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China and the First Indo-China War, 1950–54*

Abstract

Despite its obvious significance, the involvement of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the First Indo-China War has long been an under-researched and little understood subject in Cold War history. Because of lack of access to Chinese or Vietnamese sources, few of the many publications in English deal with China's connections with the war. In such highly acclaimed works as Marilyn B. Young's The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990, Jacques Dallaoz's The War in Indo-China, 1945–1954, Anthony Short's The Origins of the Vietnam War, R. E. M. Irving's The First Indo-China War, Ellen Hammer's The Struggle for Indo-China, 1946–1955, Edgar O'Ballance's The Indo-China War, 1945–1954, and Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy: Insurgency in Vietnam, 1946–1963, the PRC's role is either discussed only marginally or almost completely neglected.

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1. Young Marilyn B., The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991); Dallaoz Jacques, The War in Indo-China, 1945–1954 (Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble, 1990); Short Anthony, The Origins of the Vietnam War (London & New York: Longman, 1989); Irving R. E. M., The First Indo-China War (London: Croom Helm, 1975); Hammer Ellen, The Struggle for Indo-China, 1946–1955 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966); O'Ballance Edgar, The Indo-China War, 1945–1954 (London: Faber & Faber, 1964); and Fall Bernard, Street Without Joy: Insurgency in Vietnam, 1946–1963 (Harrisburg, PA.: Stackpole, 1964, 4th ed.).

2. Chen King, Vietnam and China, 1938–1954 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969).

3. Since the mid-1980s, several major Chinese sources have been available for studies of China's involvement in the First Indo-China War, which release for the first time a series of previously unknown telegrams, directives and inner-Party documents of the Beijing leadership. The most valuable among these sources are Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong's Manuscripts since the Founding of the People's Republic, hereafter Mao Zedong's Manuscripts), Vols. 1–5 (Beijing: Central Historical Documents Press, 19871991); The Editorial Group for the History of Chinese Military Advisers in Vietnam (ed.), Zhongguo junshi guwentuan yuanyue kangfa douzheng shishi (A Factual Account of the Participation of Chinese Military Advisory Group in the Struggle of Assisting Vietnam and Resisting France, hereafter The CMAG in Vietnam) (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1990); Guibo Luo, “Comrade Liu Shaoqi sent me to Vietnam,” in Jinxiu He et al. (eds.), Mianhuai Liu Shaoqi (In Commemoration of Liu Shaoqi) (Beijing: Central Historical Documents Press, 1988); Geng Chen, Chen Geng riji (Chen Geng's Diaries), Vol. 2 (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1984); and Huanzhi Han and Jinjiao Tan et al. , Dangdai zhongguo jundui de junshi gongzuo (The Military Affairs of the Contemporary Chinese Army, hereafter Contemporary Chinese Army) (Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Press, 1988). Although the Chinese authorities obviously allowed the declassification of these sources, usually on a selective basis, under the politically sensitive circumstance of a total confrontation between Beijing and Hanoi, the scholarly value of this fresh information should not be ignored. While a better scholarly balance could of course be reached with the releasing of the Vietnamese side of the story as well as a more complete declassification of Chinese documents, these new Chinese materials, combined with information from other sources, have created the basis for a new, though not conclusive, study of the PRC's involvement in the first Indo-China War.

4. For a Chinese account of Ho Chi Minh's connection with the Chinese Communist revolution from the 1920s to early 1940s, see Zheng Huang, Ho Zhiming he zhongguo (Ho Chi Minh and China) (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1987), chs. 1–4; see also Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean: Hoang Van Hoan's Revolutionary Reminiscences (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1987), chs. 3 and 4.

5. The Indo-China Communist Party was established in 1930; after February 1951, its name was changed to the Vietnamese Worker's Party (VWP or Dang Lao Dang Viet Nam).

6. Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean, pp. 247253.

7. Guibo Luo, “Comrade Liu Shaoqi sent me to Vietnam,” pp. 233–34; interview with Luo Guibo, 22 August 1992.

8. Zedong Mao to Shaoqi Liu, 17 and 18 January 1950, Mao Zedong's Manuscripts, Vol. 1, pp. 238–39; see also Enlai's Zhou statement recognizing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 18 January 1950, Xinhua yuebao (New China Monthly), 02 1950, p. 847. When deciding to recognize Ho's government, CCP leaders understood that this would inevitably make an early French recognition of the Chinese Communist regime unlikely. They still believed, however, that recognizing the DRV was in the fundamental interests of revolutionary China. Following the example of China, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries quickly recognized the DRV. The DRV government later named 18 January as the day of “diplomatic victory.” See Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean, pp. 255–56; Renmin ribao, 7 February 1951.

