Cold War and the structuring of English in East Asia

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the economic uncertainty which existed across Europe and the world had made the US a safe haven for foreign capital and so given it unparalleled reserves of liquidity. It was upon these reserves that the various administration plans for rebuilding Europe and rejuvenating the world-economy were based. The government saw that without economic growth in Europe and elsewhere, US consumers would not be able to buy the foreign products which their war-enhanced incomes enabled them to buy, and neither would consumers in the rest of the world be able to purchase US goods. If not addressed, it was feared that the imbalance in global liquidity could lead to over-production bottlenecks in the US and mass layoffs. But even though this was apparent, private capital [as is the norm] was reluctant to lend overseas without cast-iron guarantees. Roosevelt also had to negotiate the extreme reluctance of Congress to relinquish control of the vast reserves of liquidity which the US had built up. With Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and his replacement by Harry S Truman, the impasse was broken by what Arrighi refers to as ‘the “invention” of the Cold War’ (2010: 304): ‘The genius of Truman and of his advisors was to attribute the outcome of systemic circumstances which no particular agency had created or controlled to the allegedly subversive dispositions of the other military superpower, the USSR’ (ibid). The US regularly demonstrated throughout the Cold War that it was not averse to supporting brutal dictatorships and the financing of rebel armies and coup d’états if it suited its strategic economic and geopolitical interests (Rabe, 2012; Blum, 2014; Bevins, 2020). The Cold War viewed in these terms was a game of capital flows, in which the accumulation of violence and oppression were treated as collaterally acceptable so long as capital was also able to accumulate and the violence, when it occurred, was confined to countries and zones ideally well beyond the borders of the US. States within the orbit of the US world-economy, which were willing to abide by its rules and to participate in its US-dominated international institutions, such as South Korea [after 1953] and Chile [after 1973], would receive preferential treatment. They would also in this context turn out to be the most amenable to English - e.g. by making it an important language in the school curriculum and often a requirement for university entrance as well (Matear, 2008; Kim, 2011; Paik, 2018). States electing to place themselves outside the US world-economy, such as Cuba [after 1959] and Vietnam [after 1975], and which were antagonistically inclined towards its institutions or choosing not participate in them at all [e.g. IMF, World Bank, GATT] would be isolated and punished. They were also likely to be the most resistant to English, with Russian and Chinese being popular alternatives.

With the surrender of Japan in 1945, following the dropping of US-built atomic devices on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the balance of geopolitical and linguistic power in East Asia was permanently transformed. For the first time in more than fifty years of Japanese incursion into its territory, China was on the side of the victors in a war with Japan but now found itself mired in a civil war of its own. In the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, China had been forced to recognize the formal independence of the tributary state of Korea and the cession of Taiwan to Japan. The treaty gave Japan effective suzerainty over Korea and was a preliminary to the country’s formal annexation in 1911. The atomic annihilation of Japan’s will to fight

The economy of global English, 1918-1979 115 in 1945 suddenly opened a vacuum which the allied powers, led by the US, eagerly sought to fill. Japan and the southern part of Korea up to the 38th parallel were occupied by allied troops under US command and US army military governments installed. North of the parallel, Korea was occupied by the forces of the Soviet Union. In both zones, the liberating powers sought to impose compliant Korean regimes while outwardly expressing the desire to see Korea united as one country. In Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, the pre-war British colonial administrations which had been deposed by Japan were restored. In China, the defeat brought to an end to years of Japanese aggression and enabled Chinese forces to recover Manchuria, which had been invaded and annexed by Japan in 1931. China had been at war with Japan continuously since 1937[1] - a fact made possible by a truce between the nationalist Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and the Communists under Mao Zedong (1893-1976), whose armies united in the common cause of expelling the Japanese from China. Once both the USSR and the US entered the war a few months apart in 1941, the Chiang Kai-shek government, wishing to align itself with the likely victors, followed suit and formally declared war on Japan. But until final victory came in 1945, the duplicitous Chiang secretly kept a line of communication open with the Japanese, in the event that Japan should emerge victorious instead (Epstein, 1956: 109-111). The sudden termination of Japanese resolve, in addition to ending the war, also had the calculated consequence that the Soviet Union would have no say in the post-war settlement in Japan and therefore no say in its linguistic settlement either. The US also took the opportunity presented by the defeat to send large numbers of troops to Manchuria to facilitate a Japanese surrender to the Kuomintang. Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s fear was that Japan’s defeat would give Mao’s Communists the upper hand in China, and so they threw their weight behind Chiang [and his charismatic American-sounding English-speaking wife, Song Mei-ling 3c mainly in the form of US strategic supplies and training for the nationalist armies, in a move that was to set a precedent for later US practice during the Cold War. A Sino-American Trade Treaty which guaranteed tariff-free access for US capital and goods was also quickly agreed with the Nationalists. Strikes over the Nationalist government’s economic policies, and public opposition to US interference, were brutally suppressed by the Chiang regime. But this did little to quell the huge swell of popular support which was building

behind the Communists in the interior, who demonstrated in every village they ‘liberated’ their commitment to land reform, the eradication of power abuses, and a new deal for the Chinese people. As the civil war dragged on into 1948, Kuomintang resistance began to disintegrate. Morale was low, and a general unwillingness to fight against fellow Chinese spread through Nationalist ranks, especially when its soldiers learned of the land reforms which Mao’s advancing forces implemented as they advanced. Many Kuomintang fighters and units chose to switch allegiance rather than fight the liberators of their home towns and villages. The retreat of the Nationalists became a rout through 1949, with what was left of the Kuomintang armies, its leadership and its support base fleeing to Taiwan. With the mainland emptied of resistance, on October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared.

