Communist Indochina and the Big Powers

Communist Indochina and the Big Powers
By: Mary Costello
Pub. Date: February 9, 1979
Access Date: May 30, 2020
Source URL:
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continuingindochinaconflict” class=”subtitle”>Continuing Indochina Conflict
growthofregionalrivalries” class=”subtitle”>Growth of Regional Rivalries
bigpowerleverageinregion” class=”subtitle”>Big Power Leverage in Region
Special Focus
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continuingindochinaconflict” class=”subtitle”>Continuing
Indochina Conflict
Growing Concern Over Recent Developments
Some problems simply refuse to go away. After the communist takeovers of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in April 1975, most Americans were
willing to forget about Indochina and repress their concern about the non-communist “dominoes” throughout Asia. The flood of refugees from the region
and the simmering feud between Vietnam, allied with the Soviet Union, and Cambodia, backed by China, made total oblivion impossible. But it was the
capture of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on Jan. 7 by Vietnamese troops and the Vietnamese-created and supported Cambodian United Front
for National Salvation that intensified U.S. interest in the area.
State Department spokesman John F. Cannon emphasized American concern immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh and much of the rest of
Cambodia. Calling for a withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from the country, Cannon stated that “our priority is to bring a local conflict to a speedy
resolution and to prevent it from becoming a wider conflict.” The Carter administration subsequently warned the Soviet Union and China not to intervene
in the dispute. But the administration tried to maintain an even-handed policy, coupling its criticism of the Vietnamese invasion with denunciations of the
ousted Cambodian government’s human rights record.
The Soviet and Chinese reactions reflected both their own enmity and the point of view of their Indochinese allies. A commentary in the official Soviet
news agency Tass on Jan. 7 called the regime of Cambodian Prime Minister Pol Pot “a reactionary dictatorial clique” and said that its fall “will undoubtedly
be received with profound satisfaction and joy by millions of people in different parts of the world.” The same day, China, in a statement to the U.N.
Security Council, warned that Vietnam’s drive to annex Cambodia “by force and set up an ‘Indochina Federation’ under its control is a major step in
pushing its own regional hegemony and an important part of the Soviet drive for hegemony in Asia and the Far East.”
Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping discussed the current conflict in Indochina with President Carter during his recent visit to Washington. Teng had
indicated shortly after the fall of Phnom Penh that Peking would continue to support anti-Vietnamese forces in Cambodia but would take no direct military
action against Vietnam unless Hanoi provoked an attack. But during a meeting with U.S. senators on Jan. 30, Teng referred to the thousands of troops
near the Chinese-Vietnamese border and warned: “In the interest of peace and stability, sometimes we may be forced to do something we do not want to
It is obviously in China’s interest to prevent Cambodia from becoming the kind of Vietnamese satellite that Laos has been since, and perhaps even
before, the 25-year Treaty of Friendship between Laos and Vietnam was signed in July 1977. But any direct Chinese military action against Hanoi could
bring the Soviet Union into the conflict. The Vietnamese-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in Moscow on Nov. 3, 1978, provides that if
either country is threatened or attacked, both “shall immediately consult with each other … and shall take appropriate and effective measures.”
Factors in Vietnam’s Conquest of Cambodia
More than a year ago, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, characterized the Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict as a “proxy
war” between Moscow and Peking. Since then, that description has gained currency but it has not gone unchallenged. Swiss journalist Christian Muller
argued that “at the root of the latest Indochina conflict lies the determination of the Vietnamese national communists to gain dominance over all of
Indochina and fulfill both the secular goal of Vietnamese expansion and the drive for power of their own brand of communism. Despite the increased
engagement by the Soviet Union on Vietnam’s side and by China on the side of Cambodia, this is by no means a proxy war.”
Both the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists have exhibited a strong nationalism and considerable reluctance to become the surrogates of Moscow
or Peking. Soon after coming to power in 1975, the Cambodian revolutionaries changed the name of the country from the frenchified Cambodia to the
traditional Kampuchea. In an interview with the Italian newspaper L’Expresso on May 8, 1977, Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary boasted: “The Cambodian
revolutionary experience is unprecedented…. We are not following any model, either Chinese or Vietnamese.” But historical animosity and existing fears
of Hanoi, plus the fact that Vietnam, with a population of some 50 million, had an army of over 600,000 men compared to Cambodia’s estimated 90,000,
eventually forced the Cambodians to turn to China.
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Vietnam, in turn, found itself leaning more heavily on the Soviet Union for economic aid, especially after its efforts to improve relations with the United
States proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile, border skirmishes between Cambodia and Vietnam were becoming more frequent. The conflict intensified in
1977. In December of that year Vietnam launched a large-scale offensive into Cambodia, but met strong resistance. On New Year’s Eve, Cambodia
announced a “temporary” break in diplomatic relations, charging that Vietnam was “interfering in and violating the internal affairs of Kampuchea.” During
this period, Laos tried to maintain cordial relations with Cambodia while China urged both countries to negotiate their differences.
