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One of the definitive transformations in global politics after World War II was the shift in the locus of power from Europe to the United States and the Soviet Union. It was American aid or Soviet power that guided the reconstruction of Europe after the war, and both superpowers proved themselves more than capable of making policy decisions for the countries within their respective spheres of influence. The Soviets directly controlled Eastern Europe and had an enormous amount of influence in the other communist countries, while the United States exercised considerable influence on the member nations of NATO.
Thus, many Europeans struggled to make sense of their own identity, with the height of European power still being a living memory. One issue of tremendous importance to most Europeans was the status of their colonies, most of which were still intact in the immediate postwar period. Many Europeans felt that, with all their flaws, colonies still somehow proved the relevance and importance of the mother countries – as an example, the former British prime minister Winston Churchill was dismayed by the prospect of Indian independence from the British commonwealth even when most Britons accepted it as inevitable. Many in France and Britain in particular thought that their colonies could somehow keep them on the same level as the superpowers in terms of global power and, in a sense, relevance.
There were a host of problems with imperialism by 1945, however, that were all too evident. Colonial troops had played vital roles in the war, with millions of Africans and Asians serving in the allied armies (well over two million troops from India alone served as part of the British military). Colonial troops fought in the name of defending democracy from fascism and tyranny, yet back in their home countries they did not have access to democratic rights. Many independence movements, such as India’s, refused to aid in the war effort as a result. Once the war was over, troops returned home to societies that were still governed not only as political dependencies, but were divided starkly along racial lines. The contrast between the ostensible goals of the war and the obvious injustice in the colonies could not have been more evident.
Simultaneously, the Cold War became the overarching framework of conflict around the world, sometimes playing a primary role in domestic conflicts in countries hundreds or even thousands of miles from either of the superpowers themselves. At its worst, the Cold War led to “proxy wars” between American-led or at least American-supplied anti-communists and communist insurgents inspired by, and occasionally supported by the Soviet Union or communist (as of 1949) China. There was thus a complex matrix of conflict around the world that combined independence struggles within colonies on the one hand and proxy conflicts and wars between factions caught in the web of the Cold War on the other. Sometimes, independence movements like those of India and Ghana managed to avoid being ensnared in the Cold War. Other times, however, countries like Vietnam became battlegrounds on which the conflict between capitalism and communism erupted in enormous bloodshed.
The newly-founded United Nations generally failed to prevent the outbreak of war despite its nominal goal of arbitrating peaceful solutions for international problems. It was hamstrung by the fact that the two superpowers were among those with permanent seats on the UN Security Council, the body that was charged with authorizing the use of force when necessary. Likewise, the two “camps” of the Cold War generally remained loyal to their respective superpower leaders, ensuring that there could be no unified decision making when it came to Cold War conflicts.
In addition, while some independence movements that avoided becoming embroiled in the Cold War were able to secure national independence peacefully, others did not. In many cases, European imperial powers reacted violently to their colonial subjects’ demands for independent governance, leading both the bloodshed and grotesque violations of human rights. Here, again, the United Nations was generally unable to prevent violence, although it did at times at least provide an ethical framework by which the actions of the imperialist powers might be judged historically.
Major Cold War Conflicts
Fortunately for the human species, the Cold War never turned into a “hot” war between the two superpowers, despite close calls like that of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It did, however, lead to wars around the world that were part of the Cold War setting but also involved conflicts between colonizers and the colonized. In other words, many conflicts in the postwar era represented a combination of battles for independence from European empires and proxy wars between the two camps of the Cold War.
Korean War 1950 – 1953 (de facto)
The first such war was in Korea. Korea had been occupied by Japan since 1910, one of the first countries to be conquered during Japan’s bid to create an East Asian and Pacific empire that culminated in the Pacific theater of World War II. The Korean Peninsula had been divided like Germany at the end of the war with the Soviets administering the north while the south was controlled by the United States. In the midst of the confusion in the immediate postwar era, the two superpowers ignored Korean demands for independence and instead divided the country in two. The U.S.S.R. helped establish a communist regime under Kim Il-sung, while the Americans supported an authoritarian “nationalist”, Syngman Rhee.
