Wars both Hot and Cold are on the American radar lately.
On the Cold front, Ken Burns’ 10-episode, 18-hour documentary The Vietnam War finished its heavily-hyped, two-week run on PBS not long ago. That was quickly followed by the declassification of 1960s files from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, revealing that the anti-communist purge, which killed several hundred thousand people, was secretly supported by America.
On the Hot front, we had the feud between POTUS and Senator Bob Corker, which intensified earlier in October when the retiring Republican senator lashed out at the rashness of our president’s foreign policies, saying they are putting us “on the path towards World War III.”
Then there is the front at once Hot and Cold: Korea, which was partitioned into North and South by the Cold War. The name-calling between “The Dotard” and “Rocket Man” – U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un respectively, in labels they gave each other – had been highly entertaining, but their feud is infinitely more worrisome than the Trump-Corker version. With nuclear weapons, big mouths and at least one oversized ego in the mix, this current Cold feud may very well realize the fear that informs the Hot one.
After all these years, all the devastation and all the suffering, the Cold War that has yet to end may actually turn Hot. The end of history this is not.
Burns’ documentary is but the latest chapter in America’s ongoing effort to come to terms with the Cold War. Despite all the hype and all the superlatives showered upon it by the mainstream press, it must be noted that, no matter how sweeping in scale and how ambitious in goal, treatises on historical events as complicated as the Vietnam War are necessarily incomplete and controversial. For history is never uncomplicated and seldom uncontroversial.
It is obvious Burns and co-director Lynn Novick had good intentions and expended exhaustive effort in their project. The Vietnam War rightfully triggered praises, criticisms and debates. I therefore won’t begrudge the program for what struck me as shallow objectivity, feel-good sincerity, disguised apologia for American atrocities and, most vividly, lip service to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people and total neglect of the injustice done to the Laotian and Cambodian people. Hopefully – yes, I can always hope – this will be dealt with in the future.
It’s also obvious The Vietnam War cannot come close to Burns’ declared goal of bringing America together. The polarization that has plagued America for quite some time is not showing any signs of waning, to say the least. Instead, Burns or no Burns, the dividedness and animosity have only intensified. Even Republican senators are feuding with a Republican president.
And the show’s indifference to the woes of the Asian people, which could only have been much more severe than what Americans experienced, brings up another disturbing concern: that more atrocities may be visited upon Asian people by the West, this time around, namely America.
America is the most powerful nation in the world, with an overwhelming military advantage. America also has a tendency to get into wars with a simplistic right-vs.-wrong, us-vs.-them mentality, which feeds into an economic-political structure that entwines national interests with corporate interests, leading to foreign policies that are out of balance. President Dwight Eisenhower saw it coming more than half a century ago. The general who led us to WWII victory warned us about it at the end of his presidency, calling it the military-industrial complex.
Most Americans are familiar with the maxim “power corrupts, absolute power absolutely corrupts.” Yet, we are more eager to direct other nations to the second half of that phrase than to aim its first half at ourselves. We seem oblivious to the damage our exercises in power can bring, and already have brought, to other nations.
Vietnam, like Korea, was partitioned largely because of the Cold War. The Vietnam War, essentially a continuation of the Vietnamese people’s quest for sovereignty and dignity, was escalated by America on a dominoes theory proven to be utterly wrong in strategic terms and heartlessly atrocious in moral terms. Yes, Americans suffered. But let’s not forget that the Vietnamese suffered more. Much more.
Then there are the Indonesian people, estimated to be half-a-million strong, massacred in the 1960s by the military in an anti-communist campaign, clandestinely aided by the U.S. government. This issue, though it did not receive nearly as much attention as the Vietnam War, is an emphatic illustration of the disastrous consequences the West, America included, has exacted upon the Asian people in the name of lofty beliefs and—let’s not kid ourselves – self interests.
It is important to remember that communism and Marxism are ideologies developed in the West. Endeavors by non-Western peoples like the Indonesians and the Vietnamese to adopt communism as a political system were therefore attempts at Westernization. Those attempts, in turn, were largely reactions to the West forcing its way onto their land, robbing them of their dignity and exploiting their resources. All the Westernization efforts by non-Western peoples made in roughly the last 150 years cannot be considered without taking into account those horrific activities.
Yes, most Asian and other non-Western ways needed to change, one way or another. Things change, as a matter of fact. But changes are often difficult and drastic changes often traumatic. We Americans only need to take a good look at ourselves over the past few decades to understand that. When changes are forced or aided, even just encouraged, by foreign forces, they usually become more traumatic.
The Cold War was started largely, if not entirely, by Western powers vying for dominance in maintaining a world order in their own image. That Asian and other non-Western people have suffered great damage as a result has been conveniently ignored, at least slighted, by the West. Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War is a ready and timely exemplification.
Which brings us back to the top of this piece, to the possibility of the Cold War turning Hot.
Nearly two years ago, at the start of the 2016 presidential election cycle, I wrote a couple of commentaries on the Cold War for the International Examiner, Seattle’s Asian Pacific Islander newspaper. As a film historian, I usually shied away from writing about politics but was compelled to voice my concerns. One major reason I spoke out was the unbalanced response I noted in America, and the West in general, to China’s rise on the world stage. I feared an impending new Cold War.
That was before no one but Steve Bannon gave Trump a narcissistic developer’s chance of winning the White House. And now, worries about World War III are on the lips of a Republican senator.
Civilization is marked by human beings learning from history, repeating history, and variations thereof, like “learning while repeating,” “repeating despite learning,” and so forth.
How much have we learned from the Cold War?
(At the request of Northwest Citizen publisher John Servais, I will try to update my International Herald comments on the pages here. Stayed tuned.)