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Feature article

by John Prados

One of the least understood aspects of the Vietnam War, even today, is China’s role in the conflict. Beijing’s actions and intentions had a key impact on the minds of American presidents and affected American actions at important points in the war. As we re-evaluate the Vietnam War, it is vital to confront the China card directly in real terms and from the perspective of how Beijing’s role was understood in Washington.

China emerged from the Korean War and its own civil war with grave economic weaknesses, but also with a continued determination to complete the unification of the country, which, in Beijing’s view, meant incorporating Taiwan and the offshore islands in the Taiwan Straits. This led to a series of face-offs with Washington in the 1950s, when the Eisenhower administration strongly supported its Taiwanese allies.

The Chinese also were seen as trouble instigators in Laos. When John Kennedy became president in 1961, remarks by Chinese defense minister Lin Biao were seen in Washington as indicating that Beijing, like Moscow, favored a “People’s War” strategy against the West, with Vietnam a primary arena for confrontation. The standing Joint Chiefs of Staff war plan for hostilities in the Pacific credited Beijing with the capacity for inserting and supporting thirteen infantry divisions in Vietnam. As President Kennedy began upping the ante against the insurgency in South Vietnam, China was seen as a key spoiler waiting in the wings.

The view from Beijing was different. In the wake of the failure of China’s “Hundred Flowers” economic revival in the late 1950s, and with the knowledge of the close scrapes with war Mao Tse-Tung had had with Eisenhower, Chinese policy in Vietnam became cautious. The Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam (DRV) tried but failed to gain Chinese help during this era. Prime Minister Pham Van Dong visited Beijing in October 1959 to request Chinese military aid, along with a military assistance group. The Chinese gave no aid, although they did send a military survey mission to assess Hanoi’s needs.

In mid-1960 talks in Hanoi and Beijing, the Chinese essentially agreed with the DRV’s political-military strategy in the South but continued to emphasize that Hanoi should focus on economic development in the North. This continued to be the case during many months in which Kennedy steadily increased the numbers of American military advisers in South Vietnam, levels of military aid, and added combat service and support units to the Americans backing Saigon’s forces.

Three big developments changed Beijing’s attitudes toward the Vietnam War. The first was the Sino-Soviet split. Beijing found it increasingly difficult to ignore Russian charges that China lagged in its revolutionary solidarity with struggling peoples. Chinese officials in late 1961 declared that the Vietnamese were exposing themselves to retaliation by supporting insurgency in the South, a posture that played into the Soviet charges. Similarly, a Chinese delegation visiting Hanoi in December 1961 urged caution.

The Geneva conference on Laos in 1961-62 offered Beijing an opportunity to foster closer relations with Hanoi, but the diplomatic thaw was not supplemented by military aid. In late 1962 the Chinese fought a brief but sharp border war with India. Hanoi’s silence on that occasion underlined the failure to forge closer bonds.

A second driver of Chinese policy was internal factional fighting. Mao Tse-Tung had been sidelined to a certain degree after the “Hundred Flowers,” which he had strongly backed, and officials guiding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during those early years of the Vietnam War took a more cautious view. But in 1962 Beijing renewed its debate over the possibilities of global war versus peaceful co-existence, partly sparked by Chiang Kai-shek’s threats from Taiwan to invade the mainland. The debate gave Mao a chance to reassert his dominance.

Mao regained some power by advocating a more activist Chinese foreign policy. Beijing’s first military aid to North Vietnam—90,000 rifles for the guerrillas fighting Saigon—followed a summer 1962 visit by Ho Chi Minh and General Nguyen Chi Thanh, in which the Hanoi leaders expressed fears of American attacks on North Vietnam. In October—at the height of the Sino-Indian border war—General Vo Nguyen Giap led a Vietnamese military delegation to the PRC to discuss more concrete aid measures, but it came to nothing.

In 1963, Vietnamese relations with Moscow cooled and Hanoi began to draw closer to Beijing, taking a foreign policy line more attuned to the PRC’s side in the Sino-Soviet dispute. With the resumption of hostilities in Laos in the spring of 1963, the Chinese, for the first time, sent a military advisory group to help North Vietnam.
As the Vietnamese suggested, American actions themselves proved the third driver for Chinese involvement in the war. Washington had some inkling of this factor. On at least two occasions during the 1961-64 period when American presidents considered suggestions for invasions of Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the CIA and the intelligence community warned that such major escalations would confront Beijing with a decision on intervention.

