Vietnam Academy Of Social Sciences

Korean War and Vietnam War: A Comparative Approach to Cold War in Asia


Luong Thi Hong*


Abstract: After World War II, the world was formed into two different systems: capitalism and socialism, leading to a new form of war - "Cold War". Although being called "Cold War," it was manifested by "Hot Wars" such as those in Indochina and the Korean peninsula. The Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975) were convergence points of confrontation between the two systems. While both of the wars were partly an East-West conflict, they were also a "North-South" conflict. This paper examines a reference by comparing the Korean War and the Vietnam War from a perspective of the Cold War system. Due to developing differently in the international, regional, and national contexts, the Korean War and the Vietnam War differed in various dimensions. The article proposes the similarities and dissimilarities between the two wars and how they still influence present historical issues.

Keywords: Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War. 

Subject classification: History


1. Introduction

The  Second  World  War  ended  in  1945 leading to establishing a new world order, in which the Cold War2 played a crucial role in foreign affairs. A confrontation between capitalism and socialism occurred not only in Europe but also worldwide, of which Asia had full characteristics. During the Cold War, besides  the  East-West  confrontation, there was  also  the  North-South  conflict  and  the development of national liberation movements. In this context, the Korean War (1950-1953)  and  the  Vietnam  War  (1954- 1975)3 also fell into these circles. Thus, these wars had similar and dissimilar characteristics. However, both the Korean War and the Vietnam War were profoundly impacted by the global Cold War.

During   the   Cold   War   period,   it   is assumed that all Cold War phases were not intense confrontations. Between the periods of violent struggles, there were less stressful years which politicians and diplomats called periods   of   “détente”   (French,   meaning release  from  tension).  A  wide  range  of researchers  and  scholars  agreed  that  there were  three  tense  and  détente  phases.  The period of 1947-1953 was the period of Cold War  formation,  warming  up,  and  getting very  tense.  The  two  systems  launched  an arms race, gathered forces, and confronted each  other  fiercely.  Peace  was  threatened directly. From 1954 to 1962, it was a period of peaceful coexistence, beginning with the Korean  Armistice   Agreement and the Geneva Agreement ending the Korean War (1953)   and   the   French-Indochina   War (1954). Between 1962 and 1965, the world became tense again. In the capitalistic bloc, the White House attempted to make America great. On the other side, the Soviet Union tightened  diplomatic  relations  with  other socialist  countries  by  erecting  the  Berlin Wall and basing medium-range missiles in Cuba. A period of peace lasted place from the  mid-1960s  to  mid-1970s.  By  the  late 1970s and early 1980s, the world was full of turmoil and new forms of disagreement and tensions arose. Finally, from 1985 onwards, the Cold War came to an end.

Addressing these issues and phases helps us  find differences  and  similarities of these conflicts during the Cold War era. From that point of view, the Korean War (1950-1953) and   the  Vietnam  War (1945-1975) have similar and dissimilar dimensions. The importance  of  the  Korean  and  Vietnamese wars go beyond their strategic connection [27].

2.  Divided  countries  with  North-South conflicts

At the end of World War II, in 1945, a series of international conferences were organised to resolve the distribution of interests and establish  a  new  global  order.  Two  such conferences   were   of   importance: Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945), in which  the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union decided to divide the Korean peninsula into two zones at  the  38th   parallel  to  disarm  the  fascist troops.  The  Soviet  Union  and  the  United States  forces  occupied  the  northern  and southern halves of Korea respectively. The powers also decided to split up Indochina into  two  occupied  zones,  taking  the  16th parallel  as  a  boundary.  The  North  was assigned  to  the  Chinese  Army,  the  South would  be  administered  by  British  troops. Thus, a typical point in this separation of the two  countries  was  that  their  destiny  was decided  by  the  superpowers  (directly  the Soviet Union and the United States).

The Korean peninsula formed two states with   opposite   political,   economic,   and social systems: the Republic of Korea (10 May  1948)  backed  by  the  United  States, and  the  Democratic  People's  Republic  of Korea,   or   DPRK   (9   September   1948) backed  by  the  Soviet  Union.  The  38th parallel  became  a  frontier  dividing  the Korean Peninsula as well as socialism and capitalism in Northeast Asia.

The division in Vietnam went through a more   complicated   process   than   that   of Korea. In Vietnam, led by the Viet Minh, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV, was   proclaimed   on   2   September   1945, before  the  Allies’  entering.  Therefore,  the powers were not able to set up indigenous governments  like  in  Korea.  They  had  to compromise with other forces to overthrow the   Democratic   Republic   of   Vietnam’s government. Thus, after the withdrawal of the British (February 1946) and the Chinese troops  (September  1946),  there  were  only two forces in Vietnam: one headed by Ho Chi Minh’s government, another by French colonialists. However, due to interventions of  great  powers  (in  various  degrees),  the Vietnamese   resistance   war   against   the French  colonialists  for  the  independence gradually caught up a wind of the Cold War. The Geneva conference (1954) decided to take the 17th parallel as a temporary military delimitation zone, dividing Vietnam into two regions. The 17th parallel turned temporarily from a demilitarised zone into one of the most  restricted  borders  in  the  world.  It represented  the  Vietnamese  struggle  as  "a manifestation of the fundamental contradictions  of  the  world,  the  conflict between  national  independence,  socialism and the imperialist system, and between war and peace" [2].

