In the Cold War’s Bloodlands

The Lethal Crescent

Where the Cold War was hot.


In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This wasn’t the first time it had bombed Japan’s cities—its firebombing campaign had already wrecked more than 60 other population centers—but the atomic bombs were different. They portended a new era in world history.

That’s how George Orwell saw it, at least. In an astonishingly prescient essay published two months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he reflected on the future that atomic weaponry would bring. Power would be consolidated in the hands of two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union (perhaps China, too, he allowed). The two would perpetually threaten atomic war against each other, Orwell predicted, but they wouldn’t actually risk it. Instead, there would be an “end to large-scale wars” and the rise of a new form of chronic half-war. Orwell, coining an indelible phrase, called it a “cold war.”

And cold it was. The Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, writing in the late 1980s, confirmed Orwell’s prediction: The Cold War had been a time of great perceived danger, yet it had also been a time of impressive international stability. For all the bluster, there had been no World War III. Weapons of stupefying destructive power had been built but never used. Perhaps, Gaddis suggested, we should understand the period not as the Cold War but as the Long Peace.

Scholars still debate why the Cold War stayed cold. Gaddis, like Orwell, emphasized nuclear weapons, which forced caution on the superpowers. Unwilling to gamble on all-out war, Washington and Moscow sought to contain, not destroy, each other, and they largely stuck to their own spheres of influence. They pressed frequently on the boundaries of those spheres, but just as often, they backed down from conflict.

That pattern can be seen clearly in the first true Cold War crisis in Europe, Joseph Stalin’s 1948 blockade of the Western-controlled parts of Berlin, a city located in the middle of the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. Harry Truman could have gone to war over this, but he didn’t. Instead, he responded with a creative workaround, a round-the-clock stream of planes that flew 2.3 million tons of supplies to the city’s sealed-off sectors. In a swaggering show of abundance, one squadron developed the habit of parachuting candy to Berlin’s overjoyed children. For his part, Stalin could have shot the planes down, but he didn’t. Instead, after 11 humiliating months and more than a quarter-million overflights, he reopened the roads. Not a single shot was fired.

But is Berlin a good stand-in for the entire Cold War? Perhaps not. Just as Stalin and Truman were facing off over that contested capital, a similar showdown was taking place nearly 5,000 miles away in Changchun, a prosperous provincial capital in Manchuria. As with Berlin, communist forces—this time under the leadership of Mao Zedong—controlled the zone around the city, but Changchun itself remained under the control of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang government. As with Berlin, Mao closed the roads to the city.

Yet here this tale of two cities diverges. Mao didn’t expect Chiang to relinquish Changchun peacefully. Rather, the point of his five-month blockade was (as one of Mao’s generals put it) to “turn Changchun into a city of death.” The trapped, starved, and freezing residents started dying in the streets. “There were corpses everywhere,” recalled the general charged with defending the city. “It had become a living tomb.” The siege very likely killed more people than the bombing of Hiroshima did, with estimates between 120,000 and 200,000.

Many more people died in the campaign that followed. On the eve of his victory, Mao bragged to Stalin that his forces had killed more than 5 million since 1946, though between 2 million and 2.5 million killed on all sides seems like a sturdier number. But however many millions of people died, one thing was clear: The contrast between Berlin and Changchun—planes dropping candy versus corpses in the streets—represented a larger divide. The Cold War in Europe may have been a patient chess game, or a Long Peace. But in Asia, it was a bloodbath.

Paul Chamberlin’s eye-opening The Cold War’s Killing Fields offers us a precise, painful account of the Cold War as narrated from the Changchuns of the world rather than the Berlins. His focus is not on the capitals where grand strategies were spun, as in Gaddis’s telling, but on the blood-soaked locales where those strategies took their greatest toll. By Chamberlin’s calculations, more than 20 million people died in conflicts related to the Cold War. Of course, not every one of those conflicts had its origins in the superpower rivalry. But even when Washington and Moscow had little to do with starting a war, they nearly always had a hand in finishing it—by sending troops, advisers, weapons, or cash.

