By the end of 1945, one devastating war concluded and another type of war began, a new and different kind of warfare that would last for the next 45 years, a decidedly cold one. Although this new era of warfare wouldn’t claim the estimated 75 to 80 million lives lost on the streets, battlefields and seas of the world fighting its second all encompassing direct conflict, instead this battle would not see the two main antagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union actually meet on an open field, swords drawn. It would still cost millions of lives and billions of dollars but this time it wouldn’t be swords at dawn but daggers in the darkness.
Despite clear and obvious tension between the reigning super powers, it would be their respective vassal states whose blood would be shed in the name of either capitalism or communism. America and its allies would wrestle with the great bear of the communist, totalitarian Soviet Union to stop it from expanding into Europe, Asia, and Africa. The struggle between these two ideologies wouldn’t play out on the doorstep of Washington or Moscow but in theaters of war in places as far flung as Korea and Vietnam, Cuba and Grenada, Afghanistan and Angola. The age of the proxy war had begun.
Here we are going to have a look at six devastating proxy wars fought between the Soviet Union and the United States as both tried to expand their sphere of influence on the world stage. This ideological tug of war would have lasting repercussions for the countries involved, some of which are still being felt to this very day.
First Indochina War
The first Indochina War has the unwanted distinction of being one of the first first proxy wars of the Cold War. During WWII the Japanese had invaded and taken control of Vietnam, which at the time was part of French Indochina, breaking their stranglehold on the country for the first time in just under a century. The French had added Vietnam to their colonial territories in South East Asia between 1858 and 1887, but from the beginning of this seizure of territory by the French, a Vietnamese resistance would birth and grow until the arrival of their Japanese liberators.
By the time the Japanese surrender just a few months later on August 22nd, 1945, it seemed that Vietnam would end up back in the hands of the western powers. However, as the Japanese troops were the only ones able to maintain order in the country they remained for a short time after the surrender. The Japanese authorities were well aware that it would only be a matter of time before the French came back to retake control of Vietnam, so with that in mind they allowed nationalist groups, most notably the Viet Minh, an anti-imperialist national independence coalition founded by Hồ Chí Minh, to seize control of public buildings and a stockpile of weaponry.
Hồ Chí Minh had been leading a Vietnamese independent movement against French imperial rule since 1941 and by September of 1945, using the chaos of the end of the war and a devastating famine that killed more than 2 million of his people, he would garner massive support in the North due to a relief effort he helped organize to help the poor and starving. This move meant that when the French did arrive to take back the country the vast majority of those living in the north sided with the Viet Minh.
Although outnumbered, the French forces had superior fire power and the support of the French Navy which allowed them to easily take back control of Hanoi and scatter the Viet Minh, causing them to flee into the countryside and jungles. Unfortunately for the occupying French, instead of capitulating, Hồ Chí Minh and his troops would engage in a campaign of guerrilla warfare, a campaign that would last until 1949 and force the French to the negotiating table. The French would grant Vietnam its independence but with a huge caveat attached, they could have their independence but only as an associated state in the French Union.
The hollow independence the French gave the Vietnamese would see the relationship between the two quickly break down, resulting in ten years of bitter fighting. The newly communist People’s Republic of China would immediately support the Viet Minh with bases and heavy weaponry, which allowed them to take control of large swaths of rural Vietnam. The Soviet Union would soon join China in supporting the cause, also providing military aid, and would publicly declare that Ho Chi Minh was the rightful leader of Vietnam.
The Americans had been supporting the French as early as 1949, providing them with military aid, but to no avail. By 1954, following their defeat at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, the French decided enough was enough and began negotiations to leave Vietnam. In that same year peace accords worked out at the Geneva Conference where the country would eventually be divided the country into North and South Vietnam. As many as 800,000 people were killed in the conflict, but it wouldn’t be the last time this nation would experience bloodshed.
Angolan Civil War
The Angolan civil war has a strange history when it comes to being involved in a proxy war. It would start as a civil war within the country, morph into a proxy war and the return to being an internal conflict after the end of the Cold War, seeing pockets of peace and stability in the nearly three decades. Over those decades of war, more than half a million people would lose their lives. The origins of the civil war would begin in the immediate aftermath of the country gaining its independence for Portugal.
