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The United States and Southeast Asia

Summary and Keywords

The U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia has always reflected the state of U.S. interactions with the three major powers that surround the region: Japan, China, and, to a lesser extent, India. Initially, Americans looked at Southeast Asia as an avenue to the rich markets that China and India seemed to offer, while also finding trading opportunities in the region itself. Later, American missionaries sought to save Southeast Asian souls, while U.S. officials often viewed Southeast Asia as a region that could tip the overall balance of power in East Asia if its enormous resources fell under the control of a hostile power.

American interest expanded enormously with the annexation of the Philippines in 1899, an outgrowth of the Spanish-American War. That acquisition resulted in a nearly half-century of American colonial rule, while American investors increased their involvement in exploiting the region’s raw materials, notably tin, rubber, and petroleum, and missionaries expanded into areas previously closed to them.

American occupation of the Philippines heightened tensions with Japan, which sought the resources of Southeast Asia, particularly in French Indochina, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Eventually, clashing ambitions and perceptions brought the United States into World War II. Peeling those territories away from Japan during the war was a key American objective. Americans resisted the Japanese in the Philippines and in Burma, but after Japan quickly subdued Southeast Asia, there was little contact in the region until the reconquest began in 1944. American forces participated in the liberation of Burma and also fought in the Dutch Indies and the Philippines before the war ended in 1945.

After the war, the United States had to face the independence struggles in several Southeast Asian countries, even as the Grand Alliance fell apart and the Cold War emerged, which for the next several decades overshadowed almost everything. American efforts to prevent communist expansion in the region inhibited American support for decolonization and led to war in Vietnam and Laos and covert interventions elsewhere.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, relations with most of Southeast Asia have generally been normal, except for Burma/Myanmar, where a brutal military junta ruled. The opposition, led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, found support in the United States. More recently American concerns with China’s new assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, have resulted in even closer U.S. relations with Southeast Asian countries.

Keywords: Cold War, communism, colonialism, trade, decolonization, Vietnam, Indochina, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, nationalism


American interest in Asia stretches back to the Age of Columbus, or even earlier. Columbus was, after all, engaged in an international competition to find an overseas avenue to the fabled wealth and wonders of the East. What Columbus found was America (although Columbus himself was never convinced that he had not found Asia). Thereafter those who migrated to the Western Hemisphere were concerned primarily with immediate matters of surviving, exploiting American resources, and building their colonies. But the hope to somehow touch Asia was never entirely subdued even then. Even early Puritan intellectuals living in British North America were interested in Asia: Cotton Mather received a Tamil translation of the New Testament that may have been the first Asian-language book in the New World. Later, other British North Americans were involved in trade with Asia, and it was China tea that patriots hurled into Boston Harbor in 1773.1

Soon after independence, citizens of the new United States took up their own trade with China and India, and along the way a number of American ships stopped in ports in the region later known as Southeast Asia. In the first half of the 19th century, the United States had a flourishing trade with Siam (Thailand), where in 1833 Edmund Roberts negotiated the first U.S. bilateral treaty of amity and commerce with a Southeast Asian country; in modified form, the treaty is still in effect. The relationship was significant enough that in 1859 President James Buchanan sent a gift of 102 books to King Mongkut. Mongkut replied with a gift of a sword and a pair of elephant tusks, along with an offer to send elephants to the United States, if the climate and terrain were suitable for them to “thrive and prosper.”2 In the Dutch East Indies, a significant trade in sugar, tea, and coffee emerged, which particularly benefited merchants in Salem, Massachusetts. The first American consul was appointed to Batavia in 1802, though the Netherlands did not officially recognize the consuls until 1855. There was also trade with Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah, and American ships sought supplies and repairs in Southeast Asian ports. The first American consul was appointed to Singapore in 1833. In the Philippines, the United States was second only to the British in trading volume. American merchants traded for teak in the Burmese kingdoms, and in 1793 King Bodawpaya seized an American merchant ship to use in his war with a neighboring kingdom. The captain and one officer were held as hostages until the war was over. From time to time, American naval vessels were dispatched to the region to protect American trade. Trade with Asia declined after midcentury but did not disappear.3

Although Protestant missionaries became significant and influential in China and India, they were much less active in Southeast Asia. Burma was the only country in the region with a significant American missionary community in the 19th century, where Adironam and Ann Judson arrived in 1813. Originally sent to India by the Congregationalist American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions, the Judsons found they were not welcome there and almost by chance ended up in Burma, then still an independent kingdom. Shortly thereafter, Adironam decided that his theological views were closer to those of the Baptists, and so he transferred his allegiance to the American Baptist General Convention for Foreign Missions. Thus began the storied American Baptist Mission in Burma that became the most important American presence in the country well into the 20th century.

The Rise of the United States to World Power

By the late 19th century, the United States was on the verge of becoming a great world power and, like the other great powers of that era, established both a small, formal colonial empire in Asia and the Pacific, and a larger informal empire, predominantly in Latin America. A variety of factors motivated this imperial expansion. On the economic side, some intellectuals and government officials argued that the United States needed to acquire more markets, particularly in the underdeveloped parts of the world to stave off economic distress at home (due to the overproduction of goods) and the social disorder that accompanied depressions. Others, more humanely motivated, emphasized the “White Man’s Burden” concept of service to the supposedly “lesser races,” which needed to be uplifted, civilized, and Christianized, as President William McKinley once put it. Though more humane in motivation, the White Man’s Burden idea reflected the widespread belief among white Americans that nonwhites were inferior but might be capable of advancement and improvement under Anglo-Saxon direction—or might not. Racial ideas deeply affected American ideas and policies toward Southeast Asia and were quite openly expressed well into the 20th century. After World War II, explicit expressions of white supremacy were less common, but paternalism and a suspicion about the capabilities of colonial peoples did not disappear and subtly influenced policy.

Acquiring an empire did not go unchallenged. It clashed with American ideals of self-determination and democracy, as well as with American pride in having carried out the first successful revolution against a European empire in modern times. Anti-British sentiment lingered in the American body politic. Although the “great rapprochement” between the United States and Great Britain in the early 20th century diminished Anglophobia, a vigorous anti-imperialist movement arose, which included such diverse luminaries as Mark Twain, who wrote bitterly about imperial expansion, and industrialist Andrew Carnegie who wrote equally bitter letters to his friend, Secretary of State John Hay. The anti-imperialist movement raised fundamental moral and philosophical questions but did not stop the creation of an overseas American empire.

The acquisition of the Philippines from Spain in 1899 became the most important step in the creation of a formal empire; the United States ruled this Southeast Asian nation from 1899 to 1946. Acquiring the Philippines appealed to those who were caught up in the patriotic fervor that arose out of Commodore George Dewey’s thrilling victory over the Spanish fleet early in the Spanish-American War and did not want to see the American flag lowered. It also appealed to many Protestants whom Spain had rigorously excluded from the islands. Some business leaders saw possibilities for investment in the islands, but more were attracted to their proximity to the much more populous China, which the European powers and Japan were just then carving up into spheres of influence that threatened American trade. Others emphasized their “duty” to uplift the supposedly uncivilized or semicivilized Filipinos.

