Book Review: The Cold War’s Killing Fields

Mehrdad Kevin Dariush
Columbia University
(Edited by Elise Reimcheisel & Lauren Bamonte of VHR)

Book: The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace. Paul Thomas Chamberlin. (New York: Harper Collins, 2018). 629 pp.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s director of central intelligence William Casey made his case for increased covert American aid toward the Afghan Mujahideen’s war effort against the Soviet Union.[1] Washington’s general policy after the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was clear: to turn this war-torn, decentralized state perched between the Persian Gulf and Indian subcontinent into Moscow’s “Vietnam.”[2] Casey, like his chief executive, sought an end to the Cold War by forcing it in places where it would hurt Moscow the most — like the historically unconquerable mountains of Afghanistan. “The [Cold War’s] primary battlefield,” he argued, “is not on the missile test range or at the arms control negotiating table but in the countryside of the Third World.”[3] Elsewhere, in his proposal for heightened CIA support to rebel groups across the Third world, Casey called for the creation of “half a dozen [more] Afghanistans.”[4]

Casey’s strategy, which was enshrined as the “Reagan Doctrine” two years later, effectively entrusted local Third World actors (especially guerilla fighters) with the responsibility of waging the Cold War.[5] Thus, while Europe endured an often uneasy but relative peace since the descent of the Iron Curtain in 1945, the Reagan Doctrine presented a culmination — and a rather transparent elaboration — of U.S. foreign policy in the Third World since the fateful coinciding dawns of the Cold War and the postcolonial era. The cooling of Cold War tensions in the preceding decade, the Reagan administration reasoned, had invited renewed Soviet interference in the Third World; alone, détente was not enough. To win the Cold War, Washington would need to seek confrontation with Moscow-backed forces — not in central Europe but across Latin America, Africa, and particularly, in Asia. Whereas previous Cold War presidents had pursued containment in the latter regions, Reagan championed rollback.[6]

From 1945 to 1990, the American strategies of containment and rollback, along with their Communist counterparts, turned what Casey charmingly called “the countryside of the Third World” into the bloodiest military theater of the Cold War era. No less than fourteen million people (far too many of whom were civilians) died there (far too often avoidably, and for nothing). Yet, most conventional studies fail to give reasonable weight to the decolonizing world’s centrality in constructing a more complete picture of the Cold War’s history. Doing so relegates the most crucial regions and the countless people that suffered therein to mere footnotes in “global” (European) history. Accordingly, John Lewis Gaddis’s paradigm of “the long peace” continues to hold near synonymic weight with the term “Cold War,” in both popular and scholarly conceptions. Gaddis had argued that in the second half of the twentieth century, this “long peace” settled in over a Europe badly ravaged by two successive Great Power wars, wanting for stability. But the eruptions of sustained violence engendered by superpower conflict simply shifted elsewhere, to lands that Columbia University historian Paul Chamberlin examines in his pioneering study aptly titled, The Cold War’s Killing Fields.[7]

Subtitled (with John Lewis Gaddis’s blessing), “Rethinking the Long Peace,” Chamberlin gives a painstaking and sweeping study of the Cold War’s bloody underside. This underside that Chamberlin examines constitutes “a nearly contiguous belt of territory” thousands of miles around the Communist world’s frontiers. It spans the “Manchurian Plain” and the Korean Peninsula in the Far East, south into Indochina, and west into Central Asia and the Middle East. This stretch of territory, which is rarely considered in unison barring its simplistic designations as part of the “Third” or “developing” world, has taken many names. Chamberlin tentatively suggests viewing it as a “rimland” along southern Asia. Though, for “the purposes of the Cold War,” he writes, “the killing fields” serves as the most honest designation.[8]

It was here that decolonization met superpower rivalry, generating the Cold War “era’s deadliest conflicts” and shaping “the decades that followed.”[9] Few before Chamberlin’s recent, rigorously researched study had approached these conflicts as an interconnected theater, examining the violence in sequence, as part of a larger revisionist Cold War account.[10] Thus, taking “the numbers” as his guide, Chamberlin attempts to demonstrate that the “post-1945 era’s conflicts were neither random nor evenly distributed across the developing world.”[11] The levels of violence, he argues, “followed a discernible geographic and historical logic” that underscore the centrality of the “rimland” as the Cold War’s military theater. Chamberlin notes that 70 percent of Cold War casualties occurred along Asia’s eastern and southern peripheries.[12] Moreover, the killings in these regions “followed identifiable patterns” that demand examination.[13]

