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Sino-American Relations and the Vietnam War, 1964–66

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009


Perceptions as well as realities have always played an important role in international politics and it is frequently difficult to separate the two. By the 1960s the realities of increased American involvement in South east Asia and a more militarily and politically influential China heightened the possibility of a Sino-American confrontation. It is the thesis of this study that the United States and the People's Republic of China, both fearful of that possibility as a spill-over from the conflict in Indochina, reached a tacit understanding limiting their involvement. This understanding was transmitted through a series of subtle public signals and, quite possibly, by a number of confidential communications. The primary motive was to prevent an unwanted Sino-American con frontation which could have resulted from a misperception of intentions. As will be demonstrated in this study both Peking and Washington sought, on a number of occasions, to transmit their intentions in order to prevent misperceptions and possible over-reactions.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1976

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* I wish to thank the Consortium on Research Training at Winston-Salem State University for its support during the writing of this study as well as John Israel and William F. Sheppard for their constructive comments.

1. Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), Vol. 111, pp. 1719.Google Scholar

2. National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 288 (17 March 1964) quoted in ibid. pp. 50–51. NSAM 288 was a policy statement and used language that was as strong as possible to justify its objectives. A less pessimistic and undoubtedly more realistic estimate of the situation was the answer that the CIA Board of National Estimates gave to President Johnson's question, “ Would the rest of Southeast Asia necessarily fall if Laos and South Vietnam came under North Vietnamese control?”:

“ With the possible exception of Cambodia, it is likely that no nation in the area would quickly succumb to communism as a result of the fall of Laos and South Vietnam. Furthermore, a continuation of the spread of communism in the area would not be inexorable, and any spread which did occur would take time -time in which the total situation might change in any of a number of ways unfavorable to the communist cause.”

This estimation was a “ worst case “ condition and in anything less than a “ clear-cut communist victory “ the results “ would probably be similar, though somewhat less sharp and severe.” Ibid. p. 178.

3. Ibid. pp. 686–87.

4. Johnson approved the programme on 13 February 1965 with the restriction that air strikes be limited to below the 19th parallel and only selected military targets be attacked. See ibid. p. 321.

5. Ibid. p. 366.

6. Ibid. p. 416.

7. Ibid. Vol. IV, p. 21.

8. Ibid. p. 23.

9. Ibid. p. 29.

10. Ibid. Vol. 111, p. 695.

11. Peking Review, No. 1 (3 January 1964), pp. 68.Google Scholar

12. Ibid. No. 10 (6 March 1964), p. 25.

13. Survey of China Mainland Press (SCMP), No. 3210 (1 May 1964), pp. 36–37.

14. Reported in the Kurier (Vienna), 1 August 1964, and Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report, People's Republic of China (FBIS), 3 August 1964, BBB, pp. 11–15.

15. New York Times, 20 June 1964.

16. Peking Review, No. 30 (24 July 1964), pp. 5–6.

17. Allen S. Whiting, “ How we almost went to war with China,” Look, 29 April 1969, p. 76.

18. Ibid.

19. Snow, Edgar, The Long Revolution (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 218. Mao Tse-tung, in a January 1965 interview with Edgar Snow, thought that the fighting in Vietnam “ would go on perhaps for one to two years. After that the United States troops would find it uninteresting and might go home or go somewhere else.”Google Scholar

20. Two perceptive studies of the debate are Michael Yahuda, “ Kremlinology and the Chinese strategic debate 1965–66,” The China Quarterly (CQ), No. 49 (1972), pp. 32–75, and Harding, Harry and Gurtov, Melvin, The Purge of Lo Jui-ch'ing (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, February 1971, R-548-PR).Google Scholar

21. Chinese Government statement on 9 February 1965 in SCMP, No. 3395 (11 February 1965), pp. 34–35.

22. Liu Ning-yi's speech at a Peking rally on 10 February 1965, translated in Support the People of Viet Nam, Defeat U.S. Aggressors (Support Viet Nam) (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1965), Vol. 1, p. 29.Google Scholar

23. Pentagon Papers, Vol. 111, p. 330. It is unclear from the Papers if the U.S. actually informed China that it was about to begin bombing the D.R.V. on a sustained basis.Google Scholar

24. Ibid. The U.S. had the Canadian International Control Commission repre sentative, Blair Seaborn, transmit to the D.R.V. the same message when he visited Hanoi in March 1965.

25. Quoted in Kenneth Young, Negotiating with the Chinese Communists: The United States Experience 1953–1967 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 270.Google Scholar

26. Ibid. p. 248.

27. Ch’en Yi's reply of 28 March 1965 to Xuan Thuy, foreign minister of the D.R.V. Support Viet Nam, Vol. 1, p. 38.

28. A Hanoi broadcast on 16 March 1965 mentioned that the Soviet Union, China and other countries offered volunteers; FBIS, 16 March 1965, JJJ, pp. 5–6.