The United States annexed the islands over the objections of many Filipinos who forcefully resisted the American conquest until 1902, and in some areas well after that. The Philippine-American War is much less well known than the Spanish-American War but lasted much longer, cost ten times as many American deaths, and resulted in at least 200,000 Filipino fatalities. Although the United States established a colonial government, it had to contend with persistent Filipino calls for independence. During the Republican administration of the islands (1899–1913), the Americans tried, but failed, to deflect such sentiments toward more “constructive” endeavors, such as learning how to govern responsibly, spreading general education, and building roads.4 The Democrats, under President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), were more favorable toward Filipino demands and for the first time accepted independence as the American goal. In the meantime, they put Filipinos in charge of most governmental institutions. But it was not until the 1930s that a combination of economic interests, idealistic anti-imperialist sentiment, and racism resulted in legislation setting a specific timetable for independence.5

In the meantime, the United States was not ignoring other parts of Southeast Asia. The European colonial governments, which controlled most of the region, made foreign investment difficult. But Herbert Hoover invested in a bankrupt Chinese silver mine in British Burma that was making a profit after a decade. Coca-Cola was selling beverages in the region, and American petroleum and automobile dealers worked in French Indochina and elsewhere. Americans also had substantial investments in Malayan rubber and tin production. But the most significant American economic presence was in the Dutch East Indies, where trade increased tremendously during and after World War I. American companies also invested there in rubber production and in petroleum after 1927, and Standard Oil of New Jersey and Socony Mobil Oil operated over 500 wells there by 1940.6

Even before World War II, the United States was concerned with communist elements in Southeast Asia. For example, despite apprehensions about appearing to cooperate with European colonial governments, American authorities engaged in informal cooperation with them to track and detain alleged communists. The most notorious effort along these lines involved the detention and summary deportation of the Indonesian communist leader, Tan Malaka, in Manila in 1927. Acting at the request of British and Dutch officials, the Malaka case demonstrated that fears about international communism in Southeast Asia predated the Cold War.7

World War II

Southeast Asia was also the key to the United States entering World War II. When the United States reacted against Japanese demands on China, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies, Japan responded by attacking the Philippines and Pearl Harbor. The war was on. American forces were soon subdued in the Philippines, and the United States supported anti-Japanese Philippine guerrilla efforts during the war. In Burma General Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers contributed to the initial defense of Rangoon, but with the city’s fall the Flying Tigers relocated to Kunming, China, while the American soldiers under General Joseph W. Stillwell joined the British in a strategic retreat into India. Stillwell established the China–Burma–India command in Chongqing, China, where he planned operations to retake Burma. It was only in 1944 that Allied forces began a counteroffensive that ultimately resulted in victory over the Japanese in 1945.8

Mainland Southeast Asia lost its military importance when the United States decided to achieve victory through the Pacific Islands, rather than the mainland. Aside from Burma and the Philippines, there had been little U.S. military engagement in Southeast Asia with Japanese forces. But the decision to attack Japan through the Pacific Islands required first subduing the Japanese in the far eastern reaches of the Dutch Indies and then advancing to the Philippines. The advance began in March 1944 with assaults on Japanese positions in northern New Guinea. Once those areas and a number of Pacific Islands were in American hands, the way was clear for an assault on the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur, who had been forced to flee the Philippines in 1942, was about to redeem his pledge to return. In the important naval battle of Leyte Gulf, the Americans largely destroyed what was left of the Japanese navy, and the United States now had command of the Pacific.

But that did not mean the end of the fighting. By the end of 1944, the Philippine island of Leyte was in American hands, and the invasion of the main island of Luzon was imminent. There 260,000 Japanese troops were stationed, ready to resist the Americans. Manila fell to the Americans on March 4, 1945, though the city itself was devastated and casualties were high. Luzon was not fully pacified until Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.

Decolonization and Cold War

The end of World War II set in motion two major developments: the disintegration of the Grand Alliance, which resulted in the Cold War; and the termination of colonial rule, initially in Asia and the Middle East, and later in Africa. The two processes were interrelated for Americans. There was a genuine anticolonial strain in American thought that went back to the American Revolution. Many people strongly objected to the continuation of colonialism—among them President Franklin Roosevelt. This was evident in the Atlantic Charter, a document of war aims drafted with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill before U.S. entry into the war. It included a provision affirming “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Churchill interpreted this provision to apply only to territories controlled by enemy states. Roosevelt wanted it applied universally, and throughout the war he pressured the British about their rule in India and Hong Kong; he also wanted to prevent the French from returning to Indochina. His attitude toward Dutch colonial rule was more ambivalent, but he reportedly told an American official in 1942 that he planned to tell Queen Wilhelmina “that the Dutch Indies could not permanently remain Dutch” and that he was “going to be very unpopular” with the Dutch “before this thing is through.”9 Roosevelt and other administration officials were not fighting the war to see empires reestablished, and the European governments looked with suspicion, even fear, that the United States would force them to relinquish their colonies and dominate the area.

Although Roosevelt is properly credited as being “one of the fathers of the postwar world of politically independent nations,”10 he was unable to transfer his ideas about colonialism into firm policy. This was due to the pressing matters of winning the war, disagreement among other government officials, fierce resistance from Churchill, and the State Department’s European bias. As historian Lloyd C. Gardner put it, with Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, “in a sudden gust … the pieces all flew apart.”11

Thus, even before the end of World War II, there was less anticolonial sentiment in the U.S. government. Soon, the United States allowed the French to return to Indochina and the Dutch to Indonesia. There was no objection to the British returning to Burma, Malaya, and Singapore. And as the Cold War developed, more doubts emerged about the wisdom of putting too much anticolonial pressure on its European allies, since the nationalistic independence movements that existed in almost all colonial areas seemed to American officials to be either communist-inspired or naïve about the dangers that communism posed to the region.

Yet, the United States could support genuinely anticommunist, nationalist movements that had the support of the people. The contrasting cases of nationalism in Indonesia and Vietnam illustrate the different possibilities. In the case of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh hoped for American support in his battle with the French, and while Roosevelt was alive, there was some reason to think he might gain that support. The U.S. Office of Strategic Service contingent that worked with Ho in the final months of the war and beyond was sympathetic to Ho as well. But Ho, though surely a strong nationalist with much popular support, was also a communist. And as concern about communism increased, the United States ultimately supported the French and Ho’s Vietnamese opponents, such as Bao Dai, even though many American officials knew that Bao Dai had little national support. When Ho’s nationalist movement came up against the Cold War, there was almost no chance that in the end the United States would support him. By 1950, the United States was beginning to ship arms to the French in Vietnam and by 1954 was paying for most of the French war, though Americans were not fighting.

The American response to events in Indonesia provides an alternative picture. After the war, the Allies were surprised to find a functioning, nationalist government under the leadership of Sukarno, whom the Japanese had rescued from the small island to which the Dutch had exiled him. Sukarno worked for the Japanese, always hoping to use them to further nationalist goals. When the Dutch returned, fighting erupted between the Dutch and the forces of Sukarno’s Indonesian Republic. The United States’ position was ambivalent, with some if its actions and policies resented by the Dutch, others by the nationalists. The Americans would have been pleased if the two sides could have worked out their differences, but that was unlikely given the diametrically opposed outcome that each side preferred. On balance, U.S. policy tended toward the Dutch. Still, the Americans contributed significantly to the signing of the two most important agreements during the Dutch-Indonesian War: the Linggadjati Agreement of 1947 and the Renville Agreement of 1948 (the latter agreement being signed on the USS Renville).

