China Contributed Substantially to Vietnam War Victory, Claims Scholar

Jan 01, 2001

For the past several decades, the Vietnam War has been the subject of intense scrutiny in the United States. Documentary films, best-selling books by veterans, Maya Lin's moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- all have spurred the debate over how to interpret this controversial war. Seldom, however, have people in the United States ever examined the war from anything other than their own standpoint. How did the Europeans view the war? And what was the extent of the involvement by the two major Communist powers, Russia and China?

Recently, historian Qiang Zhai visited the Woodrow Wilson Center to talk about his new book China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975. Zhai has written extensively on China and its participation in the Cold War. His latest work gleans new insights on China's role in Vietnam from documents that were recently released by the Chinese government.

Web intern Tim DiIorio conducted the following interview with Zhai (below) during his visit to the Center.

DiIORIO: As a Chinese scholar, how did you get interested in the topic of the Vietnam War?

ZHAI: I've been interested in the Vietnam War for a long time. Whenever I read existing books on the Vietnam War, they mostly talk about it from an American perspective, drawing lessons about American mistakes. American scholars speculate about the Chinese role, but partly because of a lack of Chinese documents, they have no idea about the extent of China's involvement.

As for the Vietnamese, they don't talk about the Chinese role because of their nationalist pride. They want to think that they won the war on their own, without any help from China.

My book is the first English-language volume to look at the Vietnam War from the Chinese perspective. The Chinese government recently released some materials about China's role in the war. This gave me an opportunity to fill in the knowledge gap. Chinese scholars have produced some military histories that cover the Vietnam War, but my book is the first attempt to make this kind of information accessible to Western readers.

Nowadays there's growing interest among American scholars and the reading public about what was happening on the so-called "other side" of the Vietnam War. What did the Chinese think? Only when you have a better knowledge of the other side can you evaluate American policy.

DiIORIO: You said you examined newly released Chinese archival sources and other documents. What new insights did these documents yield -- how does your book change the perceptions of Chinese-Vietnamese relations during the Cold War?

ZHAI: First and foremost, the book sheds new light on the actual relationship between Chinese and Vietnamese Communists. My study revealed that their relationship was very close. The book begins with the events of the late 1940s, when the Vietnamese Communists were fighting the French. The Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, and Ho Chi Minh went to China asking for help with his war against the French. Mao was eager to oblige because he had the ambition of spreading his formula for making revolution to neighboring countries in Asia. He wanted to demonstrate that his formula for a "people's war" would apply within the pan-Asian Communist movement.

In addition, there was an international division of labor between the two major Communist powers, the Soviet Union and China. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Stalin paid attention to supporting the Communist parties in Eastern Europe, while Mao was expected to encourage the Communist movements in Southeast Asia. Thus in the early 1950s, the Soviet role in the Vietnamese struggle was minimal. There's no evidence that the Soviets had advisers in Vietnam or gave the Vietnamese materials. On the contrary, the Chinese starting in 1950 sent political and military advisers, weapons, and supplies to the Vietnamese to help them with their war against the French.

The Chinese helped the Vietnamese train their military commanders; reorganize their defense and financial systems, including tax and fiscal policy; and create a solid economic base. They also helped the Vietnamese to mobilize the peasants to support war through land reform campaigns. Overall, there was a massive transfer of the Chinese experience of making revolution to the Vietnamese.

Ho Chi Minh was very eager to learn, I must say. He was essentially following a long-established pattern of interactions between the Chinese and Vietnamese. If you look back in history, Vietnamese emperors and leaders looked to China for models of how to do farming, how to modernize their society, and so on. They readily adopted Confucian values and institutions. I should add that the Chinese-Vietnamese relationship wasn't a simple one of teacher-student. There's another side to the picture, full of tension and friction.

The Chinese gave Ho Chi Minh and his movement a lot of support, but this didn't mean he was China's puppet. He was his own master and set his own agenda. Sometimes this conflicted with what China had in mind. The clearest example of this occurred following the Geneva Conference of 1954. After that conference, the French withdrew from Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had the dream of expanding his success from north to south and unifying the country.

