Special Topics 1B, Autumn 2022 NOTES

"Cold Wars" and Contemporary History

Notes and links will be posted here after each class

December 23, 2022

For the final lesson, I wanted to leave students with some information about historic sites they could visit during their free time while they are living in Japan. The descriptions in items 1-5 below were taken from the websites that are linked in the text. Items 6-8 in this list are not historic sites to visit, but they add information about items 1-5.

1. Tokyo Memorials for the bombing raids, March 10-11, 1945

a. Yokoamicho Park

To remember the people who died in the earthquake and the major undertaking of rebuilding Tokyo after the earthquake, Tokyo Memorial Hall and the Memorial Hall of Reconstruction were built. After that, this became the memorial park to remember the loss of the souls who died in the Great Tokyo Air Raid as well.

b. The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage

Since 1970, the Association to Record the Tokyo Air Raid has actively collected artifacts and documents detailing the extent of these air raids [March 10-11, 1945] and war damages. In 1999, public plans for a Memorial Hall of Peace were frozen, and, in league with the Institute of Politics and Economy, the association saw no other choice but to seek private donations in an effort to build a proper edifice. With the cooperation of over four thousand donors, the present building was finally completed on 9 March, 2002. The land for the building, which is located in one of the areas most damaged by the raids, was donated by a single generous supporter.

2. Daigo Fukuryu Maru Museum, Tokyo

The “Daigo Fukuryu Maru” is a wooden deep-sea tuna fishing boat based in Yaizu Port, Shizuoka Prefecture. It was exposed to radiation the hydrogen bomb test conducted by the United States in Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. While fishing in the sea 160 kilometers east of the hypocenter, a sudden flash could be seen to the west, and a detonating sound like an earthquake could be heard. Later, the 23 fishermen onboard were all exposed to radiation, after the radioactive fallout (“ashes of death”) rained down upon them later.

3. Nagano: Matsuhiro Imperial General Headquarters

A document compiled in 1993 by a research group of the JR East Workers’ Union, Nagano branch. Source: Oishi, Matashichi. The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I (University of Hawaii Press, 2011) 108-109:

The Imperial Japanese Military Headquarters, supreme command of the Japanese military, was established in 1893; it was comprised of the Army Chief of Staff and the Navy Command. It lasted through the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, and down to Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. Although all signs indicated that Japan’s defeat was imminent, the Japanese government and military provided the Japanese people with false information that Japan was winning the war, while at the same time it constructed in secret this underground shelter known as “Matsuhiro Imperial General Headquarters” in preparation for the “final battle at home.”

The plan to move Imperial General Headquarters to Matsuhiro involved key state organs: the Imperial family, government agencies, the military leadership, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation [NHK], and others; the project covered a vast area of over 150 square miles, all of the Zenkoji Flat.

The underground tunnels, excavated in the last nine months before Japan’s defeat, reached eight miles in length; the total cost was 200 million yen, equivalent to about 2 billion yen ($19 million) today.

The construction was led primarily by the Eastern Army, Nishimatsu Construction Co., and Kajima Corporation, and a total of three million workers were mobilized. The dangerous underground work, such as dynamiting and digging, was done by more than 7,000 Koreans who in the guise of “conscription” had been brought from the Korean Peninsula and made to do forced labor. They worked in two shifts. If they started at 5 a.m., they weren’t allowed to quit until after dark; they were not allowed to speak Korean, their mother tongue, among themselves. Under strict surveillance, they were exploited, and countless lives were lost.

On October 7, 1947, when Emperor Showa visited this area, he is said to have asked about the site, “I hear that somewhere in this area during the war they excavated tunnels wastefully. Where is it?”

This place may not be familiar even to local people because it is a slice of forgotten history. If you go there, expect to have some challenges in finding it and getting information about it. Read more here.

4. Nagasaki

Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum

A small, privately-run museum in Nagasaki… covers the subject of Japanese war crimes before and during WWII, including the hardship of POWs and in particular Koreans who also became victims of the A-bombing of Nagasaki…. this little museum is an important counterbalance to the skewed portrayal 20th century history and fills an important gap in the general historiography of Japan within the country.  