29. Quoted from Pham Van Dong's speech at Kosygin's departure. See FBIS, 10 February 1965, JJJ, pp. 18–19

30. Jen-min, editorial, 25 March 1965, in Support Viet Nam, Vol. 1, p. 64.

31. Chinese Government statement of 9 February 1965, ibid. p. 3.

32. Jen-min, editorial, 25 March 1965, in Support Viet Nam, Vol. 1, p. 74.

33. Pentagon Papers, Vol. 111, p. 354.Google Scholar

34. Support Viet Nam, Vol. 111, pp. 56.Google Scholar

35. Ibid. Vol. 1, p. 65.

36. Jen-min, editorial, 16 April 1965, in ibid. Vol. 11, pp. 29–36.

37. Ibid. p. 36.

38. Speech at the Aliarcham Academy of Social Sciences, 25 May 1965, in Peking Review, No. 24 (11 June 1965), pp. 10–20.

39. The four basic contradictions were those between the socialist and the imperialist camps, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in capitalist coun tries, between oppressed nations and imperialism, and between imperialists themselves; see ibid. p. 13.

40. Ibid.

41. For more detailed discussion of the planned conference, see Gittings, John, Survey of the Sino-Soviet Dispute: A Commentary and Extracts from Recent Polemics, 1963–1967 (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 247–53.Google Scholar

42. Ch’en Yi's press conference in Peking on 29 September 1965, Peking Review, No. 41 (8 October 1965), pp. 10–11.

43. Lo Jui-ch’ing, “ Commemorate the victory over German fascism: carry the struggle against U.S. imperialism through to the end,” Hung-ch’i (Red Flag), No. 5 (1965), translated in Peking Review, No. 20 (14 May 1965), pp. 7–15, and “ The historical experience of the war against fascism,” Jen-min, editorial, 9 May 1965, in Peking Review, No. 20 (14 May 1965), pp. 15–22.

44. For a more detailed analysis of these two articles, see Yahuda, “ Kremlin ology,” and Harding and Gurtov, The Purge of Lo Jui-ch’ing. In an interview with the French author, André Malraux, Foreign Minister Ch’en Yi appears to have somewhat ambiguously supported the latter position when he remarked: “ If the United States does not extend its aggression, it will not be necessary for China to take a hand in the [Vietnam] operations; but if it does she will.” Quoted in “ I am alone among the masses,” The Atlantic, October 1968, p. 101.

45. “ Long live the victory of people's war,” Peking Review, No. 36 (3 Sep tember 1965), pp. 9–30. Lo Jui-ch’ing's speech is in Harding and Gurtov, The Purge of Lo Jui-ch’ing, pp. 31–39.

46. Ibid. p. 37.

47. The problem of negotiations was not discussed in Lin Piao's essay nor in a related Jen-min editorial entitled “ U.S. imperialism can be defeated as well” (SCMP, No. 3541 (21 September 1965), pp. 7–13) which commemorated V-J Day, but directly alluded to the current conflict in Vietnam. This would seem to indicate that the question of negotiation's was also sharply disputed and probably the Mao Tse-tung-Lin Piao faction, which came to dominate the situation in China, was less averse to negotiations than others. Following this argument through one would expect that there would have been a softening of the Chinese position during late 1965 or early 1966. Although publicly the Chinese adamantly opposed Vietnamese negotiations with the U.S., unless they were preceded by an American withdrawal, there is evidence that privately they reached an under standing with the U.S. limiting their involvement in the conflict.

48. Mozingo, D. P. and Robinson, T. W. developed this thesis in their study of Lin's essay, Lin Piao on “ People's War”: China Takes a Second Look at Vietnam (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, November 1965, RM 4814-PR). My discussion of this aspect of Chinese foreign policy is taken essentially from this study.Google Scholar

49. Ibid. p. 4.

50. Zagoria, Donald S., Vietnam Triangle: Moscow, Peking, Hanoi (New York: Pegasus, 1967), pp. 8386.Google Scholar

51. Harding and Gurtov, The Purge of Lo Jui-ch'ing, p. 48.

52. On 23 November 1965 the U.S. State Department confirmed that the elderly, and others able to leave, were being evacuated from some of the larger southern cities. There was no official evacuation order but primarily a word-of-mouth campaign. See New York Times, 24 November 1965, p. 4.

53. Ibid. 3 December 1965, p. 1.

54. Jen-min, editorial, 14 December 1965, in Peking Review, No. 51 (17 December 1965), p. 17.

55. Chinese Foreign Ministry statement of 28 November 1965, in Peking Review, No. 49 (3 December 1965), pp. 78.Google Scholar

56. Chinese Foreign Ministry statement of 14 January 1966, in Ibid. No. 4 (21 January 1966), pp. 7–8.

57. New York Times, 1 December 1965, p. 1.

58. Allen Whiting, “ How we almost went to war with China,” p. 77.

59. Peking Review, No. 41 (8 October 1965), p. 14.

60. “ China is ready to take up U.S. challenge ” (20 December 1965), ibid. No. 52 (24 December 1965), pp. 5–6.

61. Ibid. No. 1 (1 January 1966), p. 8.

62. Department of State Bulletin (DSB), 30 August 1965, pp. 370–71.

63. Ibid. 16 August 1965, pp. 262–63.

64. Ibid. 31 January 1966, p. 153.

65. For a discussion of these changes, see James C. Thomson, Jr, “ On the making of U.S. China policy, 1961–9: a study in bureaucratic politics,” CQ, No. 50 (1972), pp. 232–38.

66. DSB, 28 February 1966, pp. 310–18.

67. Ibid. 14 March 1966, p. 393.

68. Ibid.

69. For typical examples in late 1965 and early 1966, see Dean Rusk's news conferences of 9 December 1965, 21 January 1966 and 31 January 1966, in ibid. 27 December 1965, p. 1009, 7 February 1966, pp. 194–95, and 14 February 1966, pp. 223–28, respectively; President Johnson's remarks to the AFL-CIO convention on 9 December 1965 (ibid. 27 December 1965, p. 1014) and his 31 January 1966 address (ibid. 14 February 1966, p. 224). I can find no example of American officials referring to “ Peking “ rather than “ Peiping “ in any speeches contained in the DSB from 1964 to 1965.

70. The ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg, referred to “Peiping” on 31 January 1966 but thereafter used the word “Peking (ibid. 14 February 1966, p. 332, 4 April 1966, p. 542). Both Dean Rusk and General Maxwell Taylor called the Chinese capital “ Peking “ while testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 18 February and 17 February 1966 respectively (ibid. 7 March 1966, pp. 346–56).

71. See, for example, Rusk's address at Boston University, 14 March 1966 (ibid. 4 April 1966, pp. 514–21), news conference on 25 March 1966 (ibid. 11 April 1966, pp. 557–64), and “Face the Nation” interview on 20 March 1966 (ibid. pp. 565–70).

72. “ Old tune, new plot,” Jen-min, Observer, 27 March 1966, in Peking Review, No. 14 (1 April 1966), pp. 13–15.

73. ibid. p. 15.

74. ibid.

75. Ibid. No. 20 (13 May 1966), p. 5.

76. According to William P. Bundy “ there was no clear understanding between Peking and ourselves although I think it could be accurately said that we under stood each other “ (Bundy's emphasis). Personal correspondence from Bundy to myself dated 20 June 1972.

77. New York Times, 2 July 1966.

78. On 16 March 1966, Truong Chinh, in a major address, stressed the necessity of fighting a “ protracted war “ in which the Vietnamese would have to rely mainly on their own forces, thus indicating that they could not expect foreign forces to intervene directly on their behalf. See FBIS, 16 March 1966, JJJ, pp. 2–3.

79. Peking Review, No. 28 (8 July 1966), pp. 19–20.

80. Ibid. p. 20.

81. “Communique of the 11th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Com mittee of the Communist Party of China “ (12 August 1966) in ibid. No. 34 (19 August 1966), p. 7.

82. Quoted in Kikuzo Ito and Minoru Shibata, “The dilemma of Mao Tse-tung,” CQ, No. 35 (1968), p. 67.

83. See the discussion of this point in Rice, Edward E., Mao's Way (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 235–39. In two 1965 interviews Mao indicated no major concern or apprehension of a Sino-American conflict resulting from the Vietnam war. See Snow, The Long Revolution, and Malraux, “ I am alone among the masses.”Google Scholar

84. Izvestia, 22 September 1966, translated in Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XVIII, No. 38 (12 October 1966), p. 8.Google Scholar

85. Ibid. No. 47 (14 December 1966), p. 5.

86. “ How a French authority sees U.S. role in Asia,” U.S. News and World Report, 23 January 1967, p. 97.

87. Young, Negotiating with the Chinese Communists, p. 275.

88. Peking Review, No. 7 (10 February 1967), pp. 30–31.

89. Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, pp. 197201.Google Scholar

90. Ibid, and Allen Whiting, “ How we almost went to war with China,” pp. 77–79.

91. Whiting, “ How we almost went to war with China,” p. 79.