Indochina Without Americans

September 1, 1999 Topics: Society Regions: Asia Tags: Spies

Indochina Without Americans

Mini Teaser: Finally, a much-needed study of the other Vietnam War.

by Author(s): Peter W. Rodman

Stephen J. Morris, Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia: Political Culture and the Causes of War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

Americans, in their narcissistic way, think of the Indochina conflict as coterminous with their own experience. Thus, the Pentagon Papers (and newly emerging Nixon administration documents) provide the source material for a cottage industry analyzing American decision-making during the Vietnam years, American military strategy in Southeast Asia, and the dilemmas of America's role in the world. Much of this is useful. But it is strange how little interest there is in the idea that other players in that drama--Hanoi, Beijing, Moscow--made calculations and miscalculations of their own, and that there is a larger story here.

How refreshing, then, to have Stephen Morris' new book that illuminates this wider context. The Americans are only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this version of the play, coming intermittently on the scene in the middle, then disappearing. Morris sheds considerable light on one of the most intriguing aspects of the Vietnam War--the relationship between Vietnam and Cambodia, which turned out to be a surrogate for the relationship between the Soviet Union and China, which of course turned out to be one of the most important strategic dimensions of the whole Indochina conflict and indeed of international politics in the last fifty years. The significance, even from a parochial American perspective, should be obvious. For it was precisely the Chinese and Soviet dimension that Lyndon Johnson so misjudged as we entered Vietnam; it was that dimension, too, that Nixon exploited in 1971-72, with somewhat more success, as we sought to extricate ourselves honorably. After the debacle of 1975, the genocidal Khmer Rouge and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia clouded the next twenty years of Southeast Asian politics, with the Chinese and Soviets shaping events even more decisively. Only recently has the United States sought to get back into the game in that part of the world in a serious way, concerned as it is about the new power of China.

Thus, Morris performs a great service with his diligent and extraordinary (indeed unique) research on the Vietnamese-Cambodian-Soviet-Chinese interrelationship. He has unearthed a wealth of new material, especially from Soviet Communist Party Central Committee files. It includes reports by the Soviet ambassador in Hanoi of his conversations with North Vietnam's top leaders, Soviet analyses of Hanoi's political and military strategies and capabilities, evaluations of Sino-Vietnamese relations, and even top-secret North Vietnamese Politburo reports covertly acquired by Soviet intelligence. These gems are supplemented by French historical and intelligence files, interviews with key figures (including Sihanouk), and Morris' extensive knowledge of the history of Indochina and Indochinese communism. He offers, as well, some general conclusions about the role of ideology and political culture in shaping the sometimes irrational conduct of the actors, especially the Khmer Rouge.

One of Morris' main revelations concerns Hanoi's tilt toward Moscow in the Sino-Soviet split. He makes a convincing case that it occurred earlier than is generally believed--specifically, in the 1968-70 period. Vietnamese communism had never been a maverick "national communist" movement of the Tito model; Morris shows how Hanoi loyally followed Moscow's leadership of the international communist camp. North Vietnam was always rather orthodox in its ideological positions and seemed almost always more comfortable with Moscow's version of communist "internationalism." In the early 1960s, however, Hanoi, increasingly dubious about Khrushchev's ideological "revisionism", adopted a pro-Chinese position in the Sino-Soviet dispute, seeking to ensure Chinese as well as Soviet support for its unfolding war effort in South Vietnam. Hanoi's media echoed some of Beijing's strictures against Titoism, the nuclear test ban treaty, and other aspects of Moscow's alleged accommodation with "imperialism."

But after Khrushchev's ouster, Hanoi shifted to a policy of neutrality between Moscow and Beijing. And during the late 1960s, as China consumed itself in the Cultural Revolution, Hanoi once again found Moscow's leadership more congenial. Soviet material aid was substantial, and Hanoi also found Brezhnev's Third World policies to its liking. In addition, Morris shows how Hanoi sided with Moscow, apparently on ideological grounds, on a number of international issues on which it could easily have remained neutral. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and China denounced it, North Vietnam defended the invasion and reprinted Pravda articles espousing the Brezhnev Doctrine. When the Soviets and West Germans consummated Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik with a treaty in 1970, China called it a fraud and an example of Soviet capitulation to imperialism; but Hanoi hailed it as a Soviet victory over German "revanchism." North Vietnam followed the Soviet line in opposing Nimeiri's coup in Sudan in 1971 (China backed Nimeiri), and in endorsing the 1974 leftist coup in Portugal (while China warned Europeans to beware of Soviet "expansionism"). In Angola in 1975, when the Soviets and Chinese backed opposing sides in the civil war, Hanoi, like Moscow, committed itself to the Marxist-Leninist MPLA.

These are issues in which North Vietnam had no direct stake. Nor was China any threat to North Vietnam during this period. Indeed, Hanoi relied on Chinese as well as Soviet arms supply and backing during the Vietnam War. Yet Morris makes a case that the North Vietnamese Politburo thought Beijing was more guilty than Moscow of causing the schism in the communist movement. Though both Beijing and Moscow were flirting with the Americans, Hanoi thought Beijing's policy more of a betrayal of the "internationalist" cause.

Hanoi was not an easy client for Moscow, taking Soviet weapons for the struggle against the Americans but not confiding in Moscow with respect to its own plans. The Soviet ambassador in Hanoi repeatedly complained that the North Vietnamese told him little about developments in the peace negotiations with the Americans. And when Marshal Pavel Batitski, the Soviet air defense commander, visited Hanoi in March 1972 to hear Hanoi's arms requests, the North Vietnamese told him nothing about their plan to launch the biggest military offensive of the war immediately after his departure. Nor did Hanoi inform Moscow of its plan to invade Cambodia at the end of 1978.