5. Okinawa

a. Himeyuri Monument / Himeyuri Peace Museum

During the last days of the Battle of Okinawa, a group of 222 young girls and 18 teachers at the Okinawa Women's Normal School and the First Prefectural Girls High School were ordered by the Japanese Army to join the Haebaru Army Field Hospital medical unit as the Himeyuri Student Corps. The women died in a cave along with Japanese soldiers rather than surrender to the Americans, who they were told would rape them. The Himeyuri Monument was constructed here in memory of the young girls and teachers who lost their lives. The Himeyuri Peace Museum consists of five exhibit rooms displaying photos from the Battle of Okinawa, portraits of the victims and books of testimonials by survivors.

b. Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum

In late March 1945, a fierce battle such as has rarely been seen in history took place on these islands. The “Typhoon of Steel” that lasted for ninety days disfigured mountains, destroyed much of the cultural legacy, and claimed the precious lives of upward of 200,000 people. The Battle of Okinawa was the only ground fighting fought on Japanese soil and was also the largest-scale campaign of the Asia-Pacific War. Even countless Okinawan civilians were fully mobilized.

A significant aspect of the Battle of Okinawa was the great loss of civilian life. At more than 100,000 civilian losses far outnumbered the military death toll. Some were blown apart by shells, some finding themselves in a hopeless situation were driven to suicide, some died of starvation, some succumbed to malaria, while others fell victim to the retreating Japanese troops. Under the most desperate and unimaginable circumstances, Okinawans directly experienced the absurdity of war and atrocities it inevitably brings about.

6. French Polynesia

Witnesses of the Bomb Project, Bruno Barrillot (video, 6 minutes)

A brief description of the effects of nuclear weapons tests in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996.

7. Global Hibakusha, Robert Jacobs (video, 15 minutes)

An overview of the effects of the atomic age, of the 2,000 nuclear weapons that have been detonated since August 1945.

What you can learn from items 1-7 in this list will be good preparation for viewing the upcoming film Oppenheimer which is already (in December 2022) being heavily promoted before its release in the summer of 2023.

8. Oppenheimer, trailer (film by Christopher Nolan, release date: July 21, 2023). You can also read an interview with the author of a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist of the Manhattan Project (1942-45) that made the first atomic weapons.

Robert Oppenheimer and the story of the Manhattan Project were portrayed in film before in Fat Man and Little Boy (also known in some distributions as Shadow Makers) released in 1989. Starring John Cusack, Paul Newman and Dwight Schultz.

December 16, 2023

The last days of Yugoslavia, 1991-1999:  Interview with Sean Gervasi, 1993.

You can download a page of notes and resources of background information for the interview above.

December 9, 2022

Students viewed the film Quiemada as a homework assignment. The overview of the film and some dialog segments are in this file.

Independence movements and nationalist movements are not necessarily worth causes. We began discussion f the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Many people believe that these were positive and necessary changes in the world, but even those who believe this cannot deny that they unleashed a catastrophic amount of suffering--civil wars, breakdown of social welfare systems, economic disruption and so on. We began by listening to a lecture by Sean Gervasi given in January 1992, just one month after the collapse of the USSR. You can download the transcript here. The link to the video is in the transcript.

December 2, 2022

We discussed the power of the sugar industry in the 19th century. The sugar and cotton produced by slave labor had shaped the world in profound ways between 1500 and 1850. It was the carbon-based energy source that powered empires before it was surpassed by coal and oil.

We followed up on our discussion of the Hawaiian Kingdom by looking at the details of sugar politics there in the 1870s. We read a few pages of Gavan Daws' The Shoal of Time that covered the negotiations for duty-free access to the American market for Hawaiian sugar. The government of the kingdom was gradually tying itself to the United States in order to have this favorable access to the American market. The US had been discussing the possibility of annexation since the 1850s when people in the government and military became aware of the strategic importance of Pear Harbor, the only deep-water port in the central Pacific Ocean. The king rejected a treaty of annexation at that time because of concerns about the legality of slavery in many US states. The president at the time was also not keen enough to pursue the matter. However, the fact that the issue had arisen shows that annexation was a constant factor on the minds of people in both countries. In the treaty negotiations of 1875, the US wanted access to Pearl Harbor, but the king refused to make it a condition of the treaty. The US could at best only get the Hawaiian Kingdom to agree to not give privileged access to any country. A few years later, when the treaty was up for renegotiation, the US was able to get coal refueling rights at Pearl Harbor. This process shows how the Hawaiian Kingdom was gradually losing its sovereignty through dependence on sugar and on exclusive trade relations with the US. The sugar barons in the Hawaiian Kingdom were next able to force the king to accept constitutional reforms that decreased his power. It was nicknamed the "bayonet constitution" because the king agreed under threat of force. In 1891, the sugar barons, or local oligarchs, overthrew the kingdom government and established the Republic of Hawaii. Five years later, they allowed this republic to be annexed by US Congress. For several decades there had been forces behind the scenes who watched elected officials and monarchs come and go while they patiently waited to achieve the goal of annexation and capture of Pearl Harbor. US General Schofield had made a quiet trip to Hawaii in 1870 to inspect Pearl Harbor and report back on its importance the the future of the United States. As the US was finishing its westward expansion in the Indian Wars of the 1870s, men like Schofield were already look farther at territories beyond the North American continent. His name lives on in Schofield Barracks, the military base in the center of O'ahu.

