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The precise period of the Cold War is difficult to limit since it cannot be linked to a particular starting and ending event. For ease of understanding we can define the Cold War as taking place between 1945 (the end of the Second World War) and 1991 (the collapse of the Soviet Union). It is important to note, however, that some historians argue, perhaps convincingly, that the Cold War era actually commenced in 1917 with the Bolshevik take-over of power in Russia. Other historians have argued that the Cold War commenced slightly later during the Allied War of Intervention in Russia in 1918 (when British, American and other “western” forces fought alongside the White Armies as anti-Bolshevik allies during the Russia Civil War).
- What is meant by the term “the Cold War” as it is used by historians?
For the purposes of clarity in our studies this semester, the term “The Cold War” will be used to refer specifically to the tensions that existed between the Capitalist/Liberal Democratic world (led by the USA) and the Communist/Marxist-Leninist world (led by the USSR and to some extent China) in the post-1945 era.
- How does a “cold war” differ from other wars?
Cold wars (generally) can be understood as periods of international tension and hostility between nations that fall short of actually breaking out in open, large-scale warfare between them.
The Cold War, therefore, was a period of confrontation between the post-1945 superpowers that never amounted to direct open warfare between them. Rather their confrontation was often by “proxy”, confined to “incidents” or other military, political or economic actions.
- How do historians study the Cold War?
After consideration of key terms and issues of historiography, the Cold War is often studied through the use of incidents as case studies that give examples of the policies of the superpowers. A wide range of international “incidents” took place during the period and historians tend to choose from these numerous examples of tension to illustrate their perspectives on issues relating to the Cold War.
- What is the historiography of the Cold War?
Historiography is essentially the study of the way that history is written. Effectively, historiography can be thought of as “the study of the study of history”. The Cold War period is an excellent time frame to consider in terms of historiography as historians studying the period have involved themselves a series of clearly articulated and documented debates regarding key issues of the period.
For example, historians argue as to the precise origins of the Cold War. Generally speaking, they offer three broadly differing perspectives as to the causes and responsibility for the tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991. These three differing historical “schools” are known as the “orthodox”, “revisionist” and “post-revisionist” schools of thought and represent the three main perspectives offered by historians on the study of the Cold War.
When Vietnam split into North and South after the withdrawal of the French during 1954, thousands of covert Viet Minh cadres remained in place in the villages, towns and cities of the south. Despite the increasing tensions between the North (under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi) and South (under the corrupt leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon), these cadres were ordered by the North Vietnamese leadership to focus their attention on political activities in preparation for the 1956 elections as agreed to by the Geneva Accords rather than military activities. Despite some low level insurgency breaking out (in the form of assassination of low level south Vietnamese political leaders), this remained largely the situation until the 1956 elections failed to take place. As this reality became apparent, these communist-aligned cadres became increasingly active militarily and began to work against the southern government who were faced with other civil unrest. In 1956, the government controlled press in Saigon began to refer to communist agitators in the south as the Viet Cong – a shortening of the phrase Viet Nam Cong-San which meant Vietnamese Communist. In the face of this communist threat, the United States sent its first military advisors and trainers to the south. This small force of American troops would grow over the next two decades. In 1958, the Viet Cong began its first military attacks upon the government of the south (now known officially as the Republic of Vietnam or more commonly South Vietnam). By 1959, the north Vietnamese government (since 1954 known officially as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) had become increasingly involved in the reinforcement and supply of the southern communist-led insurgency. In September 1959, troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) were ambushed by a significant force of Viet Cong. From that time, a state of civil war openly existed in Vietnam. Similar fighting continued throughout 1960 and, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was elected to replace President Dwight Eisenhower in the USA, Diem faced not only threats to his power from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese but also from his own military who staged a coup attempt.
In January 1961, the Kennedy Doctrine was announced as JFK was inaugurated. The doctrine signalled a willingness on the part of the USA to take firm military action in order to contain communism and, in this context, the out-going President (Eisenhower) warned the young Kennedy of his fear that American troops would need to be deployed to South East Asia. By May 1961, Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) had visited Diem in Saigon. By November, the first significant contingent of US special forces arrived in Vietnam to assist the ARVN. In December 1961, the first US soldier (a cryptologist) was killed in an engagement with the Viet Cong. Throughout 1962 and 1963, the conflict between the North and South increased in intensity with American forces becoming increasingly involved in the fighting to support the ARVN. By the time of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, there were over 16,000 US troops in South Vietnam, the first contingent of Australian Army advisors had arrived in the country and an ARVN military coup (with the support of the American CIA) had overthrown Diem in Saigon. By mid-1964, a second military coup had taken place in Saigon and the USA under President Johnson seemed increasingly willing to directly intervene in the war with the use of US troops. In August 1964, the stage seemed set for an expansion of the war.
