5.14 Major Cold War Conflicts

Postwar Conflict

Fortunately for the human species, the Cold War never turned into a “hot” war between the two superpowers, despite close calls like that of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It did, however, lead to wars around the world that were part of Cold War setting but also involved conflicts between colonizers and the colonized. In other words, many conflicts in the postwar era represented a combination of battles for independence from European empires and proxy wars between the two camps of the Cold War.

The first such war was in Korea. Korea had been occupied by Japan since 1910, one of the first countries to be conquered during Japan’s bid to create an East Asian and Pacific empire that culminated in the Pacific theater of World War II. After the defeat of Japan, Korea was divided between a communist north and an anti-communist republican south. In 1950, North Korean troops supported with Soviet arms and allied Chinese troops invaded the south in the name of reuniting the country under communist rule. This was a case in which both the Soviets and the Chinese directly supported an invasion in the name of spreading communism, something that would become far less common in subsequent conflicts. A United Nations force consisting mostly of the American army fought alongside South Korean troops against the North Korean and Chinese forces.

US Defense Department. "South Korean Refugees." 1950.
US Defense Department. “South Korean Refugees.” 1950. Wikimedia. March 28, 2012.

Meanwhile, in 1945 Vietnamese insurgents declared Vietnam’s independence from France, and French forces (such as they were following the German occupation) hastily invaded in an attempt to hold on to the French colony of Indochina. When the Korean War exploded a few years later, the United States intervened to support France, convinced by the events in Korea that communism was spreading like a virus across Asia. As American involvement grew, orders for munitions and equipment from the US to Japan revitalized the Japanese economy and, ironically given the carnage of the Pacific theater of World War II, began to forge a strong political alliance between the two former enemies.

After three years of bloody fighting, the Korean War ended in a stalemate. A demilitarized zone was established between North and South Korea in 1953, and both sides agreed to a cease fire. Technically, however, the war has never officially ended – both sides have simply remained in a tense state of truce since 1953. The war itself tore apart the country, with three million casualties (including 140,000 American casualties), and a stark ideological and economic divide between north and south that only grew stronger in the ensuing decades. As South Korea evolved to become a modern, technologically advanced and politically democratic society, the North devolved into a nominally “communist” tyranny in which poverty and even outright famine were tragic realities of life.

Meanwhile, the Korean War energized the American obsession with preventing the spread of communism. President Truman of the US insisted, against the bitter protests of the British and French, that West Germany be allowed to rearm in order to help bolster the anti-Soviet alliance. As French forces suffered growing defeats in Indochina, the US ramped up its commitment in order to prevent another Asian nation from becoming a communist state. The American theory of the “domino effect” of the spread of communism from country to country seemed entirely plausible at the time, and across the American political spectrum there was a strong consensus that communism could be held in check primarily by the application of military force.

That obsession led directly to the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War). The Vietnam War is among the most infamous in modern American history (for Americans) because America lost it. In turn, American commitment to the war only makes if it is placed in its historical context, that of a Cold War conflict that appeared to American policymakers as a test of resolve in the face of the spread of communism. The conflict was, in fact, as much about colonialism and imperialism as it was communism: the essential motivation of the North Vietnamese forces was the desire to seize genuine independence from foreign powers. The war itself was an outgrowth of the conflict between the Vietnamese and their French colonial masters, one that eventually dragged in the United States.

The war “really” began with the end of World War II. During the war, the Japanese seized Vietnam from the French, but with the Japanese defeat the French tried to reassert control, putting a puppet emperor on the throne and moving their forces back into the country. Vietnamese independence leaders, principally the former Parisian college student (and former dishwasher – he worked at restaurants in Paris while a student) Ho Chi Minh, led the communist North Vietnamese forces (the Viet Minh) in a vicious guerrilla war against the beleaguered French. In a prescient moment with a French official, Ho Chi Minh once prophesied that “you will kill ten of our men, but we will kill one of yours and you will end up by wearing yourselves out.”4 The Soviet Union and China both provided weapons and aid to the North Vietnamese, while the US anticipated its own later invasion by supporting the South.

The French period of the conflict reached its culminating point in 1954 when the French were soundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu, a French fortress that was overwhelmed by the Viet Minh. The French retreated, leaving Vietnam torn between the communists in the north and a corrupt but anti-communist force in the south. From 1961 to 1968 American involvement skyrocketed as the South Vietnamese proved unable to contain the Viet Minh and the South-Vietnamese insurgency founded by it, the Viet Cong. Over time, thousands of American military “advisers,” mostly made up of what would become known as special forces, were joined by hundreds of thousands of American troops. In 1964, citing a fabricated attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Lyndon Johnson called for a full-scale armed response, which opened the floodgates for a true commitment to the war (technically, war was never declared, however, with the entire conflict constituting a “police action” from the American policy perspective).

