1960s Int’l Affairs Category Master – BRIEF

Foreign Affairs

            At first it’s hard to imagine the 1960s without Cuba and Vietnam.  To many, it would be akin to leaving the Depression out of the 1930s or the Civil War out of the 1860s.  Unthinkable?  Not at all if one views history – at least in part – as knowing why the present looks the way it does.  As markers of the period, Vietnam and Cuba no doubt loom large.  They are, however, just two of many developments in international affairs during this time that people tend to mention repeatedly to the exclusion of just about everything else, but in fact are part of a greater pageant of international events wildly important for the United States and the world in so many ways.

            Repeated general surveys of the 1960s with only Cuba and Vietnam – that is, without Europe, Japan, China, India, South America, or the Middle East – are, to say the least, incomplete; and limit our ability to understanding the world as it is today.  Diplomacy and foreign relations have always leaped over five continents, and it is the very parochialism of 1960s accounts that have inspired our enterprise.  And not only ours.  The broad world was actually so important in the 1960s that one scholarly account labeled these years nothing less than “the crucial decade” in international relations.[i]  So what have we missed around the world during the so-called “long decade” that we’ve extended to 1975 so to include Watergate and the evacuation of Saigon?

            The five American presidents paid great attention to the state of world affairs.  From Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) to Gerald Ford (1974-77), relations between countries were far more numerous and complicated than the caricature often portrayed, and they would likely be surprised by accounts whose sole concern was Cuba and Vietnam.  By 1961, John F. Kennedy could describe a world that was “half slave and half free.”  Germany, Korea, and Vietnam were divided.  There was a “first,” a “second,” and a “third world.”

            In EUROPE, an “iron curtain” descended north to south after World War II, and the broadest story of the continent until 1989 was the management of peoples on either side of that line.  The eastern states were adjuncts of the Soviet Union with comparatively little say in their affairs.  For Western Europe, it was the story of its three largest members. Germany and France had economic miracles in the 1950s and 1960s.  Under the extraordinary Konrad Adenauer, a rearmed Germany became one of the backbone states of NATO and a reliable American ally.  Under the equally extraordinary Charles de Gaulle, France narrowly escaped catastrophe with its north African colonies after experiencing humiliation in Indochina; and France began the independent path that continues to this day within the Western alliance.  Great Britain’s economic recovery was weaker than Germany’s or France’s, and the 1960s challenged her to define a new role in the world after unwinding the lion’s share of her empire by 1975.  With decolonization, Britain was in a sense orphaned in the 1960s.  Perhaps because of this, she became America’s closest Cold War ally and her prime ministers became key advisors to American presidents in managing the West’s relationship with the Soviet Union.  In this way, Britain exercised informal influence around the world while relinquishing her central naval and financial role to her former colony, transferring ship bases and acquiescing to the dominance of the dollar at Bretton Woods.

            Besides Europe, the 1960s contain antecedents that help us understand events in the MIDDLE EAST as well.  The phenomenon of Nasserism is coterminous with our era, which fanned the flame of Arab nationalism, opposed Israel to the point of war, and turned the region into a Cold War cauldron.  We see the rise of the Soviet-financed Aswan High Dam on the Nile (1958-70), the formation of the PLO (1964), the appearances of Yasser Arafat (1964), Saddam Hussein in Iraq (1968), Hafez al-Assad in Syria (1970); and the indomitable “Lion,” King Hussein, who ruled Jordan for fifty years through trials that would have toppled a lesser man.

            Without the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the geography of the Levant and the status of Jerusalem would be impossible to explain.  The follow-on 1973 war unleashed OPEC’s “oil weapon” against the West near the end of our Long Decade, and disrupted most of the industrialized world.  All this static created turmoil for the wonderfully stable state of Lebanon, with its cosmopolitan capital, Beirut, for which the 1960s was a golden age – as it was for Iran.  The 1960s and 1970s were the years of Shah Pahlavi’s modernization drive that united conservative opposition against him and generated the counterrevolution that established the Islamic Republic in 1979 that today aspires to nuclear power.

            Everywhere the world was active.  The giant SOUTH ASIAN STATES of India and Pakistan created from the British retreat in 1947 chose separate paths of socialism and capitalism, and saw different economic results.  In the 1960s they clashed over Kashmir, saw China and the Soviet Union take sides, and the region became one of the most dangerous places on earth – even seeing a war between the Indians and Chinese themselves.  Indo-Pakistani tensions of the 1960s peaked in a terrible conflict that saw the birth of Bangladesh, and more importantly, fueled both powers to go nuclear to defend against each other.