The division of Korea (as well as that of Germany) began with the Allies’ intentions in dividing the outcome of World War II and then bore the imprint of confrontation between socialism  and  imperialism.  The  division  in Vietnam came from a compromise between the confrontational powers (for the benefit of each nation) under the profound influence of a national liberation struggle.

Just as the destiny of Korea, the division of  Vietnam  by  the  Geneva  Agreements was a common phenomenon in international relations after World War II. In general, the similarity was a confrontation between the  two  world  systems  during  the  Cold War, which due to an emergence of a new world  order  divided  the  world  into  two opposing   political   and   social   systems, each led by a superpower.

The  Vietnamese  people  succeeded  in removing the demilitarised zone at the 17th parallel, completing national liberation and reunification. The Vietnam War, after much pain and loss, ended.

The division of Korea, as well as that of Vietnam,  into  hostile  states  resulted  from arbitrary decisions taken at the end of the Second World  War, concerning  the surrender of the   Japanese   and the administration  of territory occupied by Japan. In these decisions, neither the Vietnamese nor the Koreans were consulted.

3.   Korean   War   in   connection   with Indochina's position in the United States’ strategy

Nationalism,  communism,  decolonisation, and  the  Cold  War  were  all  parts  of  the Vietnam War and the Korean War. In the early 1950s, the international context changed dramatically. The two sides of the Cold War manifested firm determination. In Europe, the division of Eastern European socialism and Western European capitalism added an important "highlight" to the establishment of the two German states (the German   Democratic Republic   and   the Federal Republic of Germany). In Asia, the appearance  of  two  states  on  the  Korean Peninsula  (Democratic  People’s  Republic of Korea and Republic of Korea) deepened the  trace  of  a  confrontational  world.  In particular, the establishment of the People's Republic of China (1949) led by China’s Communist Party changed the world context, established a dominant position of socialism, and created a new order in Asian.

The  conflicts  in  Korea  and  Vietnam stemmed   from   the   interaction   of   two significant  phenomena  of  the  post  World War II era, decolonisation (the dissolution of colonial empires) and the Cold War.

At that time, there were three wars in Asia: the French-Indochina War, the final phase of civil war in China, and the newly outbroken  war  on  the  Korean  peninsula between the North and the South.

The climax of the tense situation in Asia was  revealed  when  the  Korean  War  was "internationalised". The United States and Chinese  troops  directly  engaged  in  the Korean War. Thus, the war which broke out within boundaries of two regions to unify a country turned the peninsula into a "direct battlefield" between Chinese and American forces. It became a hot spot of the Cold War and reflected the confrontation between two halves of the Yalta order.

In the context of a world divided into two  hostile  blocs,  a  fragile  balance  of superpowers,  a  zero-sum  game  in  which any advance for the communist camp was considered  a  loss  for  the  "free  world", previously  unimportant   regions   such   as Indochina  suddenly  took  a  considerable significance.  The  North  Korean   troops’ entering South Korea in June 1950 seemed to  confirm  American  fears  of  communist advancement and heighten the importance of Vietnam [9, pp.18-21].

The  Korean  War  and  the  international situation in this war were also an essential factor changing the United States’ policy on Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. It is assumed that the Korean War affected the United States’ policy towards Indochina in an indirect way but an important form. The Korean  War  influenced  the  US’  strategy and  improved  its  priority  order  in  Asia. Indochina was a key for the US to do what it called “protecting” Southeast Asia.

After  the  communist  victory  in  China (1949) and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950), the Truman administration made the first   step towards   directing   the   US’ involvement in Indochina. The outbreak of the  Korean  War,  together  with  concerns about the intentions of the Chinese  communists, solidified Washington's commitment [14, p.9].

Under these subjective  and  objective factors, Vietnam and Korea  increasingly occupied a critical position in the strategy of the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, although these regions were still not considered  central areas but just "peripheral" areas of the Cold War.

Truman himself reveals the domino theory’s compelling logic: “If we let South Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one piece of Asia after another”, which would eventually cause a collapse in Japan and Europe [20, p.148].

However, the Korean peninsula and Indochina were places where the "hot wars" happened   fiercely,   cruelly,   and   bloody between  the  two  systems  in  the  world. These events reflected an essential feature of the Cold War, in which military conflict often arose in areas not directly endangering the national security of two superpowers. It proved their own merits in the international politics of powerful countries.

The United States intervened in Vietnam to contain  communism  and  prevent  it  from spreading throughout Asia. Had it not been for the Cold War, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union would not have intervened in what likely had remained a local struggle for decolonisation in French Indochina. The Cold War shaped the way the Korean War and   the   Vietnam   War   were   fought   and significantly affected their outcome.

"The Cold War was an early and constant preoccupation, presenting a range of problems, challenges, and opportunities… To a degree not fully evident at the time, the  superpowers’  actions  in  Indochina  in 1950  had  the  effect  of  intensifying  the struggle and prolonging it, and of reducing (but not eliminating) the freedom of action of  both  France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam" [12, pp.281-304].

