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Reviewed by:
  • Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China, Vietnam, and the Cold War
  • Pierre Asselin (bio)
Priscilla Roberts, editor. Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. xviii, 559 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 0–8047–5502–7.

This compilation of essays and documents explores China’s relationship with allies and enemies during and between the Indochina wars (i.e., the Franco-Vietnamese War of 1946–1954 and the Vietnamese-American War of 1965–1975). It aims to “penetrate” and “illuminate” the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, as well as demonstrate that “the expressions of eternal ideological solidarity uniting Beijing and Hanoi” in fact “masked a far more complex reality” (p. 1). The book is the product of a 2000 conference at Hong Kong University organized by the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP; see for details) that brought together scholars and researchers from various institutions. The conference proceedings, [End Page 198] updated and revised for the present volume, rely on new evidence from Chinese, Russian (i.e., Soviet), and American archives and other repositories to revisit and offer fresh perspectives on issues of greatest concern to students of the Vietnamese revolutionary struggle and China’s role in it. Scholars interested in the period and versed in Chinese will find therein references to a vast and comprehensive assortment of sources likely to prove useful to their own research. Some of this new evidence is reproduced in the last section of the book.

Well written and to the point, the essays are indeed impressively researched. Despite some redundancy, they complement each other well and consider a respectable array of pertinent topics. The book’s main strength and primary contribution to the field lie in its delineation and explanation of the factors that motivated Chinese foreign policy generally and vis-à-vis Indochina specifically between 1949 and 1975. Time and circumstances usually determined which took precedence over others for Beijing.

The first essay, by Yang Kuisong, which follows a thorough introductory chapter by the editor, surveys Chinese foreign policy from 1949 to 1973. Stressing the centrality of Mao in the policy-making process, it argues that while ideological considerations—foremost among which was the desire to export revolution—initially guided his approach to Indochina, other forces subsequently proved more deterministic, namely socialist development (1953–1957), nationalism (1958–1969), and national security (1970–1973). Hence, Mao and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) commitment to Vietnam was not unwavering, but in a constant state of mutation and flux. The Sino-Soviet dispute ultimately exerted the most influence on Chinese decision making on Vietnam. Yang maintains that Beijing at first opposed a negotiated solution to the Vietnamese-American War primarily because the Soviets favored that option. The leadership amended its position in 1969 and even entered into negotiations with the Americans itself as a result of the further deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations and recognition that Moscow represented the principal menace to China by that time.

The next four chapters consider aspects of the pre-1965 period. Mari Olsen relies on documents from the Russian archives to demonstrate that in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the 1954 Geneva accords Moscow urged Hanoi to abide by their terms and refrain from using violence to achieve reunification. Soviet leaders not only believed that the accords could bring about Vietnamese reunification under communist governance peacefully, but they also did not want the Americans to have a pretext for intervening militarily in Indochina. As the prospects for peaceful reunification faded, causing restlessness in Hanoi and the rest of the socialist world, the Kremlin advised its Vietnamese allies to take offensive measures to increase their influence in southern Vietnam. Privately, Soviet leaders continued to hope that war would be averted on the Indochinese peninsula so they could concentrate instead on European matters. “Soviet policies in Vietnam,” Olsen concludes, “represented the conflict between the ideological [End Page 199] dedication of the Soviet leaders and their understanding of what was in the best interest of the Soviet Union at that time” (p. 118). Noam Kochavi’s essay on President John F. Kennedy’s perception of China is arguably the weakest...