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2.3  Vietnam War and Deterioration of Sino-Soviet Relations Under Kennedy-Johnson & Mao (1961 – 1969)

1 January 2017

Sino-Soviet relations continued to deteriorate in the 1960s due to intractable differences between Mao and Khrushchev. In 1962, the PRC and the USSR finally broke diplomatic relations. Relations failed to improve even after Leonid Brezhnev deposed Premier Khrushchev in October 1964. Struggles between the two former comrades-in-arms spilled over into their respective support for North Vietnam, which was fighting first the French in the 1950s and then the Americans in the 1960s.


Vietnam's Nationalist Movement and Ho Chi Minh[1]


The history of nationalist movement in modern Vietnam was shaped by two critical European events – World War I and the Russian Revolution. During WWI, around 100,000 Vietnamese were shipped to France, either as industrial labourers or to fight on the Western Front. It was in France that many Vietnamese, through interactions with French trade unionists and political radicals, were first exposed to left wing political ideas of Marxism, socialism and revolution which advocated not just racial equality and better lives for workers and peasants but also an end to colonialism. Over time, some Vietnamese became active in the French Communist Party (FCP), founded in 1920.


The best known of these nationalists was Nguyen Sinh Cung (阮生恭) – later known as Ho Chi Minh (胡志明) – who petitioned the 1919 Paris peace conference and lobbied US president Woodrow Wilson for Vietnamese independence but was disenchanted when the Versailles Treaty that handed Vietnam back to France. In 1920, he began using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (‘Nguyen the patriot’) and was sent by FCP to Moscow to study Marxist-Leninism before becoming an Asian agent for Comintern (the Soviet-led Communist International).


In 1924 Quoc travelled to China and worked with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), lecturing on revolutionary tactics at the Huangpo Military Academy. When the Chinese nationalist government started persecuting communists in 1927, Quoc fled and spent the next decade wandering, visiting countries as far afield as Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, China, Hong Kong and Thailand.


In January 1941, Quoc, now assumed the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning ‘he who enlightens’, finally returned to Vietnam from exile. Ho took up residence in a cave in Pac Bo and began preparations for the eighth party congress of the Indochinese Communist Party's (ICP) founded in 1930 . He called for a “revolutionary force” that went beyond political and social organisation, announcing the formation of the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (the Vietnam Independence League, or Viet Minh for short). Ho went to great lengths to make the Viet Minh an inclusive confederation, open to any political group or organisation, communist or otherwise. Its foundation charter was more nationalist than communist, calling for “soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, civil servants, merchants, young men and women” to overthrow the “French jackals” and “Japanese fascists”. In reality, the Viet Minh was steered in the background by the leadership of the ICP. In late 1941 Ho told his comrades in the newly formed Viet Minh that the time had come for removing foreign aggressors; the time for resolving their political differences would come later.


For their fight against the Japanese during this period, the Viet Minh received support from the US Office of Strategic Services (or OSS, the forerunner to the CIA). Ho was also hoping that the Americans would not let the French come back. When the defeat of the Japanese in August 1945 created a power vacuum in Vietnam, Ho immediately sought to create an independent state by presenting a Vietnamese declaration of independence that drew heavily on similar documents from America and France. When his efforts failed and the French returned to revive colonialism, the First Indochina War (December 1946 to August 1954) broke out with Ho, assisted by another notable military leader General Vo Nguyen Giap, leading the Viet Minh against the French.

The First IndoChina War (1946 - 1954)


Despite heavily outnumbering French forces, the fighting was tough for the Viet Minh because its forces were poorly equipped and inadequately trained. In 1946, for example, Giap’s northern Viet Minh units of 60,000 men were armed with only 40,000 rifles mostly retrieved from the retreating Japanese or seized from captured French. Undaunted, Giap studied the philosophy and tactics of famous leaders, including Sun Tzu, Napoleon, George Washington, Leon Trotsky and Mao Zedong. Giap was particularly influenced by a 1936 pamphlet called Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War written by Mao, advocating the adoption of guerrilla warfare by a small and weak revolutionary army against a big and powerful enemy seeking to impose colonial rule. Giap adapted Mao’s strategies and avoided decisive battles and established bases in the countryside, jungles and mountains inaccessible to the French. When ready, Viet Minh soldiers would then be deployed to launch surprise attacks, ambushes and raids on weaker French positions (while avoiding full scale battles). Their aim was to prolong the war while inflicting casualties on French soldiers and damage to French resources. The intention was to make the war costly and unpopular back in France. Eventually, French forces would be weakened enough for the Viet Minh to engage them in a decisive battle.


