A 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Manchurian War
by Chris Oakley
(based on the "Venceremos!" series by the same author)
Summary: In the first six chapters of this series we recalled the runup to the Manchurian War, the early years of the war itself, the war’s effects on American interests in the Far East, the Chinese refugee crisis brought about by the war, and the cease-fire agreement that finally ended hostilities between China and the Soviet Union. In the latest installment of the series we’ll sketch a brief overview of the Soviet Union’s final collapse and the end of the Cold War.
Olive Branches: 1971-1979
News of the forthcoming Sino-American talks was greeted cautiously in many quarters on both sides of the Pacific. Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong were, after, diehard ideologues better known for confronting their adversaries than making peace with them. More to the point, hopes of restoring normal official ties between China and the United States had been held out before only to be dashed at the last minute. But with Beijing needing help to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the Manchurian War and Washington concerned about safeguarding its interests in the Far East, both governments deemed it a vital priority to find and map out common ground as quickly as possible.
The Mao-Nixon summit in April of 1972 went a long way towards that end. Though at least seven years and two additional presidential administrations would pass before the goal of normal diplomatic ties between the US and the PRC was finally realized, Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing was invaluable in breaking the ice that had formed over US-Chinese relations in the years after the Communist takeover in 1949.
While these highly publicized overtures were going on, less well- known but equally important talks were in progress between Havana and Moscow. Despite their stern opposition to Communism, Cuban president Reynaldo Ochoa and his successor Francisco Marta were at heart realists in many respects, and they knew that there was still a sufficient reservoir of goodwill towards Russia among their fellow countrymen to make a permanent estrangement from the Kremlin very difficult if not impossible to maintain. Marta in particular thought that with the diplomatic contacts his government had cultivated on both sides of the Iron Curtain he might be able to nudge the United States and the Soviet Union towards more consistent co-operation on questions of nuclear arms control.
So it was that three weeks after President Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to Beijing, a year of careful behind-the-scenes bilateral talks between Cuba and the USSR bore fruit as the Soviets reopened their embassy in Havana; the new Cuban embassy in Moscow would be christened a few days later.
Mao had staked a great deal on the success of his summit with President Nixon, and not just because of his concerns about the Soviets-- the great Marxist revolutionary was in declining health, and he sought to achieve one last political triumph before he passed on. Furthermore, the internal and external pressures on the CPC brought about by the Manchurian War and its aftermath had significantly eroded the unity in its ranks; this was particularly true of Mao’s own cabinet, where in the aftermath of General Lin Bao’s death a fierce if secret clash had begun for the honor of succeeding the founder of the People’s Republic as its head of state. The CPC general secretary hoped that by removing the threat of a Sino-American conflict, he might inspire a renewal of faith in his leadership that would in turn spark a revival of solidarity among his party comrades.
For a short while, he succeeded. But as his health slipped further into irreversible decline that solidarity would erode once more; by the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the CPC elite was engaged in an internal civil war between hardliners led by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing and reformists who supported CPC senior deputy Hua Geofeng. The reformists won the day, and within a year after Mao had been laid to rest economic and political reforms were being cautiously instituted in China as Hua met with new US president Jimmy Carter to lay the groundwork for the final steps in the process of starting formal diplomatic relations between China and the United States.
By New Year’s Day 1979, the Chinese embassy in Washington was fully operational and a team of American diplomats were putting the finishing touches on a new US embassy in Beijing. For both China and the United States the partnership had come just in time; having triumphed in the Manchurian War and made good its material losses in that conflict, the Soviet Union was reasserting its military power with an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Dying Echoes: 1979-1989
Afghanistan represented the Red Army’s first major post-Manchurian War campaign. Shortly after hostilities between the Soviet Union and China ended, the Afghan monarchy had been overthrown in favor of a pro-Moscow Communist government; unfortunately for the Kremlin, the head of that government, Hafizullah Amin, proved himself to be unable to function as a solid ally to the Soviet cause.
On February 2nd, 1979, the ninth anniversary of the signing of the Sino - Soviet peace accords, Red Army special forces infiltrated Kabul to kill Amin and arrest key members of his cabinet. Babrak Karmal, Amin’s chief rival and a staunch supporter of Moscow, formed a new government and invited the Soviets to send additional troops to his country ostensibly to keep the peace. In reality, however, these troops were intended to preserve Karmal’s hold on power and check any possible countermoves by Afghanistan’s US-backed neighbor and antagonist, Pakistan.
The occupation forces in Afghanistan, many of whose officers had seen action in the Manchurian War, had high hopes for a quick victory over any would-be rebels holding out in the country’s mountains and caves. Those hopes would be dashed within a year; the Afghani insurgents, or mujaheddin,1 made excellent use of their homeland’s harsh terrain to frustrate Soviet efforts to trap them or hunt them down. They also became experts at the fine art of setting up ambushes of Soviet military convoys, forcing Moscow to dispatch additional troops to Afghanistan in what would turn out to be a futile effort to quell the anti-Communist rebellion.
Oddly enough, the mujaheddin would find their strongest ally in the nation Khomeini had once called "the Great Satan"; shortly after he was sworn in as President Ronald Reagan initiated a covert program in which the US government provided the insurgents with financial and weapons support. Utilizing this support, the insurgents dealt a series of small but painful blows to the occupiers, and by 1984, five years after the first troops had rolled into Kabul, the Soviets had lost 60,000 men in combat with no appreciable gains in their struggle with the insurgency.
