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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.3 (2001) 120-122

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Book Review

China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975

Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 304 pp. $19.95.

More than twenty-five years after the fall of Saigon, diplomatic historians have lost none of their zeal for writing about the Vietnam wars of the twentieth century. Most scholars continue to focus on how the United States and other Western governments responded to the revolutionary challenge in Indochina. Over the past few years, however, a small but intrepid band of linguistically skilled historians has begun exploring uncharted territory. Taking advantage of newly accessible archival materials in Russia, China, and Vietnam, authors such as Ilya Gaiduk, Chen Jian, and Robert Brigham have written pioneering studies of decision making on the "other side." From such work a truly international understanding of the Vietnam wars is finally beginning to emerge.

Qiang Zhai's China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 is a momentous addition to this new scholarship. Sweeping in scope and rich in detail, the book provides the most authoritative account yet published of Chinese policymaking and the ever- changing relationship between Beijing and Hanoi during the period of U.S. entanglement [End Page 120] in Vietnam. The sheer abundance of astonishing evidence more than offsets the book's lack of stylistic flair and analytical depth. Much of Zhai's evidence suggests answers to questions that Western historians have long been unable to resolve or have passed over in frustrated silence. Above all, Zhai establishes that Chinese support for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the 1960s was quantitatively and qualitatively much greater than historians have commonly believed.

The book rests on enterprising research that serves as a model of how international history can be done under adverse circumstances. As Zhai notes, the central Communist Party and Foreign Ministry archives in Beijing remain closed to researchers. Yet he discovered useful foreign policy documents in a provincial archive in Nanjing, mainly memoranda circulated to local officials to keep them abreast of policymaking at the center. Combined with memoirs and recently published documentary collections exposing the views of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Liu Shaoqi, these materials enabled Zhai to piece together a narrative that is remarkably complete, although, like much cutting-edge Cold War scholarship, it will clearly be subject to revision as more material becomes available.

Much of the book confirms what historians have long suspected. Zhai demonstrates, for example, that Chinese leaders were eager to ease the French out of Indochina without provoking U.S. intervention and wanted to enhance China's role as a peacemaker in Asia. Hence, they worked with the Soviet Union at the 1954 Geneva Conference to force the Vietnamese to accept the division of their country. Similarly, Zhai confirms the close link between China's Vietnam policy and the progression of the Sino-Soviet rupture. He shows that in the early and mid-1960s, Mao eagerly cooperated with North Vietnam to promote his image at home and abroad as the main proponent of revolutionary activism in the decolonizing world and to castigate Moscow as a hopelessly passive, revisionist power. By 1969, though, Beijing's calculations changed as the Sino-Soviet chasm grew wider. Zhai shows that Mao shifted to a policy of containing North Vietnam's ambitions as he came to see the Soviet Union, not the United States, as his principal enemy and as he began to fear an emerging Soviet-Vietnamese partnership in Southeast Asia. In this realignment lay the seeds of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war.

Zhai's most remarkable discoveries concern the relationship between China and North Vietnam at the apogee of their cooperation from 1962 to 1968. He shows that the Chinese government responded to escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam by steadily increasing support for its Vietnamese allies, sending so much assistance in 1965--everything from weapons and rice to volleyballs and toothbrushes--that it quickly over- whelmed Hanoi's transport capabilities. Still more striking are Zhai...