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A Look at China’s Role in The Cold War

Within the three nations of the United States, Soviet Union, and China during the Cold
War decades of the 60’s and 70’s, each relationship was extremely dynamic in their evolutions, including the changes and shifts in alliances that occurred during the turbulent years of the 60’s and 70’s Cold War involvements.  Coming into the 1960’s, China and The Soviet Union were allies under the common bond of Communism (although disagreements and clashing of the heads between Khrushchev and Mao in the late 50’s began some serious issues in cooperation), The Soviet Union and United States were engaged in arguably one of the most dangerous and hostile eras of the entire Cold War, and the United States and China were de facto adversaries who were still isolated from one another following the ’49 Chinese Communist Revolution led by Mao, which destroyed a once solid Sino-American political friendship.

The U.S.-Soviet relationship during the 60’s and 70’s was of course at the epicenter of the worldwide Cold War incidents.  Coming into the early 60’s, the U.S. and Soviet Union were involved in many of the most identifiable Cold War involvements such as the Space Race, weapon production and testing, and European satellite revolts and demonstrations in Hungary and Poland.  Therefore, tensions in the 1960’s unsurprisingly did not subside.  The failed attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the subsequent blossoming relationship between Castro and Khrushchev, and the suspected Soviet weapon storage in Cuba, as well as U.S. weapons in Turkey culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was possibly the most realistic threat of worldwide nuclear warfare.  However, eventually Kennedy’s bold tactics and resistance to pursue air strikes were effective, and an agreement was reached without the deployment of nuclear weapons.  In the early 1960’s, the escalation in missile production and subsequent counter-strike innovations and retaliation strategies gave birth to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD.  Ineffective propositions such as the No Cities Counterforce and Limited Test Ban Treaties showed promise in limiting worldwide cataclysmic threats, but were not successful enough to remove the eminent possibility of absolute destruction.  Interestingly, while MAD is on its surface a very intimidating realization, it was quite possibly the integral deterrent involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as many other involvements in the Cold War era.   While weapon production and escalating crises between the United States and The Soviet Union were occurring, China was very much relevant in the worldwide landscape, especially within the Cold War ideological clash of Communism and Capitalism centered around the superpowers of the USSR and the U.S.

The relationship between China and The Soviet Union is one that could easily be likened to a troubled high school romance.  The initial love affair began following the aforementioned ’49 Revolution which was victoriously led by Mao.  Upon his declaration of the People’s Republic of China, he developed a growing obsession with Stalin and the Soviet Union’s Communist politics and lifestyle.  Mao duplicates many of the long lived aspects of the Soviet persona, such as adorning himself in a nationwide manner whilst creating a cult of personality phenomenon and massive, brutal political and economic sweeps of the countryside and opposition territories, similar to Stalin’s purges.  Mao’s adoration of Stalin was never more evident than in his mourning of Stalin’s death in 1953, in which Mao publicly wept over the loss of his friend and political deity.   As Stalin’s successor, following a brief occupation by Malenkov, Khrushchev, began to become more confident with his new found despot status, tensions began to arise between himself and Mao.  Mao began to feel that Soviet aid to China’s up and coming economy undermined his authority on a worldwide scale.  Mao and Khrushchev began to exchange insults to each other, and tensions arose even further when Mao declared his role as the new world revolutionary leader, making the battle for worldwide communist Supremacy apparent to all.  Difficulties between the two nations even resulted in Khrushchev looking to the West for cooperation to deal with the Chinese in 1963.   Mao continued to perform attempts at increasing the Chinese economy, which resulted in over 30 million citizens dying of starvation due to rotted crops.  Furthermore, China tested bombs in 1964, prompting the attention of the Soviets and Americans.

Mao would capture the attention of the United States even greater in 1965, when China began to mobilize to support North Vietnam. The Vietnam War would create one of the most vivid paradigms of the interrelated relationships between China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.   Although Chinese troops were not heavily (if at all) involved in combat in Vietnam, they helped repair aircrafts and damage caused by the United States and provided the North Vietnamese with weapons, (although Chinese troops in Vietnam would increase to 170,000 at its peak).  Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 in the midst of Sino-Soviet tensions, China insisted that North Vietnam discontinue their relationship with the Soviet Union.  However, North Vietnam refused, which resulted in the beginning of Chinese troop withdrawal from Vietnam.  With the United States being heavily invested in Vietnam, the unfolding events of Soviet and Chinese aid to North Vietnam, as well as cooperation between the two of them, was of paramount importance to the American cause.

While the war in Vietnam would march on, other events began to unfold that implicated all three nations.  In 1969, tensions along the China-Soviet Union border began to increase, and the prospect of a Soviet invasion of China seemed very possible, as Chinese tunnels were even constructed for protection from attack.  As this was occurring, Mao decided to try and build Chinese relations with the United States.  Recognizing this as an opportunity to suppress the Soviets, Nixon agreed.  In 1971, the American table tennis team was invited to China, and the members received the first American firsthand experience of China in over twenty years.  Later that year, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger arrived in China, signifying the first U.S. official in the country since 1949.  The fact that the United States even acknowledged the existence of the Chinese state, let alone sent its President to the country, signified a drastic transition in the worldwide alliance spectrum, directly affecting each relationship status existing between China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War remarkably affected the relations which existed between each of these countries.  As China began to grow more assertive and powerful, albeit in large part to Soviet economic aid, Mao’s increasing ego led to a gradual change in their relationship with the Soviet Union.  Mao began to distance his nation from viewing itself as being nurtured by the Soviet Union to establishing its own power base.  As relations between the Soviet Union and the United States experienced its fair share of peaks and valleys in terms of aggression and hostility, relations between the three nations would subsequently experience windows of opportunity to try to change their foreign relations with each other.  Although the United States and Soviet Union are correctly identified as the primary belligerents in the Cold War, China’s role of influence in shifting alliances between the two super powers should not be overlooked in respect to the short and long term impact it had on many of the Cold War’s most important crises.

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