This worried the Chinese. They feared it might trigger an American intervention. After all, China had just fought the Korean War against the Americans, and this had placed enormous stress on its economy. So when the French withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, the Chinese very much wanted a relaxation of tensions in Southeast Asia. They didn't want to fight another Korean War in Vietnam.

The Soviets shared the Chinese instinct for preventing another war in Asia. The Soviets and Chinese together pressured Ho Chi Minh to stop at the 17th parallel [the dividing line between North and South Vietnam established at the Geneva Conference]. They argued that if Ho Chi Minh would be willing to wait a couple of years [the Geneva Conference agreement said there would be a national election in two years], he could win the election and reunify the country. Otherwise, the Americans would jump in and complicate the picture.

As it turned out, the national election promised at the Geneva Conference did not take place. The government in South Vietnam, supported by the Americans, ignored the agreement, refusing to hold elections. As a result, the country remained divided, with two mutually hostile governments. The Vietnamese later accused the Chinese of betraying their interests at this critical juncture.

This is a major example of the friction between the two countries. There are other instances, too. For instance, the Chinese who came to advise the Vietnamese in the early 1950s had trouble getting along with Vietnamese commanders, who saw them as arrogant and condescending. This of course fits the historical pattern -- Vietnam is eager to learn from China but is also afraid of losing its independence.

The two countries have a classic love-hate relationship. China towers over Vietnam -- it's a much bigger country with a more advanced civilization -- and this makes the Vietnamese feel insecure; they resent living in China's shadow. I found ample evidence of this ambivalent Vietnamese attitude in the newly released Chinese documents. During that period of Sino-Vietnamese alliance, the Chinese often complain about the Vietnamese, saying, they don't trust us fully, they're too guarded.

So the picture of Sino-Vietnamese relations at this time is complex. The Vietnamese were weak -- but not meek. They set their own agendas and tried to protect their interests.

DiIORIO: Were there any misconceptions in particular that you were able to clear up in examining the new Chinese evidence?

ZHAI: One common misperception has to do with Lyndon Johnson's handling of the war in the 1960s. Critics say that Johnson allowed his fear of China to impede his handling of the war. When he escalated the war in Vietnam, he gradually expanded the bombing from south to north as he was afraid of incurring China's wrath. Like the Chinese side, Johnson remembered the Korean War and wanted to avoid another confrontation. He remembered that during the Korean War, the U.S. had failed to heed Chinese warnings after MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel, thus triggering a clash with China.

This time, Johnson and his advisers paid close attention to the Chinese role. They were afraid that if the United States pushed too hard or attacked North Vietnam without restraint, they would have a replay of the Korean War. Johnson's critics later said that China was just bluffing, that the Chinese weren't serious about intervening. Harry Summers and other military writers criticized Johnson for allowing his fear of Chinese intervention to undermine his bombing campaign.

However, the new evidence from China suggests that Mao was seriously prepared to intervene. There was a secret agreement between Hanoi and Beijing that if the Americans launched a ground invasion of North Vietnam (at that time, the United States had restricted itself to a bombing campaign), China would send ground troops into North Vietnam and would not allow the United States to defeat Hanoi. If the Americans bombed North Vietnam, China would match the American military action by taking measures to protect North Vietnamese cities and to rebuild roads and bridges. They would also send anti-aircraft artillery units and army engineers to support North Vietnamese troops and help them deal with the air bombing pressure.

Meanwhile back in China, Mao was making preparations in anticipation of war with the United States. He relocated industries, universities, and research institutions in the coastal areas of eastern China to the mountainous areas of southwest China. He ordered his people to build anti-air shelters throughout China.

Mao himself had staked a lot on the outcome of the Vietnamese War in terms of security as well as ideology. Mao took the American escalation seriously; he interpreted it as a security threat. But he also believed that the success of North Vietnam had ideological significance. At that time Mao was criticizing the Soviet Union for not giving enough support to national liberation movements, for pursuing détente with the United States. Thus he hoped to use the Vietnam War as a way to embarrass Khrushchev -- to show him that China had closely befriended anti-imperialist movements of the Third World.

