Ten years after the U.S. attack on Iraq the question remains: Were U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair cunning liars with their claims of weapons of mass destruction? Or were they just stupid?
A Moscow experience I endured many years earlier over a very different war — Vietnam — suggests that belligerence more than makes up for any lack of intelligence suffered by our leaders. I relate that experience belatedly since it is very relevant to what is happening today over North Korea. It could also throw some light on a hitherto secret corner of big power confrontation history.
In November 1964 an urgent message arrived at the Australian Moscow Embassy where I was stationed saying that Australian Foreign Minister Paul Hasluck wanted an immediate meeting with the top Soviet leadership. He had an important message to pass on over Vietnam. Normally Moscow would not want to give ear to a little-known foreign minister from a distant country. But there were also hints that the United States was behind his message. A few days later I found myself sitting beside Hasluck at the standard Kremlin green baize table facing Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
In urgent tones the Australian minister set out to warn the Soviet leaders about the threat of Chinese global aggression. Even we in Australia knew how the Chinese were threatening Moscow’s control over Sinkiang and its Siberian Far East district. Now they were using Hanoi to invade South Vietnam and push further into Asia, creating a direct threat to Australia. The Soviet Union, he said, should join us and the United States in Vietnam to use its power (translated as sila, which also means force) to put an end to China’s aggressive ambitions.
Our meeting soon ended, in a welter of misunderstanding. Kosygin had interrupted to say Sinkiang had long been Chinese territory, and that the Chinese had never made any claim to Russia’s Far East territory. He went on to say in a pointed reference to Vietnam that Moscow rejected the use of “force” to solve international problems. As for supporting us in Vietnam, he would like to state clearly that the Soviet Union would always stand by the side of the brave Vietnamese people resisting U.S. imperialist aggression, and he only wished the Chinese would do a lot more to help.
But Hasluck was unfazed. Back in Australia he said he had visited Moscow to be the first Western leader to congratulate the new Soviet leadership after the October 1964 ouster of Nikita Khruschev. He continued to accuse China of aggression in Vietnam, “using in the first instance its puppets in Hanoi.”
Even after it was obvious that Beijing and Hanoi did not like each other, and China was blocking some Soviet transit materials to Hanoi, Canberra continued to beat the “China aggression” drum.
In an in-depth BBC interview over Iraq war origins, Blair also blamed group-think. And that too is a factor. Once our leaders identify some unfortunate nation as an imagined enemy, influence-seeking bureaucrats, politicians, think tanks, and media pundits plus military-industrial types keen to get larger budgets and test out new weapons on live targets quickly climb on the bandwagon to help demonize that enemy. At the time of our Moscow meeting China was being heavily demonized, even though it was then controlled by moderates such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping trying simply to deter U.S. attacks and repair the damage from Mao’s foolish Great Leap Forward. Accusations it wanted to take over the world were part of the demonic scenario.
Currently we see the same demonization process in action over North Korea. And while that regime deserves no sympathy for the way it has impoverished and oppressed its people, most who have met its leaders agree that they talk and act rationally.
In 1994 under the threat of imminent U.S. air attack they agreed to end their nascent nuclear program in exchange for a form of U.S. recognition. But the U.S. soon went back on that promise, arguing that the North Korean regime was about to collapse. So North Korea went back to its nuclear preparations, only to be targeted by the U.S. as part of the “axis of evil” with which the civilized world could have no truck.
Since then, Pyongyang has often pointed to Iraq as an example of what happens to an “axis of evil” nation without the weapons to defend itself. And it will tell anyone who cares to listen that it is still willing to halt nuclear development if it can gain that once-promised U.S. recognition.
It is almost certain that the belligerent noises and bluster we see and hear today are designed to ward off a pre-emptive attack similar to that threatened in 1994. But for our demonists the noises are proof North Korea really is crazy, belligerent, addicted to “provocations” and deserving to be attacked or at least strongly restrained. They say nothing about the belligerence and provocation that started it all: the U.S. threat to attack the North in 1994. Pyongyang’s calls for talks with the U.S. are simply a plot to make us drop our guard, they tell us. And so on.
The similarities with China’s situation in the early ’60s continue. Beijing had been threatened with U.S. nuclear attack three times in the ’50s — once in Korea and twice over its efforts to capture offshore islands held by the rival Taiwan regime. With a promise of Soviet help it had set out to develop its own nuclear deterrent, which it achieved in October 1964 just before our Moscow meeting.
And fearing a pre-emptive U.S. attack it too had begun to make belligerent noises, including the claim that it could lose hundreds of millions in nuclear war and still survive. Those noises were then used by the demonists to prove that China really was a crazy, dangerous nation deserving to be attacked.
This in turn was to create the bizarre chain of events leading to our futile Kremlin meeting. Fearing confrontation with the U.S. over the Taiwan problem, Moscow in 1959 had withdrawn its nuclear aid promise to Beijing. The Chinese retaliated with a torrent of anti-Moscow abuse, accusing the Soviets of selling out the communist cause to the U.S. enemy.
This in turn had been seized on by the anti-Chinese demonists in Washington and Canberra to prove that the Chinese were indeed bad communists, bent on global aggression, and restrained only by the good communists in Moscow. Hence the rushed Hasluck visit to Moscow in a bid to persuade the Soviets to join us in Vietnam.
Absurd? Of course. But demonists never sleep. The same fantasies are being concocted almost daily over a North Korea that almost certainly only wants to protect itself from yet another threat of U.S. attack as it goes about the business of restoring its wrecked economy.
Gregory Clark left the Australian diplomatic service in 1965 and has since lived and worked mostly in Japan. His book “In Fear of China” was published in 1968. A Japanese translation of this article will be placed on www.gregoryclark.net.