Empire Apart by Brian Landers

Winner of THE PEOPLES BOOK PRIZE July 2009
The Cold War  - The War That Wasn't

Thousands of books, acres of newsprint and uncountable hours of TV and radio time have been devoted to the origins, character and eventual conclusion of one of the most epic confrontations of all time: the Cold War. From the 5th of March 1946 when Winston Churchill declared that an Iron Curtain had descended across Europe until the 9th of November 1989 when its concrete manifestation in Berlin was torn down the world was pitched into a titanic struggle between two superpower empires. For good or bad the life of everyone on the planet was touched in a global contest for supremacy that would determine the history of the foreseeable future; indeed it would determine whether the world would have a future. The Cold War between America and Russia could so easily have turned into the ultimate Hot War. Life on earth might have vanished in a nuclear Armageddon. But it didn’t.

In historical terms the Cold War was a non-event.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have been described by Niall Ferguson, in a phrase borrowed from A J P Taylor, as “the turning point at which history failed to turn”. Similarly the Cold War was the war that wasn’t.

Even the episode that came closest to realising the nuclear nightmare, the Cuban Missile Crisis, served only to illustrate that neither empire had the appetite for the ultimate confrontation. The United States positioned missiles in Turkey threatening Russian cities across the border and Russia retaliated by shipping missiles to Cuba within range of American cities. For a few tense days both sides thumped the table but at the last minutes President Kennedy agreed to remove his missiles from Turkey and the Russian ships turned back.

The historically important developments of the second half of the twentieth century had virtually nothing to do with the Cold War. Advances in technology, the growing gap between poor and rich, the emergence of feminism, the re-emergence of religious fundamentalism, the revolution in communications, the continued growth and evolution of corporatism: none of these were triggered by the Cold War. Only in the unravelling of the old European colonial empires did the conflict between the United States and Russia play a noticeable although essentially insignificant part. In geopolitical terms the outstanding feature of the period was the awesome global spread of American commercial and political control; Russia was as irrelevant to this process as Britain or France.

Russia pretended to be a superpower, a pretence endorsed by the United States, but the reality was very different. Soviet leaders gave opportunistic support to radical movements from Cuba to Angola, the KGB scurried around the world to little effect funding a host of terrorist groups from Ireland to Iraq and arranging occasional assassinations but apart from a miserable attempt to colonise Afghanistan - repeating the dramatic mistakes of the British a century before - the Red Army did no more than act as a police force in its new eastern European possessions.  Unlike America Russia had no overseas commercial interests to protect or resources it wanted to control. In the two most bloody "confrontations" of the period, in Korea and Vietnam, the Red Army was noticeable for its absence. By the end of the century US corporations had penetrated almost every corner of the globe and American troops were sprinkled across the world while the Russian Empire hovered close to collapse.

With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the outstanding feature of Russian history in the last half of the twentieth century was the doomed attempt first to consolidate the territories seized at the end of the Second World War into the Russian empire and then more fundamentally to maintain the empire itself. By contrast the outstanding feature of American history was the success of American corporations, reinforced by the covert and overt might of the State, in expanding and deepening the commercial empire of the United States. It is now evident that in both cases the most crucial developments were within the two empires and yet perceptions at the time were dominated by the Cold War between them. It was not the weakening bonds that held the Soviet Empire together or the massive capital flows within the American empire that captured the attention of contemporary observers but the bellicose pronouncements of politicians on both sides of the Iron Curtain and, above all, two full scale wars in Asia - wars that seemed so very much more significant than history proved them to be.

The Korean and Vietnamese civil wars have been presented as America battling the Russo-Chinese Communist Empire but of the ten million people who died - half of them civilians - around 92,000, less than one in a hundred, were American. American bodies dominated the TV screens but not the graveyards. In both cases the conflicts were essentially civil wars between local dictators made horrifically worse by outside intervention.

The former Japanese colony of Korea was occupied by accident when the atomic bomb suddenly ended the Second World War: US troops diverted from invading Japan landed in the south and Russian troops diverted from invading Manchuria entered from the north. They met at the 38th parallel and partitioned the country, installing two dictators obsessed with toppling each other.

At first Stalin simply told his protégé to shut up and America helped replace its first protégé with a more moderate version. Then in 1950 Stalin decided that action on the eastern front might distract attention from his antics in Europe and marginally increase his empire. North Korean forces rolled across the border sweeping all before them. Having lost all but the south eastern tip of the Korean peninsula America and its allies responded with a flash of military genius when General MacArthur landed his forces at Inchon far to the north, cutting off the enemy advance and then pushing the North Koreans right back to the Chinese border.

At this point Stalin apparently gave up and accepted that a pro-American Korea would sit on his frontier. However Russia and America were not the only imperial powers in the region. Mao Tse Tung persuaded Stalin to continue and Chinese forces streamed across the border. Over three years 600,000 Chinese and countless Koreans died in a war which eventually changed nothing. In 1953 the two war-weary sides signed an armistice that left the country just as it had been when the war started.

The Korean War accelerated the division of the world into Russian and American camps. The Russian camp was an empire in all but name, albeit with China having a dominion-like status reminiscent of the role of Canada or Australia in the British Empire. The American camp was not an empire in the traditional sense and the United States was anxious for it not to be seen as one, preferring to describe its realm as "the Free World". The Orwellian nature of this term soon became apparent when, during the Korean War, the US established military bases in Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia and fascist Spain none of whose regimes stood for “freedom” as understood by Thomas Paine and the Founding Fathers. To show how far America's ideology had moved on since its own revolution against colonial authority military aid was given to France to suppress the attempted revolution in its colony of Vietnam.

