The Florida Keys War
by Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous four segments of this series we dealtwith the circumstances that led to the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and the effort to establish a stable post-Castro government for Cuba in the war’s aftermath. In this chapter we’ll look at how the war influenced President Johnson’s Vietnam policy and affected the Soviet Union’s course of action in settling its long-running ideological and territorial feuds with China.
Goodbye My Darling, Hello Vietnam: November 1964-March 1966
On November 21st, 1964 the US Congress authorized President Johnson to begin deploying combat troops to South Vietnam. The initial contingent was to consist of 200,000 Army and Marine Corps soldiers; Johnson’s goal was to have 500,000 men in-country by February of 1965. To critics who charged that this was an excessive number of troops to commit to a brushfire war against a seemingly low-grade insurgency, Johnson countered that overwhelming force was necessary if America were to win its fight against the Viet Cong. Overwhelming force, he said, had been the key to victory against the Cuban Communists in the Florida Keys War and would likewise make the difference in defeating the Viet Cong’s efforts to topple the pro-Western government in Saigon.
But the VC would prove to be a tougher nut to crack than theCastro regime— unlike the Cuban Communists, they had neutral Cambodia and Laos as sanctuaries through which to move their supplies and men. They also had a leader, North Vietnamese Communist ruler Ho Chi Minh, whose gift of oratory and long background of successful guerrilla warfare against another Western power— France –could inspire them to continue their fight even against seemingly impossible odds. On top of this, their ingenuity led them to devise homemade weapons and an extensive tunnel network with which the more high tech-oriented Americans had serious trouble coping.
Last but not least, they had the backing of Communist China — a country that since the end of the Florida Keys War had been moving swiftly and steadily to supplant Russia as the primary Marxist influence in the Third World. The loss of prestige Moscow had suffered as a result of its miscalculations in the Turkish crisis had created a leadership vacuum in the socialist bloc Mao Zedong’s regime was only too happy to fill. While the USSR might still hold sway over eastern Europe, Communist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America now took their cues from Bejing.
And it wasn’t just spiritual and political support the Chinese gave Hanoi; about the same time that Washington was deploying its first combat troops to defend the Saigon government, Beijing was dispatching weapons to North Vietnam to bolster the NVA1 and VCarsenals. The Mao regime also stationed two full divisions of the People’s Liberation Army along the China-North Vietnam buffer to act as a kind of rapid reaction force should Hanoi find itself in danger of invasion by the Americans or the South Vietnamese.
Inevitably, Johnson ordered B-52 strikes against North Vietnam, and these strikes prompted concerns on both sides of the Pacific that the guerrilla conflict being fought in Indochina might soon escalate into a wider regional war between China and the United States. By the time Johnson started his official four-year term as President on January 20th, 1965 the US Air Force had dropped more bombs on the port of Haiphong in a single week than it had on Berlin in the entire final two months of the Second World War.
The fighting in Vietnam wasn’t the only Asian crisis confronting Johnson as his new term began; relations between the Soviet Union and China, which had been steadily deteriorating since the late 1950s, were mutating into open hostility as an age-old ownership dispute over the Ussuri River territories along the Russo-Chinese border flared up anew under the pressure of Beijing’s campaign to replace Moscow as the standard-bearer for the Marxist world.
In mid-February of 1965 Johnson convened a special session of the National Security Council at the White House to discuss the question of whether the Ussuri quarrel could affect American interests in Southeast Asia. Then-Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle K. Wheeler told the President bluntly that if the Soviets and the Chinese were to go to war over the Ussuri border region, it could all too easily escalate into full-scale nuclear conflict into which the United States would inevitably be drawn. The next day, Johnson sent Secretary of State Dean Rusk to UN headquarters in New York to meet with UN Secretary General U Thant in hopes Thant could arrange a diplomatic resolution to the border disagreement.
But Rusk was in for a rude awakening when he was admitted into Thant’s office: the UN secretary general told him that Sweden had already made mediation offers to Moscow and Beijing only to be flatly rejected by both capitals. Furthermore, Chinese foreign minister Chou En-Lai had warned in a speech before the CPC2 that any intervention by outside parties would be opposed by what he described as "bayonets of fire"3.