9. Guibo Luo, “Comrade Liu Shaoqi sent me to Vietnam,” pp. 234–35; see also Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean, pp. 254–56 (in his memoir, Hoang recalls that Mao held a banquet in Ho's honour after Ho reached Beijing, but as Mao was then in Moscow, this was impossible); The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 1–2; Nianlong Han et al. , Dangdai zhongguo waijiao (Contemporary Chinese Diplomacy) (Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Press, 1988), p. 55.

10. Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean, pp. 254–55; Zheng Huang, Ho Chi Minh and China, p. 125.

11. Guibo Luo, “Comrade Liu Shaoqi sent me to Vietnam,” p. 235; Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean, pp. 254–55.

12. For a plausible analysis of Stalin's attitude towards Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh in the early period of the First Indo-China War, see Hess Gary, Vietnam and the United States: Origins and Legacy of War (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990), p. 37. For Stalin's attitude toward Ho during Ho's visit to Moscow, see Ke Li, “Chinese military advisers in the war to assist Vietnam and resist France,” Junshi lishi (Military History), No. 3 (1989), p. 27; Xiuquan Wu, Huiyi yu huainian (Recollections and Commemorations) (Beijing: Central Party School Press, 1991), pp. 242–43; my interviews with Chinese researchers who had access to archives in May 1991 and August 1992 also confirmed that during Ho's visit to Moscow Stalin refused to offer direct military and financial support to the Viet Minh.

13. Zheng Huang, Ho Chi Mirth and China, pp. 125–26; Van Hoan Hoang, A Drop in the Ocean, pp. 254–55; Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 520, 576.

14. Shaoqi Liu, “Internationalism and nationalism,” Renmin ribao, 7 11 1948; Shaoqi's Liu address on the Conference of Union of the Asian-Pacific region, Xinhua yuebao, No. 2, Vol. 1, p. 440. See also Zhonghua Jin, “China's liberation and the world situation,” Shijie zhishi (World Affairs), Vol. 20, No. 1, 17 06 1949; Ruo Du, “China's liberation and South-east Asia,” World Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4, 8 07 1949; “China's revolution and the struggle against colonialism,” People's China, 16 February 1950, pp. 4–5.

15. For a more detailed discusson of Liu Shaoqi's visit to Moscow, see Jian Chen, “The Sino-Soviet alliance and China's entry into the Korean War,” (Washington, D.C.: The Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 12 1991), pp. 915; see also Zhe Shi, “Random reflections of Comrade Liu Shaoqi,” Geming huiyilu (Revolutionary Memoirs), supplementary issue, No. 1 (10 1983), pp. 110–11; Yuanshi Zhu, “Liu Shaoqi's secret visit to the Soviet Union in 1949,” Dangde wenxian (Party Historical Documents), No. 3 (1991), pp. 7677.

16. Interviews with Chinese researchers in May 1991; see also Ke Li, “Chinese military advisers,” p. 27.

17. In the autumn and winter of 1949, the CCP leaders believed that China should now prepare to confront the American threat in three inter-related areas: Vietnam, Korea and the Taiwan Strait. They also believed, as later pointed out by Zhou Enlai, that a conflict between Communist China and the United States was inevitable. Accordingly, in the spring of 1950, CCP military planners decided to deploy their central reserves (three armies under the Fourth Field Army) along a railway within easy reach of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, so as to be able to move in any of the three directions. For a detailed analysis of the CCP's military preparations under the “three fronts” assumption, see Jian Chen, “China's road to the Korean War,” Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Illinois University, 1990, ch. 6; see also Shuguang Zhang, “Deterrence and Sino-American confrontation, 1949–1958,” Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio University, 1990, pp. 7879.

18. From late 1949 to early 1951, Mao and the Chinese military planners paid close attention to the annihilation of remaining Nationalist troops in areas adjacent to the Vietnamese border. See Yang Mo and Jie Yao et al. , Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun zhanshi (The War History of the Chinese People's Liberation Army), Vol. 3 (Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 1987), pp. 394–98.

19. Geng Chen, Chen Geng's Diaries, Vol. 2, p. 7; Xu Yao, Cong Yalujiang dao Banmendian (From the Yalu River to Panmunjom) (Beijing: The People's Press, 1985), pp. 2122.

20. Cited from Guibo Luo, “Comrade Liu Shaoqi sent me to Vietnam,” p. 238.

21. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 518–19; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 3.

22. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 3.