During 1947-48, the French quickly captured the major cities but failed to decisively rout the elusive Viet Minh. By 1949, the French changed tack and began looking for a political solution rather than a military victory. Hoping to undermine the Viet Minh’s supporter base, France set up an alternative pro-French self-governing Vietnamese government led by figurehead emperor Bao Dai. The new regime was to remain part of the French Union with the national capital in Saigon in the south where the population comprised of mostly Vietnamese middle class, Francophiles, Catholics, Confucians, Buddhists, political liberals and moderates. While these groups welcomed Vietnamese independence, they harboured fears about communism and refused to support the Viet Minh, viewing them as lower class bandits led by political trouble makers. The Viet Minh thus had much weaker influence in the south.


By 1952, the Viet Minh were engaged in bitter fighting with the French soldiers as well as 120,000 soldiers from the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) set up by the Bao Dai’s new government. To further stretch the resources of the French, Ho and Giap moved their men and supplies into Laos – Vietnam’s western neighbour and another French colony. ​Finally, after seven years of exhaustive fighting in Vietnam, the French were decisively defeated by the Viet Minh during the last decisive engagement of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954.[2]

Meanwhile, in France, the war had become very unpopular. The French war effort was being propped up by American aid. By 1954, the war had cost US$3 billion, of which the United States had contributed more than a third. France’s unstable domestic politics also undermined the war effort.


The French’s defeat forced the issue of Vietnam independence onto the agenda of a conference in Geneva, Switzerland where diplomats from several countries were meeting to discuss two Cold War hotspots, Berlin and Korea. The Korean War had just ended in July 1953. It was decided at the conference that the Korean peninsula be divided at the 38th parallel into two separate states: communist-controlled North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and China; and South Korea, backed by the United States and its Western allies.


The Geneva conference adopted a similar approachOn 21 July, 1954, a formal agreement, known as the Geneva Accords, was produced granting independence to Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos, formally ending 75 years of French colonialism. The Accords produced a road map to free elections, self-government, reunification and independence but during an interim period of two years to prepare for the nationwide elections in 1956, Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel into North Vietnam, to be controlled by the Viet Minh, and South Vietnam to be controlled by Emperor Bảo Đại. By that time, the French had basically withdrawn from the Indochina and the South Vietnam government was supported by the US bent on containing the spread of communism from Vietnam to the rest of Southeast Asia like dominoes falling one after another.

The Viet Minh delegates were sceptical about the scheduled 1956 elections and were reluctant to agree to the 17th parallel border, which would mean surrendering territory to the South. Nevertheless, the delegates signed on instructions of Ho who was himself under pressure from the Soviet Union and China.

The Second Indochina War (aka Vietnam War 1955 - 1975)


Following the Geneva Accords, the North Vietnam government decided to focus on economic and military reform with the aim to facilitate a revolution in South Vietnam. Ho mimicked the early policies of Chinese leader Mao Zedong by redistributing land to peasants, while encouraging the interrogation and brutal punishment of former landlords.


In 1957, the North instructed the Viet Minh soldiers and sympathisers that stayed ‘underground’ in South Vietnam to begin a limited campaign of violence in the south. By 1959 there were as many as 20 different communist cells scattered around South Vietnam. In total these cells contained as many as 3,000 men. Referred to by the newspapers in Saigon as Viet Cong, (a shortened form of Viet Nam Cong San or Vietnamese communists)[3], the insurgents continued their violence between 1958 and 1959, while improving their organisation and command structures.

North Vietnam had by then also entered Laos in support of the Pathet Lao to fight against the Kingdom of Laos between 1958–1959. Control over Laos allowed for the eventual construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that would serve as the main supply route for the Viet Cong and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) activities in South Vietnam.