The timing of Hanoi's tilt toward Moscow is not just a matter of correcting a date in the historical record. Morris' main point is that Hanoi went too far and too fast in its tilt toward Moscow, and thereby needlessly antagonized Beijing. The Sino-Soviet conflict was thus imported into Southeast Asia, complicating Hanoi's situation and raising the stakes in the Indochina struggles, including Vietnam's relations with the Khmer Rouge. Morris thinks this a serious miscalculation by Hanoi, prompted in his view by ideological reflexes as much as by any historical or geopolitical tension with China. This explanation goes against much conventional wisdom, but he makes a strong case.

Morris' portrait of the Khmer Rouge is illuminating, though here his evidence only confirms the general view of the Khmer Rouge as ideological purists--that is, fanatics--who worshiped the wildest extremes of Maoism. In July 1973, for example, even after the Congress had dictated a halt to all U.S. military operations by August 15, the Khmer Rouge launched an attack on Phnom Penh. The attack--a costly failure, blunted by U.S. bombing--was motivated, according to intelligence, by a desire to prove to the world that they were not afraid of the United States. For the Khmer Rouge, sheer will power could defeat superior military strength.

The other side of the coin of this fanaticism was paranoia. When it took power in Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge saw threats from all directions--from the Thai, from the Vietnamese and from internal "traitors." Its policies only made things worse. Irrationally, it thought that the mass murder by which it would "purify" its own society would strengthen Cambodia for external struggles. (There is nothing in Morris' documentation, by the way, that supports the idea that U.S. policies in Cambodia during the war had anything to do with this.)

Just as Morris believes the Vietnamese pushed the Chinese too hard, spurred by ideology, the Khmer Rouge provoked the Vietnamese into the December 1978 invasion of Cambodia (which in turn provoked a Chinese attack on Vietnam to "teach Vietnam a lesson"). In both cases we see the phenomenon of the weaker party provoking the stronger, ultimately against its own interests.
It is this that leads Morris to his ruminations on political culture and political irrationality. These parts of the book are sometimes persuasive, sometimes not. Under the rubric of "political culture" he lumps together a number of disparate phenomena, from bravado to ideology, to culture, to clinical paranoia--an uneasy blend of sociology and psychiatry, applied equally to the behavior of both the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese. What these "irrational" elements have in common is mainly that they all demonstrate, in Morris' view, that "realist" approaches to international politics, based on "objective" calculations of power and national interest, do not explain everything in life. That is true enough. But in places the analysis is strained, as if the author had been forced by academic fashion to build a grand theoretical construct around his valuable research. Or else he is trying too hard to poke holes in "realist" philosophy.

He may be knocking a straw man. No serious analyst of international politics discounts the intangible or psychological factor--or the simple notion of miscalculation. It is not unusual, either, for leaders of weak countries to try to mask their countries' weakness, or compensate for it, by force of will. Charles de Gaulle and Hafez al-Asad have done so quite successfully. Sheer stubbornness, or a show of being less risk-averse than a stronger opponent, can be a potent political weapon. Indeed, Chairman Mao adopted this as a strategy toward the Soviets--professing to be either oblivious to the costs of nuclear war or willing to draw an invading Soviet army deep into the interior of the country in order to envelop it. Bravado perhaps, but it had a deterrent effect. Facing an overwhelmingly superior Soviet military machine, this Chinese strategy may have been entirely rational. Granted, there is always a risk of overdoing it--the Soviets came close to taking a whack at China in 1969.

Nor is the argument for North Vietnamese "irrationality" as strong as that with respect to the Khmer Rouge. No one now doubts that the Khmer Rouge were certifiably sociopathic. But Vietnam's 1978 invasion of Cambodia--the eponymous subject of the book--seems easy enough to understand as a response to repeated provocations by a hostile neighbor not only egregious in its behavior but also--by that time--linked geopolitically to China. As Morris acknowledges, Vietnam's presumption of hegemonial tutelage over Indochina played a role as well. And, despite the "lesson" taught them by Deng Xiaoping, the Vietnamese did knock over the Khmer Rouge regime.

An American could be forgiven for regretting that the American role in all this was so marginal. That is not just narcissism. After the collapse of 1975, some observers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., noted happily that no dominoes fell, other than Laos and Cambodia; this was thought to vindicate the antiwar position. A superficial analysis, unfortunately. First of all, it was the Chinese who saved our bacon in Southeast Asia, stepping in as a counterweight to Soviet and Vietnamese dominance--by propping up Thailand, for example. Second, it was the people of Indochina--especially Cambodia--who paid the price. For one instrument that China used to counter Vietnamese influence was, of course, the Khmer Rouge; the Cambodian civil war went on for fifteen more years, until the Sino-Soviet rapprochement at the end of the 1980s prompted a Sino-Vietnamese accommodation in Cambodia.

In the end, as Morris says, China looks like the winner. With the Soviets gone, Vietnam no longer poses a serious problem. Indeed, when that erstwhile tool of Hanoi, Hun Sen, seized control of Cambodia in a July 1997 coup, the Chinese did not seem to care. Hanoi and Beijing seem rather to be finding common ground today in shoring up their anachronistic communist regimes against the contagion of Western political ideas.

But now the United States scrambles to get back into the game in Southeast Asia--signing accords to regain naval access to the Philippines, crossing its fingers as Indonesia faces an uncertain future, looking on hesitantly as China turns Burma into a base of its own and asserts itself more boldly in the South China Sea. Losing a war is never good for one's strategic position.

Essay Types: Book Review