When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China took its place in 1912, the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen had to face several competing forces for control of the country. Among those was a Communist movement, assisted by the Soviet Union. At first, the Communists were but a small threat to the Nationalists. The famous Long March of the Communists in 1934 and 1935 was essentially a series of retreats from the forces of the Republic. During that time, the Communists became a more cohesive unit and began to recognize the leadership potential of Mao Zedong. But when Japan invaded China, starting the Second World War, Nationalists and Communists settled their differences and fought the Japanese. During the years of the war against Japan, the Communist army made many friends for itself across the land. They gained a reputation of strength, courage, and helpfulness. Within four years of the end of World War II, Mao and the Communists had gained control of twenty-one of the twenty-two provinces of China. The Nationalists, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the twenty-second province, the island of Taiwan. That island had belonged to Japan from 1895 until 1945, when it was returned to China. From 1949 through the present and the foreseeable future, both governments—the People’s Republic of China in twenty-one provinces and the Republic of China in the twenty-second—have insisted that the true China has only one government, that some citizens are in revolt against that government, and that China will one day be reunited under its proper government. Their only difference concerns which of them is the proper government for all of China.
Mao’s success in China was embarrassing to the United States, which had just witnessed the creation of the Iron Curtain in Europe. Opponents of Truman’s administration stood in Congress to ask, “Who lost China?” The United States and its allies resolved to contain communism, to let no more nations fall to the opposition in the Cold War. When Kim Il-sung launched an invasion from North Korea, seeking to unite all of Korea under his Communist government, the United States led an international force, sponsored by the United Nations, to turn back the invasion. At the time, many governments of the Free World assumed that the invasion was sponsored by the Soviets, but they did little to help Kim’s invasion, either militarily or in the United Nations. Instead, as his forces were thrown back across the border by the USA-led forces, Communist China sent thousands of its forces to support North Korea. After several years of fighting, remembered in a famous television show that lasted four times as long as the war it portrayed, a settlement was reached which left the border between North and South Korea where it had been established in 1945.
Meanwhile, Communists were also involved in the French colony of Indochina. The British were relatively successful, after the World Wars, granting freedom to their colonies in Asia and Africa. The French did far less to prepare their overseas colonies for independence. Several groups fought the French in Indochina, including a Communist group led by Ho Chi Minh. After the French army had been embarrassed on the battlefield in Vietnam, they agreed to withdraw and to recognize four nations. They gave independence to Cambodia and Laos, and they also created a North and South Vietnam, divided as Germany and Korea had been divided. One million Vietnamese citizens fled south to escape the Communists led by Ho. These refugees created greater stress on the already weak government in South Vietnam. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy provided military assistance to South Vietnam, which was thrown into greater turmoil by the assassination of its President in November of 1963. To keep the Communists contained, President Johnson had to vastly increase the military presence of the USA in South Vietnam. Since the United States had not supported French and British interests in west Asia in 1956, America’s European allies offered no hope to America in east Asia in the 1960s. By 1968, the American military presence in South Vietnam had grown to half a million soldiers.
President Nixon was elected that year, in part because he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. His plan involved several components. His government negotiated with the North Vietnamese in Paris—first secretly; later in the open. American troops were gradually withdrawn from east Asia as the South Vietnamese Army became better trained to face the communist enemy. Nixon also authorized attacks upon the North Vietnamese where they established military bases and trails in Cambodia and Laos. Most significant, Nixon undermined the North Vietnamese support from their allies in the Soviet Union and in China. Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972, and an equally eventful visit to the Soviet Union later that year, contributed to a resolution to the war in Vietnam, while also accomplishing many other objectives of the American President.