In  Indochina,  the  stage  was  already being set for the United States’ involvement in Vietnam before the Korean War broke out. A month before North Korea’s attack, the US granted a modest aid package to the French colonialists in Vietnam. While the US said it may have continued to increase in  the  absence  of  the  Korean  War,  the outbreak of fighting on Korean peninsula certainly  worked  to  deepen  and  intensify the mushrooming the United States’ will to containing  communism  in  Indochina  [19, pp.122-146]. In fact, less than a year after the Korean War ended, the United States was underwriting about 80 percent of the cost of the French War in Indochina [10, p.349].   By   the   mid-1960s,   the   United States’ policymakers looked back on Korea as  a  successful  exercise  in  limited  war, which encouraged them to believe that they could  achieve  a  repeated  performance  in Indochina [23, p.236]. Similarity, Vietnam’s  confirmation  of  a  new  policy pattern begun in Korea that went against the old policy of strictly avoiding land wars on the  Asian  landmass  [15,  pp.39-40].  The Korean War seemed the most likely factor for the United States government officially used in the historical analogies for reasons leading up to the escalation in Vietnam in 1965 [23, p.237].

The Korean conflict coloured the United States’  perceptions  of  the  need  to  contain communism   in   Asia   and   influenced   the Washington’s involvement in Vietnam. The North Korean entering South Korea in June 1950 seemed to confirm the United States’ fears  of  a  communist  expansion  and  to heighten the significance of Vietnam. "The United States never set out to win the war in the traditional sense. It did not seek the defeat of  North  Vietnam.  On  the  contrary,  vivid memories  of  Chinese  intervention  in  the Korean War in 1950 let the administration to wage a limit war" [9, pp.18-21].

4. Internationalised wars and superpowers' involvement

The  Korean  War  and  the  Vietnam  War were  power  games  between  the  United States, the Soviet Union, and China during the Cold War. The United States’ perception  of  the  Soviets’  role  in  the outbreak   of   the   Korean   War   and   the latter’s  aims  in  Korea  thus  played  an essential role in escalating and shaping the Cold War [26].

The Korean peninsula had a significant position in the United States’ strategy. As President  Truman  said  in  proposing  the “little ECA” for Korea to the Congress on 7 June 1949:

“Korea has become a testing ground in which the validity and practical value of the ideas and principles of democracy which the Republic is putting into practice are being matched against the practices of communism which have been imposed on the people of North Korea. The survival and progress of the Republic towards a self-supporting, stable economy will have an immense and far-reaching influence on the people of Asia. Moreover, the Korean Republic, by demonstrating the  success  and  tenacity  of democracy  in  resisting  communism,  will stand as a beacon of the people of northern Asia in opposing the control of communist forces which have overrun them. If we are faithful  to  our  ideals  and  mindful  of  our interests  in establishing peaceful    and prosperous conditions in the world, we will not  fail  to  provide  the  aid  which  is  so essential to Korea at this critical time” [30].

The   Korean   War   was   one   of   the principal triggers for the expansion of the Cold War, and it embraced the continuing Vietnamese  War  into  that  conflagration, which  marked  the  anti-colonial  and  anti- communist wars of the 1950s. The Korean War also marked the return to the massive industrial   warfare   of   the   Pacific   and European Wars, with substantial investments in air power, armour, and heavy artillery. The rise of the People's Republic of China brought  the  United  States’  attention  back from   Europe   to   Asia,   leading   to   the allocation of a multi-million dollar defence expenditure to the "general area of China".

Sixteen    countries    provided    military assistance, and at peak strength, the United Nations Command forces numbered about 400,000  soldiers  from   the  Republic  of Korea, 250,000 from the United States, and 35,000 from other nations [24, pp.421-433].

At first glance, the maximum of 537,000 US  servicemen  in  Southern  Vietnam  in 1968 dwarfed the peak of 326,863 soldiers in South Korea in 1953, and the density of the     commitment to Korea exceeded Vietnam, 329 to 302 [13, pp.635-656].

The nature of the war, on the Vietnamese  side,  was  still  a  struggle  to defend the independence of the motherland, protect  territorial  integrity and unification of the country. However, in the context of the international division of the two sides, the   Vietnam   battlefield   also   inevitably became a place where great powers gained their influence.  China supported the Democratic Republic of Vietnam; the United  States  and  its  allies  assisted  the Republic of Vietnam.

When the Vietnam War became a large- scale one, and the first US combat troops arrived in Southern Vietnam in 1965, the Soviet   Union   moved   from   being   an "observer"  to  providing  direct  assistance. The communists increased economic aid to Vietnam to consolidate its position in the strategic battle with the United States in the East-West   confrontation.   In   the   period between 1954 and 1965, the total amount of non-refundable  aid  and  long-term  loans from  China  to  Vietnam  was  worth  439 million roubles (287.5 million of that were grants,  151.5  million  were  loans).  In  the period from 1966 to 1971, the total amount of aid was 1,336 million roubles, of which 864  million  were  grants  and  472  million were long-term loans [4].

The spirit and attitude of the communist economic  aid  to  Vietnam  had  different characteristics. Grants were only provided during  the  period  of  the  United  States’ direct involvement in the war (1965-1972). In the period of the implementation of the first  five-year  plan  (1961-1965)  and  the period of 1973-1975, communist economic assistance was reduced in the numbers of direct  grants  and  changed  to  long-term loans, aiming at economic cooperation on the   principle   of   mutual   benefits   and facilitated repayment of loans.

