Prof Rempel lecture: Cold War in the Far East

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Cold War in the Far East

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


In 1950, the focus of the cold war shifted from Europe to the Far East. By this time a balance had been reached in Europe between Eat and West. But in the Far East the balance was upset by the triumph of the Communists in China. Just as the Bolshevik Revolution was the outstanding byproduct of World War I, so the Chinese Communist Revolution was the outstanding byproduct of World War II.

I. Communist Revolution in China

Chiang Kai-shek had become the head of the Chinese government in 1928, but from the outset his Kuomintang regime was threatened by two mortal enemies, the Communists within and the Japanese without. During World War II his position became particularly difficult. The country was divided into three sections: the east, controlled by the Japanese and administered through a puppet government at Nanking; the northwest, controlled by the Communists operating from their capital at Yenan; and the west and southwest, ruled by Chiang's Nationalist government from its capital in Chungking.

It was during the war years that Chiang's regime was fatally undermined. Chiang traditionally had depended on the support of the conservative landlord class and oft he relatively enlightened big businesspeople. The latter were largely eliminated when the Japanese overran the east coast, and Chiang was left with the self-centered and short-sighted landlords of the interior. His government became increasingly corrupt and unresponsive to the needs oft he peasants suffering from years of war and exploitation. In contrast to the decaying Kuomintang, the Communists carried out land reforms in their territories, thereby winning the support oft he peasant masses. They also had a disciplined and efficient organization that brought order out of political and economic chaos in the areas under their control. Also their leadership in the anti-Japanese struggle won them popular support as patriots fighting to rid the country of foreign invaders and to restore China's unity and pride.

Such was the situation when Japan's surrender in August 1945 set off a wild scramble by the nationalists and Communists to take over the Japanese-occupied parts of China. The Communists issued orders to their troops to take over the areas held by the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek promptly canceled these orders and insisted that the Communists make no move without instructions from him. He was ignored, and clashes occurred between Communist and Kuomintang forces. With civil war imminent, the United States sent a mission under general George Marshall to attempt to negotiate a settlement. But neither side could overcome its fear and suspicion of the other, and Marshall's mediation failed. By 1947 the final showdown was at hand.

The Communists occupied the countryside around the major cities. They were helped by the Russians, who turned over to them the arms the Japanese had surrendered in Manchuria. The nationalists, aided by the transportation services of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, won all the main cities, including Nanking, and also rushed troops north to Manchuria. The latter move was a strategic blunder. the Kuomintang forces found themselves in indefensible positions. In the fall of 1948 they were forced to surrender to the Chinese Red army. A chain of comparable military disasters followed in quick succession. The Communist armies wept down from Manchuria through the major cities of North China. By April 1949 they were crossing the Yangtze and fanning out over south China. The Communist steamroller advanced even more rapidly in the south than in the north. By the end of 1949 it had overrun all of mainland China. Chiang fled to the island of Taiwan (Formosa), and on October 1, 1949, in Peking, the Communist leader, Mao Tse-tung, proclaimed the People's Republic of China.

In the years since 1949 the Communists have transformed China at an unprecedented rate. In place of the flabby and decentralized political state of the past, they imposed a monolithic structure, extending into every city, every village, and every household. The Communists at the head of this structure were able to reach down to individual citizens, moving them to new occupations and forcing them to live and think in new ways. They uprooted the traditional Confucian culture by changing the old family relationships; raising the inferior position of women; and ignoring the old classics in favor of a new literature, art, and educational system. The communists indeed have left their mark on China, but at a price. At the outset they enjoyed wide support because of their leadership in resisting the Japanese invaders and in tackling the many problems China faced at the end of the war. But the longer they remained in power, the more opposition they aroused, as shown when students erected their Statue of Liberty in Tienanmen Square in the summer of 1989. The aging communist leaders ordered their army to crush the students, and then hunted them down throughout China as "counterrevolutionaries" and "ruffians."