For three years, negotiations with North Vietnam remained at a standstill. In 1972, following Nixon’s journeys and seeing the likelihood of his reelection, the North Vietnamese began to negotiate more sincerely. In autumn they had nearly settled their disputes; then the North Vietnamese began to reverse their progress. Nixon ordered bombing of North Vietnam and mining of its harbors at the end of 1972. Such actions had sped negotiating progress earlier in the year, and they worked again. In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam ended hostilities. American prisoners of war were sent home. Had the terms of the treaty been enforced, South Vietnam would have remained free. But Congress denied funding to Presidents Nixon and Ford for support of the treaty. When North Vietnam saw that it could violate the treaty with impunity, it gathered its strength. In 1975, it boldly invaded and captured South Vietnam, uniting the nation under its Communist government.
Meanwhile, Mao tried to maintain his hold in China by keeping the entire nation in a state of crisis. His Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and his Cultural Revolution in the 1960s devastated China as much as any war could do. President Nixon’s visit helped the rising generation of Chinese leaders to plan for the future. In the 1980s, several years after Mao died, the Chinese government renounced socialism and established a free-market economy. Though they kept the name “Communist” and continued to hold totalitarian control of China, they abandoned the Marxist dream of socialism leading to a Communist paradise. In the 1990s, the Communist government of Vietnam followed the same path.
Free-market economies flourished in east Asia. Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea all prospered during the Cold War. In south Asia, history followed a different course. The people of India had been seeking independence from Britain for decades. When independence was granted after World War II, it came at a cost. India was divided into two nations—two pieces, called Pakistan, where Islam was in the majority; and the large piece in between, called India, where the Hindu religion prevailed. These two governments remained hostile to each other throughout the Cold War. Both flirted with the world powers—the USA and the USSR—while claiming to be unaligned with either side. In 1971, East Pakistan declared independence, making itself the country called Bangladesh. India supported this move. On this occasion, as on many others, violence between India and Pakistan threatened to break into open war. Since both countries have developed nuclear bombs, war between them is inadvisable.
Because division of countries seemed so successful in Germany, Korea, and India/Pakistan, the British tried the same course of action in west Asia. They granted independence to Israel, a Jewish nation, and to Palestine, a Muslim nation. The Muslim neighbors of Israel immediately went to war, and Israel had to capture portions of Palestine to survive; the rest of Palestine was swallowed by Jordan. The next decade saw violence in west Asia again, including the matter of the Suez Canal. Once again, Israel prevailed against its neighbors. In 1967, the Six-Day War again favored Israel, as it captured land from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt while defending itself from attack. The 1973 war against Israel came closer to destroying the Jewish homeland. President Nixon authorized an airlift of supplies that turned the tide for Israel against its neighbors. This led to an economic crisis for the United States, as Muslim oil-producing nations first boycotted the USA, then sold oil at greatly-increased prices. Israel has survived further violence, and has sought ways to create a home for Muslim Palestinians without allowing them to threaten Israel’s continued survival. (The other option, making the Palestinians voting citizens of Israel, could overthrow the Jewish government at the ballot box.) Many of Israel’s Muslim neighbors have given up on military attacks and have instead tried to negotiate agreements with Israel, generally producing success for both sides.
During the Cold War, both the USSR and the USA viewed violence in west Asia as part of the world-wide struggle between freedom and communism. When the United States supported Israel, the Soviet Union made some friends in the Muslim world, particularly in Syria and Egypt. Other countries, including the Shah’s Iran and the Saud family’s Arabia, were strong friends of the United States. When opposition to the Shah grew in Iran during the 1970s, many American leaders assumed that the Soviet Union was behind the trouble. To their surprise, when the Shah was overthrown, the new government was hostile toward both the USA and the USSR. Meanwhile, after the 1973, President Sadat of Egypt send his Soviet advisors home and welcomed the United States as partners. A Soviet-sponsored government arose in Afghanistan, and the United States helped to equip and train opposition to that government. Once again, the United States assumed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Soviets left Afghanistan and eventually lost power over Russia and the other Soviet Republics, but the leaders in Afghanistan did not consider the United States a friend. After the Cold War ended, those same forces the Americans had trained and equipped would engineer the most devastating attack upon the United States since the end of the Civil War. J.