Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Stephanie Schoppert - January 8, 2017

The Cold War is so named because there was no large-scale fighting between the two sides and the two sides never declared war on each other…despite the obvious tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. But just because the United States and the Soviet Union did not directly go to war on their own soil, that does not mean that the two sides never fought.

The Cold War is now known for a number of proxy wars in which both the Soviet Union and the United States would support one side or the other in conflicts around the world. The goal of the United States was to stop the spread of communism while the Soviet Union wanted to spread communism in order to increase their own sphere of influence. Throughout the more than 4 decades of the Cold War, there were numerous proxy wars, some of which continue to this day and all of which have lasting repercussions.

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Congo Crisis

The Congo Crisis began when Belgian Congo became independent. Patrice Lumumba of the Mouvement National Congolas was elected Prime Minister and then Parliament chose Joseph Kasa-Vubu of the rival party Alliance des Bakongo as President. When Belgium granted the Republic of the Congo independence in 1960 they hoped that the Belgians within the country would keep their positions and maintain some control. However, the black members of the army mutinied when the white commander Emile Janssens told them that nothing would change. Instead of supporting Janssens’ attempts to maintain order and deploy Belgian troops, Lumumba promoted all the black men of the army and removed Janssens. Joseph-Desire Mobutu was made army chief of staff, but still, the mutiny only intensified. White civilians were attacked and eventually, Belgium sent in troops to protect fleeing civilians, an act that Lumumba found to be against his sovereignty.

To maintain order Lumumba went to the UN who did deploy troops but they would not intervene when two states succeeded from the Congo. Lumumba asked the UN forces to help get the secessionist states under control. When they refused, he approached the U.S. who also refused because they believed that Lumumba had communist leanings. With nowhere else to turn, Lumumba went to the Soviet Union, a move which Joseph Kasa-Vubu believed was an act of treason and ordered Lumumba’s arrest. Meanwhile, the U.S., seeing the involvement of the Soviet Union believed that the country was in the midst of a communist takeover. They decided to support Mobutu in a coup attempt. The first attempt failed and the country devolved into five years of instability. Lumumba was executed, political riots occurred regularly with groups supporting different political parties and angry that their elected leader had been assassinated. In 1965, Mobutu attempted a second coup and this time he successfully took power. Within a year, he had established a brutal dictatorship that lasted until 1997. An estimated 100,000 lives were lost in the crisis and many more during the reign of Mobutu.

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Korean War

Korea was ruled by Japan until the end of World War II when the Soviet Union liberated Korea north of the 38th parallel. The United States then liberated the South. In 1948 Korea was officially split into North and South Korea both with separate governments and both governments claiming to be the true government of all Korea. Neither government accepted the border of the 38th parallel. On June 25th, 1950 with the support of the Soviet Union and China, North Korea invaded South Korea with the goal of uniting the country. Twenty-one countries came to the aid of South Korea with the United States providing 88% of the troops deployed by the UN.

At first, North Korea had the upper hand, continuously pushing back the South Korean forces. The city of Seoul would change hands 4 times over the course of the conflict as the two sides continued to push back and forth over the front lines as both China, the Soviet Union and the United States increased forces to try and get the upper hand. For the last two years of the conflict, the war became one of attrition as the two sides fought over a front line that was not far from the 38th parallel. While the war on the ground failed to progress the war in the air was no contest. The Korean War was the first time jet fighters faced each other in air to air combat and the United States dominated over the Soviets. The fighting continued until an armistice was declared on July 27th, 1953.

The three years of the war were devastating to the new countries and the soldiers that fought on each side. More than 1 million people lost their lives, most of them being North and South Koreans. However, more than 33,000 Americans and over 110,000 Chinese also died in the fighting. Some estimates put the civilian deaths at over 2 million and the military deaths at up to 1 million.

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

First Indochina War

The First Indochina War was one of the first proxy wars of the Cold War. During World War II, Japan invaded and took control of Vietnam which was part of French Indochina. Yet just a few months later on August 22nd, 1945 Japan surrendered but since they were the only troops capable of maintaining control in the country they remained in Vietnam. Knowing that they were going to surrender control to the French anyway, the Japanese allowed the Viet Minh and other nationalist groups to take control of public buildings and weapons.

In September of 1945, Ho Chi Minh, a leader within the Viet Minh, claimed that due to the exploitation of the Japanese and poor weather, a famine killed more than 2 million Vietnamese. In response, the Viet Minh arranged a relief effort to help the poor and starving in the north. This resulted in massive support for the Viet Minh over Vichy France in north Vietnam. In 1946, the French forces who came to re-take control of Vietnam were outnumbered, but they had superior weapons and support from the Navy. This allowed them to retake the capital and force the Viet Minh to far-flung areas. A guerrilla war ensured for years until 1949 when the French granted Vietnam “independence” as an associated state in the French Union.

