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*Cold War Reckonings* Review

Contrary to common clichés of fraudulent democracies and struggling economies —with their seemingly interchangeable autocratic leaders and a backward, belated, and ignorant population waiting to be filled up with an adequate amount of tutelary “liberalism” and “democracy” —postcolonial and Third World realities are often a complex story. Jini Kim Watson argues that this is nowhere more apparent than in the case of the miracle economies or Tigers of East and Southeast Asia. From the South Korean military dictatorship (1961–87) to the Marcos period in the Philippines (1965–86), from illiberal Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew (1959–90) to Indonesia’s Suharto regime (1965–98), Watson addresses this issue by examining the fictional representation of physical and social transformation of these countries during the turbulent Cold War times and how they capture the enormous “authoritarian human rights abuses” as well as the “unavoidable ambivalence of the capitalist developmental state” (Watson 25).
Watson’s chapters of Cold War Reckonings: Authoritarianism and the Genres of Decolonization move back and forth between histories of the Cold War in South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and her analyses of various works of fiction. In the first part of the book, she steps back to the pre-1990 period to scrutinize the proceedings of a number of PEN Asian Writers’ Conferences held in Manila (1962; 1981), Bangkok (1964), and Taipei (1970; 1976), which had brought together writers, critics, and academics in order to exchange ideas and debate trends about literature in an allegedly pan-Asian forum. Reading the conference form itself as a Cold War genre, Watson illuminates how notions of freedom and autonomy are anything but illusory, invariably shifting from wholehearted defenses of “free words” and “free exchange” across the “free world” to full-throated calls of revolution, political solidarity, and “cultural import substitution” (Watson 23). Consequently, for several high-profile writers whose works have been typically categorized as “dissident writings” such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, F. Sionil José, Kim Chi-ha, and Ninotchka Rosca, Watson examines the way in which their aesthetic adaptation of prominent Euro-American genres exposes the fault line between post-colonial sovereignty and the Cold War reproduction of neo-colonial rule (Watson 23). Watson skillfully highlights that despite differences in literary form, language, and postcolonial context, the works of Pradmoedya, José, Kim, and Rosca work in tandem to challenge the liberal, so-called human rights notions of Euro-America via their emphasis on global political economies, localized social histories, and Cold War pressure as significantly exercised by the United States in the region.
In the second part of the book, Watson shifts focus toward post-1990 fiction that retrospectively explores the Cold War’s impacts. Drawing on works of a younger generation of cultural producers who came of age after the years of decolonization and are looking back at the past in order to question the present such as Joshua Oppenheimer, Tan Pin Pin, Han Kang, Bon Joon-ho, Cyril Wang, Sonny Liew, and Jeremy Tiang, Watson highlights how the Cold War’s repressed aftermaths continue to haunt the official narrative of various Asian states in this day and age. Here, Watson argues for a textual and filmic poetics of nostalgia (or anachronism) that challenges the logic of both postcolonial historiography and the triumphalism of post-Cold War, Eurocentric, and capitalist accounts. The figure of nostalgia, as Watson contends, registers the fraught progression from a presumably past era of anti-communism to an ostentatiously present decade of neoliberal victory. Through a close reading of Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 blockbuster Ode to My Father, a film which spurs widespread controversy in South Korea for having represented the Park Chung Hee regime for its developmentalist triumphs while downplaying its human rights violations, Watson skillfully asserts that the trade-off between economic triumphalism and authoritarian abuses is a false one, and the rise of today’s neoliberal authoritarianism, in short, should be understood via a proper reckoning with the entangled processes of Cold War imperialism, on the one hand, and Third-World decolonization, on the other.
To interrogate the oxymoronic formation of free world authoritarianism in East and Southeast Asia is therefore to consider how Cold War histories have shaped and continue to shape cultures and literatures. Watson reminds us that by being implicated in the U.S.’s hegemonic paradigm that replaced European and Japanese colonial power, states in Asia experienced a “freedom from communism” rather than a substantially sufficient democracy (Watson 6). Relatedly, the developmental states, which are typically credited with creating the Asian economic miracles while paradoxically characterized by authoritarian rule, strong state-business relations, tight control over labor, and the overriding imperative to create economic growth, are proven to be inconsistent. As Watson suggests, the authoritarian state was able to harness “very real fears of war and instability toward a remarkable developmental energy,” while forgetting, of course, that “American and other imperial ambitions helped create the [Cold War] disorder from the first place” (Watson 11). Here, Watson is superb in contrasting capitalist politicians’ deployment of images of modern progress and social renewal in their pro-growth utopian rhetoric, on one side, and on the flip side, counter narratives, in which writers and filmmakers portray the severe disadvantage of rapid industrialization and Cold War militarization.
Despite the narratives Watson examines at length, readers may find themselves asking: what are the narratives of the other Tigers, those who unabashedly embraced socialism and autocracy during the Cold War years and after the fall of the Berlin Wall? For China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Cold War totalitarianism and geopolitical tensions were not mere fiction but fact. A persistent pitfall, perhaps, is Watson’s reservation in her analysis with regards to socialist totalitarianism, which was and continues to be the direct reverse image of free world authoritarianism. While claiming that her book’s goal is to “denaturalize the occurrence of authoritarianism in the global South,” Watson fails overall to render a more well-rounded account of how the lasting coupling between socialist revolution and Cold War authoritarianism was neither a geographical anomaly nor a transitional phrase, but an indisputable historical unfolding of China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (Watson 4). What is necessary, no doubt, is to build on Watson’s blueprint to construct an even more comprehensive, inclusive, and multidimensional genealogy of Cold War authoritarianism. As Asia’s remarkable transformation in the latter part of the twentieth century warrants closer scrutiny, Cold War studies enriched by postcolonial methodologies in general—and Cold War Reckonings: Authoritarianism and the Genres of Decolonization in particular—have made visible the Cold War’s international ramifications while highlighting new challenges and possibilities which have since surfaced in consequence of a new global order. It is therefore with a more extensive and multidisciplinary approach that the submerged Cold War landscapes, sometimes tacitly grasped yet at other times completely invisible, shall now be traced in all their illustrious manifestations.

Work Cited

Watson, Jini Kim. Cold War Reckonings: Authoritarianism and the Genres of Decolonization. First ed., Fordham University Press, 2021.

Date submitted: 18 December 2021

Date accepted: 18 March 2022

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