Review- Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields”

Paul Thomas Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace” (2018) – The “new global history” makes its way from the archive-heavy “groundbreaking” texts that get a scholar through the door, to the more approachable, secondary-source-using works that help a professor get tenure (and if they’re lucky and have a good contract, textbook buys). Chamberlin did the former with his book “The Global Offensive,” about the PLO’s international campaigns, and is now doing this latter with a broad-scope look at the Cold War in Asia. It makes sense the Cold War is such a locus for global history, given that it took place around the world, and the archives are mostly intact, and in a variety of languages for all these scholars to show off their chops. It’s been a good time for Cold War scholars.

Chamberlin takes aim, though in a curiously unaggressive way, at two shibboleths of recent twentieth-century historiography. One is right there in the subtitle: “the long peace,” the idea that the Cold War constituted a peculiar time where conventional wars between great powers ceased, in marked contrast to the first half of the century. This was most strongly promulgated by the dean of Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, though Gaddis, in this as in other instances, was always more of an affirmer of consensus establishment ideas than he was an innovator. It’s easy to see the Cold War as peaceful from Yale. It’s a lot harder from pretty much anywhere in the parts of the world that Chamberlin writes about and refers to as “bloodlands,” making another nod at another Yale historian with substantial crossover appeal, Tim Snyder (Chamberlin went from a job at the University of Kentucky to one at Columbia over the course of researching this book, for those playing the home game). Snyder’s “Bloodlands” was an interesting and frustrating book, understanding the regions between a Germany and Russia through a lens inflected both by an understanding of the central importance of mass violence and a certain liberal totalitarianism-school dingbattery that only got worse once Snyder got Resistance-brain after the Trump election.

Chamberlin reassures us he’s not having a go at Gaddis and I don’t recall him mentioning Snyder by name but there’s enough of interest here to retain us without academic backbiting. The central idea should be obvious to anybody: maybe we avoided the big nuclear blowout everyone was afraid of, but a lot of countries suffered terribly due to the Cold War. Particularly given the coincidence of the Cold War occurring during the collapse of the European empires, the conflicts that would have accompanied decolonization in any event became supercharged and freighted with meaning as the Cold War superpowers forced each conflict into the framework of bilateral — or at best, US vs USSR vs China trilateral — conflict. The Cold War’s gravitational pull — and especially the sheer determination on the part of the American side to assimilate seemingly every political event between 1947 and maybe 1980, if not well after, into an us vs them framework, and the money and force they’d throw into the project — drew in wars that had little to do with decolonization as well, particularly in the Middle East.

While some of this dynamic played out in Africa and Latin America, Chamberlin chooses to focus his efforts on Asia. This makes sense, as many of the worst conflicts occurred there, and enough of them happened that you get a solid arc of conflicts from the end of WWII right up to the nineties. Most of the book is made up of respectable capsule histories of Cold War conflicts running in an arc from Korea all the way to Lebanon. Chamberlin artfully balances concision and completeness, overarching theses and the details of the individual conflicts. It wouldn’t make a half-bad textbook with which to teach the Cold War.

The historical narratives Chamberlin threads through these conflicts include atrocious conduct towards civilians as well as the eventual downfall of both revolutionary Third World communism and of secular nationalism in much of the arc of conflict he describes. Most of the wars in Cold War Asia were civil wars, and one thing that has become increasingly clear in history is that civil wars are a special kind of hell (you have to wonder how much the fact that the US Civil War was understood as “chivalrous,” alongside the way the English kind of throw their civil war down the memory hole, contributed to the delay of that realization in anglophone history). These invariably become wars against suspect populations. In Korea, massacring suspect civilians was de rigueur when either side, the American-backed South or the communist North, seized an area, or retreated from it. Massacre was also common on the invariable “both sides” in Vietnam, to the point where many were surprised that after the communist revolutionaries final victory, their revenge kill count was “only” in the five or six figures. On and on.