But when the Dutch attacked the Indonesian Republic in the second “Police Action,” there were outcries across the political spectrum. The Dutch had disregarded their own agreement, as well as UN Security Council pronouncements. And in the end, the United States came down against the Dutch and helped arrange a withdrawal from most of the Indies. It had not hurt that in 1948 the Republic had strongly suppressed a communist rebellion in Madiun. In sum, U.S. support of noncommunist nationalist movements could and did happen. But overall, concern with communism usually trumped anti-imperialist approaches in determining U.S. priorities.12 And later, when Sukarno moved too close to the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), the United States, not surprisingly, moved against him.

Concern about communism also influenced American policy toward the independence of other Southeast Asian countries. The French returned to Cambodia following World War II but soon encountered opposition from various armed resistance groups known as Khmer Issaraks (Free Khmers). In addition, the Cambodian Democratic Party rode to victory in 1947 on an anti-French platform. American diplomats often sympathized with those Cambodians who criticized the French. But they had little good to say about the Issaraks because they thought some were under the influence of Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh movement in neighboring Vietnam. In Malaya, the United States supported the British declaration in 1948 of the “Emergency” against communist rebels.

The “fall” of China to communism in 1949 was a traumatic development for the United States that caused near panic among American policymakers (if not so much to Secretary of State Dean Acheson) and profoundly affected U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Thus, in 1950 the United States hurriedly extended diplomatic recognition to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in a bid to gain some credibility with the peoples of French Indochina, even though none of them was truly independent. The young king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, said at the time that Cambodia was only half independent and soon began a “royal crusade” to force the French out altogether. This made the United States nervous. The Korean War, which began in June 1950, coming right on top of China’s “fall,” seemed to signal an aggressive expansion of communism in Asia. Southeast Asia might be next. The idea of the “domino theory,” not articulated by President Dwight Eisenhower until 1954, was already alive and well. The United States believed that excluding the French from Cambodia was dangerous and that Sihanouk was entirely too naïve about communism. But in 1954 Sihanouk emerged victorious, and the United States hoped it might take over informally from the French to more effectively save Cambodia.

With the Korean War, the United States also began to focus more attention on Malaya and Singapore, which then were still British colonies. The Americans considered Malaya and Singapore as British spheres, though they had long been interested in Malaya’s raw materials. As the Cold War developed, fear of communist influence in the region led to some military aid even before the Korean War. But it was the war that significantly shifted American interest toward geopolitical factors. Though economic considerations did not disappear, containment of communism drove policy there. The United States was greatly worried as the communists made notable advances in 1954 and 1955, and the United States questioned British handling of the “Emergency,” the civil war that lasted from 1948 to 1960.

Burma presented its own problems of decolonization in a quite different context. There, the British had returned, but ultimately they were willing to work toward Burmese independence with General Aung San, the most important of the Burmese nationalists who had been challenging the British since the 1930s. The Americans were not entirely comfortable with Aung San. He had fought with the Japanese during the war, though he later switched sides. Equally troubling, his political views were quite far to the left. He was in fact one of the founders of the Burma Communist Party (BCP). While he never was a doctrinaire Marxist and a critic of some aspects of the BCP, his brother-in-law Than Tun headed the party after the war, and Aung San did not entirely rule out bringing communists into his government. But there was no doubt that Aung San had the overwhelming support of most Burmese; after some hesitation, the British had come to accept him, and he became the de facto head of state before independence came. Consequently, the Americans suppressed their concerns and supported his government, concluding that not to do so would make it easier for the communists to gain influence.13

It was modern Burma’s greatest tragedy that Aung San and half of his cabinet were assassinated in July 1947, for he was perhaps the only person who might have been able to fashion an agreement with the numerous minority peoples, many of whom had fought valiantly on the side of the Allies during the war and who feared domination by the Burman majority. The issue has never been completely resolved, as fighting has continued to the present between the government of Burma (now Myanmar) and some of the most important minority groups.

After the assassination, the United States supported Aung San’s successor, the deeply religious U Nu, who became independent Burma’s first Prime Minister in January 1948. U Nu was a socialist whose beliefs, the American ambassador concluded, were indistinguishable from those of the communists. At the very least, the United States considered him naïve, an increasingly common complaint about Southeast Asian leaders that revealed continuing paternalistic views about nonwhite peoples. And yet the United States stood by Nu, despite temptations to side with the pro-Western minority groups. At one level, this represented a realpolitik approach. U Nu enjoyed substantial internal support, and, if his political views were far to the left, at least he was fighting against domestic communist rebels who began armed resistance to the new government within weeks of independence (Figure 1).

Given the subsequent American involvement in Vietnam, it has often been forgotten that Americans considered Burma to be equally threatened by communism in the earlier years of the Cold War. Coupled with the ongoing communist revolution in Burma itself, the Americans feared the worst. This led them to continue to support U Nu as the best option, despite serious reservations about his personal beliefs and his administrative abilities.

The United States and Southeast AsiaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Prime Minister U Nu gives a check to President Dwight D. Eisenhower for $5000 on July 3, 1956 in appreciation for those Americans who served in Burma in World War II. Looking on are John Foster Dulles and U Thant. The gesture was much appreciated. Creative Commons License, CC0.

The communist triumph in China brought about serious problems not only for Burma but also for Laos and Thailand, as well as Vietnam. One such problem was how to deal with Nationalist Chinese troops (known as the KMTs, the forces of Chiang Kai-shek’s Koumintang) who fled or were forced out of China, ending up in Burma, Laos, and Thailand. They posed the greatest problem in Burma, where the government strongly objected to their presence. They disrupted local communities and often behaved badly toward the inhabitants. The new People’s Republic of China (PRC) could use their existence as an excuse to invade and take over parts of the country. Burma wanted them out.

Publicly, the United States agreed. In fact, however, the KMT had the clandestine support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which sent in advisers, facilitated the shipment of arms and supplies, and encouraged armed incursions into southern China. The involvement became more systematic with the onset of the Korean War and was accomplished in collaboration with the strongly anticommunist Thai government. Indeed, U.S. support was directly related to Korea. The KMT resistance provided a kind of second front that would, it was hoped, divert Chinese attention from Korea. U.S. support for the KMT was the one area where the United States was acting against the wishes of the government of Burma. U.S. sponsorship of the KMTs was so secret that the American ambassadors to Burma were never officially briefed about it. But they certainly surmised what was going on, and all of them felt that it was beyond foolish; one ambassador resigned. The Burmese were well aware of American involvement. When in 1952 the American ambassador denied U.S. support for the KMTs, Minister of Defense Ne Win responded, “Mr. Ambassador, I have it cold. If I were you, I’d just keep quiet.”14 Ultimately, the United States changed policy and helped evacuate several thousand KMT troops in 1953–1954 and again in 1961. But the issue bedeviled the bilateral relationship for many years.

The Problem of Neutrality in the Cold War

U.S. involvement with the KMTs, however ill advised, illustrates how concern with communist expansion had come to overshadow almost all other aspects of American relations with the countries of Southeast Asia. This led to particularly difficult relations with the major neutralist countries of the region: Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and Burma.

In 1954, the Geneva Conference had ended the French-Viet Minh War, and France soon left Vietnam. The United States was not happy about the result, and one of its responses was to form the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as a regional means of containing communism. The only Southeast Asian countries that joined were Thailand and the Philippines. (The former Indochina countries could not join because of the Geneva Accords, though they were given SEATO protections.) Though patterned after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), SEATO was not nearly as important or powerful. None of the neutral countries joined.

Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihanouk, who had consolidated his power and had diminished democracy by 1954, rejected SEATO’s protection. A generally popular leader, especially in the rural areas, Sihanouk tried very hard to keep his country out of the Cold War and being embroiled in Vietnamese affairs. The Americans found Sihanouk’s neutrality naïve and troubling. They were angered when he traveled to China in 1956 and even more so when he established diplomatic relations with Beijing two years later. (Sihanouk had abdicated the throne in 1955 so that he might play a more open role in Cambodian politics; he now became Prince Sihanouk.) In response, the United States adopted policies that allowed support for noncommunist, antigovernment movements and groups in Cambodia. As early as 1956, there were discussions about attempting to replace Sihanouk. By 1958, this was a serious possibility, as the South Vietnamese and the Thais, working with Sihanouk’s bête noir, Son Ngoc Thanh (who was clandestinely supported by the United States), were definitely working toward this end. The United States was more circumspect. But there is no question that it was involved in the Dap Chhuon plot in 1958–1959 to destabilize the Sihanouk government and perhaps in other plots as well.15 When the plot failed and Dap Chhuon was killed, the Americans backed away from plots of this sort. The State Department reassured Sihanouk, and for at time relations improved. But the United States found it difficult to deal constructively with the Cambodian leader.

Neutrality was also a problem for the United States in Laos. There the Americans had difficulty accepting the leadership of the neutralist leader, Souvanna Phouma, who pursued a conciliatory policy toward the communist Pathet Lao and incorporated some of them into the government. In 1958, the Americans forced Souvanna Phouma to resign, rigged an election in 1960 to keep the Pathet Lao from gaining any seats in the parliament, and then once again helped overthrow Souvanna Phouma, who had briefly returned to power. The United States was on the verge of a largely hidden, CIA-directed war in Laos.

Indonesia presented similar problems. Initially in 1950, having helped to end the war and getting the Dutch to leave, the United States supported the Sukarno government with substantial military and economic assistance. But like Sihanouk, Souvanna Phouma, and U Nu, Sukarno was committed to a neutralist foreign policy, and the United States found this difficult to accept, particularly after the outbreak of the Korean War. Sukarno increasingly attempted to become the leader of an internationalist neutralist movement that challenged the Cold War world. Western countries perceived this as being anti-Western. The most well known of Sukarno’s initiatives along these lines was the famous Bandung Conference of Asian and African Nations which he hosted in 1955. This conference, which challenged Western domination, displeased the United States. When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proclaimed the following year that neutrality was “immoral,” Sukarno was infuriated.

By this time, President Eisenhower had found that clandestine activities provided an inexpensive way to achieve foreign policy goals. In 1953, he had succeeded in ousting the Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh in this way and the following year overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Árbenz. Both were suspected of communist leanings. The United States had also helped suppress the communist-influenced Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines and had intervened in Philippine elections. These successes no doubt persuaded Eisenhower to take a similar approach toward the pesky Sukarno. The result was a foolish intervention in Indonesia’s so-called regional rebellions in 1958–1959. Involving military units opposed to the central government, which the United States incorrectly interpreted as being motivated by anticommunist ideology (in fact, the heart of the dispute was the inequitable distribution of resources to the military units stationed in provincial areas), the rebellions received clandestine American support. A CIA-financed Air Force of some 300 individuals took part. In the course of an attack on Ambon, an American plane was shot down, and the pilot, Allan Pope, was captured.16

American involvement was a fiasco. The American ambassador at the time called it self-defeating, and U.S. involvement only deepened Sukarno’s antipathy toward the Americans. Several years later, the Americans would be complicit in his overthrow, with dreadful results for Indonesia.

The United States dealt with neutral Burma in a somewhat more reasonable manner. Mostly ending its involvement with the KMT forces after 1954, the United States moved to improve its relationship with U Nu’s government. During the KMT crisis, Burma had cut off American economic assistance. Now negotiations ensued to restore the aid, along with some military assistance. These were not easy talks, in part because American legislation made it difficult to provide assistance to states like Burma that maintained economic ties to Soviet bloc countries. But Nu’s successful visit to Washington in 1955, during which the Prime Minister unexpectedly presented Eisenhower with a check to be used to assist American veterans who had served in Burma during World War II, helped move negotiations along. Finally, in 1957 a new agreement was signed. The negotiations had been long and tortuous and revealed much about the complexities of Burma’s domestic situation and its dogged devotion to Cold War neutrality. It also showed that Eisenhower and Dulles were not always reflectively opposed to neutrality. It made sense to them, at least in some situations, to woo neutral countries. In Burma, it was clearly the most realistic approach, and the overall relationship, though not always cordial, was generally stable.

But this did not mean that the United States thought highly of U Nu. While the Americans acknowledged Nu’s personal rectitude and idealism, they still considered him a poor administrator who was naïve about the dangers of communism. Thus, when Minister of Defense Ne Win forced U Nu from office in 1958 in what the American ambassador termed a “polite coup d’etat,”17 the Americans could scarcely contain their positive feelings. (The United States also acted calmly to a military coup in neighboring Thailand at about the same time; maintaining democracy was not a priority.) Ne Win was thought to be much more anticommunist than Nu and would also bring needed efficiency to the government. Negotiations now began on an ambitious proposal to build a new highway from Rangoon to Mandalay and on to Myitkyina, something that both the United States and Ne Win knew would irritate China.

In Malaya, the Emergency had eased, and the United States welcomed its independence in 1957. Although Malaya refused to join SEATO, the United States did provide some military assistance and was strongly supportive of efforts to create a federation of regional entities, soon to be called Malaysia. However, Americans were less enthusiastic about independence in neighboring Singapore. Though they ultimately welcomed a British withdrawal, the Americans feared the rise of Lee Kuan Yew, whom they considered a communist or at best a sympathizer, and his leftist People’s Action Party (PAP). Eisenhower approved a variety of covert actions to weaken Lee and the PAP, though this only succeeded in angering Lee (and the British).18 Singapore became part of Malaysia in 1963, then was expelled in 1965, and became an independent nation.

The 1960s

The 1960s was an extremely important decade in American relations with Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the decade Vietnam, though hardly visible to the general American public, was already a matter of growing concern to the government. After the Geneva Conference of 1954 divided Vietnam (supposedly temporarily), South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had presided over a relatively peaceful land. But by the end of the decade, his “miracle” in South Vietnam was in question, as armed conflict had begun. Communist gains in Laos deeply troubled President Eisenhower, and, while President Kennedy decided to negotiate his way out of Laos at another Geneva Conference in 1962, he supported a low-level CIA-directed war there, which soon morphed into a very large, if still secret, commitment that did not fully end until 1975.19

Kennedy seemed determined to make more of a stand in Vietnam. (By one interpretation, the Kennedy administration thought Vietnamese men were real fighters, whereas the Laotians were effeminate beings who did not like to fight.)20 By the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the number of American military “advisers” had increased from a few hundred to nearly 17,000, and some Americans had died in combat. But he had not crossed the final bridge to full-scale American involvement and probably would not have gone into Vietnam in the same way that Lyndon Johnson did only two years later in 1965.21 But in any event, by the middle of the decade the United States was deeply engaged in the tragic war in Vietnam.

