The Commitments Deepen 5

But the Chinese camp was uncomfortable for the Vietnamese Com¬munists, who, like all Vietnamese, recalled centuries of tensions with China. Fresh in their minds as well was China’s betrayal at the Geneva conference of 1954. Now they resented the pressures being put on them by Chairman Mao Zedong, who was exhorting them to wage the war in Vietnam according to his formula. He urged them to conduct a protracted conflict, as he had done against Japan and later against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, cloaking his counsel in one of his typical homilies: “A long road tests a horse’s strength, and a long march proves a man’s heart. ”
Mao’s advice concealed an ulterior purpose. He had not forgotten the Korean war, in which a million Chinese had died, among them his own son, and he was eager to avert a major conflict in Southeast Asia that might again pit China against overwhelming U.S. technol¬ogy. He was then also contemplating a showdown against adversaries within his own Chinese Communist party, and he intended to use the Chinese army as his instrument for that enterprise rather than in an external venture. Besides, he calculated, a drawn-out war contained within Vietnam’s boundaries would fulfill two other objectives: it would gradually weaken the Vietnamese, who had traditionally been a nuisance to China; and it would slowly drain America’s resources without posing a serious risk to China’s security. So at the time Mao saw the Vietnamese as proxies in his struggle against the United States—just as, a decade later, he would forsake them in order to purchase a rapprochement with President Nixon.
The Vietnamese Communists were never blind to Mao’s duplicity. Out of necessity, though, their propaganda during the early 1960s proclaimed their bonds with China to be “as close as lips and teeth.” It was not until much later, after the war, that they uncorked their real feelings—with a vengeance. As we chatted in Hanoi in 1981, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong delivered a tirade against Mao, saying: “He was always ready to fight to the last Vietnamese.”
Above all, the Vietnamese Communist leaders grimly concluded in late 1963 that Lyndon Johnson had no intention of dropping the Amer¬ican commitment to South Vietnam or negotiating a settlement ac¬ceptable to them. Weighing his possible options, they reckoned that he would continue to bulwark the Saigon regime with American ad¬visers and equipment and might, at worst, deploy as many as one hundred thousand U.S. combat troops in Vietnam—though, like the American public during that period, they myopically dismissed that eventuality as “remote.” But either way, the Vietcong could not deal with such a challenge alone. Until then, the North Vietnamese had stiffened the Vietcong’s ranks with experienced cadres, most of them southern veterans of the war against the French who had gone north after the Geneva agreement. Now, they estimated, their only alter¬native was to send larger North Vietnamese detachments into the south. The move would require no small investment. They would have to revamp their economic and social priorities as they mobilized North Vietnam’s entire population for an expanded conflict. Yet they resolved to make the sacrifice, having learned painfully over the years that the battlefield was decisive. So they declared in one of their jour¬nals: “The key point at present is to make outstanding efforts to strengthen rapidly our military forces in order to create a basic change in the balance of forces between the enemy and ourselves in South Vietnam.”
During the years that followed, Hanoi’s leaders were to issue con¬tradictory statements on their role in South Vietnam. On the one hand, they affirmed the principle that they had the right to intervene there. Ho Chi Minh, in an interview in late 1965, for example, con¬tended that “our people in the north are bound to extend wholehearted support to the patriotic struggle waged by the people of the south,” since “Vietnam is one [and] the Vietnamese people are one.” At the same time, though, they consistently and vehemently denied the pres¬ence of North Vietnamese army regulars in South Vietnam, since an acknowledgment would serve to validate American involvement. Such allegations, asserted Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in January 1966, were “a myth fabricated by the U.S. imperialists to justify their war of aggression. ” But after the war, when it no longer mattered, the Communists openly admitted the truth. In early 1981, Pham Van Dong told me that “weapons, ammunition and other military supplies as well as tens of thousands of soldiers were moved into the south for combat” along the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail—the elaborate com-munications network that cut through Laos and Cambodia.
A question repeatedly raised during the war—and one that has been repeatedly debated since—is whether major North Vietnamese units went south prior to the arrival of American combat forces in Vietnam or in response to their deployment there. Among the authoritative Communist informants for me on that subject was Colonel Bui Tin, who disclosed to me that preparations to send North Vietnamese troops south had begun long before Lyndon Johnson seriously con¬sidered the introduction of American battalions into Vietnam. And the North Vietnamese were engaged in battle against Saigon govern¬ment detachments months before the U.S. marines splashed ashore at Danang in March 1965. Bui Tin, according to his own account, played an important part in the Communist plans to escalate the con¬flict.
Just as Johnson rarely acted without consulting studies and analyses fed to him by advisers, so the senior Communist commanders in Hanoi were prudent. Before infiltrating troops into the south, they formed a team to survey the situation there, assigning Bui Tin to the mission. It was his first journey to the south since he had left his family in Hue eighteen years earlier. Accompanied by a dozen military spe¬cialists and civilian cadres, he began the trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in late 1963, and, as he recalled, the trip was “extremely ar¬duous.” For a veteran of his military experience to so describe it, the ordeal must have been extraordinary.

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