A Vietnamese peace proposal of Feb. 5, 1978, calling for an end to hostilities and international supervision of the border, was rejected by Cambodia as
“deceitful.” Fighting intensified, the propaganda war accelerated and Chinese and Soviet involvement on the sides of their respective allies grew. Under
Chinese pressure, Cambodia began opening a few doors to the rest of the world.
While Cambodia was trying with little success to improve its international image, Vietnam was trying to convince the world that it was interested not in
subjugating Cambodia, but in giving the Cambodian people the opportunity to replace “a dictatorial, militarist, fascist regime.” A key element in Hanoi’s
strategy was the creation of the Cambodian United Front for National Salvation, announced on Hanoi radio on Dec. 3. The Front, led by Heng Samrin,
adopted a program calling for the restoration of family life, an eight-hour work day, and freedom of residence, movement, association and religion.
Formation of the group was intended to convince the world that the Cambodian conflict was a civil war, not aggression or intervention by neighboring
Vietnam. To many observers, the Front bore a marked similarity to the National Liberation Front (NLF) set up by Hanoi in South Vietnam in the early
For months before Vietnam launched its final invasion of Cambodia, knowledgeable observers had been predicting such an offensive. But few had
forecast that Hanoi and the Cambodian insurgents would take total control of the country in two weeks. One of the reasons for the quick takover may
have been Cambodia’s urgent appeals to the United Nations to stop the Vietnamese invasion. The day before Phnom Penh fell, the Pol Pot government
had allowed former Cambodian head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been under house arrest since his return to Cambodia in 1975, to fly to
Peking en route to New York to plead Cambodia’s case before the U.N. Security Council. By acting quickly, Vietnam was able to present the international
community with an accomplished fact.
Plight of Refugees from Communist Nations
The current situation in Cambodia could aggravate the already serious refugee problem in Indochina. No one knows exactly how many refugees there
are from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It is generally agreed that since 1975 well over a million people have fled the three countries. The flood of
refugees increased significantly in the past year. According to State Department estimates, the number of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
grew almost sixfold in that period — from about 3,500 a month in January 1978 to over 20,000 in December.
The majority of these refugees were ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. Officials in Malaysia, where most of those escaping by boat first seek asylum, have
accused Hanoi of sanctioning if not encouraging the exodus. The accounts of the refugees themselves give credence to such accusations. The more
recent escapees have fled in large boats and it is difficult to believe that such large numbers could have left at the same time without government
sanction. Many of these refugees have admitted that they paid up to $3,500 to middlemen in Ho Chi Minh City, formally Saigon, to arrange their escape.
The Chinese exodus was relatively insignificant until Hanoi cracked down on small, primarily Chinese, businessmen in southern Vietnam in March 1978
and ordered many middle class residents to New Economic Zones in the countryside. Ethnic Chinese in the north also were subjected to considerable,
although less publicized, economic and political pressure. By late summer, an estimatd 170,000 ethnic Chinese from Vietnam had fled across the border
to China. Around that time, Peking began refusing to accept more refugees on the ground that many of them were Vietnamese agents. Refugees from
Laos and Cambodia, most of whom fled on foot across the border into Thailand, and Vietnamese “boat people,” seeking asylum in Malaysia, Hong Kong,
Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, also were being turned away in large numbers. Thousands perished when their leaky boats collapsed and
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The so-called “countries of first asylum” defended their non-admission policies by pointing out that they already had accepted more refugees than they
could handle. The problem is particularly acute in Thailand and Malaysia. According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are
currently about 120,000 Laotian, 20,000 Cambodian and 5,000 Vietnamese refugees in Thai camps and almost 70,000 Vietnamese refugees in
Malaysian camps. At a U.N.-sponsored conference on Indochinese refugees in Geneva, Dec. 11–12, Thai and Malaysian delegates explained the serious
political and economic consequences their governments face in admitting more refugees and pleaded with other nations, particularly the United States, to
accept a more equitable share of the refugee burden.
Dilemma Confronting Other Asian Countries
Vietnam’s non-communist neighbors, particularly Thailand, are deeply concerned about Hanoi’s reactions if they accept large numbers of refugees who
might stage guerrilla attacks against Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. A week after the capture of Phnom Penh, the United States increased military sales
credits to Thailand from $24 million to $30 million a year. At a press conference on Jan. 17, President Carter said that he had warned the Soviet Union
and Vietnam about invading Thailand. “We are very interested in seeing the integrity of Thailand protected, the borders not endangered or even
threatened by the insurgent troops from Vietnam in Cambodia,” the president said. Thai Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan discussed the threat to his
country and the need for more American aid when he visited Washington Feb. 4–8.