In August 1964, two naval events involving the US destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy led to an expansion of the US involvement in the war. Referred to by historians as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the two incidents gave the Johnson administration a justification for increasing America’s military intervention in Vietnam. On August 2nd 1964, the USS Maddox was carrying out electronic surveillance of North Vietnam inside waters claimed by North Vietnam as their territory in the Gulf of Tonkin. (This presence was designed in part to ‘test’ North Vietnam’s resolve in facing the US and coincided with South Vietnamese coastal raids on border regions of the North.) At approximately 3pm, the Maddox was approached by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats and an engagement took place resulting in the sinking of one torpedo boat and heavy damage to another. The Maddox then withdrew to South Vietnamese waters and reported the incident. On August 4th, the Maddox with another ship (the Turner Joy) returned to the area within North Vietnamese waters. In heavy seas during night-time, the ships reported further attack by torpedo boats and fired upon “radar targets”. Within 30 minutes of the August 4th attacks, President Johnson had decided on retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. (It is important to note however that while sonar reports from the Maddox indicated that torpedos had been fired at the US ships, within 24 hours, the US military had itself questioned the accuracy of these reports.)
 The commander of the Maddox was eager to report to his superiors (including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) that he had no evidence that the ships had come under attack on August 4th. The officer in charge felt that a combination of bad weather and an over-zealous sonar-man had led to false reports of an attack. McNamara himself felt there was a great deal of confusion on the ships on August 4th 1964 while Johnson in 1965 privately commented that the US navy may have been “shooting at whales” for all he knew. The North Vietnamese military commander at the time, General Giap, stated in 1995 that no attack had actually taken place. Recently declassified documents demonstrate the sensitivity of the issue at the time.
One of the significant historical debates in Australia concerns the reasons why Australia entered into a conflict in Vietnam. This debate has links to the historiography of the Cold War itself. When considering Australia’s reasons for entering a war in Vietnam alongside the USA during the 1960s, it’s necessary to consider a variety of perspectives.
Broadly speaking, when considering reasons for Australia’s entry into the Vietnam War, historians have pointed to a number of inter-related factors. These factors include:
A historical undercurrent of fear within Australia of Asia
- Deep roots to Australian fears of Asia and Asians are found in Australian history. Fears of China / Chinese were common throughout the 19th century while these were (to some extent) replaced by fears of Japan during the early decades of the 20th century. It is easy to draw links between these fears and an Australian xenophobia and racism.
- The Japanese threat to Australia during World War 2 and later the rise of Chinese Communism in 1949 would seem to give substance to these fears in the minds of many Australians.
- This fear during the 1950s and 1960s was coupled with a fear of Communist expansion as expressed by Orthodox historians of the Cold War (who pointed to the Korean War as an example of the threat of Asian communism).
- A fear of Asian Communism proved a particular concern to some in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. This concern was often exploited for political purposes in the 1950s and 1960s in Australia.
A desire within Australia to demonstrate Australia’s support for a nation that had the ability act as a “great and powerful friend” should Australia’s security be threatened.
- Traditionally, Australia had looked with confidence to the protection offered by our relationship with Britain. Until 1941-2, Australians had felt secure in the belief that, should Australia ever face the threat of attack or invasion by a nation in Asia, the power of the British Empire (in particular, its navy) would be there to defend and protect Australia.
- Some historians suggest that during the period prior to 1941-2, successive Australian governments had sent Australian troops into overseas conflicts as a way of demonstrating Australia’s continuing loyalty to Britain in the hope that this loyalty would be reciprocated by Britain should Australian security ever be under threat. In a sense Australia’s commitment of forces in the cause of Britain was seen as “paying dues” for an Australian national “insurance policy”.
- In World War 2, Australian belief in Britain’s ability/desire to protect Australia was shaken as the Japanese swept aside British military power in the region to Australia’s near north.
- In 1941-2, Australia’s relationship with the USA grew much closer and the US replaced Britain as a “great and powerful” protector and military ally against the Japanese. Some historians suggest that to Australian governments, the USA had simply replaced Britain as a “protector” and that the “insurance policy” had been transferred to a new protector to whom new dues would need to be paid.
