The shield of Asia : how deterrence and domestic politics shaped U.S. China policy, 1949-1969



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“The Shield of Asia” explains the continuity of U.S. foreign policy towards China and the Asia-Pacific region from 1949 to 1969. It considers how domestic politics, ideas about deterrence, and more traditional geostrategic, military, and economic concerns influenced the formation of U.S. foreign policy. Despite the many changes in the strategic landscape, which included the Sino-Soviet split, China’s explosion of a nuclear device, the 1965 coup in Indonesia, and the Sino-Indian and Sino-Soviet wars, America’s foreign policy remained focused on the military containment and political and economic isolation of the People’s Republic of China. As allies, members of Congress, and the American public began to question U.S. foreign policy in the broad and diverse Asia-Pacific region, and particularly its policy toward China and South Vietnam, the Johnson administration deployed what I call the “shield thesis.” A companion to the domino theory, the shield thesis argued that the U.S. military deterrent in the region, directed at the People’s Republic of China, allowed the non-communist countries to develop politically, economically, and socially along Western lines. The domino theory told the American people why China had to be contained; the shield thesis explained how. The Johnson administration did not create the shield thesis. Rather, the shield thesis evolved during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to explain American foreign policy. The Johnson administration capitalized on the thesis’ development and used it to justify continuing American involvement in the Vietnam War. The coming shift in American foreign policy towards China and the Asia-Pacific announced by Nixon in the Guam Doctrine represented not the end of the shield thesis but an expression of confidence in its success. The assumptions that underpinned the shield thesis and provided it validity for American policymakers during the Cold War continue to inform U.S. decision making in the region, and around the world, today.



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