SOAS University of London

Department of History

World War II, Cold War, and the "War On Terror": the United States and South East Asia

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2016/2017
Unit value:
Taught in:
Full Year

This course examines one of the most dynamic periods of South East Asian history, the period from the beginning of the Second World War to the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the last half-century, U.S. foreign policy has affected every continent as a result of its global reach as the preeminent superpower, and South East Asia is no exception. However, the U.S. impact has been perhaps far greater on political and cultural change in the region than anywhere else, in large part because the beginning of the Cold War encountered complex processes of decolonization. Southeast Asia was divided into numerous different international camps during the war, made more confusing by the frequent rise and collapse of pro-U.S. regimes. Now, as we head into the twenty-first century, a new context has emerged in which the growth of Chinese political and economic power and the outbreak of the global war on terror is breaking down old relationships and encouraging yet another reconfiguration of U.S. friend and foe in the region. 

While significant attention will be paid to specific historical developments in each of the major countries of the region during this half century, the emphasis will be upon broader developments that shaped the region from the breakdown of colonial rule and through consecutive regional divisions to the decline of the Cold War divisions and reintegration of the region, a process begun by the end of the 1980s.  

The course also seeks to show how many of these developments were informed, re- directed, or determined by U.S. foreign policy and outright intervention. Soviet and American policies had a major impact on the region, especially when given muscle through the deployment of the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and even covertly through the manipulation of aid. U.S. influence, however, did not end with Vietnam and has continued to complicate the development of the region.


Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the completion of the course, the student should:

  • understand the relationship between regional and global interests and policies from World War II, through the Cold War, and into the twenty-first century, in reference to South East Asia.
  • Have a strong understanding of the major political events of South East Asia during this period, in the context of U.S. foreign policy, and to develop independent perspectives based on the prevailing secondary literature on the subject.
  • Draw connections between political events and the cultural and social conditions of one of the countries of South East Asia.
  • Write a competent well-structured essay making substantial use of materials in a research library, but not necessarily in an archive.
  • Complete a meaningful unseen paper within a limited time period, independent of reference materials, on the major aspects of the U.S. Relationship with South East Asia.

The objectives of this course are two-fold. 

  1. The course is topically arranged so as to allow for a clear understanding of the relationship between the region’s historical developments during the period. American and Soviet foreign policy decisions, overt and covert intervention in local political processes, and the manipulation of aid programs in an economically developing region both triggered and sustained particular forms of government (such as military administrations) and actively sought to create and preserve new elites who would align themselves with one or the other sides before, during, and after the Cold War. In most, if not all, of the countries examined, Western or Soviet sponsorship contributed heavily to both sides in local conflicts, as had the continuity of American aid (and now, PRC aid) after. 
  2. The Second objective, made possible by the simultaneous chronologically orientation of the topical sections, is to provide students with a comprehensive survey of the major political, economic, social, and military developments of the period. Necessarily, religious and cultural developments will be discussed in the context of the aforementioned developments as they relate to the topics discussed. For example, while a complete history of Indonesian Islam or Burmese Buddhism will not be provided for the period under examination, the former will be looked at as it related to the Indonesian crisis in the 1960s and the latter as in the context of the failures of the U Nu regime (1950s), the ideology formulated to sustain the Ne Win regime (1960s and 1970s), the role of monks in the emergence of the Democratic Movement (1980s), and the role of Muslim fundamentalists in contemporary Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

In sum, by combining these two objectives, it is hoped that students will leave the course with a strong comprehension of how international and local developments interconnect and a clear understanding of how the South East Asia they will see today was shaped.

Method of assessment

Exam (50%) and 2 x Coursework (50%).

Suggested reading

Introductory bibliography:
  • Andaya, Barbara Watson & Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia;
  • Anderson, Benedict R. OíG, (B). Language and Power
  • Benda, Harry. 'The Japanese Interregnum'; Burma Communist Party's Conspiracy to Take Over State Power selections
  • Cady, John Frank. The United States and Burma; Cambridge History of
    Southeast Asia, volume 2
  • Callahan, Mary P. Making Enemies: War and Statebuilding in Burma
  • Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia
  • Charney, Michael W. 'Ludu Aung Than: Nu's Burma During the Cold War'
  • Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam
  • Fenby, Jonathan. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He
  • Goscha, Christopher (ed.). The Cold War in Southeast Asia, forthcoming; 
  • Hunter, Edward. 'Communist Psychological Warfare';
  • Kahin, George McTurnan, Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia;
  • McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Empire: The United State and Southeast Asia Since World War II;
  • Rafael, Vicente L. 'Patronage, Pornography, and Youth: Ideology and
    Spectatorship during the Early Marcos Years'
  • Rafael, Vicente L. 'Your Grief is Our Gossip: Overseas Filipinos and Other Spectral Presences'; 
  • Ricklefs, M. C. A History of Modern Indonesia
  • Tan, Samuel. The Filipino Muslim Armed Struggle, 1900-1972;
  • Thomson, John Seabury. 'Burmese Neutralism'; Those Fickle Communists! [1952 pamphlet]; 
  • Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History
  • Yahuda, Michael. The International Politics of the Asia-Pacific, 1945-1995.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules