A little history should teach us a little patience in dealing with Africa. When the communists finally won in China a generation ago, their victory was regarded in Washington simply as a Russian takeover. Today communist China is communist Russia’s most fanatical enemy.
To glance back for a moment at the White Paper on China which Secretary of State Acheson issued twenty-nine years ago this August is a timely reminder of how resoundingly wrong an American government could be at one of the great turning points of history. “The communist leaders,” Secretary Acheson said in his preface to the White Paper, “have forsworn their Chinese heritage and have publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power, Russia,” and he called on the Chinese people to “throw off the foreign yoke.”
Nobody knows how many billions we spent in an effort to prevent their victory and how many billions more in the effort to strangle the new regime, but if there could have been a “Nixon visit” in 1950, Peking today would be a powerful military ally of the United States instead of a weak and impoverished giant, America’s biggest welfare applicant.
From opposite vantage points, Washington and Moscow made the same misjudgments then and are repeating them in Africa today. Both the great powers completely underestimated the hold of nationalism, with its deep moorings in geography, tradition, and culture. Both completely overestimated the power of ideology. If there were a Russian opposition party, able to protest the resources being squandered on Africa, its prize exhibit would be Russian intervention in China: the way Russian arms and military advisers built up the Kuomintang armies only to have Chiang Kai-shek turn on them in his hour of victory in 1927 and massacre his communist allies, and the way in which the Chinese communists after years of aid from Russia have become its most inveterate enemy.
On a smaller scale, the same bitter comedy is playing itself out in Indochina. The long series of wars there since 1945 were fought first by the French and then by us on the simple theory that Vietnam was China’s puppet, as China was Russia’s puppet. Yet with our withdrawal from the bloody scene, all three are freshly embroiled in a triangular brawl of their own. Peking and Hanoi are speaking of each other with hatred; China helps Cambodia fight Vietnam, and Vietnam, despite Russian aid, has just announced its ingratitude at UN headquarters. A Hanoi press release said that Chinese reports that it was about to give the Soviet Union use of the naval base we built in Cam Ranh Bay was a “total fabrication.” So dissoluble are the indissoluble bonds forged in war and revolution. Such indeed was our attitude toward France after its help in our own revolution.
The path of empire has never been more slippery than in these days when new nations are striving to be born—and old ones to be reborn—in Asia and Africa. Except …