We now know that fears of these moves existed, were openly posed, and led to the first PRC measures on the Indochina front. In December 1963, the deputy chief of staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led a military planning group on a new and extensive survey of Vietnam. This led to the proposal of a plan in which China might help the DRV defend itself. It focused on helping construct defense positions and naval bases along the coast of North Vietnam.

Beginning in early 1964, the Johnson administration changed the equation with its OPLAN-34A program of direct attacks on North Vietnam. This led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, which marked the opening of direct combat between North Vietnam and the United States. Apart from anything else, the Tonkin Gulf incident shows that China’s ability to avoid intervention in Vietnam, given the texture of competition within the socialist camp, was limited as well as dependent on the degree to which the United States could be perceived as widening the war.

President Johnson is sometimes condemned for his refusal to make certain moves recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pacific Command, or American commanders in South Vietnam, such as invading Laos or North Vietnam—charges from which he defended himself by referring to his concern to keep the war limited. What we now know from the other side suggests that Johnson was correct in his assessment.

In June 1964, when U.S. aircraft began bombing Laos, several Chinese were killed or wounded as Laotian planes (with Thai pilots secretly recruited by the United States) struck Pathet Lao headquarters. Only a couple of weeks later, Vietnamese chief of staff General Van Tien Dung went to Beijing for military aid talks. Mao told General Dung that China would send troops if the United States invaded North Vietnam. Early in July, Zhou returned the visit, traveling to Hanoi to see Vietnamese and Pathet Lao officials and assure them of Beijing’s support.

On August 5, the day after the U.S. airstrike on North Vietnam that retaliated for the illusory second Tonkin Gulf incident, the Chinese cabled Hanoi to begin work on countermeasure plans. A week later, DRV official Le Duan met with Mao in Beijing.

Even then the Chinese did not believe in the alleged second incident—they told the North Vietnamese the Americans had erroneous information and had reached mistaken conclusions—but China began a military buildup in its provinces near Vietnam. Beijing also opened the spigot on military aid, sending the DRV thirty-six MiG-15 and MiG-17 jet fighters, the first in the Vietnamese air force. A fresh PLA military survey team also made the rounds in North Vietnam.

On the evening of August 5, 1964, a meeting took place at PLA General Staff headquarters among the chiefs of each of the services. They decided to reject the threat of immediate war with the United States but to increase preparations. Within 24 hours, the 7th Air Corps was ordered to move its headquarters from Guangdong to Nanning, with the 12th Fighter and 3rd Antiaircraft Divisions to redeploy, and the Navy to send a fighter division to Hainan. These actions brought MiG-19 and MiG-21 squadrons to southern China. Three more fighter divisions (17th, 26th, and 9th) already in place were ordered to a higher level of alert, and eight air divisions plus an all-weather fighter regiment were designated as forces to be drawn upon if needed.

Where there had been just 36 radar systems in Guangxi Province in 1964, by the next year there were 94, including China’s most advanced equipment. These tracked almost a hundred American drone reconnaissance flights over China by the end of 1969. The PLAF claims to have shot down twenty of them.

On October 5, Pham Van Dong had a key conversation with Mao Tse-Tung. The Vietnamese leader said that Hanoi’s Politburo had decided to try and “restrict the war in South Vietnam to the sphere of special war” (the DRV’s term for insurgency) and discourage the United States from passing the limited-war threshold. Mao had already been told by Le Duan about Hanoi’s intention to send a division of its regular troops to the South, and he cautioned Pham that the timing of the move would be important that “they do not want us to fight a big war,” and that “you should not engage your main force in a head-to-head confrontation with them.” Pham agreed.

Mao went on to analyze American troop deployments worldwide to buttress his contention that the Americans really did not want the big war. But he then proceeded to advocate a strengthening of North Vietnam’s coastal defenses.
The DRV sent its 325th Division to the South, where it went into action in February 1965. A month earlier Zhou Enlai had advised the Vietnamese that “we should continuously eliminate the main forces of the enemy” and strive to eliminate most of the strategic hamlets before the end of the year. Shortly thereafter in South Vietnam, forces of the National Liberation Front struck American bases at Pleiku and Qui Nhon and brought the beginning of airstrikes that quickly escalated into the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. The large-scale commitment of American ground forces began that July.

