This department, though currently conducted by an expatriate European, is not immune from the strains cast upon Atlantic relations by the differences in American and European ways of viewing the world. Whether or not the two halves of the Western alliance continue to march together, there is no denying that just now their union is threatened by something else besides the re-awakening of nationalism in Europe. That something else is the trouble Europeans are having in trying to make sense of American policies in Asia.
There is, of course, no unified European viewpoint. The British until recently have tended to follow the American lead, though with considerable misgivings, and perhaps more from concern over Malaya (and the pound sterling) than from conviction. Now there are rumblings about “escalation” and the use of gas, and Mr. Michael Stewart, on his first visit to Washington in his capacity as Foreign Secretary, publicly urged “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind”—a remark that went widely unreported and drew no audible comment from anyone in authority, though there appear to have been some private grumbles. French opinion in these matters is pretty solidly behind de Gaulle: a circumstance carefully concealed from the readers of the American press, who must be wondering how the General still manages after seven years to retain his hold, seeing that (if they can believe the editorials and “news reports” in their daily journals) everyone in France is against him. In Italy, most people take their line from the Vatican or the Kremlin, as the case may be, but there are also a few liberals, and they are unhappy. The Germans—if they think about the matter at ail-publicly toe the Washington line, and in private ask U.S. diplomats to please explain what President Johnson may have in mind, and whether he really wants to drift into another Korean campaign. The smaller West European countries tend to echo these preoccupations, though with predictable nuances. Thus the Dutch and the Scandinavians are understandably more upset about scorched-earth tactics, and the use of gas and napalm, than are the Germans. After all, it is not easy for Germans—even of the well-meaning sort—to wax indignant in public about gas warfare without stirring up uncomfortable emotions among their countrymen.
For obvious reasons, the French reaction is the most definite. This is partly because national self-confidence has been restored by the Gaullist regime—I apologize for laboring this theme, but there is a conspiracy of silence on the topic, notably in the British journals reaching this country. Mostly, however, the French reaction is so clear-cut because they know from experience that land wars in Southeast Asia cannot be won: at any rate not if they have to be fought under the kind of conditions prevailing in Vietnam. The French also remember their own blunder in pushing Ho Chi Minh much further in the direction of China than he had originally planned to go, and they are concerned that the United States seems about to repeat the mistake. Lastly, they are fed up with crusading rhetoric about “fighting Communism.” The last time talk like this was heard in France was when it was employed to justify the Algerian war, and most Frenchmen would rather not be reminded of that experience.
If a unified West European standpoint could be formulated—if, that is to say, there were an effective European political organization—one might safely wager that the consensus would take a form not far removed from what is vulgarly known as “neutralism.” The Americans, in other words, would be told politely that, while there was much sympathy for their current troubles, and some diminishing understanding for their political tactics, they had better not count on any material or moral support if they land themselves in a war with China. They might also be informed that their political stock would go up considerably if they were able to make it plain that they were aiming at a compromise settlement in Southeast Asia, and not at a fight to the finish with an abstraction called “Communism,” which in Asia anyhow is difficult to distinguish from revolutionary nationalism. For contrary to a widespread notion, no one in Western Europe—or even in Eastern Europe—really minds about a bit of bombing. What people are worried about is the attitude behind it. Europeans have been brought up on Realpolitik, and they understand the argument that pressure may be needed to induce the other side to see reason and attend a peace conference. What they do not understand is talk of “stopping Communism,” when it is perfectly obvious that the real issue is how to extricate oneself from a guerrilla war which can go on for another decade (if everyone's patience lasts that long).
It may seem that I am crediting the average European with a good deal of political sophistication, but really these topics are not as difficult as all that. It is true that at the higher ranges of the political pyramid one comes upon more technical arguments, but if it is a matter of carrying public opinion along, it needs to be said quite plainly that public opinion is not impressed by the official talk about “defending freedom.” People are quite well aware (I suspect they are also aware of it in this country) that there is no freedom to be defended in either North or South Vietnam, and that the only thing at stake in this war is the balance of power. This of course involves imponderables, such as making the Chinese understand that the United States is not a “paper tiger.” Granted that, one may still, out of the depths of one's innocence, wonder about a political strategy which seems purposely designed to persuade the whole of Asia that Peking is right when it paints the struggle as a racial war between Westerners and Asians. What is so serious about it is that the West's remaining political and moral capital is being endangered by these tactics. In this perspective, the reserve demonstrated in London and Paris is in everyone's interest. If Washington must go on blundering, at least the blame should not fall upon the West as a whole. It is a reversal of the Suez situation, though this time the consequences are potentially much more serious.