This did not sit well with Johnson; he understood perfectly that a Sino-Soviet regional conflict, even if it didn’t go nuclear, had the potential to hurt US allies in the Far East— especially Japan, which had the misfortune to be sitting within range of both Soviet and Chinese bombers and whose already-scarce material resources would be further strained by the flood of refugees that a Sino-Soviet war would inevitably bring about.
Throughout all of the spring and most of the summer of 1965, the Johnson Administration continued to play a tricky balancing act, seeking to effect a peaceful resolution to the Sino-Soviet border crisis while at the same time maintaining pressure on the Viet Cong to end its guerrilla war against South Vietnam. As part of the administration’s full court press to head off armed conflict along the Sino-Soviet border, then-US ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg proposed three separate resolutions calling for China and the Soviet Union to accept a diplomatically mediated solution to their territorial standoff.
With most of the world’s attention focused on the fighting in Vietnam and the mounting friction along the Chinese-Soviet border, few if any observers noticed that a quiet rebellion was building in the Kremlin’s own backyard. Moscow’s failure to aid the Castro regime during the Florida Keys War had caused millions of eastern Europeans to rethink their countries’ ties to the Soviet Union; though publicly men like East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht, Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Novotny, and Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov continued to proclaim the Warsaw Pact’s unshakable solidarity, behind closed doors many had come to wonder if that solidarity might be more trouble than it was worth.
The first public expression of this discontent came in August of 1965, when workers at the Bratislava factory of the Czech auto manufacturer Skoda went on strike to demand higher wages and a liberalization of the Prague government’s policies on political dissent. On both sides of the Iron Curtain the Skoda workers’ walkout was greeted with outright shock; not since the ill-fated June 1953 Workers’ Uprising in East Germany had a Warsaw Pact government’s authority been so openly defied.
Novotny demanded that the strikers return to work immediately and was sharply rebuffed; two days after the strike began, the leader of the walkout personally gave the Czech Communist Party general secretary a three-page typewritten manifesto declaring that the walkout would end only when their demands were met. Adding insult to injury, a group of amateur performers led by young playwright Vaclav Havel began staging satirical plays in Prague that mocked Novotny’s regime and openly backed the strikers.
Within a week after the walkout began, martial law had been imposed in Prague and Bratislava— but if Novotny had hoped to crush the uprising with this act, it backfired in the most ironic way possible. Czechoslovakia was soon riddled with a wave of sympathy strikes; even some members of the country’s armed forces and secret police mutinied against their officers as Czech citizens vented nearly two decades of frustration with the harshness of Communist rule. Riots became an almost daily occurrence in many Czech cities; Western embassies in Prague were swamped with asylum requests.
Two weeks into the Skoda strike, it finally became clear to the Prague government that the walkout’s leaders had meant every word they said. Novotny’s regime was now faced with an unpleasant choice: either concede the strikers’ demands and risk undermining socialism in Czechoslovakia, or smash the walkout by force and risk starting a civil war. Both of these actions carried the additional risk of Soviet intervention in Czech internal affairs.
By early September the situation had become intolerable, and the members of Czech national assembly had concluded that it would continue to deteriorate as long as Novotny were still in charge. On September 6th Novotny was removed from office and replaced as head of state by Slovak parliamentarian Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek’s first official act as new Czech Communist Party general secretary was to begin negotiations with the Skoda strikers; after three days of exhaustive (and sometimes heated) discussion, the two sides finally reached a compromise and the walkout ended without further incident.
But a seed had been planted in the minds of the subject peoples of eastern Europe. Where armed revolt had failed to crack Soviet tyranny in the region in the 1950’s, a peaceful rebellion was starting to achieve that goal less than a decade later. Brezhnev was rightly worried about the long-term implications of the Skoda strike; what had happened in one socialist country could happen in others— including his own. Sure enough, barely three months after the Skoda strike ended Polish shipyard laborers in Gdansk staged a similar protest urging greater economic and political freedom for Poland.