Many observers believe that Hanoi is unlikely to send troops into Thailand or the other non-communist nations of Southeast Asia, but may increase its
support for communist insurgents in these countries. Vietnamese aid to the guerrillas operating in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines
raises the question of whether Peking will respond by increasing its own assistance to the insurgents and encouraging the large overseas Chinese
population living in these countries to join in open rebellion against their governments.
Months before the collapse of the Pol Pot regime, China, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Laos, Cambodia and the Soviet Union were conducting
diplomatic offensives throughout Asia. Each nation was trying to convince the non-communist states of its commitment to peace and friendship and the
subversive, “hegemonistic” intentions of its rivals. The wooings and warnings were directed primarily at members of the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN), a non-communist economic organization composed of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Vietnam has diplomatic relations with all the ASEAN states, while China has established formal ties with Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia and has
improved its relations with Singapore and Indonesia. Despite Peking’s at least verbal support for communist insurgents in the area, ASEAN members
generally consider Vietnam far more of a threat to their security than China. Suspicions about Hanoi’s intentions were compounded after the signing of
the Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation on Nov. 3.
That treaty and the concern it provoked undoubtedly were factors in the enthusiasm that most ASEAN members demonstrated when Washington and
Peking agreed to establish full diplomatic relations. Thai Prime Minister Kriangsak called the agreement a “breakthrough which will ease tensions, restore
stability and promote peace in Asia.” Hanoi’s conquest of Cambodia three weeks later was viewed as a serious threat to this stability and a disruption of
the delicate balance of power in Asia in favor of Vietnam and its Soviet ally and against China. At a two-day meeting in Bangkok, Jan. 12–13, ASEAN
delegates expressed their concern and called for the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Cambodia.
growthofregionalrivalries” class=”subtitle”>Growth of
Regional Rivalries
Long Struggle Against French Rule in Asia
To view the conflicts in Indochina over the last three decades solely as a struggle by one or more of the communist powers to dominate the area is to
overlook the deep-seated historical animosities that have dominated the region for centuries. The earliest of these regional rivalries began in the third
century B.C. when China conquered what is now northern Vietnam, retaining it as a colony until 939 A.D. China again subjugated Vietnam from 1408–
1427. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Cambodia fell prey to Vietnamese and Thai domination; it was not until 1840 that the Cambodians began a
guerrilla-style rebellion against the Vietnamese. By the 18th century, Laos had become a vessel of Thailand and Vietnam.
The imposition of French rule over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after 1850 brought some stability and territorial security to the area. France established
the currently disputed boundaries between Vietnam and Cambodia and between Laos and Thailand. A distinctive feature of the French colonial system,
particularly in Vietnam, was the filling of even low-level administrative posts by Frenchmen. The growing anti-French sentiment that this practice
produced in Vietnam was matched by anti-Vietnamese and anti-French sentiment in Laos. France used Vietnamese troops to quell a rebellion in
southern Laos in 1901 and afterwards encouraged the migration of Vietnamese workers to Laos. The French also exacerbated Vietnamese-Cambodian
animosities by using Cambodians for police enforcement in Vietnam.
Political nationalism, as opposed to anti-colonialism, did not really emerge in Vietnam until the 1920s. By the end of the decade more moderate
Vietnamese nationalists were being challenged by Marxist groups which demanded total independence from France. Ho Chi Minh emerged as the leader
of the independence faction and organized the Indochinese Communist Party in 1931. With the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia in 1940, Ho and
his followers moved to southern China where the Vietminh, a communist-led coalition of Vietnamese nationalist groups, was formed.
The Japanese occupation of Indochina broke the continuity of French rule. After the Japanese defeat, France recognized the regime formed by Ho Chi
Minh in northern Vietnam as a free state within the Indochinese Federation and the French Union in March 1946. But when France recognized southern
Vietnam on the same terms three months later, Ho accused the French of trying to keep Vietnam divided and colonized. Fighting, which was to last eight
years, broke out between the Vietminh and French forces in December 1946. Under Vietminh auspices, a “national resistance government” was formed
in Laos in August 1950 and the Communist Party of Cambodia was organized in September 1951.
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The fall of China to the communists and the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949 increased U.S. interest in Southeast Asia. In May
1950, the United States initiated a program of economic and military aid for the South Vietnamese government and within two years was providing most of
the weapons used by the French in Indochina. After the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, this aid was justified in Cold War terms of helping the
Vietnamese resist communist aggression. Between 1950 and 1954, it is estimated that the United States spent over $1.2 billion in economic and military
assistance in Indochina.
Despite the increase in American aid, France was losing the war. On May 7, 1954, French forces surrendered to the Vietminh at the beseiged fortress at
Dienbienphu. At the time, the Vietminh controlled all of North Vietnam except for a few urban and coastal areas, almost all of the northern half of South
Vietnam, all of Laos and large areas of Cambodia. Dienbienphu fell the day before a nine-nation conference met in Geneva to discuss the future of
Southeast Asia.