For all these reasons, Mao was really interested in Vietnam and prepared to intervene. This means that critics of Johnson were wrong. The historical record shows that Johnson was prudent in his approach to the Vietnam War -- that he was right not to adopt more drastic measures. If the suggestions made by these critics had been adopted by Johnson, there would have been a real danger of war between the United States and China.

DiIORIO: According to thinkers like Samuel Huntington, the Cold War was an aberration, and since it ended, the world has returned to a more familiar pattern of conflict, based on ethnic and religious -- versus ideological -- differences. Was the close alliance between Vietnam and China a phenomenon of the Cold War, not likely to be repeated?

ZHAI: Ideology played an important role. Communists in China and Vietnam had common beliefs. Mao in particular believed that the Asian approach to making revolution was distinct from the model created by Russia. He believed that revolution should begin in rural areas and spread to the cities. He believed that this strategy could work in Asian countries with similar rural areas -- especially in bringing about a peasant revolution. Mao's model of the People's War is his unique contribution to Marxism/Leninism. He was interested in transmitting his strategy to other Asian countries.

But there are also historical precedents for such an alliance. Ho Chi Minh chose Mao's model because he was attracted to its methods, formulas, and successes. As I mentioned earlier, the Vietnamese have tended throughout history to look to China for inspiration.

Besides historical precedent and ideological similarity, there was a personal dimension to the alliance between the two countries. Ho Chi Minh enjoyed a long association with Chinese revolutionary leaders. He even went to China to help the Kuomintang with its revolutionary movement.

But in the final analysis, it was the Cold War that led Ho Chi Minh and Mao to forge such a close relationship. Without that context, it's hard to see the two leaders becoming that close. If the Americans hadn't supported the French, the first Indochina war might have had a different outcome. The French were eager to return and reestablish their colonial rule and were being heavily financed by the United States. This gave Ho Chi Minh little choice but to turn to China and the Soviet Union for help. He asked help from both, but because of the division of labor, it was China not the Soviet Union that responded.

DiIORIO: What legacy does this period of alliance leave for relations between the two nations today? What's its long-lasting impact?

ZHAI: Both China and Vietnam are now more pragmatic, fully realizing the pitfalls of their earlier close cooperation. Their leaders are less romantic about the ties between the two countries. They tend to be more concerned with their own regime's survival and with economic development.

But the pattern of the Vietnamese learning from the Chinese example hasn't disappeared. Vietnam still looks to China for inspiration and instruction. For instance, when China started welcoming Western investment, Vietnam tried some of the same method. It started opening up economically and introducing similar reforms. The North Vietnamese leadership also learned from the Chinese example how to preserve one-party rule while opening up economically.

The Vietnamese still don't talk much about Chinese support during the middle of this past century. They want to see their victories against both the French and the Americans as the result of their own efforts. Thus they have no interest in highlighting Chinese, later Soviet, support to their cause. This was our own victory, Vietnam insists.

DiIORIO: What will be your next work?

ZHAI: This book ends in 1975. I'm interested in pursuing developments after 1975 -- in particular, the reasons for war between Vietnam and China in 1979 and the triangular relationship between Vietnam, China, and Cambodia. So my next project will be a continuation of my study of Sino-Vietnamese relations, but the focus will be on the causes of the border war that took place in 1979. I will examine new Chinese documents, as well as documents from Russia and other sources.

DiIORIO: Will you also use Vietnamese sources?

ZHAI: Vietnam has been slow to open up its archives. The party leadership in Hanoi is very cautious. Vietnamese scholars rarely cite archival evidence, and scholarship based on primary research is still extremely limited in that country. One hopes the situation will change, that information will become more accessible. But in general, the Vietnamese are cautious in relaying the history of their Communist movement; they even hesitate to publish biographies of Ho Chi Minh and his associates. This is in contrast to China, which has published official biographies of Mao and his associates and their interpersonal relationship based on their papers, letters, and diaries. These biographies are credible and useful scholarly sources. I'm puzzled as to why the Vietnamese can't be more forthcoming about opening up their archives.

Upcoming Events

Australia and the Bomb

January 28, 2015 // 2:00pm3:30pm

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project