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READ: The Cold War Around the World

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  1. Why was there so much bloodshed in South Asia in the late 1940s, and how did the British government try to contain the violence?
  2. How did the partition of South Asia influence the way the Cold War unfolded in that region?
  3. How did the United States try to contain communism in Latin America? Where did they fail?
  4. Why was the United States so interested in preventing communism in the former Belgian Congo?

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  1. This article points out that the United States had to frequently intervene during the Cold War to stop socialist reformers in many places. Why do you think that communist and socialist ideas were so appealing to so many people in the newly independent nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America?
  2. What do you think was the Soviet interest in helping anti-colonial movements in many parts of the world? Why did they decide it was worth intervening so often?
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The Cold War Around the World

Several men are walking down the street together, smiling and in conversation. Two of the men are dressed in Cuban military gear, and the others wear suits and ties.
By Burleigh Hendrickson
We called it a “cold” war because there were fewer guns and bombs than usual. But the ideological rivalry of two superpowers enabled violence and tensions in smaller, newer nations around the globe.

Decolonization and the Cold War

The US-USSR Cold War rivalry began just as traditional European empires came to an end. With decolonization in Asia and Africa, plus the already independent states in Latin America and elsewhere demanding sovereignty, there were a lot of fresh young governments out there. Two superpowers with very different governments, the US and the Soviet Union1, were eager—and competitive—in their efforts to influence them.
In Southeast Asia, independence movements that grew into civil conflicts were sponsored by one superpower or the other. In Latin America, American companies influenced government and economic affairs, even as Soviet movements emerged in the same places. The US military intervened often with covert operations to protect American interests. They wanted to stop socialist or communist governments from reclaiming land in Latin America owned by American companies. Over in Africa, the US and the USSR vied for economic and political influence in newly independent countries. As in Latin America, the US wanted to prevent African governments from handing control of private industries—like those profitable mining companies—to the state. It meant that right after these decolonized nations liberated themselves from European control, they had to face the intrusion of American and Soviet interests.

The Cold War in Asia

China's path to communism in 1949 and the violent conflict in Vietnam are well documented, but the Cold War mattered in other parts of Asia. Mohandas Gandhi led a mostly peaceful independence movement against British control in South Asia. But decolonization produced horrific violence between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, who had been pitted against each other under British rule and now competed for political power. More than a million people were killed. In an effort to end civil war, in 1947 British India was partitioned (divided) into Hindu-majority India, as well as East and West Pakistan, which were dominated by powerful Muslim majorities.
Also in South Asia, Pakistan joined a trade alliance with the US and others in 1954 designed to contain the spread of communism. Meanwhile, India became a key player at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, which encouraged new nations to avoid taking sides with the US or the USSR. The Cold War heated up along the India-Pakistan border over disputed territory in Kashmir in 1965. When the United Nations called for a diplomatic solution, the US halted arms supplies to the region. This worked in India's favor as it already had a stronger military. It was able to maintain control over Kashmir after a ceasefire, though the region remains in dispute to this day.
A civil war between East and West Pakistan in the early 1970s also involved India, the US, and the USSR. Most Pakistanis were Muslim, but they did not share a language. West Pakistan forced its language, Urdu, on Bangla2 speaking East Pakistanis. West Pakistan also controlled resources, education, and the military. When East Pakistan sought to create its own nation, Cold War powers took sides. The US supported West Pakistan, while India and the USSR supported East Pakistan. Indian forces defeated West Pakistan in less than two weeks. With India's help, East Pakistan gained its independence in 1971, becoming the new nation of Bangladesh. The conflict split East and West Pakistani communities. Violence between Muslims and minority Hindus increased, leaving scars that still impact multi-cultural harmony in South Asia.
Map shows the division of East and West Pakistan by India after the collapse of British India.
South Asia after the collapse of British India in the late 1940s. Note that East Pakistan (Bangladesh, today) and West Pakistan (Pakistan, today) were physically divided by India. Public domain.
And if you're thinking we forgot Central Asia, the Cold War was just as chilly there. Though the British Empire gave up full control of Afghanistan in 1919, the arbitrary line they drew on that nation's southern border divided communities. Peoples like the Pashtuns and Uzbeks preferred tribal or regional allegiances over a national identity. Their extremely rough terrain and remote regions made it easy to resist foreign powers and do their own thing. But in the late 1970s, when a group of communist sympathizers tried and failed to unify Afghanistan with socialist ideas, the USSR invaded. Fearing the spread of Soviet influence, the US funded Islamic jihadists, who viewed the Soviets as foreign invaders and infidels. This conflict lasted nearly a decade, bankrupting the USSR and contributing to its collapse in the early 1990s. While this US strategy had short-term benefits of weakening the Soviet Union, it also helped bring to power Islamic fundamentalists who suppressed women's rights and ruled through threat of violence.