In 1974, there would be a leftist military coup in Lisbon which overthrew the semi-fascist Estado Novo regime known as the Carnation Revolution. This would have a knock on effect for the Angolan people as the Portuguese that lived in there fled as soon as the country’s independence was known. As they made up the majority of skilled workers the economy would quickly crash, causing an economic disaster. The power vacuum left by the Portuguese would soon be filled with three main political groups, each one representing a different ethnic group.
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) made up of the Ambundu people, started life as the Angolan Communist Party so would therefore gain the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba and other African countries with socialist leanings. The National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) consisted of the Bakongo people and got their support from Mobutu’s Zaire and Mao’s People’s Republic of China. The last group, The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was made up of Ovimbundu people, would receive American support.
Fearing the spread of communism in Africa, President Ford and his administration were willing to funnel millions of dollars into Angola to stop that from happening, so in 1975, Ford began giving financial support to UNITA and FNLA in an attempt to prevent the MPLA from seizing power. Ford hoped that he could hide the millions of dollars he was sending to the region from American voters. By the 80’s, at the height of the Cold War, US and USSR involvement escalated just as the conflict did. The Soviets reportedly sent the MPLA more than 2 billion in aid in an attempt to subvert the Americans support for their rivals the UNITA and FNLA. This move prompted Cuba and other Eastern bloc nations to increase their support for MPLA, which in turn forced the US to further increase their support. This dance would continue until 2002 when finally UNITA and the MPLA reached an agreement and hostilities ended.
The Korean War
The Japanese Empire had long been flexing its military might in the region, defeating the Chinese in the First Sino-Japanese War between 1894 and 1895 then defeating Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05. Up until that point, both China and Russia had a considerable influence over Korea and between the two conflicts the Koreans welcomed in a new era as the Korean Empire, but it was to be short lived. After the Russo-Japanese War, Japan would make Korea its protectorate before completely annexing the country just 5 years later, causing many to flee the country.
Rule over the Korean peninsula would come to an end due to the collapse of the Japanese empire immediately at the end of WWII. Unlike China, Manchuria and other former Western colonies the Japanese has seized in its campaign of military expansionism, Korea did not have a coherent government in exile waiting to return once the war had ended. With the Russians liberating the north of the country (at the 38th parallel) and the Americans liberating the south and rising tension, suspicion and mistrust between the two post war allies, the Korean peninsula would find itself the first stage for the new emerging cold war to play out.
In 1948, the country would officially be divided into North and South Korea, with both governments either side of the border claiming to be the true leaders of all Korea and rejecting the border of the 38th parallel. Tensions would grow over the next two years before the North, with the support of the Soviet Union and China, would make the first move on the 25th of June 1950. The North would make early gains in their attempts to reunite the fractured country but soon many would come to the aid of the South, most notable the Americans.
The UN would deploy a coalition of 21 countries to aid the South Koreans in their fight against the Northern aggressor but the bulk of the forces fighting back would be provided by the US, 88% of the troops in fact. During the next few years of the conflict, the city of Seoul would change hands 4 times. Both the Soviets and the Americans would increase their forces in an attempt to gain the upper hand, but the war would quickly become a stalemate on the ground. The battle for the skies would be a different matter entirely and the first time the two superpowers jet fighters would meet in warfare. It would be short lived though, as the Americans utterly dominated the Soviets in air to air combat.
This war of attrition was getting both sides nowhere despite small gains for either side, and negotiations for a cessation of hostilities would rumble on for about two years. Finally an armistice was declared on the 27th of July, 1953. Under the agreement the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ would be established where the two sides still stare at each other through the sights of rifles to this day.
The Congo Crisis
The people of the Congo must have thought there was a new dawn on the horizon when Belgium granted its long sought after independence on June 30, 1960. However, it was to be a false dawn as the Belgium authorities believed that, despite the apparently new found freedom the Congolese people, the Belgians within the country would still remain in positions of power. The newly elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba of the Mouvement National Congolas, had other ideas. He would get his chance to show why when the white commander of the Force Publique, Emile Janssens, let it be known to the black members of the army that, regardless of their independence, the status quo would remain the same. It wouldn’t.
A full scale mutiny would take place soon after and Janssens looked to Lumumba to authorize the deployment of Belgian troops to bring back and maintain order. Lumumba would instead remove Janssens from his position and promote all of the black men serving in the army, including installing Joseph-Desire Mobutu as the army chief of staff. This move would fail to quell the uprising in the army’s ranks and soon white civilians were being openly attacked. This would see Belgium to send in its own troops to protect those citizens fleeing from the escalating violence, a move that did not sit well with Lumumba as he saw it as an encroachment against his sovereignty.