The Difference between Viet Minh and Viet Cong

The Viet Minh was the nationalists, which include communists and non-communists, fighting for independence from the colonialists. They were formed in 1941, and fought the Japanese and the French, and defeated the French in the north in 1954. By the 1960s, the Viet Minh no longer existed as a guerrilla force fighting colonialists, but morphed into the regular army of the nation of North Vietnam (the NVA). The Viet Cong, on the other hand, is a contraction of Việt Nam Cộng Sản (Vietnamese communist) which referred to the communist insurgents in the South, in the period from 1956–1975. Many Viet Cong were former Viet Minh communists that stayed behind in the South after 1954 as underground cells conducting insurgent activities under the instructions of the North. In 1960s, the Viet Cong formed the National Liberation Front (NLF).

As for Ho Chi Minh, he resigned in 1959 as the general secretary of the Lao Dong, North Vietnam’s ruling party, though he remained in the party’s Politburo.[4]

The North Vietnamese government maintained initially that the Viet Cong were acting independently, not under instruction from Hanoi. By mid-1959, the North dropped the pretention and was openly supporting the Viet Cong which formed the National Liberation Front (NLF) in December 1960. It called for the overthrow of “the camouflaged colonial regime of the American imperialists" and the dictatorial South Vietnam regime. The ranks of the NLF soon swelled, filled both by southern sympathisers and thousands of communists who streamed down from the North. War soon broke out between the north and the south.[5]


Thousands of South Vietnamese, marginalised and dispossessed by the corruption and brutality of the South Vietnam regime, enlisted to fight with the NLF. By 1960, with the approval of Hanoi, the NLF increased its terrorist activities in the South. Using guerrilla methods they targeted foreign and government personnel, buildings and facilities. This escalation prompted US president John F. Kennedy to increase the number of American military advisors in South Vietnam. 

The American troop levels tripled in 1961 and again in 1962 under Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963 (served 1961 – 1963). By 1965, President Lyndon Johnson (served 1963 – 1969) began deploying regular US combat units in Vietnam. American participation peaked in 1968, the same year that the communist side launched the Tet Offensive. Although the offensive failed to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, it became the turning point in the war. About 31,000 American lives had been lost since 1965.[6] To many Americans, the government's claims of progress toward winning the war were illusory despite many years of massive US military aid to South Vietnam.


The rising opposition to the war prompted the newly elected President Richard Nixon (served 1969 – 1974) to announce the strategy of “Vietnamization” in November 1969 which entailed building up South Vietnam’s armed forces and transferring all military responsibilities to the South Vietnamese so that the US could pull out with its honour intact. In June 1969, the first 25,000 US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Another 60,000 troops would follow by the end of the year. By 1972, only 69,000 US troops were present in Vietnam in compared to the peak of 549,000 in 1969.[7]


In January 1973, the Nixon administration and the North Vietnamese leaders signed the Paris Peace Accord under which the US agreed to withdraw its remaining troops within 60 days in exchange for an immediate cease-fire, the return of American prisoners of war, and North Vietnam’s promise to recognize the legitimacy of South Vietnam’s government and submit future disputes to an international commission. Despite the agreement, however, the fighting continued. By April 1975, South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese communist forces. 

The conclusion of the 19-year Second Indochina War, considered by some a Cold War-era proxy war, which included the Laotian Civil War and the Cambodian Civil War, resulted in all three countries becoming communist by 1975.


China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War [8]


As the United States poured men and money into South Vietnam, Chinese and Soviet involvement in Vietnam also increased. As the world’s largest communist powers, both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China hoped to consolidate and expand communism in the Asian hemisphere.[9] However, support from the Soviet to the communist movements in Vietnam was marginal in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There is no evidence, for example, that the Soviets had advisers in Vietnam or gave the Vietnamese materials then.


Soviet’s apparent lack of material support for Vietnam during this early phase of struggle by Vietnamese nationalists could first be attributed to Stalin’s eagerness to maintain his wartime alliance with the West. He thus chose not to antagonise them by backing the Viet Minh in 1946-47. In addition, Stalin had a deep distrust of Asian communist groups which he considered weak, undisciplined and tainted by self-interest and nationalism. Indeed, Stalin was not far off on that count in the case of Vietnam. Despite Ho Chi Minh’s affiliation with the Soviet, for example, he was never an intransigent communist revolutionary. Ho was said to have only one dream, and that was the freedom of Vietnam. His communist “internationalism” was therefore always qualified by Vietnamese nationalism. He seized upon Lenin only as a practical means of fighting colonialism. He never committed himself 100 per cent to Moscow or to Peking.[10]  Because of that Stalin’s distrust, Moscow only belatedly recognized Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh as the ‘official’ rulers of Vietnam in 1950. Still, when Ho sought Soviet military backing for his war of independence against the French at the end of WWII, Stalin rejected his overtures and instead encouraged Mao to support the Viet Minh. Stalin’s move demonstrated a seeming international division of labour between the two major Communist powers with Stalin focusing his support on the Communist parties in Eastern Europe and Mao paying attention to the Communist movements in Asia.


