How did Cold War politics and assumptions shape American foreign policy from 1950–1980?

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It's no exaggeration to say that US foreign policy throughout the whole of this period was entirely determined by the imperatives of the Cold War. One of the most notable—and it has to be said, regrettable—manifestations of Cold War influence was on American policy towards the developing world. All too often, the United States openly supported and allied itself with all manner of unsavory regimes in this part of the world as a means of holding back the spread of communism.

Such regimes routinely oppressed their own people, presiding over the systematic violation of human rights. Yet they could always rely on the unwavering support of the United States so long as they played their part in keeping communist insurgency at bay. This particular aspect of US Cold War policy stored up a good deal of ill-will towards the United States, and was exploited—ironically enough—by the very same leftist movements that the policy was supposed to defeat.

In South Vietnam, for example, American support for the corrupt, far-right autocracy of Ngo Dinh Diem gave a huge propaganda gift to the regime's communist opponents, who painted the Americans as colonialist oppressors. Far from seeing off the communist menace, American support for Diem greatly exacerbated its threat, as the Vietnam War would confirm in due course.

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Cold War politics and assumptions shaped the foreign policy of the United States in many ways during the time period that you mention here.  Let us look at a few of the ways in which this happened.

They caused the US to intervene in many places because it believed those interventions were necessary to prevent the spread of communism.  The Vietnam War is the most famous example of this, but there were many others.  Because the US assumed that the Soviet Union was trying to spread communism around the world, it reacted in this way.

They caused the US to support morally questionable non-communist regimes.  Because the US was worried about the spread of communism, it gave a great deal of support to regimes that were not very democratic and which did not care much about human rights.  South Africa’s apartheid regime is one of the best examples of this.

They caused the US to try to strengthen other countries’ economies.  After World War II, for example, the US helped both Germany and Japan to rebuild their economies.  These countries eventually became major competitors of the US.

Cold War assumptions about the spread of communism led to all of these types of foreign policies.   

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