In 1950, North Korean troops supported with Soviet arms and allied Chinese troops invaded the south in the name of reuniting the country under communist rule. This was a case in which both the Soviets and the Chinese directly supported an invasion in the name of spreading communism, something that would become far less common in subsequent conflicts. A United Nations force consisting mostly of American soldiers, sailors, and pilots fought alongside South Korean troops against the North Korean and Chinese forces.
By October, U.S.-led United Nations forces had pushed the communist North Korean forces out of the south and had taken the northern capital, Pyongyang. U.N. armies continued to advance northward toward the Chinese border at the Yalu River, which brought China into the war on the North Korean side. On October 25, U.N. troops were surprised by a counterattack by millions of soldiers from China, as Mao defended Chinese territory from foreign invasion and his own new communist government, established only a year before.
U.S. commander Douglas MacArthur, a hero of the Pacific War in World War II and leader of the occupation of Japan, talked about his ambition to expand the conflict in Korea to a full-on war with China and contemplated using nuclear weapons. Since the USSR also had nuclear weapons and had signed a mutual-defense treaty with Mao’s new government, a war with China was likely to escalate into World War III. When the general refused to back down and criticized the president’s judgment, Harry Truman fired MacArthur.
After three years of bloody fighting and nearly 3 million Korean deaths (and 54,000 U.S. GIs), the two sides agreed to a cease-fire, but technically the war has never officially ended – both sides have simply remained in a tense state of truce since 1953. North Korea has become a totalitarian closed society, largely isolated after the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s embrace of capitalism in the 1980s. The Kim family has remained in power despite famine and mismanagement, while defending their regime by developing nuclear weapons. South Korea was ruled by Rhee and the military until a transition to democracy in the 1990s, when it became a successful industrial power following the Japanese development model.
As South Korea evolved to become a modern, technologically advanced and politically democratic society, the north devolved into a nominally “communist” tyranny in which poverty and even outright famine were tragic realities of life. The US continues to maintain a military presence in South Korea with troops stationed near the capital of Seoul. The border between North and South is considered the most heavily militarized zone in the world.
Suez Crisis (October 1956 – November 1956)
Egypt had been part of the British empire since 1882 when it was seized during the Scramble for Africa. It achieved a degree of independence after World War I, but remained squarely under British control in terms of its foreign policy. Likewise, the Suez Canal – the crucially important link between the Mediterranean and Red Sea completed in 1869 – was under the direct control of a Canal Company dominated by the British and French. In 1952 the Egyptian general Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British-supported regime and asserted complete Egyptian independence. The United States initially sought to bring him into the American camp by offering funds for a massive new dam on the Nile, but then Nasser made an arms deal with (communist) Czechoslovakia. The funds were denied, and Nasser announced that he would instead seize the Suez Canal (which flowed directly through Egyptian territory) to pay for the dam instead.
Thus, in the summer of 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Henceforth, all of the traffic going through the vitally important canal would be regulated by Egypt directly. Stung by the nationalization, Britain and France plotted to reassert control. The British and French were joined by Israeli politicians who saw Nasser’s bold move as a direct threat to Israeli security (sharing as they did an important border). A few months of frenzied behind-the-scenes diplomacy and planning ensued, and in October Israeli, British, and French forces invaded Egypt.
Despite being a legacy of imperialism, the “Suez Crisis” swiftly became a Cold War conflict as well. Concerned both at the imperial posturing of Britain and France and at the prospect of the invasion sparking Soviet involvement, US President Dwight Eisenhower forcefully demanded that the Israelis, French, and British withdraw, threatening economic boycotts (all while attempting to reduce the volatility with the Soviets). Days later Khrushchev threatened nuclear strikes if the French, Israeli, and British forces did not pull back. Cowed, the Israeli, French, and British forces retreated. The Suez Crisis demonstrated that the US dominated the policy decisions of its allies almost as completely as did the Soviets theirs. The US might not run its allied governments as puppet states, but it could directly shape their foreign policy.
In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Egypt’s control of the canal was assured. While generally closer to the USSR than the US in its foreign policy, it also tried to initiate a genuine “third way” between the two superpowers, and Egyptian leaders called for Arab nationalism and unity in the Middle East as a way to stay independent of the Cold War. Despite that intention, however, the Suez Crisis saw both superpowers take a more active interest in maintaining client, or at least friendly, states in the region, regardless of the ideological commitments of those states. This led to the strange spectacle of the United States, nominal champion of democracy, forming a close alliance with the autocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia and other states resolutely uncommitted to representative government or even basic human rights.
