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The Cold War in the period 1950-80 Essay

1. “More often than not, superpowers, rather than causing regional conflicts, were reluctantly drawn into them.” How far does your study of the Cold War in the period 1950-80 supports this view?

The period of 1950 to 1980 saw the Cold War spread from the traditional playing field of Europe to other parts of the world. However it is quite clear that the USA and the Soviet Union played only a marginal role in originating these conflicts-at the most setting up the basic framework for it to occur. Furthermore, when they did get involved they each did so to varying degrees. The USA seemed to be much more motivated and interested in involving themselves, while the Soviet Union was more apprehensive. Therefore, to say that both superpowers “were reluctantly drawn into them (the conflicts)” is not completely true. To illustrate my point I will analyse the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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There is strong evidence to suggest that US entered the Korean War fairly voluntarily. Firstly, the US was motivated by strong security interests. They misperceived the North’s invasion to be Soviet instigated and an attempt to spread communist ideology into Asia. Thus they felt they had to do something to prevent this spread of communism from materialising. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, US feared that if Korea fell to the communist it would be, as then Secretary of State put it, “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan”. Japan was very important to the USA as it was their bastion of capitalism and democracy in Asia. To lose it, would be a major blow to the USA and thus they did not wish to risk endangering it. To quote Mark. S Byrnes:

“The United States saw the move (North Korean invasion) as potentially damaging to Japan’s security, and the former enemy had become the centre of American policy in Asia once the communists triumphed in China.”1

Secondly, the US were also under the impression that the Soviet Union was winning the war. This was due to mainly two reasons-the fact that by 1939, the Soviet Union had tested their first atomic bomb thus breaking the USA’s nuclear monopoly and the loss of China to the communist. As the Cold War was commonly described as a zero-sum game, the way US saw it, they could not afford to lose anymore territories – such as Korea. Truman was also under much fire back at home for not intervening significantly in China and thus he saw the Korean War as a perfect opportunity to redeem himself. As Geir Lunstead noted:

“The domestic political situation in the United States further undermined the original stance of the Truman administration. Verbal assaults for having ‘lost China’ to the communists became steadily harsher. In February, Senator Joseph McCarthy had begun his attacks on communist influence within the administration. If South Korea fell, too, that would undoubtedly sharpen the tone even further, just a few months before Congressional elections.”2

Thus the fact that US had much to gain from intervening in the Korean War, suggests that they were not reluctant to do so.

US actions in the development of the war also suggested they were not reluctant to get involve. The Americans under MacArthur, were not content with simply driving the North Korean forces back to the 38th parallel. They pushed them further back all the way to the Yalu river. This shows that MacArthur had gone beyond the policy of containment and had adopted roll-back communism. There were several reasons for this shift in policy. Firstly, the Americans were inspired by the success and the momentum generated from it pushed them to drive the North Koreans further back. Secondly, MacArthur was an ambitious and aggressive leader, commonly described as the American Caesar. He believed that the war had to be won and not simply drawn. This concept of massive retaliation shows that the US were not quite reluctant to get involved in the first place. If they were, they would have most likely taken the first opportunity to exit from Korea. Instead, they decided to stay and in fact intensified the war.

However, there is some evidence to show that US was somewhat hesitant to involve themselves in the war. This can mainly be seen in Truman’s sacking of MacArthur. Truman was highly critical of MacArthur and his policy of roll-back communism, accusing him of being arrogant and expansionist. This was due to the fact that he was somewhat apprehensive of antagonising China and also wished to avoid a nuclear war with USSR at all costs. This attitude of Truman suggests that perhaps not everyone in US wished to be greatly involved in the Korean War as MacArthur did. However, in general the evidence seems to suggest that US for quite voluntary in their involvement in the Korean War.

This is very much similar to the story in Vietnam. Once again security interests motivated US involvement in the war. They believed, just like they did in Korea, that Ho Chi Minh was a Soviet agent and that the war was part of an attempt at worldwide communist expansion. The two concerns mentioned above (as motivations to get involved in the Korean War) were again factors in motivating US involvement in the war. The US felt they were losing the war-mainly due to the loss of china as well as Soviet’s testing of their atomic bomb in 1949-and the Republicans, under McCarthy, were making it worse by accusing the democrats of being communist sympathisers.

Thus Truman felt he had to prove them wrong by taking a harder approach against communism. Also, the US felt that the loss of Vietnam would put a strain of the security of not only Japan but the whole Eastern Pacific which included countries such as Australia and India. Very much in tangent with this, is concerns over the domino theory (invented during this time), where the US believed that if Vietnam fell so would the countries around it, and then the countries around those countries and so on. Thus, they felt they had to stop this communist expansion before it got out of hand. John W. Mason tell us in his book, “The Cold War 1945-1991”, that:

The Eisenhower administration saw Ho Chi Minh as an instrument of international communism and claimed that the loss of Indochina would have a disastrous effect on the rest of South-east Asia. The domino theory-later to be ridiculed by critics of the Vietnam War-was born.”3

Furthermore, US were not only motivated by strategic concerns but also political and economic ones as well. Firstly, US wished to help France, so as to build upon already present friendship and obtain French support in NATO. As Geir Lunstead says:

“For the Truman administration, what mattered was supporting the regimes in Western Europe, Washington’s attitude towards the European colonial powers showed.”4

Economically speaking, US wanted to preserve Vietnam and the region as it provided natural resources and markets for US and her allies. However this was not a major concern and was mainly brought up only by the Eisenhower administration. Thus, these motivations, just like they did in Korea, gave reason for US involvement in Vietnam and seem to suggest that US was voluntary in intervening in Vietnam (as they sought their own interests), perhaps even more so then they were in Korea due to the fact that there were additional reasons to get involved.

