War & Resistance‎ > ‎

Ch. 7 The Cold War and National Liberation Wars 1945 – 1989. The ‘post war’ wars

posted 4 May 2011, 11:39 by Admin uk   [ updated 5 May 2011, 08:30 ]

We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face.

John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State, 1953-19591

I am Fidel Castro and we have come to liberate Cuba.

Fidel Castro on meeting the first peasant after landing with Granma on Cuba in 19562

After the Second World War, a new global situation developed. Germany and Japan lay in ruins. France and Britain had been on the decline as great powers for some time. Although they were formally speaking on the winning side, they emerged severely weakened. For the US, things were dif­ferent. American factories and infrastructure were intact and running at full speed. The US government was able to dictate the terms for world trade, and the dollar was the global currency. In 1950, the US alone accounted for 40% of global GDP (Gross Domestic Product).3 Finally, after two world wars, a depression and numerous minor wars, the imperialist system had arrived at a relatively stable global division of power. However, this did not mean the end of wars. Just new types of wars and new struggles against war.

With the US so dominant after the Second World War, trade barriers that did not suit them were steadily dismantled and world trade became the en­gine that hauled capitalism into a new expansive age. Due to working-class pressure, the rise in trade was accompanied by an increase in state inter­vention in the economy, and capitalism grew faster than ever. This rapid growth meant that profits also grew. The capitalists, anxious to avoid strikes and other disruptions, agreed to share some of it. Wages were raised. Wel­fare states began to develop, at least in Europe, where the labour movement was strong. For the time being (and only partially), capitalism had overcome what Marx had defined as the two intrinsic barriers to capitalist develop­ment – the nation-state and private property.

The United States’ all-powerful position in the capitalist world was a sta­bilizing factor, as it kept the other imperialist nations in check. A coun­terweight existed to curb the arrogance and autocratic behaviour that in­evitably result from such strength. This was provided by the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe (the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and East-Germany), where capitalism had been abolished and which were under Soviet domination.

The bureaucratic elite that ruled the Soviet Union had no need to expand once they had consolidated their spheres of influence. They were mainly interested in preserving the status quo (peace and quiet, no change). The atom bomb had changed the international situation, no individual capitalist could be sure of surviving a nuclear war. The outcome was MAD (Mutu­ally Assured Destruction). The two great powers divided the world into two equally matched power blocs.

Relative calm prevailed in many parts of the world, but below the surface there were simmering tensions and frequent conflicts between the US and the Soviet Union. This was known as the Cold War, as it never heated to open warfare between the superpowers. Basically, it was a trial of strength between two opposed social systems on a global scale: capitalism versus the planned economy. These differences were never settled. On the con­trary, they led to wars by proxy and a monstrous arms race that devoured enormous sums of money. Many people feared the worst on numerous occasions; at the time of the ‘Cuba crisis’ in 1962 there was a dramatic con­frontation between Moscow and Washington, but that eventually came to nothing. None the less, the situation was tense.

Workers who had suffered two world wars did not want a third global con­flict. And during the economic upswing that followed the Second World War, the working class grew dramatically in strength. Many former peasants and small businessmen were employed in industry. In Germany, for instance, the proportion of farmers and peasants declined from around 40% of the population prior to the Second World War to just 2% by the 1980’s. Countless small firms were put out of business by the major corporations. The work­ing class rapidly became more organized, and as a result Labour Parties were voted into office in many parts of Europe. Calls for disarmament and for an end to nuclear proliferation won increasing support. Big demonstrations were held in favour of nuclear disarmament in the late fifties and early sixties.

National wars of liberation

While relative stability reigned in the industrialized countries, the same could not be said of the poor countries of the world. Colonization led to the development of national consciousness in these regions, which in turn led to revolts. The countries of Latin America became independent as early as the 19th century, but ended up in the shadow of the increasingly power­ful United States. Colonies elsewhere were swept by a storm of popular uprisings after the Second World War. Hundreds of millions of oppressed people fought for national sovereignty and social justice in China, India, Indochina, and Africa. And they won.

Many third world countries paid a heavy price for their independence. In a later chapter we take up the indescribable brutality with which the struggle for independence in East Timor was met (and the deceitful role the United Nations played in that conflict).

But imperialist aggression was not only encountered during the actual strug­gle, but also, and often more so, after independence. Imperialists insinuated the tried and tested method of divide and rule into the very foundations of many newly independent states. This created the hotspots of international conflict that still exist to this day, for example the wars between India and Pakistan and the conflicts in the Middle East. Both are taken up in the fol­lowing chapters.