November 25, 2022

Instead of writing detailed notes for material covered on November 18th and November 25th, I am posting links to the sources studied in class. Look at these again if you need to review.

An interview with the author of How to Hide an Empire. Transcript here as a pdf file.

A short presentation about the provisional government of The Hawaiian Kingdom.

A talk given to Maui County Council in June 2019 by the interior minister of the provisional government of The Hawaiian Kingdom (31 minutes)

November 11, 2022

Recently, we have looked at the independence struggles of East Timor and West Papua, seeing their connections to the Cold War and the end of colonial rule by Portugal (in the case of East Timor) and the Netherlands (in the case of West Papua). The previous notes mention how these struggles are connected to the conflict that president Kennedy had with the CIA and social and political upheaval in Indonesia in the early 1960s, which led to a military dictatorship and an anti-communist genocide.

Many Western media outlets often remind the world of the "millions of victims of communism." The term is controversial, and it hides the multiple causes of human suffering during the 20th century. Every famine, war, genocide and social upheaval gets blamed on an abstract thing called "communism." As Indonesia is a state supported by non-communist countries, its history shows that atrocities and genocide do not occur only on the territories of official enemies of the capitalist world order.

This short interview with Noam Chomsky introduces the struggle in West Papua and its similarities and differences with East Timor.

Web page of the Free West Papua Campaign  

The Australian journalist John Pilger wrote this article about West Papua in 2006:

The Secret War Against Defenseless West Papua (English version) 

The Secret War Against Defenseless West Papua (Japanese version)

On November 11th, we viewed and discussed some other videos about West Papua: 

The Road Home (08:40~16:24)

Isolated (1:12:00~1:21:30)

Courage is Contagious (20 minutes) Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson introduces Benny Wenda and speaks about her experience working for West Papuan independence.

The viewpoint of the Indonesian government: Interview: VP Kalla Aims to Bring an End to Conflict in Papua

October 28, 2022

This week we began to look at the independence struggles of East Timor and West Papua, looking at their connections to the end of the Cold War, the end of the war in Vietnam, and the end of colonial rule by Portugal (in the case of East Timor) and the Netherlands (in the case of West Papua).

After Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963, there were more political assassinations (Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and Robert Kennedy in 1968). Johnson sent large numbers of soldiers to Vietnam at the time when the baby boom generation reached adulthood, so anti-war protest grew. There was a military draft at the time, so anti-war protest was stronger than it would have been if it had been a volunteer military force.

There were riots in American cities, particularly after the assassination of MLK, and rising crime. President Johnson enacted some progressive legislation on civil rights, but it was not enough to save him. He realized he faced tremendous opposition and withdrew from the presidential election campaign of 1968. The Democratic candidates who competed to replace him included quite radical anti-war candidates like Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was likely to win the nomination, but he was assassinated in June 1968, and after that, the party bosses moved to make sure that the conservative Hubert Humphrey (the vice president at the time) would win the nomination. It was very similar to the way that Bernie Sanders was sidelined in spite of his huge popular support. The moderates took over the party while the radical elements were forced to express themselves in the streets during the Democratic convention that year, where they had a violent confrontation with the Chicago police.

The Democratic strategy of compromise (moving to the right) was not enough to defeat the Republican candidate, the radical anti-communist Richard Nixon. Again, this was very similar to the way Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016. Bernie Sanders might have won, but he was rejected by the leadership (not the base) of his own party. Nixon won with an agenda claiming that he could end the war and that he would represent the “silent majority” of reasonable Americans who were not marching and rioting in the streets. To end the war, Nixon maintained peace talks in Paris but at the same time escalated the war to include massive bombing campaigns in Cambodia and North Vietnam. He wanted to negotiate from a position of strength. He claimed all along that it was essential for the US to achieve “peace with honor,” a slogan which meant withdrawal could not be perceived as “losing the war.” There had to be a way to save face. US forces withdrew in March 1973 and South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces in April 1975. Nixon resigned in August 1974 because of the Watergate scandal, but he left after having achieved détente with the USSR and China, which paved the way for the disarmament treaties that came in the next decade. Ironically, the greatest anti-communist US politician ended his career by recognizing the need to co-exist with the other "great power" rivals in the world. Gorbachev said that Nixon told him once, “We took the idea of supremacy as far as we could, but it has to end.” (paraphrasing)

This is the background to the segment about East Timor in the film Manufacturing Consent.

