Violence, Structural Change, and Absences in New Histories of the Cold War

This essay is part of a forum on new histories of the Cold War. All contributions to the forum can be found here.

Thanks again to Drs. Colbourn, El-Fadl, and Krepp for taking part in this conversation. I sincerely look forward to discussing these books with the three of you. I’d also like to thank the editorial assistant for Humanity, Matthew Liberti, for proofreading this initial exchange.

There are so many potential areas I’d like to touch on in our discussion: how these books build on previous generations of Cold War history by John Lewis Gaddis and Odd Arne Westad; how they speak to recent attempts to “re-center” the United States in the history of the Cold War; and how they reflect the increasing availability of archival materials from locales like Beijing, New Delhi, and Belgrade. Given that they appear against the background of a pandemic that has almost totally curtailed traditional research trips to archives, I think there might also be an opportunity here to reflect on whether there is even a future for these kinds of big, multi-archival, synthetic books, as the historical profession reflects on the opportunities of digitization and the climate costs of long-distance travel. Finally, I’d love not least to discuss how you see your own work in the mirror of these books—and what lessons you take from Spohr’s, Lüthi’s, and Chamberlain’s interventions as you either complete your first projects or deliberate on future projects. There are, in short, any number of directions in which I would look forward to guiding our audio conversation.

That all being said, I’d like to start by focusing on two issues that run through Lüthi and Chamberlain’s books in particular, but also feature in Spohr’s work, as well, namely how historians of the Cold War conceive of violence and structural change. One entry point to these questions might be the place of Latin America in histories of the Cold War—and its near total absence in these histories. Chamberlain grounds his geographical emphasis in terms of an arc of violence that saw the most fatalities associated with the Cold War, as well as the patterns of foreign aid that flowed to “the Asian rim.” “79 cents out of every dollar the United States sent to the non-Western world during the Cold War went to either the Middle East or Asia,” writes Chamberlain; the numbers for Soviet aid are similar (10-11). Lüthi follows Chamberlain’s logic in noting that Asia, the Middle East, and Europe “stood at the geographic frontline of the Cold War, where the largest number of conflicts and the most lethal ones occurred” (7) but adds that it was “primarily these three regions that generated the structural changes which enabled the superpowers to end the global Cold War in the late 1980s” (8). Spohr, for her part, is concentrated on relations between the Bush Administration and governments in Europe and Asia. Events like the American invasion of Panama feature primarily as protests from an impotent Mikhail Gorbachev criticizing Washington’s double standards in terms of regime change (196). She concurs with Lüthi in seeing little structural change emanating from the region in the 1980s.

I find many of these arguments convincing, but I also think that we might probe how these three books assign weight to different kinds of mass violence and how they theorize the sources of structural change, implicitly or explicitly. A conflict like the Salvadoran Civil War did not, for instance, lead to deaths on the scale of the Soviet-Afghan war (close to 1 million deaths) or the Iran-Iraq War (680,000 killed). Yet, 80,000 deaths in a small country like El Salvador amounted to an equivalent of some 1-2% of the entire population of the country Beyond these issues of proportionality, the violence inflicted in Chamberlain’s “killing fields” was often carried out across very different lines of killers and victims: ideology (in the case of the massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party); sectarianism (the Lebanese Civil War); nationality (the Bangladesh Liberation War); and others. And as Central America’s civil wars show, these factors can overlap. What appeared to be ideological conflicts were often wars between very different social classes reflecting indigenous or mestizo interests. To what extent should historians of the Cold War follow the absolute number of victims, and to what extent should we devote special attention to conflicts like El Salvador or East Timor with higher per-capita fatalities?

Latin America’s presence or absence in new histories of the Cold War ought also to spur us to think about how we conceive of structural forces that ended the Cold War. One useful reminder of recent histories like these as well as Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History is that not every event that happened from 1945-1989 was part of the Cold War per se. Any meaningful definition of the Cold War must acknowledge how late-twentieth-century developments like financial globalization, the rise of political Islamism, or the transformations of the Roman Catholic Church influenced the systemic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, but were not synonymous with it.

Yet I wonder how our narratives of the Cold War might look different if they centered not only the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965—which both Chamberlain and Lüthi see as critical—but also the aftermath of the coup d’état against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. In Chamberlain’s telling in particular, the bloodbath in Indonesia dampened Chinese revolutionary visions for Southeast Asia, while other recent histories such as Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method point out that the destruction of Indonesian Communism encouraged left-wing parties worldwide to abandon gradualist theories of political change in favor of coups. Yet if Lüthi rightly assigns great importance to the destruction of the left in regional powers like Indonesia (1965) or Iran (1983), I wonder why the destruction of a “peaceful road to socialism” in Chile might not also figure into this narrative. The Chilean coup d’etat had implications for how Latin American leftist movements and Southern European political parties thought about political change. And the success or failure of these movements also influenced Soviet and American perceptions about the direction the Cold War was headed in in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One issue we might discuss, then, is how these books conceive of structural change within the Cold War and the relative prominence or marginality of certain regions in driving that change. Unpacking those assumptions, it seems to me, might open up a fruitful discussion on the connections and borders between area studies, regional histories, and international histories of the Cold War.

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