the second world war; this would remove precious support to the frontier halting the spread of communism in Europe; this would not be in the beat interest of the American capitalist policy for the world.

The advice I would give to the president would therefore to avoid an all-out war with China but to pursue a policy of maintaining the 38th parallel through military standoffs; this would not do much for the liberty of the North Korean people, but it would serve to maintain the gains that the US had made against communism.

The Activities of the CIA and the American Democracy

The cold war created many battlefields in the world where each of the world political powers sought to exert most influence. Both the United States and the Soviet Union believed that the other intended to create hegemony in the ideological scenery of the world; and that the other would go to any length to recruit as many countries as possible to their sphere.

Thus this set the stage for a race to gain the cooperation of mostly third world regimes in the goal of attaining hegemony; this inadvertently meant the support of regimes that were sympathetic to the respective ideologies and the subversion of any regime that was perceived to be sympathetic to the opposing one.

With the categorization of the validity of a regime by its ideological stand rather than the principles of democracy and natural justice led to among the darkest political histories of the third world and of the US commitment to the supremacy of democracy in the world as opposed to political dominance [Higgins, 1987].

Eisenhower in Guatemala

The first CIA covert operation in Latin America was codenamed PBSUCCESS and was sanctioned by president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. The main goal was to stem the spread of communism as the Soviet Union had already stated to make overtures to the various Latin American regimes [Doyle, 1954].

The CIA was charged with the task of subverting and eventually deposing a democratically elected government led by President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán; the Americans were basing their actions on a perceived sympathy of Arbenz to communist by having contact with the soviet government and the encouragement of left-leaning groups in Guatemala [Doyle, 1954].

The CIA recruited a small group of combatants that entered Guatemala from Honduras on 16th June and started what seem as a coup d’etat but was in real sense a psychological attack aimed at scaring the political class out of the country. On 27th June, the president fled and sought asylum together with 120 other government officials [Doyle, 1954].

In its place, the CIA installed a military regime led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas in the face of political and social instability [Doyle, 1954]. This set the stage for the civil war that broke out later and led to severe damage to the Guatemalan country, society and economy; a whole country sacrificed at the altar of anti-communism.

John F. Kennedy in Cuba

The efforts to recruit and train Cuban exiles for a mission to depose the Cuban president Fidel Castro were initiated by President Eisenhower [Higgins, 1987]. The CIA was confident that by employing tactics similar to those used in the successful Guatemalan mission would also work in Cuba.

The new American president Kennedy sought to perpetuate the opinion that the deposition of Castro was essential for the halting of soviet spread in Latin America. The president was however motivated by the security risk of having a communist outpost less that 100miles from the American cast and viewed this as an unacceptable situation.

The plan was to land a US-backed Cuban dissident armed group at the Bay of Pigs and then march to Havana after instigating a popular uprising against the communist government [Higgins, 1987].

The Bay of Pigs invasion failed due to a leakage of the imminent invasion to the media; and the decision to go ahead with the mission despite the loss of surprise was a grave mistake. Secondly, the American intelligence had under estimated the popularity of the Castro regime in Cuba, the expected uprising that would have buoyed the invasion never materialized. Thirdly, in the face of a blown cover, the full scale of the attack, especially the air cover was withdrawn for fear of diplomatic repercussions of overt military operations [Higgins, 1987].

As the dust of the invasion settled, the very leader that the operation sought to depose emerged even stronger and encouraged him to pursue even stronger communist links; the Kennedy administration had effectively shot themselves in the foot as they could neither pursue diplomatic tactics with the now very wary Castro nor military options at the risk of initiating a military escalation [Higgins, 1987].

Instead of improving the prospects of US security against Soviet ambitions, the Bay of Pigs invasion worsened the situation as it precipitated the Cuban missile crisis.

Reasons for Going to War in Vietnam

When President J. F. Kennedy was sworn to office in 1960, he found a situation regarding Vietnam that had already set the stage for war. The north and the south regions had already been separated in terms of government and ideology. The president was thus faced with the threat of the spread of communism through out south-East Asia [Kolb, 2004].

The new president did not seek to change the American foreign policy regarding the issue of communism. The domino effect theory was propagated in the Kennedy administration in the view of interpreting the effects of communism in Southeast Asia. The administration was convinced, in lieu to this theory that a loss of South Vietnam to the communists would lead to similar changes in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The president was thus faced with the challenge of halting the advance of communism to prevent a domino effect in this part of the world.

The president was also under pressure to act in Vietnam so as to prove US dominance in world politics in the face of the global gain of communism; the administration had inherited the legacy of the Korean War from the Truman and the Eisenhower regimes; which was, in a mixed bag. Consequently, at the time of Kennedy’s government the United States had 50,000 US troops enforcing the division of Korea [Kolb, 2004].

The Kennedy administration also faced pressure from other crises particularly the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba that was largely seen as a communist victory. Additionally, gains in Europe against the communist was seen to falter with the construction of the Berlin wall; to heighten the anxiety, a communist victory was eminent in Laos where the American backed republican government had negotiated a political arrangement with the communist Pathet Lao party [Kolb, 2004]; the general American opinion viewed this as a communist gimmick aimed at an insidious spread and take over in Laos.