BBC’s East Timor Country Profile

The previous notes mention how these struggles are connected to the conflict that President Kennedy had with the CIA and social and political upheaval in Indonesia in the early 1960s, which led to a military dictatorship and an anti-communist genocide.

We viewed a segment of the film Manufacturing Consent (1992) which analyzed media coverage of Cambodia and East Timor in the late 1970s. The film, and the book of the same title by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, argued that the atrocities in Cambodia received wide coverage in Western media because they were being committed by an enemy. The atrocities in East Timor, happening at the same time, were ignored because they were being committed by a strategic ally. The US backed Indonesia because at the time stability of the region, with its vital shipping lanes, was deemed to be a high priority. From the perspective of 2022, we can see that this film had an influence on public awareness of East Timor, and it probably was a factor that led to independence.

You may be able to find Manufacturing Consent on YouTube (the link works as of 2022/10/28). The segment we studied begins at 1:07 and lasts for about thirty minutes.

From the film (1:32:12~) Noam Chomsky: “It’s a very simple ethical point. You’re responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions. You’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of someone else’s actions… the media are ensuring that we do not act on our responsibilities, and that the interests of power are preserved, not the needs of suffering people, and not even the needs of the American people who would be horrified if they realized the blood that’s dripping from their hands.”

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) restored its independence in May 2002, three years after Indonesia lost international support and declared its intent to give up its claim on this territory. One reason for the outcome was the pressure exerted by activists throughout the world. Another reason, probably the most significant factor, was the end of the Cold War and the end of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia that had lasted since 1965.

October 14, 2022

We discussed Oliver Stone’s film JFK, both in terms of its content and its impact on society. We studied two scenes from the film, and for review you can download the transcript of those scenes: Mr. X and the Courtroom Finale.

You can also download this Powerpoint file that briefly summarizes the film and the context of the JFK presidency.

October 7, 2022

Last week we discussed the extreme tensions between the US president and the US security agencies that led to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We viewed Episode 6 of The Untold History of the United States, part of a ten-part series that covers US history from the 1890s to the present.

JFK was trying to avoid nuclear war and the increasing escalation of the cold war, and he was trying to deal with the danger posed by the growing financial interests of the military-industrial complex—a problem that has continued to grow into the 21st century and has cause another world war. At the same time, he was aware that anti-communism had broad support in the United States, thus he had to be sufficiently “tough” anti-communist in order to be re-elected. He also had a sincere dislike of Marxist-Leninism, so it would be a mistake to view him as a radical threat to the establishment.

His presidency can be seen as a delicate balancing act between the contradictory demands of American politics. Privately, he talked of wanting to end the cold war and normalize relations with the USSR and other communist countries, but publicly he said what was necessary to be viewed as a “tough on communism.” This is why many historians are not interested in theories that state he was killed by elements of the security state. They believe he posed no threat to the security state and was no different than other presidents. On the other hand, many books have been written detailing the numerous ways that he did indeed pose a threat, even though that threat was from being the threat of socialist revolution. The security state would not tolerate the slightest drift away from the established cold war policy. 

The most studied battlegrounds of Kennedy's presidency were concerned with policy toward East Germany (Berlin) and Cuba, nuclear weapons testing, control and reduction of the nuclear arsenal, relations with Laos and North and South Vietnam, and relations with other de-colonized nations. In domestic policy, he made efforts to end racial segregation in the southern states. He regulated prices in the steel industry and wanted to eliminate the depletion allowance tax credit that was favored by the oil industry. Thus he had enemies all around him in the old guard of the business and political establishment. A much-ignored area of foreign policy that he dealt with is Indonesia, a nation of 200 million people located in very strategically important shipping lanes. It has a wealth of natural resources that exceeds that of Indochina. In fact, the enormous oil reserves and gold mines of West Papua were discovered in the 1930s and kept secret throughout WWII and the following two decades. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, was deeply involved in this secret even before the CIA was founded. JFK’s plans for friendly ties with Indonesian President Suharto clashed with the plans that Dulles had in motion for removing Suharto from power.

The CIA was established in the late 1940s by people tied to large corporations and corporate law firms in New York City. Their grip on political power went back further to the 19th century when Allen Dulles’ grandfather was in the cabinet of President Harrison (1889-1893). This is why the US government came to be ruled by corporate interests rather than the general population, and JFK was the last president who resisted these interests in any significant way. This is why people such as Jim Garrison, the famous public attorney who prosecuted a person involved in the conspiracy to kill JFK, believed that the assassination was a coup d’etat.

