Chapter 27 The Era of Decolonization

Section 4 Decolonization and the 'Hot' Cold War in Asia

The wars between India and Pakistan demonstrated the explosive potential of Asian nationalism in the context of the Cold War. Other wars demonstrated the same thing on a larger and more destructive scale. In Korea and Indochina in particular, the Cold War shaped and distorted the process of decolonization after World War II as competing western-educated indigenous nationalist groups emerged that reflected the ideological divisions between capitalism and communism. As these competing groups struggled for control of their newly independent nations, bitter civil wars broke out – civil wars made even more destructive by the interference of the Communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union and Communist China, and the United States and its democratic allies.

The Korean War

The defeat of Japan in 1945 ended four decades of Japanese rule in Korea. But liberation from Japan did not bring immediate independence. Instead, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on a temporary division of Korea. American troops took control of the peninsula south of the 38th Parallel (of north latitude), while Soviet troops occupied the territory north of this line. The future of Korea was supposed to be determined in a subsequent peace conference.

            But the proposed peace conference never took place. Like Germany, Korea remained divided as the Cold War developed. In the north, a pro-Soviet government of Korean Communists took power, led by Kim Il Sung. In the south, a pro-American government gained power under Syngman Rhee. Neither Kim nor Rhee, however, accepted the division of Korea as permanent, and each threatened to unite the country under his own authority.

            In June 1950, Kim decided to make good his threat. He ordered North Korean troops across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. The attack caught both the South Koreans and the Americans unprepared. Within days the Communists had captured Seoul, the South Korean capital, and were driving the South Korean army down the Korean peninsula.

            Believing that the Communist invasion of South Korea was part of a broader Communist offensive against the "free world," President Truman ordered American ships, planes, and soldiers to Korea. The United States also persuaded the United Nations Security Council to condemn the North Korean attack and to commit U.N. forces to help repel it. The Soviet Union surely would have vetoed the proposal, but the Soviet delegate was boycotting Security Council meetings to protest the refusal of other members to recognize the Communist government of China.

            The fighting soon began to favor South Korea. However, as U.S. troops under General Douglas MacArthur approached the Chinese-Korean border on the Yalu River, Beijing warned the Americans to stay back. Washington ignored the Chinese warnings, considering them a bluff. It was not a bluff. In November 1950, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops assaulted American and South Korean positions in the frozen mountains of North Korea.

            The Chinese assault threw the Americans and South Koreans into disarray, and they were forced into a hasty retreat. Militant anti-Communists in the United States demanded that Truman order U.S. forces directly against China, perhaps using atomic weapons. Fearing that such an attack would trigger the Sino-Soviet treaty and provoke a Soviet move against Berlin or some other target, Truman refused to widen the war. In the early months of 1951 American and South Korean forces managed to stem the North Korean-Chinese advance. By summer the front had stabilized, close to the original division of the Koreas at the 38th Parallel. Bitter and bloody fighting dragged on for two more years. Finally, in July 1953 the two sides signed a ceasefire. Korea remained divided.

The Indochina War

Japan's 1945 defeat had also brought hopes of independence to the peoples of French Indochina—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Since the late 1800s, when France had colonized the region, nationalist groups had struggled for independence. By 1940 the most important nationalist leader was Nguyen That Thanh, who eventually adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, “He Who Enlightens.” As a young man Ho had travelled widely and learned both French and English. Like many other colonial subjects, in Europe Ho became both a nationalist and a Marxist. He even helped found the French Communist Party.

            After the Japanese invasion of Vietnam during World War II, in 1941, Ho returned to Vietnam to fight both the Japanese and the Vichy colonial regime the Japanese had left in place in Indochina. He called his resistance movement Vietminh, or the League for Vietnamese Independence. As the defeated Japanese withdrew from Vietnam in 1945, Ho proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. By 1946, however, French troops had returned to reclaim France’s colonies in Indochina, touching off the Indochina War.

            From 1946 to 1954, nationalists fought French efforts to restore colonial rule in Indochina. The most intense fighting took place in Vietnam, where the French and some Vietnamese allies confronted Ho and the Viet Minh. Waging a guerrilla war, characterized by hit-and-run operations, ambushes, and sabotage, the Viet Minh gradually wore down the French will to keep fighting. Comparing the French to an elephant and his own forces to a tiger, Ho explained his tactics to an American journalist: 

“If the tiger ever stands still, the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. . . . He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then the tiger will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.”[24] 

Eventually, however, it was not a guerilla action that bled France dry but a climactic battle at Dienbienphu in the spring of 1954. When the Viet Minh captured some 13000 French troops in the mountains of northern Vietnam France finally acknowledged defeat and agreed to negotiate.

            The Geneva Conference of the late spring and summer of 1954 ended the Indochina War. It divided Vietnam temporarily at the 17th Parallel and called for elections to be held in 1956 to choose a government for the country as a whole. By formalizing the French defeat in the Indochina War, the Geneva Conference marked the end of French imperialism in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnam War

The division of Vietnam lasted longer than planned. As in Korea, the Soviet Union and China backed the Communist leaders of the north, while the United States supported the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, an ardent anti-Communist. Mutual suspicions prevented the scheduled 1956 elections, but by the late 1950s a rebellion in the south led by the predominantly communist National Liberation Froint, or NLF, whose members were commonly called the Viet Cong, or Vietnamese Communists, threatened to topple Diem’s government. As Diem cracked down on his opponents, even the influential Buddhist clergy openly opposed his regime. The country seemed to be sliding into civil war. Fearful of a communist victory, the United States began sending aid to help prop up Diem’s government.

