Indochina without Americans

By Rodman, Peter W. | The National Interest, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Indochina without Americans


Rodman, Peter W., The National Interest


Stephen J. Morris, Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia: Political Culture and the Causes of War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 300 pp., $16.95.

Americans, in their narcissistic way, think of the Indochina conflict as coterminous with their own experience. Thus, the Pentagon Papers (and newly emerging Nixon administration documents) provide the source material for a cottage industry analyzing American decision-making during the Vietnam years, American military strategy in Southeast Asia, and the dilemmas of America's role in the world. Much of this is useful. But it is strange how little interest there is in the idea that other players in that drama - Hanoi, Beijing, Moscow - made calculations and miscalculations of their own, and that there is a larger story here.

How refreshing, then, to have Stephen Morris' new book that illuminates this wider context. The Americans are only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this version of the play, coming intermittently on the scene in the middle, then disappearing. Morris sheds considerable light on one of the most intriguing aspects of the Vietnam War - the relationship between Vietnam and Cambodia, which turned out to be a surrogate for the relationship between the Soviet Union and China, which of course turned out to be one of the most important strategic dimensions of the whole Indochina conflict and indeed of international politics in the last fifty years. The significance, even from a parochial American perspective, should be obvious. For it was precisely the Chinese and Soviet dimension that Lyndon Johnson so misjudged as we entered Vietnam; it was that dimension, too, that Nixon exploited in 1971-72, with somewhat more success, as we sought to extricate ourselves honorably. After the debacle of 1975, the genocidal Khmer Rouge and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia clouded the next twenty years of Southeast Asian politics, with the Chinese and Soviets shaping events even more decisively. Only recently has the United States sought to get back into the game in that part of the world in a serious way, concerned as it is about the new power of China.

Thus, Morris performs a great service with his diligent and extraordinary (indeed unique) research on the Vietnamese-Cambodian-Soviet-Chinese interrelationship. He has unearthed a wealth of new material, especially from Soviet Communist Party Central Committee files. It includes reports by the Soviet ambassador in Hanoi of his conversations with North Vietnam's top leaders, Soviet analyses of Hanoi's political and military strategies and capabilities, evaluations of Sino-Vietnamese relations, and even top-secret North Vietnamese Politburo reports covertly acquired by Soviet intelligence. These gems are supplemented by French historical and intelligence files, interviews with key figures (including Sihanouk), and Morris' extensive knowledge of the history of Indochina and Indochinese communism. He offers, as well, some general conclusions about the role of ideology and political culture in shaping the sometimes irrational conduct of the actors, especially the Khmer Rouge.

One of Morris' main revelations concerns Hanoi's tilt toward Moscow in the Sino-Soviet split. He makes a convincing case that it occurred earlier than is generally believed - specifically, in the 1968-70 period. Vietnamese communism had never been a maverick "national communist" movement of the Tito model; Morris shows how Hanoi loyally followed Moscow's leadership of the international communist camp. North Vietnam was always rather orthodox in its ideological positions and seemed almost always more comfortable with Moscow's version of communist "internationalism." In the early 1960s, however, Hanoi, increasingly dubious about Khrushchev's ideological "revisionism", adopted a pro-Chinese position in the Sino-Soviet dispute, seeking to ensure Chinese as well as Soviet support for its unfolding war effort in South Vietnam. Hanoi's media echoed some of Beijing's strictures against Titoism, the nuclear test ban treaty, and other aspects of Moscow's alleged accommodation with "imperialism. …

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