The Hot War in Cold War Southeast Asia

The popular understanding of wars past is an important determining factor how wars in the future will be received or perceived by the general public. Policymakers have come to understand this and turn it to their advantage. Equating an intervention with upholding democracy plays well when compared with WWI, when the world was “made safe for democracy”. Interventions involving the liberation of oppressed masses or a gathering existential threat are compared with WWII. Opponents of interventions latch on to these comparisons as well, equating them with quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq. As time goes on, the general memory and popular factual understanding of these wars weakens despite more historical and archival evidence presenting a truer picture being opened by governments or discovered by academics. Despite having ended only 25 years ago, the Cold War presents such a case.

The Cold War was not one war fought in one place, but several wars fought in different theatres in different ways. The most familiar narrative of the Cold War focuses on the struggle in Europe between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American view of the Indochina Wars was that they were but another theatre in the war against international communism—the Global Cold War. For the French and Southeast Asians, it was a different battle. The French fought to preserve a dying colonial system; Southeast Asians, for national liberation and/or a new system based on communist principles.

The Cold War in Southeast Asia bore little resemblance to the Cold War in the West. The Southeast Asian Cold War was not cold at all

The Cold War in Southeast Asia bore little resemblance to the Cold War in the West. The Southeast Asian Cold War was not ‘cold’ at all and, rather than a state-centric battle fought with nuclear threats, espionage and military-industrial production across clearly drawn map lines, the Indochina Wars were ‘hot’ wars featuring weak central governments with soft borders, the main driver of which was to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people of Southeast Asia, who largely determined the course of the wars.


The Western Cold War

The Cold War in the West was a battle between states in two clear blocs along clear national borders. The map-lines of Cold War Europe were drawn at the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. The “Iron Curtain” fell along the Oder-Neisse Line, running from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Czech border in the south, then traced southwards to the Mediterranean through Austria and Italy, divided in half between joint occupations. Control of defeated Germany and its capital, Berlin, was also split between the US, UK, France and the USSR. Following 1948 elections, Italy joined NATO as a full member of the West bloc. In 1955 Austria became a neutral state and occupation troops withdrew. Otherwise, national borders and lines between East and West in Cold War Europe remained largely unchanged for 45 years until German re-unification and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Western Cold War was a state-centric conflict prosecuted through nuclear posturing, national military-industrial production and covert intelligence operations fought across tightly-controlled national borders. It is telling that many of the most intense military confrontations of the European Cold Warand much espionage activityhinged on the ‘German question’ and the fate of a single city, Berlin, issues not finally resolved until the fall of the Wall and the collapse of European communism.The Cold War was an ‘imaginary war’ in which the two sides threatened each other with annihilation, but no direct military battles were fought. The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and collective security guarantees of NATO and the Warsaw Pact made the cost of war in Europe too high. The sides confronted one another along their border. Many such scenes played in Berlin, including the 1948 Blockade and Airlift and the 1961 confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie. The two sides also tried to out-produce one another, engaging in a statistical battle in which agricultural, industrial and military production were weapons. They engaged in an arms race to produce and field more and better nuclear weapons in different forms and faster than the other. The only fighting in any real sense was between intelligence services in a “shadow war of espionage, counter-espionage and covert actions. The armies were the security and intelligence agencies of West and East, the CIA and the KGB, and the multitude of other forces lined up on one or the other side. In the war that could never become a real war…”

The ideological battle to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Europeans was an important component, but the “center of gravity” in the European conflictto use Karl von Clausewitz’s phrasewas the governments of the states involved. Governments and their security apparatuses could control the behavior of their citizens. Though the threat of nuclear war hung over their heads, the fighting was not real in its literal sense. Which side the average European fell on depended on where they lived, determined for them by the Big Three at conference tables in Yalta and Potsdam.


The Cold War in Southeast Asia

Pandora’s Box

In contrast to the West, the Southeast Asian Cold War, rather than ushering in the beginning of a new struggle, was the continuation of a struggle which had begun for some, such as Ho Chi Minh, as early as the 1920s. The struggle for Indochina predated the Cold War. The Japanese invasion in 1941 and return of the French in 1945 “opened Pandora’s box”, creating the opportunity to fight return of French rule to Indochina—something Southeast Asians may not have pursued nor achieved without the break in French control created by the war. The post-WWII period for Indochinese marked the resumption of two intertwined battles—that of liberation from French colonial rule and between communist and anti-communist forces to determine which system would govern independent Indochina.


Hot War

Arguably, the Cold War in Asia was not ‘cold’ at all. Unlike in Europe, where opposing forces stared each other down across borders but never fired a shot, the Southeast Asian Cold War was ‘hot’. Real armed battles were fought between colonial and nationalist and communist and anti-communist forces almost from the very beginning. During the First Indochina War, there would also be violent ethnic, religious and factional fighting among different Indochinese populations alongside the battle for independence. Over two decades, troops would invade, occupy and fight in, to varying degrees, all of the Indochinese states in the First and Second Indochina War, resulting in hundreds of thousands of total casualties—something unthinkable in Cold War Europe.