For Mao, China’s support for Vietnam was a first and foremost the fraternal and instinctual extension of its own revolutionary experience of flushing out the foreign powers from the mainland. He was also happy to oblige because of his eagerness to help because he had the ambition of spreading his formula for making revolution to neighbouring countries in Asia. He wanted to demonstrate that his formula for a "people's war" would apply within the pan-Asian Communist movement.[11] Finally, given that the two countries share a common border, having a friendly North Vietnam would also mean China securing a safe military buffer zone against a US military threat coming from the South.[12]


Hence, starting in 1950, the Chinese 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.

By the 1960s, the American entry into the war, in the aftermath of French’s defeat, elevated the conflict from being an important local one to being the central battleground between international revolution and China’s foes. From the Korean War, China knew the costs of engaging the US, and it took steps to clearly signal to the US its intentions in supporting Vietnam and to minimize the chance of an unnecessary confrontation. Nevertheless, an American invasion of Vietnam was taken as a real possibility, and China prepared to fight. The Chinese population was mobilized in massive demonstrations of support, industry was moved away from vulnerable coastal locations to a “third front”, and the completion of transportation links to Yunnan and Guangxi were given highest priority.


From 1965, China remained the most important source of foreign aid and support for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in its continuing struggles with the US and the Saigon regime in the South. Despite the chaotic political situation and a chronic shortage of food and industrial goods caused by the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, China continued its massive aid program.


China’s willingness to assist Vietnam was expressed in 1965 by Liu Shaoqi in a very generous offer that was sensitive to Vietnam’s requirements for autonomy:


“It is our policy that we will do our best to support you. We will offer whatever you are in need of and we are in a position to offer…. If you do not invite us will not come, and if you invite one unit of our troops, we will send that unit to you. The initiative will be completely yours.”


From 1965 to 1969, China sent 320,000 military-related personnel to North Vietnam to man anti-aircraft batteries, rebuild roads and railroads, transport supplies, perform other engineering works, and repair damages caused by American bombing. Based on Chinese estimates, its troops accounted for 38% of American air losses over Vietnam but suffered casualties of 1,100 killed and 4,200 wounded. In addition, China was generous in their support of Vietnam’s basic economy providing 5 million tons of food, the equivalent of Vietnam’s total food production for one year. Altogether, Chinese military and economic aids to North Vietnam amounted to about $20 billion (approx. $143 billion adjusted for inflation in 2015) of worth.

Despite China’s staunch support of the revolutionary movement in Vietnam, however, the relationship between the two countries was far from cosy. To begin with, the two countries have a classic love-hate relationship. Historically, China, as a much bigger country with a more advanced civilization, towers over Vietnam which makes the Vietnamese feel insecure. They resent living in China's shadow.


One example of friction between the two countries occurred following the Geneva Conference of 1954 which culminated in the French withdrawal from Vietnam. While Ho was eager to expand his success from north to south and unifying the country, China feared that 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. They didn't want to fight another Korean War in Vietnam.[13] The Chinese even appeared to be satisfied with Vietnam being indefinitely divided, although they were not opposed to a communist revolution in South Vietnam and were supportive of the Viet Cong.[14] 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. They argued that if Ho would be willing to wait, 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.[15]


By 1966, the strain of China’s sustained generosity and of Vietnam’s sustained gratitude was beginning to show. One source of friction from the Chinese perspective was Vietnamese handling of military strategy and especially of negotiations with the Americans. In 1954 China had counselled compromise at the Geneva Conference, but by 1968 Zhou Enlai was strongly criticizing Vietnam’s initial attempts to start peace talks with Lyndon Johnson. Moreover, China was critical of the Tet Offensive of 1968. Both initiatives were also controversial within the Vietnamese leadership, and the outcomes of each did not invalidate China’s concerns. Even so, and despite the dependent asymmetry, China did not take over decision making in Vietnam, nor did it sanction Vietnam for not following its advice. By the 1960s, decisions were no longer made collaboratively. Instead Vietnam made major decisions and reported them to China, and China criticized the decisions, sometimes vehemently, without the expectation that the Chinese viewpoint would prevail.


