chapter  9
19 Pages

The Cold War and nationalism in Southeast Asia: British strategy, 1948–60

ByPETER LOWE

The Labour government headed by Clement Attlee established the basic approach, followed subsequently by the Conservative administrations led by Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. This approach may be defined as combining recognition of the legitimacy of the aspirations advanced by nationalist movements with an appreciation of the urgency of preventing communism from assuming control of nationalism.1 Some on the left of the Labour party believed that colonial empires should be liquidated with reasonable speed as a matter of principle; the centre and right of the party, particularly when Labour was in government, responded pragmatically and was influenced by the strength of nationalist movements in the areas concerned and by how vital any specific area might be in the short-term viability of the British economy. Thus, it was understood by Attlee and his principal colleagues that independence must be granted in the Indian sub-continent, Ceylon and Burma, since the alternative would be violence on a large scale, which could not be countered with the resources available.2 Mistakes were made in the immediate postwar readjustments in underestimating the developing strength of the forces challenging the empire but realism then prevailed. By contrast, there was no suggestion of extending independence to Malaya in the aftermath of the Pacific War. Malaya was an essential dollar-earner: Attlee promised eventual independence in a statement issued in 1949 but with no date stipulated when this would take effect.3 Ironically the ensuing Conservative governments reached the conclusion that the price to be paid for containing communism successfully in Malaya and ensuring stability was willingness to grant independence at a much earlier date than had been contemplated by the Attlee government.4 Labour and Conservative administrations were influenced by the major blunders committed by the Netherlands and France in their respective endeavours to reoccupy their colonies in Indonesia and Indo-China.5 The process of grasping the magnitude of these blunders was compounded by rueful acknowledgement of the invidious British role in assisting the return of the Dutch and the French in 1945-46.6 The delicacy of the challenges facing British ministers and officials was accentuated by the centrality of Britain’s relationship with the United States. The experience of joint cooperation during the wars in Asia and the Pacific, between December 1941 and August 1945, revealed the friction resulting from the

common awareness of expanding American power and Britain’s reduced status: Christopher Thorne and Richard Aldrich have demonstrated the ambiguous relations between ‘allies of a kind’.7 American passion for liberating colonial peoples was at its most fervent when Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House. The deterioration in relations with the Soviet Union, marking the onset of the Cold War, caused Harry Truman to modify anti-colonialism. However, it remained a significant influence in the perceptions and conduct of American politicians and officials, seasoned with the confident belief that the United States could achieve far more than the old European empires.8 Unhappily American initiatives were frequently distinguished by an absence of subtlety and an oversimplification, which undermined the attainment of the aims cherished in Washington and London. The start of the communist rebellion in Malaya, in the summer of 1948, marked the growth of a wider British anxiety concerning the defence of Southeast Asia as a region.9 The continued resistance of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the re-imposition of French colonialism underlined the common apprehension that indigenous communist movements, assisted by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, could triumph in the region with fatal consequences for the West in the Cold War.10 The outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950, stimulated new tension, rendered far graver by Communist China’s entrance into the Korean conflict in October-November 1950.11 In August 1950 Anglo-French discussions addressed the scope of the external and internal threats.12 Intelligence was exchanged and mutual briefings were given concerning the communist campaigns in Malaya and Indo-China. France desired closer cooperation with Britain and the United States: this should embrace propaganda of a nature calculated to influence the significant Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The danger of a Chinese invasion via two possible routes was identified: this could be implemented across the northern frontier of Tonkin or/and along the Burma-Siam border. French intelligence indicated that approximately 100,000 Chinese troops were stationed within two days’ march of the frontier; the maximum notice of a Chinese invasion was anticipated as two weeks. French forces would act defensively if the Chinese attacked: the French were perturbed at the contingency of a Chinese offensive via Burma and Siam. They estimated that in the dry season (November-April) an infantry force could reach the borders of Indo-China within twenty-one days of crossing the Burma frontier.13 Further discussions in September 1950 comprised candid exchanges in which the French admitted that the internal and external difficulties in Indo-China were worsening: they advanced what later became celebrated as the ‘domino theory’ – the whole of Southeast Asia could fall if Indo-China fell. The burden falling on the French army was large and increasing with obvious implications for French commitments in Europe.14 The United States became heavily involved in meeting the bulk of the cost of the war against communism in Indo-China between 1950 and 1953. In the course of discussions with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the State Department in August 1952 it was made clear that the United States was extremely reluctant to contemplate a form of regional

