The Cold War in Asia: Crash Course US History #38


In which John Green teaches you about the Cold War as it unfolded in Asia. As John pointed out last week, the Cold War was occasionally hot, and a lot of that heat was generated in Asia. This is starting to sound weird with the hot/cold thing, so let’s just say that the United States struggle against communist expansion escalated to full-blown, boots on the ground war in Korea and Vietnam. In both of these cases, the United States sent soldiers to intervene in civil wars that it looked like communists might win. That’s a bit of a simplification, but John will explain it all to you.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse US History, and today we’re going to talk
00:03
about the Cold War again. Really less about the “cold,” more about the “war.”
00:06
As usual, we’re not going to focus so much on the generals and the tactics, but instead
00:10
on why the wars were fought and what it all meant.
00:13
And today we get to visit a part of the world that we haven’t seen much on this series:
00:16
[spins] Asia. Not my best work. intro
00:23
So, we’re gonna start today with the place where the Cold War really heated up, at least
00:32
as far as America’s concerned. Mr Green, it’s Vietnam.
00:34
Close, Me from the Past, but like all your romantic endeavors, unsuccessful. The correct
00:39
answer is of course Korea. Like MFTP, many Americans have forgotten about the Korean
00:43
War, which lasted three years from 1950 to 1953 and is sometimes called the Forgotten
00:49
War. But it was real. The Korean War was the first
00:51
real like shooting war that Americans were involved in after World War II and it was
00:55
the only time that American troops directly engaged with an honest to goodness Communist
00:59
power. I’m referring not to North Korea, but to
01:02
China, which became communist in 1949 and qualifies as a major world power because it
01:06
was, and also is, huge. We love you China. Just kidding, you’re not watching. Because
01:12
of the Great Fire Wall. So the end of WWII left Korea split between
01:15
a Communist north led by Kim Il crazypants Sung and an anti-communist but hardly democratic
01:20
South led by Syngman Rhee. The two were supposed to reunite, but that
01:24
was impossible because they were constantly fighting that cost around 100,000 lives.
01:29
The civil war between the two Koreas turned into a full-fledged international conflict
01:33
in June of 1950 when Kim Il Sung invaded the South, and the US responded. Truman thought
01:38
that Kim’s invasion was being pushed by the Soviets and that it was a challenge to
01:42
the “Free World.” Truman went to the United Nations and he got
01:45
authorization, but he didn’t go to Congress and never called the Korean War a “war.”
01:50
Insisting instead that American troops were leading a UN “police action” but that
01:54
was kind of a misleading statement. General Douglas MacArthur was in command of
01:58
this tiny little police force at the start of the war because he was the highest ranking
02:01
general in the region. He was also really popular, at least with the press, although
02:05
not so much with other generals, or with the president.
02:08
Under MacArthur, UN forces – which basically meant American and South Korean forces — pushed
02:12
the North Koreans back past the 38th parallel where the two countries had been divided,
02:17
and then Truman made a fateful decision: The United States would try to re-unify Korea
02:22
as a non-communist state. Which, if you’ve looked at a map recently,
02:26
you’ll notice went swimmingly. America’s allies and the UN all agreed to this idea,
02:30
so up north they went, all the way to the northern border with China at the Yalu river.
02:35
At that point, Chinese forces, feeling that American forces were a smidge too close to
02:39
China, counter-attacked on November 1, 1950 and by Christmas the two sides were stalemated
02:44
again at the 38th parallel, right where they started.
02:47
The war dragged on for two more years with the U.S. pursuing a “scorched earth” policy
02:51
and dropping more bombs on Korea than had been dropped in the entire Pacific theater
02:56
during WWII. The two sides tried to negotiate a peace treaty,
02:59
but the sticking point was the repatriation of North Korean and Chinese prisoners who
03:03
didn’t want to go back to their communist homelands.
03:05
Meanwhile, at home, Americans were growing tired of a war that they weren’t winning,
03:09
which helped to swing the election of 1952 for Dwight Eisenhower.
03:12
Also he was also running against perennial presidential loser Adlai Stevenson, who was
03:16
perceived as an egghead intellectual because his name was Adlai Stevenson.
03:19
In addition to helping get Ike elected, the Korean War had a number of profound effects.
03:24
First and most importantly, it was expensive, both in terms of lives and money.
03:29
In 3 years of fighting 33,629 Americans were killed, 102,000 were wounded and nearly 4
03:35
million Koreans and Chinese were killed, wounded, or missing. The majority of Korean casualties
03:41
were civilians. The Korean War also further strengthened executive
03:44
power in the United States – Truman went to war without a declaration and Congress
03:48
acquiesced – this doesn’t mean that the war was initially was unpopular, it wasn’t.
