Cold War Studies and the Cultural Cold War in Asia

In Tuong Vu and Wasana Wongsurawat, eds. Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology,
Identity, and Culture (New York: Palgrave, 2009)
Chapter 1
Cold War Studies and the Cultural Cold War in Asia
Tuong Vu, University of Oregon
Until recently, historians of the Vietnam War thought Vietnam was pushed into the
Soviet camp because the United States failed to respond to Ho Chi Minh’s repeated appeals for
support during 1945-1950. In this conventional view, the U.S. missed many opportunities to
avoid what would become a costly Vietnam War in the 1960s. Yet this thesis of missed
opportunities appears simplistic in light of newly released materials from Vietnamese archives.
These new sources revealed that Vietnamese leaders held firm beliefs in their communist cause
and acted boldly at opportune moments to realize such beliefs. Even if the U.S. had behaved
differently in 1945, there is no guarantee that Vietnamese communists would have been content
only with their own independence. Given their deep ideological commitments, it is likely that
they would have sought to export their revolution to neighboring countries if circumstances were
viewed as favorable.2
No events demonstrated this fact more clearly than Vietnamese communists’ response to
the emerging Cold War in Europe in 1948 and their subsequent efforts to apply for membership
in the Soviet bloc.3 One of the key events that marked the beginning of the Cold War in Europe
was the dramatic confrontation in Berlin between the Soviet Union and Western powers.
Observing the event from the jungle in northern Vietnam, Indochinese Communist Party
Secretary General Truong Chinh described it with an unmistakably enthusiastic tone:
The U.S. flaunted atomic bombs to frighten the world and reneged on its promise by
issuing new currency notes in West Germany and West Berlin. Response from the Soviet
Union was decisive: West Berlin was blockaded; no cars were allowed in and out; hot air
balloons were flown above; [and] steel fences as high as six kilometers [sic] were
erected… Despite many American tricks and threats, the Soviet Union was as firm as a
big rock.4
Truong Chinh was not concerned at all about the looming confrontation between the two
superpowers that could derail Vietnam’s struggle for independence. On the contrary, he felt
elated and emboldened by that conflict. By late 1949, Ho Chi Minh had ordered several
Vietnamese units into southern China to help Chinese communists eliminate remnants of
Guomindang forces. In early 1950, Ho trekked to Moscow on horseback and by train across
mainland China and eastern Russia. Thanks to Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi’s personal pleading,
Ho won a meeting with Stalin during which he requested (in vain) a Soviet-Vietnamese Mutual
Defense Treaty, one similar to the Sino-Soviet Treaty just signed by Stalin and Mao.5
New documents have thus established indisputably that Vietnamese communist leaders
volunteered to fight the Cold War on the side of the Soviet camp. This event not only challenges
conventional accounts of Vietnamese history but also has broader implications for Cold War
scholarship. First, we now know that the Cold War spread to Indochina at the initiatives of
Vietnamese communists while the superpowers were initially reluctant to get involved. Second,
Vietnamese communists joined the Soviet bloc not only because of their need for a protector but
also due to their belief in communism. The Vietnamese case thus puts Asian actors at the center
of the Cold War in Asia and highlights the imperative for the literature to pay attention to their
thoughts and beliefs.
Based on fresh sources, this book is aimed at asserting Asian perspectives and their roles
in the Cold War. Unlike much existing scholarship, we focus on ideology and identity, asking
how Asian actors depicted themselves, their friends and enemies in their imagination; what role
ideology and identity played in shaping their policies of alliance or non-alliance; and how
cultural resources such as concepts, arts, and media were deployed by Asian elites to assert their
identity or ideological beliefs. We also examine the cultural networks constructed by Asian elites
to fulfill their ideological commitments. By examining the cultural front of the Cold War in Asia,
we seek to show how Asian actors—while possessing limited military and economic
capabilities— were neither victims nor puppets of the superpowers as conventionally believed.
This introductory chapter is divided into three main sections. The first section identifies
two new trends in Cold War studies which inspire our book. These trends include, first, a
growing interest in the cultural dimensions of the conflict and, second, greater scholarly attention
to the roles played by minor powers. In the second section of this chapter, I review key gaps in
Cold War historiography and propose an agenda for the study of the cultural Cold War in Asia.
This conceptual agenda helps to situate our book within major debates in the field even though
we do not claim that our attempt here is anywhere near sufficient. To assess Cold War
historiography, I juxtapose three central concepts which lie at the heart of this book, namely,
“Asia” as a geographical location, “Cold War” as a historical event, and “culture” as a sphere of
social activity. My conceptual analysis suggests that Cold War historiography needs to be
reconceptualized in three ways. First, the geographic pattern of evolution of the Cold War is
commonly described as spreading from Europe and engulfing Asia at the initiatives of the
superpowers. I argue that the correct pattern should be conceptualized as an intercontinental
synchronization of hostilities in which Asian actors shared equal responsibilities with the
superpowers in the spread of conflict. Second, the standard narratives have been preoccupied
with the effects of the Cold War on events in Asia. I will propose that the literature direct its
attention to how indigenous political processes in Asia (i.e. nation-state building and socioeconomic development) had critical reverse impact on the Cold War. Third, the new emphasis on
culture in Cold War studies has not really escaped from the grips of the nation-state, and I will
argue that Asian actors’ visions and political loyalties during the Cold War spanned a much
wider range—not limited to the nation-state as the ideal political community.
