The Political Effects of the Cold War: Rise of the Neocons

The struggles of the Cold War-influenced Vietnam War and 1970s recessions led to the rise of the neoconservative movement in the 1980s.

Oct 29, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

jimmy carter and richard nixon


After initial successes in checking communist expansion and Soviet aggression with the Korean War and Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States plunged into the quagmire of the Vietnam War and stagflation of the 1970s. In the early 1980s, under Republican president Ronald Reagan, the US renewed its efforts at checking Soviet power through increased defense spending and assistance to anti-communist groups. When the USSR began to crumble in the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s neoconservative movement was given much credit for winning the Cold War. This “neocon” movement featured a renewed focus on social conservatism, patriotism, military supremacy, tax cuts, and decreased business regulations and would remain popular through the early 2000s.


Before the Cold War: Military Demobilization and Isolationism

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A US soldier returning home from World War I in 1919, via The Ohio Adjutant General’s Department


From the Revolutionary War through World War I, the United States did not maintain a large standing army between conflicts. When a war erupted, the US would use a military draft, also known as conscription, to fill the ranks and raise armies for deployment. In 1940, after World War II broke out in Europe, the US instituted the first peacetime draft, though it would join the war before the next year was out. When wars were over, the vast majority of soldiers, most of them draftees, were demobilized and sent back to civilian life.


After World War I, the US largely demobilized the American Expeditionary Forces that had served in France. Having seen the horrors of trench warfare and new deadly weapons like machine guns and poison gas, many wanted America to stay out of future foreign conflicts. As a result, many were content to return to isolationism, where America could sit safely between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Protected from foreign armies by two enormous oceans, it seemed ludicrous to maintain a large military for defensive purposes.


soviets in germany after ww2
Soviet troops in Germany at the end of World War II, via Harvard University, Cambridge


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The end of World War II, however, did not seem to result in genuine peace. The Soviet Union, having retaken Eastern Europe from Germany and driven all the way to Berlin, did not plan to relinquish its hold on the formerly independent nations of Eastern Europe. Alarmingly, the USSR was still committed to spreading communism internationally, advocating for government ownership of the factors of production. This was seen as incompatible with American principles of freedom, private property rights, and limited government.


Occupying western Germany along with allies Britain and France, the US did not fully demobilize as in past wars. Instead, to counter potential Soviet plans to take the rest of Western Europe and spread communism by force, America retained a large standing military. Communist threats, including the Chinese Civil War, kept the United States on military alert. With threats of Soviet expansion occurring in both Europe and Asia, the US was compelled to remain a global power. Demobilization and isolationism were now a thing of the past.


Struggles Abroad & At Home Dampen America’s Cold War Fighting Spirit

civil rights protests
A civil rights protest in the United States, via Gallup News


The early Cold War saw some American successes: Western Europe was rebuilt from World War II with aid from the Marshall Plan, North Korea was prevented from overtaking South Korea, and the US checked Soviet attempts to station nuclear missiles in nearby Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, tensions were rising at home during the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement saw African Americans lobby and protest for equal rights, especially in the American South. Violence used by Southern leaders against peaceful protesters shocked the world and was capitalized upon for anti-American propaganda by the Soviet Union.


As the United States tried to promote itself internationally as a champion of freedom and equality, the USSR used the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s to portray America as hypocritical. Domestically, the situation was the opposite: many supporters of integration and racial equality, especially in the form of integrated labor unions, were attacked as communists. As nations in Africa and Asia became independent due to the end of British and French colonialism, the Soviets hoped to win new allies by helping portray the US as racist and disingenuous.


US soldiers during vietnam war
US soldiers during the Vietnam War (1958-1975), via the Museum of the American G.I., College Station


Protests over the ongoing Vietnam War followed the intense and anguishing struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. During the Cold War, the draft had continued, and thousands of young men had been compelled to fight in southeast Asia. Beginning in 1965, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. also protested against the Vietnam War. In 1967, he criticized the draft being used to take young black men, who had suffered from racism and discrimination, away from their homes to fight thousands of miles away.