03:52
People wanted to see America do something about Communism and allowing Kim to take the
03:56
south and possibly threaten Japan was unacceptable. However, the whole idea that you don’t really
04:00
need to declare war to go to war, while not new in America, sure has been important the
04:05
last 60 years. And the Korean War also strengthened the Cold
04:07
War mentality. I mean, this was the height of the Red Scare.
04:10
Also, the Korean War set the stage for America’s longer, more destructive, and more well known
04:15
engagement in Asia, the Vietnam War. Oh it’s time for the Mystery Document? The
04:21
rules here are simple. I guess the author of the Mystery Document.
04:24
I’m either right or I get shocked. Alright, let’s see what we’ve got.
04:28
“The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the
04:30
Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain
04:35
free and have equal rights.” Those are undeniable truths.
04:39
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard
04:43
of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our
04:47
fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.
04:52
In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.
04:58
Well Stan that sounds like a Frenchman who really doesn’t want to be French anymore.
05:03
So it’s somebody who’s very disappointed by the way the France has been running their
05:06
colonies. I’m going to guess that it’s North Vietnamese leader and Crash Course chalk
05:10
board person: Ho Chi Minh. Wait Stan says he needs his real name. It’s
05:17
Nguyen Sinh Cung. Yes! So, this document it points out that, at least
05:20
rhetorically, Ho Chi Minh was fighting for liberation from a colonial power as much as,
05:24
if not more than, he was trying to establish a communist dictatorship in Vietnam. But because
05:29
of the Cold War and its prevailing theories, the United States could only see Ho as a communist
05:34
stooge, a tool of the Kremlin. Under the so-called “domino theory” Vietnam
05:38
was just another domino that had to be propped up or else the rest of South East Asia would
05:42
fall to communism like a row of, dominos. That wasn’t my best work.
05:46
Now, in retrospect, this was a fundamental misunderstanding, but it’s important to
05:49
remember that at the time, people felt that they didn’t want the Soviet Union to expand
05:53
the way that, say, Nazi Germany had. America’s involvement in Vietnam, like most
05:57
things Cold War, dates back to World War II, but it really picked up in the 1950s as we
06:01
threw our support behind the French in their war to maintain their colonial empire. Wait,
06:06
Stan, how why would we fight with the French to maintain a colonial empire? Oh right, because
06:10
we were blinded by our fear of communism. Now, Eisenhower wisely refused to send troops
06:15
or use atomic weapons to help the French. Really good call.
06:18
And the Geneva Accords were supposed to set up elections to reunite North and South, which
06:22
had been divided after WWII, but then we didn’t let that happen.
06:26
Because sometimes democracies don’t vote for our guy. Instead, the U.S. began supporting
06:31
the repressive, elitist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem as a bulwark against communism.
06:35
Diem was a Catholic in a majority Buddhist country and his support of landowners didn’t
06:39
win him any fans. But he was against communism, which was good enough for us.
06:43
The first major involvement of American troops, then called advisors, began in the early 1960s.
06:48
Technically, their role was to advise the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, also called
06:53
ARViN. It was doomed. How did they not know this was doomed? Let’s
06:55
fight for Arvin. Against this guy. You are scary. Seriously.
07:01
Anyway, pretty quickly this advising turned into shooting, and the first American advisors
07:05
were killed in 1961, during John Kennedy’s presidency.
07:08
However, most Americans consider Vietnam to be Lyndon Johnson’s war, and they aren’t
07:13
wrong. The major escalation of American troops started under Johnson, especially in 1965
07:18
after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This is one of the great incidents in all
07:21
of American history. So, in August 1964, North Korean patrol boats attacked US warships in
07:27
the Gulf of Tonkin. As a result Johnson asked Congress to authorize
07:30
the president to take “all necessary measures to repel armed attack” in Vietnam, which
07:36
Congress dutifully did with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
07:40
So why is this one of the great incidents in American history? Because the whole patrol
07:43
boats attacking warships thing? That didn’t happen. None of that stuff happened except
07:48
we did actually go to war. Now, in retrospect, this seems like a terrible
07:52
idea but it was very popular at the time because to quote the historian James Patterson, “Preventing
07:57
Communism, after all, remained the guiding star of American policy.”[1] Wait a second,
08:01
did I just say to quote historian James Patterson, like the crime novelist? Oh it’s a different
08:07
guy apparently. That’s a bummer. He doesn’t write his own books because he’s
08:10
so busy with his secret career – being a historian. So, the number of American troops began a
08:15
steady increase and so did the bombing. The frightfully named Operation Rolling Thunder
08:19
began in the spring of 1965. And in March of that year two Marine battalions arrived
08:24
at Danang airbase authorized to attack the enemy. No advising about it.