Unlike the Skoda walkout the Gdansk strike was swiftly quelled. Like the Skoda strike, however, the Gdansk protest gave notice that the day was coming— albeit slowly –when one-party rule would end in most if not all of the nations of the Soviet bloc. Indeed, within the Soviet Union itself long-dormant voices of opposition were beginning to re-awaken and call for lasting reform of Soviet political, economic, and social policies.
New Year’s Day 1966 saw little celebration either in the White House or the Kremlin. Despite President Johnson’s best efforts to maintain the upper hand in Vietnam, the Viet Cong were still giving American troops a hard time and regular North Vietnamese forces were beginning to make their presence felt as well. As for CPSU General Secretary Brezhnev, he was confronted with a possibility no Soviet leader had even contemplated since the 1918-21 civil war— the genuine if still distant prospect that Communism might collapse within his lifetime.
The Sino-Soviet border situation took a decided turn for the worse during the second week of February when a Soviet fighter jet collided with a Chinese spy plane over Damansky Island, one of the most fundamental points of contention in the dispute. The Soviet aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing at an airfield in Siberia; the Chinese plane crashed, killing its two-man crew.
Mao Zedong and his chief military advisor, General Lin Bao, wereenraged by the incident and demanded an immediate apology from Moscow. Leonid Brezhnev coldly dismissed their demands with the assertion that the Chinese pilots had brought it on themselves by violating Soviet airspace. When word of the incident reached the White House, President Johnson ordered all US military personnel in Japan and South Korea placed on DefCon 3 as Washington braced itself for further trouble in Asia.
Fearing that the United States and its allies in the Far East might be caught off-guard if war did break out between China and the Soviet Union, Secretary of State Rusk arranged an eight-nation summit in Los Angeles for the purpose of hammering out a common strategy for containing Sino-Soviet armed conflict before it could spread to their own borders.
Unfortunately, this summit coincided with another confrontation between Soviet and Chinese military personnel. On February 26th, the second day of the eight-nation conference, Chinese border guards opened fire on Soviet troops who were conducting a regular patrol along the shores of Damansky Island; the Soviet soldiers immediately shot back, resulting in a firefight that left eight Chinese and eleven Soviets dead.
Within hours after the first reports of the skirmish went out over the UPI wire, any hope of a peaceful resolution to the Sino-Soviet border dispute was effectively dead. Both China and the Soviet Union put their respective armed forces on full alert, a move which prompted Japan’s Diet to convene in special session for a debate on whether to suspend Article 94 of the country’s 1947 constitution. In Washington, President Johnson ordered all US military assets in Japan and South Korea placed on DefCon 2; British prime minister Harold Wilson directed the Royal Navy to begin evacuating civilians as quickly as possible from Hong Kong.
On March 2nd, 1966 four PLA infantry divisions and three armored divisions seized the Siberian town of Khabarvosk; simultaneously, Chinese commando teams in the Pacific port of Vladivostok set off limpet mines in the city’s harbor, sinking eight Soviet warships at anchor. The Soviets retaliated with bombing raids against Beijing and Port Arthur-Dairen; by 1:23 PM Moscow time that afternoon Leonid Brezhnev had formally declared that a state of war now existed between the Soviet Union and China.
The Manchurian War: 1966-1970
As bloody as the Vietnam War may have been, the carnage of the Manchurian War was far worse. Fought between two rival world powers who had little if any respect for the Geneva Convention, it not only witnessed very bloody conventional battles but also saw the first major use of chemical weapons in combat since World War I. Speechwriter and political commentator William Safire may have put it best when he wryly described the conflict as "World War I battles fought with World War III technology"5.
Indeed, millions around the world feared that the Manchurian War might well escalate into World War III before too long; as Soviet and Chinese forces clashed in Mongolia and PLA troops struggled to contain a massive Soviet thrust aimed at retaking Khabarovsk, Beijing and Moscow threatened to incinerate each other’s cities with nuclear weapons. Moscow, however, was in considerably better position to make good on its nuclear threats than Beijing; it held a particularly strong edge over the Chinese in the field of missile technology. Whereas China had almost no IRBM inventory whatsoever, the Soviet Union boasted an IRBM arsenal second only to that of the United States.