Table 1: Communist Economic Assistance to Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1955-1974)

Source: Situation of economic relations between Vietnam and foreign countries from 1955 to 1974, Dossier 32, State Planning Committee Folder, Vietnam National Archive Centre No. 3.


The  United  States’  military  aid  to  the Saigon government in the period 1955-1960 was  USD  1,028.9  million,  USD  1,177.9 million  for  the  period  1961-1964,  USD 3,420.0  million  for  the  period  of  1965- 1968,  and  USD  12,311.8  million  for  the period  1969-1975.  For  the  whole  period 1955-1975, the United States’ government provided USD 17,939.1 million on military aid to the Republic of Vietnam [1, p.486].

It  is  notable  that  the  period  in  which Vietnam received the highest economic aid was also the period that the United States’ combat  troops  in  Vietnam  were  at  the highest level [3].

Given   the   growing   threat   from   the United States of the escalation of military offense against the DRV, Beijing expressed its concern over a possible open confrontation with Washington. Meanwhile, air strikes against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam shifted to the China- Vietnam  border  area.  The  United  States adopted a policy that allowed its air strikes to hit any force that blocked American air routes,  even  those  based  in  China  [18]. When Beijing leaders became more concerned about the rising security threat from  the  escalation  of  the  war  by  the United States, China increased its support for  Vietnam,  despite  knowing  that  such action could lead to a total war against the United States.

From this analysis, it can be said that communist economic aid to Vietnam was a result   of   a   confrontation   between   the capitalist  and  socialist  systems.  Thus,  in the period from 1965 to 1968, the level of intervention   of   the   United   States,   the Soviet Union, and China was pushed to the highest   level.   After   the   United   States planes bombed Hai Phong (1966), which is a city close to China's border, in an official statement dated 7 September 1966, China announced that  "the United States military's  attack  against  Vietnam  was  an attack    against China,"  warning that Washington  could  have  "made  a  serious historic   mistake"   if   it   underestimated China's determination to support Vietnam [21, pp.7-10].

While      asserting     the     attitudes     of superpowers   taking   their   benefits   from Vietnam’s struggle, on meeting with Zhou Enlai, the Secretary-General of the Communist  Party  of  Vietnam,  Le  Duan, said: "The relationship between China and Vietnam will exist not only in the struggle against  the  United  States  but  also  in  the long future ahead. Even if China does not help us as much, we still want to maintain close  relations  with  China,  as  this  is  a guarantee for our nation's survival" [29].

Thus,  the  level  of  intervention  of  the United States, the Soviet Union and China was pushed to the highest level. Therefore, the   Vietnam   War   became   increasingly severe and part of East-West conflict, with the  international  character  of  the  conflict becoming more apparent. The involvement of the United States, the Soviet Union and China  in  the  Vietnam  War  reflected  the complicated  relationship  between  the  two superpowers and had a profound impact on the nature and progress of the war as well as on Vietnam itself. However, it is also increasingly clear during the Cold War that Vietnamese   leaders   turned   the   rivalry among  the  contemporary  superpowers  to their advantage in their struggle for national liberation [17, pp.1-16].

5. Hot Wars in a Cold War

Resulting  from  interests  of  great  powers with two confronting systems headed by the United  States  and  the  Soviet  Union,  the capitalist     and    socialist     systems    were established  after  World  War  II.  The  two countries   played   decisive   roles   which affected all international relations, involving many regions and nations in a new form of war - the Cold War. Although it was called the  "Cold  War",  the  atmosphere  of  the world was not "cold" at all. "Hot wars", i.e. local  conflicts  between  the  United  States and  the  Soviet  allies  happened  in  many regions  of the  world.  Behind  that, it  had hands, shadow, and data, implicit plans of great  powers  (in  Indochina,  the  Korean Peninsula,   the   Middle   East).   With   the formation  and  hostility  between  capitalist and socialist systems, Vietnam's unification struggle was put in a spiral and affected by the profound influence of this context.

In Asia, the concept of “Cold War” is more  complicated.  Its  origins  in  Vietnam involved policies pursued by the  colonial authorities  returning  to  the  region  after World  War  II,  their  relations  with  great powers, as well as the agendas pursued by the local nationalist forces and communist parties of the region [8, pp.441-448]. The Cold War in Asia reflected by conflicts and diplomatic hostilities across the borders of the two blocs. It is assumed that the Cold War is characterised by hot wars and was one of the most crucial events in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century. The Cold  War  had  a  significant  impact  on decolonisation and nation-building in Asia. For  long  periods  of  time,  many  Asian countries  experienced  the Cold  War.

Tensions and hostilities marked the relationships not only among Asian members or the US and the Soviet Union but also between North and South in each country in some cases [25, p.7].

During   the   Cold   War,   nation-state building and socio-economic development were   two   independent,   and   interrelated processes  transforming  Asia.  Nation-state building  began  with  decolonisation.  It  is assumed that some Asian countries took the Cold War as a chance to secure American or   Soviet   aid   for   their   nation-building programmes   [6],   [16],   [5].   Nation-state building  also  went  along  with  numerous civil wars interacting closely with the Cold War  but  followed  their  particular  logic, such as Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1954- 1975),  Laos  (1958-1975),  and  Cambodia (1970-1975).