American involvement in Vietnam affected U.S. relations with other countries in Southeast Asia. Laos was already deeply involved, and Cambodia was immediately affected. Sihanouk desperately wanted to keep his country out of the growing conflagration and was deeply angered at U.S. and South Vietnamese military actions along the border, which often resulted in civilian casualties on the Cambodian side. In 1963, he cut off all American aid and in 1965, after a series of air strikes on Cambodian villages, broke diplomatic relations. Cambodia-American relations had become a casualty of war.

Indonesia was not so directly connected with Vietnam, but U.S. fears of communist influence in Indonesia had not dissipated. After the failed involvement in the regional rebellions, the United States had attempted to repair relations with the Sukarno government. But Sukarno seemed to be moving ever closer to the PKI, and the American bureaucracy was divided over whether to continue a conciliatory policy or instead adopt a harder line toward the Indonesian leader. For the time being, the hard liners lost the debate, as President Kennedy attempted to work with Sukarno. A major effort along these lines was Kennedy’s decision in 1962 to support the Indonesian claim to West Irian (West New Guinea), which the Dutch had retained after the withdrawal from other areas of the East Indies. This was a major gesture, but disappointingly it had little impact on the overall relationship. The following year the Americans supported the creation of Malaysia over Sukarno’s objections, who then launched his “Crush Malaysia” campaign. The United States openly backed Malaysia. Increasingly, it seemed to many American officials that Sukarno was hopelessly tied to the PKI and that accommodationist policies would never work. Therefore, the United States began to quietly encourage the Indonesian army, which was thought to be pro-American and anticommunist, to move against the PKI. The Americans had concluded that such a confrontation would happen eventually, and they wanted the army to know that it would have American support in such a situation.

Sukarno’s verbal attacks on the United States escalated (“Go to hell with your aid”),22 and in 1965 there were physical attacks on American installations and corporate property. There were even serious concerns that Indonesia, with assistance from China, was planning to develop a nuclear weapon. Those Americans still urging accommodation were few and far between. Although the United States did not break diplomatic relations, it greatly reduced its presence in the islands.

American hopes for an Indonesian confrontation with the PKI finally came to fruition on September 30, 1965, when purported communists killed several high-ranking Indonesian military officers in what may have been an attempted coup. The Indonesian army, under General Suharto, responded with widespread attacks on alleged communists throughout the islands, most of whom had had no involvement in the coup attempt. This was the confrontation that the Americans had been waiting for, and they were delighted. The United States assisted the army’s efforts in a variety of ways, providing much needed communication equipment, small arms, and supplies. One American official provided the military with the names of several thousand people who belonged to PKI organizations who could be targeted. Sukarno, though not yet overthrown, no longer had much power.23

The Americans were quietly pleased with the Suharto coup, even though it resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million—people. At a time of increasing involvement in Vietnam, broken relations with Cambodia, increasing anti-American sentiment in Burma, and an unsettled situation in Laos, in Indonesia there was a great strategic victory. The PKI was destroyed, Sukarno’s power was reduced, and the pro-American army was in charge. Few Americans worried about the massive collateral damage.

Relations with Burma also deteriorated in the 1960s, though the issues were different. Although the United States was not displeased with Ne Win’s takeover of the government in 1958, his growing authoritarian rule and his delay in returning the country to civilian rule increasingly rankled the American government. When after eighteen months he finally allowed elections to take place, U Nu won overwhelmingly, disappointing not only Ne Win but also the United States.

Ne Win returned to his position as Minister of Defense, and then made a disastrous visit to the United States in 1960. The worst of several insults occurred in Walter Reed Medical Center, which Ne Win entered for medical tests. While there, his wife and her associates were subjected to a racial insult, perhaps by Mamie Eisenhower, which so angered Ne Win that he immediately checked out of the hospital. That incident, together with his anger at another flare-up of KMT activity, led him to become bitterly anti-American and greatly complicated his relations with the United States when in 1962 he again ousted U Nu, this time in a hard coup, which destroyed democracy in Burma for decades. He also deliberately isolated the country. As for ties to the United States, Ne Win wanted to keep U.S. military aid but severely limited other interactions with the United States (as well as with other countries). To this end, he ousted the Ford and Asia Foundations, suspended the Fulbright program, nationalized foreign institutions (including the several hundred American Baptist missionary schools and hospitals), ended negotiations to build the Rangoon to Mandalay highway, and made it difficult for Burmese officials to meet or speak with their American counterparts. At the same time, there appeared to be little danger that Ne Win would take the communist side in the Cold War. And by the mid-1960s the relationship had stabilized. The United States did not like what Ne Win was doing to his country internally, but he was not taking the communist side either. He did not strongly criticize American actions in Vietnam. In sum, the relationship was cool but not hostile.

The relationship even improved somewhat when in 1966 the Americans, after years of trying, finally succeeded in getting Ne Win to visit Washington again. The Johnson administration, aware of the insults Ne Win had suffered on his previous visit, pulled out all the stops to welcome him, hoping in part that he would not be critical of U.S. actions in Vietnam.24 Thus, by the late 1960s Burma, which had once been central to U.S. fears of communist advancement in Southeast Asia, had almost ceased to be a Cold War factor as Ne Win withdrew from the world. By this time, the Americans were more than willing to accept a neutral Burma.

Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson attempted to expand support in Southeast Asia for the American war in Vietnam. He had limited success. Only the Thais provided substantial support in Vietnam itself and also allowed the United States to use their airbases. The Philippines did not interfere with American use of the U.S. bases on the islands and, under great pressure and with substantial monetary incentives, provided a small engineering contingent in Vietnam. Burma provided no support but was not vociferously critical of the American effort. The Indonesians, fresh from their destruction of the PKI, said little about the U.S. effort to its north. Official Malaysian opinion was notable for its absence, although Malaysia was quietly supportive of the United States and trained South Vietnamese officials in counterinsurgency.25 Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, by now a staunch anticommunist, occasionally spoke out in support of the American effort.26

In Cambodia, in contrast, Sihanouk bitterly resented the American actions in Vietnam and predicted an American defeat. He had little use either for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces who also violated his territory (he considered all Vietnamese dangerous), but he worried greatly that U.S. actions in Vietnam—aside from being counterproductive—would drag his country into the conflagration. He did all he could to avoid it and in so doing angered American military officials who resented his complaints about U.S. and South Vietnamese military activities along the border—complaints that did, from time to time, cause the Johnson administration to restrict U.S. actions there. U.S. military officials in Vietnam looked to a time when the Sihanouk government would be replaced by a friendlier regime.

Toward the end of Johnson’s term of office, efforts were made to restore the relationship. But ironically it was Johnson’s successor, the hawkish Richard Nixon, who was willing to make the pledge that Sihanouk insisted on—recognizing Cambodia’s borders—to restore diplomatic relations. Not that Nixon especially liked the Cambodian leader or was sympathetic to his fervent desire to remain neutral and avoid involvement in the war in Vietnam. Indeed, even before he restored relations, he ordered the secret bombing of border areas inside Cambodia. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger argued that Sihanouk had implicitly agreed to the bombing in an earlier comment that he could not complain about U.S. and South Vietnamese “hot pursuit” across the border into uninhabited areas of Cambodia when pursing fleeing communist Vietnamese forces. But the bombing was not the same as “hot pursuit” and was not always in uninhabited territory. Most historians also agree that it was counterproductive, driving the communist Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia while recruiting angry Cambodians to fight the Americans and their allies.

