Although the Cold War began in 1945 as an argument between the United States and the Soviet Union over the administration of recently liberated European states, it rapidly became a large-scale ideological war involving every region of the world. The titanic clash between American-style democracy and Soviet communism always determined the abstract contours of the Cold War, but in the sites where the struggle was concretely fought—the Middle East, Latin America, and Northeast Asia—the Cold War was never as orderly as its superpower managers envisioned it, nor were the goals of nations in the contested regions exclusively aligned with the ideological aims of their superpower patrons. The visible ideological front of this bipolar conflict concealed numerous changes taking place in dependent states: the rise of new economic systems, new modes of national identity, new philosophical worldviews, new forms of international violence, and a wide variety of postcolonial cultural aspirations. By the end of nearly five decades of ideological strife, the world had changed so much that the apparent goal of each superpower—world hegemony—had become irrelevant, as was perhaps, the very concept of superpower. The dependent regions, for their parts, emerged from the Cold War with an unexpected degree of relevance and were able to claim validity as autonomous centers of a newly multi-polar world. This article will look at one region, Northeast Asia, and provide an overview of the Cold War trajectories of the nations in that region, as well as some thoughts on how the dynamics of the Cold War brought them to their respective positions in the “new world order” of the present day.
The Cold War in Northeast Asia