In the third and final section of this chapter, I will preview the arguments of the chapters
to follow, which are structured around two central themes: the ideologies and identities of Asian
actors, and the cultural networks that undergirded Cold War security alliances in Asia.
New Trends in Cold War Scholarship
Since the end of the Cold War, new archival and other primary sources coming out from
both sides of the Iron Curtain have deepened our understanding of this event. Cold War studies
have also grown thanks to the emergence of younger scholars from the former Soviet bloc, who
are usually the first to exploit the new materials. Finally, the general intellectual and political
environment has become much more relaxed in the post-Cold War world, fostering more open
international scholarly exchanges. Old questions such as the origins of the Cold War are now
being re-examined, while new ones such as the significance of the event in international history
Comprehensive reviews of the new Cold War scholarship are available elsewhere;6 here I
wish to highlight two most remarkable trends. First, scholars now acknowledge the important
roles played by lesser powers in the Cold War. Western Europe, for example, is no longer
viewed merely as a passive partner of the United States.7 No one disputes that the US was able to
fundamentally transform Western Europe and Japan according to its own image. Yet the key to
that transformation lay not only in US power to impose its ideas on its allies in the early postwar
years, but also in the wholehearted acceptance of US leadership by second-generation leaders of
US allies such as Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, and Yasuhiro Nakasone.8 Like Western
Europe, “Third World” states have been re-evaluated in the scholarship. These states, which
were once depicted merely as puppets or victims of the superpowers, now appear as key players
in the “global Cold War” alongside the US and the Soviet Union.9 The superpowers and Third
World states manipulated each other, and it is far from clear whether the former could always
dictate the terms of their relationships with the latter.10
As Cold War scholars assign a larger role to small powers, they also pay greater attention
to cultural as opposed to geopolitical or economic factors. The Cold War now appears as one of
opposing ideologies as much as one of opposing states seeking economic or military dominance.
In Odd Arne Westad’s apt terms, it was a war between the “Empire of Liberty” and the “Empire
of Justice.”11 A rich body of scholarship has emerged, focusing on the roles of ideologies,
discourses, propaganda, literature and arts during the Cold War.12 Cold Warriors such as Stalin
and John Kennedy are shown to be motivated as much by ideological beliefs as by concerns
about national security. Cultural weapons took diverse forms and were as widely deployed as
nuclear warheads. Moreover, many new works also try to capture the complex interaction
between Cold War politics on the one hand, and religious, racial and gender identities on the
other.13 These studies teach us much about how the international ideological struggle
transformed social identities in the countries involved (mostly the US and Western Europe). At
the same time, actors’ perceptions and assumptions about themselves, their allies and their
enemies are shown to deeply reflect their religious, racial, and gender attitudes and beliefs.
As argued below, the new trends in Cold War studies are encouraging but the literature as
a whole remains European or American centric. Cold War narratives still describe Asian
developments as dependent on the superpowers’ rival moves. Works on the Cold War in Asia
rarely examine cultural issues, and those that do are limited to ideologies—primarily the
communist ideology.14 In the next section, I critically assess Cold War literature by juxtaposing
three conceptual dimensions: “Asia,” “Cold War,” and “culture.” This triangular focus helps
suggest a broader agenda for Cold War scholarship and identify the substantive issues at stake
for the book.
The Cultural Cold War in Asia
Among the three concepts, “Asia” is perhaps the easiest term to define. The continent
includes four regions: East, South, Central, and Southeast Asia. In the last decade our knowledge
about the Asian theater of the Cold War has improved tremendously with many new studies on
Cold War politics in China, Korea, Indochina, and other Southeast Asian countries.15 As we
focus on Asia as a site of Cold War battles, the central historiographical problem is the way the
geographical evolution of the Cold War is described in the scholarship.16 The standard
conception of the Cold War views it as centering on Europe and North America and spreading
out from there. As one recent narrative goes, “The term “Cold War” refers to the state of tension,
hostility, competition and conflict which characterized the West’s relations with the Soviet
Union, and more particularly, Soviet-American relations for much of the post-war period”.17 The
narrator admits that there are serious disputes concerning where and when exactly the Cold War
started: most historians think it began in Germany but some have argued it started elsewhere
such as Greece, Turkey, Iran, China or Korea.18 She then goes on:
As the ambitions and securities of West and East came up against each other in the
Middle East, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America, each
provided a forum in which the two superpowers waged their struggle for political,
economic and ideological hegemony which was conducted by all means short of open
armed conflict between them for over forty years.19
This standard narrative portrays the Cold War as spreading out of Europe and America to
other continents due to rival moves by the superpowers. A slightly different version of this
narrative by a political scientist runs as follows:
While both the United States and the USSR had historically been critical of the European
balance of power system, they had also attempted to remain aloof from European politics
in the 1930s. The destruction of the traditional European system during World War II,
including the beginning of its demise in the colonies of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia,
led to a global power vacuum that set the structural stage for the intersubjective
ideological contention over what would replace it.20
Asia in these accounts is described in only spatial terms (forum/vacuum), making one wonders
what Asians were doing.
Yet many have recently pointed out how these standard narratives are problematic.21
While it may be true that the superpowers sought to spread their rivalry to other parts of the
globe, the danger is to ignore the parts played by Asian actors in the evolution of the conflict.