23. See the PRC Information Bureau's instruction, 29 June 1950, in the Research Department of the Xinhua News Agency (eds.), Xinhuashe wenjian ziliao xuanbian (A Selected Collection of Documents of the Xinhua News Agency), Beijing, n.d., p. 50.

24. For a more detailed discussion of the overall change of the CCP's strategy vis-à-vis the United States after the outbreak of the Korean War, see Jian Chen, “China's road to the Korean War,” pp. 180–82.

25. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 519–520; The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 5–6.

26. Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 520; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 4.

27. Peilai Xu and Pengfei Zheng, Chen Geng jiangjunzhuan (The Biography of General Chen Geng) (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1988), pp. 580–81; Xin Mu, Chen Geng dajiang (General Chen Geng) (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1988), pp. 581599.

28. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 521–33; Geng Chen, Chen Geng's Diaries, Vol. 2, pp. 9, 11; interview with Luo Guibo, 22 August 1992.

29. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 522–23.

30. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 44.

31. Ibid. pp. 44–46; Xin Mu, General Chen Geng, pp. 590–93.

32. Cited from The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 22.

33. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 524–27.

34. Geng Chen, Chen Geng's Diaries, Vol. 2, pp. 3942; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 25.

35. Giap even boasted that he would be able to put Ho Chi Minh back in Hanoi by the end of 1950. See O'Ballance, The Indo-China War, p. 121. It is interesting to note that Chinese sources fail to provide as detailed a coverage of the period in early 1951 when the Viet Minh forces suffered several setbacks as they do of the border campaign, the north-west campaign and the Dien Bien Phu siege.

36. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 27.

37. Davidson Phillip B., Vietnam at War: The History 1946–1975 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 102.

38. Ibid. pp. 105–127.

39. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 30.

40. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 129130.

41. The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 31–32; interview with Luo Guibo, 22 August 1992.

42. The CCP Central Military Committee assigned Luo to head the CMAG in early 1952. In May 1952, he was formally appointed by the CMCC as the head of the CMAG. See The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 53.

43. Ibid. and interview with Luo Guibo, 22 August 1992.

44. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 527–28.

45. The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 52, 56.

46. Ibid. p. 56.

47. Ibid. pp. 56–57; Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 528.

48. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 57.

49. Ibid. pp. 57–58.

50. Ibid. p. 58; see also Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 528.

51. Minh Ho Chi, “Instructions on the cadres’ meeting for preparing the north-west campaign, 9 September 1952,” Selected Works of Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi: The Foreign Language Press, 1962), Vol. 2, pp. 232–36; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 59.

52. The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 58–59.

53. Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 529.

54. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 63.

55. Ibid. pp. 64–65.

56. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 162–67.

57. Hess, Vietnam and the United States, p. 43.

58. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 87.

59. Ibid. p. 88; see also Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 529.

60. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 88; see also Ke Li, “Chinese military advisers,” p. 28.

61. Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 529; The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 88–89.

62. Ke Li, “Chinese military advisers,” p. 28; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 89.

63. The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 89–90.

64. Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 530.

65. For a Chinese account of the process of the Communist “peace offensive,” see Nianlong Han et al. , Contemporary Chinese Diplomacy, pp. 5657.

66. Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 530–31; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 90.

67. Cited from The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 98.

68. Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 532; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 114. According to one Chinese source, China even sent an artillery division to participate in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign: see Fei Ye, Ye Fei huiyilu (The Memoirs of Ye Fei) (Beijing: People's Liberation Army Press, 1988), pp. 644–45. For understandable reasons, no Chinese source mentions that, as the standard Vietnamese account alleges, the Chinese high command or Chinese advisers to Vietnam urged “human wave” tactics on the Vietnamese during the initial stage of the Dien Bien Phu siege-though no Chinese account rejects the Vietnamese allegation.

69. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 99.

70. Bidault Georges (trans. Sinclair Marianne), Resistance (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965), p. 195.

71. Billings-Yun Melanie, Decision Against War: Eisenhower and Dien Bien Phu, 1954 (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1988), ch. 2.

72. Contemporary Chinese Army, p. 532; The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 101.

73. Zedong Mao to Dehuai Peng, 3 04 1954, Mao Zedong's Manuscripts, Vol. 4, pp. 474–75.

74. The CMAG in Vietnam, p. 101.

75. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Vol. 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 98.

76. U.S. Government, Public Papers of the President of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954 (Washington, D.C., 1958), pp. 381390.