            For all the 1960s’ attention to Vietnam, accounts overlook tensions between Malaysia and Southeast Asia’s largest maritime state – Indonesia – under the stern and guiding hand of Sukarno.  It is not a small detail to recall that the Indonesian communist party (PKI) was the third largest in the world throughout the decade, or that Indonesia in 1964 aspired to nuclear weapons, and had formal alliances with China and the Soviet Union.  Likewise the leadership of Tunku Rahman to 1970 explains why Malaysia looks the way it does today ethnically and geographically with the acquisition of territory and the jettisoning of an independent Singapore in 1965.  In Southeast Asia, these were transformational years for Australia as well, which emerged from isolation after the war and, with a new immigration policy, became a magnet for people looking for opportunity from all over the world.  The largest engineering project in its history that developed the Snowy Mountains region in the southeast of the country supported the growth of the great coastal cities, symbolized for so many today by the construction of the opera house at Sydney.  With resolve and vitality, Australia and New Zealand became staunch American allies in a new defense architecture in the Pacific during the Cold War to replace the British after their withdrawal of forces “east of Suez” in 1967.

            The postwar years and the 1960s were exciting ones across Asia.  Like Germany, JAPAN underwent what The Economist called in 1962 an economic miracle.  And, as reliable as Germany became in Europe as a Cold War ally, “hot war” in Korea and Vietnam made Japan an “eastern barracks” for the United States and moved Japan from hardship to prosperity in an astonishingly short time.  Indeed the 1960s saw the transformation of Japan from an island nation on the periphery of Asia once determined to dominate its neighbors by force into a worldwide economic giant committed to peace.  Growth rates were almost unprecedented in economic history.  By 1970, Japan’s national wealth dwarfed all countries in Asia with its per capita income 10 times greater for example than all the nations of Southeast Asia combined.  The Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and the Osaka Expo ’70 signaled the arrival of a giant, and so did the arrival in 1972 of the first Honda Civic to the United States.

            Japan was the sensational growth story of the 1960s rarely told.  So is the emergence of the ASIAN TIGERS that became outposts of economic fireworks and affect everyone today in manufacturing, services, and at times, military affairs.  Each took off on its growth path in our era and they form a spectacular sequence of familiar names: Taiwan (1959), Hong Kong (1961), South Korea (1963), and the richest tiger today, Singapore (1965).  These became economic successes for others to follow in later decades.  For the United States, they were important islands of stability in a Cold War climate dangerous to predict or control.

            The four “little tigers” emerged into the world in the 1960s.  “Mama tiger” Japan excelled magnificently.  Meanwhile, CHINA turned in on itself, convulsed and burned.  The Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1975) were Mao Zedong’s attempts to control and modernize China at absolutely terrible cost, and at a time coterminous with the 1960s generally – with Cuba, Vietnam, endemic instability in the Middle East, South Asia, and crises in Berlin.  Added was the rupture between Mao and the Russians in the mid-1960s that militarized the Sino-Soviet border with nuclear weapons and further complicated international relations by shifting the world from a two-power Cold War into a Sino-Soviet-American triangle.

            Across SOUTH and Central America were kaleidoscopic changes of which Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” was a small part.  Brazil threw up a new capital on the edge of the jungle, and seemed to verge on great power status.  Argentina went the other way though, while Chile suffered the largest earthquake of the 20th century, saw the socialist experimentation of Allende, and the butchery of Augusto Pinochet.  Operation Condor unsettled the continent from Bolivia southward, while the northern state of Colombia was remarkably stable except for the FARC terrorist organization.  FARC, of course, still plagues Colombia today as well as Venezuela, which had helped found OPEC in 1960 and enjoyed the region’s highest standard of living and cordial relations with the West during our decade.  Tiny French Guiana became a crucial launch site for rockets of the European Space Agency, and several Caribbean states organized themselves into a free trade association in 1965.

            In CANADA, MEXICO, and SCANDINAVIA, as well as in Congo and across AFRICA in the wake of European decolonization, people acted and events occurred in the 1960s that rippled into the future and explain why the present looks the way it does.  There was much around the world that was forgotten in a decade that seemed to demand a president’s attention everywhere and at all times, not just in Havana or Saigon.

J. Peter Brobst, Ph.D.
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio


            [i] Diane Kunz, The Diplomacy of the Crucial Decade: American Foreign Relations during the 1960s (New York: Columbia, 1994). Author’s emphasis.

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