When the Belgian-supported Katangan secessionists led by Moise Tshombe broke away from the Congo, Lumumba would take this opportunity to approach the UN for assistance but his request was quickly rejected. Next he would approach the US who had heavily invested in the Congo after WWI, mining its resources like gold, diamonds, copper, tin, cobalt, and zinc. During WWII, the Congo would become an even more important resource for the Americans as it was a rich source of uranium. Despite this, Eisenhower’s administration would wholly reject Lumumba approach as they believed his political ideology was more in line with the Soviet Union.
After the Americans failed to help, Lumumba traveled to the Soviet Union to seek their assistance. Joseph Kasa-Vubu, leader of the rival party Alliance des Bakongo, who had been installed as president by the Congolese Parliament, saw this move as an act of treason and called for Lumumba’s immediate arrest. This event would make Eisenhower’s administration take notice as they believed that the Congo was on the brink of becoming Africa’s first communist state, so decided to back Mobutu in a coup attempt. Despite the support of the Americans the coup would fail and the country would devolve into five years of violence and chaos which ultimately resulted in Lumumba’s imprisonment and subsequent execution by firing squad on 17th January 1961.
His death and the general instability in the country would spark waves of political riots and violence as groups splintered into different political factions until a second coup took place in 1965. Mobutu’s seizure and consolidation of power would be successful this time and by 1966 he was proclaimed as the nation’s “Second National Hero” after Lumumba, despite playing a large hand (with the help of the Belgian authorities) in the capture and murder of his predecessor. He quickly assumed almost absolute power and would establish a brutal dictatorship that would endure until he was overthrown and exiled by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) in 1997. It’s estimated that around 100,000 perished during the crisis and Mobutu’s ruthless regime would add many more to that figure over the preceding three decades.
Cambodian Civil War
Beginning in 1967 and eventually ending in 1975, the Cambodian Civil War was another internal conflict the two superpowers would make international, much to the detriment of the Cambodian people. The stage would be set when Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had become king during French colonial rule, gained independence from France in 1953 and then abdicated in 1955 in order to directly participate in politics with his party The Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which roughly translates to The Popular Socialist Community, winning the general election that year and becoming prime minister.
This move was welcomed at first as Sihanouk’s policies were considered quite progressive but he would soon find himself in the talons of the American eagle. In 1965, Sihanouk decided to break all ties with the US and instead turn to the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union for economic and military aid. Sihanouk made this move as he believed that eventually China would be the dominant force in the Indochinese Peninsula, if not the whole of Asia.
His policies would soon turn sour as he crushed political dissent and in 1960, declared himself Head of State. As the war escalated in neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia supposedly took a neutral stance but conflict would soon arise between the Communist Part of Kampuchea (more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge) the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also known as North Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia. With the support of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the United States, they hoped to oust communist influences from the country.
By 1970, Cambodia’s neutrality would be proven false when the US supported a coup to put a pro-American, anti-Vietnamese government in power. American involvement caused the North Vietnamese to act and they began moving their military installations to the northeastern part of the country to protect them from US bombers, essentially taking over that part of Cambodia. Whilst there, they would lend their support to a then little known guerrilla group, the Khmer Rouge. In response to the military build in in the northeast, the Kingdom of Cambodia would in turn increase their military presence in order to counteract the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge.
The US would increase their support for their allies in Cambodia and South Vietnam with financial support and an aerial bombing campaign. In response to this the Soviet Union would increase their support for the North Vietnamese helping them to invade Cambodia. The resulting war forced Prince Sihanouk to seek the help of the Khmer Rouge in order to resolve the conflict but that would soon backfire as the Cambodian coup of 1970 would oust him from power causing him to flee the country.
The United States desperately tried to return the the government they had backed to power but by April 1975 they had resigned themselves to defeat and pulled out of the country entirely, leaving the Khmer Rouge under the control of Pol Pot, to completely take over the country. This move by the US would usher in an age of genocide that would far outweigh the 300,000 people who had already lost their lives due to the civil war. Pol Pot’s regime would eventually oversee the deaths of over 2 million people.