II. India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia

By far the most important single event in the colonial revolution that began after World War II was the winning on independence by India and Pakistan. In July 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, and on August 15, both Pakistan and the Union of India became free nations in the British Commonwealth. Southeast Asia, in contrast to India, was occupied by the Japanese during the war. A common pattern is discernible throughout the area during this brief occupation period between 1942 and 1945. In almost every country, widespread disaffection against Western rule had contributed substantially to the swift conquests of the Japanese. The latter then proclaimed, like the Germans, that their conquests inaugurated the beginning of a "New Order." The watchwords of this New Order were "Asia fort he Asians," "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," and "no conquests, no oppression and no exploitation."

If these principles had been applied, the Japanese could have mobilized solid popular support in most of Southeast Asia. The Japanese military, however, had other plans, so that the principles remained propagandist slogans that soon sounded hollow and unconvincing. These military leaders viewed Greater East Asia not as a "Co-Prosperity Sphere" but as a region consisting of satellite states under varying degrees of control. The Japanese armed forces everywhere lived off the land as much as possible, frequently creating severe local shortages of food and supplies. Also, they ruthlessly expropriated whatever foodstuffs and industrial raw materials were needed for the home islands. In return, the Japanese were able to offer little, since their economy was not strong enough to produce war materials and consumer goods.

After the initial honeymoon period, relations between the Japanese and the local nationalists rapidly deteriorated. If the occupation had been prolonged, the Japanese undoubtedly would have been faced with serious uprisings. Fortunately for them, they were forced to pull out during 1945. In doing so, they did everything possible to create obstacles in the way of a restoration of Western rule. In Indochina they overthrew the Vichy regime and recognized Ho Chi Minh's provisional government; in Indonesia they handed over the administration tot he nationalist leader Sukarno; and in many regions they distributed arms to local revolutionary groups.

It is not surprising that within ten years of the Japanese withdrawal, all Southeast Asia was independent. The manner in which the various countries won their freedom varied, depending on the imperial rulers involved. The British, having been forced to face facts in India, were the most realistic in coping with Southeast Asian nationalism. In January 1948 they recognized Burma as an independent republic outside the Commonwealth, and in the next month they granted Ceylon full dominion status within the Commonwealth. Malayan independence, however, was delayed until February 1957.

One reason for the delay was the country's moaiclike ethnic composition. It included Malayans and Chinese-each a little over 40 percent of the total population-as well as Indians, Pakistanies, and a few Europeans. The Chinese were the prime movers behind a Communist uprising that began in 1948. The ensuing jungle warfare was very costly and dragged on until 1955. In 1963, Malaya combined with Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah (British North Borneo) to constitute the new state of Malaysia. Tension between Malaya and the predominantly Chinese Singapore led in 1965 to the secession of Singapore, which became an independent state in the Commonwealth.

The French and Dutch, whose subjects also demanded independence, were less adjustable and fared much worse. The Dutch were willing to grant Sukarno's nationalists some measure of self-government but not enough to satisfy their demand. The negotiations broke down, and the Dutch resorted to armed force to reassert their authority. The war dragged on until 1947 when the Dutch finally recognized the independent United States of Indonesia. This legacy of armed conflict embittered the future relations between the two countries. Although a Dutch-Indonesian Union with a common crown existed for a few years, it ended when Sukarno withdrew in 1954. Relations became more strained in the following years because the Dutch refused to yield Netherlands New Guinea to the new republic. In 1957, in retaliation, Indonesia seized more than $1 billion worth of Dutch assets, and, in 1960, it severed diplomatic relations with The Hague. Three years later Sukarno gained control over West Irian, thus liquidating the last remnant of an empire older than most of the British Empire.

III. The Korean War

In the Far East, as in Europe, World War II was followed by the cold war. Russia backed Mao Tse-tung, although belatedly, whereas the United States vainly attempted to maintain Chiang Kai-shek as master of China. Conversely, in Japan the United States dominate the occupation and utilized it to further its interest, while the Soviet representative impotently protested. Once the outcome had apparently been settled in both countries, there was hope, as expressed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, for "the dust to settle" and for a balance to be reached, as in Europe. The hope was shattered when in 1950 fighting broke out in Korea, and the cold war became hot.