The 1970s

Nixon was not upset when in March 1970 Lon Nol and Sirik Matak ousted Sihanouk while the prince was out of the country. Most scholars believe there was some level of American involvement in the coup. At the least, American officials had foreknowledge of the plot and did not inform Sihanouk. U.S. military intelligence officials in Vietnam had the most direct interest in seeing Sihanouk removed, and there are some indications that the CIA was at least indirectly involved. The administration denied all responsibility, but Sihanouk was not convinced. The exiled prince never ceased to believe that he had been the victim of an American-sponsored coup. In 1979, Kissinger met Sihanouk in Beijing and assured him that the United States had had nothing to do with it. “You must believe that we were favorable to your returning to power and that we did not like Lon Nol. We liked you.”

“Thank you very much,” Sihanouk responded.

“I want you to believe it,” Kissinger pressed on.

“Excellency,” Sihanouk replied, “let bygones be bygones.”

“No. No. No. I want you to say that you believe me,” Kissinger insisted.

To which Sihanouk replied, “I apologize. I cannot say that I believe you.”27

In any event, the United States moved quickly to support the new government, and only a few weeks after the coup Nixon ordered American and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia to destroy the communist Vietnamese’s command post. It did not succeed and had the tragic effect of bringing the war to Cambodia for the first time in a major way. For the next five years, war ravaged Cambodia. Sihanouk, angered at his overthrow, urged Cambodians to join the opposition force led by his mortal enemies, the fanatical Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk served as a kind of figurehead for the rebels, though he never was part of the group and tried desperately to find a way to resume his leadership role in Cambodia. Beginning in 1971, he attempted on numerous occasions to negotiate with the Americans, including proposing a meeting with Nixon in Beijing while the President was making his historic visit there. But Nixon and Kissinger contemptuously dismissed Sihanouk’s attempts to meet with them. Instead they determined to stick with Lon Nol. Even when Zhou Enlai, China’s Foreign Minister, suggested that Kissinger should meet with the prince, Kissinger said no. They did not oppose a settlement that would allow a role for prince, but they would not agree to direct talks with Sihanouk—until in 1975 when it was much too late to accomplish anything. No one knows for sure if direct talks with Sihanouk would have saved Cambodia from the great tragedies that lay ahead. But they might have.

Instead, on April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Over the next three and a half years, an estimated 2.3 million Cambodians perished (out of a population of perhaps 7 million) in the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, from starvation, from overwork, or from untreated illnesses.28 Perhaps half a million others had died in the civil war prior to the Khmer Rouge victory. The Khmer Rouge are responsible for their own crimes, but the United States bears some responsibility for unintentionally creating conditions that made their victory more likely.

With the end of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, many Americans wanted nothing more to do with Southeast Asia. The region appeared to be relegated to its prewar status as an area of only peripheral strategic concern of the United States. Neither the Soviet Union nor China seemed to pose much of a threat to the region, and the United States and China had reestablished friendly relations, if not yet full diplomatic relations. Trade eclipsed strategic concerns as the primary interest in much of Southeast Asia, with the new regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) providing a useful entrée to enhanced trading relations. Nor did the repressive nature of governments in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines cause much American concern, despite President Jimmy Carter’s professed insistence that human rights considerations define American policy.

In Burma, the United States shifted its focus to Burma’s increasing production of illegal drugs, especially heroin. Initially, Nixon was most troubled about the cheap heroin that was reaching American troops in Vietnam. He began the “war on drugs,” which extended to the growing epidemics of drug use in American cities. Ne Win himself wanted to see the trade reduced or suppressed and was open to cooperating with the Americans to some degree. He was glad to get American intelligence reports about the production and movement of drugs, and he accepted American aircraft to destroy poppy fields and attack the drug traffickers. These interchanges at least gave American officials some opportunities to speak with their Burmese counterparts. However, critics charged that Ne Win was using American aircraft to suppress the minority peoples at least as much as to diminish the drug trade, and it is at least debatable if American efforts to suppress the drug trade produced significant results.

Despite war weariness and the diminished concern with Chinese and Soviet intentions in Southeast Asia, unresolved issues growing out of the end of the Vietnam War persisted. One issue centered on the relationship the United States should develop with the newly united Vietnam under Hanoi’s control. Both sides were open to reestablishing normal diplomatic relations, but both also blundered with unacceptable expectations and demands. Even when the issues were resolved in 1978, but before a final settlement was signed, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski ended the discussions. He feared that a settlement with Vietnam would endanger his efforts to establish diplomatic relations with China. And so, unfortunately, it took another seventeen years before the relationship was restored.

Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia proved similarly complicated. By 1977 and 1978, word about the horrendous conditions in the country were beginning to be known, despite the secretive nature of the regime. Among other provocations, the Khmer Rouge had attacked Vietnamese border villages; 30,000 people may have died. It made little objective sense. Vietnam was much larger than Cambodia and had one of the largest, battle-tested armies in the world. Finally, in December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, driving the murderous Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh and pushing them to the border areas. Vietnam had liberated the country, though its motives were not entirely motivated by humanitarian concerns.

At this point geopolitical, Cold War factors again entered the calculus. The defeat of the Khmer Rouge represented a setback for China, which was their only significant backer. Vietnam’s expansion into Cambodia was seen as a proxy victory for the Soviet Union which, by this time, was a bitter enemy of China. The United States was on the verge of establishing full diplomatic relations with China. Consequently, the United States condemned Vietnam’s actions and acquiesced in China’s retaliatory invasion of Vietnam in 1979. The defense of human rights was nowhere to be seen.

The 1980s and After

For over a decade the major U.S. strategic concern in Southeast Asia involved the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and the installation of a new government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), which was widely seen in the West as a puppet government. Although the characterization was increasingly inaccurate, it affected American desire to get Vietnam out of Cambodia and somehow replace the PRK. To accomplish this objective, the United States provided aid and support to the noncommunist Cambodian factions that opposed the PRK. But by far the strongest element in the resistance was the Khmer Rouge, which Thailand and China had resuscitated—with the blessing of (and perhaps even some very secret assistance from) the United States. Brzezinski was proud of his efforts to support the Khmer Rouge. The Ronald Reagan administration (1981–1989) essentially pursued the same policy.

Critics hammered away at the idea that American policy threatened to bring the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime back to power. Although no one in the American government said they wanted the Khmer Rouge to return, if the Vietnamese left and the PRK faltered, it was hard to see how the result could be otherwise. Eventually, the critics won out when the George H. W. Bush administration determined that stopping the return of the Khmer Rouge must be at the top of its priorities, and it sought a negotiated settlement. An agreement was reached in 1991, and the United Nations conducted one of its most ambitious peacekeeping operations ever. Under UN guidance, in 1993 elections were held, and the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Cambodia. Two years later the United States and Vietnam did the same. Now one could safely say that the American war in Vietnam was finally over.