Emerging Splits in the Communist Movement
The Geneva Conference lasted more than two months and achieved separate armistice accords for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The agreement
covering Vietnam established a demarcation line at the 17th parallel. French forces were to evacuate the area north of the 17th parallel and Vietminh
troops the region south of it. Safe conduct for civilians wishing to leave either the north or south was guaranteed; the introduction of new troops,
weapons or military bases was banned; and authorities on both sides were prohibited from making military alliances or embarking on aggressive policies.
Cambodia and Laos were cast in the role of neutralized buffer states whose governments were to avoid alignment with either communist or Western
powers. The agreement for Laos allowed the communist Pathet Lao to regroup in two northern provinces pending their integration into the national
community. No provisions for temporary regroupment were made for the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; in fact, Peking and Hanoi agreed at
Geneva that the Khmer Rouge should be disbanded.
The United States and South Vietnam were both unhappy with the Geneva framework. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed that the settlement
favored world communism. At a conference in Manila in September 1954, Dulles pressed long-standing plans for collective defense in Southeast Asia.
The eight participating nations agreed to the establishment of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The SEATO treaty provided that an
armed attack or territorial violations in the treaty area would be met collectively. A special protocol included South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the
protected area.
Overlooked in the growing American preoccupation with “monolithic” communism were the emerging splits in the communist movement. Cambodian
communists were bitter at Hanoi and Peking for agreeing at Geneva to disband the Khmer Rouge. China was outraged about Soviet Premier Nikita S.
Khrushchev’s espousal of the doctrine of “peaceful coexistence” in February 1956 and Ho Chi Minh was quite happy to preach international communist
solidarity while exploiting growing Sino-Soviet tensions. Ho also was willing to exploit the situation in South Vietnam. In violation of the Geneva accords,
the Vietminh left about 5,000 troops in the south. Their first major offensive began in mid-1957; heavy communist infiltration and spreading terrorism
during the next few years put South Vietnam under growing strain despite large increases in American aid. The communist insurgency was carried on
under the direction of the Dong Lao-Dong Party in Hanoi until Dec. 20, 1960, when the National Liberation Front (NLF) took its place. During this period,
Hanoi also was training thousands of Cambodian communists in North Vietnam.
There were problems in Laos as well. Since the Geneva Conference of 1954, the Pathet Lao, strongly backed by North Vietnam, had been battling the
rightist forces. As the situation worsened in 1960, there was speculation that the United States would send American troops to Laos to prevent a
communist takeover. At a press conference on March 23, 1961, President Kennedy, citing the “domino theory,” warned that a communist victory in Laos
“would endanger the security of all and the peace of Southeast Asia.” Washington and Moscow worked together for the convocation of a 14-nation
International Conference for the Settlement of the Laotian Question in Geneva in May 1961.
The agreement finally reached on July 23, 1962, provided for the neutralization of Laos. The signatories pledged to respect the sovereignty, territorial
integrity, unity and neutrality of Laos and refrain from interfering directly or indirectly in its internal affairs. A coalition government headed by Prince
Souvanna Phouma was set up and American military advisers were withdrawn and U.S. military aid programs terminated. But a sizeable number of North
Vietnamese soldiers remained to assist the Pathet Lao.
American Military Involvement in the 1960s
Withdrawal of U.S. military advisers from Laos coincided with a considerable buildup in South Vietnam. When President Kennedy came to office in 1961,
the American military aid mission cost around $40 million a year and consisted of 800 men. The number rose to 1,400 by the end of 1961 and to 10,000
by late 1962 and the U.S. role shifted from one of training military instructors to training South Vietnamese units themselves.
As the communists continued to gather strength, President Johnson decided early in 1965 to introduce ground troops and begin an offensive against
North Vietnam. At that time, there were only about 25,000 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam; by the end of the year, there were more than
184,000. The American escalation was facilitated by congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on Aug. 7, 1964. The resolution was
adopted after a U.S. naval unit in the Gulf of Tonkin reported that it had come under a North Vietnamese torpedo attack. It authorized the president “to
take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
By 1968 there were over 500,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Bombing missions over the north had increased enormously but peace seemed no
closer. Faced with growing opposition to the war at home, President Johnson in a television address to the nation on March 31, 1968, asked North
Vietnam to join the United States in “serious talks on the substance of peace.” The peace talks began in Paris on May 10, 1968, but there was little
progress until 1972.
Since 1964, American planes had been conducting bombing missions against suspected communist strongholds in Laos, and U.S. intelligence officers
had stepped up their efforts to recruit the staunchly anti-communist Meo tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. But until the late
1960s, the conflict in Vietnam itself and not the side war in Laos received most of the publicity in the United States. It was far more difficult for the U.S.
government to mask the escalation of the war into Cambodia in 1970.
On March 18, 1970, Cambodian head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was ousted in a right wing, U.S.-supported coup led by Gen. Lon Nol.
