What are the events of the Cold War years that fit the idea of "proxy war" and what kind of steps did world leaders take to keep the Cold War from heating up?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are a number of events that occurred during the Cold War that could be seen as proxy wars.  In this context, a proxy war is a war in which one or both of the superpowers uses other countries or groups as its proxies to fight in its stead.  This was one way that world leaders tried to keep the Cold War from escalating into a true war.  They used proxies so that they would not have to fight one another.

In the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were competing with one another for world dominance.  Even though they were in competition, they never actually fought one another directly.  This was largely because they were afraid such a war could spiral out of control.  They did, however, fight one another indirectly, through proxies.  The first proxy war was a civil war in Greece between communists and noncommunists.  From the Soviet Union’s point of view, the Korean War was a proxy war.  The US did not have proxies that it could use in that war since South Korea was too weak, but the Soviet Union was able to use North Korea (and to some extent China) to fight the US for it.  Both the Soviet Union and China used North Vietnam as a proxy to fight the US in the Vietnam War.

In the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the US was trying to carry out a small proxy war.  It wanted to get Cuban exiles to fight so that it would not have to invade Cuba itself.  The US also used proxies against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the US funded and supplied fighters known as the Mujahedeen who were fighting against the Soviets.  These are some of the best-known proxy wars that took place in the Cold War.  

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moustacio | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Several events occurred during the period of the Cold War that could be classified as a proxy war between the two powers. The Cold War was essentially a period of political, economic, and military rivalry between the capitalist, democratic bloc led by the USA and the communist camp presided over by the Soviet Union. Such competition between the two superpowers saw the ushering in a period of global bipolarity and tensions did eventually spill over into local or regional conflicts, which were transformed into global issues. Proxy warfare was thus enacted by the two powers as a means to play out their rivalry without “heating up” the Cold War. By using proxies or their own client states to fight against each other, the two superpowers ensured that the conflict could be easily controlled and prevented tensions from escalating. This would have been hard to hard to achieve in the case of an actual conflict between the two antagonists.

An example of such a form of warfare during the Cold War years was the Korean War. While the Korean War was essentially a local nationalist conflict between two competing political regimes, the fact that either side was backed by one of the superpower meant that Cold War tensions were bound to spill over. While the US supported the democratic government they had established in the south under Syngman Rhee, the Soviet Union backed the communist regime under Kim Ill Sung in the north. Both sides sought to compete with each other to achieve the political unification of Korea under their own ideology, and in such circumstances, Korea rose in strategic importance and the conflict was effectively transformed into a global issue. The Americans could not afford to lose Korea to communism, due to rising McCarthyism (which had led to an increasingly paranoid American public) and the loss of China, since that would signify a strategic loss for the American administration in stopping the spread of communism. Similarly, the Soviets too did not want Korea to be brought under the helms of American leadership. With the rise of China, there was a need for the USSR to portray themselves as the leader of the international communist revolution and bringing Korea in would substantiate their claims to leadership. Besides, a democratic and capitalist Korea located along its borders would be an unwelcome presence. Throughout the war, the two superpowers played out the conflict by supplying aid and troops to the regimes they were supporting and fought against each other indirectly through their roles as patrons.      

Similarly, proxy warfare was also witnessed during the Vietnam War, whereby the South Vietnamese government, propped up by American assistance, fought against the communist regime of Ho Chi Minh that was supported by the Soviets and also the Chinese. Although the conflict itself was essentially one rooted in nationalist ideals, the superpowers, particularly the Americans, often viewed such struggles as a means by the other side to spread their ideology and to thus obtain a decisive victory over the other. Driven by the zero sum mentality, any loss of territory to one side was effectively a gain or a victory for the other and this was certainly unacceptable to both sides. The stronger American presence in Vietnam eventually resulted in a heavier influx of assistance from the communist states, which only further reinforced the Americans’ perception that the Soviets were undertaking aggression on a global scale to spread communism. The global rivalry thus played out in the local landscape of Vietnam through the struggle between the two opposing regimes.

More often than not, the superpowers have turned to regulation to ensure that these proxy wars would not spill out of control. The nature of such wars meant that the superpowers could easily pull out of these local conflicts without facing severe repercussions to their reputation and could thus easily control them unnecessary escalation. The fear of an actual outbreak of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis drove the two sides to engage in talks to set the boundaries for nuclear warfare and experimentation. Such actions were prominently noted in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).  In addition, diplomacy has too been used by both sides to engage with each other and to prevent the Cold War from heating up. This was evident after the crisis in Cuba, whereby a phone line was set up in Washington that linked directly to Moscow in 1963. The establishment of such a hotline provided instant direct contact and allowed the two sides to defuse any proxy conflicts that had the potential of escalating out of control. This would prove critical in the Arab-Israeli conflict in which both the US and USSR engaged in - quick communication between the two powers allowed misunderstandings to be cleared up instantly and helped prevent the outbreak of any nuclear crises between their proxies.

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robyn-bird96 | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

A proxy war is when a third party fights on behalf of a more powerful nation, or in simpler terms, a nation uses another nation to carry out a war against an enemy, usually by providing money and weapons.  In the Cold War, the two main sides were the Soviets and the Americans.  Proxy wars were popular, because both the Soviet Union and the United States were nuclear superpowers, and neither wanted to get involved directly with the other, because they both feared an escalation into nuclear warfare. Some of the most well known proxy wars in US history are the Korean War and the Vietnam War, although there were many others, such as the Soviet Invasion in Afghanistan and the Cuban Revolution.  Many proxy wars took place in former colonies.

In the Korean War, the United States (and the United Nations) aided the South Koreans (Republic of Korea) against the communist North Koreans (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), who were aided by the Soviets and the Chinese. The Korean War was a result of political division after WWII.  The Vietnam War was fought between the American backed South Vietnamese government and the Soviet and Chinese backed North Vietnamese government.  

Despite the growing tensions during the first part of the Cold War, such as the Berlin Blockade (the Soviets blockaded West Berlin from the Americans in 1948-1949 to prevent the Americans from providing money and supplies for reconstruction) and the constant rivalry between the two nations in building the most nuclear weapons, both the Soviets and the Americans recognized that if the two nations go to war, it will be the end of the world. Especially under Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union worked with the American presidents - Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan - to come to a compromise.  Such events that arose from this were SALT (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) that led to treaties like START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) which limited the number of ballistic missiles each nation had in their armory.  Nixon and Reagan both met constantly with their respective counterparts in the USSR. 

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