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Post-War American Politics: Foreign & Domestic Policy

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  • 0:05 A New Era Begins
  • 0:36 Foreign Policy
  • 4:43 Domestic Policy
  • 7:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about American politics in the post-war era. We will highlight the broad contours of foreign and domestic policies, and learn how Americans planned to deal with the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

A New Era Begins

The end of World War II marked the beginning of a new era. On the surface, America's future looked bright. However, the effects of a world war presented countless challenges - both foreign and domestic. The dawning of the post-war era revealed a complex, more fragile world. What plans did the United States implement to deal with these challenges? Let's take a look at what American foreign and domestic policy looked like in the post-war era.

Foreign Policy

In the immediate post-war era, the United States adopted a broad foreign policy strategy that has come to be known as containment. Put simply, containment policy was designed to contain the spread of communism, but not necessarily combat it where it already existed. Containment policy was formulated by diplomat George F. Kennan, and became the cornerstone of President Harry Truman's foreign policy.

The Truman Doctrine marked the official implementation of containment policy. In a famous 1947 speech, Truman proclaimed that the United States would intervene to provide economic and military support to Greece and Turkey, whose people were attempting to thwart a communist takeover. The Truman Doctrine essentially stated that the United States would provide support to countries resisting communism. In this way, the United States sought to stop the spread of communism, but maintain the promise of simple containment.

Containment was the over-arching foreign policy that underpinned all Cold War strategy. Presidents following after Truman, like Eisenhower and Kennedy, continued this policy, sometimes with success and sometimes with grave consequences. In fact, some historians have suggested containment policy ultimately led to the Vietnam War.

Under the broad strategy of containment, the United States launched another initiative called the Marshall Plan. Basically, it was a program to provide aid to war-torn Europe. Named after Secretary of State George Marshall, it was designed to rebuild the devastated economies of European states destroyed during World War II. The program was officially called the European Recovery Program. The plan was in effect between 1948 and 1951. Under the plan, numerous countries received substantial economic aid packages funded by the United States.

Sounds generous, eh? Certainly it was, but it was also implemented for political reasons. See, many American officials feared that the economic devastation throughout Europe was fertile soil for the emergence of Soviet-backed communist states. Therefore, the United States felt obliged to assist in the economic restructuring of Europe in order to ward off communist expansion, and ensure the foundation of democratic states. Most historians regard the Marshall Plan as a major success.

Another foreign policy approach throughout the post-war era was the domino theory. This was the view held by successive administrations that if one country in a region fell to communism, other nearby countries would also fall, much like dominoes. The domino theory is particularly associated with the Vietnam War, since it was justified under the theory. The belief was that if Vietnam fell to communism, many other countries in Southeast Asia would do the same.

We also can't discuss foreign policy in the Cold War era without mentioning NATO. NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The organization consisted of major Western democracies like the United States, Canada, Britain, France and others. Its purpose was to establish a collective defense against the threat of communism. Member states pledged that an attack against any one state constituted an attack against the whole. To counter NATO, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states developed their own mutual defense league under the Warsaw Pact.

Domestic Policy

While foreign policy issues tended to take center stage in the post-war era, there were challenges on the domestic front as well. Not all, but many domestic issues were tied to foreign policy issues. For example, a wave of anti-communist sentiment swept the United States following the close of World War II. Called the Red Scare or sometimes McCarthyism (after Republican senator Joseph McCarthy), this period, lasting roughly between 1947 and 1953, was characterized by a heightened fear of communism.

During this time, many Hollywood actors, screenwriters and filmmakers who were suspected of having communist ties were blacklisted, leaving their careers in ruins. Members of the American Communist Party were denied First Amendment rights and imprisoned because of their political views. Rooting out communism from the domestic realm was thus a pillar of post-war domestic policy.

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