Why is it important to study the JFK assassination? Why is it necessary to take seriously the possibility that (1) he was murdered by elements of the US government and (2) that the government covered up its crime? Michael Parenti provided an excellent answer to these questions in 1993:

Michael Parenti, The JFK Assassination and the Gangster Nature of the State, Berkley, California, November 22,1993, 47:15~

Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was a member of the Salvadoran aristocracy… the minute he … made some critical remarks and about the war, some favorable remarks about the poor, he was assassinated. I doubt, if he hadn’t been assassinated, that Salvadoran history would have been much different. Does this mean that solidarity groups in this country and El Salvador should not have tried to make his murder an issue that revealed the homicidal gangster nature of the Salvadoran state? Instead of seizing the opportunity, some left writers condescendingly ascribe a host of mass psychology motivations and emotional needs to those of us who are concerned about the JFK assassination. They psychologize about our illusions of false dreams, our longings for messiahs and father figures, our inability to face unpleasant realities the way they can. They deliver patronizing admissions about our conspiracy captivation and Camelot yearnings. They urge us not to escape into fantasy. They are the cognoscenti who guide us and out-left us on the JFK assassination, a subject about which they don’t know a goddamn thing and whose significance they will never be able and have not been able to grasp. I have a different name for our interests. It is not JFK worship. It’s not Camelot yearnings, as the left critics would say. It’s not big evils and conspiracy titillation, as the mainstream media would say. Our interest is born of democratic struggle, a desire to know what is going on, a desire to have rulers who are worthy of our name and the name of democracy. - Michael Parenti, The JFK Assassination and the Gangster Nature of the State, Berkely, California, November 22,1993, 47:15~. See also Michael Parenti’s book Dirty Truths (City Lights Publishers, 1996, 2001) for a printed version of this lecture.

It was my own studies of nuclear history that led me back to thinking about the JFK assassination and the experience of watching Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991. My interest was also renewed when I got a chance to visit Dealey Plaza in 2013 and spoke with a couple people on the street who were selling pamphlets that countered the official version one can find in the 6th Floor Museum in the schoolbook depository. These guys were out there every day selling their pamphlets to the tourists and reminiscing about the time they were extras on the set of JFK. After that trip, I read several books on the assassination by authors such as Mark Lane, James Douglass, Jim Marrs, and Jim Garrison.

The film JFK left a big impression on me in 1991, but after a reading several books, it seemed like a hopeless rabbit hole to keep going down. There were too many obsessive kooks there, and there were more important things happening in the present. It would be foolish to spend much time debating the arcane details of the evidence and the various theories about the assassination because while that might seem like the pursuit of justice, it also involves “playing their game.” The perpetrators of the assassination have been gaslighting “conspiracy buffs” for almost sixty years now with misdirection and misinformation. You can’t prove the obvious to someone who is determined to deny the obvious, and the case will never be solved with “smoking gun” evidence. We are left with a few late-life and deathbed confessions of CIA agents, but most of the agents kept their omerta and died with their secrets. It’s obvious that Oswald was a patsy, so why get obsessed about the details?

Nonetheless, as Michael Parenti said, it is important to study the JFK assassination for what it reveals about the nature of "the gangster state". I read several books about the development of nuclear arsenals during the 20th century and eventually came to the same point as the veteran anti-nuclear activist James Douglass (author of the most highly rated book on the assassination, JFK and the Unspeakable). One has to look into the JFK assassination, and the other assassinations of the 1960s, to understand the nature of the evil we are dealing with.

I wrote a long article (12,000 words) last year (updated this month) that goes into this subject in great detail. You can read that if you find yourself becoming infected with a fascination for this murder mystery, but it is not required reading. I refer you to it primarily for the list of sources you can find in the bibliography and notes.

Download here (pdf): Assassination research, “conspiracy theory” and a review of Oliver Stone’s JFK

September 30, 2022

We discussed the short video clip of Yanis Varoufakis answering the question of whether China would become an oppressive and exploitative imperial power. I chose to start the course with this video because it brings up a few questions about issues that will be central to this course— independence, self-determination, development, imperialism, inequality.

Nations are unequal in terms of their geographic advantages, resources, industrial development, education and so on. When a stronger and more fortunate nation helps a weaker and less fortunate one, can the arrangement be non-exploitative, or must it always turn into the sort of imperialism that we have seen throughout history?

How can nations maintain their sovereignty when they must accept developmental assistance from other nations?