77. Newhouse John, War and Peace in the Nuclear Age (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), pp. 99101.

78. For a plausible brief analysis of America's stand toward the Dien Bien Phu crisis, see Hess, Vietnam and the United States, pp. 4648; for a more detailed analysis of the Eisenhower administration's attitude toward involving American forces in the Indo-China War in 1954, see Billings-Yun, Decision Against War.

79. Cited from Contemporary Chinese Army, pp. 533–34.

80. Zedong Mao to Dehuai Peng and Kecheng Huang, 28 04 1954, Mao Zedong's Manuscripts, Vol. 5, p. 91. (The editors mistakenly date this telegram 28 April 1955. This is probably because Mao only put day and month on the letter and, for reasons unknown, the document was misplaced in Mao's 1955 files. As there was no real fighting in the Dien Bien Phu area in 1955 and as the content of this letter is compatible with the CMCC's 30 April 1954 telegram and Su Yu's 3 May 1954 telegram, which I also cite here, I believe that 1954 is the correct date.)

81. The CMAG in Vietnam, pp. 103–104.

82. Geng Chen, Chen Geng's Diaries, Vol. 2, pp. 22, 31.

83. The Foreign Ministry of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, “The truth about Vietnam-China relations in the past 30 years,” FBIS (Asia and Pacific), Supplement, 19 10 1979.

84. Zedong Mao to Guoqing Wei, 29 01 1951, Mao Zedong's Manuscripts, Vol. 2, p. 90.

85. Zhe Shi, Zai lishi juren shenbian: Shi Zhe huiyilu (Together with Historical Giants: Shi Zhi's Memoirs) (Beijing: Central Historical Documents Press, 1991), pp. 539544. According to Khrushchev, Zhou Enlai told him in one of his visits to Moscow prior to the Geneva Conference: “We've already lost too many men in Korea – that war cost us dearly. We're in no condition to get involved in another war at this time.” Khrushchev Nikita S., Khrushchev Remembers (London, 1971), p. 481.

86. Xing Qu, “On Zhou Enlai's diplomacy at the Geneva Conference of 1954,” Jianzhang Pei et al. , Yanjiu Zhou Enlai – waijiao sixiangyu shijian (Studying Zhou Enlai's Diplomatic Thought and Practices) (Beijing: The World Knowledge Press, 1989), pp. 255–56.

87. Zedong Mao to the CCP Guangxi Province Committee, 20 07 1954, Mao Zedong's Manuscripts, Vol. 4, p. 509.

88. Interview with Chinese researchers who have access to archival sources in May 1991; for the Chinese assessment of the American intention at the Geneva Conference, see Nianlong Han et al. , Contemporary Chinese Diplomacy, p. 65; see also Yan Xu, “The outstanding contribution to extinguishing war flames in Indo-China,” Party Historical Documents, No. 5, 1992, pp. 2223.

89. Bingnan Wang, Zhongmei huitan jiunian (Recollections of the Nine-Year Sino-American Talks) (Beijing: The Press of World Affairs, 1985), pp. 56.

90. For a summary of Zhou's contacts with the British and French at the Geneva Conference, see Keith Ronald C., The Diplomacy of Zhou Enlai (New York: St Martin's Press, 1989), ch. 3.

91. Karnow Stanley, Vietnam: The First Complete Account of Vietnam War (New York: The Viking Press, 1983), p. 201.

92. Xing Qu, “On Zhou Enlai's Diplomacy,” p. 257.

93. Ibid. pp. 257–58; Zheng Huang, Ho Chi Minh and China, pp. 140–41; Bingnan Wang, Recollections, p. 13.

94. Xing Qu, “On Zhou Enlai's Diplomacy,” p. 257.

95. Nianlong Han et al. , Contemporary Chinese Diplomacy, pp. 6667.

96. Minh Ho Chi, “Report to the sixth meeting of the VWP Central Committee,” 15 07 1954, Selected Works of Ho Chi Minh, Vol. 2, pp. 290–98.

97. Xing Qu, “On Zhou Enlai's Diplomacy,” p. 258; Zhe Shi, Together with Historical Giants, p. 557.

98. Although the agreement was signed at 3.00 a.m. on 21 July, it was dated 20 July, so that Mendes-France could still allege that his deadline had been kept.

* This article was originally prepared for the fifth annual convention of Chinese Historians in the United States, held in August 1991 at Clark University. The author benefited greatly from comments and suggestions by Michael Hunt, Zhai Qiang, William Turley, Marilyn Young, Marc Trachtenberg, William Stueck and James Somerville. He is also grateful for Raymond Mayo's help in preparing the map and for the financial support of a 1991 SUNY-Geneseo Presidential Summer Fellowship.

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