China and Mao (in Office from 1943-1976)
The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 led to continuing diplomatic conflict over the status of Taiwan and war on the Korean Peninsula. An additional hotspot is Tibet, a Himalayan region historically dominated by the Chinese Empire that became an independent nation run by Buddhist monks during the chaotic early years of the Chinese Republic in the 1920s. Mao Zedong decided to reclaim Tibet for his new People’s Republic, and sent in troops in 1951. Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama from that time is still the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, and the “Free Tibet” movement is very active around the world.
Internally, Mao’s own totalitarian style had disastrous consequences for the Chinese. The communists had already begun land reform around 1946 in the parts of China they controlled, well before their final victory; the policy had gained them widespread support among the vast peasant population. With the nationalists out of the way, Mao’s policy became more aggressive. He called for the elimination of the landlord class of peasants and redistribution of the land more evenly. Unfortunately, when Mao said elimination, he meant it. Class-motivated mass killings of landlords continued for the next 30 years and estimates of the death tolls range from 14 million to 28 million.
The purge of landlords was followed by the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social plan from 1958 to 1962 that collectivized agriculture and promoted industry.
Mao set up 25,000 “people’s communes” of 5,000 families each, which would be responsible for not only feeding themselves and their fellow Chinese citizens, but for providing surpluses to export.
Mao insisted on keeping grain exports high in spite of poor harvests. The famine that resulted, known as the Great Chinese Famine, killed 55 million people, although a few million were apparently beaten to death and millions more committed suicide. In some regions of China, people resorted to cannibalism.
This disaster caused some prominent communist party members to question Mao’s leadership, but he maintained support in the army and blamed the famine on a lack of socialist commitment among the Chinese. Mao initiated his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, leading the military to recruit young people to reinforce Maoist ideology and purge remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. Schools and universities were closed, and Red Guard troops were encouraged to harass and even murder intellectuals. Educated people were beaten, terrorized, and banished to the countryside to be “reeducated” by the peasants. The death toll of the Cultural Revolution is debated, but estimates range from 3 to 10 million. It delayed Chinese industrialization and modernization, and a generation of Chinese were deprived of an education.
Meanwhile, in 1945 Vietnamese insurgents declared Vietnam’s independence from France, and French forces (such as they were following the German occupation) hastily invaded in an attempt to hold on to the French colony of Indochina. When the Korean War exploded a few years later, the United States intervened to support France, convinced by the events in Korea that communism was spreading like a virus across Asia. As American involvement grew, orders for munitions and equipment from the US to Japan revitalized the Japanese economy and, ironically given the carnage of the Pacific theater of World War II, began to forge a strong political alliance between the two former enemies.
The Korean War energized the American obsession with preventing the spread of communism. President Truman of the US insisted, against the bitter protests of the British and French, that West Germany be allowed to rearm in order to help bolster the anti-Soviet alliance. As French forces suffered growing defeats in Indochina, the US ramped up its commitment in order to prevent another Asian nation from becoming a communist state. The American theory of the “domino effect” of the spread of communism from country to country seemed entirely plausible at the time, and across the American political spectrum there was a strong consensus that communism could only be held in check by the application of military force.
That led directly to the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War). The Vietnam War is among the most infamous in modern American history (for Americans) because America lost it. In turn, American commitment to the war only makes if it is placed in its historical context, that of a Cold War conflict that appeared to American policymakers as a test of resolve in the face of the spread of communism. The conflict was, in fact, as much about colonialism and imperialism as it was communism: the essential motivation of the North Vietnamese forces was the desire to seize genuine independence from foreign powers. The war itself was an outgrowth of the conflict between the Vietnamese and their French colonial masters, one that eventually dragged in the United States.
The war “really” began with the end of World War II. During the war, the Japanese seized Vietnam from the French, but with the Japanese defeat the French tried to reassert control, putting a puppet emperor on the throne and moving their forces back into the country. Vietnamese independence leaders, principally the former Parisian college student (and former dishwasher – he worked at restaurants in Paris while a student) Ho Chi Minh, led the communist North Vietnamese forces (the Viet Minh) in a vicious guerrilla war against the beleaguered French. In a prescient moment with a French official, Ho Chi Minh once prophesied that “you will kill ten of our men, but we will kill one of yours and you will end up by wearing yourselves out.” The Soviet Union and China both provided weapons and aid to the North Vietnamese, while the US anticipated its own (later) invasion by supporting the South.