But still worse setbacks lay ahead. The pro-Moscow government of North Vietnam, eager to avenge their perceived embarrassment by South Vietnam in the 1978 border rocket crisis, had been quietly massing troops and armor along the DMZ for a major land campaign against the South, and in September of 1984 they launched their attack. At first all the breaks seemed to be rolling in favor of the NVA, who advanced thirty miles into South Vietnamese territory in the first 24 hours of the invasion and within three days were within shelling distance of the port of Chu Lai. But just when it seemed as if Hanoi was finally about to realize its long-cherished goal of toppling the Saigon government, disaster struck.
The Reagan Administration, rightly viewing this attack as a violation of the 1972 cease-fire agreement under which the United States had ended its involvement in the Vietnam War, moved almost immediately to act in South Vietnam’s defense; though stopping short of direct US intervention in the fighting, the White House did almost everything else in its power to slow up the invaders-- including sanction covert CIA operations aimed at destabilizing Chuong Trinh’s regime.
Within three months after the fourth and final Indochina war broke out, it had degenerated into a kind of grim stalemate-- the ARVN forces were unable to dislodge the invaders from their soil, but conversely by the same token the NVA couldn’t find the weak spot in their foe’s defenses that would permit them to take Saigon. Faced with this situation, both Hanoi and Saigon were faced with a bitter dilemma-- to keep fighting and subject their homelands to yet another decade of bloody combat for at best vague purposes, or to swallow their pride and open cease-fire talks in which they might lose a great deal at the bargaining table?
They chose negotiation-- in February of 1985, shortly before Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union, the Saigon government let it be known through back channels that it was ready at long last to abandon or at least soften its opposition to reunification with North Vietnam. Given that previous regimes had clung to that opposition with a death grip, this was a considerable concession indeed on South Vietnam’s part; in return Hanoi made one of its own by agreeing to let non-Communist political parties have an active role in the future government of a unified Vietnam. Two weeks later, cease-fire negotiations commenced in Tokyo.
It would take more than three and a half years before a formal peace and reunification pact was finally concluded; there were decades of mutual distrust to be overcome, and memories of the previous three Indochinese wars-- and the 1978 border rocket crisis --were still fresh in the minds of many on both sides of the conference table. Furthermore, Hanoi and Saigon found their respective superpower allies, who normally could have nudged the talks along with some discreet diplomatic pressure, occupied with other concerns. The Soviets were distracted by the Afghan War and the effort to preserve what was left of their military and diplomatic cachet in eastern Europe; the Americans found themselves facing for the first time what would come to be their top national security concern of the early 21st century, terrorism sponsored and perpetrated by extremist factions in the Middle East.
On March 10th, 1986 fate pulled the rug out from under the Soviet Union once and for all when the number 2 reactor at Kiev’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. This catastrophe, and the Kremlin’s clumsy efforts to conceal its true magnitude, were the match that lit the fuse for the eventual disintegration of the USSR; Kiev was the ancient capital of the Ukraine, and its citizens’ outrage over Moscow’s deception in the face of a disaster that potentially could have killed them all would later be credited with starting the new Ukranian independence movement(nicknamed "the Orange Revolution" because of the orange-and-white flags frequently displayed at its supporters’ rallies).
Just over a year later, the Kremlin made its fatal mistake-- sending the Red Army in to try and squash the fledgling non-Communist government which had declared the Ukraine’s independence from Russia. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull; those who already supported the pro-independence movement became that much more determined to see their cause win the day, while many who had been wavering in their decision about what to do flocked to the Orange Revolution’s banner in the weeks and months after the invasion.
Like dominoes, the Communist Party oligarchies of other Soviet republics gradually toppled over. Moldavia seceded and formed a mutual alliance with Romania; the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania broke away from the Kremlin’s orbit; pro-democracy groups overthrew the CPSU- controlled regime in Belarus; Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikstan, and Turkmenistan experienced an Islamic revival; and Kazakhstan began talks with China and the United States aimed at concluding a friendship pact with both countries.
While Moscow was trying to pick up the pieces of its shattered hold over the Ukraine, its oldest and most reliable Cold War ally, East Germany, had been quietly negotiating a possible reunification with West Germany. These talks bore fruit on May 3rd, 1988, when the East and West German foreign ministries issued a joint statement announcing that the two states had signed a formal reunification agreement which would take effect as of April 30th, 1989. If there had still been any doubts that the Warsaw Pact was about to concede defeat in the Cold War, the news of the reunification accord squashed those doubts.
One month later, the Soviet Union’s futile nine-year-old fight to impose Marxism on Afghanistan finally came to an end as Soviet troops began evacuating the country under the terms of a cease-fire treaty with the Afghan rebels. To the hard-liners in what was left of the Soviet government, Gorbachev’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan was tantamount to treason, and they made up their minds to get rid of him by any means they could. This, they felt, was the Soviet Union’s only hope of surviving into the next decade and regaining its former glory.
The result of their plotting was a coup attempt three months later that, ironically, had the opposite effect of what they intended it to do: it provoked a storm of popular outrage that killed the last vestiges of support for Communist rule in Russia. Thousands of demonstrators tired of Marxist repression and eager to embrace a new political era ringed the Kremlin in a "human shield" that blocked the hard-liners’ attempts to enter the building; security forces loyal to Gorbachev then arrested the would-be rebels.
On January 3rd, 1989, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. This was a moot gesture, considering that 14 of the 15 republics which had formally comprised it had long since broken ranks with Moscow; however, it signaled unconditionally that the West had its four-decade-long struggle with Marxism. Now it was time for a post-Communist Russia to begin taking shape.
In the meantime, North and South Vietnamese diplomats would be busy writing a postscript to the Cold War...
To Be Continued
1 Arabic for "holy warriors"; most of the anti-Soviet guerrillas were Muslim.