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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.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the way in which kingdoms of western Europe (and their associated territories and colonies) were organised and ruled became increasing challenged by those who wanted a share in government. Throughout this period, the medieval structures of feudalism that were in place in many kingdoms gradually gave way to what are to us more recognisable as elements of modern government. In many of these kingdoms, the political revolutions that took place were accompanied by the rise in political and economic power of a new group in society who had hitherto been excluded from a true stake in government – the Middle Class (or bourgeoisie). This new educated and investing class would ultimately rise to replace the royal families and aristocracy of Europe as the true decision makers in government and the holders of economic and political power.
It was in the mid-1600s that Britain (after a violent Revolution and English Civil War lasting some 9 years) created the form of parliamentary system that was later adapted by Australia. In the 1700s, writers of the Enlightenment (sometimes referred to as Philosophes) began to promote similar democratic reforms in Europe. These writers often promoted ideologies that challenged the centralised Kingdoms or feudal systems of Western Europe. In 1775, the British colonists in what would become the United States of America embraced these Enlightenment ideals for government when they rebelled against British rule during the American Revolution. When their War of Independence was won in 1783, they had created the world’s first modern democracy. It embodied many of the liberal principles of the Philosophes. In 1789, the French Revolution began. Also proclaiming liberal values, the revolutionary leaders of France were (in part) reacting to the largely autocratic system created by French kings of the Ancien Regime – a modified form of feudalism.
In Europe, in the years after the fall of Napoleon (1815), there was a period in which it seemed that many of the conservative forces of politics had triumphed over the challenges of liberals after all. In France, Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia despotic and autocratic rulers seemed to have once again taken control of government. In Britain, wealthy capitalists seemed to have formed a new (informal and unwritten) alliance with the aristocracy to benefit from the economic and social changes of the Agrarian and industrial Revolutions. In this period, as Britain’s social order began to be transformed by industrialisation, ideological challenges continued to arise. In this period, the British establishment began to fear, not only liberal challenges (such as Chartism) but a new “socialist” ideology taking shape in the minds of social progressives. Likewise, in mainland Europe, despite efforts by despotic government to supress the forces for societal change, liberalism continued to be a radical force for change in society.
In 1848, the Year of Revolutions, liberal revolutions and uprisings rocked governments across Europe. While the revolutionaries of 1848 were largely unsuccessful, western European societies were on the cusp of a new era in which liberal and nationalist values would become the mainstream and the social order would be forever changed. Perhaps symbolic of the transformative social forces about to be unleased on Europe, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1948 published their influential Communist Manifesto in Britain. In this text they warned of an age of change to come despite the efforts of those conservative forces in power: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” and called upon the “workers of the world” to unite in their efforts to take power from their “class enemies”. After 1848, liberalism was joined by a new and galvanised revolutionary ideology in Europe, the ideology of socialism. Marxism became the most potent form of socialism to emerge at this time.
By 1880, it seemed that the forces of liberalism and nationalism had transformed the western world. In Britain and the United States, liberal capitalism had become the dominant ideology. France had become a liberal republic, and in the newly formed Italy and Germany new forms of government had reshaped and reorganised society. In 1900, of the great powers, only Tsarist Russia had seemed immune to the forces of change. At the turn of the 20th century, Russia remained under the control of a feudal and despotic leader. Its society had retained a social structure more typical of an earlier age. All of this would change in 1917. A revolution in Russia would bring into being the world’s first Marxist state and begin a radical social experiment which would be central to world affairs until the end of the 20th century.
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.)