The idea behind the socialist revolutions of the 20th century was that the socialist movement could be based on mutually beneficial internationalism. Nations that had had successful revolutions could assist others without exploiting them. Lenin wrote in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism that imperialism was inherently capitalist. He defined it as having these five qualities:  

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;

(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy;

(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;

(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and

(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

Source: Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter VII (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963). Originally published in 1916.

In later years, we can see that the USSR had a sphere of influence that its adversaries called an empire. It gave military and development assistance to many former colonial countries, but it didn’t have an exploitative capitalist economy that drained wealth out of these nations, though it did trade in manufactured goods, weapons, and infrastructure projects in exchange for commodities from these developing nations. By the 1980s, the USSR had so many economic difficulties that it cancelled its foreign assistance programs. Gorbachev claimed that his nation could no longer give so much without ever receiving anything in return. The program of spreading socialism through such assistance was over.

The discussion of The Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) soft-power style of development assistance caused some of the students to question whether the PRC was really not interested in hard power. Separatist movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the PRC’s reaction to them, made them wonder if sometime soon the PRC might adopt a more “interventionist” approach to dealing with such problems.

I pointed out that development assistance that the PRC gives to sovereign nations is quite a different matter than the PRC’s dealings with Hong Kong and Taiwan. The PRC does not consider these places to be sovereign nations. The PRC would say that its military build-up is a defensive response to encroachment by foreign powers who threaten to intervene in these disputes which are the PCR’s internal affairs. Chinese officials don’t come to Scotland to lend support to Scottish nationalists. They don’t spend millions of dollars on Scottish independence activists and pro-Scottish propaganda, and they certainly don’t send battleships to the seas near Britain.

Based on the students’ responses to issue of Taiwan independence, it was clear they were lacking some of the background knowledge of how this problem came to be.


Some Taiwan facts from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwan

Taiwan has been settled for at least 25,000 years. Ancestors of Taiwanese indigenous peoples settled the island around 6,000 years ago.

Republic of Formosa, a short-lived republic in 1895 on the island of Formosa (also known as Taiwan)

Dutch Formosa, the period of colonial Dutch government on Formosa (Taiwan), lasting from 1624 to 1662

Spanish Formosa, a Spanish colony established in the north of Taiwan from 1626 to 1642

In the 17th century, large-scale Han Chinese (specifically Hoklo) immigration to western Taiwan began under the Dutch colony and continued under the Kingdom of Tungning.

The island was annexed in 1683 by the Qing dynasty of China and ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895.

The Republic of China (ROC), which had overthrown the Qing in 1911, took control of Taiwan on behalf of the Allies of World War II following the surrender of Japan in 1945.

The resumption of the Chinese Civil War resulted in the ROC's loss of mainland China to forces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and consequent retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Its effective jurisdiction has since been limited to Taiwan and smaller islands.

The ROC no longer represents China as a member of the United Nations, after UN members voted in 1971 to recognize the PRC instead. The ROC maintained its claim of being the sole legitimate representative of China and its territory, although this has been downplayed since its democratization in the 1990s. Taiwan is claimed by the PRC, which refuses diplomatic relations with countries that recognize the ROC. Taiwan maintains official diplomatic relations with 13 out of 193 UN member states and the Holy See (Vatican), though many others maintain unofficial diplomatic ties through representative offices and institutions that function as de facto embassies and consulates. ...

Domestically, the major political contention is between parties favoring eventual Chinese unification and promoting a pan-Chinese identity, contrasted with those aspiring to formal international recognition and promoting a Taiwanese identity. Into the 21st century, both sides have moderated their positions to broaden their appeal.

Martial law, declared in Taiwan in May 1949, continued to be in effect after the central government relocated to Taiwan. It was also used as a way to suppress the political opposition and was not repealed until 38 years later in 1987. During the White Terror, as the period is known, 140,000 people were imprisoned or executed for being perceived as anti-KMT or pro-Communist. Many citizens were arrested, tortured, imprisoned, and executed for their real or perceived link to the Chinese Communist Party.

In the Treaty of San Francisco and the Treaty of Taipei, which came into force respectively on 28 April 1952 and 5 August 1952, Japan formally renounced all right, claim and title to Taiwan and Penghu, and renounced all treaties signed with China before 1942. Neither treaty specified to whom sovereignty over the islands should be transferred because the United States and the United Kingdom disagreed on whether the ROC or the PRC was the legitimate government of China.


For a long time, the United States refused to acknowledge the communist government as legitimate. It supported Taiwan economically, sold weapons to it, and promised to defend it if the PRC attacked.