In view of all these communist threats, the Kennedy administration was pressed into preventing another failure that would severely subvert the American dominance of world politics. The government thus initiated a mission of containment of the communists in Vietnam.

The American government thus stepped in to prop up the regime of President Ngo Dihn Diem of South Vietnam through military and financial aid. The president was a devout catholic and a fanatical nationalist; his regime was characterized by military and secret police operations against the Buddhists in South Vietnam resulting in many deaths. The American government chose to ignore these violations of human right in favor of having a pro-western government in place in South Vietnam; and the then vice-president Johnson even going ahead to label Diem as the Winston Churchill of Asia during a visit to Saigon.

The excesses of the Diem regime together with the opinion increasing at the time that he was a puppet of the Americans, made it increasingly unpopular. The overt pro-catholic policies and the refusal of the southern government to institute land reforms led to an increasingly disenchanted Buddhist peasantry; this environment was just right for the recruitment of insurgents into the Vietcong by the communist north.

The American government after finally seeing the danger of supporting such an incompetent and unpopular regime engaged the southern army into planning a coup that saw the removal and execution of the president on November 2, 1963.

The communist north took advantage of the ensuing chaos to increase their support to the Vietcong setting the stage for war with the successive Saigon regimes backed by the united state military.

Foreign and Domestic Policy Lessons From American Involvement in Vietnam

Arguably, one of the biggest follies of the United States involvement in Vietnam was the misreading of the nature of the Vietcong’s insurgency; various administrations viewed them as part of a greater force to spread communism in the Southeast Asian region. However, with the north’s involvement being mostly that of support rather than active combat, and the lack of direct military involvement of the Soviet Union and China, the image of the war as a communist project is in doubt [Summers, 1982].

The Hanoi-backed Vietcong, on the contrary viewed themselves as liberators of their country fighting to free the nation from American imperialism as they had done with the French before them. This no doubt served to greatly swell the ranks, it estimated that in 1959, the Vietcong had 5,000 recruits, this changed to 100,000 in 1964. Eventually, between 1961 and 1964, the estimated size of the insurgency was placed between 850,000 and 1,000,000 men [Summers, 1982]. It is therefore obvious that the allure of the Vietcong that had attracted so many southern Vietnamese was fuelled by more than just communist sentiments.

In order to counter a force of this magnitude, the US government reacted by an escalation of recruitment into the armed force; this had the unfortunate effects of reducing the average age of the American soldiers dying in the war. The general opinion is that the average age of the American soldier dying in the Vietnamese jungle was 19 years old [Summers, 1982]. This escalation led to shortening of the training period before deployment. Arguably, this shortening and the one year tours that the servicemen took to Vietnam did not do much to bolster the cohesion and leader-follower structure of the military; this must have had an impact on the morale and the motivation of the men to fight compared to that of the Vietcong’s whose main drive was the liberation of the country. The effect of escalated and younger recruitment has ripples even today with similar questions being raised on the policy of military recruitment in the face of the war against terror.

Another effect of the war on today’s political and outlook is the relationship between the military and the media. At the beginning, the media generally supported the war. The Johnson administration had decided to employ a policy of engagement with the media of portraying only the stories that implied an imminent victory in Vietnam; this illusion was largely meant to maintain public support of the war.

This policy was to backfire badly for the government; this was especially so after the Tet offensive of January 1998 by the Hanoi-backed Vietcong in over 100 south Vietnamese cities including the US embassy in Saigon; the scale and effectiveness of the attack severely damaged the façade of success that the military had created [Summers, 1982].

From here, the American public’s opinion generally changed into opposition; the sentiments were to be voiced in anti-war demonstrations in various American cities. The relationship between the military and the media in America has never recovered from this; with the media largely seeing a credibility gap in the information supplied by Pentagon. Similar issues have been raised in regards to the accurate reporting of the war in Iraq with the majority of the stories originating from pentagon-sponsored rather than independent sources.

When the negative aspects of the war were finally revealed to the public, the resulting fallout in a matter of speaking ended the political carrier of Lyndon B. Johnson; who refused to run for re-election to the Oval office [summers, 1982].

Work Cited

Doyle, Kate. Kornbluh, Peter. CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents. Electronic Briefing Book No. 4, George Washington University National Security Archive. 2009. Web.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States. An Interpretative History. McGraw-Hill. 1990. ISBN 0075572583

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History, Penguin Press, 2005, ISBN 15942006

Higgins, Trumbull. The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. Norton, New York. 1987. ISBN 0393305635 ISBN 978-0393305630

Kolb, Richard K. Cold War Clashes: Confronting Communism, 1945-1991. Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. 2004. ISBN 0974364312.

Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression. Basic books. p29. 1971. ISBN 0-465-05898-1.

Millett, Allan R. A Reader’s Guide to the Korean War. Journal of Military History (1997) Vol. 61 No. 3; p. 583

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. A Thousand days: John F Kennedy in the White House. Houghton Mifflin. Boston. 1965. ISBN 1579124496 ISBN 978-1579124496

Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Presidio press (1982), ISBN 0891415637.