Insurgency. Supported by the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong waged a guerrilla war in the South Vietnamese countryside, aiming to undermine the government by striking at the rural base of the South Vietnamese economy. As one Viet Cong member later put it: "Our long-range objective was to liberate South Vietnam. First, however, we had to liberate the nearest hamlet."[25] Insurgent successes led to the 1963 overthrow of Diem and to deepening involvement by the United States. American leaders subscribed to the so-called domino theory, which asserted that a Communist victory in South Vietnam would lead to further Communist victories throughout Southeast Asia.

Americanization of the war. To prevent such an outcome, the United States took control of the anti-Communist war effort. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson ordered a bombing campaign against North Vietnam, which by now was openly supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam. Despite its intensity, the bombing was not very successful. A British journalist in North Vietnam explained why: 

"Through the daylight hours nothing moves on the roads of North Vietnam, not a car nor a truck. It must look from the air as though the country had no wheeled transport at all. . . . At dusk the roads become alive. The engines are started and the convoys grind away through the darkness behind the pinpoints of masked headlamps. There are miles of them, heavy Russian-built trucks, anti-aircraft batteries. . . .North Vietnam by day is abandoned; by night it thuds and grinds with movement."[26] 

            American efforts on the ground in South Vietnam were not much more successful. Johnson increased the number of U.S. troops by the tens and hundreds of thousands; at the beginning of 1969 there were more than half a million American soldiers in Vietnam.[27] But the war dragged on. 

The Tet offensive. The turning point of the war occurred in late January and February of 1968, when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive, named for the Vietnamese lunar New Year on which it began. The Communists struck at cities and towns up and down the length of South Vietnam, inflicting sharp blows against the Americans and South Vietnamese. A counterattack by U.S. and South Vietnamese units drove the Communists back, with the net result that Communist losses considerably outweighed their military gains. But the importance of the Tet offensive lay in its effect on American psychology. American leaders had been saying that the war in Vietnam was nearly over and victory was in sight. The Tet offensive showed that such optimism was unwarranted. After Tet, victory seemed -as far away as ever. 

Ending the war. In response to the Tet offensive and to declining American support for the war, President Johnson announced a halt to most of the bombing and called for peace talks in March 1968. Negotiations with North Vietnam commenced in May. President Richard Nixon continued the de-escalation, implementing a policy of Vietnamization, withdrawing American ground troops while continuing to provide air support weapons and training to the South Vietnamese Army. Fighting continued until January 1973, when the peace talks at Paris finally yielded a ceasefire. The last U.S. troops left South Vietnam in March.

            Violations of the ceasefire marred the months until the beginning of 1975, when the North Vietnamese launched their final offensive. The South Vietnamese army, now riddled by corruption and desertions, melted away before the Communist advance. In April 1975, Communist troops entered Saigon. Within days, the capital fell to the invaders. The South Vietnamese government surrendered, and the war ended in a Communist victory. Divided since 1954, Vietnam had been reunified 21 years later. The cost in Vietnamese lives was impossible to calculate, but must have been nearly 2 million; almost 59,000 Americans died.[28]

Fallout from the Vietnam War: Laos and Cambodia

The war in Vietnam had serious consequences for surrounding countries. Laos and Cambodia, for example, were sucked into the fighting.

Laos. Although nominally neutralized by a 1962 international accord, by the end of the decade Laos had become a scene of fighting thanks to its geography. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main Communist supply route from North to South Vietnam, ran through Laos. Determined to halt the flow of supplies to their enemies, in the mid-1960s the United States ordered bombing raids on the Trail. These were followed in 1971 by an American-backed South Vietnamese invasion of Laos.[29] The invasion destabilized the never-too-stable government in Vientane, and rekindled an earlier insurgency by the Communist Pathet Lao. Emboldened by the impending Communist victory in Vietnam, the Pathet Lao seized control of Laos in 1975. 

Cambodia. An even grimmer fate befell Cambodia. Until the late 1960s, Cambodia remained neutral in the Vietnam War, but like Laos, Cambodia suffered the misfortune of lying along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1969 President Nixon ordered a covert bombing offensive in Cambodia, designed to interdict traffic on the trail; the next year he sent U.S. troops into Cambodia to finish the job. As in Laos, embroilment in the Vietnam War destabilized the government of Cambodia. The pro-American Lon Nol toppled the neutral government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. In 1975, however, with Vietnamese support, a radical Cambodian Communist group, the Khmer Rouge, seized control of the country.

            The Khmer Rouge turned out to be the most ruthless revolutionary faction in all of Southeast Asia. Under the leadership of a secretive group of eight men and women, all of whom had studied in Paris where they had absorbed the lessons of Marxism-Leninism, the Khmer Rouge determined to apply the methods and lessons of China’s Cultural Revolution to Kampuchea, as they now renamed Cambodia. As one contemporary western observer described their program, it was a deliberate plan to 

“Psychologically reconstruct individual members of society. . . . stripping away, through terror and other means, the traditional bases, structures and forces which have shaped and guided an individual’s life. . . . rebuilding him according to party doctrines by substituting a series of new values.”[30] 

Following the Chinese example of “re-educating” city-dwelling intellectuals by sending them into the countryside to do manual labor, the Khmer Rouge ordered a total evacuation of all Cambodian cities. They also executed entire classes of people suspected of supporting the old order: army officers, civil servants, teachers, and intellectuals. According to some estimates, between 1975 and 1977 the Khmer Rouge were responsible through murder or starvation for the deaths of nearly a fifth of the population of Cambodia—approximately 1,200,000 people.[31]