Giving these regions the concerted scholarly attention they deserve serves three important purposes. First, it elucidates the extent to which peoples previously subject to European colonial rule fell victim to systematic bloodlettings (at the hands of both external and local actors) when caught between the dual processes of decolonization and superpower rivalry. Much of the killing stemmed from local forces’ exploitation of the former in order to attain control over the latter process. In these contexts, Chamberlin writes, the Cold War’s killing fields should be viewed not as an aggregation of proxy wars but as “complex patterns of collaboration” between superpowers, local states, and rebels.[14]

Second, Chamberlin’s study effectively maps and gives scale to Cold War theaters with troublingly insufficient levels of sustained scholarly scrutiny. Many of the Third World battlegrounds that feature in conventional Cold War history — such as Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan — feature in isolation, highlighted for their importance as extraordinary events.  Rarely, however, do these aforementioned killing fields find themselves studied under one analytical framework. Nor are these conflicts “extraordinary” events in the larger narrative. The Cold War’s unfortunately more obscure Asian fronts, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Iran-Iraq border, equaled or eclipsed the former regions in body count, despite their reception of even less scholarly treatment and narrative linkage. If we continue to avoid the “systematic examination of the period’s wars and massacres” that Chamberlin offers, we risk whitewashing, and inaccurately depicting, the “inherently violent history of the post-1945 era.”[15] Thus, both an ethical and scholarly duty guides Chamberlin to the central proposition of this Cold War reappraisal, which is his third and overarching claim: that for the millions of victims of the era, the “long peace” was by no means peaceful.

The far-reaching work Chamberlin provides weaves together military, political, and diplomatic histories across Asian flatlands, rain forests, mountains, deserts, villages, and cities. The wide array of secondary works on which his account relies consists of government cables, witness accounts, and variously-sourced newspapers. Chamberlin categorizes the killing fields he describes into “three broad battlefronts” that followed a chronologically and spatially distinct path during the Cold War.[16] Each “regional cluster” assumed specific characteristics related to its historical circumstances — the most defining of which being geographic proximity and the different “models” of the ideal postcolonial figure. All three regions, however, shared borders with the two most powerful Communist powers, the Soviet Union and China. And each, Chamberlin writes, “unfolded in the wake of decolonization,” centering on the rise of a revolutionary regional power.[17]

The first wave of violence erupted in East Asia, arising from the death throes of the Second World War’s Pacific theater. The conflicts began immediately after the Japanese Empire’s withdrawal from China and Korea in 1945, and lasted until the forced departure of French colonial forces from Indochina in 1954. Washington and Moscow viewed the power vacuum in the Far East with concern. Neither superpower had intended for this region to become the primary battleground of the Cold War, but the towering figure of Mao Zedong offered them no choice. Following his successes in the 1945-49 Chinese Civil War, “East Asia unexpectedly became the most violent region in the world.”[18] Mao’s bloody campaigns during the 1945-1949 Chinese Civil War, Chamberlin observes, not only turned the world’s most populous nation into a revolutionary power but provided an effective model for other anti-colonial fighters across the region.[19] It was Mao, he underscores, that “put the Third World in play,” by emerging as the practical and ideological champion of Third World Communism.[20] Using Mao’s model of guerilla warfare and a “Great Leader” cult of personality, revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh in French Indochina and nationalist leaders like Kim Il-Sung in North Korea were able to challenge both colonial occupiers and their superpower successors.[21]

Phan Thi Kim Phuc running down a road near Trảng Bàng, Vietnam (1972)
Source: Huynh Cong Ut, The Associated Press (Wikimedia Commons)

These emerging personalities and powers on the East Asian front put Moscow in an uncomfortable position. Wary of endorsing indigenous Communist movements disruptive of the delicate balance of power with the United States in the region, Moscow supported its Far Eastern comrades reluctantly.[22] Washington, meanwhile, was mobilized to contest this new regional balance of power after its alarming “loss of China” to the Communist bloc. Once the next regional conflict emerged in Korea, George Kennan’s famous containment doctrine was put to the test. The Korean War brought U.S.-UN forces to the region, only to find stalemate and mass slaughter.[23] Indochina, furthermore, brought only humiliating defeat for the French forces and marked the death of colonialism.[24] On the Korean peninsula and in decolonizing French Indochina, Chamberlin sees the unmistakable signs of victory for the Third World Communist movement, sparked by Mao’s China, then bloodily fumbled by Washington in Korea, and Paris in southeast Asia. These Communist victories, however, generated a staggering humanitarian defeat. Approximately 5.8 million lives were lost.[25]

