The cold war was arguably the strangest type of war ever to have taken place in the world till today. With not a single direct shot being fired between the two opposing forces, this war spanned the length of the period following the Second World War till the 1990s.
It affected not only Western Europe but large parts of Asia as well and was the defining factor in international politics and economic exchanges between countries during the era. Much of the alliances formed and the events that took place during the time have defined nations around the world or brought them to the brink of destruction. East Asia was one region which suffered the brunt of the Cold War, being divided on the lines of allegiance to one of the two world powers.
It requires a significant bit of analysis to decipher how a war that originated in Europe, with both the powers contesting for greater control over the politics of nations in Europe, trickled over to East Asia. Since Truman’s Marshal Plan and the British inability to support the Greek authorities in fighting the communist guerrillas, the United States had adopted a rather more expansionist stance and intervened in the Italian elections leading to victory for the Christian Democratic Party. This was followed by greater Soviet involvement in Eastern Europe, strengthening its stranglehold over the areas it had helped to liberate from the Nazis. However, this engagement in Europe suddenly shifted to East Asia as well with the rise of Communist China under Mao Zedong (Chen 2001).
China presented several challenges to the United States. First off, it was a country rich in resources and manpower and the thought of such a state falling to communism was a frightening prospect for the capitalist and pro-democracy US. Secondly, it was situated in the heartland of Asia where it would be able to exert considerable influence on the neighboring states, many of which had just gained independence and could fall prey to communist ideology. A third reason was the threat now posed to the allies of the United States in East Asia such as Japan. Thus it was deemed necessary to increase influence in the region and stem the possible emergence of a communist tide that would seep across the Asian continent.
With the rising communist influence in the East, the US made its first commitment to a peace treaty with Japan in 1950. This was accompanied by a guarantee of being able to situate long term military bases in the former empire. Many observers point to this as being the stimulus for Stalin’s approval of a plan to invade the pro-US South Korea, through Kim Il Sung’s North Korea (Stokesbury 1990). These two had been divided along the 38th-parallel and had divided loyalties towards the two super powers.
This presented a threat to the interests of the United States as a pro-capitalist state was being threatened by a communist one. This was exacerbated by the close presence of Japan to South Korea which could be next if some action was not taken. Thus a resolution was passed in the United Nations, condemning the communist invasion and establishing a joint force under General Douglas Macarthur to quell the North Korean attack (Stokesbury 1990).
The forces proved remarkably successful, eventually pushing the attacking forces back as far as the Yalu River. This however presented a new dimension of threat to China. As North Korea acted as a buffer state for the Eastern giant, it felt its interests being threatened and emerged into the war against the allied forces.
The war thus ended at roughly close to the 38th parallel once more in a stalemate (Fehrenbach 2001). However, the status quo was maintained in the region and it marked the first direct presence of the United States in East Asia during the Cold War. On the communist side, the Soviet Union and China became stronger partners which would lead to further influence in East Asia, requiring a stronger US monitoring of the situation and response.
Following the Korean War, proxy battles in the Third World became an important arena of superpower competition. This was in line with the US policy shift towards Asia in general. Since the competition between the two powers had decreased European domination over Africa, Latin America and Asia, it led to currents of decolonization which presented new grounds of expansion for the Cold War enemies.
East Asia was seeing its share of newly formed countries and with the presence of a gigantic communist China in the backyard, action by the United States was necessary to maintain some balance. The South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed in 1954 with this in mind. It incorporated Philippines and Thailand along with a consortium of Western Nations, Australia and Pakistan in a defense pact relating to East Asia. The members were to engage in collective efforts should some war happen in the region. The pact however proved relatively useless for the United States as the proceedings frequently ended in deadlock with some members not willing to contribute their support in emerging conflicts.
Keeping with the flow of decolonization sweeping across Asia, the war in French Vietnam was an area of particular concern for the United States. With the French forces being eliminated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, it resulted in a tremendous victory for the Vietnamese Viet Minh communist revolutionary forces (David 1991).