Those events drew the North Vietnamese and Chinese even closer together. In April, Le Duan and General Giap were told that the PRC recognized their need for volunteer pilots, volunteer soldiers, and road and bridge engineers. The Chinese leadership principle would be “we will do our best to provide you with whatever you need and whatever we have.” The PRC and DRV signed agreements governing the stationing of Chinese troops in North Vietnam and other provisions for military assistance. Beijing also took steps to warn the United States against intervention in Vietnam, through Pakistani President Ayub Khan and other avenues, threatening escalation and a widened war. Beijing and Hanoi signed an agreement providing for combat commitment of Chinese forces in North Vietnam if the Americans invaded.

Two points are relevant to the decisions President Johnson made in Washington. The first is that there can be no doubt that Hanoi and Beijing were an effective alliance. Everything—the Chinese warning, the agreements with Hanoi, the activities of Chinese forces (such as building airfields for DRV use across the Chinese border), even the “we” rhetoric in the conversations among leaders—indicates the reality of these arrangements.

Second, American intelligence was generally aware of the closing circle. When Ho Chi Minh made a secret visit to Mao at Changsha, when DRV-PRC delegations held talks in the summer of 1964, when Vietnamese pilots began flight training at the new airfield, when Chinese troops crossed the border into the DRV, all were reported in American secret channels. Through 1965 there was a succession of top-level analyses by the CIA and others called Special National Intelligence Estimates spurred by the measures President Johnson considered. These contained repeated cautions against moves provoking China.

We have learned a great deal about Beijing’s intervention since the war, much of it from the work of Chinese-American historians Xiaoming Zhang (who was an antiaircraft gunner in the Chinese navy from 1970-73), Qiang Zhai, and Chen Jian. Zhang records in detail the activities of the People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAF) and PLA during the period. Zhai focuses more on the overall contours of China’s effort; Chen concentrates on Chinese diplomacy.

The first aerial engagements between Chinese and American aircraft took place in April 1965, near or over Hainan. China and the U.S. differ in their reporting on whether American planes had actually intruded into China. Each claims one of the enemy downed while denying friendly casualties. There were some 155 aerial intrusions through November 1968, the Chinese said, involving 383 American aircraft, of which the PLAF claims to have downed 12 and damaged four. U.S. records show five losses. One American pilot was captured.

According to Xiaoming Zhang, the PLAF flew 2,138 combat sorties in response. True or exaggerated, these figures illustrate the utility of the 25 nautical mile buffer zone along the Vietnamese-Chinese border that President Johnson imposed—and occasionally rescinded—and which American air commanders vociferously protested. At 550 knots, crossing that exclusion zone took less than three minutes, putting a premium on accurate navigation.

On the question of ground forces, on April 17, 1965, the PLA Central Military Command ordered preparations to send troops to North Vietnam. Discussions with General Giap a few days later set the schedule. In late May the Chinese government adopted its policy for troops in the DRV, creating a seven-member committee to oversee the effort. One 20,000-man PLA unit deployed very quickly, in June, to build coast defenses and help in the defense of the northeast quadrant of the DRV coast. That unit contained an artillery regiment and another of antiaircraft troops alongside its engineer regiments. Even the engineer units had attached artillery, antiaircraft, and mortar elements. Two more composite divisions of railroad, engineer, and antiaircraft units followed.

The North Vietnamese asked for a pair of antiaircraft artillery divisions to bolster their air defenses in the Red River Delta and around Hanoi, but Beijing confined itself to the original program. As a result of appeals from Ho Chi Minh to Mao, the Chinese approved a second group of construction forces to help build roads in northern Tonkin, on the understanding that Hanoi would use its own labor and engineer assets to increase the pace of construction efforts in the southern DRV and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The groups of PLA forces included nine divisions and numbered some 170,000 troops.

