When studying the U.S. policy of proxy wars, the main option available is reading in between the lines. Since the whole point of fighting a proxy war is to not get involved with your main adversary directly, there is virtually no official documentation that refers to proxy wars. Instead, we have to look at the policies regarding known proxy wars, like Vietnam, and then infer what a war in Vietnam meant for the ultimate adversary, the U.S.S.R. In discussing the Cold War policy of proxy wars, it’s important to note that U.S. policy went through an arch. It started with simple aid, then evolved to boots on the ground, and then descaled back to aid. Up until 1947, the United States did not really involve itself in proxy wars. For the most part, all conflicts had been state v state, and it wasn’t until after WWII and the rise of the Soviet Union that the United States felt they had to tweak their foreign and military policy to better reflect the state of the world. The main instigator of proxy wars involving the United States was MAD (previously defined by the WMD group). Because the Soviet Union and the United States were so diametrically opposed, they were constantly gearing towards conflict, but they thought of nuclear war was enough to deter them both. Instead, they sought to spread their own spheres of influence which directly led them into proxy wars. While there A LOT of proxy wars during the cold war, I’m limiting my examples to the four which best exemplify the progression and subsequent regression of proxy wars: the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.
The Greek Civil WarThe first Post WWII proxy war did not involve soldiers from either the Soviet Union or the United States, but did set a precedent in U.S. foreign policy for the following Cold War decades. In 1947, President Harry Truman addressed Congress about the Greek Civil War, where Communists backed by Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria (allies of the USSR) were rising against the Western backed Greek government. Originally the United Kingdom was the Greek government’s only ally, sending weapons and money, but the U.K. was forced to back out in order to rebuild their own country after WWII, so they called on the United States. In his address, now known as the Truman Doctrine, Truman asked for $400,000,000 to give in aid to Turkey and Greece because “the free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world. And we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”[i] It’s important to note that while Truman spends most of his address describing the conditions in Greece and Turkey, he ends on the previous quote that is so general that it sets the stage to be applied in other areas around the world that might be threatened by communism. Also, at this point, with the United States still healing from its WWII wounds, he does not ask for boots on the ground, merely financial aid. Truman was successful, and Congress granted the aid, thus creating the first proxy war that the United States took part in during the Cold War. This intervention qualifies as a proxy war because both sides of the Greek Civil War were backed by larger states with opposing interests, and in this particular case, the United States was successful and the Communists were suppressed, which would directly inform the United States policy regarding the proxy Korean War.
Before we move on to the Korean War, it’s important to discuss containment. With the Truman Doctrine already in place, the next major policy to influence United States involvement in proxy wars was the NSC-68. The NSC-68 was a top secret document issued by the National Security Council in 1950 and signed by President Truman. This document outlined the policy of containment, which is well known as the policy to stop the spread of Soviet influence, but can also be construed as proxy war policy. It’s easy to state that containment is a policy to stop the spread of Soviet influence, but to make it a proxy war policy; we have to take it a step further and ask how do we stop the spread of Soviet influence? The answer in NSC-68 was to create “a substantial and rapid building up of strength in the free world….to check and to roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination.”[ii] The NSC-68 expanded upon strength to mean military strength, particularly troops in Europe poised to fight the Soviets back, and an all-around increase in military funding. This was the proxy war way of containment, and its first official test was the Korean War.
The Korean War
Not long after the NSC-68 was written the Korean War began, caused by the Communist North invading the democratic south, with the Communists supported by the Soviet Union. The U.S. could not let this stand, but they were still weary from WWII. With the North officially backed by the Soviet Union and the possibility of Communist China getting involved, it was clear that intervention would be a much greater commitment than the Greek Civil War. Not to mention the fact that Korea was hardly of strategic importance in the grand scheme of things. Thus, despite the new containment policy, Truman was wary of getting involved. Ultimately containment won out, but Truman initially tried to limit the U.S. involvement by only sending a few troops to Korea and “avoided characterizing the conflict as anything other than a ‘police action’ or charging the Russians with direct responsibility for it.”[iii] Nevertheless, as the Korean War went on, the policy for the proxy war became more dramatic as the Chinese got involved. Korea, though of little strategic import, was an ideological battle ground, and after three years of fighting, it ended where it started, at the 38th parallel. Where before the U.S. had victory, now it seemed they had a tie, which signaled a need for a more dramatic shift in policy. The next time the United States went to an ideological battle ground against the Soviet Union, they would not be so timid in their rhetoric or to commit military troops to the proxy war.
