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The Cold War, civil rights & Vietnam
On the domestic front, the civil rights movement that
began in the 1950s was carried out against the backdrop
of the global Cold War. Black Americans marched against
racial injustice while their leaders— most prominently
Martin Luther King, Jr.— were spied on by American
intelligence agencies and accused of being Communists.
Even the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964
and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which fundamentally changed the American political landscape, were
tarred by their opponents as being part of a communist
plot. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination likewise
became a thread in the larger Cold War narrative of Communist conspiracies at home and abroad.
The Cold War extended its reach into the heavens
with the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957,
and thereafter Americans spent billions of dollars and the
next 12 years determined to beat the Soviets in a race to
the moon. President Lyndon Johnson famously declared
after Sputnik’s launch that “whoever controls space controls the future.” So it seemed. When Americans landed
Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969, the entire globe celebrated. President Richard Nixon called it “the greatest week
in the history of the world since creation.”
The two “hot” wars that erupted during the cold one
resulted in either stalemate or defeat. Korea redefined
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what it meant to win in the nuclear age— containing
communism and avoiding annihilation— and Vietnam
handed America its first military disaster on foreign soil.
Korea proved that America’s traditional fear of a standing
army was no longer viable in a world where containment
was necessary and war could erupt at any moment. As
a consequence, the draft— usually a war-time measure
only— would remain in place even during peacetime.
While Korea had shown that military presence and
preparedness would now be a constant, Vietnam proved
that even a highly-trained, well-equipped professional
standing army could not guarantee victory when America’s military muscle was flexed in the wrong place at the
wrong time against the wrong enemy. Both conflicts left
Americans shaken, with diminished trust in their government and a lack of respect for the military that would
linger for decades to come.
Late 20th Century optimism gone?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War
technically came to an end. America had prevailed, not
by use of military force, but economic power. The better
system— Western-style democracy and capitalism—
had triumphed over Eastern tyranny and communism.
Many in the West declared that it was “the end of history,” and that mankind had achieved its final political and
economic evolution. Russia and its satellites would become the next great democratic states, with Red China
not too far behind. The billions of dollars and thousands
of lives expended in the defense of America and our way
of life against Communist aggression had ushered in a
new era in which freedom and peace would be the norm
around the world.
But how much of that optimism has lingered across
the years? Has anything ever seemed so momentous at
the time that has arguably had so little impact on the
world since? What are the lessons that we learned?
For America, and Georgia, the impact was mixed.
Our nation emerged from the struggle as the world’s only
superpower. It’s a status that has now been challenged,
at least economically, by China, a former Cold War rival
that adapted to the new order rather than collapse. In
time, the East-West fault line gave way to even older
divisions, as ancient religious and ethnic conflicts which
the Cold War kept tamped down boiled over once again.
Containing these conflicts and global terrorism ensured
that America’s role as the world’s police would continue
unabated, as would the immense government spending
necessary to finance it.
The threat of nuclear weapons and the alliances
America forged in Europe (NATO) and globally (United
Nations) kept the world from plunging into another worldwide conflict for three quarters of a century. And yet those
RUBBER ASPHALT One of the many new
technological developments on The Ray.
same nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to the
survival of the human race.
What will we learn from the past?
Militarily, America learned lessons about how to engage in foreign conflict (First Gulf War) and then seemed
to forget them (Iraq). The civil rights movement dismantled legalized segregation and Jim Crow but did not end
systemic racism, while the space race that put an American on the moon seems to have lost steam without the
pressure of Soviet competition.
America came of age because of the Cold War. The
question now, 30 years later, is whether Ronald Reagan’s
“City on a Hill”— the beacon of democracy and the economic powerhouse of the world— can sustain its supremacy in an era filled with new and even greater internal and
external dangers. Our old adversaries, Russia and China,
are still our greatest threats and democracy and capitalism are under pressure once again.
Studying the Cold War, learning how it shaped who
and what we are today, will provide the insights we need
to meet and hopefully overcome these new challenges. As
always, the depth to which we understand the past will
determine the direction and quality of our future.
Stan Deaton is the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia
Historical Society and W. Todd Groce is President and CEO of the Society.
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