The Peace That Never Was 7

Much as they deplored the quarrel between their Communist pa¬trons—and occasionally attempted to patch it up—the North Viet¬namese improvised ways to turn it to their advantage. They were in the forefront of a classic “national liberation” war against the United States—the kind of textbook struggle that propagandists in Moscow and Beijing extolled with passionate monotony. Whatever the differ¬ences between them, the Soviets and Chinese were both committed to underwriting the struggle, lest they appear to be “soft on imperi¬alism” to factions within their own countries and to the various foreign revolutionary movements whose allegiance they were competing to win. By playing the Russians and Chinese off against one another, the North Vietnamese were therefore able to get each to furnish them with the support they required.
It was a tricky game, however. The time would come when the Communist giants developed priorities more important to them than Vietnam; they would not hesitate to put their own interests first. That time was fast approaching at the start of the 1970s, as each sought a rapprochement with the United States. Nixon and Kissinger were perceptive and nimble enough to grasp the opportunity to improve America’s security, and a crucial factor was working in their favor: a Republican administration could accommodate to the Communist powers without the domestic risk of triggering right-wing denuncia¬tions.
A seismic shock had jolted the Chinese on August 20, 1968, when Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia to crush Alex¬ander Dubcek’s reformist government. The Soviet Communist party boss, Leonid Brezhnev, had issued a “doctrine” warning that the Soviet Union might intervene in any Communist country whose pol¬icies deviated from its standards. Brezhnev’s statement had coincided with a massive buildup of Soviet forces along China’s northern and western frontiers. Early in March 1969, Soviet and Chinese patrols clashed on an uninhabited island in the frozen Ussuri River, a desolate spot marking the boundary between Manchuria and the Soviet Union’s easternmost Maritime provinces. Larger engagements broke out in other border regions during the next few months. Mao Zedong, to whom any relationship with the Americans had once represented a breach of the Communist faith, now contemplated a reconciliation with the United States in order to offset the Soviet menace.
A long and complicated mating dance followed. Finally, on Feb¬ruary 21, 1972, Nixon landed in Beijing, announcing with his usual rhetorical overkill that his spectacular breakthrough to China was “the week that changed the world.” Nixon and Kissinger finished their ceremonial chat with Mao, then they plunged into substantive dis¬cussions with Zhou Enlai, the suave and skillful Chinese prime min¬ister. Vietnam was high on the agenda. The Chinese, who had previously hoped that a long war there would bleed both their Amer¬ican enemies and their feisty Vietnamese neighbors, thereby opening Southeast Asia to their influence, now feared that the deterioration of American power would deprive them of a counterweight to the Soviet Union. They wanted a rapid end to the conflict. Still, they had to avoid making gestures that might drive Vietnamese Communists into the arms of the Soviets, who sought a chance to flank China on the south. Moreover, Zhou had to avoid arousing his radical Chinese rivals, who were ready to seize on the Vietnam issue as a pretext to attack him and other pragmatists in Beijing. As Kissinger recalled, Zhou ambiguously urged an early peace but without endorsing North Vietnam’s political demands.
To the North Vietnamese, Nixon’s visit to Beijing evoked night¬mare memories of China’s “sellout” at the Geneva conference of 1954—a betrayal that had condemned them to the battlefield for the next decade. It seemed inadmissible for their Chinese allies to be en¬tertaining their enemy at all. Worse yet, the United States and China were negotiating their fate “behind our back,” as they complained afterward. According to the North Vietnamese account, the Chinese had advised them four months earlier to defer the question of Thieu’s status and concede instead to a quick agreement aimed at getting the last American troops out of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had interpreted the suggestion to mean that they ought to abandon their struggle to reunify Vietnam. Indeed, Mao had pointed to the similarity of their objective and his dream of conquering Taiwan: just as China could not take over the island, so the North Vietnamese were not strong enough to gain control of the south. “Where the broom cannot reach,” he had said, “the dust is not swept away.” Chinese duplicity, as the North Vietnamese saw it, was further confirmed by the Shang¬hai Communique, which climaxed the Nixon trip. Nixon promised to reduce the U.S. military presence on Taiwan “as the tension in the area diminishes”—a clear indication, to Hanoi’s analysts, that the fix was in: an American withdrawal from the island in exchange for peace in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese propaganda chief, Hoang Tung, soon admitted that “our fighting has become very difficult” as a result of the Sino-American deal.
Their efforts to promote restraint in Vietnam notwithstanding, the Chinese had actually increased their aid to North Vietnam in late 1971, primarily to keep pace with the Soviet Union, which was furnishing the Hanoi regime with heavy equipment, including tanks and other armored vehicles. The buildup presaged a new Communist offensive, and information reaching the U.S. command in Saigon indicated that it would be big. As early as November 1971, truck convoys were sighted on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, now a road network, presumably transporting materiel to three North Vietnamese divisions deployed along the border between Cambodia and South Vietnam. Enemy units were also massing above the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam, and Communist statements signaled a major on¬slaught. General Vo Nguyen Giap published an article in December calling for dynamic attacks, and other Communist declarations echoed that theme.

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