08:29
But, Johnson didn’t actually tell the American public that our troops had this authorization,
08:33
which was part of a widening credibility gap between what the government told Americans
08:38
about the war and what was really happening. Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble.
08:41
By 1968 there were about half a million American soldiers in Vietnam and the government was
08:46
confidently saying that victory was just around the corner. But then in January Vietnamese
08:50
forces launched the Tet Offensive and while it was eventually repelled, the fact that
08:54
the North Vietnamese were able to mount such an offensive cast doubts on the claims that
08:58
U.S. victory was imminent. The Vietnam War itself was particularly brutal,
09:02
with much of the ground fighting taking place in jungles. Rather than large-scale offensives,
09:06
troops were sent on search and destroy missions and often it was difficult to tell enemy from
09:11
civilians. Capturing territory wasn’t meaningful, so commanders kept track of body counts. Like,
09:16
if more enemy were killed than Americans, we were winning.
09:20
In addition to jungle fighting, there was a lot of bombing. Like, more bombs were dropped
09:24
on North and South Vietnam than both the Axis and Allied powers used in all of World War
09:30
II. The U.S. used chemical defoliants like Agent Orange to get rid of that pesky jungle,
09:34
and also napalm, which was used to burn trees, homes, and people.
09:38
Television coverage meant that Vietnam was the first war brought into American living
09:42
rooms. And people were horrified at what they saw. They were especially shocked at the My
09:46
Lai massacre, which took place in 1968 but was only reported a year later, in 1969. These
09:52
draftees were young, and disproportionately from the lower classes because enrollment
09:55
in college or grad school earned you a deferment. So unlike previous American wars, the burden
10:01
of fighting did not fall evenly across socioeconomic class.
10:05
Thanks, ThoughtBubble. So, as Americans at home became increasingly aware of what was
10:08
going on in Vietnam, protests started. But it’s important to remember that the majority
10:12
of Americans were not out in the streets or on college campuses burning their draft cards.
10:18
Right up through 1968 and maybe even 1970, most Americans supported the Vietnam War.
10:24
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon promised that he had a secret plan to
10:28
end the war and appealed to the silent majority of Americans who weren’t on board with the
10:32
anti-war movement. So, the first part of Nixon’s secret plan
10:35
was “vietnamization” — gradually withdrawing American troops and leaving the fighting to
10:40
the Vietnamese. The second part involved more bombing and
10:43
actually escalating the war by sending American troops into Cambodia in order to cut off the
10:48
so-called Ho Chi Minh, named for this guy, a supply line that connected north to south.
10:54
Not only did this not work, it also destabilized Cambodia and helped the Khmer Rouge to come
10:59
to power. The Khmer Rouge represented the absolute worst
11:02
that Communism had to offer, forcing almost all Cambodians into communes and massacring
11:07
one third of the country’s population. So, not a great secret plan. By 1970 the anti-protests
11:14
had grown and discontent within the armed forces was enormous.
11:18
Vietnam veterans, including future almost-president John Kerry, were participating in protests.
11:23
And things got even worse when in 1971 the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers,
11:28
classified documents that showed that the government had been misleading the public
11:32
about the war for years. Congress eventually responded by passing the
11:36
War Powers Act in 1973 which was supposed to limit the president’s ability to send
11:40
troops overseas without their approval and prevent another Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
11:45
John: How does that work out, Stan? Stan: Not great.
11:50
John: Yeah. I’ll say. After five years of negotiations, Nixon and
11:54
his secretary of state Henry Kissinger were able to end America’s involvement in Vietnam.
11:59
In 1973 the Paris Peace Agreement made it possible for America to withdraw its troops,
12:04
although it left North Korea in control of some of South Vietnam.
12:04
The war between North and South Vietnam however continued until 1975 when the North finally
12:09
conquered the South and created a single, communist Vietnam.
12:12
The Vietnam War cost the United States more than $100 billion spent, 58,000 Americans
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died as well as between 3 and 4 million Vietnamese people
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And Vietnam was the first war in America that we definitively lost. We lost it because we
12:27
didn’t understand the Vietnamese and we didn’t understand why they were fighting.
12:31
To return to the historian James Patterson, “the unyielding determination of the enemy
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… wore down the American commitment, which proved to be far less resolute.”[2]
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America expected that its superior technology and wealth would eventually wear down the
12:44
Vietnamese and they’d just give up communism. But the Vietnamese weren’t fighting for
12:49
communism. They were fighting for Vietnam. This fundamental misunderstanding combined
12:53
with the government’s dishonesty changed American’s relationship with their leaders.
12:58
Before Vietnam, most Americans trusted their government, even when they knew it did horrible
13:02
things. But, after the war, and largely because of it, that trust was gone. Thanks for watching.
13:08
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13:34
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