Paul Thomas Chamberlin Shares Insights from His Research on The Cold War’s Killing Fields

“The survival of the free world is at stake.” — NSC-68

M26 Pershing tanks in Seoul during Korean War. Library of Congress. Public domain.

Just over a year ago I discovered an audio version of Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s well-researched and thoroughly engaging The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace in our local library. I listen to books while commuting, and from the getgo it was a compelling read. I was soon writing about it and ordered a copy of the hardback for ongoing research purposes.

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Public domain.

Ideas from this book have helped serve as a lens to better appreciate a number of other books I’ve read this past year including Seymour Hersh’s books and Ken Burns’ Vietnam, among others. I consider Chamberlin’s book important for any Baby Boomer who has grown up in this period of history as it helps us understand many of the events that formed a backdrop for our own personal histories from McCarthyism to the Space Race to the Concert for Bangladesh and the ongoing Middle East turmoil.

Paul Chamberlin is currently Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He taught for six years at the University of Kentucky after receiving his PhD from Ohio State University. He previously studied at the American University of Cairo and the University of Damascus and has held fellowships at Yale University and Williams College.

I recently reached out to the author as a means of learning more about this work and an excuse to keep talking about the so more people will read it.

EN: What was your motivation for writing The Cold War’s Killing Fields?

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Paul Thomas Chamberlin. Photo, Ross Yelsey

Paul Thomas Chamberlin: There was a general consensus among historians that post-1945 era conflicts took place in the so-called Third World. Nevertheless, it struck me that we didn’t have a clear idea of where, when, or how — precisely — these conflicts happened. The discussion was all generalities and few specifics aside from disconnected wars such as Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. I wanted to create a narrative map that would give a sense of shape to the heretofore shapeless violence of the Cold War age. In doing so, the book also suggests a new periodization to the post-1945 era and tries to suggest a sense of proportion to the era’s global patterns of violence.

EN: One of the key takeaways for me was that the so-called Cold War took place in the context of the post-Colonial era. That is, the World Wars 1 & 2 liberated the rest of the world’s peoples from the Colonial powers. How did this “revelation” become so clear for you? And why is it still not grasped?

PTC: Historians in my field are fairly accustomed to thinking about 1945 as a major transition in international affairs from a world of empires and colonies to a world of nation-states. Likewise, we often approach the Cold War in the context of decolonization. What I found in the course of my research, however, was that most of the era’s largest conflicts were not wars for decolonization — i.e. conflicts aimed at pushing out colonial powers. Indeed, most of the bloodiest wars took place inside postcolonial societies that had already driven out their colonizers. These battles, then, were struggles for control of postcolonial states. My sense is that, in general, most readers and diplomatic historians don’t always differentiate between decolonization and postcoloniality. Beyond this, Eurocentrism and Americentrism still tend to direct a lot of folks’ away from the wider world.

EN: I would like to have seen you apply this truth/reality in more depth to South American power struggles of the 50s to 80s. Are you working on a follow up on that topic?

PTC: Not at the moment, I’m currently working on a project that looks at the Second World War as a clash between competing imperial powers. The Latin American case is interesting, but I found that it didn’t quite fit into the story I was trying to tell. On the one hand, the casualty figures just weren’t there in Latin America. Though the region certainly saw more than its fair share of vicious wars, the body counts of the conflicts in Asia and the Middle East dwarfed those in Latin America. Moreover, the sort of conflicts that Latin America experienced as well as U.S. interventions in the region began long before 1945. As Latin American historians have argued, then, the conflicts taking place there weren’t really Cold War phenomena. Rather, they relate to a deeper history stretching back to the early 20th century and even the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. For more on this, it’s worth looking at Greg Grandin, Stephen Rabe, and Alan McPherson’s work.

EN: The great tragedy, as you point out repeatedly, is how damaging all this has been to the innocent civilians who are just trying to go about their business and survive. Why are our leaders so oblivious to the suffering they generate?

PTC: Nationalism teaches us to see the world as broken up into separate, national boxes. Leaders and the people they represent tend to care more about the deaths of their fellow countrymen and women than the deaths of foreigners. My guess is that this will remain the case so long as we remain unable to see ourselves as global citizens. The big challenge moving forward in this regard seems to be climate change. How do we put our common interests as humans above our narrow interests as Americans, Chinese, Russians, etc.? Unfortunately for the time being, it seems our narrow national consciousness maintains a pretty strong grip.

EN: How do American citizens properly process all this bad behavior by its own leaders?

PTC: I think it’s helpful to gain a better sense of history. It’s been my impression that officials have historically tended to act in good faith but their priorities were often rooted in short term interests and unfounded anxieties. This was certainly the case during the Cold War when exaggerated fears of the Soviet Union led the United States to militarize the Cold War and stage disastrous interventions in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. But fear and short-term thinking are powerful forces — I’m not sure how we can move past them.

EN: Who are some of the people whose voices you respect today?

PTC: That’s tough, there are so many. I think Timothy Snyder has had some interesting things to say in the last few years about our current situation. I’ll also listen to Rachel Maddow’s show when I have some time to check in on current American politics (albeit with a strong editorial take). I think Shoshona Zuboff’s Age of Surveillance Capitalism puts forward some interesting ideas.

EN: Can you recommend 2 or 3 books for further reading?

Off the top of my head, Odd Arne Westad’s Global Cold War and The Cold War: A World History cover some similar themes as my own book. Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide An Empire is another really interesting take on U.S. global power. Another book I’m looking forward to reading is Megan Black’s Global Interior which looks at the Department of the Interior as a paradoxical agent of American expansionism and globalism.

EndNote: Thank you, Paul. I believe you’ve made an important contribution toward better understanding our history.

Related Links

Killing Fields: New Book Proposes that the Cold War Wasn’t Really Cold, It Was Just Different
The Thích Quảng Đức Episode (A Snapshot from The Cold War’s Killing Fields)
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Revisited
The Cold War’s Killing Fields at Amazon
Korean War photo via Good Free Photos

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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