Why were proxy wars important after World War II, and what is the wisdom and morality of powerful countries using proxy warfare as a strategy?

Proxy wars were important after World War II because they represented substitutes for a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. They were not part of a strategy. They emerged as a byproduct of the Cold War, with the United States seeking to prevent the spread of Communism and the Soviet Union seeking to replace pro-Western governments with Communist regimes. They could be considered moral depending upon one’s views of the ideological conflict between Communism and democracy.

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Proxy wars were an unfortunate byproduct of the Cold War. The Cold War is considered to have started with the close of the Second World War, during which tensions between the United States and Great Britain on one side and the Soviet Union on the other side confronted each other over expectations regarding the structure of a postwar world. The Cold War could, however, more accurately be said to have begun with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when a political movement ideologically opposed to the political and economic systems of the West took power in Russia and those same Western countries sought to prevent the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power, including through an ineffectual deployment of troops to the Russian far north and east. World War II represented, at best, a temporary lull in the hostilities that otherwise existed between East and West, Nazi Germany (and, later in the war, Imperial Japan) representing a common enemy.

Once World War II had ended, the ideological war took off, and proxy wars, or conflicts occurring outside of the main East-West divide (in effect, Western Europe and the United States versus the Soviet Union and the governments of the Eastern and Central European countries the Soviet Union occupied) became a common feature of the newly emergent international structure. Civil war in Greece could be considered the first manifestation of this new structure, but proxy wars would become synonymous with conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin America—what was known as “the Third World.”

Throughout the decades following the end of World War II, wars in Southeast Asia, including Malaya and Vietnam, and across Africa in former Portuguese colonies Angola and Mozambique were waged between pro-Soviet and/or pro-China Communist insurgencies against pro-US/Great Britain governments and insurgencies. Cuba did not present as a proxy war, but one of two times (the latter in 1983) that the two superpowers came seriously close to a nuclear war involved the Soviet placement of nuclear-armed missiles on the territory of its Cuban ally, ruled by Fidel Castro. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 involved a Third World country, the leader of which was an extremely anti–United States dictator who had already had to fight back against a failed and incredibly ill-considered attempted invasion of Cuba by US-trained Cuban guerrillas, an event known as “the Bay of Pigs.”

The 1980s witnessed the conduct of proxy wars throughout Central America, with one player in the game, the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, being invaded by the United States following its Marxists regime’s alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba and a perceived threat to the safety of American students residing there. Guatemala and Nicaragua in particular were the sites of proxy battles pitting Marxist-Leninist inspired militants/governments against those supported by the United States.

Proxy warfare was not a strategy. It was a byproduct of the Cold War standoff between the Soviet Union and its allies and satellites and the United States and its allies. It happened too haphazardly to have been considered a well-thought-out strategy. US concerns about the spread of Communism across the globe and Soviet determination to foster that exact phenomenon resulted in a protracted series of conflicts outside of the main East–West confrontation. It did, however, serve one purpose. Proxy wars were containable, for the most part (Southeast Asia being the exception), and rarely involved direct face-offs between the two superpowers. The common feeling was that proxy wars were preferable to a full-scale nuclear war between Washington and Moscow.

Was proxy warfare moral? That is a matter of perspective. For those who viewed Communism as inherently totalitarian and evil, then small-scale efforts at preventing Communists from coming to power was considered moral. One could examine the history of human rights abuses and repression under Communist regimes around the world and conclude that efforts at defeating Communism were moral. Another perspective could be that fighting US influence around the world was moral. To committed Marxists, such was the perception. At the end of the day, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, not including thousands more killed or maimed from the post-war problem of landmines and unexploded ordnance littering former battlefields from Angola to Cambodia.

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