By 1968, public opinion was turning against the Vietnam War. In January, the Tet Offensive had shown that the enemy was not close to giving up, as had often been claimed by the US government. Although newly-elected US president Richard Nixon declared in 1969 that he would secure “peace with honor” in Vietnam, by late 1972, negotiations were being carried out to end US involvement in the war. The Paris Accords of January 1973 signaled the end of US ground troops in Vietnam within 60 days. Unfortunately, South Vietnam could not win the war on its own, and North Vietnam defeated the South militarily in 1975, uniting the country under communism by force.


cold war resist the draft
Draft protesters in the United States, via People’s World


The US failure to defeat communism in Vietnam was a tremendous blow to the national psyche. Americans had lost considerable faith in the federal government. For the first time, the civilian public had seen the horrors of war on television and been far more aware of American casualties. Many felt that the public had been duped into initially supporting an unwinnable war.


In 1973, military conscription ended. Anti-war protesters had defeated it, and president Richard Nixon felt that ending the draft would weaken people’s desire to protest against the Vietnam War itself. The military became an all-volunteer force, and this tradition has continued since the 1970s, despite the emergence of the Gulf War (1990-91), the war in Afghanistan (2001-2021), and the Iraq War (2003-2011). Politically, the Vietnam War has destroyed public desire for military conscription, and even ardent defense hawks shy away from the issue.


Mid-to-Late 1970s: Détente & Trade With China May Have Weakened Soviet Resolve

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Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev (left) shakes hands with US President Richard Nixon (right) in the early 1970s, via the Richard Nixon Foundation


As the US struggled with domestic protests at home – the Civil Rights Movement, conscription, and the Vietnam War – it sought warmer relations with the Soviet Union. It also sought diplomatic relations with communist China for the first time; China had been represented by Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, since 1949. Until the early 1970s, the West had officially considered Taiwan to be the lawful government of China. In 1971, the United Nations replaced Taiwan with China, and the following year saw US president Richard Nixon visit Beijing and meet with Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.


In 1972, Nixon also visited Moscow to visit with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. The next year, Brezhnev returned the favor and visited Washington, D.C. This period of thawed tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union is known as détente, though its effect on the Cold War can be interpreted in different ways. The decision by China and the United States to open diplomatic relations can be seen as politically weakening the Soviet Union and isolating it after the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. Growing trade relations between the US and China in the late 1970s could be seen as denying the USSR a trade partner that could have kept its economy afloat in the 1980s. Today, the United States’ trade relationship with China is of tremendous economic and political importance and reveals that dollars trump political ideology.


1979-80: Iran, Afghanistan, & Moscow Olympics End Détente 

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Iranian protesters burning the American flag, via George Washington University, Washington DC


While economic struggles at home during the mid-to-late 1970s likely sapped America’s will to engage in Cold War machinations, 1979 brought conflict roaring back to the forefront. In November, protesters stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran and held its staff hostage. The Iran Hostage Crisis was a painful event that made America appear weak and unsure of itself on the international stage. Many wanted the US to use military force to free the hostages, though others cautioned that such an action could result in high casualties to the hostages.


Only weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a communist government. Although the US was primarily focused on the situation in Iran, it did begin providing arms to support the Mujahideen freedom fighters in Afghanistan. Similar to the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union quickly found itself embroiled in a seemingly unwinnable guerilla war against well-armed insurgents who avoided open battle against heavy armor and air support. Détente ended as the US condemned the Soviet invasion and initiated economic sanctions.


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Democratic US president Jimmy Carter (left) shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan (right) in 1980, via Wisconsin Public Radio


The 1980 presidential election saw the rise of a new conservative movement in US politics. Incumbent president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who had famously secured peace in the Middle East with the Camp David Accords, was criticized as being “soft on defense.” With the Soviets in Afghanistan, many wanted the US to flex its own military muscles. Republican challenger Ronald Reagan declared that he would achieve “peace through strength,” and he won in a landslide.


1980s & the Rise of the Neoconservative Movement

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The US invaded Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, via the US Army Transportation Museum, Fort Eustis


Under President Ronald Reagan, the US became more militarily active. In 1983, the US invaded the small island nation of Grenada to restore a democratic government and prevent Soviet and Cuban expansion. In 1984, in response to the bombing of a US Marines barracks in Lebanon, a Navy battleship launched the first shells from a full-scale American warship since World War II. In 1989, the US invaded Panama to oust corrupt and authoritarian leader Manuel Noriega.


