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Reviewed by:
  • Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China, Vietnam, and the World beyond Asia
  • Lorenz M. Lüthi
Priscilla Roberts, ed., Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China, Vietnam, and the World beyond Asia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. 577 pp. $65.00.

The product of an international conference held at Hong Kong University in early 2000, this volume provides a fascinating cross-section of recent research on the Indochina conflict from the 1950s to the 1970s. The more than a dozen revised and expanded conference contributions by scholars from three continents cover aspects ranging from Beijing’s and Moscow’s support for Hanoi’s struggle, John F. Kennedy’s policy toward the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the impact of China’s evolving relations with France in the mid-1960s and with the United States in the early 1970s on the conflict as a whole. The roster of contributors amounts to a who’s-who in the field of international studies on the Vietnam War.

The book falls into three asymmetrical sections. The first, from colonial rule to escalation, includes an excellent introduction by Yang Kuisong to Mao Zedong’s views on the Vietnam War; three essays on particular aspects of Soviet, French, and U.S. policies; and a chapter on the impact of the escalating Vietnam War on the Chinese economy. The second, and longest, part, on the widening of the war from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, covers various international aspects of the conflict, such as Sino-U.S. relations, the faltering of Sino-Vietnamese relations, and Soviet aid. The final, and shortest, section comprises Chinese and Vietnamese documents on the relationship [End Page 126] between the two countries, all of which have already been published by the Cold War International History Project.

The editor, Priscilla Roberts, adds a systematic introduction to the volume, laying out the major themes that emerge from individual contributions. For example, Mao’s views on foreign policy oscillated between revolutionary radicalism (in the early 1950s and most of the 1960s) and moderation (in the mid- and late 1950s and after 1969), which is reflected in his advice to North Vietnam to seek a compromise at the Geneva conference in 1954 and his criticism of the alleged lack of revolutionary consciousness of Ho Chi Minh ten years later. Soviet policy toward the Indochina conflict suffered from similar swings between calls for a negotiated solution and the provision of extensive military aid.

Behind the Bamboo Curtain gives a snapshot of the issues on which the most cutting-edge research has occurred. Approximately half of the contributors are Chinese-born historians who work with recently published Chinese-language secondary literature and even in selected archives in the PRC. As a result, the volume offers fascinating new evidence on the changes in Chinese foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Beijing, as Shu Guang Zhang argues, decided to exploit economic aid for specific political purposes and less for the general promotion of world revolution after the Sino-Soviet split. According to Niu Jun, the PRC-DRV estrangement in the second half of the 1960s allowed China to take a more confrontational stand toward the Soviet Union, which had become North Vietnam’s closest ally, and a more conciliatory outlook toward the United States, the greatest source of insecurity for its southern neighbor. Qiang Zhai offers the first analysis of Chinese reactions to the escalation of domestic conflict in Cambodia, arguing that the PRC’s support for the Khmer Rouge was the result of geostrategic, not ideological, considerations.

Despite all the exciting findings, the volume essentially is a call for more research and greater openness of East Asian and Russian archives. The two superb contributions on Soviet foreign policy, by Mari Olsen and Stephen J. Morris, and Luu Doan Huynh’s interpretative essay on DRV policies, cannot obscure the fact that Russian and Vietnamese archival holdings on this topic are, at best, only partly open. More evidence from these archives would greatly help to refine and correct claims made in Chinese secondary sources and token archival evidence. In the absence of solid evidence, some assertions made...


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pp. 126-128
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