“Both sides” doesn’t really cover it, though, because one side was typically a good deal stronger than the other, and that was the side that was backed by the United States. The Soviets and Chinese did not distinguish themselves with their regard for human life during interventions in Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam. But it’s clear, from this book and from the Cold War scholarship in general, that both material and ideological factors rendered American-backed parties in these wars both deadlier and more willing to use that deadliness indiscriminately. You want to see disregard for human life, have a gander at the conversations between Nixon and Kissinger about what their friend, the Pakistani military under Yahya Khan, was doing in Bangladesh in 1971, or the approving CIA memos of the mob slayings of hundreds of thousands of purported communists in Indonesia in 1965. You didn’t need to be a sociopath like Kissinger, though- just accepting of the Cold War establishment party line and not thinking too much, like most Americans involved in destroying Korea and Vietnam, in large part from tens of thousands of feet in the air or from an office somewhere, killing between one and three million in both places, mostly civilians. Even the (arguably) grisliest set of episodes in the book, the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, took place with tacit American (and Chinese) approval, to “counter” in some backwards way, the (Russian-backed) North Vietnamese.

The international left won some pretty substantial victories in Asia during this period, mainly in creating and maintaining a communist regime in China and the victory over American imperialism in Vietnam. But it took a beating in doing so. Brutalized societies do not for utopias make. In many respects, our caricatures of Communist regimes as brutal and deprived gain their truth from the fact that all of them — not just the ones in the Asian bloodlands, either — went from long-oppressed, typically impoverished autocracies to war-torn messes to just left to their own devices. There’s limits to how much failure and oppression that excuses, but the point is that deprivation and violence, often enough inflicted by overweening foreigners (who think they’re doing you a favor in the bargain!), tend to elevate harsh, hasty decisions and those who are comfortable implementing them. The rest is history.

It’s questionable how much that factored in to the ways in which the third wave of Asian Cold War conflicts in the Middle East (after a first wave in Northeast Asia and a second in Southeast Asia) turned away from communism and towards ethnic conflict and religion, especially militant Islamism. It certainly didn’t help, in terms of confusing local socialist forces (do we favor China or Russia, etc?) or inculcating paranoia and divisiveness in, say, the Afghan left. Egypt and Arab nationalism is somewhat outside of the scope, or anyway the framing Chamberlin gave it, and while he doesn’t underplay the American hand in encouraging Islamist forces, he doesn’t quite nail how destroyed the Middle East left was by direct suppression, not just discouragement at how communism seemed hard and treacherous.

This brings me to one of the odder things about the book- what he counts and what he doesn’t as part of his “bloodlands.” Snyder was odd about this too, including relatively quiet Estonia but not bloodied Yugoslavia, but he had a thesis, double-occupation, Nazi-Soviet totalitarian interplay, to advance. I don’t really see what Chamberlin’s thesis would lose by including the Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines in the late forties and early fifties, or the “Malay Emergency” that ran from 1948 to 1962. I guess every pedant will find a gored ox in any book of this kind, and the book doesn’t suffer too much from their exclusion. It probably doesn’t help that neither war is that well sourced or widely written about, as I have reason to know. In fact, the main people who write about them are self-dealing counterinsurgents crowing about them as success for their model of war. Beyond them it’s tricky to find stuff. The British aren’t eager to talk about Malaya because of their usual impulse to hide their dirt; Americans aren’t eager to talk about the Philippines because it’s a confusing by-blow that doesn’t demand anything of them (not unlike Liberia in that respect). For instance, I can’t find a good casualty count for the Huk War. Details are a little better with the Emergency but not much. It could be they simply weren’t bloody enough for Chamberlin’s definitions? But among other things, they encouraged the western side in the Cold War to take a hard line in Asia…

Anyway, this is a pretty admirable work of history. It’s interesting to see the “bloodland” thing taken out of the context of totalitarianism arguments, most of which implicitly back Anglo-American power, if not all of its uses (often, totalitarianism-minders want that power to be used more aggressively, like North Korea hawks). It’s conceivable that this book is an instance in a kind of positional warfare on the part of soft-left (here meaning actual leftists who are cautious about revolution, not liberals) academics to use widely accepted notions — like that it’s bad to kill millions of people — to criticize the Cold War state and its inheritors, most of the states currently extant and the neoliberal capitalism that dominates most of them. That’s cool- I can’t help but imagine the slashing attack an Eric Hobsbawm or a Walter Rodney would make of the same material, but sometimes expanding the trench lines works too. ****’

Review- Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields”

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