Rana Mitter “The War that Split the World” — Diplomatic History

Cold War Crucible explores an intriguing central thesis: what if many of the widely-held assumptions about the nature of the Cold War were based on mis.conceptions? This book is “about” the Korean War, but not in the sense of being a blow-by-blow account of the confrontation between North Korea and China and the U.S.-led UN forces. Rather it interprets the Korean War as the turning point in the early Cold War, the transformative event that made space for a variety of confrontational social developments in societies around the globe affected by the Cold War. Rather than assuming that a “global Cold War” emerged after 1945 and then shaped national societies, Masuda argues that a constructed and rather protean idea of the Cold War emerged in a variety of societies, and was then projected outward more widely. In other words, the Cold War did not necessarily create divisions within societies, but rather in.uenced existing social divisions in societies as far apart as Taiwan, China, Japan, the UK, and the United States in terms of a constructed “Cold War” that was made more concrete by different interpretations of Korea. In some ways, the book echoes Jeremi Suri’s ground.breaking Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of De´tente (2003), which likewise combined social and international history to stimulating effect. Overall, Masuda has written an innovative, ambitious, and immensely valuable study.

Masuda’s book is divided into several sections. The .rst, “The Repercussions,” examines the local manifestations of Cold War tensions in a variety of settings, including the Hawaiian labor market, the U.S. civil rights movement, and Occupation-era Japan. The second section, “The Social,” examines the way in which different societies, including China and Japan, experienced the Korean War, and how those experiences were often at variance with the narrative of an emergent superpower struggle between the United States and the USSR. The third section, “The Simultaneity,” examines movements of social con.ict in a variety of states (including Taiwan, the United States, and Britain). Overall, the work is based on prodigious research, including archives in China, Japan, the United States, India, and the UK, among other sources.

Masuda makes a subtle and important argument: that too many historians have taken the Cold War as a given and assumed that local circumstances generated variations on a “global Cold War.” His case studies give us valuable insights into a whole variety of different phenomena from the early Cold War period. Some of the most original and fascinating material comes from local archives in China, which record the attitudes of ordinary Chinese faced with the Korean War for the .rst time. “Also join the Volunteer Army?” asked one worker, who was clearly con.icted, despite the strong of.cial pressure to support the war. “No, I cannot!” he declares, and continues, “My mind is messed up …I don’t have such a spirit of self-sacri.ce,” although he then adds: “It’s really painful to me” (p. 115). Over and over again, Masuda shows that many social confrontations that have been attrib.uted to the Cold War owed a great deal of their force to pre-existing social ten.sions. Thus, the Marxist movement in Japan in the late 1940sand early 1950swas in large part a continuation of the prewar engagement with Marxism that marked both Japanese intellectual circles and some parts of the trade union movement. In Taiwan, existing tensions between mainlanders and Taiwanese Chinese were al.ready .aring before the “loss” of China in 1949 (leading to the atrocities of February 28, 1947, when Kuomintang Nationalist authorities killed or imprisoned much of the island’s indigenous elite). Nor does Masuda neglect “diplomatic his.tory” in the more traditional sense. One of his most forceful sections is on the origins of the Korean War. Here, Masuda rejects the idea that Mao was subjected to major pressure to enter the Korean War. Rather, he argues that Stalin was cautious and that Mao “wavered” about his decision to go into Korea, before deciding to do so, rather to Stalin’s surprise.

The thesis of the book is stimulating and certain to provoke debate. One area that will be discussed is whether looking at the Cold War through the lens of domestic social history may devalue the idea of a wider Cold War even where it can still be useful. Masuda contrasts the idea of the Cold War as social construct with the traditional idea of the era as one of superpower rivalry. However, there are also other ways to view the Cold War, for instance, as a clash of two different versions of Enlightenment modernity (crudely put, modernization theory versus Marxism). While both of these ideas can also be critiqued further (as in Odd Arne Westad’s outstanding The Global Cold War [2006]), they do show ways in which transnational forces help us to understand how the Cold War was imagined beyond locally-in.ected interpretations. Also, I wonder whether some of Masuda’s interpretations of social history may be overly gloomy, by suggesting that pushback during the early Cold War was a means for elites and conservative forces to reject changes that had occurred during the war years in particular. Epiphenomenally, this was cer.tainly so, whether it was McCarthyism in the United States or the “Red Purge” in Japan. Yet the longer and deeper changes that underpinned social change at this time could not be denied for long; McCarthyism was followed by a liberal ascend.ancy in the United States (the Warren Court, Great Society, 1965 Civil Rights Act) that would not seriously reverse until the 1980s. Even under the “Red Purge,” Japan was anchored in a constitutional democracy that was stable in a way alien to its rickety 1920s forebears, not to mention the authoritarian state of the 1930s, again, as it turned out, irreversibly (so far). This is particularly evident when turn.ing to the British case study, where the arrest of trade unionists in the early 1950sis given as evidence of a British “reverse course.” Yet these arrests took place in a Britain hugely changed from the time of the General Strike of 1926 when swinge.ing anti-union moves were implemented. By 1951, the election of a Conservative government could not reverse the ascendancy of a powerful trade union movement (already by 1959 the Boulting Brothers were satirizing union power in the .lm I’m All Right Jack), a socialized health service, and widespread state ownership of key industries. If there was a conservative counterblast, it recovered little of the ground gained by progressive forces during the Second World War.

However, even if speci.c arguments in the book will be subject to debate for years to come, there is no doubt of Masuda’s overall achievement. This is a superb work that bridges international and social history, underpinned by highly impres.sive research, to make arguments of real importance for our understanding of the Cold War.

—Diplomatic History, Vol. 39,No. 5 (2015).


Advance Access publication on September 18, 2015