Asia was more affected by the Cold War than any other continents except Europe; yet, even
during World War II when the Japanese Empire ruled over much of East and Southeast Asia,
local elites were far from being passive onlookers or submissive victims. Nationalists in Burma,
Indonesia and Malaya actively collaborated with the Japanese in return for limited roles in
government and for promises of future independence. In China, the Guomindang government
and the communists conducted guerrilla warfare while building up their main forces in remote
sanctuaries. Thailand took opportunity of British and French defeats to seize territories in
Cambodia and Malaya with Japanese approval.
Within days after Japan surrendered, nationalists declared independence while local
uprisings erupted in Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia. Before Allies’ forces arrived to disarm the
Japanese, indigenous elites had set up governments based partly on the apparatus left behind by
the Japanese. Within months, wars broke out in Indonesia and Vietnam between these
indigenous governments and returning colonial masters. Events in East Asia also moved forward
very quickly. Despite American and Soviet attempts to broker peace and power-sharing between
Chinese nationalists and communists, war resumed in 1946. The two superpowers were still
planning to place Korea under an international trusteeship in 1947 when Rhee Syngman traveled
to Washington to lobby for a separate government in South Korea. Communist groups in South
Korea staged large-scale protests and violent attacks on local governments, leading to deadly
clashes with American occupation forces.22 In an important sense Koreans were as much
responsible for the division of their country as were the superpowers.
While the Cold War was brewing in Europe, some Asian groups—especially
communists— welcomed the conflict. In part as a response to Moscow’s call to arms and in part
out of their own considerations, communists in Malaya, Indonesia and Burma instigated civil
wars.23 Chinese and Vietnamese Communists saw the Cold War as an opportunity to exploit for
revolutionary benefits.24 I have mentioned above how Ho Chi Minh went to Moscow to beg
Stalin for membership in the emerging socialist bloc. In contrast, nationalists in Indonesia began
to distance themselves from the superpowers;25 it is no wonder that Indonesia would soon
emerge as a founder of the non-aligned movement.
I recount all these events to challenge the notion of an Asian vacuum waiting for the
superpowers to fill in the late 1940s. It is more accurate to say that the Cold War would not have
extended into Asia had some Asian actors not desired it and worked hard to get what they
wanted. The Cold War did not spread to and engulfed Asia as the standard narratives tell it. Asia
was already engulfed in conflicts. These local conflicts in Asia intensified and lasted longer due
to the Cold War. But the Cold War also intensified and lasted longer because of these local
conflicts. The geographical pattern in the standard narratives went from Europe to Asia, but what
in fact occurred was an intercontinental synchronization of hostilities on a global scale. This
reconceptualization is essential if the origins and dynamics of Cold War conflicts in Asia are to
be understood correctly.
“Cold War”
“Cold War” is a more complex concept than “Asia.” As the term implies, it is a special
kind of warfare characterized not by armies of soldiers slaughtering each other, but by tense
confrontations and diplomatic hostilities across the borders of the two blocs. Historiographically,
it is often assumed that the Cold War was the most important event in Asia in the second half of
the 20th century. The Cold War’s deep impact on decolonization and economic development in
Asia has been the main staple of the literature.26
It is true that for long periods of time many Asian countries experienced the Cold War.
Tensions and hostilities marked the relationships between Asian members of the US camp and
those of the Soviet camp, similar to the situation between Eastern and Western Europe. But there
were many other events that Asian countries experienced besides the Cold War. These events
may or may not relate to the conflict between the two superpowers. Events that related may form
only small chapters in the histories of the relevant countries. Many Asian countries actively
sought to prevent the superpowers’ rivalry from spilling into their backyards. While diplomatic
historians invest their energies in studying the superpowers’ intervention into the Third World—
which was admittedly substantial, there has been less systematic attention being paid to the
reserve impact of indigenous Asian events on the global Cold War. For this reason I will focus
here on a few issues where potentials exist for future research.
During the second half of the 20th century when the Cold War split Europe by halves, two
autonomous and interrelated processes transformed Asia, including nation-state building and
socio-economic development. Nation-state building was a process that began with
decolonization. Recent research has shown how Asian nationalists manipulated the superpowers
in their quest to expel colonial powers and to secure American or Soviet aid for their nation10
building programs.27 Decolonization led to numerous disputes between the US and its European
allies over their Asian colonies. These disputes were eventually resolved but may have changed
the course of events in significant ways.
Nation-state building was also accompanied by numerous civil wars. The Chinese civil
war began in 1927 and lasted through 1949. Although its outcome in 1949 was shaped in part by
Soviet and American rivalry, the war could have ended in 1937 had the Japanese not invaded
China and saved the communists from being annihilated by Chiang Kai-shek after their deadly
Long March. Other civil wars in Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1959-1975), Laos (1958-1975),
Cambodia (1970-1975, 1979-1992) and Afghanistan (1980-1988) interacted closely with the
Cold War but followed their own logic. The superpowers unquestionably played big roles in
various phases of these wars.28 At one point there were half a million US troops in South
Vietnam and 300,000 Chinese and 3,000 Soviet soldiers in North Vietnam. Yet, as the chapters
on Vietnam in this book suggest, subsuming these local events under the Cold War rubric may
cause one to overlook the active roles of local actors in these conflicts and misinterpret the
origins and evolution of hostility.
Nation-state building in Asia also involved interstate wars. Most of Asian interstate wars,
such as the Indian-Pakistani wars since independence, the Sino-Indian border war (1962), the
Malaysian-Indonesian war (1963-1965), the Sino-Vietnamese war (1979-1989), and the
Vietnamese-Cambodian war (1977-1989), had little to do with the politics between two
superpowers. Yet these wars may have contributed to the evolution of the Cold War although
this question has not been systematically researched. The Sino-Indian war certainly contributed
to the breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations. The Vietnamese-Cambodian war may have increased
Soviet-American tensions in the 1980s.