In 1972, US President Nixon, who had always had a reputation as a strong anti-communist, shocked the world by visiting Mao and establishing formal diplomatic relations with the PRC. He was hoping that good relations with the PRC would break up the communist bloc of the USSR, the PRC, and North Vietnam. We can also see, in retrospect, that American corporate interests might have been looking at the PRC as a source of inexpensive labor. Warm relations might lead to the PRC welcoming foreign investment, a change which did actually happen in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, Nixon made many enemies in Washington because of his China policy. Some people believe this factor and his détente with the USSR are the reasons he was forced out of office because of the Watergate scandal. Other presidents have been caught in illegal activities, but none have ever been forced to resign by the threat of certain impeachment.

As for the Taiwan policy announced at the 1972 summit between Nixon and Mao, here is what a historian wrote in China Daily in February 2022:

The US president outlined “Five Principles” of US policy… first was “there is one China and Taiwan is a part of China”. The second was “we have not and will not support any Taiwan independence movement”. Third, Nixon promised the US would “discourage Japan moving into Taiwan”. Fourth, he pledged the US would support “any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue” and “not support” any military moves by Taiwan to retake the mainland. And fifth, the US president pledged “we seek the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic”… It is noteworthy that Nixon unequivocally agreed that “Taiwan is a part of China”. This position is “acknowledged” in US versions of the three US-China communiques. Also, in 1998, Bill Clinton became the first (not the last) president to declare, “We don’t support independence for Taiwan, or ‘two Chinas,’ or ‘one Taiwan, one China’.” When criticized, he explained that he was reiterating a longstanding policy.

This historian’s review of what was settled during Nixon’s historic summit meeting stands in sharp contrast to what we have seen in recent reports about US policy toward Taiwan. American officials and media perspectives have adopted a very different stance that seems to be evidence of a willful neglect of the longstanding policy settled by Nixon and Mao in 1972. Why is this happening now?

Taiwan’s claims for independence now raise questions about what should be required of a government or a people who want to redraw the boundaries of a nation that is recognized by the United Nations as having fixed geographical boundaries. Does the breakaway nation have to negotiate the terms of separation, or can it declare the right to separate unilaterally? Does the answer to this question depend on how the people wanting independence have been treated? If, for example, they have been subjected to crimes against humanity, it would be absurd to require them to negotiate the terms of separation. However, in such a case, the United Nations is supposed to intervene by invoking the right (and obligation) to protect (known as R2P). Furthermore, neighboring nations also have the right to intervene under Article 51 to protect the persecuted population until such time as the United Nations can resolve to help in settling the matter. This is the legal justification Russia has used to protect the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine.

Another question is the legitimacy of using force to achieve independence and recognition. Again, the answer to this question depends on the level of persecution suffered by the minority. When is it justified to disturb the status quo by taking up arms? When is it justified to accept help from allies who have their own motives for becoming involved in the dispute? When we begin to contrast various independence struggles, we see that hypocrisy and double standards abound.

Taiwan claims to believe firmly in self-determination, but because it has allied itself with the US, it forgets this principle and offers no words of support for separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. Russia claims to be upholding the right of this minority to determine its future, but the Russian government wouldn’t do the same for another region of Russia that wanted to declare independence. Numerous other independence movements are rife with similar contradictions. This is perhaps why so few of them succeed. They usually persist for decades in a state of limbo. The only ones that have succeeded since 1990 are the ones that NATO members wanted to succeed. The new nations that emerged out of the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia were recognized eagerly, at a speed which involved a reckless neglect of the social collapse and conflicts that would ensue.

In Taiwan at present, most people feel they are under no obligation to give anything to the PRC and need not negotiate with the PRC to work out a solution in which Taiwan could become a semi-autonomous region. In such an arrangement, the PRC would have final say on foreign relations and military doctrine while Taiwan carried on with its existing government structures.

In fact, this was the situation in Canada from 1867-1945. Canada was an independent federation, but not completely independent. The United Kingdom retained control of Canadian foreign affairs. When the UK declared war in 1914, Canadians were at war also, with no right to decide otherwise. Nonetheless, most Canadians remained oblivious to this aspect of their status as a sovereign nation. No one felt the presence of British rule in the functioning of parliaments and everyday life. Perhaps something similar could be achieved in an agreement between the PRC and Taiwan. Everything in Taiwan could continue unchanged, except for the alliance with the US.

