April 11, 2014

1965. Escalation of the Vietnam War

The Great Powers and Vietnam
"Walt Rostow shows President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area," February 15, 1968 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 25, 1965
For the past 24 hours, some so-called Washington official sources have been dismissing Communist Chinese and Soviet Russian warnings of intervention in the Vietnam War as "they're bluffing."

At an extraordinary cabinet meeting at the White House this afternoon, President Johnson corrected that horseback assessment with a restatement of America's goals in Southeast Asia. Bluffing or not, Mr. Johnson was telling Moscow and Peiping that they would be wise to avoid a big-power showdown in Southeast Asia.

The fact is, our diplomatic and intelligence experts on the Far East dismiss no pronouncements from the two Communist capitals without serious and prolonged checking and study; and that's what is going on now. Red China's statement was made through Peiping's official party journal, pledging Chinese manpower to aid the Viet Cong guerrillas if the Vietnamese people want them. It's to be noted that Red China's pledge was not directed to Ho Chi Minh's regime at Hanoi, but to what Peiping called the South Vietnam Liberation Front.

After our experience in Korea some 15 years ago, no responsible US official is downgrading such a declaration.

The same serious study is being given to Moscow's implied threat to send Russian volunteers to Vietnam made by Party Secretary Brezhnev the day before yesterday. The USSR already has agreed to supply Hanoi with modern weapons, including Russian antiaircraft missiles and fighter planes. That was a month ago; thus far the promised weapons have not shown up.

The peculiar thing about these parallel gestures of aid to the Viet Cong is that Moscow and Peiping did not join in bilateral comradeship to come to the aid of an embattled Communist ally. The Red Chinese are still berating the Kremlin for mistreating Chinese student demonstrators who attempted to storm the US embassy in Moscow. However, this does not lessen the possibility that one or both of the disputing Communist giants might attempt to aid Hanoi. Both Moscow and Peiping want to guarantee their continued influence in North Vietnam. Any inter-Communist contest in arms-supply to the Viet Cong would certainly make the military crisis there even more dangerous.

Geography and manpower combine to make the Chinese Communists the greater immediate threat to the US presence in Southeast Asia. However, despite this, the United States had decided to press its aerial offensive in both North and South Vietnam. It entails the carefully controlled use of military force to bring about a political decision—namely, to convince the Communist commanders in Hanoi to call off their dogs.

This policy entails the risk of war with Red China, admittedly. Peiping knows this through our repeated warnings that, unlike Korea, any Communist planes attacking our forces will be permitted no sanctuary—not in North Vietnam nor even in Red Chinese territory.

In the past, Washington diplomats have pointed out that Mao Tse-tung and company have been very circumspect in their conduct of Red China's foreign policy. They point out that Peiping gave early warning of Chinese intervention in Korea if UN troops threatened her Yalu River border—a warning that was ignored. Now the Chinese have produced another warning. But this time they also have been warned in advance of what their intervention entails.

For 15 years since the Korean truce agreement, the Chinese Communists have refused to challenge the United States in the Formosa Straits. Not one Peiping plane has flown over the island of Taiwan, even though it's widely known as a base for U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Chinese mainland. Although the Peiping government succeeded in detonating its first atomic explosion some five months ago, the Red Chinese are in no position to challenge America's nuclear might.

In other words, US strategists do not regard Mao and Chou En-lai as madmen willing to risk the destruction of their hand-made Oriental revolution—or the atomizing of their ancient motherland.

President Johnson's was a personal, if indirect, appeal for a negotiated settlement of the Vietnam conflict this afternoon. It remains now to see if Peiping, Hanoi, or Moscow want to pick up the bid and play for a diplomatic solution—or continue the deadly game of war.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.