The Korean War is an immensely crucial event which was the first armed war of the Cold  War,  the  first  United  Nations  War, and  the  only  time  that  major  military powers have clashed on the battlefield since World War II [24, pp.421-433].

On 25 June 1950, the combat troops of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) made advancement across the 38th parallel.

On  7  July,  the  UN  Security  Council established  a  unified  military  command under the United States. Eventually, sixteen nations contributed forces. By the spring of 1951, these included 12,000 British, 8,500 Canadian, 5,000 Turkish, and 5,000 Filipino soldiers [22, p.102].

Both wars left huge losses. According to incomplete    statistics    of    Vietnam,    1,1 million soldiers died, 600,000 soldiers were wounded,  300,000  soldiers  went  missing, and two million civilians were killed. There are  also  about  two  million  people  who suffered from disabilities, two million who came in contact with toxic chemicals, and nearly  500,000  children  with  deformities due to chemical warfare4.

The Korean War, in which 54,000 US troops were killed, forms  the background against which the connection of the United States to the hostilities in Indochina at that time was played out [7, p.99].

The American losses in Korea amounted to  144,000  casualties,  MIAs,  and  POWs, whereas   the   North   Koreans   and   their Chinese allies together lost over 1,2 million people [7, p.140].

One estimate places the casualties toll at 750,000 militaries and 800,000 civilians. Of the military deaths, 300,000 were from the North  Korean  Army,  227,000  from  the Republic  of  Korea  Army,  200,000  from Chinese volunteers. About 37,000 Americans and 4,000 UN allies were killed. Civilian casualties are hard to estimate. On the high end, one UN estimate places the number of South  Koreans  who  died  of  all  causes including disease, exposure, and starvation at 900,000. North Korean casualties were probably higher [22, pp.109-110].

Of the 132,000 North Korean and Chinese military POWs, fewer than 90,000 returned home. Of the 10,218 Americans captured by the  communists,  only  3,746  returned;  the remaining 6,472 perished. Perhaps four times that number of South Korean prisoners died. RoK forces sustained some 257,000 military deaths, while the United States war-related deaths numbered 36,574, and forces under the United Nations’ command suffered 3,960 casualties.   The   DPRK   has   released   no casualty figures, but its military deaths are estimated at 295,000. Chinese deaths from all causes might approach one million. Perhaps 900,000 South Korean civilians died during the war from all causes5.

The United States Air Force dropped 7,5 million tonnes of bombs in Indochina, three times  as  much  as  in  World  War  II  (2,1 million  tonnes),  47  times  more  than  in Japan (160,800 tonnes) and more than ten times  than  in  the  Korean  War  (698,000 tonnes) [1, p.498].

The Korean War and the Vietnam War were all products of the Cold War, with the involvement   of   superpowers   with   their calculational strategies, differently expressed in each region and each country.

The conflation of the Cold War and the decolonisation  provided  opportunities  as well as challenges to indigenous nationalists and   European   powers   alike,   hastening decolonisation   in   some   territories   and prolonging that process in others.

Thanks   to   the   Cold   War,   national movements in Asian attracted superpowers’ backing  by  drawing  to  their  respective geopolitical concerns and fears. The Cold War impacted the course of decolonisation in   Southeast   Asia   extremely.   However, even as the Cold War influenced the future destiny  of  Southeast  Asia  in  an  era  of decolonisation,  it  was  transformed  by  its raging revolutionary fires into a "hot" Cold War.  It  was  assured  after   a  series  of exogenous events in East Asia, beginning with the victory of communism in China in October    1949,     and    followed    shortly thereafter  by  the  outbreak  of  the  Korean War in June 1950. These events conspired to   fundamentally   affect   its   tenor   and consequence. By the end of the 1950s, Asia in general and Indochina in particular, had become not just another regional theatre of the Cold War but the crucial main front in Asia where the looming and even "hotter" contest to finally resolve the outcome of the

two  competing  ideological  systems  was destined to be decided [11, p.4].

The Cold War also had impacts on the Vietnam War. In contrast, the Vietnam War affected trends  of the  Cold  War at  some points.   The   United   States   decided   to intervene,  causing  the  Cold  War  to  push Indochina into a hot spot. Vietnam accepted to sign the Geneva Agreements contributing to creating more peace and harmony. The Vietnamese struggle step by step promoted national liberation movements in the Third World, and became a new hot spot in the Cold War. Vietnam was a factor pushing Sino-American       rapprochement. These complex relationships contributed to promoting international peace at that time.

6. Dissimilarities

In fact, there were two Cold Wars in Asia, the  one  between  the  United  States  and China as well as the Asian dimension of the United   States-Soviet   Union   Cold   War. Also, there were two "hot" wars in which the   United   States   military  forces   were directly involved - the Korean War and the Vietnam  War.  Asia  was  beset  with  such conflicts and two full-fledged battles with the          United     States     as     a     significant participant.  The  Cold  War  in  Asia  is  a misnomer unless it merely means that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a power struggle in Asia but avoided, as in Europe, a direct military engagement.