The Viet Minh still denounced the government put in place by the French because it was not complete independent. In 1949 the United States began providing military aid to France. By 1950, China and the Soviet Union declared Ho Chi Minh the rightful leader of Vietnam and began providing more military aid. Fighting continued for years until the Geneva Conference in 1954 divided the country into North and South Vietnam. Including civilians, military and Viet Minh as many as 800,000 people were killed in the conflict.

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Cambodian Civil War

The Cambodian Civil War was a very complicated conflict that began in 1967 and continued until 1975. It was between the Communist Party of Kampuchea (which became known as the Khmer Rouge) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also known as North Vietnam) and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Cambodia would come to be supported by the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the United States.

In 1970, the conflict escalated when the United States sponsored a coup and put a pro-American, anti-Vietnamese government in power. This ended any chance of Cambodian neutrality in the Vietnamese war. In order to protect their military installations from U.S. bombing, the North Vietnamese began moving them further within Cambodia and therefore taking over the northeastern part of the country. At the same time, they began providing assistance to the Khmer Rouge which was little more than a small guerrilla movement at the time. In response, the Kingdom of Cambodia began building up its military in order to combat the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge.

The United States wanted to prevent the spread of communism to Cambodia and protect their ally in South Vietnam. Therefore, they entered the conflict with aerial bombing campaigns and financial aid. The Soviet Union supported the North Vietnamese and even gave the go-ahead for the invasion of Cambodia. The resulting civil war destroyed the country so much that Prince Sihanouk eventually decided to ally himself with the Khmer Rouge in order to try and stop the war that was killing hundreds of thousands of people. Despite the efforts of the United States to protect and restore the government that they had put in place, they declared all to be lost by April of 1975. The Americans completely pulled out of the country and the Khmer Rouge under the control of Pol Pot took over the country. An estimated 300,000 people were killed in the fighting but an estimated 2 million were killed by Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Angolan Civil WarSix of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

The Angolan Civil War started as a civil war within Angola, then became a proxy war and then after the end of the cold war became just a civil war again. The conflict lasted from 1975 until 2002 with only a few brief periods of peace and relative stability. Over the decades of war more than 500,000 people were killed. The civil war began soon after Angola gained independence from Portugal. There were three main political groups within the country and they represented the three main ethnic groups within the country. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) consisted of the Ambundu people, and was an offshoot of the Angolan Communist Party and was therefore supported by the Soviet Union, Cuba and other African countries. The National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) was rooted with the Bakongo people and was supported by Zaire and the People’s Republic of China. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was formed by the Ovimbundu people.

When war broke out the United States sought to prevent the spread of communism within Africa and was willing to spend millions in order to prevent from the MPLA from winning. President Ford in 1975 began funneling money to UNITA and FNLA, he hoped that he would be able to hide the millions that he was sent from the American people. By the 1980s the war continued to escalate and became a major proxy war of the Cold War. In 1984 the USSR sent more than $2 billion in aid to help the MPLA. Cuba and other Eastern bloc nations also increased their support for the MPLA in Angola throughout the 80s which prompted a bigger response from the U.S. Periods of stability and strife continued until 2002 when an agreement was finally reached between UNITA and the MPLA.

Six of the Deadliest Proxy Wars of the Cold War

Vietnam War or Second Indochina War

The start of the Vietnam War followed soon after the First Indochina War and some people just choose to group both wars together. For the Vietnamese, the war is known as the Resistance War Against America. Following the end of the First Indochina War, the country went through a period of transition where about 1 million people fled to the North Vietnam out of fear of being prosecuted by the communist Viet Minh. Another 2 million would have fled if they had not been prevented by the Viet Minh. From 1953 until 1956 the Viet Minh put forth a number of reforms which included massive political oppression that ended in thousands of executions. South Vietnam followed a regime of political oppression and blamed any problems within the country on the communists. Fighting broke out in South Vietnam due to the strict regime and in the 1960s the United States continued supporting South Vietnam on the belief they would be able to suppress the guerrilla movement.

The guerrilla warfare intensified, however, and President Kennedy decided to send in more than 16,000 military troops in 1963. By 1964 the number of Viet Cong had grown to 100,000 and the number of members of the South Vietnam army rose to nearly 1 million. However, the number of American troops remained at less than 20,000. But by the end of 1965, nearly 200,000 U.S. Marines were deployed in South Vietnam in order to provide defense against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. The war continued to escalate on all sides as the Viet Cong got support from communist countries and the U.S. under President Johnson refused to lose the fight against communism.

By 1970, the American public had grown tired of the disastrous war in which no progress was made and too many American lives were lost. So Nixon moved to remove troops from Vietnam and work toward peace between North and South Vietnam. The war officially ended on April 30th, 1975. More than 2 million soldiers died and as many as 2 million civilians lost over the course of the nearly 2 decades of war.