Zhang notes another account that in March 1969 there were parts of 16 PLA divisions (63 regiments), totaling 150,000 troops, serving on six-to-eight-month rotations. Chinese accounts record that some 320,000 PLA soldiers served in North Vietnam, of whom 1,100 were killed and 4,300 wounded. Liberation Army antiaircraft units claimed to have shot down 1,707 U.S. planes and damaged an additional 1,608, while capturing 42 American pilots. Rolling Thunder records indicate a total of 1,049 aircraft lost—the bulk of them to DRV defenses, not Chinese. Though limiting their commitment to specialist troops, the Chinese undertook to send combat forces in the event of any American invasion of the North. Mao told Ho to think of China as his strategic reserve.

Washington’s knowledge of Beijing’s intervention can be followed in the intelligence reporting. As early as August 1964 there were reported sightings of Chinese soldiers on a train in Hanoi. That November, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research reported the jet airfield near Ningming. In February 1965, a CIA memorandum predicting the consequences of Rolling Thunder estimated that China “would not in these circumstances resort to the introduction of large-scale ground forces.” Another report at the same time acknowledged a steady military buildup in South China “since mid-1964,” mentioned “a series of secret meetings with top DRV officials in late June or early July 1964,” and a pace that had “picked up” after the Tonkin Gulf, with a new naval base in the south and the Ningming airfield, plus a military review presided over by Mao and a renewed conscription drive for the PLA. The CIA counted 200 new jet fighters in South China.

In late June 1965, the CIA identified the headquarters of the PLA’s 2nd Railway Engineer Division inside North Vietnam. A July report on the PRC navy noted indications of fresh Chinese concerns for security of their own sea frontier in the Tonkin Gulf. By then, there were suspicions that more Chinese troops had crossed into North Vietnam. The CIA Watch Committee on July 30 reported “our evidence is now much stronger that several of these entities are located in northeastern North Vietnam.”

In October, a new PLAF jet fighter regiment was detected moving onto Hainan Island. By late October, the CIA’s estimates of Chinese troops in the DRV went as high as 35,000 to 40,000 men. By February 1966, the projection stood at 30,000 to 47,000. Though the estimate shrank somewhat by the summer of 1966—to between 25,000 and 45,000—it is not surprising that assessments of Beijing’s intentions became increasingly somber through the months when American ground troops began their combat involvement in South Vietnam.

Washington’s intelligence reports far underestimated the extent of the Chinese forces in the DRV. Had Lyndon Johnson known the full story, he undoubtedly would have felt his fears completely justified. Knowledge of the actual Chinese troop levels might well have dissuaded the Joint Chiefs, General Westmoreland, and other top commanders from pressing their more ambitious schemes. This Chinese commitment in the North, moreover, existed throughout the period of the expansion of the American war effort in South Vietnam. Any invasion of the North would have brought a confrontation.

As for DRV lines of supply, the Chinese claim to have built 130 miles of railroad and upgraded 217 more, constructed 30 bridges, 14 tunnels, and 20 stations or yards; while making 1,778 repairs, neutralizing 3,100 delayed-action bombs, and keeping open many miles of railroad and almost 900 miles of telegraph lines. Tonnage moved on the main route to Hanoi alone increased over the period from 1.6 million in 1965 to 2.8 million by 1969. By then the land routes were the primary access to the DRV, where the ports were constrained by limited goods-handling capacity.

Chinese aid quickly grew from a trickle to a torrent. In 1965, aid included 18 aircraft, 4,439 guns or mortars, 220,000 small arms, over 10,000 sets of communications gear, seven naval vessels, and more. Shipments fell in 1966 but were still substantial: 3,362 artillery pieces, 141,000 rifles, 14 warships, and other items. More than 70 aircraft were delivered in 1967, the peak year for these weapons, along with the first Chinese-made tanks. During 1968, deliveries included more than 7,000 guns and about 220,000 small arms, along with 18 tanks.
In 1969-70, a fallow period, Chinese supplies arrived at only a subsistence level.

But after the invasions of Cambodia and Laos, supply deliveries hit a new peak in 1971, with almost 8,000 guns, mortars, and rocket artillery launchers, 143,000 small arms, and 80 tanks. Armor deliveries remained substantial, peaking at 220 tanks in 1972 then falling off. The Chinese spigot became the foundation of the North Vietnamese army that became so important in 1972 and 1975. Given that Hanoi simultaneously received many aircraft and almost all its air defense missile and radar systems from the Soviet Union, the combination was potent.

