The parade of retrospectives marking the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War tells us a lot about how that war was waged and lost. But missing, as ever, is the why of it all — the psychology of the people who created the war.
David Halberstam’s classic book “The Best and the Brightest” gives an outsider’s view of the policymakers in action. But there is little, apart from the rather self-serving account by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, to give us the inside view.
As a China specialist working in Australia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry at the time and who was somewhat on the inside, I can confirm McNamara’s key point, namely, that concern over alleged Chinese communist expansionism rather than the fate of South Vietnam’s anticommunist regime was the crucial factor behind Western, mainly U.S. and Australian, intervention.
And, as McNamara also points out, that alarmist view of China was due mainly to Beijing’s strident war of words with Moscow throughout the early 1960s, with Beijing seeking constantly to portray the Soviets as ideological deviants lusting for detente with the U.S. enemy.
But at the time no one, including McNamara, realized that the key factor behind that ideological war was exactly the same factor that causes so much agitation in Asia today — China’s post-1949 problems with Taiwan. Fifty years of Western policies in Asia have brought us back to exactly where we started.
In 1958, Beijing made its first serious move against its Nationalist rivals in Taiwan, with the bombardment of Nationalist garrisons on the Quemoy and Matsu islands close to the Chinese coast. The United States intervened with secret messages warning nuclear retaliation. Beijing turned to Moscow to confirm an earlier promise of nuclear backing if attacked.
But by then the former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was already beginning to seek better relations with the West. He soon realized that Moscow’s interests lay in reneging on that promise.
Beijing was furious. The ideological attacks on the Moscow regime were its revenge. Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, but by that time, Beijing had its own nuclear weapons. The war of words quietly ended.
But for policymakers in Washington and Canberra ignorant of the Taiwan connection, it seemed natural to assume that Beijing’s ideological campaign against Moscow meant China was an enemy even more intractable and fearsome than the Soviet Union.
The outbreak of guerrilla war in South Vietnam in the early 1960s was seen as part and parcel of Beijing’s hard ideological line. Deep belief in the allegedly urgent need to restrain Chinese expansionism was a constant item in secret internal briefings at the time. As the Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, put it so amazingly at the time, intervention in Vietnam was needed to prevent the “southward thrust of China between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”
Sustaining this belief was yet another misunderstanding, this time over the Sino-Indian border war of October 1962. As China desk officer in Canberra at the time, it was obvious, to me at least, that the conflict had begun with a foolish Indian attempt to move troops into an area north even of the borderline claimed by New Delhi.
Beijing had then counterattacked, won its victory and withdrawn its forces back to the line claimed by India.
Some messages to opposite numbers in London and Washington confirmed that India was indeed the culprit. But none of this ever got through to our superiors. The myth of China’s aggressive willingness to engage in unprovoked southward attack against its peace-loving Indian neighbor took root, and led inexorably to the belief that China had to be stopped in Vietnam.
When the facts of the border conflict were finally published 10 years later, some of the policymakers, Henry Kissinger in particular, admitted that if they had known the truth at the time their attitude over Vietnam would have been very different.
But by then, of course, it was too late.
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