By Conrad Black
It is difficult now to resurrect how revolutionary and improbable it seemed fifty years ago to envision a reconstructed normal relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. In 1967 the Cultural Revolution was in progress, distinguished people were being frog-marched through the streets wearing dunce-caps, reviled by disorderly mobs. Deng Xiaoping himself, one of China’s greatest leaders, and the author of the partial liberalization of its economy and its immense economic progress, was soon to be banished to become a provincial tractor factory worker for four years. Deng’s son would be thrown out of a fourth story window and permanently handicapped.
The second figure in the political apparatus, after Mao himself, Lin Biao, a drug addict who had to inhale motorcycle fumes to clear his mind, would die mysteriously in an airplane crash in 1971, and is generally thought to have fled after attempting a coup, and to have been shot down in flight by loyalists in the Chinese air force on Mao’s orders. When Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin used the emergency telephone line to try to make contact with Mao, or failing him, Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese operator refused to put his call through, declaring Kosygin to be “a revisionist,” and hanging up on the Soviet leader. It was hard to imagine that much progress could be made in developing relations with such a chaotic and preposterous regime, uneasily governing such an immense population.
Richard Nixon wrote “Asia After Viet Nam” shortly after a three-month period of extensive foreign travel where he met the government leaders of many countries on several continents, and renewed and reinforced his always active and informed thinking about the strategic relationship of the United States with almost every important country in the world. In his thorough canvass of East Asian leaders in the countries around China, Mr. Nixon confirmed that, as he had concluded before, the war in Vietnam could not be won by the methods then being followed.
The Johnson administration was conducting a war of attrition while permitting North Vietnamese penetration of South Vietnam through neutral Laos and Cambodia via the Ho Chi Minh trail. American air power was punishing the North for its aggression, but nothing was being done to seal off South Vietnam, and little was being done to train and equip its forces to defend themselves.
Nixon ratified his opposition to President Johnson’s method of incremental escalation in conversations with General Eisenhower, as he had in earlier years of the decade with General Douglas MacArthur. Nixon and his eminent military counselors believed it was essential in war to strike hard at the outset and maintain the level of military pressure, and not ambivalently to raise and lower it as President Johnson had done, always seeking a peace of compromise.
Nixon confirmed on his tour around East Asia that most of the countries in the region, after the sanguinary defeat of Indonesian communism in the brief but horrible civil conflict of 1965-1967 that killed approximately 750,000 Indonesians, were not so preoccupied with the outcome in Vietnam, as long as it was not a direct defeat for the United States.
It was clear from Ho Chi Minh’s rejection of President Johnson’s peace proposal that emanated from his meeting with South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu in Manila in 1966, that Hanoi sought the clear military defeat and humiliation of the United States, as well as the consolidation of South Vietnam into a unified, communist Vietnam. Johnson had offered a timetable withdrawal of all forces from outside South Vietnam. Obviously, if Ho had accepted this, he could have waited for a brief interval after the withdrawal of the Americans and then reinvaded, confident that the United States would not have reintroduced forces in large numbers.
But Ho Chi Minh had become fevered with the idea that it was his distinction to turn a decisive point in the triumph of international communism over its ideological enemies by humbling and defeating, for the first time in its history, the supreme capitalist power, the United States. To this cause he was prepared to commit practically unlimited numbers of casualties.
Former Vice President Nixon, then preparing his charge to the 1968 Republican nomination and another crack at the presidency which he had so narrowly, (and even questionably) lost in 1960, updated his views of the main foreign policy issues in the world. He set out just a hint of what he envisioned in “Asia After Viet Nam,” the still very original and widely admired essay published fifty years ago this month in Foreign Affairs.
In “Asia After Viet Nam,” Nixon presciently saw, though he clearly could not speculate about it publicly, that the war could be conducted differently, so that Americans gradually withdrew as South Vietnam was trained and reequipped, and that it would soon become clear to the sponsors of the North Vietnamese in Beijing and Moscow that no defeat of the United States was going to be possible. At that point, and when the public discord in China had subsided, given the extreme antagonism between the Moscow and Beijing governments, it might be possible for the United States to triangulate that relationship, and to develop better and more productive relations with both the USSR and the People’s Republic than they had with each other.
Nixon saw that as renewed relations with China began, America’s traditional allies in the Far East would need reassurance that improving Sino-American relations would not be at their expense. He foresaw that no country could continue indefinitely in such a state of disorder as China was in, and that when it emerged, as it focused on internal challenges and deficiencies, there would be an advantage to develop a strategic relationship with the United States, especially given the threat of a complete breakdown in relations with the Soviet Union.
In almost orientally subtle terms, Mr. Nixon hinted at just part of this in Foreign Affairs fifty years ago. His imaginative conception of a realignment in the Far East so profound that it would lead to radical and generally positive strategic developments in the whole world, was the beginning of one of the decisive transformations of modern world history. China would invent a form of ostensible communism that is in fact largely capitalist, and has boot-strapped that immense country upward economically to the second greatest economic power in the world, with plausible ambitions to challenge for world leadership.
None of this could have been imagined as remotely possible fifty years ago, except by a man of exceptional mastery of global grand strategy, from its greatest potentialities to its slightest details. Richard Nixon was such a man, and as an authority in international affairs who has also led the government of a Great Power, he is in the company of very few and very distinguished statesmen: Richelieu, Bismarck, and in the English-speaking world, at the most, Chatham, Palmerston, Disraeli, Churchill, and Roosevelt.
On a personal note, I had the privilege of discussing these subjects with Mr. Nixon in his last five years, and at great length with his closest collaborator, my dear friend Henry Kissinger, and it is an honor to be invited to contribute to the observation of this anniversary. When the cant, emotionalism, and fiction that obscured Mr. Nixon’s later career have finally subsided entirely, his great stature as a foreign and domestic policy conceptualist and executive, will be fully appreciated. “Asia After Viet Nam” raised this curtain.
Photo: Richard Nixon is greeted by Lt. Gen. Lewis W. Walt at Da Nang Air Base, April 1967.