The Kremlin first started to flex its nuclear muscles on May Day 1966, when they deployed more than a hundred medium-range SS-4s along the Chinese-Soviet border. Two weeks later, Soviet missile submarines began taking up patrol stations in the Yellow Sea, their commanders authorized to fire at will on Chinese targets in the event communications with Moscow were disrupted.
North Korean ruler Kim Il-Sung, one of the few heads of state to main diplomatic ties with both the Soviets and the Chinese, sent letters to Brezhnev and Mao in late September of 1966 urging them to end the fighting at once and agree to mediation of their border dispute; by then the total combined number of casualties in the Manchurian War had already surpassed 200,000 and Western military analysts were estimating that it would reach 500,000 by the spring of 1967. Kim’s letter declared that such internecine bloodletting could only hurt the Marxist cause: "No matter who wins this war," he said, "all socialism will lose." That a man as belligerent as Kim could have qualms about the Manchurian War is a clear illustration of how seriously he took the danger that the war posed to his own country.
However, his surprising plea for peace fell on deaf ears. Neither Moscow nor Beijing was particularly interested at this point in any kind of negotiation over the contested territories; in fact, at the time Brezhnev received it the Soviets were openly planning to annex Manchuria as part of what they called "reparations" for China’s aggression.
Chemical weapons first came into play in the Manchurian War in March of 1967, when Chinese fighter jets dropped mustard gas bombs on Soviet troop positions east of Khabarovsk. The Red Army, having expected something like this would occur sooner or later, had taken every possible precaution to safeguard their soldiers against such attacks, and as a result the men at the Khabarovsk front survived with only minimal casualties.
The citizens of Shanghai had no such luck a week later when the the Soviets retaliated by firing missiles armed with nerve gas warheads at their ancient city; 50,000 people were killed and at least 100,000 more were left homeless, further exacerbating the already horrendous toll the war was taking on China’s civilian population.
In a frantic attempt to keep his borders from being overwhelmed by swarms of refugees, Kim Il Sung closed North Korea’s borders to all Chinese nationals and ordered his border guards to fire without warning or hesitation on any Chinese civilians who tried to cross the border without a passport. Thousands of refugees came anyway, deciding that if they had to choose between a quick death from North Korean bullets or a slow death from Soviet nerve gas, quick death was better.
Warned by his foreign policy advisors that his blanket refusal to let the refugees in was hurting North Korea’s standing in the socialist bloc, Kim finally relented and allowed those Chinese civilians already in the country to stay as full citizens; all future asylum seekers would be handled on a case-by-case basis, with the terminally ill and those known or suspected to have what were called "anti-social tendencies" automatically refused entry.
His neighbors to the south, though further from the battlefront than he was, were just as much affected by the war; South Korea’s economy had taken a beating due to the fact that the Sino-Soviet conflict had disrupted many of the international trade routes on which it depended. Furthermore, some of the Chinese refugees previously refused entry into North Korea had illegally emigrated to the south by boat, and their numbers were putting a massive strain on the foundations of South Korean society.
Even the United States wasn’t immune to the consequences of the Sino-Soviet war. President Johnson’s "Great Society" program, his ambitious plan for tackling domestic problems like poverty and racism, was being endangered by the growing need to channel funds into the US defense budget as both the Vietnam and Manchurian conflicts continued to drag on. Asian-Americans held mass rallies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu protesting what they saw as the White House’s reluctance to take more decisive action in halting a conflict that had the potential to ravage or even destroy their ancestors’ homelands.
In July of 1967 the Soviets finally recaptured Khabarovsk from the Chinese and mounted an aggressive three-pronged assault on Chinese occupation troops in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. The fight for Ulan Bator was so brutal and drawn out that by the time the last pockets of Chinese resistance were finally snuffed out nearly a month later, there was literally almost nothing left of the city.