Chamberlin isn’t the first historian to observe that the Cold War ran hot outside Europe. Orwell himself imagined the fighting taking place within a “rough quadrilateral” whose “vague frontiers” stretched from Southeast Asia to North Africa. But what’s so valuable about Chamberlin’s book is that it draws the separate wars together into one intelligent, crisply written narrative. Doing so drives home just how relentlessly murderous the Cold War was. It also allows Chamberlin to make an important and novel argument about where the killings took place. It wasn’t just outside Europe in general; it was in Asia, particularly in the lethal crescent extending down from Lebanon to Southeast Asia and up to Korea. That zone—the Cold War’s “bloodlands,” as Chamberlin calls it—accounted for 95 percent of Soviet military deaths and 99.9 percent of US military deaths during the Cold War. Seven out of 10 people who died in violent conflicts between 1945 and 1990 died there.

Why so much killing in Asia? The Second World War transformed the region, distributing arms widely and leaving a huge power vacuum in the wake of the Japanese empire’s fall—compounded soon after by the collapse of European empires. In addition, Chamberlin stresses the importance of the Chinese Revolution, which sent “shock waves” throughout a region already teetering on the brink, inspiring revolutionaries and terrifying their opponents. Peasants fought landlords, imperial collaborators fought nationalists, and ethnic groups fought one another. “From one end of the vast continent to the other,” wrote a journalist in Asia, “it has seldom been possible since Japan’s collapse to escape the sound of continuing gunfire.”

Asia’s wars had a way of sucking the superpowers in. And the superpowers, once in, had a way of making those wars worse. That dynamic was already in place during China’s civil war, when Washington fed arms to Chiang Kai-shek’s government and the Soviets, after initially cooperating with Chiang, tipped the advantage to Mao in Manchuria during their departure. The costs of a superpower-fueled conflict became even more evident in 1950, with the start of the Korean War.

That war began as a civil war, sparked and ignited by Korean leaders rather than by their backers in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing. Koreans were already fighting each other as early as 1948, when the government response to a leftist revolt on the South Korean island of Jeju left tens of thousands dead on both sides and triggered rebellions in two other cities that killed thousands more. But in 1950, the North Korean People’s Army, crossing into South Korean territory, turned isolated insurrections into an all-out invasion. Stalin and Mao had warily signed off on it, but the initiative had been entirely that of the North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung. South Korea, for its part, managed to summon in the United States.

What followed was unspeakably bloody. When Kim’s troops approached Seoul, South Korean authorities executed more than 100,000 political prisoners so they wouldn’t join the invasion. North Korean forces, meanwhile, massacred those suspected of sympathizing with the South. Millions of civilians fled from the front lines, rightly fearing the mass killings that occurred whenever any ground changed hands. But flight was no guarantee of safety: Near the village of No Gun Ri, US troops mowed down hundreds of refugees—a three-day slaughter of civilians that left perhaps 400 dead. South Koreans have since reported to their government more than 200 other episodes in which US forces attacked unarmed civilians.

The atrocity-prone ground war was matched by a brutal air war. With little aerial opposition, US and allied planes had control of the skies, which they used to “rain munitions down upon North Korean forces, railways, river dams, and population centers for the three years the war lasted,” Chamberlin writes. The planes dropped conventional bombs and napalm liberally and comprehensively. They “eventually burned down every town in North Korea,” wrote US Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, “and some in South Korea, too.”

Orwell’s quadrilateral and major superpower-fueled conflicts of the Cold War. Sources: Paul Chamberlin, The Cold War’s Killing Fields; Alex de Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic, Mass Atrocity Endings; Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch, “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat.”

LeMay’s statement was an exaggeration, but not by much. The United States dropped more bomb tonnage over Korea in three years than it had in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. Eighteen of the 22 largest cities and towns in North Korea were more than 50 percent destroyed, and Pyongyang, the North’s capital, was nearly leveled. “We killed civilians, friendly civilians, and bombed their homes; fired whole villages with the occupants—women and children and ten times as many hidden Communist soldiers—under showers of napalm,” recalled one US official. “The pilots came back to their ships stinking of vomit twisted from their vitals by the shock of what they had to do.”

From a military perspective, the Korean War accomplished little: It ended in a stalemate, with the North and South divided by roughly the same border as before. Yet from a humanitarian perspective, it was catastrophic. The three years of war killed more than 3 million people, “many of them civilians massacred in successive waves of political repression,” Chamberlin observes. That was about 10 percent of Korea’s population.

The Korean War was the last great-power war that history has seen, pitting as it did the United States against China in direct conflict. Yet this did not mean the end of war in general. Rather, it meant a redistribution of violence, so that the great powers saw proportionately less of it and the weaker states proportionately more. Long after the Korean War, conflagrations of killing continued to burn throughout Asia.