The  Vietnam  War  differed  from  the Korean   War.   It   developed   in   unique circumstances and changed in nature. It was believed  that  behind  the  North  Korean attack stood Chinese and Soviet decisions.

However,   the   Democratic   Republic   of Vietnam was neither an agent of the Soviet Union   nor   of   China.   Given   China's advocacy of anti-American revolutions for national liberation, it is more plausible to argue that the North Vietnamese and their southern allies were under Chinese influence. In fact, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was an independent actor.

The Korean War and the Vietnam War were  all  products  of  the  Cold  War,  with calculated  involvements  of  superpowers. However, in each region, each country, it turned colours in different ways.

The Korean War and Vietnam War were hot  wars  in  the  Cold  War.  However,  the evolution of the war reflected international conflicts, becoming the battlefield of fierce struggles     between     superpowers. This confrontation related directly to the strategic calculations of the United States, the Soviet Union,  and  China  and  the  involvement  of these countries in these clashes.

Due to the political situation and geographic features, the wars’ purposes were different: The Vietnam War was a struggle to preserve  unity  and  territorial  integrity  -  a fundamental  part  of  national  rights.  The Korean   War   was   a   direct   engagement between the two confronting blocs, namely China, Korea, and the United States. It led to different   results  that directly affected countries and regions in postwar years.

In addition to its international character, the wars in Korea and Vietnams are North- South struggles. In both cases, the division of   the   countries   into   two   zones   were significant reasons leading to the breakout of  the  war.  The  split  led  to   a  fierce confrontation   between   the   two   regions, followed by the two poles in the two areas. As a result, gaps between the two regimes deepened, and a devastating war broke out.

The Korean War began as a civil war, leading to a confrontation between superpowers (China, the Soviet Union, and the  United  States).  From  this  event,  the relationship between     the     two     blocs worsened.  After  the  37-month  long  war, millions  of  people  were  killed,  and  the Korean  peninsula  returned  to  its  original state  -  back  to  the  dividing  line  that  the Soviet Union and the United States drew upon  at  the  end  of  World  War  II.  The Korean War left massive consequences for both North and South Korea. Besides the losses,  this  war  led  to  suspicion,  even hostility between the South and North. The Korean Armistice Agreement was the only military   ceasefire, but   not   a   political resolution   which   resolved   the   issue   of national rights, including the unification of the Korean peninsula. This is a fundamental difference from the 1954 Geneva Agreements  on  Indochina.  It  is  also  the longest lasting armistice that should have been replaced by a permanent peace treaty for   the   Korean   Peninsula.   The   mutual suspicion  and  the  ideological  opposition between North and South Korea were both symbols  of confrontation. The conflict  of the Cold War had a profound effect on the Korean peninsula. The two political regimes in   the   two   regions   had   two   different ideologies, even opposing each other, so their perception was utterly different.

The Korean War and the Vietnam War differed in their nature and participants of the war. The Korean War happened in two phases. In the first phase, foreign allies did not have crucial roles. During the second phase, nearly 100,000 Chinese troops were fighting  against  the  forces  of  the  United Nations led by the United States. Thus, the first phase was a local conflict. The second phase was an "internationalised" war on the Korean peninsula.

The  Korean  War  occurred  when  the East-West  and  the  North-South  conflicts were at the highest level, causing a bloody encounter. The result of the Korean battle was the Armistice Agreement, which meant not ending the war.

After  the   French   failure  to   stabilise Indochina   in   1954,   the   United   States followed   in   the   French   footsteps   and deployed their combat forces to contain the spread  of  communism  in  Indochina.  The Vietnam War converted a part of the Cold War, and the United States used Vietnam as a card to gain global strategic interests, and to contain the influence of the Soviet Union and China. The United States used all kinds of weapons to achieve victory. In contrast, Vietnamese   people also accepted all hardship and sacrifice    to    gain    their independence,  freedom,  and  reunification. For  their  obligations  to  allies,  for  their interests,  the  Soviet  Union,  China,  and other socialist countries assisted Vietnam in this   struggle.   The   peace   and   national liberation movements fully supported Vietnam, including also American people. Thus,   the  French-Indochina  war  (1945- 1954)  and  the  Vietnam  War  (1954-1975) were leading international events of great attention for all humanity over an extended period.

The  Democratic  Republic  of  Vietnam took advantage of the Cold War in other ways.  Until  1964,  both  major  communist powers had been consummate pragmatists. 

However, the US escalation forced them to make  tough  choices  to  assist  the  DRV's efforts to reunify the nation. In total, the Soviet and Chinese aid estimated at more than   two   billion   USD.   It   helped   to neutralise  the  United  States’  air  attacks, replace  equipment  lost  in  the  bombings, and helped Hanoi to send more troops to the South. "The fact  that  the Soviet  and Chinese supply almost all war material to Hanoi…   [has]  enabled the North Vietnamese  to  carry  on  despite  all  our operations" [9, pp.18-21].

The   Vietnam   War   exposed   internal conflicts   leading   to   a   fierce   struggle between  two  political  regimes.  After  the Paris Agreement (January 1973), the United States troops withdrew from Vietnam, with the only remaining forces  being Vietnamese. The war characterised a civil conflict, but overall, it was a resistance to unify the nation.