The actions of the US, especially during 1961-1968, also seemed to support this fact. During this time, the situation in Vietnam escalated, under the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson. Both Presidents started providing more aid to the South Vietnamese-be it non-combat personals, arms or training. In fact during the Johnson administration, US actually landed soldiers in Danang- a very significant development. The fact that US did not try to sever its link with Vietnam but instead increased its involvement shows that US was not at all reluctant to get involved.

The Soviets however, contrary to US perception seemed much more reluctant in both Korea and Vietnam. In both cases the war was more of a nationalistic one rather than part of a soviet master plan to spread communism. In the case of Korea, Stalin tried to persuade Kim Il-Sung to avoid war. Mark S. Byrnes mentions that:

“The initiative in fact seems to have come from Kim, not Stalin. While the Soviet leader did give Kim permission to invade South Korea (provided Mao also agreed), Stalin was evidently dubious of Kim’s success, and told him that he was on his own if the United States intervened.”5

There were two reasons why the Soviets were reluctant to get involved. Firstly, Asia and Korea was not Soviet priority. Korea was physically distant from the Soviet Union and did not share a border with it. Thus it could not be used as the buffer Eastern Europe was and was not strategically important. Thus, Stalin did not see the benefit the Korean War would provide the Soviet Union.

Secondly, as mentioned in the above quote, the Soviet Union did not want to antagonise the US, especially over Korea. As the situation in Europe had already stabilised, the Soviets were more interested in moving towards peaceful co-existence. In fact, one major factor that swayed Stalin to agree was Dean Acheson’s Defence Perimeter speech which sent the wrong signals that US was not interested in Korea. Thus, Stalin assumed that US will not intervene. In this way, the Soviets had more to lose than to gain from a war in Korea and thus they were reluctant to get involved.

The most important reason why the Soviet Union did finally get involved was because they were obliged to. China requested their assistance in the war and to safeguard their friendship the Soviet Union had to send at least token aid, which was all that it did. It did not send ground troops to fight and neither did was it overly generous with equipment or money. In fact, this was one of the reasons for the Sino-Soviet split in the 60s.

The motivations and nature of Soviet presence in Vietnam was very much similar. Once again the Soviets were afraid of antagonising the US (and to some extent France) especially now that the Cold War had entered a phase of peaceful co-existence. In fact, escalation of US involvement in 1965 frightened the Soviets and led to them being more cautious regarding their involvement in Vietnam. Also, Vietnam was to the Soviets, less important than Korea, which as mentioned above was given little priority. The only reasons why the Soviet Union got involved was because it was, once again, obliged to aid a fellow communist state and more importantly, had to match China in aid provision to North Korea. If it did not do so, they believed that North Vietnam will become Pro-China and Anti-USSR due to the Sino-Soviet split.

Thus, the Soviets gave little aid to the North Vietnamese. Basically, they provided training and support for air defence. Furthermore, they only recognised the DRV in 1950-after China did. These actions of the Soviet Union, very much limited and circumscribed, clearly show the caution they exercised in getting involved in Vietnam. Perhaps the most important point which shows how reluctant the Soviet Union was in getting involved in the war was the fact that pressed for a quick and peaceful end to it. They got involved due to obligation, maintained as limited role as possible and wanted to get out at the first opportunity.

It can thus be seen that the degree of involvement varied depending on the superpower. While neither superpower played a significant role in originating either conflicts, the US got more involved in them as compared to the Soviets. This was mainly due to the fact that the US had a greater interest in these conflicts than the Soviets, and thus were more strongly motivated to intervene. Thus, it can be said that US were fairly voluntary in their involvement in these regional conflicts, as they sought to further their own interests. US actions and policies during these conflicts also seemed to suggest voluntary involvement as they seldom showed signs of disengagement but rather tended towards escalation. The Soviets however, very much unmotivated to get involved, were cautious with regards to their involvement in the wars, playing as limited a role as possible. Thus one cannot say that the statement, is completely true, though it may be to a fairly large extent.



Lunstead, Geir. East, West, North, South: Major Developments in International Politics 1945-1996, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Byrnes, Mark S. The Truman Years, 1945-53. Pearson, 2000.

Mason, John W. The Cold War, 1945-1991. Routledge, 1999

1 Mark S. Byrnes, The Truman Years, 1945-53 (Pearson, 2000), p. 85

2Geir Lunstead, East, West, North, South: Major Developments in International Politics 1945-1996, 2nd edn (London, Oxford University Press, 1999), p.57

3 John W. Mason, The Cold War, 1945-199 (London, Routledge, 1999), p. 34

4 Geir Lunstead, East, West, North, South: Major Developments in International Politics 1945-1996, 2nd edn (London, Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 49

5 Mark S. Byrnes, The Truman Years, 1945-53 (Pearson, 2000), p. 85

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