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Chapter 5

Chapter 5: The Cold War Context: Lessons and Legacies

Chapter Review

U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War is characterized by three key periods:

  • The Early Cold War period
  • The Vietnam-Détente-Economic Shocks period
  • The Reagan-Gorbachev period

Through each of these periods, American foreign policy witnessed both continuity and change.

The Vietnam War shattered the consensus present during the early Cold War period. Many high ranking government officials, including Robert McNamara, expressed doubts and criticisms about the war. The Vietnam War was a failure of foreign policy strategy on all of the 4 Ps. The war also altered the balance of power in presidential-congressional relations as Congress became more aggressive in asserting itself over matters of foreign policy, most notably with the War Powers Resolution. 

The Cold War during the 1970s was marked by the advent of détente. Détente was made possible by shifts in all 4 Ps, as well as in foreign policy politics. The driving force behind détente was the desire for Peace by both the Americans and the Soviets. Prior to détente, the Cold War was marked by the largely unregulated nuclear arms race. Several events, however, let to the downfall of détente, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the limits of arms control progress, and the flaring of US-Soviet Third World rivalries.

The 1970s also experienced profound economic shocks that shattered the myth of assured prosperity. During this period, the "Nixon shocks" affected America's economic relationship with its allies and reignited the debate over free trade vs. protectionism. The OPEC embargo worsened many of the economic woes America was already experiencing and demonstrated America's economic vulnerability. Trade politics during this decade became so contentious that Congress created a legislative mechanism to expedite trade issues.

Ronald Reagan's presidency heralded a new era during the Cold War. Reagan came into office firmly believing that American foreign policy had to be reasserted along all four dimensions of national interest. The Reagan Doctrine was developed as the basis not only for taking a harder line on global containment, but also for going further towards rollback. Reagan painted the Soviets as the evil enemy of the modern world.

During the Reagan years, presidential-congressional relations changed into a pattern of confrontation. The Iran-contra scandal pitted the executive branch directly against Congress, and the failings of the War Powers Resolution became increasingly apparent during the Reagan administration. By Reagan's second term, however, the number of common-ground issues increased, especially as the Cold War began to thaw.

The origins of the end of the Cold War have two distinct theoretical interpretations. US Triumphalism credits the US, and particularly President Reagan, for having pursued a tough and assertive foreign policy that pushed the Soviets to collapse. The theory emphasizes American power, the Reagan Doctrine, and the triumph of American principles. In contrast, revisionist theories of the origins of the Cold War give much more credit to Gorbachev's leadership. The theory also stresses the importance of other international actors, such as individuals like Lech Walesa and European peace movements, in bringing about the end of the Cold War.

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