At  the  same  time,  the  Vietnam  War occurred  in  the  context  of  global  bipolar order. The North followed the socialist path supported by the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist countries.  The South followed the capitalist path with aid from the United States and capitalist countries. Thus, the battlefield in Vietnam became the confrontation   between   the   ideologically opposing systems. This situation led to the "internationalisation of the Vietnam War" with the concern of the great powers. The Vietnam   War   reflected   challenges   and strength of both opposing sides.

Whereas  the  Korean  War  (1950-1953) was  a  confrontation  between  the  United States and the People's Republic of China, the Vietnam War was only a direct combat of  the  United  States  troops  and  its  allies with  Vietnamese  forces  in  both  regions. The   Soviet   Union   and   China   strongly supported  the  DRV  with  regard  to  arms, ammunition, warfare facilities, expert teams,  and  anti-aircraft  guards  in  some northern   provinces.   Neither   Soviet   nor Chinese  soldiers  faced  the  United  States and Saigon troops on the battlefield.

Due to the characteristics of the situation and  nature  of  the  war,  the  Vietnamese struggle   was   associated   with   anti-war movements  all  over  the  world.  Vietnam tried  to  gain  support  from  all  nations, especially anti-war movements of American people.  Thus,  Vietnam  consolidated  and expanded its global sphere, and built up the pressure on the United States’ government in the international, diplomatic, and military arenas.   Therefore,   Vietnam   created   its legitimacy of the struggle.

Although  China  and  the  Soviet  Union supported Vietnam hugely, they could not control   Vietnam's   military  and  political policies. Hanoi determined its internal and foreign affairs itself.

Since   then,   each   war   extended   its effects in various ways. The Vietnam War affected the non-aligned movements, receiving the support of people all over the world. The Korean War did not have that considerable influence.

This   difference   created   a   political advantage for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, placing the conflict between the Vietnamese struggle and the United States interference on the top. Therefore, the goal of   the   war   was   to   fight   against   the aggression,  to  raise a  banner of national liberation, thereby  uniting people, including a large number of people living in        the       southern          part      of         Vietnam.

Meanwhile,     American     troops     caused massacres, so they lost  their loyalty and public support back in the US as well as in many countries around the world. Thus, in the United States, the anti-war movements were calling for peace and unity.

7. Conclusion

From these above mentioned points, it can be  seen  that  the  Vietnam  War  brought simultaneously  three  characteristics  which significantly differ from the Korean War: the national liberation of Vietnamese people, the opposing   between   the   two   regimes   in Northern and  Southern Vietnam, the confrontation between the two blocs in the world.  It  solved  the  conflict  between  the Vietnamese  people  and   US   imperialists, between socialist and capitalist regimes, as well as the dispute between the Soviet Union and China. This split turned Vietnam into a place  to  win  the  other's  influence.  Thus, Vietnam became a focus of the struggle not only between the two blocs (capitalist and socialist) but also within the socialist camp.

However, the most significant difference between the Vietnam War and the Korean War is the final outcome of this struggle. Despite being affected by the global Cold War,  the  Vietnamese  people  successfully united the country. It was a result of the Vietnamese  determination  and  sacrifices, from  which  the  Vietnamese  Communist Party conducted the right leadership leading to the success. Meanwhile, the Korean War was one of the bloodiest clashes in modern history and strongly influenced by external factors. The split of the Korean Peninsula continues, and the remnants of the Second

World War and the confrontation between the two sides in the Cold War have so far not  been  resolved.  Therefore,  the  Korean peninsula   remains   in   a   state   of   being divided into two states. This division is a debt  that  the  relevant  powers  need  to  be responsible for towards the Korean people.

Naturally,  wars  at  any  time,  in  any territory or country, mean losses and sad stories.   The   conflicts   in   Vietnam   and Korea are very different, but they have this in common: as in warfare, it’s the civilians who  suffered  most  of  all.  We  should remember the wars, not to repeat them but instead maintain and consolidate peace as well  as  build  up  the  friendship  between people all over the world.


* Institute of History, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

1 This paper was edited by Etienne Mahler.

2 The Cold War was defined in terms of the structure of  international  relations:  the  rivalry  between  the United  States-led  Western  liberal  democratic  bloc and the Soviet-led Eastern communist bloc which shaped the basic structure of international relations (Tadashi Aruga – Professor, Hitotsubashi University - The Cold War in Asia).

3   There  are  some  arguments  about  the  date  of  the "Vietnam War"  which  was also  called  "the Second Indochina War" (1954-1975)  or "the Vietnam Wars (1945-1975)   (including   the   first   and   the   second Indochina war). In this paper, the author uses the term “Vietnam War (1954-1975)” to refer to all the wars happening in Vietnam’s territory during this timeframe.

4 The number was calculated based on that of people receiving social welfare from the government. The real numbers of deaths and wounded people go far beyond [1, pp.576-580].

5  Casualty figures have been widely disputed, the best  analysis  can  be  found  in  Allan  R.  Millet, “Casualties”, Encyclopedia of the Korean War.


