How Revolution Shaped the Cold War World

This essay was written for the Cold War World (Dr. Michael Naragon) final exam while I was in 11th grade at Winchester Thurston School.

Carlos Macasaet
May 31, 2000
Final Exam Essay
How Revolution Shaped the Cold War World

Revolution was an important theme throughout the Cold War. Revolutions begat, molded and then finally brought an end to the Cold War. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution forced Vladimir Lenin, the new communist leader, to withdraw from the World War I on the side of the Western Allies and to sign a separate peace agreement with Germany. The suspicions that this aroused among the Allies were the seeds of the Cold War. In 1949, the New Democratic Revolution of China ended the Kuomintang (KMT) rule and established a communist government, thus guaranteeing the existence of the Cold War. Throughout its existence, the Cold War appeared to be something that was constantly present and unchanging. However, revolutions in Europe and Asia after 1953 continued to shape the Cold War until revolution inevitably destroyed in 1989.

In 1954, after failing to contain communism in Korea, America involved itself in the Vietnam Conflict. At this time, France had just lost control of its colonial holdings in Vietnam. After the French were defeated by a communist contingent lead by Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu, the French decided that they could no longer retain their Indochinese colonies. In the summer of 1954, France and Vietnam signed the Geneva Peace Accords. It was agreed that Vietnam would be temporarily divided along the 17th parallel such that the north would be communist and the south would not be. As a result of this, the United States decided to intervene in the South Vietnamese affairs in an attempt to contain communism[1] as they had in Korea. It was at this time that the American National Security Council (NSC) published its 68th paper (NSC-68) in which they introduced the policy of rollback. NSC-68 guaranteed the liberation of nations under communist dictatorship for the purpose of gradually eliminating communism until it was no longer a national issue to be concerned over. They feared that if Vietnam fell to communism, then a domino effect would occur in which, other Asian countries would in turn fall to communism.

In order to combat communism in Vietnam, the United States sent troops to fight the Viet Minh, the Northern Vietnamese forces, as well as tried to create a democratic alternative to communism. Their primary objective from 1954 to 1956 was to create a stable government rooted in popular support. They chose Ngo Dinh Diem to lead the artificially created South Vietnam. The United States believed that Ngo was the best choice because he was adamantly anti-communist. He was to, with American support, unify South Vietnam and then later North Vietnam as well. The United States, however, failed to realize that Ngo was also adamantly nationalist; meaning, he was willing to listen American advice, but he was also very willing to disregard it. America’s error is most clearly exemplified by the passage of Ngo’s oppressive and undemocratic Law 10/59. In 1956, cancels the elections and tears up the Geneva Accords. It is important to note that the United States supported all of Ngo’s actions up to this point. Through their cold war goggles, they are unable to see Ngo for what he is. They accept his resolutions as anti-communist actions. They dedicate themselves to the protection of South Vietnam. It did not become clear to them until 1961 that Ngo had failed in his mission of creating a government rooted in popular support.

However, while Ngo was popular among the American bureaucrats, Frances FritsGerald shows in part two of her Fire in the Lake that Ngo was very unpopular among the people he ruled over. Ngo faced opposition primarily from the NLF, which was an organization (which at first included communists and anti-communists) dedicated to the liberation of Vietnam from the domination of foreign government and the general amelioration of the conditions of the Vietnamese. The United States, however, condemned the NLF as a communist organization. Ngo came to be unaccepted by all after the Buddhist Crisis of 1963 as depicted in chapter eight of Fire in the Lake. When the people found out about the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in protest against the Ngo regime, they realized that the “will of heaven”[2] had shifted and that it was a time for revolution.

1961 was a turning point in American policy towards Vietnam. Because of America’s misconceptions about the war, they were unable to defeat their Vietnamese enemies. Domestic opposition to the war also erupted within the United States. This is best exemplified by the Students for a Democratic Society, the May Second Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. who recognized America’s errors and demanded changes in policy. As a result, America pulled out of the Vietnam Conflict and the Vietnamese revolutionaries persevered. Vietnam and Cambodia thus fell to communism and Laos soon followed.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 was another revolution in Asia that shaped the Cold War. The Cultural Revolution was very different from other revolutions in that, while it still accrued mass support, it was imposed upon the people from above, namely from Mao Tse-Tung, the leader of communist China. Like Mao’s Great Leap Forward of 1958, the Cultural Revolution, as illustrated in Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, sought to transform China into a significant world power. To do this, Mao and his supporters undertook a program to remove all elements of the “old” culture. This is clearly illustrated in Son of the Revolution when the Liang family is forced to remove all old artwork. To execute his plans, Mao recruited millions of young people into the Red Guards, idealistic soldiers of the Cultural Revolution armed with Mao’s little red book. The Red Guards also embarked on a massive propaganda campaign in which they created posters and pamphlets that appealed to everyone. While there was much dissent as described in Son of the Revolution, it was mostly kept private. In this regard, the Cultural Revolution was very successful in that it succeeded in completely transforming the culture of China and bringing China into the twentieth century. It was significant in that it managed to instill communism in China, thus demonstrating the elasticity of the Cold War.