organisation, including coordination of defence policy in Southeast Asia. The JCS expressed the opinion that the American people would not tolerate another Korean-type situation, leading to the commitment of US forces in IndoChina.15 Britain and France worked to secure a US commitment and viewed the development of five-power coordination as the most effective means of bolstering Western defence in the region. Anxiety was voiced at the bellicose feelings expressed at senior levels of the US navy towards China. While the British wanted improved planning to combat aggression, they did not relish the prospect of cavalier conduct by American admirals, not dissimilar to the behaviour of General MacArthur in Korea to which they had taken strong exception.16 It was reported in August 1952 that ‘The United States Navy are a law unto themselves, and the influence of Admiral Radford (their C-in-C., in the Pacific), is believed to be very powerful in favour of their “all-out policy against China”.’17 The rapid decline of the French position in Tonkin, associated with growing concern over Laos, led, reluctantly, to the conclusion that partition in Vietnam might be the least unsatisfactory solution: it ‘might salvage more from the general wreck than any other’.18 The joint intelligence committee (JIC) devoted much time to deliberating on the importance of Indo-China and the dire consequences of its fall. Contingency plans for coping with a Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia were prepared and updated. In January 1953 revised timings for a Chinese invasion were submitted to the JIC: the Malayan frontier could be reached by the two invasion routes within four months and six months instead of the previous estimates, respectively, of five months and seven and a half months.19 A JIC report in February 1953 warned that experience in Korea had shown that it was dangerous to underestimate the Chinese: they had revealed ingenuity in surmounting logistical difficulties which could well have puzzled well-equipped Western armies. The Chinese army was the biggest in eastern Asia with a total strength of two and a half million: it could deploy 280,000 men in an invasion of Southeast Asia.20 The Foreign Office retained a consul-general in post in Hanoi after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had gained legitimacy at the Geneva conference in 1954. This facilitated limited contact with lower level DRV officials and obtaining of intelligence. The personality of Ho Chi Minh intrigued policy-makers. Ho was probably the only communist leader described in the Foreign Office as possessing considerable charm. Near the end of the year 1953, the JIC reflected on the prospects for encouraging ‘Anti-Soviet Communism’, building on the precedent of Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia.21 A revealing JIC memorandum reviewed the history of communist movements, which had broken with Moscow or displayed genuine independence. Yugoslavia was the conspicuous example where Tito had opposed Stalin and resisted Russian endeavours to penetrate the party machinery. Albania and China were identified as potential candidates for severing relations with the Kremlin. Where else might Titoism erupt? The gaze of the JIC alighted on Ho Chi Minh and the prospects were perceived as reasonably positive:

At first sight Ho has many of the attributes of Tito. He is not a Soviet creation in the sense that the leaders of eastern European countries are, and he has so far fought his own battles. He has, however, received much material assistance and encouragement from China and the USSR. His prestige is tremendously high in nationalist circles in Indo-China and elsewhere in Asia. Perhaps most important, there is a deep rooted antagonism in the Associate States to Chinese penetration. This antagonism might induce Ho Chi Minh, once established to pursue an independent policy . . . If Ho Chi Minh obtained control of Indo-China and showed signs of pursuing an independent policy, it would be to our interest to show him, as we showed Tito, that independence from Moscow and Peking would not leave him isolated.22