This was not the outcome which Truman and Acheson had hoped for, but the fact of it was to have a profound effect on the kind of East Asia which was to emerge, not only in respect of the political and economic alignments which later materialized between a communist mainland China and a US-dominated Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, but also in respect of English as the newly preferred principal foreign language of post-war non-communist East Asia. The Philippines was a US colony until 1946 when it was given its independence. But it remained closely aligned with the US, which had a number of military bases there. Taiwan, under Chiang Kai-shek, was also strongly pro-US, and both Japan and South Korea were under US occupation. The 1949 Revolution fundamentally changed the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region, but the timing of it was also significant because it coincided with the rise of McCarthyism in the US and, from an anti-communist perspective, the almost convenient outbreak of the Korean War one year later. The Chinese Revolution came as a gift to the narcissist-demagogue-cum-Senator Joseph R McCarthy (1908-57), whose House Un-American Activities Committee made it the pretext for a witch hunt of supposed communist infiltrators in the US government and wider establishment who were deemed responsible for allowing - and plotting to allow - the ‘loss of China’ to occur (Ambrose, 1993; Blum, 2014). The linguistic, cultural and economic ‘Americanization’ of East Asia in the years following 1949, in addition to being a reaction to events on the ground, was in large measure also a reflex of domestic McCarthyism and ‘the great fear’ of communism which this provoked. The emerging Cold War policy positions of the Truman administration (1945-53) allied with ‘Red Scare’ McCarthyism at home made the US and its brand of capitalism appear - to US citizens and sympathetic international observers - the natural ideological alternative


In this period China, in addition to suffering from foreign depredations of its territory, was also plagued by endemic official corruption and warlordism in the provinces.

The economy of global English, 1918-1979 117 to Marxist-Leninist and Maoist communism. It also willingly positioned the US as the global power whose responsibility it was to protect the ‘free world’ [i.e. free to accumulate capital] from the ‘Soviet-orchestrated’ menace. From this premise, the logic proceeded that if communism was to be ‘contained’, it was essential that the US nurture and protect its newfound allies in the East, and elsewhere, so as they might act as a bulwark against the encroaching communist tide. It was inevitable that along with this came US English as the language of allied strategic coordination in East Asia.

The US strategy owed much to the thinking of the academic and then US Ambassador to Moscow George Kennan, who argued in an anonymous paper published in Foreign Policy in April 1947 that ‘the mean element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’ (Kennan, 1947: 6). These tendencies, in addition to referencing developments in Europe, were understood to include China and the growing communist threats in Vietnam and Korea. They also included potential threats in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Kennan paper provided the intellectual basis for what in April 1950 became the National Security Council policy paper, number 68; also known as NSC 68. This document set out for the first time the formal US position towards the perceived Soviet threat and the options which the US had for dealing with it. Following Kennan, NSC 68 declared that the fundamental design of the Soviet Union was ‘the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin’ (NSC 68: 3). The document advanced four possible courses of action. These were (a) a continuation of current policies, (b) a return to 1920’s isolation,

  • (c) war with the USSR, and (d) ‘A more rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world’ (ibid: 30). Option
  • (d) was settled upon as the preferred course of action. NSC 68 placed particular emphasis on the communist threat in Europe and Asia, noting ‘an increasing nervousness in Western Europe and the rest of the free world [and] ominous signs of further deterioration in the Far East’ (ibid: 34). As a response it advocated substantial increases in economic and military aid to the affected regions. Like Kennan’s 1947 paper, NSC 68 presented the idea that the USSR was set upon world domination as an incontrovertible fact. This was despite the overwhelming evidence that the USSR had been so economically devastated by the Second World War that it could
  • 1

NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security. A Report to the President Pursuant to the President’s Directive of January 31, 19S0 (April 14,1950) www. Accessed April 6, 2017.

not afford expansion on such terms even if it desired it. Ideologues in the US State Department, of which there were to be a long line after Kennan and the authors of NSC 68, also conveniently ignored the ideological limitations of Soviet-style communism, which with its longstanding adherence to the Stalinist principle of ‘socialism in one country’ - first coined in the 1920s - undercut the USSR’s own pretensions to global conquest and world domination, even as it provided piecemeal financial support to socialist movements in foreign states and kept Eastern Europe in oppressive thraldom. The consequence was that the State Department treated the USSR as being behind all challenges to the US-inspired post-1945 world order, regardless of whether in fact it was or not, and this coloured US foreign policy thinking for the next forty- five years. From the perspective of 1950, the Chinese Revolution and the Korean War were all part of a grandiose Soviet plot to take over the world, in which East Asia was a new front line in urgent need of defence.

  • [1] At the time of writing, the Chinese government has officially revised the date at which war between China and Japan commenced to 1931 and the annexation of Manchuria. 2 Until 1941, although China and Japan were at war, no formal declaration of war had been made. 3 She spoke English with a southern Georgia American accent picked up from her schooldays in the US.
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