A brief and surprisingly entertaining video history of America’s wars in Asia

November 18, 2013

The story of the United States' ill-fated Cold War incursions into East Asia is complicated and sometimes misunderstood. But it's also extremely important -- not just for Korea and Vietnam but in shaping present-day Asia, present-day U.S. foreign policy, and the future of this increasingly important part of the world. So it's a delight to see this easy-to-follow, fun-to-watch and surprisingly nuanced video history of the Cold War in Asia. It's part of a series of "crash course" videos on U.S. history, produced by YouTube celebrity John Green, so it's admittedly U.S.-centric. But it's well worth watching:

Green is really good in discussing how the United States fell into Vietnam in part by so badly confusing the country's anti-colonial, anti-French uprising as a scary extension of monolithic Soviet communism. He's also good on the Korean War, and hints nicely at Gen. Douglas MacArthur's handling of the conflict, which was so problematic that it sparked a legitimate American crisis over whether the White House could still control the military.

If I could add one point, it would be about how the Korean War started. It's true, as Green says, that the United States falsely believed that North Korea's surprise invasion of the South had been ordered by Moscow, which helped cement the (ultimately disastrous) U.S. paranoia that the Soviet Union was actively seeking global conquest, country-by-country, and must be confronted at every turn. But we were even more wrong than that. As the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has chronicled, both Moscow and Beijing actually wanted to prevent North Korean leader Kim Il Sung from invading, but he did so anyway, ultimately pulling China into a war it didn't want.

Just as the United States frequently struggled to control its client leader in South Korea, and later in other "allies" such as South Vietnam, so too was the Soviet Union often manipulated by its own client states. That's something we're just beginning to understand about the Cold War -- yes, it was a global contest between the United States and Soviet Union that sucked in nearly every other country on Earth, but those countries often exploited the war to their own advantage, playing the two great rivals off of one another. And you can still see echoes of that today, for example as Egypt responds to its worsening ties to Washington by reaching out to Moscow.

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Max Fisher · November 18, 2013