The revolutions described in Asia were similar in that they both established communist governments. The revolutions in Eastern Europe, however, served to undermine communism. In Eastern Europe, revolutions were prompted by a general discontent for Soviet Rule. The economies were stagnant and the Soviet Union imposed production quotas and controlled prices of goods. The people were also forced to live double lives in that while they resented the Soviet rule in private, they could not express these beliefs in public. The people in these countries resented the control the Soviet Union held over them. The situation was unchanged with the passage of the Warsaw Pact in 1953, which only augmented the Soviet Union’s power.

At this time, East Germany was on the brink of revolution because of several underlying causes, which had been present since 1950. In 1950, Stalin installed Walter Ulbricht as the governor of East Germany, which he was to rebuild along Stalinist lines. In addition to harsh working conditions, there were economic pressures because of nationalization and collectivization. Also, the Soviet Union was demanding reparations for the destruction Germany had caused during World War II. As a result, the Soviets took much of East Germany’s industrial equipment for their own. Finally, with the death of Stalin in March of 1953, there arose confusion within the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), which the Soviet Union had established in 1946. The East Germans were also worse off than their neighboring West Germans and so many wanted to move to the West. This general anger against the communist regime led to a spontaneous general uprising on June 17. This uprising began in East Berlin but soon spread to the rest of the country. Demonstrators had taken to the streets, bringing down the government authority. In response, Soviet troops were summoned to quell the revolt. Forty civilians were killed and thousands were arrested.

This event showed the Soviets that the people did not accept the socialist revolution that they had imposed upon East Germany. More importantly, they recognized that communism would not be a significant force in a unified neutral Germany. Because of this, the Soviet Union tables plans for German reunification. Instead, it shoots to develop East Germany as a unique political entity. In 1954, the Soviet Union recognized East Germany as a sovereign nation and in 1955, it included East Germany in the Warsaw Pact. The Allies’ lack of response to this shows that their doctrine of liberation would not be pursued. However, this is not clear until 1956 in Hungary.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 occurred in part as a result of the Polish revolution, which happened at roughly the same time. After the death of Stalin, there emerged a general hatred for the old leader’s methods. As a result of this, several reform movements were started. Khrushchev came to power in 1955. In order to strengthen his position, he delivered his famous secret speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. In it, he denounced Stalin’s methods, thus strengthening the reform movements or de-Stalinization. The notion of de-Stalinization prompted rebelliousness in Poland. In June of 1956, Polish workers in Poznan organized to demand “bread, liberty and freedom” and more importantly, an end to the Soviet domination of Poland. The Polish military responded with force, killing 74 civilians. When news of this incident reached Hungary, several hundred students gathered in Jozsef Bem Square to protest Soviet control and to express sympathy to their Polish counterparts. They shouted slogans such as “Ruszkik haza!” (Russians go home!) and read poems of Hungarian Independence. One poem in particular, Nemzeti Dal by Sándor Petõfi, had sparked the Hungarian revolution of 1848 against the Habsburgs. They also installed Imre Nagy, a liberal communist reformer who had previously been ousted as the Hungarian Premier, as their leader[3]. There were several similar peaceful demonstrations. However, when a Peaceful crowd formed outside of a radio station in Pest (the eastern half of Budapest), the Állam Védelmi Osztály� (ÁVO), the Hungarian Internal Security Police, began firing on the crowds unprovoked. The ÁVO would have easily triumphed over the crowd had it not been for the intervention of factory workers from Csepel Island who supplied the crowd with arms. Soon, all hell had broken loose[4].