Sihanouk, who had ruled Cambodia since its independence in 1953, had tried with considerable success to ensure Cambodia’s neutrality as American
involvement in the area increased. He allowed the Vietnamese communists to establish base camps in Cambodia at the same time that he cracked down
on the Khmer Rouge. As a result, Hanoi supported Sihanouk and gave little assistance to the Cambodian communists. Sihanouk’s ouster ended
Cambodia’s neutrality and encouraged cooperation between the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists against the Americans and Lon Nol.
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“For the next five years, the United States sustained Lon Nol, despite the fact that he was demonstrably incompetent,” British journalist William Shawcross
wrote. American policy “included a bombing campaign of extraordinary ferocity; in January of 1973, when the Paris Peace Agreement prevented the
bombing of Vietnam and Laos, the full weight of the entire Seventh Air Force was thrown against Cambodia until Congress stopped it that August. The
principal results of the war were to drive the population off the land and into refugee camps in the towns; to destroy the village agricultural system which
was the basis of the prewar society; and to allow the growth of a communist resistance movement, the Khmer Rouge, which hardly had existed before the
The agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam was signed in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973, by the United States, North Vietnam, South
Vietnam and the Vietcong. The accords called for an internationally supervised cease-fire throughout Vietnam, the return of all U.S. forces from South
Vietnam and a ban on the infiltration of troops and war supplies into South Vietnam. The parties also agreed to respect the independence, sovereignty,
territorial integrity and neutrality of Cambodia and Laos, to withdraw all forces and to refrain from deploying troops or sending war supplies to the two
countries. All four parties, but particularly North Vietnam, violated the Paris Peace Accords. Two years later, in April 1975, the communists seized power
in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Consequences of Communist Victory in 1975
Indochina post-mortems tended to place a major share of the blame for the communist victories on the United States. American anti-war activists argued
that the massive bombing in the late 1960s and early 1970s hardened communist resistance to a negotiated settlement and stiffened their resolve for
total victory. Supporters of the war were especially criticial of the Paris Peace Accords which, they claimed, turned the almost total U.S.-South Vietmanese
victory of 1972 into defeat by allowing Hanoi to violate the agreement at will while depriving South Vietnam of needed military supplies and American
By the time the communists took over in 1975, the domino theory, the major reason for U.S. involvement in Indochina, should have been in disrepute.
Russia and China were feuding openly and seemed far more antagonistic to each other than to the United States. Nevertheless, there was considerable
American concern in 1975 that the rest of Southeast Asia might fall to the communists.
In March 1976, Thailand, in an obvious effort to placate its communist neighbors, insisted that the United States halt all military activity in the country and
withdraw all military support. Fearful of the alternatives, most of the other non-communist governments in the area sought an accommodation with their
communist neighbors. The strategy seems to have worked. Instead of becoming dominoes, the ASEAN countries grew and prospered and became the
targets not of communist invasions but of communist offers of friendship and increased trade.
In contrast, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia faced growing economic and political problems. Severe food shortages plagued Vietnam, forcing the country to
curtail development plans and to move thousands of unemployed urban dwellers into New Economic Zones to increase agricultural production. Equally
serious food shortages, government mismanagement, the cutoff of American economic aid and the flight of thousands of professionals and skilled
workers decimated the Laotian economy. Cambodian refugees have told of mass starvation and the lack of even the bare essentials of life after 1975.
Economic hardships were compounded by political infighting among the Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. The pledges of mutual support by the
three countries initially were viewed as evidence of Indochinese-communist solidarity. Beneath the surface, however, there were repeated clashes along
the Vietnamese-Cambodian border and, Cambodia later charged, repeated attempts by Vietnamese agents to overthrow the Pol Pot government.
Vietnam also launched what is frequently described as a “war of extermination” against the Meo tribesmen in Laos.
Vietnam’s economic difficulties and the death of Western, particularly American, aid as well as its problems with Cambodia and Laos, forced Hanoi to turn
to the Soviet Union. Cambodia’s fear of Vietnam made it necessary for that country’s xenophobic leaders to seek support from Moscow’s arch-enemy,
China. This, in turn, exacerbated existing hostility between the two communist giants and between the recipients of their aid, Vietnam and Cambodia. As
the drama unfolded, the United States was able to sit back, contemplate the global balance of power and avoid any direct involvement in the communist
feuds in Indochina.
bigpowerleverageinregion” class=”subtitle”>Big Power
Leverage in Region
Question of U.S., Soviet and Chinese Roles
Critics of the “proxy war” theory argue that to view the Indochina conflict mainly in terms of Sino-Soviet hostility is a dangerous oversimplification which
overstates the leverage that either Russia or China can exert on its allies and overlooks historical antagonisms and strong nationalistic currents in the
area. Many of these critics warn that for two reasons the United States must not appear to be aligning itself with Peking against Moscow, in Indochina or
anywhere else. The first is that the Soviet Union, not China, is a superpower and it is with the Russians that the United States must deal on most
international questions. The second is that China could forsake its drive for modernization and improved relations with the non-communist world and
revert to the uncompromising xenophobia that it showed in the late 1960s.