[1]    Ban chỉ đạo tổng kết chiến tranh trực thuộc Bộ Chính trị (2015), Chiến tranh cách mạng Việt Nam 1945-1975: Thắng lợi và bài học, Nxb Chính   trị   quốc   gia   -   Sự   thật,   Hà   Nội. [Committee under the Politburo for Summing up        National            Revolutionary     War       (2015), Vietnam's   Revolutionary   War,   1945-1975: Victory   and    Lessons,    National   Political Publishing House, Hanoi .

[2]    Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam (2004), Văn kiện Đảng toàn tập, t.35, Nxb Chính trị quốc gia - Sự thật, Hà Nội. [Communist Party of Vietnam (2004), The   Complete   Collection   of   Party Documents, Vol. 35, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi .

[3]    Thông tấn xã Việt Nam (1973), Tài liệu về miền  Nam.  [Vietnam  News  Agency  (1973), Documents about the South].

[4]    Trung tâm Lưu trữ Quốc gia III, Phông Phủ tướng, Hồ sơ 8767, Báo cáo về tình hình viện trợ kinh tế và kỹ thuật của Trung Quốc cho Việt  Nam  từ  1955  đến  2/1970.  [Vietnam National Archive Centre No. 3, Prime Minister Folder,   Dossier   8767,   Report   on   Chinese Economic    and    Technical    Assistance    to

Vietnam from 1955 to February 1970 .

[5]    Ragna Boden (2008), “Cold War Economics: Soviet Aid to Indonesia”, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vo. 10, No. 3.

[6]    Gregg A. Brazinsky (2007), Nation Building in South  Korea:  Koreans,  Americans,  and  the Making of a Democracy, University of North Carolina Press.

[7]    Frank Cain (2017), America's Vietnam War and Its French Connection, Routledge, New York.

[8]    Karl Hack, Geoff Wade (2009), "The Origins of the Southeast Asian Cold War", Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3.

[9]    George C. Herring (2004), “The Cold War and Vietnam”, OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 18, No. 5.

[10]  Burton I. Kaufman (1986), The Korean War: Challenges    in    Crisis,    Credibility,    and Command, Temple University Press.

[11]  Albert  Lau  (2012),  Southeast  Asia  and  the Cold War, Routledge.

[12]  Melvyn  P.  Leffler  and  Odd  Arne  Westad (2010), History of the Cold War, Vol II: Crises and Détente, Cambridge University Press.

[13]  John   L.   Linantud   (2008),   "Pressure   and Protection: Cold War Geopolitics and Nation- Building  in  South  Korea,  South  Vietnam, Philippines, and Thailand", Geopolitics, Vol. 13, No. 4.

[14]  Fredrick Logevall (2013), The Origins of the Vietnam War, Routledge.

[15]  Callum A. MacDonald (1986), Korea: The War before Vietnam, The MacMillan Press Ltd.

[16]  Matthew Masur (2009), “Exhibiting Signs of Resistance:   South   Vietnam’s   Struggle   for Legitimacy, 1954-1960”, Diplomatic History, Vol. 33, No. 2.

[17]  Edward  Miller  and  Tuong  Vu  (2009),  "The Vietnam War as a Vietnamese War: Agency and  Society  in  the   Study  of  the  Second Indochina      War",    Journal of         Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3.

[18]  New York Times, April 27, 1966.

[19]  Michael J. Nojeim (2006), "US Foreign Policy and the Korean War", Asian Security, No. 2 (2).

[20]  Arnold   A.   Offner   (1999),   "Another   Such Victory: President Truman, American Foreign Policy and the Cold War", Diplomatic History, Vol. 23, No. 2.

[21]  Peking Review, September 16, 1966.

[22]  Michael J. Seth (2010), A Concise History of Modern  Korea:  From  the  Late  Nineteenth Century    to         the              Present,   Rowman  and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, United Kingdom.

[23]  William Stueck (2002), Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History, Princeton University Press.

[24]  Spencer C. Tucker (2010), “The Korean War, 1950-1953:  from  Maneuver  to  Stalemate”, The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. 22, No. 4.

[25]  Tuong   Vu,   Wasana   Wongsurawat   (2009), Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia - Ideology, Identity, and Culture, Palgrave Macmillan.

[26]  Kathryn  Weathersby  (2011),  Soviet  Aims  in Korea  and  the  Origins  of  the  Korean  War, 1945-1950:   New   Evidence   from   Russian Archives,  Working  Paper  No.  8,  Cold  War International History Project.

[27]  Mel Gurtov (2010), "From Korea to Vietnam: The  Origins  and  Mindset  of  Postwar  U.S. Interventionism", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 42, No. 1, 3428/article.pdf, retrieved on 26 May 2019.

[28]  Allan  R.  Millet,  Korean  War  (1950-1953), Encyclopedia  Britannica,  https://www.britannica. com/event/Korean-War,  retrieved  on  26  May 2019.

[29]  Wilson  Center  (1966),  “Discussion  between Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Kang Sheng, Le Duan and  Nguyen Duy Trinh”,  History  and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, CWIHP Working      Paper    22,        "77               Conversations", t/113071, retrieved on 26 May 2019.

[30] dy_collections/korea/large/documents/B43_18 -04_03.jpg, retrieved on 26 May 2018.


Sources cited: JOURNAL OF VIETNAM academy OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, No. 1 (195) - 2020



News on date: