At long last, the U.S. understands Vietnam
JUL 31, 2015

Nations often change their minds. But over Vietnam the changes have been little short of, well, mind boggling. Just 50 years ago the United States and Australia saw Hanoi as the puppet of an aggression-minded Beijing. Intervention against Hanoi in the Vietnam civil was seen as crucial in preventing the advance of China and communism southwards into the rest of Asia — the domino theory. Today both the U.S. and Canberra have switched 180 degrees. Both seek a close relationship with Hanoi in the hope that Vietnam will help block yet another feared southward Chinese advance, this time into the South China Sea.

Where once the U.S. rained bombs, napalm and toxic Agent Orange over Vietnam, it now bombards Hanoi with invitations for its highest officials to visit the U.S. On his recent visit to Washington, the general secretary of the Vietnam communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, was granted the privilege of a cosy tete-a-tete with President Barack Obama in the White House Oval Office. Even close allies do not get that sort of treatment.

True, nations are allowed to change policies as circumstances change. But the Hanoi then was the same as the Hanoi of today — sensible, pragmatic and fairly anti-China. When pro-communist President Ho Chi Minh in 1945 announced Vietnam’s breaking free from French domination he quoted from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Yet somehow our policymakers managed to convince themselves despite all the evidence to the contrary that Hanoi was dominated by a communist ogre in Beijing that had to be contained at all costs.

That fear of China had been building up for some time. The war in Korea (1950-53) was the start. Tension over Taiwan culminating in the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis added to the hysteria. China’s border war with India in 1962 and Beijing’s vocal support for revolutionary movements in Asia all combined to create the image of a militaristic China already on the move to expand its global influence, with the war in Vietnam as a dangerous first step.

Attention focused particularly on Beijing’s hostile ideological attacks on the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, with the Chinese seemingly taking the hard-line communist position against a more moderate Moscow. If Beijing was even more anti-West than the men in the Kremlin then the world had much to fear from China. Or so it was argued.

In fact that dispute with Moscow had little to do with ideology. It was due to Moscow reneging on a promise to provide China with the nuclear aid needed to meet a U.S. nuclear threat displayed during Taiwan Strait confrontations.

But few realized that. The image of a China berating Moscow for alleged cowardice toward the U.S. set the stage for a remarkable October 1964 Kremlin event to which I was the only Western witness — an Australian foreign minister at U.S. instigation demanding and getting a meeting with the top Soviet leadership to persuade them to join the West in the fight against alleged Chinese aggression in Vietnam.

Even a sarcastic rebuttal by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin — “not only will we always continue our aid to our brave Hanoi comrades, but we wish the Chinese would do more to help them” — could not dissuade the Australian, who went back to Canberra to warn how China “working through the agency of its Hanoi puppets” was preparing to move southward toward Australia. Today the same Australia is an active member in the developing Washington-Tokyo-Canberra anti-Beijing axis helping to train the Hanoi military.

How did our “best and brightest,” in the words of Vietnam war critic David Halberstam, manage to get it so wrong? I was based in Moscow at the time and needed only to talk to the North Vietnamese students and officials there to discover they preferred Moscow to Beijing; Vietnamese dislike of China went back for centuries. In official statements during the years of the Sino-Soviet dispute, Hanoi — while taking care not to offend Beijing — had shown a consistent pro-Moscow tilt. Soviet aid to North Vietnam had been much more generous and useful than that coming from China. Hanoi’s expulsion of Overseas Chinese settled in North Vietnam had been cruel. The idea that it was somehow a puppet of Peking, as Canberra alleged at the time, was absurd.

But for the hawks that dominated Western foreign policymaking at the time, it was much easier to paint China as the villain and Hanoi as its lackey. Few had any knowledge of the language and history of Vietnam. Exaggerated reports of jungle victories and inflated body counts were used constantly to promise eventual victory over the pro-communist, pro-Hanoi forces. The compromise solutions put forward from time to time, including my own, were dismissed as the bleatings of wimpish doves.

Even the final and humiliating defeat for anti-Hanoi forces in 1975 could do little to convince our hawks that maybe they really did not know what was going on. Only when China in 1979 launched an punitive attack into Vietnam’s northern border territory did it finally became possible to persuade them that Vietnam was not a Chinese puppet.

But Hanoi still had to be punished, presumably for the sin of having defeated the U.S. The next and even more bizarre move by the hawks was to join with Beijing in attacking Hanoi for having sought to rid Cambodia of the blood-thirsty Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot.