Nation-state building involved not only wars but also the construction of interstate
alliances. In response to the Cold War, many Asian states took the initiative to form the nonaligned movement and found neutral groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN). The non-aligned movement often frustrated the efforts by the two superpowers and
their allies to extend the Cold War to the region. ASEAN contributed to US failure in promoting
the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), designed to replicate the successful North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Southeast Asia. In the 1980s, ASEAN played an
important role in bleeding Vietnam white, defeating the Soviet-Vietnam-Democratic Kampuchea
alliance and contributing indirectly to the collapse of the socialist bloc.
Socio-economic development was the second indigenous process in Asia that affected the
evolution of the Cold War. The economic success of the little dragons by the mid-1980s must
have influenced the decisions of Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese leaders to embark on market
reforms. Economic stagnation in Vietnam and Laos—both being recipients of Soviet aid—no
doubt added to the burden of the Soviet empire in the 1980s, generating Soviet interest in
imperial retreat and economic reform under Mikhail Gorbachev. Socially, the rise of the middle
class in Asian countries such as South Korea, the Philippines, South Vietnam (in the 1960s),
Suharto’s Indonesia and Sarit’s Thailand led to widespread protests against the US and its bases
in Asia. These protests fractured the US relations with its Asian allies. South Korean, South
Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino protests led to the falls of Rhee Syngman, Ngo Dinh Diem,
Thanom Kittikachorn and Ferdinand Marcos—all staunch American allies in Asia.
While there is much to learn about how the Cold War shaped political processes in Asia,
we hope that scholars will pay greater attention to how local processes had reverse impact on the
Cold War. The new Cold War scholarship should not assume that power and influence flowed
only one way from the big to the small, even in highly asymmetric relationships that
characterized many Cold War alliances. Available evidence suggests that developments initiated
by Asian actors contributed significantly to the evolution and end of the Cold War between the
“Culture” and its related concepts such as “ideology” and “identity” are difficult to
define. Among Cold War scholars who study culture, the most commonly accepted definition is
Max Weber’s “web of significance” or Clifford Geertz’s “system of meaning”.29 Proponents of
the cultural approach view it as distinctive from power and economic approaches in international
relations. As diplomatic historian Akira Iriye writes, “Power and economy are concepts as
elusive as culture, but in the study of diplomatic affairs one may define power as a nation’s
ability to defend itself, and economy as its production and exchange of goods and services.
Culture, in contrast, is the sharing and transmission of memory, ideology, emotions, lifestyles,
scholarly and artistic works, and other symbols.”30
While scholars share a broad definition of culture, they study different elements of it. We
can group these elements under two overlapping categories: cultural practices such as images,
perceptions, prejudices, stereotypes, norms, values and emotions on the one hand, and thoughts,
ideas and ideologies on the other.31 The first category involves subconscious or only partly
conscious cultural elements—aptly described by Harold Isaac as “scratches on our minds.”32
Because these cultural elements exist in the subconscious realm for the most part, they tend to be
unsystematic. They can be relatively stable, yet can swing radically at times, as Isaacs’s study of
American images of China and India has long demonstrated. In contrast, the second category
involves only cultural elements in the conscious realm of human minds. They tend to be
systematic—especially in the case of ideologies.
Both categories of cultural elements can be subjective (found in an individual’s mind) or
inter-subjective (found in groups of individuals, large national communities and even “global
society”). It is possible that elements in the two categories are systematically interrelated; an
example is the alleged “natural” correspondence between the Leninist ideology and
“authoritarian culture.” At the same time, elements of the two categories may reinforce or
repulse each other as they interact: adopted modernist ideas may encourage individuals or
societies to reject “backward” cultural practices, but pre-existing cultural practices may
predispose individuals and societies to the acceptance of certain ideas rather than others.
The division of culture into subconscious versus conscious elements helps locate Cold
War scholarship within the scholarship on culture and international relations in Asia. The
literature on the subconscious cultural practices that characterize international relations in Asia is
longstanding.33 Some of this literature spans the Cold War period and subsumes Cold War
cultural politics under broader themes such as “antiforeignism,”34 “cultural visions of modernity
and identity,”35 or “cultural internationalism.”36 There have been few systematic exchanges
between this literature and Cold War studies, in particular about the extent to which Cold War
ideologies and identities interacted with, influenced, and were influenced by larger cultural
patterns or characteristics in the Asian context.