Moreover, China was also getting increasingly worried about the evolving cosy relationship between Vietnam and the Soviet Union. As the conflict in Vietnam became globalized, the Soviet Union provided greatly increased support, including sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that China could not provide. This got China worried. China wanted the imperialists out of Indochina, but did not want the Soviet Union to have too much power there either.[16] In 1965, against the backdrop of Sino-Soviet split, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai requested Vietnam to refuse Soviet aid.


Vietnam’s view of the relationship with China, however, was fundamentally differently from China’s view. It regarded the Sino-Soviet split as most regrettable but saw the Soviet aid as acceptable because it was premised on socialist internationalism, the same premise as Chinese aid. Hence, China’s reluctance to cooperate with the Soviet Union in aiding Vietnam clearly made China the offender in terms of socialist internationalism to the Vietnamese.


In addition, Vietnam was also greatly disturbed by the pandemonium it observed in China during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. There were worries that that if Mao could betray his closest comrades, he could also do so to his closest international friends. In October 1968, when the Chinese demanded North Vietnam to cut relations with Moscow and Hanoi refused, the Chinese withdrew its troop. The Chinese also began financing the Khmer Rouge as a counterweight to the Vietnamese communists at this time.[17]


As the age-old maxim “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” would attest, the growing discord between China and Soviet Union laid the foundation for the rapprochement between the US and China in the 1970s beginning with President Nixon sending his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on a secret mission to Beijing in 1972 to forge an informal alliance with Mao’s China against the Soviet Union.


The souring of relations between China and Vietnam also culminated in Deng launching a limited punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979 against the background of several Vietnamese provocations which included the mistreatment and expulsion of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam between 1976 and 1978, the formalization of a military alliance with the USSR in 1978, and the final straw, the invasion of Cambodia and overthrow of its China-backed dictator, Pol Pot, in 1979.

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[1] This section is based mostly on the work of Brantly Womack. (2006). “China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry.” Cambridge University. Pg 178.

[2] See Alpha History. “Dien Bien Phu.”

[3] The Viet Minh was the nationalists, which include communists and non-communists, fighting for independence from the colonialists. They were formed in 1941, and fought the Japanese and the French, and defeated the French in the north in 1954. By the 1960s, the Viet Minh no longer existed as a guerrilla force fighting colonialists, but morphed into the regular army of the nation of North Vietnam (the NVA). The Viet Cong, on the other hand, is a contraction of Việt Nam Cộng Sản (Vietnamese communist) which referred to the communist insurgents in the South, in the period from 1956–1975. Many Viet Cong were former Viet Minh communists that stayed behind in the South after 1954 as underground cells conducting insurgent activities under the instructions of the North. In 1960s, the Viet Cong formed the National Liberation Front (NLF).

[4] See Frank McCulloch & Janos Radvanyi. (1968). “A Study in Intransigence.” Life. Vol. 64. No. 12. March 22, 1968. Pg 22.

[5] See Alpha History. “Viet Cong.”

[6] See History. “Vietnamization.”

[7] See Alan Rohn. (2012). “How effective was the Vietnamization?”

[8] This section is based mostly on the work of Brantly Womack. (2006). “China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry.” Cambridge University. Pg 178.

[9] See Alpha History. “Chinese And Soviet Involvement In Vietnam.”

[10] See Frank McCulloch & Janos Radvanyi. (1968). “A Study in Intransigence.” Life. Vol. 64. No. 12. March 22, 1968. Pg 22.

[11] See Tim DiIorio. (2001). “China Contributed Substantially to Vietnam War Victory, Claims Scholar.” Wilson Center. January 1, 2001.

[12] See Nguyen Anh Tuan. (2008). “America Coming to Terms: The Vietnam Legacy: Years of Trials and Lessons of Experience.” Xlibris Corporation. Pg. 70. 

[13] See Tim DiIorio. (2001).

[14] See Zach Morgan. (2014). “Don’t forget China’s role in the Vietnam War.” March 6, 2014.

[15] See Tim DiIorio. (2001).

[16] See Zach Morgan. (2014).

[17] ibid

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