In September, China’s rainy season forced both the Chinese and the Soviets to temporarily halt all combat operations on the Manchurian front; once those rains let up, however, the fighting resumed with a vengeance. By Christmas Day Soviet tanks were shelling Chinese positions in the Manchurian provincial capital of Harbin.
In desperation, Mao Zedong drafted young people from the Chinese Communist Party’s paramilitary wing, the Red Guard, to form what were euphemistically designated "special action detachments" to wage guerrilla war against the Soviets. In reality these units were essentially suicide squads whose function was to sacrifice themselves in mass assaults on the Red Army and thus buy time for the PLA to strike en masse at the weakest points along the Soviet front lines.
In the short term, this gambit proved remarkably successful; the Soviet offensive in Manchuria was halted about ten miles north of the industrial city of Shenyang and the PLA began to regain some of the ground it had lost on the Manchurian front; in Mongolia, a cadre of pro-Chinese Mongolian rebels inspired by the example of the "special action detachments" began an uprising against Soviet occupation forces in the Hyargas Lake region, compelling the Red Army to transfer some of its reserves from the Manchurian front to quash the revolt.
In the long run, though, these suicide squads had the paradoxical effect of stiffening Soviet resolve to defeat the Chinese. For Brezhnev, the straw that broke the camel’s back vis-à-vis Mao’s "special action detachments" came in early January of 1968, when one such group slaughtered a Naval Infantry6 rifle battalion as they were finishing their breakfast; when word reached Moscow of the massacre, an infuriated Brezhnev ordered five Red Army tank divisions transferred from Warsaw Pact duty in East Germany to the Manchurian battlefront to begin an immediate mass assault on Chinese positions around Shenyang.
1968 marked a crucial turning point in both the Manchurian and Vietnam conflicts. At about the same time the Soviets and the Chinese were struggling for control of the Shenyang region, the Viet Cong launched a tactical assault on American and ARVN bases near Quang Tri and Da Nang; timed to coincide with the start of the cease-fire traditionally observed by both sides during the Vietnamese lunar New Year holiday, the attacks became known in the American press as "the Tet offensive" and provoked an angry reaction from President Johnson. In a televised address from the White House just hours after the Quang Tri attack began, Johnson thundered: "The enemy has very deceitfully taken advantage of the Tet ceasefire to launch a major new offensive against us and our South Vietnamese allies…this cannot and will not stand.7"
It wasn’t quite as major as Johnson thought; indeed, the scope of the attacks was rather modest compared to what the VC had hoped to pull off. Their original campaign plan for the Tet offensive called for large-scale assaults on every major military target in South Vietnam, including a strike by suicide squads on the United States embassy in Saigon. But with the Viet Cong’s two principal foreign allies at war with each other, they had been obliged to sharply rethink their strategy.
In Hanoi, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh vetoed a proposal for the NVA to cross the DMZ and occupy the historic city of Hue on the Perfume River; there simply weren’t enough supplies for an operation of that kind, he regretfully told his top generals, and more to the point such an assault at that juncture might provoke the Americans to retaliate by invading North Vietnam. Better, he suggested, to let events down in Quang Tri and Da Nang take their course and wait for a more favorable political situation to arise before undertaking any new large-scale offensives.
The pro-Chinese rebellion in Manchuria collapsed in early May of 1968 after Soviet saturation bombing of the rebel headquarters. A few weeks later, Soviet troops entered the city of Shenyang for the first time— and ran head-on into the most savage firefight the Red Army had encountered since Stalingrad. Regular PLA units, Red Guards, and civilian volunteers had all joined forces to set up a murderous defensive gauntlet in Shenyang’s streets.
The commander of the main advance column immediately called in air strikes on the heart of the city; within minutes, Su-7s and Tu-16s were raining bombs down on Shenyang, touching off a wave of fires that destroyed half the city. The remaining defenders surrendered less than 12 hours later.
