China’s War with Japan 1937 – 1945 by Rana Mitter (2013)

The aim of the book

Mitter is an eminent historian of twentieth century China and of the period leading up to World War II in particular. In his introduction he points out that the Sino-Japanese War – which lasted from 1937 and then became subsumed in the wider World War – is often neglected in Western historiography which, perhaps understandably, focuses on the war in Europe/Russia and on the American War in the Pacific: both perspectives tend to overlook the fact that the Chinese were fighting the Japanese for four long years before the Americans joined the struggle. By providing one continuous narrative of the entire Sino-Japanese War, as seen from the Chinese point of view, Mitter aims to redress this imbalance and tell this generally ‘untold story’.

The second main point, which emerges increasingly as the wider World War progresses, is that China – as the four-year adversary of the Japanese, and as the country responsible right to the end of the war for tying down some 500,000 Japanese troops as well as supplying men to fight alongside the British in Burma – deserved much greater representation in the meetings of the Big Three – Russia, America, Britain – which decided the fate of the post-war world. China was only invited to one, minor, Allied conference – held in Cairo – and was not invited to Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. To this day, Mitter claims, the lack of recognition of China’s part in the wider anti-fascist struggle, and then her deliberate omission from the meetings of the Big Three – which they think should have been a Big Four – rankle in the memory of educated Chinese.

It contributes to the smouldering Chinese sense that for a long, long time, for some 150 years, first the British and then the Americans assumed control and sway over the Pacific and all its peoples, and that Chinese interests and contributions were consistently ignored or trampled on.

Now, at last, in the 21st century, China is confident enough and powerful enough to begin to flex her muscles and assert her rights in the region. Which is why, Mitter argues, educated people in the West need to be aware of the often harrowing events of this brutal eight-year war, and of the emotional significance it still has for many Chinese, and how it still informs modern China’s attitudes and worldview.

The Sino-Japanese War

1. 1937 to Pearl Harbour (1941)

Having annexed neighbouring Korea (1910) and the huge northern province of China known as Manchuria (1931), the aggressively militarist Japanese Empire took the opportunity of a trivial border incident (at the so-called Marco Polo Bridge) to launch a full-scale armed invasion of China in July 1937.

When Japan attacked there were broadly three forces in China: the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek (also known as the Kuomintang) which claimed to be the official government of the whole country; the smaller Chinese Communist Party – whose leaders included the up-and-coming demagogue Mao Zedong – and a number of regional warlords.

China was divided like this:

a) Because the latter part of the 19th century was marked in China by decades of civil war and administrative weakness. The biggest of these disruptions was the Taiping Rebellion, a vast civil war which dominated the 1860s and in which anything up to 100 million Chinese might have killed each other, and which people in the West have little awareness of. The rebellion had only been put down at the cost of giving autonomy to regional military leaders and it was this which established the pattern of ‘warlord’ control of some regions. A growing body of politicians, modernisers and revolutionaries all realised that the old imperial structures just couldn’t rule this huge country, and the turmoil eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of a republican government.

b) However, the nationalist revolutionaries proved incapable of preventing the country falling apart into a patchwork of regions controlled by local military leaders or ‘warlords’. Hence the complex geography and politics of the ‘Warlord Era’, 1916 – 1928.

Japan’s advance was swift not only because of China’s political, administrative and economic divisions but for the more basic reason that, under successive 19th century rulers, China had failed to modernise and keep up with the industrialised world. Convinced of their cultural superiority, of their lofty position as ‘the Heavenly Kingdom’, China’s rulers looked down on the big-nosed Europeans with their crude manners and obvious greed. Which turned out to be a mistake because the foreign devils (one of many discriminatory terms the Chinese use for non-Chinese) came armed with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution – steamships, guns, cannon, trains.

In the 1840s Chinese rulers found themselves forced at gun point to agree to treaties with Western imperialist powers – Britain, France, America – who secured for themselves coastal entrepôts (Hong Kong, Shanghai), exemption for Western citizens from Chinese law, but who (wisely) never made any attempt to colonise the vast peasant interior.

China’s economic and social backwardness contrasted with Imperial Japan, whose government realised in the 1860s that they had to keep up with the farangs by importing the best of Western know-how. The Japanese gave Westerners limited rights at certain specific trading ports but, more importantly, embarked on a wholesale reform and modernising of their technology and industry. By the turn of the twentieth century Japan combined an ongoing level of rural Asian poverty with surprising levels of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was brought forcefully home to everyone when Japan defeated Russia – itself arguably a vast, backward nation but still, in theory, European – in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Bolstered by this victory, Japan’s well-organised, well-equipped and well-managed army and navy went on to seize control of all Korea in 1910.

The disparity in cultural attitudes (Japan’s Big Yes to Western know-how compared to China’s lofty rejection), in their respective levels of industrialisation, and in central economic, political and military control, help explain why – when they decided to extend their occupation in 1937, Japan, with a population of just 72 million, managed to subdue China, with a population of about 520 million.

The war was marked early on by the Japanese massacre of the civilian inhabitants of the capital Nanking

and continued to be marked by extreme Japanese brutality and bloodshed, including the indiscriminate bombing of cities crowded with refugees – for example, the bombing campaign against the Nationalists’ temporary capital of Chongqing – which resulted in horrifying casualties.

The Nationalists themselves contributed to the mayhem with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, including burning some of their own cities to the ground before the Japanese could take them and – most notoriously – in 1938 breaking the dikes which held in the massive Yellow River. This created a truly epic flood over a huge area of central China which certainly delayed the Japanese advance but led to a mind-boggling 800,000 deaths from drowning, not to mention further deaths from disease and starvation.