- This relationship continued into the post-war period and was formalised with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 (during the Korean War and within the context of the Cold War.
- The “insurance policy” perspective on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War is used by many historians and revisionists use it as a way of criticising governments for their perceived lack of independence in Australian foreign policy. It is sometimes suggested that Australia was led “blindly” into the Vietnam War by those who emphasised closeness to the USA with little consideration of the possible costs involved.
Australia’s involvement in Cold War alliances with the USA.
- Growing out of the above points, Australia had entered into two significant alliances with the USA during the Cold War era.
- Both alliances, to a greater or lesser extent, were linked to America’s policy of containing communist expansion as expressed in the Truman and Kennedy Doctrines.Many Australians were also gravely concerned by the Domino Theory (first expressed by US President Eisenhower in 1954) which suggested that a chain reaction of communist expansion may take place in South East Asia unless communist nations were “contained”.
- The two alliances effecting Australia often linked to US containment policies are: (1) The ANZUS Pact/Treaty (between Australia, New Zealand and the United States) signed in 1951. (2) SEATO. (The South East Asian Treaty Organisation, created as an instrument of containment, and signed in 1954. The organisation listed both Australia and the USA as members – alongside other nations – and, significantly, granted protection to the Republic of South Vietnam.)
Regardless of the underlying causes of the Cold War and the differing perspectives offered by orthodox, revisionist and post-revisionist historians, it is important to develop an understanding of the stated foreign policy and stated motivations of the USA
Because so many modern historians argue that Australia “followed” the USA into the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s as a result of fears of Asian communism and out of a desire to prove loyalty to the alliances formed with America, it is important to consider the US policies towards the communist bloc which influenced its decision-making during the Vietnam era (the 1950s – 1970s).
Throughout the Cold War, American foreign policy towards the USSR (and other communist nations such as China) was characterised by a perceived need to defend itself and its allies against the threat of communist expansion (as envisaged by Marx and Trotsky – notably not by Stalin). The leaders of the USA repeatedly articulated a commitment to assisting and supporting like-minded and supposedly “liberal-democratic” states against any perceived left-wing threats. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that US foreign policy during the Cold War period until 1991 can, at its worst, be interpreted as an American willingness to support any regime as long as it was anti-communist – even if it were clearly authoritarian and undemocratic!
What is clear, however, is that US foreign policy during the Vietnam era can be explored by examining a series of phases in which a variety of approaches are taken in dealing with the perceived communist threat posed by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Underlying each of these phases is a clear desire to CONTAIN communism within its present boundaries. Each phase seems to have developed its own nuances that have been captured in the speeches and “doctrines” of policy leaders – especially those of three key Presidents.
|PHASE 1: 1947 – 1961
TRUMAN DOCTRINE (named after President Harry S. Truman)
Sub-theme: The Domino Theory (President Eisenhower, 1954)
|The creation of Containment as a principle in US Foreign Policy during the early years of the Cold War largely prior to Australian and American involvement in Vietnam..
“I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting the attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures… If we falter… we may endanger the peace of the world – and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.” (Truman, 1947)
Associated with a growing American commitment to containing communism in a variety of locations including Vietnam after 1954. According to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, containment was of particular importance in Asia where the threat of communist expansion was expressed in the Domino Theory.
1961 – 1970
KENNEDY DOCTRINE (named after President John F. Kennedy)
|A continuation of the objective of Containment but couched in far more “robust” and “assertive” terms than the Truman Doctrine.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” (Kennedy, 1961)
Initially associated with the events of the Cuban revolution (1959) and subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the doctrine represented an escalation of America’s commitment to containing communism in a variety of locations including Vietnam after 1961.
After Kennedy’s assassination in 1962, his doctrine remained central to the policies of his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ is remembered for his escalation of the Vietnam conflict.
1970/3 – 1977
NIXON DOCTRINE (named after President Richard M. Nixon)
|Containment is placed “in context”. America states a willingness to support others rather than become directly involved in warfare.
“Abroad and at home the key… lies in the placing and the division of responsibilities. The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nation’s future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their affairs. Just as we respect the right of each nation to determine its own future, we also recognise the responsibility of each nation to secure its own future.” (Nixon, 1969)
Associated with the end of the Vietnam War (early 1970s) and the concept of Vietnamisation (1969), the doctrine was announced in a context of American desires to withdraw from the Vietnam War.