Like Vietnamization, the new China policy had its covert beginnings in the Johnson Administration. A cable from Johnson to Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, which turned up in the Pentagon Papers, is evidence of an earlier recognition in Washington that the Sino-Soviet split might offer useful leverage in power politics. It was dated March 20, 1964, and spelled out the reasons for delaying any open attack on North Vietnam. Johnson added as “an additional international reason for avoiding immediate overt action” that “we expect a showdown between the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties soon and action against the North will be more practicable after than before a showdown.”
When the air war against the North began in 1965, it was accompanied by friendly “signals” to Peking. In December, 1965, Johnson modified travel restrictions to allow the heart specialist Dr. Paul Dudley White and other famous doctors to visit Communist China. The following year athletes, teachers, and members of Congress were added to the list of the permitted. This was the first step toward ping-pong diplomacy. Johnson’s State of the Union message in 1967 expressed the hope of a reconciliation with Communist China and said the US had no intention of denying Peking’s “legitimate needs for security and friendly relations with her neighboring countries.”
How enviously Johnson must have watched Nixon’s arrival in Peking on TV! How unfairly treated Johnson must feel! Nixon had been allowed in, though his visit, like the wheeler-dealer’s first friendly feelers, had also been preceded by a sharp escalation in the air war. That old suspicion of downright racial prejudice against him may have recurred to Johnson. He may have felt that those snobbish Mandarins, like us mean Eastern intellectuals, just don’t cotton to little old country boys with a Texas accent.
There are bigger stakes than the Vietnam war involved in the new entente with China. Another of Washington’s neo-Maoists, Secretary of Defense Laird, touched ever so lightly upon them in his new “defense posture” statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “As we evaluate the strength of Soviet and Chinese weapons development and deployments,” Laird said, “we must also take into account in a realistic net assessment the fact that they face some considerable constraints.” The first—and the foremost—he cited was that “the Soviet Union and Mainland China must deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to their Far Eastern border.”
Tito was an ideological diversion, the first break in the once monolithic world communist movement, but an altogether minor shift in the East-West military balance. But Mao’s defection is a major change in the power equation. It means that the USSR must deploy and plan its forces for war on two fronts, both major. It faces the same threat of military encirclement that was Germany’s nightmare before World Wars I and II. The Soviet Union was spared this problem in World War II by Japan’s decision to strike south against the colonial …