At the same time, the recent cultural turn in Cold War historiography has been limited to
Western contexts. Furthermore, the standard narratives of the Cold War until recently were still
confined to relations among nation-states. While they differ in many ways, both diplomatic
history and the study of international relations in political science take the nation-state as the
basic unit of analysis.37 In the limited historical scholarship that examines culture and
international relations in Asia, most focus on interstate relations: China Eye Japan38 and Mutual
Images39 are titles of studies that symbolize what the genre is about. While useful, these studies
further reinforce the notion that nation-states are the only proper context to examine cultural
relations, which may be true but at the same time self-limiting.40 Even many recent studies have
not quite gotten out of the trap of the nation-state,41 leading to sometimes simplistic
interpretations about the complex visions of historical actors.42
It is true that nation-states are important actors in international politics. Yet they are
political communities whose boundaries poorly correspond to cultural zones. In fact, the nationstate has had to compete with various other political identities even in countries experiencing
massive nationalist movements such as Indonesia and Vietnam.43 Indonesian labor activists in
the early 1920s had known Marx before they started calling themselves “Indonesians.” The
rising communist party in the Dutch Indies dismissed nationalism as an anachronistic ideology of
19th-century Europe. They called for world revolution, not national independence. Similarly,
many Vietnamese communists from early on envisioned an imagined socialist camp that was
their second fatherland.44 World revolution rather than the nation was what captured their
imagination. At the same time, many of them dreamed of an independent Indochinese socialist
federation that would extend beyond the Vietnamese nation to include Laotians and
Cambodians.45 Other groups were no less imaginative than communists. Pan-Islamism was
popular in the Dutch Indies in the early 1920s, as were Buddhist visions in Vietnam.46 These
religious worldviews were not constrained by nation-states’ boundaries.
In the Chinese case, a concept of nation did not exist. What Sun Yat-sen and the 1911
revolutionaries meant by “nationalism” was merely “anti-Manchurism.”47 Nationalism is
similarly inadequate to serve as an interpretive framework of the People’s Republic of China’s
diplomatic history during 1935-1950, as Michael Sheng argues:
Since the Chinese communists drew a line not along the national boundaries of territory,
language, ethnicity, or common history, but along the social class boundaries of
bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie or proletariat, certain factions of Chinese society were
seen as enemies whose destruction, even by the Japanese, was what the CCP desired. In
contrast, the Outer Mongols and the Soviets were taken as “brothers,” whose friendship
and assistance were expected and sought by the Party. It is thus clear that Mao and his
generation of radical revolutionaries shared no such concept of the Chinese nation as a
holistic “people,” let alone their devotion to the “nation” which did not exist in their
conceptual world.48
The imagination of Asian actors thus spanned a wider range than mere traditional patriotism or
modern nationalism.
The study of culture can help rescue Cold War scholarship from the grips of the nationstate. Asian actors hold many alternative frames of cultural reference; some of these coexist
within the boundaries of the nation-state while others span many nation-states or even the whole
globe. An important cultural sphere in the Asian context is occupied by ethnic Chinese who have
lived in Southeast Asia for generations and whose political loyalties do not fit easily into any
neat frame of the nation-state. Another significant cultural sphere in Southeast Asia is inhabited
by Muslims. The global Islamic revival movement since the 1970s posed a great challenge to
many Southeast Asian states during the later stage of the Cold War.49 This religious movement
generated profound changes in many Southeast Asian countries and certainly interacted with the
Cold War to some unknown extent. The Afghan war of the 1980s was part of this movement,
which became intertwined with the Cold War. Despite being marginalized in many Asian
contexts, Christianity is another significant cultural sphere and Christian evangelism is a related
phenomenon which has not been examined within a broad framework of Cold War cultural
politics. Finally, the rise of Asian regionalism—the belief that Asian countries should bond
together—within the Cold War context is yet another neglected topic.
To sum up, fresh sources and recent scholarship in Asian studies have exposed many
problems in the standard narratives of the Cold War. The central problem, as I have argued, is
European and American biases. My view is not to overlook the interaction between local and
international histories, nor to deny the influence of the superpowers during the second half of the
20th century in Asia. But it is simplistic to lump all conflicts in Asia during the Cold War as Cold
War proxies. To use an analogy of theater, the plays on Asian stages embedded both Cold War
and local plots, both global and local actors, who interplayed in various ways depending on
particular contexts. The job of Cold War analysts is to disentangle these plots. Until recently the
tendency was the ignorance of local plots and of the degree they could operate independently.
The question is how to achieve a balanced perspective. I suggest that we reconceptualize
the geographical spread of the Cold War not as a Eurocentric pattern, but as the intercontinental
synchronization of hostilities. The scholarship should do a better job at analyzing how
indigenous political processes in Asia may have reversely impacted on the relations between the
superpowers. To assign greater agency to Asian actors also requires analysts to move beyond the
nation-state to examine alternative frames of cultural reference or political loyalties. The
underlying assumption is that the histories of countries outside Europe and North America
during the Cold War period followed their own autonomous logic and should not be subsumed
under some Eurocentric trends.
Plan of the Book
Aiming at the broad agenda laid out above, our book focuses on ideology, identity, and
the cultural networks that undergirded Cold War blocs in Asia. The Vietnamese case, again, is a
test case on the important role of ideology in Asia’s Cold War. The Vietnam War has been
portrayed in conventional narratives as a war in which invading Americans clashed with
Vietnamese nationalists represented by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).
This view also considers the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) a mere construction of the
United States.50
In Chapter 2, Tuan Hoang challenges this common view by analyzing the thoughts of
South Vietnamese anticommunists. To these men, communism posed a serious threat to
Vietnamese national and traditional values, and the communist regime in North Vietnam was as
oppressive and cruel as the former colonial regime. Hoang shows that this sharp and coherent
critique of communism was shaped both by South Vietnamese intellectuals’ ideological beliefs
and by their personal experiences of communist rule between 1945 and 1954. Anticommunism
was alive and active in South Vietnam long before American involvement in the war, and
possessed a coherent and sophisticated intellectual content developed mostly out of local context.