The “proxy war,” lean-toward-Peking-against-Moscow school of thought is generally associated with National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and
former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance is viewed as espousing a more balanced policy toward the two
communist giants and downplaying their roles in the current conflict in Indochina. After the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Washington seemed to be
favoring the policy attributed to Vance. The United States tried to avoid antagonizing either the Chinese or the Russians, while warning both against
direct involvement in the conflict.
The United States might have been able to exercise considerably more leverage had it established diplomatic relations with Vietnam. During 1978, there
was growing evidence that Hanoi was eager for diplomatic and trade ties and had dropped its demands for war reparations, a demand that had been
cited by the State Department as the major reason for the lack of progress on normalizing relations. U.S. and Vietnamese officials held a number of
discussions on establishing diplomatic and trade ties during the summer and early fall.
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CQ Researcher
American spokesmen generally cite three reasons for the failure of these talks: (1) Hanoi’s “alliance” with the Soviet Union, (2) its conflict with Cambodia
and (3) the refugee problem. But, Peter Kovler noted, “some close observers would out that the real reason for the new anti-Vietnam diplomacy is an
attempts to avoid offending Peking.” Kovler maintained that if Washington had relations with Vietnam, it “could have played a part as a sort of mediator”
in the current conflict and lessened Hanoi’s dependence on the Soviet Union.
Vietnam’s conquest of Cambodia often was described by American analysts as a “victory” for the Soviet Union. Such analyses tend to assume that
Moscow actually encouraged and supported the invasion. Even if these assessments are true, the Soviet “victory” in Indochina may present the Russians
with some serious problems. Among them are the completion of a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the question of U.S.-Soviet detente. The
invasion also may increase suspicion of the Soviet Union in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Concern Over Vietnamese Domination of Area
Peking’s paranoia about the Soviet Union bears a striking resemblance to the attitude of American Cold Warriors in the 1950s. China’s leaders appear so
fearful of encirclement by the Russians and their allies in Indochina that they actually endorsed the rearming of Japan and a larger U.S. naval presence
in the Pacific. An important question for American policymakers is whether China’s convictions about Soviet and Vietnamese intentions and capabilities
for world domination are valid.
Theories about Vietnamese and especially Soviet-Vietnamese efforts at empire-building offer a simple and convenient way of looking at a very complex
area of the world. Hanoi and Moscow would no doubt like to dominate Southeast Asia and beyond, but to do so, they would have to confront and
overcome a force that has proved itself stronger than Marxism and more potent than military might. That force is nationalism and its hold over the Third
World and what used to be called the communist “monolith” is responsible for much of the instability that is evident in the world today.
The Soviet Union has no assurance that Vietnam, which for centuries has resisted attempts at domination by any power, will not exert its independence
from Moscow, much as Russia’s Eastern European satellites, Yugoslavia and Romania, have done. Even if the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance continues,
nationalistic currents throughout Southeast Asia, as well as strong suspicion and distrust of Moscow and Hanoi, are likely to make any direct or indirect
Vietnamese-led, Russian-supported “liberation” of the non-communist countries in the region difficult to carry out.
It is also possible that Hanoi will be so precoccupied with maintaining control in Cambodia and Laos, as well as in southern Vietnam, that it will be unable
to pursue whatever expansionist aims it might have. There is deep and apparently growing hostility to Vietnam’s heavy-handedness in Laos and there is
almost certain to be continuing resistance to Hanoi and its Cambodian surrogates in Kampuchea.
Need for Large-Scale Economic Assistance
The political uncertainties facing Vietnam, including its future relationship with the Soviet Union, its control in Laos and Cambodia and its unfavorable
image throughout the rest of Asia, are compounded by serious economic problems. The thousands of troops currently deployed in Laos, Cambodia and
along the Chinese border are diverting both money and able-bodied workers from the tasks of increasing agricultural production, reconstruction and
Vietnam desperately needs economic aid to spur the kind of development that could reduce and perhaps eventually eliminate its reliance on outside,
particularly Soviet, assistance. Laos, barely kept afloat by Vietnamese, Soviet and a few Western European grants or loans, also needs help in
developing its potentially rich timber and mineral resources. Cambodia, too, could be transformed into the self-sufficient country that the Pol Pot
government intended it to be if its agricultural, timber, gemstone and other mineral resources were developed.