Since 1895-and formally since 1910-Korea had passed under Japanese rule. During World War II, at the 1943 Cairo Conference, the United States, Britain, and China declared that "in due course" Korea should once more be free and independent. But a generation of Japanese rule had left Korea without the necessary experience for self-government. The victorious Allies decided, therefore, that for a period of not more than five years Korea, though independent, should be under the trusteeship of the United States, Russia, Britain, and China.

With the surrender of Japan, American and Russian troops poured into Korea. For purposes of military convenience the thirty-eighth parallel was set as the dividing line in their operations. The coming of the cold war froze this temporary division in Korea as it did in Germany. The Russians set up in their zone a regime dominated by the communist New People's party. In the south, the Americans depended on English-speaking Koreans, who usually were members of the conservative upper class. In August 1948, a Republic of Korea was proclaimed in the south, with Dr. Syngman Rhee as president. A month later the North Koreans formed their People's Democratic Republic under Kim Il-sung. A UN commission attempted without success to mediate between the regimes headed by these two men. So strong were the feelings that he commission warned in September 1949 of the danger of civil war.

On June 24, 1950, civil war did begin when North Korean troops suddenly crossed the thirty-eighth parallel to "liberate" South Korea. Within a few hours the UN commission reported that South Korea was the victim of aggression. On June 27 the Security Council asked UN members to "furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area." The Security Council's decision was made possible only because of Russia's temporary boycott of its meetings in protest against the refusal to admit Communist China in place of nationalist China. Forty UN member states responded to the Security Council's appeal and provided supplies, transport, hospital units, and, in some cases, combat forces. But the main contribution, aside from that of South Korea, came from the United States, and General MacArthur served as commander in chief.

The course of the Korean War fell into two phases-the first before, and the second after, the Chinese intervention. The first phase began with the headlong rush of the North Korean forces down the length of the peninsula to within fifty miles of the port of Pusan at the southern tip. Then on September 14, 1950, an American army landed at Inchon, far up the coast near the thirty-eighth parallel, and in twelve days retook the South Korean capital, Seoul. The North Koreans, their communications severed, fell back as precipitously as they had advanced. By the end of September the UN forces had reached the thirty-eighth parallel.

The question now was whether to cross or not to cross. The issue transferred to the General Assembly, because the Soviet Union, with its veto power, had returned to the Security Council. On October 7, 1950, the assembly resolved that "all constituent acts be taken . . . for the establishment of a unified, independent and democratic government in the sovereign state of Korea." The next day American forces crossed the thirty-eight parallel and quickly occupied Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. By November 22 they reached the Yalu River, the boundary line between Korea and the Chinese province of Manchuria.

At this point the second phase of the Korean War began with a massive attack by Chinese "volunteers" supported by Russian-made jets. The Chinese drove southward rapidly in what looked like a repetition of the first phase of thew ar. Early in January 1951 they retook Seoul, but the UN forces now recovered and held their ground. In March, Seoul once more changed hands, and by June the battle line ran roughly along the thirty-eighth parallel.

By mid-1951 it was apparent that a stalemate prevailed at the front. After two years of stormy and often-interrupted negotiations, an armistice agreement was concluded on July 27, 1953. The terms reflected the military stalemate. The line of partition between North and South Korea remained roughly where it had been before the war. The Western powers had successfully contained communism in Korea and had vindicated the authority of the United Nations. The Chinese had secured North Korea as a Communist buffer state between Manchuria and Western influences. And meanwhile, most of the Korean countryside had been laid waste and about 10 percent of the Korean people had been killed.

