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Bear’s Teeth, Dragon’s Claws:

A 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Manchurian War


by Chris Oakley


(based on the "Venceremos!" series by the same author)


Part 8



Summary: In the first seven chapters of this series we recalled the prelude 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; the cease-fire pact that finally ended hostilities between China and the Soviet Union; and the collapse of the USSR at the end of the Cold War. In this installment we’ll look back on the reunification of Vietnam and explore how post-Communist Russia struggled to find a new identity.




Binding the Wounds: January 1989-April 1990

By the time North and South Vietnamese negotiators met in mid- January of 1989 to begin resolving the final terms for Vietnam’s reunification, most of the critical issues had long since been settled. There was still one matter, though, that remained a bone of contention between the two sides: where the newly reunified country’s capital would be located. The North Vietnamese delegation in Geneva was insistent that it should be Hanoi, while the South Vietnamese negotiators were lobbying heavily for either Saigon or Can Tho to be accorded this honor.

This dispute delayed the final signing of the reunification accords at least six weeks, and it might have derailed the talks altogether had a junior member of the South Vietnamese delegation not thought of a deceptively simple compromise solution. He proposed basing the capital in Hue, a city of great historical significance to all Vietnamese; in ancient times it had been the center of the Indochinese empire, and in more recent days it had been of high strategic importance to the rebel forces seeking to win Vietnam’s independence from the French.

It was an arrangement that suited all parties concerned, and the junior delegate’s proposal was unanimously approved two days later. On March 10th, 1989 the final draft of the Vietnamese Reunification Pact was signed in Geneva; it was quickly ratified by the North Vietnamese Communist Party’s central committee, and by the end of April it had passed by a solid majority in both houses of the South Vietnamese parliament. The target date set for Vietnam’s formal reunification was April 25, 1990, nearly a year to the date after the upper house of the South Vietnamese parliament had completed the ratification process.

The first step in the reunification process was abolishing the DMZ. From the beginning it had been accepted as a given on both sides that barriers to reunification could not be removed from the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people until they were removed from the Vietnamese landscape. So it was that in early May of 1989 ARVN and NVA engineers began the long, exhausting task of dismantling the frontier defenses on the 17th parallel. The television images of these former adversaries working side by side towards a common goal did a great deal to grease the wheels for public acceptance of the reunification, making it easier to proceed with the next phase of the process, which came in July of 1989 with the adoption of the piaster as the official currency of the newly unified Vietnam.

Three months later the soon-to-be-reunited country’s new flag was unveiled for the first time at an Asian trade summit in New Delhi. Underscoring the theme of unification, the new red, white, and gold banner merged the three-stripe design of South Vietnam’s flag with the single star of its North Vietnamese counterpart. A blue-and-white maritime variation of this banner was adopted two weeks later as the standard ensign for Vietnamese merchant ships and naval vessels.

By early February, 1990, ARVN and the NVA had merged to form what was designated as the Vietnamese National Defense Corps. The new VNDC was organized into five different branches, one of which was a coastal and river patrol militia set up along the lines of the US Coast Guard; in the post-Cold War era, as drug smuggling and terrorism became the main problems facing the international law enforcement community, this militia would gradually expand into a branch on a par with the country’s army, navy, and air force.

Less than two months later, Vietnam held its first national elections as a unified state since the French pullout in 1954. Nguyen Tranh Quoc, a charismatic Pleiku lawmaker and former newspaper editor, became the new prime minister; in his victory speech he pledged to usher in what he called "the era of national reconciliation" and improve Vietnam’s economic status. Fittingly, the first foreign head of state Quoc received as prime minister of Vietnam was German chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose own country had reunified a year earlier.


Where Do We Go From Here?: April 1990-June 1993


Post-Communist Russia was essentially a story in search of a writer in the early 1990s. After more than seven decades of one- party totalitarianism, and centuries of a largely autocratic monarchy before that, the Russian people were for the first time in control of that political destiny. No one, however, was quite sure what that destiny should be; under those circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Russia’s national focus would turn inward and foreign policy would take a back seat to domestic concerns under its first democratically elected premier, Boris Yeltsin.

Not that foreign policy issues were entirely ignored; indeed, one of Yeltsin’s first official acts as premier was to host a summit in May of 1990 with China’s Deng Xiaoping. For the most part, however, Moscow’s attention in the early years of the post- Cold War era tended to focus on domestic matters like alleviating Russia’s chronic food shortages, strengthening the ruble, and combating the organized crime syndicates that sprang up seemingly overnight in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

There was also an unfortunate revival of long-dormant ethnic and cultural tensions both within and between the republics that had once comprised the USSR. One of the most serious of these was in Chechnya, a Caucasian province that had been seeking independence from Russia since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1989; Moscow, concerned that granting the mainly Islamic enclave independence ran the risk of creating a terrorist sanctuary within the Russian interior, did a great deal to try and discourage these yearnings.

However, this actually ended up making such yearnings that much greater-- in the late fall of 1990 pro-independence factions in Chechnya began holding massive rallies in the provincial capital, Groznyy. The movement had its sympathizers in the rest of Russia as well, even in Moscow; just before Christmas Day a few hundred university students braved the cold(and the disapproving gaze of some of their elders) to demonstrate on behalf of independence for the Chechens.

In late January of 1991, as the Gulf War was heating up, Yeltsin opened discussions with the Chechen pro-independence leadership in hopes of working out some sort of compromise arrangement that might satisfy some of the Chechens’ desire for autonomy while still keeping the region politically tied to Russia. These talks, despite going on for over a year, accomplished next to nothing and it soon became clear to both sides that an armed uprising was not far off.

Further signs that the Chechen-Russian tension would escalate into open civil war came in the summer of 1992 when gangs of Chechen youths began attacking Russian police officers in Groznyy and other cities in reaction to the arrest of several prominent pro-independence activists. The police, in turn, became less and less hesitant about using deadly force-- a dangerous sign for a nation trying to build a democracy after generations of tyranny, because it invoked grim memories of the Czarist pogroms and the KGB’s murder of dissidents.

But the spark that finally lit the fuse for the outbreak of civil war in Chechnya came in May of 1993 when a town mayor thought to be too pro-Moscow in his views was assassinated by mystery gunmen outside his office. An anonymous message faxed by a Chechen militant group to a Moscow newspaper two hours later claimed credit for the assassination-- and compelled Yeltsin to do the one thing he’d been trying to avoid doing from the time the Chechen crisis had begun: authorize military intervention by Russian forces.

On June 5th, 1993 Russian soldiers placed Groznyy under martial law. Within 24 hours of their arrival, their headquarters had come under fire from Chechen rebel rocket launchers and grenades.

Chechnya’s first civil war had begun...


To Be Continued


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