The Cold War as social mechanism: toward an analysis of Cold War Asia, not of the Cold War in Asia

What was the Cold War? The simple definition would likely be a 20th century international confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, which involved first Europe, and then Asia, Africa, and Latin America, eventually dividing the world into two camps. The key players of this global conflict are generally noted as a number of high-ranking policymakers, including Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. We know this story. However, the full story is not so simple. It is time to change our ways of thinking about the Cold War.

THE PROBLEM WITH EXISTING LITERATURE is that there is a general tendency toward a particular division of labor among scholars. Diplomatic historians attempting to elucidate the shaping of the Cold War normally focus on policymakers’ calculations, while social and cultural historians focus on the effects of the Cold War on society, culture, and the daily lives of ordinary people. Likewise, Asian specialists look for elements of the Cold War in Asia, exploring how the global conflict impacted that continent without contemplating what the Cold War really was. Looking at these trends, therefore, one might end up with the following impressions: policymakers’ conduct shaped the Cold War, which, in turn, had enormous aftereffects on ordinary people’s daily lives, and Asia was an end recipient of the global confrontation.

Yet, more needs to be examined, because such impressions are largely myths. I would like to discuss why we should think about an analysis of ‘Cold War Asia’ (Asia during the Cold War), instead of the conventional approach of examining the Cold War in Asia. In doing so, I will discuss how such an analysis will be useful for the reexamination and reinterpretation of the global Cold War, itself. This article may also suggest one possible direction for rethinking Asian Studies, as a whole, within a global context. Before discussing the Cold War, however, let us look at what was going on in postwar-Asia.

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