The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still “Annam” (the old Chinese term), buried within the French creation, “Indo-China.”
Our ignorance widens the spectrum of debate: Everyone seeks peace but some would get it by fighting more broadly, some by not fighting at all, and some by continuing a strictly limited war. Everyone wants negotiations. But to get them some would bomb North Vietnam and others would pause or stop.
Behind the cacophony of argument some hold the Europo-centric view that Vietnam is far away and in the Chinese realm, not in our realm. Others argue for a more global view that the balance of power and international order can be preserved only by containing the Chinese revolution as we are already doing in Korea and the Taiwan straits. Yet here the problem arises that it is not the Chinese whom we face in South Vietnam, but rather their model of revolution, Chairman Mao’s idea. And how does one stop a revolutionary idea?
How to deal with the Chinese revolution depends on how we understand it—specifically, what is the Chinese revolutionary influence in Vietnam? And behind that, what is the nature of the Chinese revolution itself? Can we ultimately deal with it in any way short of war? But where would war get us?
A long view is needed, an historical framework within which to see all the actors, including ourselves. (What are we doing so far from home?) Yet our knowledge of East Asian history is so meager it can mislead us. “History” is used as a grab-bag from which each advocate pulls out a “lesson” to “prove” his point. Some recall Manchuria in 1931: We failed to stop Japan’s aggression and it led on to Pearl Harbor. Others recall our drive to the Yalu in 1950: We ignored China’s vital interest in her frontier and got ourselves into a bigger war. Again, what was the “lesson” of Dien Bien Phu in 1954—were the French strategically overextended or merely tactically deficient in airpower?
“History never repeats itself” means that one can never find a perfect one-to-one correspondence between two situations. Each must be viewed within the long flow of events, not as an isolated “lesson.” Brief articles (like this one) can offer only limited wisdom. Nevertheless certain main outlines emerge from an historical survey. The Vietnamese and Chinese have had their own specific ways and interests, traditions and attitudes, and their own East Asian pattern of contact, not in the Western style.
China’s revolutionary influence on Vietnam comes from a long past. In the first place, Vietnam grew up as part of Chinese culture—the East Asian realm which included not only China in the center but also the peripheral states of Korea and Vietnam and Japan as well …
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