The Communist forces, such as they were, had retreated deep into remote northern China in the long flight which their propaganda machine turned into the legendary ‘Long March’. About 70,000 communist cadres set out on it and maybe as few as 7,000 completed it, the rest dying or giving up along the way. Thus the bulk of the resistance to the Japanese invaders, of the actual fighting, fell to Chiang, his German-trained Nationalist forces, and whatever warlord allies he could press to help him (and who all too often let him down).

The whole story is a panorama of extraordinary chaos, suffering and death on a continental scale.

2. After Pearl Harbour

The story becomes a lot more comprehensible – and therefore interesting and memorable – once the Japanese have their bright idea to attack Pearl Harbour and declare war on the most powerful nation on earth. And Hitler decides – quite unnecessarily – to rally to their support and also declare war on America.

There had been an earlier turning point when the war in Europe broke out in September 1939 and Chiang’s Nationalists suddenly hoped for arms and support from the European democracies (who just happened to be the very same imperialist devils which Chinese nationalist propaganda had been reviling for decades). But, in the event, the supposedly all-powerful British Empire turned out to be weak – in fact, it was shown to be an essentially peacetime operation, able to carry out local police actions and just about manage a huge array of established colonial assets, but in no way ready for a war of aggression – unlike Germany or Japan. Britain herself struggled for survival in 1940 and ’41 and so the last thing on her mind was sending troops to the other side of the planet to fight in someone else’s war.

Pearl Harbour marked the beginning of the war for America, but was only a way station for the Chinese who had, by this stage, been resisting the Japanese for four long years. It would take three more bitter years to defeat them, with mixed results for Chiang’s Nationalists: on the one hand they now found themselves de facto allies of Britain and America in the war against Japan; on the down side, they now found themselves caught up in the very complicated diplomatic and military manoeuvering which took place even between the nominal allies Britain and America, with the added challenge of Stalin’s Russia, as well as coping with Mao’s communists and the Chinese collaborationist regime.

For one of the many untold stories which Mitter brings back into the light is the role of Wang Jingwei, at one time a colleague of Chiang’s, who was persuaded that the patriotic thing to do in order to prevent more loss of Chinese lives and destruction of Chinese land, was to co-operate with the Japanese. After agonising soul-searching – recorded in detail by one of his aides-de-camp, Zhou Fohai, in a diary from which Mitter liberally quotes – Wang agreed to fly back to the occupied former capital of Nanjing and allow himself to be set up as the Japanese-backed puppet leader of Occupied China – an equivalent of the Vichy Regime in France or Quisling in Norway.

The three years of the War in the Pacific are detailed in Max Hasting’s grim history Nemesis. Mitter usefully complements such Anglocentric accounts with his narrative of the ongoing battles – and the complex diplomatic manouevres – taking place in war-torn China.

One of the most interesting themes which emerge in the final part of Mitter’s book is that the various Chinese administrations – as they struggled to keep control of their areas and populations, to properly organise the collection of taxes, the feeding of soldiers, the distribution of the growing amounts of Allied aid – became progressively more centralised and relied increasingly on Terror as a political tool. Each of the three regimes set up secret police forces who used arbitrary arrest, torture and executions to intimidate dissident voices, each one headed by specific individuals – the equivalents of the Nazis’ Heinrich Himmler – who became notorious for their brutality and sadism. For Chiang’s nationalists it was Dai Li, for Wang’s collaborationists it was Li Shiqun, for Mao it was Kang Sheng.

And all three parties despised Westerners as culturally inferior, hated and bitterly resented the shame and humiliation they’d been subject to during the era of Unequal Treaties, and were – accordingly – contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Western ‘liberal, ‘democratic’ societies. None of them really understood the Western notion of democracy from below – the models of all three (as indeed of the conquering Japanese) was of top-down rule by a strong Leader – Generalissimo Chiang or Chairman Mao.

Given the huge political differences between all three factions and given the direct links between the Chinese Communists and Stalin’s Russia – Stalin told the CCP, basically, what to do – on the one hand, and the widespread corruption, brutality and inefficiency of Chiang’s Nationalists (to the many Americans who had experience of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, he acquired the nickname ‘Cash My Check’) on the other – it’s no surprise that relations between the Western Allies and the various Chinese factions were fraught with misunderstandings, miscalculations, misgivings and mistakes, which Mitter records in great detail.

3. Conclusion

By the end of World War II, the sustained struggle against the Japanese had exhausted Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. By contrast the war had seen the growth in strength and confidence of the Communists who had been able to send out political cohorts to infiltrate broad areas of unoccupied China to spread their message of a revolution for the peasants, for the poorest of the poor.

It was also during the latter part of the war that Mao began to establish his grip on the Chinese Communist party through a programme of biting criticism and calls for ideological purity – the so-called ‘Rectification Process’ – which was the start of 30 years of intimidating, arresting and executing his opponents. As Mitter points out, the techniques which underlay the catastrophic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were first laid down in the early 1940s.

When the War in the Pacific came to an abrupt end in August 1945, the war for control of China still had four more bloody years to go, a ragged civil war in a shattered country which ultimately led to the complete seizure of power by the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. The remnants of Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they rule to this day. As Mitter sums up – Chiang’s Nationalists won the war but lost China.


Related links

Reviews of books about other Asian wars

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

Related links

The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

Related links

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

Related links

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought. The centrepiece is the book about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated. Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who considered the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another. Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element, bourgeois, bourgeois idealist, bourgeois sentimentalist, capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek roader, counter-revolutionary, degenerate, decadent, deviant element, exploiter, go-it-aloner, hoarder, hooligan, humanist, hypocrite, individualist, kulak, lackey, landlord, middle-of-the-roader, reactionary, rightist, right deviationist, running dog of imperialism, saboteur, schemer, servant of imperialism, speculator, spy and swindler.

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)


Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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