Compared with this long-term perspective, the ineptitude of U.S. diplomacy is relatively unimportant, though all the professionals must be wringing their hands at the failure to put the onus on China. Why should so much time have been wasted before the announcement that Washington was ready at any time to attend a peace conference? One suspects that the failure to make this obvious move was tied up with the old emotional tangle over China: it would have meant “recognizing” Peking (as if Mao cared: he already has all the recognition he wants). As for the current attempt to combine military pressure with diplomatic overtures, it is unlikely to come off. Peking and Hanoi have made it perfectly plain that it suits them to let the war in Vietnam go on as long as it can; in the circumstances the thing to do was to work toward something along the lines of the Laotian settlement or some other form of neutralization. Such a move would have embarrassed no one except the Chinese. It would have pleased the Indians and the Japanese, and need not have precluded further resistance to armed inroads from the North: especially if it is really the case—as is suggested in an interesting article in the April issue of Foreign Affairs—that there exists a genuine species of nationalism in South Vietnam which is not tied up with the Catholic minority and is neither pro-Chinese nor neutralist.
This last, of course, is the crux of the whole business. No country in the world, least of all South Vietnam, can go on forever subsisting on anti-Communism. Unless genuine national feeling is involved—it need not be widespread: it need only, in the first instance, be the property of the political and military elite—the structure must crumble. Conversely, the genuine nationalists may very well decide at some stage to dispense with their Western protectors: especially if the latter show a propensity to treat the country and its inhabitants as mere pawns in a complicated game of political chess. This is the real argument against scorched-earth tactics. It is also the point where politics cannot be divorced from morals. The notion of such a divorce is attractive to some people. They can indeed expose the element of hysteria or hypocrisy in the outcry against gas among publicists who for years were silent about the use of napalm (an even more unpleasant weapon). But in the end it is not possible to pretend that wars can be fought in a political and moral vacuum. Other things being equal, the side that mobilizes popular sentiment is bound in the long run to win. What the American case lacks is a convincing demonstration that public opinion in Southeast Asia favors the Western side. If the local nationalist movements are driven into hostility by Western terror tactics, the political loss is bound to outweigh the short-run military gain.
Meanwhile one notes that, according to the London Spectator (a Conservative weekly) “much of Britain is bored to death by the whole business. Despite clouds of pious talk about the perils of ‘escalation’ and the possible ‘collapse of Southeast Asia,’ the number of people in the average street who could distinguish Da Nang and Nguyen Cao Ky, let alone explain that the one is an airbase and the other the commander of the Vietnamese air force, would be outnumbered by the Prime Ministers South Vietnam has had in the past few months.” The British, of course, have plenty of other things to worry about, and are not too well informed about Malaya either. Nonetheless this state of mind must be fairly widespread.
Ignorance about China is another matter. It is not confined to the man in the street, but affects us all, save for the handful of specialists on whom the rest of us willy-nilly depend for our information. The trouble with the experts is that they tend to be afflicted by the modes of thought they are obliged to study. Some of them in the end become as rigid and pedantic as the Peking editorialists: now formally committed to the duty of repeating the same lesson for the benefit of their Russian pupils “even if we have to do it for ten thousand years.” Others tend to lose themselves in the mists of Chinese history. I have myself heard one eminent lecturer tell a gathering of fellow-academics that “a great deal of further work” will have to be done on the foreign policy of the Chinese Emperors in the 13th and 14th centuries before an adequate “model” of Mao Tse-tung's political strategy can be “constructed.” This kind of approach does not strike me as helpful, any more than does the attempt to deduce China's probable future conduct from Mao's childish interpretation of Hegel (or, to be exact, Lenin) . Academic pedantry—harmless enough in itself and always good for a laugh wherever two or three colleagues are gathered together—can become a hindrance to the perception of those aspects of reality that concern all of us.
At the other end of the spectrum there are the “diplomatic correspondents” with their inside information, and the reporters with their notebooks. Some of the latter tend to double as propagandists. I suppose no one is surprised, on opening the New Statesman and seeing a prominently displayed conversation between Chou En-lai and the inevitable K. S. Karol, to find Chou sounding exceedingly reasonable and statesmanlike, though quite uncompromising as to the substance of Peking's quarrel with Moscow. The whole thing, it seems, comes down to different interpretations of Marx and Lenin. (One is reminded of the Soviet diplomat in Peking who told a French journalist: “We are not going to argue with the Chinese. They have detailed one million men to look up quotations. We have more important things to do.”) Some of us are skeptical of such explanations, and our suspicions are fed by bits of information (perhaps leaked by the Russians) about Peking's real attitude. Thus on March 12 the Moscow correspondent of the Spectator, having duly covered the meeting of the nineteen Communist parties, informed his readers that the conflict between the Russians and the Chinese had more to do with Clausewitz than with Hegel.
Mao, it is said, has conveyed to the Soviet leaders that, whatever they may say or do, there is absolutely no chance of China and Russia coming together. . . . He argues that a war between the imperialists and the socialist camp is inevitable within the next ten or fifteen years . . . unity will come about only when the danger of this war is imminent, not before. But now Mao claims that it will not be the nuclear holocaust which he forecast before his own atomic power: on the contrary, it will be a conventional war on a large scale, for which the Chinese are now preparing. He advises the Russians to follow his example. He has also made it clear to them that China does not want to get involved in the Vietnam conflict. According to him, some damage done to North Vietnam will not be all that tragic, and the Vietnamese can look after themselves.
Now the odd thing—and I only mention it as proof that scholarly expertise need not be wholly useless, however boring it may seem at times—is that this casual bit of information dovetails with what one is told by the experts. The latter have now come to the conclusion that Chinese strategy reckons with the probability of conventional warfare taking place under the nuclear “umbrella,” provided the latter is extended impartially to protect all concerned. China's own accession to nuclear status is seen as a means of equalizing the score, so that in future it will be possible to run considerable risks short of nuclear escalation. In this perspective a distinction is drawn between war (regarded as inevitable) and total war (which can perhaps be avoided). Where Peking differs from Moscow is in holding that the way to avoid total war is not by seeking agreement with the West, but by applying steady pressure upon it, and in particular by separating the U.S. from its allies. Such a policy involves risks which the Soviet regime in its present mood is unwilling to run. Whence the continuance of rude noises from Peking. This assessment has the backing of some distinguished “game theorists” who specialize in Sino-Sovietology. It can also be argued on common-sense grounds; above all, it is consistent with the facts of China's behavior. Why then does it get so little publicity?
The answer, it seems to me, has to do with the whole emotional complex about China which has grown up in the West during recent years. Because so much rubbish was talked about Chinese Communism, people who instinctively felt that the Chinese were entitled to their own kind of revolution have been reluctant to inquire into the nature of Chinese nationalism. Had they done so, they might have come up with conclusions distressing to their comfortable liberal prepossessions. Since the air was full of noise about “Red China,” it seemed better to stay silent, or to take the line that it was the West's fault if Chinese revolutionary nationalism had assumed this particular form. Only since the outbreak of the Sino-Soviet quarrel has it become morally respectable in liberal and socialist quarters to inquire whether there may not perhaps be something genuinely alarming about Peking's particular view of the world.
The difficulty here is that it is perfectly possible for the Chinese to combine tactical reasonableness and flexibility with a profoundly dangerous misunderstanding of world realities. So far as the day-to-day conduct of affairs is concerned, it is arguable that Peking has moved with considerable caution. Mao and his senior colleagues have evidently been concerned to dispel the notion—publicly voiced by personalities as different as Khrushchev, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and Mr. Joseph Alsop—that they don't care if the world blows up. They have also been at pains to minimize the significance of their own recent atomic test. It was M. Couve de Murville, not Chou Enlai, who described China as “the fifth nuclear power.” No such claims have been made in Peking. It has been left to foreign enthusiasts—from the Indonesian CP to the pro-Chinese group of Australian Communists and the “Thai liberation movement”—to hail the change in the international balance of power supposedly resulting from the first Chinese nuclear test last October. Mao Tse-tung, in talking to Edgar Snow, made no such assertion, and all the official comment in Peking is about the length of time it will take to get beyond the experimental stage.
This, however, does not preclude an assessment of the world situation which differs quite markedly from the Soviet view and has become highly embarrassing to the Russians. It can be summed up by saying that the Chinese believe it has now become marginally safer for them to aid “wars of national liberation” in Asia and elsewhere. As time goes on, they are likely to feel that even greater risks can be taken with a reasonable degree of immunity. In the interval they will clearly exercise as much tactical caution as is required to reassure the neutrals and to safeguard themselves from the danger of a preventive nuclear strike on the part of the United States. On the assumptions made in Peking about “American imperialism,” such a preventive strike must loom as a constant danger. Indeed Mao and his colleagues may be wondering why it has not already occurred.
It is this mental climate that differentiates the Chinese attitude from the Russian. The USSR and the USA are almost equally matched, as their “space rivalry” shows, and tend inevitably to think in terms of competing for first place. Such rivalry presupposes a tacit understanding that certain rules are to be observed. China is outside the game, and not disposed to observe any rules, except purely tactical ones. The basic assumptions behind the Chinese attitude are rooted in a revolutionary faith which has not yet run dry. It is as though Mao and his colleagues were saying to the Russians: “We had originally counted on you to lead the Communist bloc to victory over the common enemy, but if you refuse to take the risk, we will do it ourselves.” China alone—not the Sino-Soviet bloc as a whole—is to become the assembly-ground of all the revolutionary forces grouped against the “imperialist camp.” In this context, it is immaterial whether the Chinese are serious about abjuring nuclear blackmail. Perhaps no major power can be trusted not to use such means of pressure, but that is another matter. What counts is the conviction that a future nuclear stalemate will favor limited “wars of liberation.” Quite evidently it is this belief that animates China's long-term strategy.
Now it is not possible to pretend that this can be a matter of indifference to the rest of the world as long as certain rules of the nuclear game are respected. In the first place, they won't be: there are already signs of both India and Pakistan entering the race, and thereafter all talk of “non-dissemination” will become a joke. Secondly, even if nuclear arms are merely held in reserve, Peking's willingness to risk “conventional” war for the sake of spreading its highly idiosyncratic version of Communism (better described perhaps as Chinese National Socialism) is ominous. Whoever takes the trouble to study Chinese utterances must be impressed by the extent to which the leaders continue to harp on the lessons of their own civil war. It is not too much to say that they see their conflict with the USA as an extension of their lengthy struggle against Chiang Kai-shek.
This radical inability to see the world as it really is can go quite comfortably with considerable sophistication in the handling of diplomatic contacts, or in the manipulation of technical and scientific resources. Thus Peking has been able to extend its influence within the Communist camp at the expense of the Soviet Union: a considerable achievement, given the disproportion in material means and the initial prestige of the USSR as the fountainhead of doctrine. China has also made gains among the uncommitted countries in Africa and Asia. But all these successes have been at the level of intra-Communist political warfare; they have not affected the fundamental balance of power. Mao's tactics quite simply do not work when applied to fields other than that of inter-bloc political and propagandist rivalry. He is able to embarrass the Russians qua Communists, but not to change the orientation of Russia as a world power. To do so he would have to provoke a major conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States.
This is why Vietnam matters as a test-case of international power politics in the nuclear age. The unfortunate inhabitants of that country, north and south, are paying the price of a political chess game conducted over their heads by the strategists in Washington, Moscow, and Peking. For it would be naïve to think that the Chinese have no ax to grind and are merely trying to help the revolution forward. From Peking's standpoint, the war in Southeast Asia is a means of preventing or postponing that over-all settlement between the USA and the USSR which is Mao's chief nightmare. Every new “escalation” reinforces the waning influence of China's friends in Moscow, constrains the Russians to observe “Communist solidarity,” and at the same time undermines their influence in Asia, since whatever they do, they can always be accused of not doing enough. Hence Peking's indifference to all talk of a round-table conference in Geneva. It is not that the Chinese are in principle opposed to negotiation, but they want to be taken seriously and confront the USA directly on an equal footing, and on the whole agenda: Formosa included. Which is as much as to say that they regard themselves as the dominant power in Asia. Meanwhile the longer the war in Vietnam. goes on, the better it suits them.