The texture of Chinese commitment changed over time, partly the result of developments in Chinese-Vietnamese relations, partly due to events in China. The Cultural Revolution turned China inward and brought about power struggles between Mao Tse-Tung and other factions of the political leadership. Chinese determination to act in Vietnam gradually withered but not in ways that Washington could take advantage of.

China was opaque to the U.S. at that time. The intelligence reports are rife with speculation and repeated iterations of the refrain, in various forms, that observations lacked foundation in hard fact. On the surface this was the period of Beijing asserting the United States was no more than a “paper tiger,” deploying nuclear weapons and medium-range ballistic missiles, undertaking massive civil defense preparations, and significantly modernizing its armed forces. These moves could not be dismissed out of hand.

Changes in the relationship between Beijing and Hanoi also took place beneath the surface. The Vietnamese liked the Chinese better from afar, and Chinese troops in the DRV encountered gradually increasing disdain from their communist brothers. Hanoi, still careful to shift between the sides in the Sino-Soviet dispute, continued to play Beijing and Moscow against each other, to China’s increasing annoyance. On several occasions the Chinese halted transshipment of Soviet materiel en route to Vietnam, actions that annoyed the Vietnamese.

There were also tactical differences. During the run-up to the Tet Offensive, according to historians John Garver and Qiang Zhai, Beijing favored protracted warfare and regarded the Vietnamese initiative as an error. Conversations between PRC and DRV leaders in 1968 suggest that China opposed negotiations when Hanoi had begun to soften on this issue. Chen Yi accused Le Duc Tho that October of accepting “the compromising and capitulationist proposals put forward by the Soviet revisionists.” Later, when Beijing began to perceive the possibility of an opening to the Nixon administration and peace talks were underway, the Chinese encouraged negotiations while Hanoi stood fast on its own bargaining position.

Meanwhile, the Rolling Thunder air campaign against North Vietnam was cut far back in April 1968, then finally terminated that November. The Chinese were still having their troubles in North Vietnam, and the rationale for their deployment was gone. Beijing began to withdraw its forces from North Vietnam in a move that paralleled the Nixon administration’s drawdowns in the South. The Chinese also radically reduced their supply shipments to the DRV.

In 1970, Mao reacted sharply to Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia and only slightly less heatedly to the Laotian invasion the next year. Beijing resumed its higher levels of supplies in 1971 but did not recommit troops, though a more direct American move against North Vietnam would have confronted Mao with that question.

This brings us to the question of the Christmas Bombing of 1972. The Nixon administration’s resort to B-52 bombers and other aircraft to conduct a massive bombardment of Hanoi and key points in the DRV is sometimes presented as an option that would have brought an American victory in the Vietnam War. In some versions the argument is that the B-52s would have won if the air offensive had occurred earlier in the war, in others that the Christmas Bombing would have succeeded if it had gone on longer.

Political factors in the United States and diplomatic relations with allies precluded the second possibility. China’s alliance with Vietnam was what made the first alternative impractical. Had the Christmas Bombing taken place in 1965, it would likely have brought about open Chinese intervention. Lyndon Johnson was right. Anytime before the Chinese withdrawal, such an option would have led to massive Chinese casualties and the same result. In 1969, such a bombing would have halted the Chinese withdrawal and reinvigorated the Beijing-Hanoi alliance. In 1970 or 1971, this air campaign, in the context of Cambodia and Laos, would have driven Beijing back into Hanoi’s arms.

Ultimately, the Christmas Bombing only became possible when it happened in 1972 because Nixon completed the decoupling of Beijing from Hanoi with his opening to China. But the extension of the bombing then would not be possible due to other factors.

In the final analysis, the People’s Republic of China played a key role in the Vietnam War. Offstage and in the wings, its influence remained important in Hanoi, and its actions posed key constraints on United States strategy. China’s actual involvement was greater than generally recognized, and its maneuvers affected both sides. Beijing’s weight proved that indirect action could move the pendulum of conflict farther than anyone anticipated. Mao saw his country as Hanoi’s strategic reserve. He may well have been right.

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