American War in Vietnam or Vietnam War?

 

Till date, the Vietnam War remains one of the most notable, yet controversial, proxy wars in history.

Beginning in 1954, as a local conflict between the communist Viet Minh troops led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, Southern Vietnamese troops, it soon escalated into a full-fledged, grand-scale war, resulting in more than 3 million deaths, amidst the backdrop of rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the US. In fact, both superpowers were heavily invested in the war, with the US sending in more than 500,000 military personnel in 1969[1] and spending $140 billion for Vietnamese war efforts.[2]

But why did these 2 superpowers take particular interest in Vietnam, rather than other nations in the region? What propelled them to invest so heavily in the Vietnam war?

Geopolitical and economic imperatives.

To the Soviet Union, supporting Ho Chi Minh’s communist efforts would contribute to a growing communist base, aiding its ascension into world dominance. On the other hand, to curb the Soviet Union’s growing dominance and the monstrous manifestation of communism across the globe, the US had to prevent Vietnam from falling into communist hands. In particular, Eisenhower’s domino theory sparked the fear of the possibility of the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia.

Domino Theory[11]

Figure 1 Domino Theory[3]

 

In addition, the US had to consider the economic interests of its 3 main allies, Japan, France and Britain. Following the end of World War 2, these allies faced economic stagnation and economic recovery necessitated new sources of raw materials from Southeast Asia[4], so securing a victory in Vietnam was essential.

Yet, in their pursuits for their individual interests, the 2 superpowers placed too much emphasis on classical geopolitics and failed to consider the practicalities of their decisions. There was an evident disconnect between classical geopolitics and practical geopolitics.

According to classical geopolitics, specifically, Spykman’s Rimland Theory, securing Vietnam was legitimate and the statecraft practised by each was justifiable.  If the Soviet Union were to triumph, they would successfully extend communist influence . Whereas the US would be able to limit the Soviet Union’s access to the Rimland, preventing them from achieving dominance. However, critically examining the costs and benefits of the war, their actions were not justifiable anymore.

In the actual operational theatre of war, the massive loss of human lives and horrific war images casted doubts as to whether intervention was necessary or even excessive. In 1967, around 35,000 demonstrators supported anti-war movements outside the Pentagon[5], citing that the war did not weaken the enemy but only sought to sacrifice innocent civilian lives.

LSU-Vietnam-war-protest-1970--featured

Figure 2 Antiwar Protest[6]

To the Vietnamese, anti US sentiments began to grow as the drastic deaths of Vietnamese civilians and US’s seeming disregard for that seemed to indicate that the US only cared about their own interests and Saigon was merely a puppet for US to advance their imperialist ideals.

vietnam-war-protest

Vietnam War protesters. 1967. Wichita, Kans, 1967[7]

The war finally ended in 1975, when DRV forces captured Saigon. The US had lost the war.   But this outcome was not unforeseen. Throughout the war, the US failed to understand the true nature of the war. Rather than to advance communist ideals, the Vietnam war had its roots in anti colonialism and national strife.[8] US’s involvement in Vietnam’s domestic war only escalated the scale of the war, resulting in the unnecessary loss of civilian lives. US’s understanding of the war was diluted as it was located so remotely far from the operational war theatre where it so actively participated in, leading to its misapplying of power across space.

 

 


 

[1] History.com Staff. (2009). Vietnam War History. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history

[2] Rohn, A. (2014, January 22). How Much Did The Vietnam War Cost? – The Vietnam War. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from http://thevietnamwar.info/how-much-vietnam-war-cost/

[3] [Domino Theory]. (2014, April 7). Retrieved March 12, 2016, from http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2010/04/origins-of-the-domino-theory.html

[4] Mercille, J. (2007) The Radical Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of U.S. Military Spending: A Case .. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=-NSV1Fgbc9EC&pg=PA186&lpg=PA186&dq=geopolitics of vietnam war&source=bl&ots=wJDloi1Tui&sig=k6WevomXB5Oo5LU0XPeCTlnG7po&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiw2dbq5rrLAhVPA44KHdGiC8Q4HhDoAQg9MAc#v=onepage&q=geopolitics of vietnam war&f=false.

[5] Ibid

[6] Dewolf, N. (2013, December 30). [Antiwar Protest]. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from http://www.peterpappas.com/tag/vietnam-war

[7] Vietnam War protesters. 1967. Wichita, Kans [Digital image]. (1890). Retrieved March 12, 2016, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vietnam_War_protesters._1967._Wichita,_Kans_-_NARA_-_283627.jpg

[8] Record, J. (1998). The Wrong War Why We Lost in Vietnam. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/r/record-war.html

 

 

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Geopolitical Theories driving Proxy wars during the Cold War

The end of World War II saw the emergence of two major superpowers, the USSR and the United States, which held absolutely differing ideologies. While the USSR viewed capitalism as sybaritic and embraced communism as a tool for human equality, U.S believed in egalitarianism. The two irreconcilable ideologies of communism and liberal capitalism resulted in heightened tension between the two. However, cognisant that direct confrontation would only lead to disastrous repercussions, both sought not to engage in direct warfare, but instead chose to engage in proxy wars. Interestingly, the actions of both parties in perpetuating these wars align with geopolitical theories, like Mackinder’s Heartland Theory, Spykman’s Rimland Theory and Ratzel’s organic state theory.

 

Ratzel’s state theory states that states are analogous to living organisms and just as living organisms require nutrition to grow, states require land to grow.[1] This means that territorial expansion was imperative for state survival. In the Cold War context, the existence of 2 mutually exclusive ideologies was not to be tolerated and required the annihilation of one and domination of the other. Yet, since both were roughly equal in military might, any direct confrontation would only risk nuclear fallout, which benefited neither party.[2] Hence, both could only seek to exert their political might through conquering other lands and engaging in warfare in other lands (proxies), such as Vietnam, Korea and Africa.