The French period of the conflict reached its culminating point in 1954 when the French were soundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu, a French fortress that was overwhelmed by the Viet Minh. The French retreated, leaving Vietnam torn between the communists in the north and a corrupt but anti-communist force in the south supported by the United States. Refusing to allow the national elections that had been planned for 1956, the US instead propped up an unpopular president, Ngo Dinh Diem, who claimed authority over the entire country.
An insurgency, labeled the Viet Cong (“Vietnamese communists”) by the Diem government, supported by the north erupted in 1958, leading the US to provision hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and, soon, an increasing number of military advisers to the south.
In 1964, pressured by both Soviet and Chinese advisers and with the US stepping up pressure on the Viet Cong, the Viet Minh leadership launched a full-scale invasion in the name of Vietnamese unification. American involvement skyrocketed as the South Vietnamese proved unable to contain the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong insurgents. Over time, thousands of American military “advisers,” mostly made up of what would become known as special forces, were joined by hundreds of thousands of American troops. In 1964, citing a fabricated attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Lyndon Johnson called for a full-scale armed response, which opened the floodgates for a true commitment to the war (technically, war was never declared, however, with the entire conflict constituting a “police action” from the American policy perspective).
Ultimately, Ho Chi Minh was proven right in his predictions about the war. American and South Vietnamese forces were fought to a standstill by the Viet Minh and Viet Cong, with neither side winning a definitive victory. All the while, however, the war was becoming more and more unpopular in America itself and in its allied countries. As the years went by, journalists catalogued much of the horrific carnage unleashed by American forces, with jungles leveled by chemical agents and napalm and, notoriously, civilians massacred. The United States resorted to a lottery system tied to conscription – “the draft” – in 1969, which led to tens of thousands of American soldiers sent against their will to fight in jungles thousands of miles from home. Despite the vast military commitment, US and South Korean forces started to lose ground by 1970.
In 1973, with American approval for the war hovering at 30%, President Richard Nixon oversaw the withdrawal of American troops and the end of support for the South Vietnamese. The Viet Minh finally seized the capital of Saigon and ended the war in 1975. The human cost was immense: over a million Vietnamese died, along with some 60,000 American troops.
Cambodian Civil War (1968-1975) and the Cambodian Genocide
The Cambodian Civil War was a civil war in Cambodia fought between the forces of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (known as the Khmer Rouge, supported by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong) against the government forces of the Kingdom of Cambodia and, after October 1970, the Khmer Republic, which had succeeded the kingdom (both supported by the United States (U.S.) and South Vietnam).
The Khmer Rouge regime frequently arrested and often executed anyone suspected of connections with the former Cambodian government or foreign governments, as well as professionals, intellectuals, the Buddhist monkhood, and ethnic minorities. Even those who were stereotypically thought of as having intellectual qualities, such as wearing glasses or speaking multiple languages, were executed for fear that they would rebel against the Khmer Rouge.
Children were widely used (and abducted) during and after the war, often being persuaded or forced to commit atrocities. The indoctrinated children were taught to follow any order without hesitation.
The Khmer Rouge regime is also well known for practicing torturous medical experiments on prisoners. People were imprisoned and tortured merely on suspicion of opposing the regime or because other prisoners gave their names under torture. Whole families (including women and children) ended up in prisons and were tortured because the Khmer Rouge feared that if they did not do this, their intended victims’ relatives would seek revenge. Pol Pot said, “if you want to kill the grass, you also have to kill the roots”. Most prisoners did not even know why they had been imprisoned and, if they dared to ask the prison guards, the guards would answer only by saying that Angkar (the Communist Party of Kampuchea) never makes mistakes, which meant that they must have done something illegal.
The Cambodian government estimated that more than 20 percent of the property in the country had been destroyed during the war. In total, an estimated 275,000–310,000 people were killed as a result of the war.
The Cambodian genocide was the systematic persecution and killing of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Communist Party general secretary Pol Pot, who radically pushed Cambodia towards communism. It resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 2 million people from 1975 to 1979, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population.
The massacres ended when the Vietnamese military invaded in 1978 and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.
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