Some of these we still know too little about. In 1965, the left-leaning president of Indonesia, Sukarno, lost power in a half-coup. Who started it and who supported it remain mysterious to historians. But what is clear is that the political crisis touched off a state-supported massacre of suspected communists. Sometimes, government forces did the killing; at other times, it was youth groups, Muslim organizations, or simply the victims’ neighbors. They killed with knives, bamboo spears, and farm implements, and simply left the bodies to rot.

Like the Korean War, this was a civil conflict, but one that Chamberlin shows dramatically worsened when the superpowers got involved. “We should get across that Indonesia and Army have real friends who are ready to help,” cabled Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the US embassy in Jakarta. That help came in the form of covert military aid. A political officer in the embassy, Robert Martens, also sent along lists of thousands of purported communists, whom the killers then targeted. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad,” Martens reflected. “There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”

This view was shared by the Soviet Union, which also sent weapons to Indonesia. Arming a government as it slaughtered communists might seem a counterintuitive approach for Moscow, but the Kremlin proved to be less interested in ideology than in gaining a strategic advantage in the region. It was eager to bolster its relationship with the ascendant Indonesian military, and it feared losing ground to China.

The commander of the Indonesian government’s forces claimed that 3 million people had been killed on his watch. Scholars, more conservatively but still alarmingly, usually report half a million killings, which is the figure that Chamberlin prefers. Either way, and with both superpowers pitching in, the killing was extensive.

What strikes the reader again and again in Chamberlin’s bleak account is how blithe the superpowers were about the costs of their global confrontation. Orwell predicted that the carnage would impinge only slightly on the mind of the “average man,” and he was largely right when it came to the West. That the United States was fighting in Korea was no secret, but the atrocities its side committed there were, as the historian Bruce Cumings has shown, “suppressed, buried and forgotten.” The Indonesian massacres were, to the US public, even more obscure.

There was one case, though, where the facts pierced through the West’s moral haze. That was the Vietnam War, in which more than 2.5 million US service members fought. Boots on the ground eventually gave rise to stories in the press, and for the first time, the horrors visited upon Asia by the Cold War superpowers—and by the United States in particular—became a matter of public scrutiny. “It’s time to talk of the Vietnam casualties nobody dares talk about: the wounded boys and girls,” reporter Martha Gellhorn wrote in 1967 in Ladies’ Home Journal (after other magazines declined to publish her account). Gellhorn was speaking, in particular, of the wounds inflicted by napalm.

Napalm was not new: The United States had used it copiously in firebombing Japan and had dropped 32,557 tons of it on Korea. Yet, finally, US readers were grasping the human implications of this. The same month that Gellhorn’s story broke, magazines as disparate as Redbook and Ramparts ran their own napalm exposés, the latter with 15 pages of photos.

Martin Luther King Jr. bought the Ramparts issue in an airport, and when he opened to the photo spread, he was appalled. It was, for King, a wrenching moment of clarity. In a blistering sermon delivered three months later at New York’s Riverside Church, he declared that it was time to “break the silence,” not only about Vietnam but about US foreign policy in general. “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King announced, turned out to be “my own government.” Intent on securing stable investments abroad, Washington had positioned itself on the international stage as the defender of the world’s wealthy, thereby creating “a hell for the poor.” It was a “horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play,” and it may have “killed a million” Vietnamese already. The victims, King added, were “mostly children.”

This was a dangerous sermon, one that King’s advisers initially counseled him against giving. Life magazine opined that King had gone “beyond his personal right to dissent.” But as further revelations from Southeast Asia tumbled out, King increasingly looked clear-sighted. Most harrowing was the My Lai massacre, the notorious 1968 mass killing by US troops that left hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians dead, including women and children.

Chamberlin offers a detailed account of the massacre, but he also warns against focusing on it too much. My Lai wasn’t an aberration, a brutal and unfortunate excess—it was, he argues, a fairly normal occurrence. It was far from the only such massacre in the Vietnam War, and the killing of civilians was incessant throughout the larger Cold War. Taking the My Lai massacre (in which, he conservatively estimates, 400 people were killed) as his unit of measurement, Chamberlin grimly calculates that “in raw numerical terms,” the Cold War amounted to “more than three My Lai massacres every day for forty-five years.”