Chamberlin then shifts to the Indian Ocean rim to study the next spate in Cold War bloodbaths, taking place between 1964 and 1979. This rimland extended from its central axis in Vietnam to the Cambodian killing fields as well as to Indonesia and Bangladesh. According to Chamberlin, these killing fields again redrew the Cold War balance of power in the Third World within decades of Beijing’s dramatic rise. Now, Beijing was a major Cold War player, locked in a “triangular struggle” with Moscow and Washington for influence along the Indian Ocean belt.[26] This new reality, Chamberlin emphasizes, dramatically altered the dynamic of the Cold War in the Third World. Beijing’s growing confidence on the Cold War stage set it at odds with Moscow — its tentative Communist ally — which responded with equal suspicion. Chamberlin highlights the growing Sino-Soviet split, ignited in 1961 and consummated by 1969 by the the Ussuri River Clashes, as the most critical geopolitical development of this wave.[27] The fragmentation and consequential “fall of Third World Communism,” in Chamberlin’s words, gave the United States the exact opportunity it needed to swing the Cold War in its favor after the Far East setbacks. The gradual split between Moscow and Beijing would not, however, lead Washington to reconsider its horrific policies in Vietnam, which brought devastation to the northern Vietnamese jungles and slaughter to the southern half’s villages — only to result in American defeat.

While a demoralized Washington reeled from the protracted Vietnamese quagmire, blood-soaked “opportunities” throughout south Asia enticed American leaders. Chamberlin is sharply critical of U.S. policy in the region. He chastises Washington for its brutal search-and-destroy tactics in Vietnam. He criticizes Washington for its ignorance of General Suharto’s 1965 massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party, rationalized as a strategic victory in the greater Cold War context.[28] Chamberlin places blame for the slaughter of Bangladeshi students, intellectuals, and villagers in 1971 not only with Pakistani leaders but with President Nixon and his Realpolitik-minded advisor Henry Kissinger, who, privately condoning Islamabad’s brutal campaigns, remarked, “there’s nothing in it for us either way.”[29]

Yet, Chamberlin insists there was “something in it” for Kissinger and Nixon. Ignorance and inactivity became U.S. policy. By dispassionately observing authoritarian or totalitarian regimes across the region purge suspected Marxists, all while Communist forces in Cambodia openly waged war on each other, Washington gradually gained influence over this vital Third World realm, turning the tide of the Cold War in its favor. The Third World Communist project ended in shocking defeat with Pol Pot’s horrific Cambodian killing fields, but with it also died the moderate, generally secular, leftist-nationalist politics of Indonesia’s Sukarno and Bangladesh’s Awami League.[30] Chamberlin’s question, posited implicitly here before its more explicit elaboration later, is: was “winning” the Cold War in this way worth it?

Henry Kissinger (1976)
Source: Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report Collection, Library of Congress (Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Indochina bloodbaths came a new set of conflicts farther west, waged between 1975 and 1990 in southwest Asia. According to Chamberlin, it was here that Third World Communism took its last breaths, as the Sino-Soviet split pushed Beijing into a shrewdly engineered rapprochement with Washington. The critical effect of this rapprochement was the demoralization of the remnants of left-wing, secular politics.[31] This demoralization, Chamberlin argues, mobilized a more immediately accessible, potent set of religious ideologies transmuted to serve distinct Cold War purposes in the Middle East.[32] It is through examination of this final “sectarian” wave of Cold War violence that Chamberlin’s argument — beyond his preliminary justification for writing such a book — can be teased out. It is not an argument that he makes early or in the most immediately accessible manner. Rather, his narrative, as examined below, is a historian’s cautionary tale for the American policymaker. It is a conclusion he carries over and expands from his previous monograph on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s fate under the Nixon administration’s foreign policy: crushing secular, left-wing politics in order to “win” the Cold War quickly and “painlessly” only led to long-term instability and an even more undesirable status quo.[33]

In this third and final section, Chamberlin examines the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent 1980-89 Iran-Iraq War, and the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan War. Conservative estimates place the aggregated death tolls of the three southwest Asian conflicts at roughly 1.85 million, with millions more displaced.[34] Though, the contemporary costs of this “Great Sectarian Revolt,” as Chamberlin calls it, go beyond the body count. His final argument, which evades appropriate comprehension until the totality of the Cold War’s killing fields have been surveyed — in sequence — zeroes in on the consequences of William’s Casey’s “half a dozen Afghanistans” strategy. To entertain such a strategy was to play with fire. To employ it was to overlay a fading Cold War logic onto Middle Eastern power struggles, and to — crucially — strengthen religio-political movements at the expense of secular, leftist ones. It is here that Chamberlin levels his book’s most thorough critiques.