Soft Borders

The battle in Southeast Asia was not between governments behind clearly drawn borders on either side of a clear line of demarcation between democracy and communism. Borders mattered little in the Southeast Asian Cold War. There was no Oder-Neisse Line in Indochina. The 1954 17th parallel border between North and South Vietnam came to matter very little due to communist infiltration and American bombing.

In Southeast Asia, Western governments were unwilling to commit fully to total war and unwilling or unable to take, occupy and hold territory they had won.

Under French rule, the states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had all been one large colonyIndochina. There had always been interchange between these regions-cum-states, each with significant diaspora in the others. Many national leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos would be born or spend significant time in neighboring states. Close lingual, religious, cultural and ethnic relations facilitated ‘softer’ borders.

Much of the fighting during the Second Indochina War took place in South Vietnam and spilled over the border into Cambodia and Laos. Communist and anti-communist forces throughout Southeast Asia cooperated with kindred factions and used each other’s territories to transit through or as a sanctuary from their own fight across the border. The famous Ho Chi Minh and King Sihanouk Trails used by communist forces to transit the borders of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are examples. Governments in distant Saigon, Phnom Penh or Vientiane could do little to control their frontiers. The porous nature of these borders has been blamed specifically for “enlarging” the Second Indochina War beyond Vietnam.


Weak Eastern Governments and Lack of Western Will

The sides hurled propaganda. South Vietnam was called a puppet of the United States, while North Vietnam was a creature of Beijing. The governments of Cambodia and Laosclaimed neutrality, but received aid from all sides in a constant tug of war between North Vietnam, America, Russia and China. There was no grand post-WWII modernization and development plan like the Marshall Plan for Europe. Efforts to form effective Asian collective security regimes, such as SEATO, were stymied by the Geneva Accords requirement Indochinese states remain neutral.Governments had far less power in Southeast Asia than their counterparts in Europe. Throughout most of the Cold War, Southeast Asian states had two or more governments which claimed rule. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia experienced periods in which territory in each was controlled by opposing governments, dividing the country, each claiming to hold legitimate power over the whole.

Government heads did not stay in power long and there were constant overthrow attempts by both communist and anti-communist forces. There were multiple mutiny or coup attempts from 1960 against Ngo Dinh Diem in the lead up to his 1963 assassination, a trend which continued with his successors until 1966. Loyalties also shifted. King Sihanouk of Cambodia was seemingly on every side of the struggle in Cambodia at one time or another—monarchist, republican, anti-communist and finally with the Khmer Rouge communists.

In Southeast Asia, Western governments were unwilling to commit fully to total war and unwilling or unable to take, occupy and hold territory they had won. French commanders decided, rather than occupy Indochina with enough troops to guarantee security, they would pursue a “hedgehog” strategy of fighting the war through forays into enemy territory from a series of heavily fortified encampments, leading to their encirclement and 1954 surrender at Dien Bien Phu. The US, having just fought an unpopular war in Korea, was unwilling to commit to another war in Asia. Eisenhower did not want America to be seen as supporting French imperialism in Indochina and would not act without diplomatic support from Britain and Australia.In previous modern wars such as WWI and WWII, large-scale troop deployments and naval, air, armor and artillery support were central features and the war was prosecuted largely by one army defeating the enemy militarily and advancing to occupy ever more territory until the state leadership was destroyed or it capitulated. Capitols, major population centers and industrial areas were particular targets of bombing campaigns. It was total war. Both world wars ended when belligerent governments surrendered. Their troops stopped fighting and normal life returned.

There was no line of advance as there had been during WWII, behind which the war was over and civilians viewed themselves as ‘liberated’. Conversely, Southeast Asians saw the Westerners, especially the French, as ‘occupiers’. Communist forces, in territory and a culture much more home to them than their white counterparts, returned wherever they left. The moment Western troops left an area, they lost control of it. They controlled Vietnam only “100 yards on either side of all major roads”. Though America used its fire support assets to great effect and multiplied the effectiveness of its troops, the enemy did not abate for it.

The U.S. government policy, championed by Robert McNamara, of relying on “body counts” and statistics as metrics to determine victory led America to lose focus on other factors. Despite the focus on killing the enemy, America often refrained from bombing North Vietnamese government targets in the capital, Hanoi, as a tactic to keep them at the negotiating tablewhile using B-52’s to carpet bomb entire swathes elsewhere in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This angered civilians and turned them into refugees, fleeing into the arms of communists—particularly benefiting the Khmer Rouge. The French and American governments sought to end their wars in Southeast Asia as soon as they began and both eventually pursued negotiated settlements. They did not win the wars.

Those Who Forget History…

The popular conception of past wars and what, where, how, who and why they were conducted is often incomplete and the accuracy of the picture fades over time despite the clearer image produced by years of academic study after the fact. The Cold War is a perfect example, with the story of the Western or European Cold War the dominant narrative over what was a “hot war” in Southeast Asia. Since the dominant narratives or popular conception of wars past determines how wars are perceived in the future, it becomes all the more important to look deeper into even recent history for an accurate picture of events. Why? As ever—those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.


Chris Miller is a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Baghdad, Iraq and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRN, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.


[All Photos: Flickr Commons]


1 comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *