Historical Context

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Last Updated on February 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

The Cold War in the 1950s

During the 1950s, and continuing until the late 1980s, global politics was dominated by the struggle between the West (the United States and its Western European allies) and the communist Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, and China. This struggle was described as a cold war because it did not lead to direct armed conflict between the two superpowers. Instead, much of the contest was played out in the Third World, in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The United States would give economic and military support to emerging nations in these regions as a reward for any government that adopted an anti-communist stance. The Soviet Union lent support to Third-World communist parties and to communist insurgencies, which they described as wars of liberation against the retreating Western colonial powers. The Soviets denounced as imperialism any U.S. attempt to influence public opinion or government in such countries. The United States denounced Soviet aggression and claimed that the Soviets were bent on world domination.

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In 1950, cold war rivalry focused on Korea, where Russian-backed North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States entered the war with United Nations support and engaged Chinese forces. After a truce in 1951 and an armistice in 1953, the United States regarded Vietnam as the next Asian country that had to be defended against communism, and it channeled huge military aid to the French, who were already battling Vietnamese communist forces. After the French defeat in 1954 (described so vividly in The Ugly American), the United States tried to halt any further communist advance by creating a viable South Vietnam state. It also sought stability by founding the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which in fact included only two Southeast Asian states, Thailand and the Philippines, in addition to Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, and the United States. SEATO was designed to prevent the invasion of any nation in Southeast Asia by a foreign power. But as Lea Williams points out in Southeast Asia: A History, SEATO ignored the reality of communist advance, which was not by direct invasion but by agitation from within and by guerilla warfare; it was very unlikely that traditional methods such as full-scale invasion would take place. Williams criticizes the limitations of U.S. diplomatic and military thinking at the time that produced such an ineffective treaty as SEATO: "Generals are inclined to be prepared for the last, rather than the next war; and SEATO was proof that diplomats, as exemplified by John Foster Dulles [U.S. secretary of state], can be equally hypnotized by history." This is essentially the same point made by Burdick and Lederer in their story of the French and U.S. generals who expect to be able to win a war in Indochina using outdated tactics.

The shock of the French defeat in Vietnam in 1954 was taken by the United States as a warning of what the future might hold if it did not exert all its influence in the region. The so-called domino theory which dictated U.S. policy in Southeast Asia held that if one nation went communist the others would soon follow, one by one, like falling dominoes. The theory reflected what was perceived as the reality of the global power game, that smaller nations would be unable to avoid being drawn into the orbit of one or other of the two superpowers. If the United States did not win control, the Soviets would.

The Strategic Importance of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia was considered to be of great strategic importance for both sides in the cold war, from both an ideological point of view and because the region was rich in natural resources. Writing in 1953, political scientist Amry Vandenbosch, declared:

Control of the oil, rubber, tin, rice, and other...

(The entire section contains 2263 words.)

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