The Cold War in Latin America and the Caribbean

On to another continent (same Cold War, though). Three centuries of Spanish colonial rule left Latin American communities divided along ethnic and economic lines. In Guatemala, indigenous Mayas were marginalized in favor of a minority of European descendants. Two percent of people owned three quarters of the farm land. They also welcomed foreign investment. By the middle of the twentieth century, the American-based United Fruit Company became the largest single land-owner in the country. Local banana farmers were forced out of business. In the 1940s, discontent led to election victories for socialists seeking more equitable distribution of resources. Then in the 1950s Guatemalan leaders gave farm land back to a half a million poor people and allowed workers to organize for better wages (similar to land reform in China). Fearing the loss of land and spread of communist ideas, powerful American businessmen convinced the US to work with opposition leaders in Guatemala to overthrow the socialist government.
With the help of the C.I.A.3, armed Guatemalan rebels overthrew the government in 1954. They put a staunch anti-communist in charge, who returned most of the seized land back to the United Fruit Company. Political divisions continued between poor indigenous and wealthy elites who were backed by military dictatorships. From the point of view of US businesses, things ended well in Guatemala. That success emboldened US intervention in places like Costa Rica and Honduras, where it wanted to protect American-owned banana plantations.
Cuba was another story, since the US failed to prevent communism there. The USSR supported Fidel Castro's Communist government, which took power in 1959. While Castro nationalized industries, the US authorized the C.I.A. to begin working with Cuban resistance groups. Castro had learned from Guatemala, and was able to thwart a coup attempt in 1961. US-backed rebels came to Cuban shores in what became a high-profile embarrassment for the US known as the "Bay of Pigs." Outside of China and the USSR, Cuba—an island about the size of Florida—was perhaps the most influential communist nation during the Cold War. The following year, under Castro, Cuba even briefly harbored Soviet nuclear missiles only 90 miles from Florida. Known as the "Cuban Missile Crisis" this was one of the tensest 13 days of the Cold War with both US and USSR leaders in a military standoff. Cooler heads prevailed, but many believe nuclear war was narrowly avoided.
Not all of Castro's policies were popular with Cubans. Many fled to the US as Castro's regime seized the property of wealthy citizens. Under Communism, many Cubans have lived in poverty without access to many modern technologies. However, the state promotes education and health, with many residents of neighboring countries traveling to Cuba for medical care. It remains a communist country today.
Overall, the course of Latin American history was certainly altered by the multiple, destabilizing interventions from the US and the USSR. Since the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, countries like Columbia and Argentina have undergone the painful process of reconciliation to address past atrocities of Cold War dictatorships. Others like Honduras have fallen into economic dependency on the US with little long-term benefit to poor people4.

The Cold War in Africa

As in Latin America and Asia, communist and socialist ideas held great sway over decolonizing populations in Africa. Anti-imperial and pan-African5 sentiment was fierce immediately following World War Two. European presence had accelerated ethnic conflicts and pillaged (robbed) Africa's vast natural resources. Pan-Africanists felt a strong cultural pride in their African heritage. This thinking reached all the way to the US, where many African Americans began wearing traditional African clothing and growing out their natural hair instead of straightening it to appear more European. Pan-Africanists began connecting at international conferences to exchange cultural and political ideas.
The Belgian Congo in central Africa witnessed some of the greatest Cold War competition. A charismatic young leader, Patrice Lumumba, led a movement against Belgian rule. A pan-Africanist with communist sympathies, Lumumba became independent Congo's first Prime Minister in 1960. He immediately faced a chaotic situation. The US and Belgium wanted to maintain foreign businesses in resource-rich places like Katanga, a state that was threatening to secede from the Congo. Violent clashes followed, and some Congolese soldiers carried out atrocities against certain ethnic groups and also against Belgians.
A black and white photo of a man, looking at the camera, standing on the street. He wears a faint smile and is dressed in an overcoat and tie.
Patrice Lumumba attending the Congolese Round Table Conference in Brussels, Belgium, January 1960. By Harry Pot, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Neither the United Nations nor other Western powers would assist Lumumba in putting down the rebellion in Katanga, so he turned to the Soviet Union. The anti- communist members of his new government were so aggravated by this, Lumumba was captured by opposition leaders and executed in 1961—with the help of Belgian and US intelligence. Congolese military leaders assumed power and cut all ties to the USSR. After his death, the Soviet Union created the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1961 to educate Third World students and attract them to communism.
This period of Cold War tensions and targeted attacks dramatically altered life in the Congo. Most European settlers fled, and out of the chaos of independence a strong military dictatorship emerged in 1965. This left a legacy of anti- communism, corruption, and authoritarian rule.
Other African nations like Egypt ended western alliances in the 1950s and 1960s. Nationalists took control of British and French imperial interests like the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for trade. Egyptian leaders engaged in socialist projects without necessarily taking sides with either the US or the Soviet Union, but also accepted military aid from the Soviets. The government managed to get economic assistance from both superpowers for major construction projects like the Aswan Dam on the Nile River. They maintained a general neutrality in the Cold War until the 1970s, when Egypt began to strengthen ties to the US.
In summary, decolonization and the Cold War were intertwined in many ways. New nations faced difficult political growing pains after European imperialism. As they pursued trading relationships, they were often forced to side with either American or Soviet interests when they needed economic, technical, or military assistance. Both superpowers intervened often, determining political outcomes in decolonizing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Results varied, but Cold War rivalries often produced chilling instability, corruption, and authoritarian rule.
Author bio
Burleigh Hendrickson is a Visiting Assistant Professor in French and Francophone Studies at Dickinson College. He holds a PhD in world history from Northeastern University, and taught survey courses in the history of globalization at Boston College. He has published several peer-reviewed articles on transnational political activism in the Francophone world.

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