The common opinion in Taiwan is that the PRC’s claims do not need to be given any consideration. This seems to be a denial of the geopolitical and historic reality because Taiwan has no way of achieving its goals, and it depends on security guarantees from the United States for protection against any act of aggression by the PRC. The situation is unique in history, and extremely ambiguous. For a long time, everyone on all sides seemed to understand that the best thing to do was nothing—live with the status quo and see how things go over the long term. Meanwhile, the PRC stands by its claim that it is committed to a peaceful resolution of the matter.

Finally, here is one more question to consider: How would people in Taiwan feel today if the situation had been reversed. If the CCP had lost the mainland and fled to Taiwan, and set up a government there, would people in Taiwan insist on joining the ROC, or would they still want independence? Is the desire for independence motivated by ideology or by a commitment to the idea that it is best to have local self-rule? Many political scientists have proposed that nations that are continental in size cannot function as democracies. They are just too large and diverse to respond effectively to popular demands.

One might respond to these questions by saying no one in Taiwan wants to be part of a non-democratic nation, but Mr. Varoufakis mentioned that there have been some interesting successful democratic experiments in the PRC recently. This leads to another question that will have to be left for another time: Can a one-party state be democratic? Are the multi-party liberal democracies functioning well this century, or have they been taken over by oligarchies?

April 2022

Introduction: The Larger Context of the Cold War

Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “There is a specter haunting Europe.” It still haunts Europe. They declared that all value comes from labor. Capitalism had been a great force in human progress, they wrote, but the next stage had to involve ownership of production shifting toward those who produce the value. This would lead to class war, and it terrified the class that owned the means of production. Wars to end slavery, wars of independence, the great wars of the 20th century, and post-colonial struggles were all driven by the struggle of the owner class to hold on to what they had under the threat of this "specter haunting Europe". Anti-socialism and anti-communism were the ultimate causes of modern wars, though this is rarely stated in many history textbooks. The "Cold War" really started in 1848, not 1948. One could also say that it started much earlier during the French Revolution (1789-1794), or even earlier in such examples as the communes established by Jesuits in South America.

WWI was a struggle between the European empires to hold onto their territories and gain control of the oil resources of the Middle East. WWII was a fought to reverse the Bolshevik revolution and stop the spread of socialism, and gain control of strategic resources. The British, French and Americans delayed in joining the USSR in an alliance against Germany because the inter-imperial war was still ongoing. They had been hoping that Germany would defeat the USSR first. They believed it would then be easy to get victory over Germany after it had exhausted itself by fighting communism. WWII could have been avoided if not for this strong anti-communist motivation and rivalry between the imperial powers.

It is often said that democracy is the opposite of communism, but communism is also democratic in its ideals. Cuba and China have their own forms of democratic institutions. Furthermore, the struggle between communism and capitalism is primarily concerned with economics. Communism is not the opposite of democracy. Lenin defined fascism as the extreme end-stage form of capitalism and imperialism. It was the merger of state power and corporate power. In Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, capitalism was very profitable and labor was very weak. Capitalism was not weakened by fascism. The fascist state structure protected capitalism from the demands of the working class and enabled corporations to use slave labor in many captured territories.

During WWII, the US government was divided. President Roosevelt wanted to end imperialism and live peacefully with the USSR, but segments of the military, big business interests, the State Department and the new intelligence agencies wanted to strengthen Germany and forgive Nazi officials. They were more concerned with continuing the anti-communist struggle after the war. Thus the Cold War was born out of WWII.

At the end of WWII, the pro-big business conservative wing of the Democratic Party prepared to break the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and wage a counter-revolution against Roosevelt's New Deal. These conservatives saw that President Roosevelt was very ill and likely to die during his next term as president, so they plotted to remove Vice President Henry Wallace as the vice presidential candidate for the 1944 election. The inexperienced, conservative Senator Harry Truman became the vice presidential nominee through a very undemocratic process controlled by party bosses. After the war, when Truman was president, he was manipulated by this conservative faction to break Roosevelt's agreements with Stalin and to antagonize the Soviet Union. The creation of the nuclear arms race and the CIA had tragic consequences that are evident still today in 2022. The Cold War has come back in another form as opposition to Russia and China. These nations are no longer described as a "communist threat" but rather as "great power rivals" governed by undemocratic, tyrannical leaders.

Further reading on recent events

Paul Cudenec, "Fascism, Newnormalism and the Left," Winter Oak, July 26, 2020.

Max Perry, "Synthetic Left Joins Corporate Right in Getting Ukraine War Wrong," Covert Action Magazine, April 22, 2022.

Resources on Independence and Self-Determination

An outline of self-determination its history and issues in international law

Information from the United Nations on decolonization and self-determination.