BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage
BBC Radio

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!


Che Guevara and Fidel Castro The third series of America charts the Post-War era.

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 3: 1 June - 10 July

The Impotence of Omnipotence

Cuba - That Four Letter Word

In 1959, Fidel Castro's communists took power in Cuba, and began to accept Soviet aid. In 1961, an American-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was a humiliating fiasco. To add insult to injury, in the same month the Soviet Union launched the first man into space. Kennedy pledged America would put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. This was eventually fulfilled in July 1969.

Solving the 'Cuba problem' became even more of a priority for the U.S. when, in October 1962, they discovered the Soviets were installing medium-range nuclear missiles there. The Kennedy administration imposed a blockade of Cuba. The world held its breath during the resulting stand off, but Soviet ships steaming towards Cuba eventually turned back. Soviet leader Khrushchev knew that, if it came to nuclear war, his country would be the certain loser. Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba, while the Soviets withdrew their missiles.

Kennedy now held the initiative and, in a major address in June 1963, reached out to the Russian people in the language of co-existence. His assassination in November meant we will never know how he might have moved on from this rhetoric.

Vietnam - The Battleground of Freedom

From 1946, the Vietnamese nationalist Vietminh were fighting against French colonial rule. After 1950, Chinese aid helped the Vietminh defeat the French and, in 1954, the country was partitioned, pending elections in 1956. The U.S. blocked the elections, concerned that Ho Chi Minh's communist-led government in the north would gain control of the whole country.

So throughout the 1950s, an American-backed South Vietnam and a communist government in the north consolidated their positions. By 1960, opposition to the South's leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, had mushroomed into a North Vietnam-backed guerrilla uprising (the Viet Cong). Keen to take a stand against communism, the U.S. secretly increased aid to South Vietnam, effectively taking over its war against the Vietcong. By the summer of 1963, this covert war had become overt. America backed a military coup against Diem's regime, but were unable to find a suitable successor. The Viet Cong gained control of over half of the South and the U.S. suffered its first significant casualties.

In July 1965, Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson reluctantly introduced U.S. troops into large-scale combat operations in Vietnam. It was now difficult to pretend that America was simply helping a free government defend itself against communist aggression, and the U.S. had now invested too much in South Vietnam's survival to allow it to fall.

Domestically, Johnson downplayed this military escalation, fearing conservatives in Congress would use it to scupper his social reforms. He took refuge behind the 'Gulf of Tonkin Resolution', allowing him to make ever larger troop commitments in Vietnam without further congressional endorsement. The costs of war were financed by government borrowing, rather than new taxes. Johnson believed he could simultaneously fight poverty in America and communism in Vietnam.

1968 - Paralysis of a President

By early 1968, Lyndon Johnson's presidency was paralysed, chiefly by the war in Vietnam. American bombing of North Vietnam had had little effect on the country's war effort or on civilian morale. On the ground, American firepower seemed irrelevant against an elusive enemy fighting without tanks or air cover. By the end of 1967 there were nearly half a million U.S. troops in Vietnam and communist successes in the January 1968 Tet Offensive gave lie to Johnson's talk of 'making progress'.

In March, Johnson announced that the U.S. would stop bombing most of the north and would start peace talks. His sense of relief was short-lived. Four days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In June 1968, while campaigning for the Democrats' presidential nomination,, Bobby Kennedy, was shot.

Johnson used King's death to drive through racially fairer housing legislation and attempted, with only partial success, to introduce tougher gun control after Kennedy's assassination. But overall, a sense of failure pervaded Johnson's last months in office, as his attempts to negotiate peace in Vietnam stalled. At the Democrat convention in Chicago in August 1968, the party was polarized over the war, as the city witnessed scenes of police brutality against protestors and bystanders. In the country, a conservative backlash was beginning.

Vietnam - 'Peace with Honor'?

The chaos of 1968 helped get Nixon into the White House in 1969. His priority was extricating America from its costly involvement in Vietnam. Force was clearly failing, so Nixon turned to diplomacy. North Vietnam was dependent on supplies from Russia and China, both locked in Cold War animosity with America. Nixon hoped to stop this aid by forging new relationships with both countries.

Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed that total secrecy was necessary, keeping negotiations out of the hands of the traditional diplomats and away from the media. Kissinger acted as a go-between, arranging Nixon's dramatic visit to China in February 1972, and to Moscow that May. The latter resulted in a series of agreements, including a five-year freeze on new missiles. It was the first time the superpowers had tried to restrain the arms race. Nixon and Kissinger had overturned a quarter-century of Cold War history.

Nixon's diplomatic triumphs helped his landslide victory in the 1972 election. Moscow and Beijing put pressure on Hanoi to settle, while Washington leaned on South Vietnam. In January 1973, Nixon announced an agreement had been reached to end the Vietnam War. In reality it was not what Nixon described as 'peace with honor' but a face-saving interval before the collapse of South Vietnam.

58,000 Americans died in Vietnam; the Vietnamese death toll was up to two million. As far as Nixon was concerned, he had got America out of the Vietnam quagmire and could start his second term with a clean slate.

Watergate and the Imperial Presidency

In June 1972, the Washington Post reported that five men had been arrested trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at Washington's Watergate complex. The Post linked the burglars and the large sums of money in their possession to the Committee to Re-elect the President. The White House insisted that the Nixon administration was not involved.

The President almost certainly didn't know about Watergate in advance, but he had fostered a climate of ruthless, paranoid law-breaking that encouraged such actions. And Nixon was definitely at the centre of the cover-up that followed. This held the lid on the case until after the 1972 elections, but in the New Year of 1973 it was blown right up, as the Senate appointed a special committee to enquire into Watergate and the trial of the Watergate burglars began.

The cancer kept spreading and Watergate was now consuming most of Nixon's time and energy, and sapping his political credibility. In mid-July, one of his aides revealed that Nixon had taped his own conversations, and the President was forced to hand over some of these tapes.

At the end of July, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against Nixon, and the Supreme Court rejected his final effort to withhold key tapes. These included the so-called smoking-gun transcript from June 1972, when he tried to stop the FBI investigation into Watergate. This sealed Nixon's fate and he resigned in August.

To the wider world, it seemed incredible that the US President could be toppled by a minor burglary. In fact, Watergate was symptomatic of the back channel, backstabbing methods by which the Nixon presidency operated. Nixon's defenders maintain that bypassing Congress, bureaucracy and the media was necessary for success because the U.S. political system deliberately frustrates vigorous executive leadership.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger saw Vietnam and Watergate in a longer perspective, as the culmination of an 'imperial presidency' that had been growing throughout the Cold War. In the end, republican democracy - clumsy and partisan - brought down the imperial president.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy