Book Launch - Confronting Vietnam. Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963
Ilya Gaiduk, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of General History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; James Hershberg, The George Washington University. Chair: Kathryn Weathersby, WWICS Public Policy Scholar
Confronting Vietnam. Soviet Policy towards the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963 is a study of Soviet policy towards Indochina in general, and specifically toward Vietnam, during the period before massive US involvement in the region. Confronting Vietnam constitutes a prelude to the previous book by Ilya Gaiduk, which dealt with Soviet policy towards the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) from Lyndon B. Johnson's (LBJ) escalation in 1965 to the end of the war in 1975.
"I had three goals in mind" Gaiduk begun his presentation. The first, he suggested, was placing Soviet involvement in Vietnam in the broader context of international relations in the mid 1950s and the early 1960s. Those were tumultuous times, Gaiduk argues, and events such as Stalin's death, the unrest in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, the Suez Crisis and the emergence of the Sino-Soviet split captured the attention of the Soviet leadership. The conflict in Indochina was marginalized by the Kremlin, who did not view the area as one of prime strategic interest for the Soviet Union. Soviet disinterest in the Indochina conflict aggravated the situation Gaiduk offered. As the Soviets continued to dismiss the crisis's importance, other countries—especially the People's Republic of China (PRC)—got more involved. This would only aggravate the Soviet position in Asia in the long run, and added further tensions after the emergence of the Sino-Soviet split.
The second goal was that of showing that Soviet policy in the region was neither rigid nor uncompromising, as it was believed before. Intensive research in the former Soviet archives showed a Kremlin that was satisfied with the agreements reached at the Geneva Conference in 1954. Moscow, Gaiduk continued, believed that the agreements, if implemented, would stem the tide of the emerging conflict, and it did all it could to shore up the Geneva decisions. If the PRC and the DRV initially went along with the plan, with Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai suggesting that the two Vietnamese entities be preserved at least for the time being as a way of keeping the US away from China's borders, they had changed their tune by 1960. Even Hanoi, very dissatisfied with the idea of two Vietnamese states, was ready to postpone reunification for a later date. However, Gaiduk argues, by 1960 it was clear that South Vietnamese President Diem was not ready to reach any compromise with the North, both Hanoi and Beijing changed their tune. Washington only added to the tension. Not having been satisfied by the Geneva accords, Washington attempted to make the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) a bastion of capitalism, thus shoring up the Saigon regime and establishing a de-facto separation between the two states following the Korean model.
The third goal of the book was to document the continuity of Soviet policy in Indochina from 1954 to 1965. Even as they became more involved in the conflict after the US escalated the conflict, the Soviets continued to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The strategy remained the same, Gaiduk suggested, only the tactics changed. But Soviet desire for peace was checked by the ongoing Sino-Soviet competition and by the need to aid a "fraternal country" in the struggle with "American imperialism."
James Hershberg, Associate Professor of International Affairs and History at George Washington University praised the book as a fresh and much needed perspective on Soviet policy towards the DRV—a previously unknown factor to audiences and historiography. The book, Hershberg continued, was more than just a study of Soviet policy toward Vietnam, but a classic study of Soviet policy toward the Third World. The book brings new light on Soviet involvement in Vietnam in the context of decolonization and modernization. While lack of access to the Presidential Archives in Moscow prevents historians from reconstructing all aspects of Soviet foreign policy, Ilya Gaiduk's Confronting Vietnam makes excellent use of the available sources from the Foreign Ministry and those documents from the Politburo archives that are available, integrating them with the available materials in US, French and British archives.
Asked by members of the audience if the General Staff of the Soviet Supreme Command understood the advantages of a communist victory in Vietnam in the 1950s and early 1960s, and if it put pressure on the Soviet leadership to get more involved in the conflict, Gaiduk answered that lack of access to the relevant documents in the military archives prevents a final answer to the question. However, he suggested, the Soviet system did not enjoy the same bottom-up top-bottom exchanges of information common in democratic governments. While it is very possible that the General Staff might have understood the advantages of having naval access to the Vietnamese coastline, decisions were made at the top level of the Politburo and the military command followed them. Gaiduk gave the example of studies done by the US section of the Foreign Ministry that were cautioning the Soviet leadership that while the Soviet Union might not consider Indochina as strategically important, the United States very much did and that the US will surely get involved in Vietnam. Even so, the Kremlin chose to ignore the warnings.
Christian Ostermann, 4176
Drafted by Mircea Munteanu
About the participants
Ilya Gaiduk is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of General History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. He has been a regional exchange scholar and a Cold War International History Project Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War, covering the period from 1964 to 1973.
Kathryn Weathersby is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Senior Scholar with the Cold War International History Project. A specialist on the Soviet role in Korea, her publications include "The Soviet Role in the Korean War: The State of Historical Knowledge," in William Stueck, ed. The Korean War in World History (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004); "Should We Fear This?: Stalin and the Danger of War with America," CWIHP Working Paper No. 39 (2002); "Stalin, Mao and the End of the Korean War," in Odd Arne Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 1998); "Deceiving the Deceivers: Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and the Allegations of Bacteriological Weapons Use in Korea," Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project 11 (1998); and articles in CWIHP Bulletins 5 and 6/7 presenting and analyzing Russian archival documents on the Korean War.
James G. Hershberg received an A.B. in American History from Harvard College in 1982; a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University in 1985; and a Ph. D. from Tufts University in 1989. After teaching at Tufts and the California Institute of Technology in 1989-91, he directed the Cold War International History Project (and edited the project's Bulletin) from 1991-96 before coming to George Washington University in 1997 and now edits the CWIHP book series co-published by the Stanford University and Wilson Center Presses. He is the author of James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (Knopf, 1993; Stanford University Press, 1995), a study of the former Harvard president, atomic bomb project administrator, diplomat, and educational commentator. He received the 1994 Stuart Bernath Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Policy. Other scholarly and popular articles have focused on topics related to Cold War and nuclear history such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iran-contra affair, and revelations from the communist archives.