Chapter 3 by Tuong Vu dispels another popular myth that Vietnamese communists were
nationalist first and communist second by highlighting the importance of the communist
ideology in North Vietnam’s military campaign to unify Vietnam. Among Vu’s sources is, for
the first time, a collection of Ho Chi Minh’s radical anti-imperialist tracts published under
various pseudonyms at the height of the Cold War. By analyzing ideological debates among the
North Vietnamese leadership, Vu argues that, not just national unification, but dreams of
building socialism were what motivated North Vietnamese leaders. Both Hoang and Vu thus
place Vietnamese and their ideological conflict at the center of Vietnam’s civil war.
With similar attention to the ideologies and identities of Asian actors, Chapter 4 by
Setiadi Sopandi studies Sukarno’s attempts—through architecture—to assert a new Indonesian
national identity which was not only separate from the colonial past but also independent from
the Cold War camps. As Sopandi argues, the emergence of Jakarta through the construction of
national landmarks under Sukarno demonstrated, first, his status and agency as the independent
leader of a non-aligned nation in the Cold War era, and second, the Indonesian ability to build
their own nation without becoming entangled in either Cold War camp.
Leong Yew’s analysis in Chapter 5 turns to Singaporean leaders who espoused a distinct
socialist vision and who devoted significant efforts to asserting their identity during the Cold
War. Unlike their Vietnamese and Indonesian counterparts, Singaporean leaders saw themselves
as socialist democrats and joined Socialist International, a Eurocentric organization which
claimed to represent the ideals of democratic socialism. In the Cold War context of economic
difficulties and political turmoil caused by raging communist insurgencies, Yew demonstrates
that Singapore leaders made serious attempts to adapt “Asian values” and “Oriental lifestyles” to
their understanding of democratic socialism. Eventually, these attempts led them to conflict with
Socialist International, from which they were expelled in 1976.
Together, the cases of the two Vietnams, Indonesia, and Singapore showcase the
importance of ideology and identity to Asian actors. Their beliefs, which they were not shy in
expressing, shaped the ways they viewed themselves, their enemies and their allies. Their
thoughts reveal that they were neither puppets nor victims of the superpowers. Together the four
cases advance the two theses of this volume that Asian actors played a central role in the Cold
War drama in Asia, and that not only security interests but ideological ties undergirded Cold War
alliances in Asia.
While security needs were expressed in military alliances, ideological loyalties led Asian
leaders to build robust cultural networks in each Cold War camp. The second half of this book is
devoted to these important networks that have been neglected in Cold War scholarship. We
argue that these cultural networks shaped the perceptions and beliefs of people in both camps,
creating a common identity shared by people from all countries in a camp. States and social
groups invested significant resources in cultural diplomacy, not only for the collective benefits of
the camp, but also to demonstrate their ideological commitments.
In Chapter 6, Nicolai Volland focuses on China’s efforts to promote proletarian fiction
for the winning of a Stalin Prize, which was a major form of cultural exchanges within the Soviet
camp in the early decades. Volland shows how, as a latecomer in the socialist camp, China had
to play a catch-up game to demonstrate its ideological maturity. Yet while China could boast a
substantial amount of fiction on rural topics, until 1949 it lacked a proletarian-industrial fiction.
To make up for this problematic “gap,” Chinese cultural bureaucrats handpicked the little-known
writer Cao Ming and her novel The Moving Force, and catapulted her practically overnight onto
the international socialist stage by organizing the translation of her book into more than a dozen
Soviet bloc and Asian languages.
While the Stalin Prize helped build a new identity to be shared within the Soviet bloc,
Chapter 7 by Bernd Schaefer examines a different cultural dynamic in this camp, i.e., the intense
competition among China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and Pol Pot’s Kampuchea to become
the ideological vanguard of East Asia. Using archival materials from the former German
Democratic Republic, Schaefer shows how the ideological vanguard contest among Asian
communist states influenced not only their domestic and foreign policies but also the actions of
the superpowers and their policies towards the region and, in the long term, toward the Cold War
as a whole.
Turning to the other side of the Iron Curtain, Chapter 8 by Rommel Curaming
investigates the subtle propaganda propagated through the institution of the Ramon Magsaysay
Award, a major cultural network among anticommunist and noncommunist countries in Asia.
Curaming argues that, despite claiming to be apolitical, the citations that accompany the awards
often carry subliminal messages that support the cause of liberal capitalism. Like the Stalin Prize
discussed by Volland in Chapter 6, the Magsaysay Award served a crucial function in promoting
a common identity for the bloc and fostered bloc solidarity among US allies in Asia.
Placed next to each other, the Stalin Prize, the Magsaysay Award, and the ideological
contest among Asian communist states reveal rich cultural networks spanning Cold War’s Asia.
These cases suggest the significant ideological commitments of Asian elites. While these elites
worked hard to construct military alliances, they did not neglect the cultural exchanges built
alongside such alliances. In the case of North Korea in Chapter 9, Balázs Szalontai shows that
domestic cultural policy was in fact made to complement foreign policy in complex ways. North
Korean leaders used cultural policies extensively to express enmity or amity towards other
countries. Friendly cultural campaigns were launched to win over South Korean hearts and
minds, while hostile cultural campaigns were employed to express Kim Il Sung’s disapproval of
Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. Domestic cultural policies were an integral part of Kim’s
foreign policy arsenals.