In Lebanon, Israel refused to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a “political” adversary, instead reducing it to a “military” problem to be “solved” only through military solutions. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon attempted to stamp out the PLO, and in significant ways, it did. Already suffering from a protracted sectarian civil war between Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians, the defeat of the PLO removed the secular opposition from south Lebanon and Beirut, only for the militant Islamist group Hezbollah to claim its mantle.[35]

Chamberlin traces the birth of this wave of sectarian violence to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought Shi’i clerical rule under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran. Khomeini’s rise was possible in large part because of the Shah’s systematic dissolution of any secular, left-wing opposition to his regime during his reign. Such repression, Chamberlin argues, left activist clerics as Iran’s only alternative political force. This watershed revolution, while comparatively bloodless, matched in significance the Chinese Civil War and Indo-Asian bloodbaths.[36] The Islamic Revolution demonstrated the mobilizing potential of religious politics to all regional onlookers and transformed the late Cold War’s geopolitics. Washington naturally reacted to the “loss of Iran” with alarm, leading it to enter an ironic but now forgotten marriage of convenience with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the latter’s brutal 1980-1989 war on the newborn Islamic Republic.[37] The Soviets reacted to the rise of Islamism with similar concern, miring themselves in a ten-year unwinnable war against the Afghan Mujahideen in support of its feckless Communist client in Kabul.[38]

It was in Afghanistan (then celebrated as Reagan’s chief Third World victory), that the “Frankenstein” we now know well arose from Washington’s reckless patronage of hardline Mujahideen forces in their so-called religious “holy war” against atheistic Moscow.[39] This Frankenstein, Chamberlin stresses, was not inevitable. It arose from Washington’s dangerous support for ideologically hostile factions of the Afghan Mujahideen — from its preference for geopolitically expedient “ethno-sectarian” politics over negotiating over the long-term with secular, left-wing alternatives. Washington framed Afghanistan as a battle against Communism fought by religious “freedom fighters,” unbeknownst to the latter’s simultaneous opposition to American hegemony. By looking past the dangers and fixating on “winning” the Cold War quickly, and at any cost, Washington sowed the seeds of its own twenty-first century crises by sowing its own “half a dozen Afghanistans.”[40]

Washington’s current conflicts, from Korea to Afghanistan, emerged from the Cold War and its concomitant killing fields. These killings — waged in large part by forces intolerant of secular, left-wing politics — “transformed the world” through “mass violence” of importance equal to Europe’s “long peace.” Stamp out left-wing moderates, Chamberlin warns, and live to see the consequences.

Treating the Cold War as anything but a tragically two-tiered conflict of European stability and Asian bloodshed risks both diminishing the humanity of those 14 million dead and maintaining an incomplete sketch of the conflict and its consequences. Paul Chamberlin’s remembrance of the killing fields should dramatically alter the Cold War paradigm — and at the very least, lead scholars and students alike to rethink “the long peace.”  


[1] The Islamic term “Mujahideen” is related to “jihad,” and is commonly translated as “holy warriors.” For this book review’s purposes, the above definition will suffice. For a more detailed explanation, however, see Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), 51-53.

[2] Zbigniew Brzezinski, interview by Le Nouvel Observateur, trans. William Blum and David N. Gibbs, 1998, in Gibbs, “Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Retrospect,” International Politics 37, no. 2 (2000): 241-42.

[3] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 97.

[4] James M. Scott, “Reagan’s Doctrine? The Formulation of an American Foreign Policy Strategy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 26, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 1047-50.

[5] Scott, “Reagan’s Doctrine,” 1047-50; Charles Krauthammer, “The Reagan Doctrine,” Washington Post, July 19, 1985.

[6] Paul T. Chamberlin, The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 494.

[7] Chamberlin, Killing Fields, 1-2; John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), and The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005).

[8] Chamberlin, Killing Fields, 1-2, 8.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Chamberlin cites a few notable exceptions, such as Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York: Basic Books, 2017), and The Global Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Robert McMahon, ed., The Cold War in the Third World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Gabriel Kolko, Confronting the Third World (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

[11] Chamberlin, Killing Fields, 4-6.

[12] Ibid., 6-7.

[13] Ibid., 2.

[14] Ibid., 3-4.

[15] Ibid., 5.

[16] Ibid., 9.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 9-11.

[20] Ibid., 9-11, 101-103.

[21] Ibid., 9-11, 53, 154-57, 165-70.

[22] 53, 72,

[23] Ibid., 115, 153-54.

[24] Ibid., 168-69.

[25] Ibid., 50. Roughly 2.5 million deaths resulted from the Chinese Civil War, 3 million in the Korean War, and 290,000 in the French Indochina War.

[26] Ibid., 9.

[27] Ibid., 170-73, 247-52.

[28] Ibid., 231-41,

[29] Ibid., 265.

[30] Ibid., 356-57.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 363.

[33] Chamberlin, The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[34] Ibid., 362.

[35] Ibid., 366-92, 478-90.

[36] Ibid., 363, 393-94.

[37] Ibid., 514-29.

[38] Ibid., 419.

[39] Ibid., 551.

[40] Ibid., 557.

Book Review: The Cold War’s Killing Fields
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