In response, the Soviet government ordered an invasion of Hungary to crush the democratic revolution. Instead of yielding to the much superior Soviet forces, the Hungarian freedom fighters[5] chose to fight to the end. They believed that they would receive support from the Western Allies as the American National Security Council’s 68th paper (NSC-68) had guaranteed the liberation of nations under communist dictatorship. Even though this doctrine may have helped incite the Hungarian fight for freedom, the United States did not pursue their policy as they had in Korea, Vietnam and Guatemala. Although the Western Allies had sent words of encouragement through Radio Free Europe that promised support in such situations, the United States considered the Hungarian uprising to be an internal affair within the Soviet Empire and so they concerned themselves instead with the Suez Canal Crisis, which was occurring at the same time. The real explanation for the United States’ deviation from policy was that, the Soviet Union did not pose a direct threat to the United States. During the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe had practically destroyed the Soviet Air Force, allowing them to only perform short distance air maneuvers. During the war, the United States had also proven to possess the world’s strongest navy. Lastly, while the Soviet Union had been successful in developing hydrogen bomb technology, it had no means of transporting the bomb to the United States. In short, the United States did not have to take a defensive stance against the Soviet Union as the Soviet Union could not take an offensive stance against the United States. However, unlike Korea, Vietnam and Guatemala, Eastern Europe was very close to the Soviet Union and so, had the United States intervened, all of the aforementioned benign threats would have become very applicable to America and her allies. Because of this, when the United States was faced with opportunities to pursue the rollback policy which they had practiced in Asia in Eastern Europe, it chooses not to follow through with them.

After molding the Cold War, revolution finally brought an end to it. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The next day, the Politburo elected Gorbachev general secretary of the CPSU. Once in office, Gorbachev’s main goal was to revive the stagnant Soviet economy as Khrushchev had tried[6]. He sought to modernize Soviet industry and to streamline the Soviet bureaucracy. The reforms that he proposed, however, were superficial so from 1987 to 1988, he initiated his economic and political policy of glasnost (openness). This brought an end to the totalitarian system established by Stalin in that freedom of expression was made more open. He also initiated the policy of perestroika (restructuring) in which, he made the first attempts at democratizing the Soviet government. As Gorbachev put forth these ideas and as he began to loosen the Soviet grip over its satellites, those satellites began to sue for more freedom[7]. In Poland, the Solidarity movement of 1980 and 1981 resurfaced with Lech Walesa at the helm. In Czechoslovakia, citizens infiltrated the palace and captured the President. In Hungary, the government took down the barbed wire on its border with Austria and the West. All of this happened while the Soviet Union looked on with no response. In East Germany, as described in The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash, the citizens were discontent with the conditions under Erich Honecker. While many fled East Germany, many stayed to protest. Gorbachev suggested incorporating perestroika into East Germany, but Honecker refused as he was planning instead to stamp out the dissidents. However, an internal plot in the East German Politburo removed him from office before he had the chance. In October of 1989, Egon Krenz was elected to office, replacing Honecker. He offered more freedoms to the East Germans, but they hungered for more. On November 9, it was announced that the wall was to come down. When people heard this news, they rushed to the wall where they overwhelmed the border guards who simply allowed them to pass. The crowd then proceeded to tear down the wall in a revolution that forever changed the Cold War. What followed was an end to the communist governments in the Soviet Satellites then an end to the Soviet Union and the iron curtain. The Cold War ended and the cycle of revolution that had played such an important role came to a close.

[1] The United States did not really realize what they were getting into when they entered this conflict. This is best illustrated in the chapter “States of Mind” of Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald.
[2] The “will of heaven” as described in Fire in the Lake is important in understanding the Vietnamese state of mind. Traditionally, the Vietnamese gave absolute to an authority (originally an emperor), as they believed that this authority embodied the “will of heaven”.
[3] Note, he was the first legally elected official in 17 years.
[4] It is important to note that, while the Hungarians did not achieve their independence, those who died did not do so in vain. The Hungarian revolution disproved the communist motto, “communism is the friend of man”. It showed the true character of the Soviet Union: a monster that keeps its satellites in line with force.
[5] Although this period in history is referred to as the Hungarian revolution, freedom fighter is a more fitting title for the insurgents. Revolutionary refers to a member of an organization that plots against the government. The Hungarians who participated in the revolt did not plan their actions, nor were they very organized.
[6] In 1964, Khrushchev fell from power due to domestic fear of de-Stalinization. As a result, Leonid Brezhnev came to power and pursued a policy of “re-Stalinization”.
[7] This is shown in The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash.

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