In Vietnam a scenario similar to Korea was played out with a different final act. Vietnamese partisans, the Vietminh, fought against the Japanese who invaded their country during the Second World War and then against the French who tried to reassert control afterwards. Once the French were expelled the Communist-controlled Vietminh took control of the North and - now rechristened Viet Cong - fought to topple the regime the French had left in the South. Once again two dictatorships battled for control.

The first American to die in Vietnam was fighting not against the Viet Cong but with them (or more correctly with the Vietminh). He was a military adviser working for the OSS (fore-runner of the CIA) training the guerrillas to resist the Japanese occupiers. During the Korean Civil War America swapped sides in Vietnam and gave massive but ineffective aid to the French. Russia remained wholly committed to the Vietminh and encouraged their guerrilla war in the south. When US troops entered the war Russia redoubled its logistical support but stopped short of committing its own forces. In the end the United States was defeated not by the military might of the Communist Empire but by the stubborn resistance of the North Vietnamese leadership and its supporters in the south.

The Korean and Vietnamese Wars are remarkable not as manifestations of the Cold War but as examples of the futility of the traditional military model of imperial control. Ten million people died in Korea and Vietnam in wars that had no lasting global significance.

In 1968 the Tet or Lunar New Year was celebrated by a North Vietnamese offensive that heralded the beginning of the end for the US military occupation of South Vietnam. In 2002 Tet was celebrated in a very different way - by baking a gigantic 1,400 gram rice cake that garnered a place in the Guinness Book of Records for its fifty cooks and acres of positive publicity for the sponsor: Coca-Cola. The tentacles of American corporations and financial institutions have proved far more effective in changing the face of Vietnam than helicopter gunships and napalm.

Although the political rhetoric continued and even heated up after the Vietnam War US corporations were acting far more pragmatically. Even as Reagan thundered against the “Evil Empire” US business was doing its best to maintain that empire’s economic well-being. The Soviet Union developed the world’s largest iron and steel plant - constructed by the American McKee Corporation – and Europe’s largest tube and pipe mill – again built largely with American equipment and technology. The period saw the full flowering of the commercial empire that had started to emerge after the Spanish-American War. The failure of military intervention in Vietnam seemed for a time to show the wisdom of moving away from the older, cruder imperial traditions that Russia continued to follow.

In 1956 Russian demonstrated that its commitment to traditional imperialism was as strong as ever when protests in Hungary turned into full scale war. 6,000 soviet tanks supported by artillery and air strikes smashed an attempt to stage a popular uprising. Possibly as many as three thousand Hungarians died as well as over seven hundred Russians; two hundred thousand refugees fled to the west. Left wing historians have portrayed the uprising as the workers trying to build genuine socialism to replace the travesty of Stalinism; American commentators saw it as a battle to replace socialism with democracy. The truth is that most Hungarians were simply fighting to achieve freedom from Russian rule; as in Czechoslovakia twelve years later the struggle was against imperialism not for any particular political doctrine. It was a sign of the pressures forever bubbling across Russia’s empire.

The Red Army was ready to crush colonial dissent but heating up the Cold War was not on the Kremlin’s agenda.

In both Korea and Vietnam America showed itself to be far more adventurous militarily than Russia, committing hundreds of thousands of troops. The Red Army stayed away even when in October 1950 two US Air Force planes “accidentally” attacked a Russian airfield near Vladivostok, the first American attack on Russia since American troops had withdrawn from Vladivostok thirty years earlier after failing to hold the Trans Siberian railway. (The two pilots were court-martialled but acquitted).

Stalin’s one direct intervention in the Korean War was to send Russian fighter pilots into combat. As he was insisting that the conflict was a spontaneous popular uprising in which the Soviet Union played no part the pilots flew planes bearing North Korean markings and were told to speak to each other in Korean in case they were overheard by American eavesdroppers - a ludicrously impractical instruction that involved taping phrasebook pages inside the cockpits and an instruction that was usually forgotten in the heat of combat. Even more absurd were attempts by the United States to keep secret its blanket bombing of neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War – as if the enemy might not have noticed the bombs raining down on them; only the American electorate were kept in ignorance.

In some ways more surprising than such episodes is that both sides managed to hide so much from each other. In 1995 President Clinton ordered the release of thousands of documents relating to the Cold War including a C.I.A. assessment dated 12th October 1950 concluding that Chinese intervention in the Korean War was "not probable in 1950." Just two weeks later 300,000 Chinese troops crossed into Korea. (Clinton’s action caused immense dismay inside the CIA; despite having been freely available for six years the Bush administration had the reports reclassified and removed from the public archives in a deliberate attempt to rewrite history.) The KGB were no more successful in understanding their enemy. Just two weeks before America’s final ignominious exodus from Vietnam the KGB leader Yuri Andropv warned that the US might win the war by launching an Inchon-style assault deep into North Vietnam.

The main reason for such intelligence failures was that both the CIA and KGB devoted most of their attention not to spying across the Iron Curtain but to policing their own empires. Much of their intelligence came from brutal secret police forces like the AVH in Hungary or SAVAK in Iran who inevitably focused primarily on domestic dissent.  Rhetoric might fly between the empires but action was centred within them. The CIA was more concerned with Central America than Central Europe.