Asia's Cold War
Seventy years ago on June 25, 1950, communist North Korean armed forces, encouraged, supported, and equipped by the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea. William Manchester described the war’s beginning as “the shattering crescendo of sound . . . as a thousand 122-millimeter PA howitzers, erupting in a single sheet of flame, split the night just above the 38th Parallel.” It was 4:00 A.M., “wartime, once more, on all the Angeluses of the world.”
The Korean War emerged from the “peace” in the aftermath of the Second World War. In reality, there was no real peace — at least not in Asia. Mao Zedong’s Red Army fought against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces for control of mainland China. Ho Chi Minh’s communists fought to achieve political power in Vietnam. In Korea, Kim Il-sung’s communists sought hegemony on the entire peninsula.
All of these conflicts were part of the Cold War, which had both ideological and geopolitical dimensions. James Burnham was surely correct when he wrote in The Struggle for the World that the Cold War began even before the Second World War ended. There were two principal theaters in the Cold War — Europe and Asia. The European phase of the Cold War ended in 1989-91 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire. The Cold War in Asia is still being fought today.
Cold War didn't truly end in 1991
Americans have been taught that the Cold War ended in 1991, but that is only a half-truth. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never stopped fighting it, even if the West did. To be sure, the CCP temporarily aligned with the United States and the West to help defeat the common enemy—the Soviet Union—but that was a geopolitical marriage of convenience entered into because "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The key event in the Asian Cold War was the Chinese Civil War. The Truman administration’s policy evolved from supporting the Nationalists, to attempting to act as a mediator between the Nationalists and the CCP, to effectively abandoning the Nationalists and thereby ensuring a CCP victory. What used to be condemned as the “loss of China” set in motion both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The Truman administration almost “lost” Korea, too. Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in an infamous speech at the National Press Club in January 1950, signaled to the Korean communists and the CCP that the Korean peninsula was outside the defense perimeter of the United States. Between April 1950 and the outbreak of the war, Truman effectively shelved the recommendations for significant increases in the military budget contained in NSC-68. Those increases only came after Truman, without congressional approval, sent U.S. forces to prevent the total conquest of the peninsula. Soon, U.S. and South Korean forces were pinned against the narrow Pusan perimeter.
Credit MacArthur for South Korean Independence
South Korean independence was saved only because of the military genius of General Douglas MacArthur who conceived and oversaw the dramatic amphibious landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, and the courage and tenacity of U.S. military forces who liberated the South Korean capital of Seoul, trapped North Korean forces to the south, crossed the 38th Parallel, overran Pyongyang, and moved towards the Yalu River (separating China and North Korea) with the full support of Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Contrary to conventional history, MacArthur was not to “blame,” if that is the right word for it, for proceeding north of the Parallel. As William Manchester noted, “No one had recommended that [MacArthur] draw up at the Parallel.” Indeed, General George Marshall told MacArthur that he should proceed north uninhibited by any restrictions.
When Chinese communist forces entered the war en masse in October-November 1950, MacArthur informed Washington: “We face an entirely new war.” MacArthur sought victory while Washington sought stalemate. MacArthur executed a retreat of U.S. forces that Manchester judged “one of his most successful feat of arms,” though MacArthur rarely gets credit for it. All of a sudden, Korea was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Omar Bradley. MacArthur’s public criticism of the changed policy of the Truman administration resulted in his being relieved of command. He found it incomprehensible to wage war and shed American blood without seeking victory.
Stalemate in Korea was followed a few years later by the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, and that country’s division into communist and non-communist countries. Soon, North Vietnamese communist forces infiltrated South Vietnam and helped organize the Viet Cong to wage insurrection and guerilla war in the South. The Cold War in Asia continued to be hot. The United States gradually committed to defend the independence of South Vietnam. The Kennedy-Johnson administration—“the best and the brightest”—eventually sent hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to wage war, but like Truman in Korea, without seeking victory. (MacArthur in 1962 had warned Kennedy against fighting another land war in Asia). Later on when President Nixon inherited an increasingly unpopular war, he, like MacArthur before him, was made a scapegoat for American failure.
CCP's move toward capitalism a ruse
In the 1970s, a weakened and less confident United States reached out to the CCP to help it contain growing Soviet power and adventurism, seeking to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. This was very much in the CCP’s long-term interest. When the Soviet Union and its East European empire fell in 1989-91, it was as much a victory for China as it was for the U.S. and the West. What is more, Mao’s death in 1976 appeared to inaugurate a less-ideological and more nationalist CCP that sought economic growth via state-capitalism.
As Michael Pillsbury points out in his invaluable book The Hundred-Year Marathon, the CCP’s move towards capitalism was all a ruse to lull the U.S. and the West into a false sense of security. U.S. policy became a combination of competition and engagement with China. The mask hiding the CCP’s intentions began to lift when Xi Jinping gained power. China became more aggressive in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to extend the CCP’s influence throughout Eurasia and Africa. The BRI is a geopolitical offensive ultimately designed to have China replace the United States as the world’s leading power.
The stark reality is that the Cold War never ended in Asia. The U.S. and the West confronts Asia’s communist giant in a struggle on what Halford Mackinder called the Eurasian-African “World-Island.” And Mackinder warned, ‘who rules the World-Island commands the world.”