A narrow focus on foreign policy alone would miss this rich cultural side of the Cold War
in Asia. Attention to cultural policy and politics can yield valuable insight as evidenced further in
the case of Thailand. In Chapter 10, Wasana Wongsurawat shows the complicated cultural and
political position of the Thai state through a comparison of two race riots during the Cold War
period in Bangkok Chinatown—the Yaowaraj Incident of 1945 and the Plabplachai Incident of
1974. Using government records and popular media in Thai, Chinese, and English languages,
Wongsurawat shows how the Thai government sought to manipulate public opinion in these
complicated events to avoid ramifications for its foreign relations and domestic legitimacy. By
poking at the ethnic issue, Wongsurawat adds considerable nuances to our understanding of
Thailand’s alliance with the U.S.
In conclusion, the cultural dimensions of the Cold War in Asia are a vast area that awaits
future research. Without understanding the thoughts of Asian actors and their cultural networks,
we risk underestimating Asia’s role in the Cold War. One must recall that Asia was the only
continent where both superpowers met humiliating defeats (the US in Vietnam and the Soviet
Union in Afghanistan). It is obvious that these Asian opponents of the superpowers triumphed
not by firepower but by other resources, of which cultural resilience is key. If these grand defeats
teach us any lesson, it is the need to take Asian actors and their rich cultural milieus seriously,
which is just what we attempt to do in this volume.
I thank Jamie Davidson, Anthony Reid, Geoff Wade, Wasana Wongsurawat, and a reviewer for
their helpful comments. Wasana assisted in writing the third section of this chapter. Research
assistance provided by Debasis Bhattacharya is gratefully acknowledged.
See Vietnam’s efforts to export revolution to Laos in Christopher Goscha, “Vietnam and the
World Outside: The Case of Vietnamese Communist Advisers in Laos (1948-62).” South East
Asia Research 12, no. 2 (2004), 141-85.
For an extended treatment of the topic, see Tuong Vu, “From Cheering to Volunteering:
Vietnamese Communists and the Arrival of the Cold War 1940-1951,” in Connecting Histories:
The Cold War and Decolonization in Asia (1945-1962), ed. Christopher Goscha and Christian
Ostermann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming).
Truong Chinh, “Tich cuc cam cu va chuan bi tong phan cong” (Zealously holding off the
enemy and preparing for the general attack phase), January 14, 1949. Dang Cong San Viet Nam
(Vietnamese Communist Party), Van Kien Dang Toan Tap 10 (Collected Party Documents),
(Hanoi: Chinh Tri Quoc Gia, 2002): 29-30.
Stalin laughed upon hearing Ho’s verbal request. See Ilya Gaiduk, Confronting Vietnam: Soviet
Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center,
2003): 1-11.
An example is Odd Arne Westad, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations,
Theory (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000).
Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952,”
Journal of Peace Research 23 (September 1986): 263-77; Odd Arne Westad, “Introduction,” in
Westad, Reviewing the Cold War, 1-23; John Gaddis, ‘“On Starting All over again: A Naïve
Approach to the Study of the Cold War,” in Westad, Reviewing the Cold War, 27-42.
Westad, “The New International History of the Cold War: Three (Possible) Paradigms,”
Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 556.
See, for example, Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the
Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Tony Smith, “New
Bottles for New Wine: A Pericentric Framework for the Study of the Cold War,” Diplomatic
History 24, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 567-91.
Ibid. Also, Westad, “The New International History of the Cold War,” 563.
Westad, The Global Cold War, chapters 1 and 2.
Notable examples include: Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s
Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); John
Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press,
1997); Scott Lucas, Freedom’s War: The US Crusade against the Soviet Union, 1945-56
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); David Seed, American Science Fiction and
the Cold War (Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 1999); Christian Appy, Cold War
Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism (Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 2000); John Fousek, To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and
the Cultural Roots of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000);
Mark Carroll, Music and Ideology in Cold War Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press,
2003); Rana Mitter and Patrick Major, ed., Across the Blocs: Cold War Cultural and Social
History (London: Frank Cass, 2004); Tony Shaw, Hollywood’s Cold War (Amherst: University
of Massachusetts, 2007).
Examples include: Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American
Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War
and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2001); Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow
Imagination, 1945-1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Merilyn Thomas,
Communicating with the Enemy: Covert Operation, Christianity, and Cold War Politics in
Britain and the GDR (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005); Jeff Woods, Black Struggle, Red Scare:
Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University, 2004).
Chen Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994);
Chen Jian, “The Myth of America’s Lost Chance in China,” Diplomatic History 21, no. 1
(Winter 1997); Michael Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism: Mao, Stalin, and the United States
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Vu, “From Cheering to Volunteering.”
Notable examples include: Christopher Goscha, Vietnam or Indochina? Contesting Concepts
of Space in Vietnamese Nationalism, 1887-1954 (Copenhagen: NIAS Books, 1995); Goscha,
Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1885-1954
(Richmond: Curzon, 1999); Daniel Fineman, A Special Relationship: The United States and
Military Government in Thailand, 1947-1958 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997);
Stephen Morris, Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia: Political Culture and the Causes of War
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 19451950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Philip Catton, Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to
America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002); Matthew Jones,
Conflict and Confrontation in Southeast Asia, 1961-1965: Britain, the United States and the
Creation of Malaysia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Edward Miller, “Vision,
Power and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945-1954,” Journal of Southeast Asian
Studies 35 (2004); Vatthana Pholsena, Post-war Laos: The Politics of Culture, History, and
Identity (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006).
Notable exceptions are Smith, “New Bottles for New Wine,” and Westad, The Global Cold
Ann Lane, ‘“Introduction: The Cold War as History,” in The Cold War: The Essential
Readings, ed. Klaus Larres and Ann Lane (London: Blackwell, 2001).