This big defeat of a colonial army in a pitched battle against communist guerrillas would not only result in a communist nation emerging on the scene but could also serve as a rallying cry for the guerrilla forces around the world which were overwhelmingly leftist. Thus the US saw it necessary to extend support to the Republic of Vietnam, battling the National Liberation Front Guerrillas which were supported by the communist North Vietnam. This was further precipitated by the outright support of the Soviets and Chinese for the communist country. This was to serve as the precursor for the Vietnam War.
When the inability of South Vietnam to hold its own against the communist guerrillas dawned upon the American high command, it started increasing its military presence in the region, eventually stretching its forces to over half a million in 1968. This was a typical battle between the pro-democracy south supported by the US and the NLF guerrillas drawn primarily from the peasant population of the country but militarily backed by the communist forces (David 1991).
The beginning years of the war saw increasing casualties for the American forces who found it tough to negotiate through the terrain and the guerrilla tactics of the communist forces. This was made worse by the uncertain position towards the war at home. As the body bag count mounted and opposition to the campaign grew in campuses across the US, it reached a precipice with the surprising Tet Offensive by the communist forces (David 1991).
Although it was of little military value, it produced a psychological effect on the Americans who started calling for an end to US participation in the war. Renouncing interests in the region however was not something favorable for the super power and it maintained other forms of support for South Vietnam. However, they quickly got overwhelmed and the combined Vietnam became a communist state. This marked a failure for the US and a big victory for the communist powers.
Following these military encounters, East Asia still remained a region of interest for both the powers in terms of ideological value. United States’ stake in the region increased dramatically with the emergence of a split in the communist camp between the Chinese and the Soviets over communist ideology (Cold War 1945-1960).
This presented an opportunity to improve relations with China and decrease Soviet influence which again put East Asia as the principle focus of interest in the Cold War. Richard Nixon’s meeting with the Chinese premier was the height of these years of improved relations. This however marked a downturn in direct military involvement of the US in East Asia. As the region was no longer buoyed by influence by the USSR and America and China was there to have a strong stake in the surrounding areas, it became less of a war zone.
The US was contented as long as its core allies, Japan and South Korea were safe from communist influence and shunned too much intrusion into Chinese matters (Gallicchio 1988). The USSR had to deal with the Asian giant as well and since relations were no longer as before, Soviet influence in East Asia dropped. The US still kept up economic support in the region, especially in the case of South Korea which saw massive influx of America capital and rapid development. This was necessary to show the capitalist model as superior to the communist and provide a contrast with North Korea which itself had a crippled economy following the war (Gallichio 1988).
Thus, it can be seen that East Asia was a crucial platform for the Cold War. Seeing two major encounters with two direct involvements by a super power and other conflicts, the region was a battleground between two ideologies, experiencing the brunt of their military and economic might. The main reason for this importance of East Asia was the emergence of China as a communist state (Chen 2001). With such a big country with enormous resources being on one side, the other had to take action in the region which could easily have come under the sphere of influence of this illustrious neighbor.
This involvement prompted propaganda value in terms of promoting one ideology over the other in the region as a means of elucidating its superiority to the rest of the world. These reasons and the ensuing decolonization in the region brought the Cold War to East Asia.
Chen, Jian. (2001). Mao’s China and the Cold War. The University of North Carolina Press.
Cold War 1945-1960 [online]. The Corner of the World. Available from: http://www.thecorner.org/hist/europe/coldwar.htm [Accessed 17/05/09]
Davidson, Phillip. (1991). Vietnam at War. Oxford Oxford University Press.
Fehrenbach, T. R. (2001). his Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Brassey.
Gallicchio, Marc. (1988). The Cold War begins in Asia: American East Asian policy and the fall of the Japanese empire. Columbia University Press.
Garthoff, Raymond. (1994) The Great Transition:American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War: New York, Harper Perennial
Stokesbury, James. (1990). A Short History of the Korean War. New York Harper Perennial.