The Vietnam War threw the United States into crisis. Yet though it left US leaders nervous about committing troops to future wars, it did not wean them away from the Cold War entirely, so long as that war could be contained within Orwell’s quadrilateral and Latin America. Just as the Nixon administration was searching for a way out of Vietnam, Chamberlin notes, it was funneling aid to Pakistan, which was then in the process of massacring Hindus especially and Bengalis more generally in what was then East Pakistan. This was, reported the horrified US consulate in Dhaka, a “reign of terror,” for which “unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable.” Yet Pakistan was a valuable Cold War ally, integral to Nixon’s attempt to wrong-foot Moscow by befriending Beijing (which was also arming Pakistan). And so he continued to send military aid as hundreds of thousands of civilians—perhaps a million—were slaughtered.

Elsewhere, the US government carried out the killing itself. While Washington abandoned its war in Vietnam, it escalated the one in Cambodia. Not only did the United States aid the anticommunist regime there (which, like Pakistan, was in the process of massacring its own subjects); it also dropped three times the tonnage of bombs on Cambodia that it had dropped on Japan in the Second World War. To no one’s surprise, this violence triggered a rebellion and a coup. The new regime, the communist Khmer Rouge, emptied the cities and killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was the Cold War’s “darkest chapter,” Chamberlin writes. But it was also, he suggests, the most illuminating as to the war’s true colors. In his view, the best emblem of the Cold War is not the menacing yet ultimately peaceful Berlin Wall, but the killing field. Though that term is often used metaphorically, here it has a literal meaning: The Khmer Rouge executed so many people at Tuol Sleng, its prison in Phnom Penh, that it ran out of room for the bodies. The authorities thus prepared a plot of land outside the city for executions. Under electric lights, prisoners would kneel, hands tied, in front of shallow ditches. There, they would take in their final moments before being beaten on the neck with iron ox-cart axles and tumbling into the earth.

As usual, few in Washington cared. From the White House’s perspective, the Khmer Rouge, though the epitome of a totalitarian communist regime, was also a counterforce to Vietnam and thus a potential ally. “Tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them,” Henry Kissinger instructed Thailand’s foreign minister. “They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”

Kissinger’s tolerance of the Khmer Rouge—one shared by Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski—encapsulates the deep cynicism of the late Cold War. A conflict that had started as a rivalry between clashing ideologies had become by the 1970s a grim contest of wills, in which concepts like democracy and communism meant close to nothing. Vietnam invaded Cambodia, China invaded Vietnam, the Soviet Union armed Saddam Hussein as he quashed Iraq’s communists, and the United States funded Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan.

A notable peak in this mountain range of realpolitik, Chamberlin shows, was the war between Iran and Iraq that extended through most of the 1980s. The Reagan administration supplied arms to both sides. (“It’s a pity they can’t both lose!” Kissinger is said to have mused.) Moscow, for its part, carefully calibrated its aid to Iraq—enough to keep the country fighting, but not enough for victory. The eight-year war ended in a stalemate. And, Chamberlin notes, it left 680,000 people dead.

Gaddis has, in his writings, expressed a grudging respect for the ideological flexibility and “moral anesthesia” of the superpowers, which ultimately helped them to accommodate each other. Ronald Reagan, in the end, didn’t seek to eradicate the Soviet Union but to befriend Mikhail Gorbachev. “There is good chemistry between us,” the president told reporters, and he threw his arm around Gorbachev in Moscow’s Red Square. This is how the Cold War ended: not in a cataclysm, as most great-power rivalries do, but by a gentle melting away.

Things undeniably could have been worse. “The world, I am quite sure, is a better place for that conflict having been fought in the way that it was,” Gaddis wrote. Yet with Chamberlin’s book in hand, one hesitates at that statement. The lack of direct military confrontation between the superpowers made nuclear Armageddon less likely, but it also insulated them from the horrendous costs of their conflict, most of which took place elsewhere. From positions of relative safety, they unleashed violence that arced like a scythe through Asia. Well past the point when the Cold War meant much ideologically, they kept it going.

The 45 years of peace between the Cold War’s superpowers that Gaddis praised were also 45 years of killing for much of the rest of the world—killing that subsided considerably after 1991. The Cold War never became the nightmare that it could have been. But it was, in the killing fields, its own kind of hell.

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