If idealism had long since fled from American policy toward Indochina, it was alive and well when it came to new developments in Burma. In 1988, a revolution challenged Ne Win’s autocracy, and out of the turmoil emerged Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s martyred independence leader, who was in Rangoon quite by coincidence when these dramatic events unfolded. She came to epitomize the democratic idealism of the opposition. Although all of the U.S. administrations from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush initially preferred to approach Burma from a more or less traditional realpolitik perspective, it was the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi who symbolized the hopes of her people, captured the world’s imagination, and set the terms for debate. The U.S. Congress, reflecting the anger of the interested American public at the military’s repression, demanded that the U.S. government impose harsh sanctions. Eventually, President Bill Clinton agreed, as, later, did President George W. Bush. Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and First Lady Laura Bush became outspoken champions of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma was one of the few issues that united people across the political spectrum, from liberal Democrats to Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who was instrumental in getting sanctions legislation passed. Suu Kyi’s influence cannot be overestimated. As Burma scholar David I. Steinberg wrote in 2010, “no living foreigner has shaped contemporary United States policy toward a single country more than Aung San Suu Kyi.”29

Neither sanctions nor accommodation appeared to bring about change, however. And a new President, Barack Obama, determined to try a new approach. Essentially Obama moved toward “regime modification” instead of “regime change.” Sanctions would remain, but they would be withdrawn or modified as the Burmese government changed its behavior. Eventually, this approach appeared to bear fruit. The government released political prisoners, met with Aung San Suu Kyi, began to open up the society, and in 2012 allowed a free and fair by-election which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won overwhelmingly. President Obama himself visited Myanmar, receiving plaudits across the board (Figure 2).

The United States and Southeast AsiaClick to view larger

Figure 2. President Barack Obama greets Aung San Suu Kyi during a stop at her private residence in Rangoon, Burma, November 19, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The sanctions regime itself was very controversial and divided the scholarly and practitioner communities. The sanctions may well have been one important factor in resolving the Burma issue. They drove the Burmese into the arms of China, as the critics of sanctions pointed out. But that in turn triggered a nationalist backlash against China and a desire to open up to the rest of the world. In any event, Burma/Myanmar was touted as one of Obama’s major foreign policy victories. When the NLD won the general elections in 2015 the administration’s policy appeared to be vindicated. It was one of those rare moments when realism and idealism were combined, though few would argue that U.S. policy by itself had been the only factor bringing about this change.

China does not appear to have been a significant factor in U.S. policy toward Burma/Myanmar during this period, despite an almost universal perception in China to the contrary. But Obama did pay considerably more attention to Asia than his predecessor, and other aspects of his policy toward Southeast Asia were intended to counter China, though not necessarily to contain it in the Cold War sense. This was due in part to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. For several decades, China had pursued a highly successful charm offensive, negotiating a number of bilateral and multilateral agreements with countries in the region and portraying itself as a friendly, nonthreatening neighbor. But in recent years China has become more assertive—perhaps reflecting the influence of the country’s military establishment—and the Southeast Asian countries have looked to the United States as a counterweight.

Among the actions taken that has been seen to some degree as countering China was the negotiation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) among Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Peru, Chile, and several Southeast and East Asian nations (Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan) but excluding China. Though begun in 2005, the United States and several other countries joined only in 2008 and 2009, when the United States took on a leadership role in the negotiations. However, in January 2017 the new administration of Donald J. Trump ended American participation in TPP and thus effectively ceded economic leadership in the region to China.

Southeast Asian concerns about China’s assertiveness have been most apparent in China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, the militarization of a number of the islands, and harassment of ships. Vietnam has been especially offended by China’s actions, and as a result the relationship between Vietnam and the United States has been very cordial in recent years. Indeed, since the Cambodia settlement and the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cambodia and Vietnam, U.S. ties with the region have generally been friendly. Disputes that have arisen have been, for the most part, normal matters that have been resolved through negotiations. In sum, by the end of the Obama administration, relations between the United States and Southeast Asia were friendly and cordial.

Discussion of the Literature

The only positive consequence of the war in Vietnam was an explosion of scholarship. There are now literally thousands of books about the war and about Vietnam, including very sophisticated, well-researched studies looking at the war from various perspectives. In addition, there is now a growing literature about U.S. relations with most of the other countries in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, however, there are few overviews of U.S. relations with the region as a whole. Robert McMahon, The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II is excellent, if now a bit dated. Similarly, few works focus on the period before World War II. Anne L. Foster, Projections of Power, and Mark T. Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America are welcome exceptions.30

An enormous amount of material is available in the United States for the study of U.S. relations with Southeast Asia, especially with Vietnam. Many of the accounts, particularly early accounts, relied entirely or mostly on U.S. sources. America’s Longest War by George Herring, the dean of the first generation of Vietnam War scholars, first appeared 1979 and now in its fifth edition, remains the best single-volume overview of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Other examples of earlier scholarship related to other areas of Southeast Asia include Robert McMahon, Colonialism and Cold War and Peter W. Stanley, A Nation in the Making.31

With the push for a more international approach, scholars began to utilize archival materials from other countries. British, European, and Australian archives provided valuable new insights into U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia as well as the reactions of other countries to those policies and their efforts, at times, to influence it. Among the many scholars to utilize non-American archival sources were Matthew Jones (Malaysia/Indonesia), Mark Lawrence and Kathryn C. Statler (Vietnam), and Kenton Clymer (Cambodia and Burma/Myanmar). Those with the enviable ability to use Asian-language sources have added even more, such as Robert Brigham (Vietnam), William Duiker (Vietnam), Zhai Qiang (Vietnam and China), Christopher Goscha (Vietnam), Brad Simpson (Indonesia), and Glenn May (Philippines). Among these researchers are third-generation specialists on the Vietnam War, such as Lien-Hang T. Nguyen’s impressive study, Hanoi’s War.32

Much of the literature has been fairly traditional military and/or diplomatic history, though the books often include insights from newer approaches. A few impressive studies have emerged that emphasize the importance of culture as a way of understanding the relationship. Among the earliest accounts were Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood, and Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America. Others include Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling, Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government, and Michael Hawkins, Making Moros.33

In sum, accounts of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia have expanded significantly. Vietnam has been the subject of an enormous historical literature, with more coming out every year. The Nixon administration is one area where new scholarship promises to be especially fruitful, owing to the recent declassification of major documentary sources. The U.S. relationships with other Southeast Asian countries (with the possible exceptions of Brunei and East Timor) have now received serious study as well, but there is much room for growth here. In many cases, there are currently only a few serious historical studies of US relations with countries in Southeast Asia, outside of Vietnam. In addition, there is a dearth of accounts of U.S. relations with the region as a whole, and, outside of the Philippines, little on the pre-World War II years.

Primary Sources

The essential published primary source is the relevant volumes of the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States. The most important magazine coverage of Southeast Asia from 1946 to 2009 is the Far Eastern Economic Review. Asiaweek is also a useful magazine for the years 1975–2001.

In the United States, the essential archival sources include various record groups in the National Archives II (NAII) at College Park, MD. Among these are the general records of the Department of State (RG 59) and the Post Records (RG 84). The National Archives also includes Department of Defense records (including RG 472). A large number of Central Intelligence Agency records are also available at NAII in the CREST collection. The CREST records are now available online. The holdings of the presidential libraries are also useful and contain records that are not at the National Archives. They also include useful oral histories, many of them available online.

The personal papers of many diplomats, other government officials, and organizations are available at various university libraries and can usually be located easily with a Google search. The papers and records of missionary groups that worked in Southeast Asia are also open at denominational archives and libraries.

