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.
The Traditional Model for Vietnam
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. All these countries took over the Chinese writing system in ancient times and with it the Chinese classical teachings, the bureaucratic system of government, and the family-based social order, so eloquently advocated in the Confucian classics. These countries have an ancient common bond in philosophy, government, and cultural values.
In Vietnam’s case, this Chinese heritage was imposed by a thousand years of Chinese rule in North Vietnam, the ancient homeland of the Vietnamese before they expanded southward into the Mekong delta. Independence from Chinese rule was gained by fighting in the tenth century A.D., but Vietnam then continued for another thousand years to be “independent” only within the Chinese realm and tribute system. Down to the 1880s, Vietnamese tribute missions, going over the long post route to Peking, acknowledged the superior size and power, the superior culture and wisdom, of the Chinese empire and its rulers. This filial or younger-brother relationship was broken only a few times when Chinese armies again invaded Hanoi (for example, in 1406 and 1789), only to be thrown out by the Vietnamese resistance, whereupon tributary relations were resumed. There were only these alternatives, to be ruled by China or to be “tributary,” in the Chinese cultural-political-psychological sense, taking China as a model. This went to the point of using the same structure of government and copying the Chinese law codes verbatim, with the same terminology, in Chinese characters, which were the official writing system.
Vietnam’s growth in the shadow of China was eventually balanced by the arrival of sea-invaders from the West. The early Portuguese adventurers and the later Dutch and British East India Companies landed their ships at Danang (Tourane), where our marines are today. This sea contact with the expanding West climaxed in the French takeover of the 1860s and ‘70s. French colonialism during its eighty years brought both exploitation and modernization, in a mixture that is hotly debated and can hardly be unscrambled.
We Americans have thus had predecessors (even the Japanese in 1940-45) on the long thin coast of Vietnam. We are sleeping in the same bed the French slept in, even though we dream very different dreams.
Western sea power in Southeast Asia goes back 450 years. Europeans expanded westward into the empty Americas very slowly. They went east into populous Asia more quickly and easily. The resulting colonialism in Southeast Asia has now been superseded by the new relationships we are trying to work out in the name of national self-determination. We are on an old cultural frontier between the international trading world and Asia’s land-based empires. Vietnam, like Korea, has been caught in the middle and pulled in two.
Vietnamese patriots reacted against the French by learning modern nationalism from them. In so doing they continued to be influenced by the Chinese example to the north. The Chinese reformers of 1898 had their counterparts in Hanoi. Sun Yat-sen operated from there in 1907-08. When his Chinese Kuomintang reorganized itself on Soviet lines in the 1920s, a Vietnamese Kuomintang followed suit. In the same era, the Chinese Communist Party set a model for the growth of a Vietnamese Communist movement in the 1930s. The rise of Ho Chi-minh illustrates this trend. Both the French and Soviet Communist movements and Chiang Kaishek’s Whampoa Military Academy were in his background.
By the time the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, they were in an even better position to give the Vietnamese the encouragement of example. Viet Minh patriots of the united front were trained to fight against the French in the sanctuary of South China. When the People’s Republic of North Vietnam eventually emerged in 1954 after the defeat of France, it was indebted to Chinese help but, most of all, to the Chinese Communist example.
Today in South Vietnam, the “people’s war of liberation” has developed from the Maoist model that took shape in China during the struggle against the Nationalists and the Japanese. Mao’s formula is to take power through a centralized Leninist party that claims to represent the people. This begins with establishing a territorial base or “liberated area,” inaccessible and defensible. From this base, the party organizers can recruit idealists and patriots in the villages and create an indoctrinated secret organization. Once under way, this organization can begin to use sabotage and terrorism to destroy the government’s position in the villages and mobilize the population for guerrilla warfare. Shooting down unpopular landlords or government administrators has a wide “demonstration effect.” When guerrilla warfare has reached a certain level, it can escalate to fielding regular armies, strangling the cities, and completing the takeover.
One appeal of this Maoist model is its do-it-yourself quality. The organizing procedure is carried out by local people with only a minimum influx of trained returnees and essential arms. The whole technique cannot be understood apart from the local revolutionary ardor that inspires the movement.
Historical Mainsprings of China’s Revolution
In China today we confront a revolution still at full tide, an effort to remake the society by remaking its people. Chairman Mao spreads a mystique that man can overcome any obstacle, that the human spirit can triumph over material situations. For fifteen years with unremitting intensity the people have been exhorted to have faith in the Chinese Communist Party and the ideas of Mao Tse-tung. With this has gone a doctrinaire righteousness that has beaten down all dissent and claimed with utmost self-confidence to know the “laws of history.”
Mao’s revolution puts great stress on the principle of struggle. The class struggle has made history. Each individual must struggle against his own bourgeois nature. China must struggle against Khrushchevian revisionism. The whole world must struggle against imperialism led by the United States.
Out of all this struggle among the 700 million Chinese has come a totalitarian state manipulated largely by suasion. Individuals work upon themselves in the process of thought reform, criticizing their own attitudes. Residential groups maintain surveillance on one another, as children do on their parents, as part of their national duty. Terror is kept in the background. Conformity through a manipulated “voluntarism” fills the foreground. No such enormous mass of people has ever been so organized. The spirit of the organization continues to be highly militant.
The sources of China’s revolutionary militancy are plain enough in Chinese history. The Chinese Communist regime is only the latest phase in a process of decline and fall followed by rebirth and reassertion of national power. China’s humiliation under the “unequal treaties” of the nineteenth century lasted for a hundred years. An empire that had traditionally been superior to all others in its world was not only humbled but threatened with extinction. Inevitably, China’s great tradition of unity, as the world’s greatest state in size and continuity, was reasserted. In this revival, many elements from the past have been given new life—the tradition of leadership by an elite who are guardians of a true teaching, the idea of China as a model for others to emulate.
Because the Chinese empire had kept its foreign relations in the guise of tribute down to the late nineteenth century, China has had little experience in dealing with equal allies or with a concert of equal powers and plural sovereignties. Chairman Mao could look up to Comrade Stalin. He could only look down on Comrade Khrushchev. An equal relationship has little precedent in Chinese experience.
Because China has been a separate and distinctive area of civilization, isolated in East Asia, the Chinese people today have a very different political heritage from the rest of the world. The most remarkable thing about China’s political history is the early maturity of the socio-political order. The ancient Chinese government became more sophisticated, at an earlier date, than any regime in the West. Principles and methods worked out before the time of Christ held the Chinese empire together down to the twentieth century. The fact that this imperial system eventually grew out of date in comparison with the modern West should not obscure its earlier maturity. As in her scientific discoveries and technology, China’s inventions in government put her well ahead of Europe by the time Marco Polo saw the Chinese scene in the thirteenth century. Perhaps this early Chinese advancement came from the continuity of the Chinese effort at government, carried on in the same area century after century, and dealing with the same problems until they were mastered. In contrast, Western civilization grew up with a broader base geographically and culturally, but this very diversity of origins and the geographical shift from the Mediterranean to western Europe may have delayed the maturing of Western institutions.