IV. The War in Vietnam

The French in Indochina fought longer to retain their colony than the Dutch did to keep Indonesia (recognized as independent in 1947). But, in the end the French, too, were forced out. Indochina consisted of three nations: Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Resistance against the restoration of French rule was led by the Viet Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam. Though comprising many elements, the Viet Minh was led by a Communist, Ho Chi Minh, who had lived in Paris, Moscow, and China. In 1945, after war's end, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the provisional Republic of Vietnam. The French refused to recognize the new regime, and war ensued. Laos and Cambodia were easily reoccupied by the French, but an exhausting struggle dragged on in Vietnam.

With the advent of the cold war, the United States backed up the French financially as a part of the policy of "containment." By 1954, most of northern Vietnam was in the hands of the Viet Minh, and in the same year, the French suffered a major defeat at Dien Bien Phu. the ensuing Geneva settlement recognized the independence of all Vietnam, divided the country temporarily at the seventeenth parallel, and called for supervised elections to be held in 1956 to reunify the country. This settlement in effect gave Ho Chi Minh half the country and the expectation of the other half within two years since his resistance record had made him a national hero.

To avert this outcome the United States supported in the south the anti-Communist Catholic Leader Ngo Dinh Diem. His policies aroused such fierce opposition among the peasants and the powerful Buddhist monks that in 1963 his regime was overthrown and a succession of coups followed until the rise to power with Washington's support, of Nguyen Cao Ky and then of Nguyen Van Thieu. They were able to hold out in Saigon only because of accelerating American intervention, beginning with money and arms and progressing to "advisers," combat troops, and after the Tonkin Bay incident (August 1964), the bombing of North Vietnam. The bombing was designed to coerce Hanoi, which had been sending troops southward, to disengage and to recognize South Vietnam as a separate state. although the bombing far surpassed World War II levels, and although over a half million American troops were committed, victory remained elusive. The enemy's January 1968 Tet offensive strengthened the growing antiwar movement in the United States-hence President Johnson's decision to end the bombing of North Vietnam and to begin peace talks in Paris.

His successor, President Nixon, had been elected on a promise of a plan to end the war. This plan involved withdrawal of American troops, a move that in any case had become unavoidable because oft he growing disaffection of the troops and of the home population. But the Nixon plan also involved continued support to President Thieu, whose regime was thought to be essential for American interests. Accordingly it was buttressed with U.S. funds, arms, non-combative military personnel, and supportive bombing on a scale surpassing that of the Johnson administration. Despite the magnitude of the American assistance, the position of the Thieu government remained so precarious that Nixon felt it necessary to launch incursions, supported by American troops and airpower into Cambodia (April-June 1970) and Laos (February-March 1971).

These moves provoked intense dissension and mass demonstrations in the United States. but at the same time Nixon was conducting secret diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union, culminating in his well-publicized visit to Peking (February 1972) and to Moscow (May 1972). In October 1972, on the eve of the presidential election, Nixon announced an American-North Vietnamese agreement for cease-fire. But the announcement proved premature, as Nixon ordered the heaviest bombing of the entire war directed against North Vietnam's industrial heartland on December 18-30, 1972. Finally, a ceasefire was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, with terms essentially similar to those of the 1954 Geneva accords. Both agreements called for a temporary partition of Vietnam into a Communist North and a non-Communist South, for the determination oft he future of South Vietnam by an election, for the neutralization of Laos and Cambodia, for the withdrawal from all Indochina of all foreign troops-French in 1954, American in 1973-and for the supervision of both settlements by a small and largely powerless international committee.

The cost of obtaining in 1973 what the Untied States had opposed in 1954 was the longest war in American history, 46,000 American deaths, 600,000 civilian and military deaths in South Vietnam, and and an estimated 900,000 deaths in North Vietnam. Also, there was incalculable damage to the American social fabric, including G.I. drug addiction, bitter domestic discord, and festering national problems neglected with the financial drain of war expenditures totaling $146 billion. Nor did the 1973 Paris agreement finally end the fighting. The war dragged on until April 1975 when the demoralized Thieu regime collapsed like a house of cards before a North Vietnamese offensive.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


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