Foreign English-language diplomatic records are available at the British National Archives, Kew, England; the National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia; and Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa. French records are available in Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, while the Ministère des Affaires Estrangères records are in Paris. The countries of Southeast Asia also have libraries and archives. The Myanmar National Archives, which includes many English-language documents and microfilm of the British colonial records relating to Burma, is in Yangon. The Cambodian National Archives, located behind the bibliothèque nationale in Phnom Penh, includes the records of the French Résident Supérieur. In the Philippines are the Philippine National Archives and the Philippine National Library (both in Manila). The Vietnam National Archives is in Ho Chi Minh City, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives is in Hanoi. The National Archives of Indonesia are in Jakarta. Overseas libraries often require researchers to provide letters of introduction and may require advanced permission to use.

Further Reading


Foster, Anne L. Projections of Power: The United States and Europe in Colonial Southeast Asia, 1919–1941. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

    Goscha, Christopher, and Christian F. Ostermann, eds. Connecting Histories: Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2009.Find this resource:

      McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.Find this resource:


        Bradley, Mark. Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.Find this resource:

          Herring, George. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013.Find this resource:

            Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.Find this resource:

              Logevall, Fredrik. Embers of War; The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House, 2013.Find this resource:

                Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.Find this resource:


                  Castle, Tim. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

                    Jacobs, Seth. The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                      Kurlantzick, Joshua. A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.Find this resource:

                        Rust, William J. Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954–1961. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.Find this resource:

                          Rust, William J. So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.Find this resource:


                            Clymer, Kenton. Troubled Relations: The United States and Cambodia, 1872–2006. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                              Rust, William J. Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.Find this resource:

                                Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.Find this resource:


                                  McMahon, Robert J. Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, 1945–49. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

                                    Simpson, Bradley R. Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                      Malaysia and Singapore

                                      Ang Cheng Guan. Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War. London: Routledge, 2011.Find this resource:

                                        Jones, Matthew. Conflict and Confrontation in South East Asia: Britain, the United States, Indonesia, and the Creation of Malaysia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                                          Long, S. R. Joey. Safe for Decolonization: The Eisenhower Administration, Britain, and Singapore. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                                            Sodhy, Pamela. The U.S.-Malaysian Nexus: Themes in Superpower-Small State Relations. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 1991.Find this resource:


                                              Fineman, Daniel. A Special Relationship: The United States and Military Government in Thailand, 1947–1958. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.Find this resource:


                                                Cullather, Nick. Illusions of Influence: The Political Economy of United States-Philippine Relations, 1942–1960. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                                                  Friend, Theodore. Between Two Empires: The Ordeal of the Philippines, 1929–1946. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.Find this resource:

                                                    May, Glenn A. Battle for Batangas: A Philippine Province at War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

                                                      Stanley, Peter W. A Nation in the Making: The United States and the Philippines, 1899–1921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.Find this resource:


                                                        Clymer, Kenton. A Delicate Relationship: The United States and Burma/Myanmar since 1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                                                          Gibson, Richard M., with Wenhua Chen, The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle. Singapore: Wiley, 2011.Find this resource:


                                                            (1.) On early American intellectual connections with Asia, see Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982).

                                                            (2.) King Mongut of Siam to President James Buchanan, February 14, 1861, President’s Office Files-Countries; Thailand (General), Box 1249, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, MA.

                                                            (3.) Benito Legarda, “American Enterprise in the Nineteenth-century Philippines,” Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 9 (February 1957): 156; Walter Warren Darkow, “American Relations with Burma 1800–1950” (M.S. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1951, 2–4; Pamela Sodhy, The US-Malaysian Nexus: Themes in Superpower-Small State Relations (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, 1991), 1–8.

                                                            (4.) On early American governance of the Philippines, see Peter W. Stanley, A Nation in the Making: The Philippines and the United States, 1899–1921 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972); and Glenn A. May, Social Engineering in the Philippines: The Aims and Impact of American Colonial Policy, 1900—1913 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980).

                                                            (5.) On the debate over Philippine independence, see Theodore Friend, Between Two Empires: The Ordeal of the Philippines, 1929–1946 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965).

                                                            (6.) Gerlof D. Homan, “The United States and the Netherlands East Indies: The Evolution of American Anticolonialism,” Pacific Historical Review 53 (November 1984): 427–428.

                                                            (7.) Anne Foster, Projections of Power: The United States and Europe in Colonial Southeast Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 21–41. See also Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

                                                            (8.) For World War II, see A. Russell Buchanan, The United States and World War II (2 vols.; New York: Harper and Row, 1964), chaps. 4, 22, 24, 25.

                                                            (9.) T. A. Raman, Memorandum, June 15, 1942, attached to despatch by Sir R. Campbell, No. 471 (398/41/42), July 6, 1942, Reference Number FO 371/3 0660, British National Archives, Kew.

                                                            (10.) William Roger Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire 1941–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 5.

                                                            (11.) Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From World War II Through Dienbienphu, 1941–1954 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 52.

                                                            (12.) On Indonesia, see Robert J. McMahon, Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, 1945–1949 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).

                                                            (13.) On Burma, see Kenton Clymer, A Delicate Relationship: The United States and Burma/Myanmar since 1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

                                                            (14.) John Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2006), 136. The most comprehensive account of the KMTs and the American response is by former diplomat Richard M. Gibson, with Wenhua Chen, The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle (Singapore: Wiley, 2011).

                                                            (15.) Matthew Jagel, “Lost in the Wilderness: Son Ngoc Thanh, the United States, and Cambodia’s Dap Chhuon Affair,” Pacific Historical Review (forthcoming).

                                                            (16.) Robert J. McMahon, The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia Since World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 86–89.

                                                            (17.) Walter P. McConaughy to John Foster Dulles, September 26, 1958, Tel. 287, Record Group 84 (Burma, U.S. Embassy), Classified General Records 1948–1961, box 20, National Archives II, College Park, MD.

                                                            (18.) S. R. Joey Long, Safe for Decolonization: The Eisenhower Administration, Britain, and Singapore (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2011).

                                                            (19.) See Joshua Kurlantzick, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017); William J. Rust, So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014); and Tim Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955–1975 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

                                                            (20.) Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

                                                            (21.) Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 395–400.

                                                            (22.) “Sukarno says U.S. can go to Hell with Aid,” Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1964, sec.1, 12.

                                                            (23.) For writings on the United States and the events in 1965, see Bradley Simpson, “The United States and the 1965–1966 Mass Murders in Indonesia,” Monthly Review 67 (December 2015); Bradley Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); and John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

                                                            (24.) The United States Information Agency produced a film of the visit entitled, “American Welcome.”

                                                            (25.) Sodhy, US-Malaysian Nexus, 277.

                                                            (26.) McMahon, Limits of Empire, 128–129, 136–137, 140–142.

                                                            (27.) Walter Issacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 273; William Pfaff, “Cambodia Invasion Reminder of U.S. Political Use of Military,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2000.

                                                            (28.) The estimate of 2.3 million comes from Craig Etcheson, a very knowledgeable observer of Cambodia.

                                                            (29.) David I. Steinberg, “Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S. Policy toward Burma/Myanmar,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 3 (2010): 36.

                                                            (30.) McMahon, The Limits of Empire; Foster, Projections of Power; and Mark T. Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

                                                            (31.) George Herring America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013); Robert McMahon, Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, 1945–49 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981); and Peter W. Stanley, A Nation in the Making: The Philippines and the United States, 1899–1921 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

                                                            (32.) Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

                                                            (33.) Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling; Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); and Michael Hawkins, Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines’ Muslim South (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012).