 

Throughout the Cold War, however, U.S consistently emphasized that they were not acting in their own interests, but sought to contain USSR’s increasing dominance. By the end of WW2, the Soviet Union had already gained control of most of the “Heartland” and this proved to be a threat to world order, as Mackinder had proclaimed that

 

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland, Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island, Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”[3]

 

At the same time, USSR was also gaining control of territories in the rimland. This was also a threat as Spykman prophesised that:

 “Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”[4]

 

Heartland Rimland

 

Figure 1. Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Spykman’s Rimland Theory[5]

 

Fearing that communism would spread like wildfire and threaten the ideals of liberty, US felt it necessary to intervene and halt USSR’s growing dominance through proxy wars. One notable example was the Vietnam War, in which Americans believed that the fall of Vietnam to communism would create a domino effect throughout Southeast Asia and lead to a complete communist takeover.[6]

 

However, this fear was unfounded. Even as Vietnam fell to communist forces, most nations in the region remained out of communist control. And in fact, Mackinder’s theory did not materialize. In spite of its heartland advantage, USSR failed to achieve world dominance due to inefficient economic administration. Meanwhile, Spykman’s theory is contestable as neither power managed to gain control of the rimlands, so by right, none should have emerged as a superpower. But the US emerged as the sole superpower.

 

Nonetheless, it is riveting to explore these through geopolitical lens, rather than the traditional historical perspective.

 

[1] Dittmer, J., & Sharp, J. (2014) Geopolitics: An introductory reader.

[2] Gary E. Oldenburger. (n.d.). The Cold War: The Geography of Containment. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.oldenburger.us/gary/docs/TheColdWar.htm

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] [Spkyman Rimland Theory and Mackinder Heartland Theory]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/103/flashcards/1000103/jpg/rimland-142E9B026D12BB3144B.jpg

[6] History.com Staff. (2009). Domino Theory. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/domino-theory

 

 

 

The Iron Curtain

The extent to which geographical variables influence political discourse, history and daily living has always been a topic of interest. In particular, the concept of boundaries as geographical variables, is one that is frequently examined and offers salient insights into the daily lives of border communities. As demarcations of space, borders are physical manifestations of segregations amongst these communities. The ‘Iron Curtain’, one of the most enduring Cold War symbol, is a prime example. In this blog post, we shall examine the geopolitics of the ‘Iron Curtain’, in terms of what it entails and whether the cause for divide among border communities is  geopolitics per se or psychological factors.

 

What is the ‘Iron Curtain’? The ‘Iron Curtain’ is the physical line (1393 km long) separating the former Soviet Eastern bloc of Europe and the democratic Western bloc from the end of World War 2 to the end of Cold War.

ironcurtaintrailmap

Figure 1.The Iron Curtain.[1]

This term became popularized after  Churchill used it as a euphemism to denote the ideological differences between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the democratic Western bloc in his Sinews of Peace speech, 1946.

 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”[2]

 

‘Iron’ illustrated the idea that these differences were strikingly contrasting and irreconcilable, while ‘curtain’ signified that activities within each bloc were unbeknownst to the other-hidden from sight. Alternatively, just as theatrical iron curtains were designed to prevent the spread of fire from stage to the audience, this iron curtain was drawn to prevent the spreading of contagious ideologies from the East to the West and vice versa.[3]

 

But was this curtain truly made of ‘iron’?

ee130f023b558d28f8c4868e85c69610

Fig 2. Cartoon on the Iron Curtain[4]

 

Interestingly, at the time of Churchill’s speech, this physical barrier was largely porous, rather than ‘iron’. Civilians could cross over with little deterrence. Their willingness to engage in cross-border activities signified that the two communities were not that divided yet.

 

However, as economic conditions contrasted sharply, East Germans began to migrate to the West rapidly and by 1961, they fled in droves of 2500 per day. In order to retain the population, the Soviet ordered for the overnight building of the Berlin wall on August 13, 1961. Concurrently, massive kidnapping across borders also propelled both parties to heighten border control.[5]

 

This meant that the physical barrier between the 2 blocs became increasingly concretised. Yet this concretisation and subsequent growing disunity was not due to the existence of the initial barrier, but was propelled by the fears of citizens. It was the mentalities of these citizens, which gave the boundary physical form. Rather then serving as a catalyst for divide between the 2 communities, the border was merely a continuation of the physical manifestation of the mental divide amongst the two.

 

Undeniably, inhibited interactions amongst the 2  further intensified their differences as each lived under different political doctrines and lacked the platform for understanding each other’s perspective. In fact, even after the celebratory fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seems as though differences still persist, which is why we often hear the following: “Germans’ ‘wall in the head’ has famously outlasted the physical barrier.”[6]

 

[1] Gripped Publishing Inc.(2013). A segment of the Iron Curtain Bicycle Trail. Retrieved March 9, 2016 from http://cyclingmagazine.ca/sections news/iron-curtain-bicycle-trail-10-000km-history-culture-politics/

[2] Churchill delivers Iron Curtain speech. (2010) Retrieved March 9, 2016, from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/churchill-delivers-iron-curtain-speech

[3] Twirling the tassels of the Iron Curtain. (2007, October 25). Retrieved March 10, 2016, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3668788/Twirling-the-tassels-of-the-Iron-Curtain.html

[4] J.N. “Ding” Darling Foundation. (2010) We Tried Everything but Dynamite. Retrieved March 9, 2016 from http://www.dingdarling.org/cartoons/dynamite.html

[5] Sheffer, E. (2013) Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain. Oxford University Press.

[6] Ibid.