The Vietnam War
After the Korean War, tensions only escalated between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Involvement in Vietnam began the way most proxy wars do, with the President (Eisenhower at the time) sending funding and military equipment to the South Vietnamese, but a young politician ran on a stronger platform of crushing Soviet influence with military force. John F Kennedy won the election against Richard Nixon (who we’ll discuss in a moment) and immediately in his inaugural address called the United States to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,”[iv] a direct dig at the Soviet Union, and a suggestion that he was ready to send troops to any country under duress from Communism, which would instigate another proxy war. JFK has been quoted as saying “now we have a chance of making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place,”[v] a statement that directly reflects his proxy war policy, i.e. that he embraced it. Sure enough, Kennedy started pouring troops and aid into South Vietnam, which had a terrible army to begin with. This policy continued through LBJ, but for the first time in the Cold War, public opinion affect proxy war policy. The proxy war of Vietnam had become so unpopular in the States that Richard Nixon, previously defeated, managed to get elected on the promise he could end the war in Vietnam. Once elected, Nixon completely changed the proxy war policy, starting it on its downward part of the arch. Nixon introduced the policy of Vietnamization in a doctrine of his own where maintained the policy of “furnish[ing] military and economic assistance when requested” but also shifting the policy of boots on the ground to one of “look[ing] to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.”[vi] Under this policy American troops would help train South Vietnamese troops to fight against the Vietcong, eventually letting the United States completely withdraw and the Southern Vietnamese win on their own. This policy did not work, but Nixon did order the full withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, leading the Vietnam War to be characterized as a failure. It’s the main proxy war the United States completely lost, and saw the President turn the policy of proxy wars back to mainly funding, with an added element of training.
Soviet War in Afghanistan
In 1979 the United States was still reeling from its’ war in Vietnam, and the public in general were not in favor of another war, whether or not it’s a proxy one. Still when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the United States couldn’t simply sit idly by. What made this particular invasion so important were the spheres of influence or more specifically, spheres of influence over oil. Oil was (and still is) a crucial resource and Afghanistan was in the center of many oil-rich countries, that the Soviets could potentially take control of if they succeeded in their invasion of Afghanistan. Faced with the dilemma of needing to act, but not wanting to involve American troops, or even let the American public know they were engaging in a conflict, the U.S. policy continued in Nixon’s footsteps of consisting mainly of aid, the main change being that this time the aid was all covert. The policy is best expressed in the words of former national security advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski:
“We immediately launched a twofold process when we heard that the Soviets had entered Afghanistan. The first involved direct reactions and sanctions focused on the Soviet Union, and both the State Department and the National Security Council prepared long lists of sanctions to be adopted, of steps to be taken to increase the international costs to the Soviet Union of their actions. And the second course of action led to my going to Pakistan a month or so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for the purpose of coordinating with the Pakistanis a joint response, the purpose of which would be to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible; and we engaged in that effort in a collaborative sense with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the British, the Chinese, and we started providing weapons to the Mujahidin, from various sources again - for example, some Soviet arms from the Egyptians and the Chinese. We even got Soviet arms from the Czechoslovak communist government, since it was obviously susceptible to material incentives; and at some point we started buying arms for the Mujahidin from the Soviet army in Afghanistan, because that army was increasingly corrupt.”[vii]
Thus the policy became the CIA would go to Congress, ask for money without officially specifying what for, Congress would grant it, and the CIA would buy the weapons and direct them towards the Mujahidin (the Afghani fighters against the Soviets). It worked. The covert funding and supporting of the Afghan rebels as a proxy drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the United States could secretly pat itself on the back for a job well done, having reverted back to the original policy of funding. Granted this time it was through the CIA and all covert, but the principle in the policy remained the same.
What have we learned from the Cold War?
While there are distinct differences in how the United States treats proxy wars nowadays, the Cold War does still inform proxy war policies in the modern world. For instance, the United States is more likely to provide aid or covert assistance, rather than put boots on the ground, as historically that policy has worked out the least. Instead the two most successful proxy wars from the U.S. point of view were wars where strictly aid/weapons were provided (Greece and Afghanistan) as opposed to troops (Korea and Vietnam). Granted the landscape has changed, but when dealing with proxy wars in the modern day it’s important for U.S. policymakers keep the Cold War in mind.
[iii] Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. N. pag. Print.
[v] Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam, a History. New York: Viking, 1983. Print.