But it is Vietnam which has by far the greatest potential for self-sufficiency and rapid economic development. The country is believed to have large
petroleum deposits offshore and already has signed oil-exploration agreements with Canadian, Japanese and Western European companies. To develop
these reserves, however, Vietnam needs American technology, and until the U.S. trade embargo is repealed, that technology is not likely to be made
available. Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia and its bitter dispute with China, where American oil companies are developing both onshore and offshore
deposits, make repeal of the embargo and U.S. diplomatic relations with Hanoi unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The trade, investment and technology that Vietnam wants and desperately needs can only come from developed, non-communist countries. The
Economist of London editorialized recently that “Vietnam’s hopes of a normal relationship with the non-communist world should be made dependent on a
loosening of its present grip on Cambodia before very long,” cooperation with rather than subversion of neighboring states and an end to its role as
“Russia’s sergeant-major in Southeast Asia.”
It is difficult to imagine that a people as proud as the Vietnamese will rush to accept these or other conditions in exchange for possible aid, trade and
investment from the developed world. Unfortunately for Hanoi, the likely alternatives — increased dependence on the Soviet Union, continued hostility
with China, growing resistance to Vietnamese control in both Cambodia and Laos and the need to divert scarce resources from economic development to
military purposes — may be equally distasteful.
Barron, John and Paul Anthony, Murder of a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of Communist Genocide in Cambodia, Reader’s Digest Press, 1977.
Brown, Weldon A., Prelude to Disaster: The American Role in Vietnam, 1940–63, Kennikat, 1975.
Halberstan, David, The Best and the Brightest, Random House, 1975.
Middleton, Drew, The Duel of the Giants; China and Russia in Asia, Charles Scribner Sons, 1978.
Ponchaud, Francois, Cambodia: Year One, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978.
Sihanouk, Norodom, My War With the CIA, Pantheon, 1973.
©2020 CQ Press, An Imprint of SAGE Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
Page 8 of 11
Communist Indochina and the Big Powers
CQ Researcher
Capps, Walter H. and Harry S. Ashmore, “The Vietnam War and American Values,” The Center Magazine, July-August 1978.
Current History, December 1978 (issue devoted to Southeast Asia).
Far Eastern Economic Review, selected issues.
Gale, Roger W., “Troubled in Ho Chi Minh City,” The Progressive, December 1978.
Gershaman, Carl, “After the Dominoes Fell,” Commentary, May 1978.
Gray, Colin S., “Looking Back on a Lost Opportunity,” National Review, May 12, 1978.
Muller, Christian, “Hanoi, Indochina and Southeast Asia,” Swiss Review of World Affairs, October 1978.
Neilan, Edward, “American Foreign Policy and Northeast Asia,” Policy Review, fall 1978.
Pacific Affairs, selected issues.
Shawcross, William, “Paradise Lost,” New Times, Nov. 13, 1978.
Weinstein, Franklin B., “The United States and the Security of Southeast Asia,” The Bulletin, December 1978.
Young, Stephen B., “Thailand: No longer a Domino?” Freedom at Issue, November-December 1978.
Reports and Studies
Cameron, Allan W., “Indochina: Prospects After ‘the End,’” American Enterprise Institute, 1976.
Editorial Research Reports, “Cambodia and Laos: The Widening War,” 1970 Vol. I, p. 321; “China’s Opening Door,” 1978 Vol. II, p. 643; “Indochinese
Refugees,” 1977 Vol. II, p. 639; “Thailand’s Strategic Reappraisal,” 1975 Vol. I, p. 465; “Vietnam Aftermath,” 1974 Vol. I, p. 43.
Hosmer, Stephen T., Konrad Kellen and Brian M. Jenkins, “The Fall of South Vietnam: Statements by Vietnamese Military and Civilian Leaders,” The
Rand Corporation, December 1978.
Kun, Joseph, “Communist Indochina: Problems, Policies and Superpower Involvement,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 1976.
Tuan, Bui Anh, “Socialist Vietnam: The Way It Is,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 1977.
The “domino theory,” first enunciated by President Eisenhower in 1954, postulated that if communism was not stopped in one country, it would spread to
neighboring states, causing them to topple, one by one, like dominoes.
Under ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot, Cambodians were subjected to mass executions, forced evacuation of the cities, lack of health care, food and other
necessities, almost total isolation from the rest of the world, forced labor and the abolition of schools, currency, the family structure and traditional
religious practices.
“Face the Nation,” (CBS-TV) Jan. 8, 1978.
Christian Muller, “Hanoi, Indochina and Southeast Asia,” Swiss Review of world Affairs, October 1978, p. 6.
Cambodia, which had a population of about eight million when the communists took power, may now have less than five million people. Laos has around
three million people.
Cambodian public relations gestures included an invitation to two American journalists, Elizabeth Becker of The Washington Post and Richard Dudman of
the St. Louis Post Dispatch. They arrived in Phnom Penh on Dec. 9, 1978, and were accompanied by British scholar Malcolm Caldwell. Caldwell was
killed by gunmen on Dec. 23; Cambodian officials charged that “a Vietnamese agent” was responsible for the murder.