But even in those countries that succeeded in establishing reasonable sta­ble and coherent nation states their problems were far from over. Packing British or French generals off home, taking control of the administration and hoisting your own flag is one thing; it is quite another to compete on a capitalist basis with highly developed countries. In practice, freedom for the former colonies was the freedom to be exploited by the same imperialist companies as before independence. So in many places the fight for national and social liberation continued. Leaders such as Gamal Nasser in Egypt, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Ali Bhutto in Pakistan all called themselves ‘socialists’ and nationalised some sectors of the economy. When the term ‘Third World’ appeared in the 1950s, it was used specifically to describe developing coun­tries that remained outside the power blocs, and therefore had some room to manoeuvre between the US and the Soviet Union.

In countries such as China, Cuba and Angola, the movement went much further. There, an army of peasants and students, a guerrilla movement, overcame the old order of rich landowners and capitalists. In other places, such as Syria, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, where the working class was very weak, groups of officers seized power and abolished capitalism. They were the only group with sufficient cohesion to act against the disintegra­tion of society.

None of these movements were under democratic control and they actively opposed the organisations of the working class. They were inspired by the successes of the Soviet Union, and later China, and established regimes that were very similar to the one in the Soviet Union. However, when small im­poverished countries declared themselves socialist, it was not at the initiative of the Soviet Union. The bureaucrats in Moscow, as noted, wanted nothing to upset the prevailing world order, and leftist revolts meant conflicts with the Western powers. Once the revolts began, the Soviet leaders did provide support, albeit reluctantly. After all, such developments did strengthen their country’s position in the world.

The Soviet Union dominated its allies politically and militarily, but it is wrong to suggest that it pursued imperialist policies. Except for the imme­diate post-war period, it did not exploit its satellite states economically. On the contrary, it subsidized them for years, and living standards were gener­ally higher in the countries of Eastern Europe than in the Soviet Union. Soviet oil was sold to the East European states at greatly reduced prices, and goods were purchased from members of the COMECON (the East European equivalent of the EU) at prices above those charged in the world market. Cuba alone received subsidies worth a million US dollars a day from the 1960s up until the collapse of the Soviet Union.4

The new Stalinist regimes in the Third World introduced reforms in such areas as healthcare and education, so they were popular. The Revolutionary Council that seized power in Afghanistan in 1978, for instance, wrote off small farmers’ and leaseholders’ debts to loan sharks and big landowners, and redistributed land to poor peasants. The Council also banned the patri­archal tradition of selling young women as brides, and launched a literacy campaign for men and women.

The imperialist powers were worried by the spread of Soviet type states throughout the world. The US responded by intervening militarily, on 40 occasions since the Second World War.5 Among the best known interven­tions were the Vietnam War, the CIA-sponsored coup in Chile in 1973 and American involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Apart from numerous military interventions, a common US tactic was to build up and sponsor fundamentalist groups. For the American Govern­ment, the ruling principle was ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. This was first applied in the 1950s when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and ap­peared to be bringing Egypt under the wing of the Soviet Union. The US subsequently applied the same tactics against all leftist governments that came to power in Muslim countries.

In Afghanistan, in particular, the fundamentalists were supplied with huge amounts of weapons and money by the US and by reactionary Arab states. This funding was channelled primarily through the CIA and the Pakistani security service, the ISI. In the spirit of the US administration, the film Rambo III portrayed the fundamentalists as freedom fighters. The US turned a blind eye to the fundamentalist opium fields, as long as they con­ducted their Jihad (holy war) against the leftist government and the Soviet Union. Where US backed right-wing dictators were in power, such as Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, fundamentalists’ armed gangs were allowed to attack labour demonstrations, meetings and activists.

Imperialist manoeuvres and wars against countries that, despite their lack of democracy, were lifting millions of people out of poverty and disease in­spired big anti-imperialist movements in the advanced countries. The fight against the Vietnam War was in the centre of this movement. It is taken up in a later chapter. It was a unique period in world history and therefore the movement against the war was uniquely successful.


1 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,861876-2,00.html

2 Sebastian Balfour: Castro, 2000

3 National Bureau for Economic Research, March 1977

4 Ted Grant: Russia from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, 1997

5 www.adbusters.org/magazine/39/interventions