This aggressive foreign intervention was a key pillar of neoconservatism. Under the Republican Party, often called Reagan Republicans due to the president’s high popularity, socially conservative ideals like patriotism, law and order, and “traditional values” became more popular. After the more socially liberal 1960s and 1970s, there was a desire to return to calmer and more conventional social norms. In a repudiation of the expensive liberal social programs created under Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms, Ronald Reagan cut spending on social programs.


morning again 1984
An image from the famous 1984 re-election ad claiming that, under incumbent Republican president Ronald Reagan, the economy has improved, via the Denton Record-Chronicle


Although Reagan cut social spending, he increased military spending to challenge the Soviet Union. Instead of these two changes balancing each other out, the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 led to massive deficit spending as tax revenue fell below federal spending. Although the national debt ballooned during Reagan’s two terms in the White House, economic growth increased substantially and helped secure Reagan’s re-election in 1984. The economy’s improvement helped the famous Morning Again in America political ad resonate with the electorate, and Reagan won in ’84 with a record landslide.


While Reagan’s combination of tax cuts and increased overall government spending (due to increased defense spending) are controversial today, Reaganomics is often credited with renewing America’s economic and psychological vigor during the 1980s. Cutting social spending and increasing defense spending while worrying little about deficits is another cornerstone of the neocon movement. How long a nation can engage in such spending before suffering from excessive mandatory payments on the national debt is debatable. But, among Democrats and Republicans, deficit spending remains popular due to its ability to stimulate the economy, reduce unemployment, and keep voters happy.


Peak Neocon: Cold War and Gulf War Victories

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A Gulf War victory parade in 1991, via the BBC


Although Ronald Reagan was replaced in office by his vice president, George Bush Sr., in 1989, Reagan’s neoconservative movement gets the credit for two geopolitical victories: the end of the Cold War and the quick success in the Gulf War. In the late 1980s, the Soviet economy began to crumble, leading citizens to demand increasing reforms and freedoms. By 1990, several Soviet republics had declared independence from the Soviet government in Moscow. In 1988, suffering from economic woes and public pressure, the USSR had begun to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, which it completed in 1989.


In 1990, the US led a coalition of 35 nations in standing up against the aggression of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Only two years after the end of the lengthy Iran-Iraq War, Iraq invaded its southern neighbor, Kuwait, to seize its oil. In a savvy show of diplomacy and strength, the US enacted Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia from a potential Iraqi invasion. In January 1991, Operation Desert Storm commenced with an air war against Iraqi military infrastructure. The ground invasion, in late February, lasted only 100 hours and resulted in a swift Iraqi defeat. That December, the USSR officially dissolved, and the US reveled in twin, relatively bloodless victories.


Peace Through Strength, But Avoid Foreign Wars of Occupation

cold war iraq war humvee
A Humvee, used in both the Gulf War (1990-91) and Iraq War (2003-11), via the US Army Transportation Museum, Fort Eustis


The neoconservative movement remained prominent during the 1990s and early 2000s. Although Democratic president Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, his administration still intervened militarily in Somalia in 1993 with ground troops and air wars over Serbia in the mid-to-late 1990s. The intervention in Mogadishu, Somalia, however, resulted in US casualties and eroded public support for future interventions. After the successful US interventions in Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War, the casualties in Somalia without a clear victory were a rude shock. Although “peace through strength” remained popular, it was more politically viable to exercise the strength via air power.


Avoiding ground troops was further cemented after the lengthy Iraq War and war in Afghanistan, which required US soldiers to occupy hostile territory. Recently, the Republican administration of US president Donald Trump sought to emulate Reagan’s military buildup and public focus on patriotism without engaging in foreign combat. Despite Trump’s deeply controversial and troubling nature, he was the first US president since Jimmy Carter to not engage in a new military conflict. Therefore, the social conservatism and military spending aspects of Cold War neoconservatism remain popular, but using ground troops for quick interventions has been decidedly unpopular since 1993.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.