Ultimately, Ho Chi Minh was proven right in his predictions about the war. American and South Vietnamese forces were fought to a standstill by the Viet Minh and Viet Cong, with neither side winning a definitive victory. All the while, however, the war was becoming more and more unpopular in America itself and in its allied countries. As the years went by, journalists catalogued much of the horrific carnage unleashed by American forces, with jungles leveled by chemical agents and napalm and, notoriously, civilians massacred. The United States resorted to a lottery system tied to conscription – “the draft” – in 1969, which led to tens of thousands of American soldiers sent against their will to fight in jungles thousands of miles from home. Despite the vast military commitment, US and South Korean forces started to lose ground by 1970.

The entire youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s was deeply embedded in the anti-war stance caused by the mendacious press campaigns about the war carried on by the US government, by atrocities committed against Vietnamese civilians, and by the deep unpopularity of the draft. In 1973, with American approval for the war hovering at 30%, President Richard Nixon oversaw the withdrawal of American troops and the end of support for the South Vietnamese. The Viet Minh finally seized the capital of Saigon and ended the war in 1975. The human cost was immense: over a million Vietnamese died, along with some 60,000 American troops.

In historical hindsight, one of the striking aspects of the Vietnam War was the relative absence of the Soviet Union. The USSR did provide some military supplies and financial aid to North Vietnamese forces, but it fell far short of any kind of sustained intervention along the American model in the South. In other words, whereas the US regarded Vietnam as a crucial bulwark against the spread of communism, and subsequently engaged in a full-scale war as a result, the USSR remained circumspect, focusing on maintaining power and control in the Eastern Bloc itself.

“French Withdrawl and the Division of Vietnam.” Cold War. 2009. Films on Demand. Through “Vietnam War.” Cold War. 2009. Films on Demand. 3:15.

If you get a message that the video cannot be authenticated, use the link below: https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod-infobase-com.ccco.idm.oclc.org/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=47587&loid=594847.

That being noted, not all Cold War conflicts were so lopsided in terms of superpower involvement. As described, Cuba was caught at the center of the single most dangerous nuclear standoff in history in part because the USSR was willing to confront American interests directly. Something comparable occurred across the world in Egypt even earlier, representing another case of an independence movement that became embedded in Cold War politics. There, unlike in Vietnam, both superpowers played a major role in determining the future of a nation emerging from imperial control, although fortunately neither committed itself to a war in doing so.

Egypt had been part of the British empire since 1882 when it was seized during the Scramble for Africa. It achieved a degree of independence after World War I, but remained squarely under British control in terms of its foreign policy. Likewise, the Suez Canal – the crucially important link between the Mediterranean and Red Sea completed in 1869 – was under the direct control of a Canal Company dominated by the British and French. In 1952 the Egyptian general Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British regime and asserted complete Egyptian independence. The United States initially sought to bring him into the American camp by offering funds for a massive new dam on the Nile, but then Nasser made an arms deal with communist Czechoslovakia. The funds were denied, and Nasser reacted by opening talks with the Soviets, who offered funding and weapons in return for Egyptian cotton and for added influence in North Africa and the Middle East.

In 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Henceforth, all of the traffic going through the vitally important canal would be regulated by Egypt directly. Immediately, Israeli, British, and French forces invaded Egypt in retaliation. Enraged by the attack on a burgeoning ally, Khrushchev threatened nuclear strikes. In turn, President Dwight Eisenhower forcefully demanded that the Israelis, French, and British withdraw, threatening economic boycotts (all while attempting to reduce the volatility with the Soviets). Cowed, the Israeli, French, and British forces withdrew. This “Suez Crisis” demonstrated that the US dominated the policy decisions of its allies almost as completely as did the Soviets theirs. The US might not run its allied governments as puppet states, but it could directly shape their foreign policy. In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Egypt’s control of the canal was assured. While generally closer to the USSR than the US in its foreign policy, it also tried to initiate a genuine “third way” between the two superpowers, and Egyptian leaders (all of them military leaders) called for Arab nationalism and unity in the Middle East as a way to stay independent of the Cold War.


“Suez Canal Crisis.” Cold War. 2009. Films on Demand. 1:30.


  1. Ho Chi Minh, quoted in Stanley Karnow, “Ho Chi Minh: He Married Nationalism to Communism and Perfected the Deadly Art of Guerilla Warfare,” Time, April 13, 1998, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988162,00.html. image


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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