Ibid., 1.
Douglas Macdonald, ‘“Formal Ideologies in the Cold War: Toward a Framework for
Empirical Analysis,” in Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory.
Gaddis, “On Starting All Over Again;” Tony Smith, ‘“New Bottles for New Wine.”
Vu, ‘“State Formation and the Origins of Developmental States in South Korea and
Indonesia,” Studies in Comparative International Development 41, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 27-56.
See articles by Karl Hack, Geoffrey Wade, Tuong Vu, Larisa Efimova, and Harry Poèze in the
forthcoming October 2009 issue of Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.
Odd Westad, Cold War and Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Vu,
“From Cheering to Volunteering.”
Sjafruddin Prawiranegara, Islam dalam Pergolakan Dunia [Islam in a Tumbling World]
(Bandung: Al Maarif, 1950).
Examples include: McMahon, The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia
since World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Andrew Rotter, The Path to
Vietnam: Origins of the American Commitment to Southeast Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1987); Douglas Macdonald, Adventures in Chaos: American Intervention for Reform in
the Third World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Walter Hixson, ed., The
Roots of the Vietnam War (New York: Garland, 2000); Mark Bradley, Imagining Vietnam &
America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam 1919-1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2000); Mark Berger, The Battle for Asia: From Decolonization to Globalization
(New York: Routledge, 2004); Richard Stubbs, Rethinking Asia’s Economic Miracle, The
Political Economy of War, Prosperity and Crisis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Kim, Master of Manipulation; Miller, “Vision, Power and Agency;” Matthew Masur,
“Exhibiting Signs of Resistance: South Vietnam’s Struggle for Legitimacy, 1954-1960,”
Diplomatic History 33, no. 2 (April 2009): 293-313; on Sukarno’s manipulation of the Soviet
Union, see Ragna Boden, “Cold War Economics: Soviet Aid to Indonesia,” Journal of Cold War
Studies 10, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 110-28.
Berger, The Battle for Asia.
Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1997); Yale Ferguson and Rey Koslowski, “Culture, International Relations Theory, and
Cold War History,” in Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretations, Theory; Andrew
Rotter, Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947-1964 (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 2000); Patrick Major and Rana Mitter, ‘“East is East and West is West? Towards a
Comparative Soci-Cultural History of the Cold War,” in Across the Blocs.
Akira Iriye, “Culture,” Journal of American History 77, no. 1 (June 1990): 99-107.
Some, such as Steven Levine, define the first category as “informal ideologies” and the second
category as “formal ideologies.” See Levine, “Perception and Ideology in Chinese Foreign
Policy,” in Chinese Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice, ed. Thomas Robinson and David
Shambaugh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). In his Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia, Stephen
Morris also uses “informal” and “formal” adjectives to define “political culture.” Here I use
“ideologies” in the sense of formal ideologies. Ted Hopf assumes the existence of a “social
cognitive structure” that “establishes the boundaries of discourse within a society, including how
individuals think about themselves and others.” Hopf’s concept of “identity” derived from this
social cognitive structure incorporates both categories in my scheme. Hopf, Social Construction
of International Politics: Identities and Foreign Policies, Moscow, 1955 & 1999 (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2002): 6.
Harold Isaacs, Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India (New York:
John Day, 1958).
Isaacs, Scratches on Our Minds; Akira Iriye, Mutual Images: Essays in American-Japanese
Relations (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1975); Liao Kuang-Sheng, Antiforeignism
and Modernization in China (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1990); Jonathan Goldstein
et al., America Views China (London: Associated University Press, 1991); Li Hongshan and
Hong Zhaohui, ed., Image, Perception, and the Making of U.S.-China Relations (New York:
University Press of America, 1999); Rotter, Comrades at Odds.
Liao, Antiforeignism and Modernization.
Simei Qing, From Allies to Enemies: Visions of Modernity, Identity, and U.S.-China
Diplomacy, 1945-1960 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order.
For thoughtful analyses of the two disciplines and possibilities for collaboration, see Colin
Elman and Miriam Elma, ed., Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the
Study of International Relations (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
Allen Whiting, China Eyes Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
Iriye, Mutual Images.
Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order,15-6.
Bradley, Imagining Vietnam & America; Qing, From Allies to Enemies.
Bradley is thin on internationalist thinking among Vietnamese communists and Qing
underestimates the importance of Marxist-Leninist doctrine to Chinese communists. On these
issues see Vu, “From Cheering to Volunteering,” and Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism.
Takashi Shiraishi, An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java, 1912-1926 (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1990); Goscha, Vietnam or Indochina?; Shawn McHale, Print and Power:
Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam (Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 2004); Vu, Accommodation vs. Confrontation, chapters 8 and 9.
Tuong Vu, “Dreams of Paradise: The Making of a Soviet Outpost in Vietnam,” Ab Imperio no.
2/2008, 255-85.
Goscha, Vietnam or Indochina?
Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia 1900-1942 (Singapore: Oxford
University Press, 1973).
Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism, 188; Joseph Esherick, ‘“How the Qing Became China,”
in Empire to Nation: Historical Perspectives on the Making of the Modern World, ed. Joseph
Esherick et al. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism, 188.
See Westad, The Global Cold War, chapter 8.
See Tuong Vu, “Vietnamese Political Studies and Debates on Vietnamese Nationalism,”
Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 187-230.
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