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Capitalizing on the Cold War

Harvard Griffin GSAS Voices: Bohao Wu, PhD ’23

Throughout its 150th anniversary year, Harvard Griffin GSAS is foregrounding the voices of some of its most remarkable alumni and students as they speak about their work, its impact, and their experiences at the School.

Graduating student Bohao Wu studies the economic history of the Cold War—specifically, transfers of technology that enabled innovation across ideological blocs. Wu discusses how this trade took place despite the Cold War standoff, how this research changes the way historians look at relationships between countries on opposing sides, and the interactions with students and alumni at GSAS that have advanced his work and changed his life.

Secrets of the Trade

We usually think of the Cold War as a military confrontation and an ideological conflict. My focus is on the economic side—specifically, the transfers of technology between the communist and Western blocs: from Japan to the Soviet Union, Japan to China, and the United States to China. I find that the dividing lines of the Cold War were a lot blurrier than we like to think. Profit-driven entrepreneurs, industrialists, and scientists traveled between the blocs to collaborate on different projects that were the foundation for many of the scientific breakthroughs we see today, including the fabrication of the ubiquitous fiber vinylon, oil drilling technology, and even railroad signal systems that operate in cold weather.

What facilitated many of these interactions was the importance of businesspeople in economic diplomacy. Their influence gave them the ability to undertake these trans-bloc trades. For example, entrepreneurs from Japan and elsewhere worked with governmental officials in countries on different sides of the divide to export technology to China. In some cases, they were able to secure compromises from the US side to ease the embargo that it championed. Neutral countries also facilitated this technology trade; shipping companies in Indonesia and Singapore, for instance, were used by both blocs to conduct trade by proxy.

These technology transfers resulted in a lot of innovation, especially in industrial production. If you look at the textile, oil, steel, iron, and chemical industries, you see that the technological innovations made in these sectors in the West during the Cold War were transported to the East, where improvements were made that found their way back to the West.

Even today, you see the legacy of these interactions. The reason why many countries, including China, are behind on a domestic supply of semiconductor chips is that for many decades, semiconductors flowed easily in trade, so China never had a pressing interest in developing a domestic semiconductor industry. In the USSR, you see this legacy in a Siberian oil and gas pipeline built in the 1970s that has the hallmarks of Japanese technology.

Unfriendly Allies, Friendly Enemies

The conventional wisdom among Cold War historians is that the US and Japan were always allies and that Japan and China were adversaries until relations were normalized in 1972. The reality is more complicated.

Japan was an important source of technology and economic trade for China, even during the Cold War, when both countries were competing for influence in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the friendship with Japan was tricky for the United States to maintain because Japan collaborated with China to impede Western influence in Southeast Asia. For example, the two Asian nations both supported Indonesia during the 1960s despite being aligned with different blocs because they had such important economic ties to that country.

In the years ahead, I want to investigate what happened in the 1970s when the Soviet bloc and China started competing for Western economic aid and technology transfers. There was a Sino-Soviet split in the 1970s. China began to open their economy to the West. Détente improved relations between the US and the USSR. Many projects that were born out of the technological transfers of the 1960s, like the oil and gas pipeline, were completed around this time, so it’s important to study the 1970s in order to understand how different countries navigated geopolitical uncertainties—from oil crisis and war to economic initiatives and multilateral coordination.

Wu at the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in Tokyo
Wu at the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in Tokyo, while engaging in extensive archival research for his dissertation. Photo credit: Minah Woo

A Life-Changing Community

I remember a gathering during my first week on campus. I was just having a beer and chatting with a few other people about why we were here at Harvard and what kind of research we were doing. They came from so many different backgrounds and fields. One was a neuroscientist, another an economist, and another a psychologist. Even though we may not fully understand the work going on in different fields, and even though we come from very different educational backgrounds and parts of the world, we all get to come here to do something that we are passionate about, and that sense of community is life changing.

What Harvard Griffin GSAS has offered me is a platform to meet interesting and passionate people who provide insights into my research, including both alumni and students. I am grateful to the alumnus who participated in the export of technology to China during the Cold War and provided me with a firsthand perspective on the events of that time. As a historian, I find it fascinating to learn from alumni who lived through historical events, allowing me to live through them vicariously.

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