Since the overthow of the Pol Pot regime, only about 1,000 Cambodians have crossed the border into Thailand. This small number may be the result of
Thailand’s announcement, shortly after the fall of Phnom Penh, that it would not grant asylum to Cambodians wishing to escape. On the other hand, it
might reflect the determination of Pol Pot loyalists and anti-Vietnamese factions to regroup in remote regions of the country and wage guerrilla warfare. It
might also indicate that most Cambodians, convinced that their new rulers cannot be any worse than the old ones, are content to remain in their country
and give the new government a chance.
See “Indochinese Refugees,” E.R.R., 1977 Vol. II, pp. 637–660.
The New Economic Zone program calls for resettling some 10 million Vietnamese in rural areas. The aim of the program is to relieve urban
unemployment, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, to overcome increasing food shortages by bringing abandoned land into agricultural production and to
disperse discontented city-dwellers into the countryside.
To date, the United States has accepted over 200,000 Indochinese refugees. The Carter administration recently announced the creation of a new office
for refugee affairs, headed by former Sen. Dick Clark (D Iowa), to deal with the Indochinese situation. The administration is expected to submit legislation
in the near future to increase the number of refugees allowed into this country each year from 17,400 to 50,000.
©2020 CQ Press, An Imprint of SAGE Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
Page 9 of 11
Communist Indochina and the Big Powers
CQ Researcher
ASEAN was created, with strong U.S. support, in Bangkok, Thailand, on Aug. 8, 1967, to promote “peace and stability” in the region.
See Gareth Porter, “The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict in Southeast Asia,” Current History, December 1978.
The late Indochina scholar, Bernard B. Fall, wrote in The Two Vietnams (1963) that the United States refused to help French forces fighting the
Japanese in Indochina because of President Roosevelt’s determination to see all of Southeast Asia freed from colonial rule.
Cited by Russell H. Fifield in Southeast Asia in United States Policy (1963), p. 25.
The conference was attended by Britain, Cambodia, China, France, Laos, the Soviet Union, the United States, North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
Participants at the conference were Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States. The SEATO
treaty elapsed on June 30, 1977.
Participating nations were Britain, Burma, Cambodia, Canada, China, France, India, Laos, North Vietnam, Poland, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union,
Thailand and the United States.
The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was repealed by Congress in 1970.
William Shawcross, “Paradise Lost,” New Times, Nov. 13, 1978, p. 23.
See a study recently completed for the Rand Corporation by Stephen T. Hosmer, Konrad Kellen and Brian Jenkins entitled “The Fall of Vietnam:
Statements by Vietnamese Military and Civilian Leaders,” December 1978.
The main sources for what happened in Cambodia were the refugees. Their accounts of deprivation, terror and atrocity were revealed by Francois
Ponchaud, in Cambodia: Year One (1978) and John Barron and Paul Anthony in Murder of a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of Communist Genocide in
Cambodia (1977).
During Teng Hsiao-ping’s recent visit to the United States the Russian Communist Party newspaper Pravda denounced Washington, on Feb. 4, for
providing Teng with a platform “for slandering the U.S.S.R.”
Quoted in The New York Times, Jan. 9, 1979. Kovler served as legislative aide for foreign affairs for Rep. Sidney Yates (D Ill.) in 1976–77.
In a conversation with four American senators on Jan. 9, two days after the fall of Phnom Penh, Teng Hsiao-ping said that China would support both
moves. He also said that Taiwan could maintain its own armed forces and enjoy a semi-autonomous status after reunification with the mainland. The
senators were Sam Nunn (D Ga.), John Glenn (D Ohio), Gary Hart (D Colo.) and William Cohen (R Maine).
Both Yugoslavia and Romania played host to Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng last August and both governments were strongly critical
of the Soviet-supported Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
“Ho’s Will Is Done,” The Economist, Jan. 13, 1979, pp. 20–21.
Special Focus
Indochinese Refugee Program (Period ending Jan. 15, 1979)
Inland Camp Refugees Boat Refugees
1. Cumulative Refugee Population 161,291 100,687
2. Average Monthly Arrival Rates since 8/11/77 4,532 5,449
Latest Monthly (Dec.) Arrival Rate 2,984 17,339
3. Departures 25,364 37,215
To U.S. 11,507 21,784
To Third Countries 13,857 15,431
4. Current Camp Population 135,927 63,472
©2020 CQ Press, An Imprint of SAGE Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
Page 10 of 11
Communist Indochina and the Big Powers
CQ Researcher
5. Of Whom INS Approved and Scheduled for U.S. Programs 6,527 7,074
6. For Whom Sponsorships Received 2,573 3,356
7. Residual Refugee Population Without Known Resettlement Opportunity 129,342 56,398
Source: U.S. Department of State
Inland Camp Refugees Boat Refugees
©2020 CQ Press, An Imprint of SAGE Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
Page 11 of 11
Communist Indochina and the Big Powers
CQ Researcher

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