Only now that China has locked horns with Hanoi over fishing and development rights in the Paracel islands close to Vietnam have our hawkish policymakers and commentators realized what they should have known all along — that they can take advantage of Hanoi’s traditional dislike of China to counter what they see as Beijing’s expansionist threat in the East and South China Seas. Hence, finally, the warm welcomes from Washington.


国が変心するのはよくあることだ。だがベトナムをめぐる変心の諸相には、いささか呆然とさせられる。ちょうど50年前、アメリカとオーストラリアは、ハノイ(北ベトナム)を、中国の侵略的意図を帯びた北京のカイライと見ていたのだった。ベトナムの内戦でハノイを封じ込めるための介入は、アジアの他の地域に中国と共産主義が南下するのを阻止するためのカギだ、との判断からで― いわゆるドミノ理論。今日、アメリカとキャンベラは180度転換した。両国とも、ベトナムがいまもうひとつの中国の南下の恐れの歯止めになるかもしれないという期待があってのことで、今回は南シナ海だ。昔アメリカが、ベトナムで爆弾とナパーム弾と毒ガス・オレンジ作戦の雨を降らせたが、いまは、べトナムの高官陣をアメリカに招待するために、ハノイに招待状の雨を降らせている。最近アメリカを訪れたベトナム総書記グエン・フー・トロンは、バラク・オバマ大統領と、ホワイトハウスのオーヴァル・オフィスで、一対一で会談するという特別待遇を受けた。アメリカの親密な同盟国でさえ、このような待遇はない。

たしかに、状況が変われば国が政策を変えることはありうる。とはいえ、あのときのハノイは今のハノイと同じハノイ、― 良識があり、現実的、そしてかなり反中国的なことも変ってない。1945年親共産主義的なホーチミン大統領がベトナムはフランス支配から開放すると宣言したとき、彼はアメリカの独立宣言を引用した。しかしわれわれの政策当局は、その反対の証拠が揃っているにもかかわらず、ハノイは北京の共産主義の鬼に支配されているといい、あらゆる手段で封じ込める必要があると、自分を納得させようとしていた。




だが、それを知る人は少ない。1964年10月西側の人間としてただひとり私だけが目の当たりにしたクレムリンでのあの出来事、それはまさに“アメリカに対するモスクワの弱腰を批判する中国”というイメージを形に表したものだった。―― オーストラリア外務大臣がアメリカの差し金でモスクワへやってきて、ソビエト首脳陣と会い、ベトナムにおける中国のいわゆる横暴に対する我々の戦いへ参加しないか、と説得しようとしたのである。


ベトナム戦争批判のデビッド・ハルバースタムがいうように、我々の最高のエリートたち(ベスト・アンド・ブライテスト)はなぜそんなにも道をまちがえてしまったのか? 当時私はモスクワに勤務中で、北ベトナムの留学生や役人と話す機会があったが、少し話すだけでも、彼らが北京よりもモスクワが好きだということはすぐ分かった。: ベトナム人の中国嫌いは数世紀前からの歴史がある。中ソ論争の時期、ハノイは、北京を刺激しないように気を使いながらも、常に親モスクワの姿勢をとり続けた。ソビエトによる北ベトナム援助は、中国の援助に比べて、より気前の良い実質的なものだった。また、北ベトナムに住む華僑を追放したやり方もかなり残酷なものだった。明らかに、北ベトナムが北京のカイライだという当時のキャンベラの言い分は馬鹿げていた。




ところが、これでもまだハノイを罰し足りない―― おそらくは、アメリカに勝ったという罪で――というわけか。また次には、タカ派はさらに奇妙な動きに出た。今度は、北京と組んでのハノイ攻撃―― カンボジアのポル・ポトの下でクメール・ルージュ政権が展開した血に飢えた政策をベトナムが排除しようとした罪だ。

今ようやく、中国が、ベトナム近くのパラセル群島で漁業や開発の権利をめぐって、ハノイと角突き合わせるに到り、我々のタカ派的政策担当者は、もっと前から知っているべきだった事実―― ハノイの伝統的な中国嫌い、 と、南シナ海での、いわゆる北京の拡大主義の脅威に対抗するために、それを利用することが出来る、という事実、―― を悟ったのである。そこで今ようやく、ワシントンから暖かい歓迎をうけているというわけだ。