Now Bejing itself was directly threatened; there were even hints that Soviet forces might move into North Korea as retribution for the Kim Il Sung government’s recent shift from its former stance of neutrality towards a more overtly pro-Chinese position in its policy regarding the Manchurian War. Mao’s response was to order a mass assault by the PLA against Kazakhstan in hopes of creating a diversion while the Chinese capital finished shoring up its defenses against Soviet attack.
The Chinese assault on Kazakhstan began on June 2nd, 1968 and provoked an immediate Soviet counteroffensive; consequently, the already grotesque casualty count for both sides in the war would mount still higher. Within a month after the first shots were fired in the Kazakhstan campaign, Soviet battle deaths had passed the 200,000 mark while Chinese losses were close to 2 million. Even nations as populous as China and the Soviet Union couldn’t sustain such casualty rates forever.
Things weren’t going entirely smoothly for American troops in South Vietnam either; the Tet offensive had come as something of a shock to them, given that both President Johnson and new MACV commander-in-chief General William Westmoreland had assured them the Viet Cong was on its last legs. By the time the Chinese began their Kazakhstan offensive, American battle deaths in Vietnam had reached 40,000 and that total was certain to get even higher before the end of the year. The war had become a major issue in the 1968 presidential campaign, sufficiently so that political experts were predicting the Democratic National Convention, being held that summer in Chicago, would take four or even five ballots to nominate the party’s presidential candidate.
Lyndon Johnson’s re-nomination, which before the Tet Offensive had seemed like a sure thing, had been put in jeopardy as his conduct of the Vietnam War came under increasing scrutiny. Former US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Minnesota senator Gene McCarth were his two most prominent and vocal critics within the Democratic Party; Kennedy was particularly adamant in calling for an American withdrawal from Vietnam, asserting that political and social rifts over the morality of the war effort were the main cause of the unrest which was plaguing many of America’s major cities at that time.(Kennedy had more reason than most to be concerned about domestic unrest, having narrowly survived an assassination attempt during the 1968 California Democratic primary.)
Matters came to a head on August 27th, the second day of the Democratic convention. As the delegates were debating on whether to amend the party platform to include a call for peace talks with Hanoi, riots broke out on the streets outside the convention hall as anti-war demonstrators clashed with Chicago police. In a desperate effort to calm things down before the situation plunged into total chaos, Gene McCarthy went to personally speak to the demonstrators only to get his skull fractured when a brick aimed at a Chicago mounted patrolman instead hit McCarthy squarely on the back of the head; despite doctors’ best efforts, he died at the University of Illinois Medical Center two days later.
The Republican presidential nominee, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, was quick to cite the riots and McCarthy’s death as proof that neither the Democrats in general nor Johnson in particular were fit any longer to govern America. He asserted that the country’s, and the world’s, best hope for peace lay in a Nixon presidency; in his first campaign appearance following the riots he pledged to work tirelessly to bring a swift and honorable end to the Vietnam War and rally world opinion to pressure China and the Soviet Union into accepting a negotiated solution of the border disagreement that had triggered the Manchurian conflict.
Within Johnson’s own party, the consensus had now been reached that it was time for change at the top. On their fourth ballot, the Democrats nominated Robert Kennedy as their presidential candidate, with South Dakota senator George McGovern acting as Kennedy’s running mate. Johnson was devastated by the news and spent a week in his seclusion at his Texas ranch before finally returning to the White House to begin serving out the last months of his presidency.
In early October of 1968, Soviet artillery battalions started shelling Chinese defensive positions along the southern banks of Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash. General Lin Bao and his senior staff braced themselves for the worst, knowing that massive artillery barrages usually preceded major Red Army offensives; sure enough, within 48 hours Soviet troops were crossing Lake Balkhash in the first phase of a four-pronged offensive initiated with the short-term goal of pushing the Chinese out of Kazakhstan and the long-term objective of creating a strategic foothold for Soviet forces in China’s Xinjiang province.
The attack succeeded outstandingly on both counts; three weeks after it began the Soviets had driven all but a handful of PLA units out of Kazakhstan and the Red Army had captured the Chinese village of Aksu in a pincer movement using troops from Kazakhstan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Despite Herculean efforts by Mao’s propaganda machine to conceal the truth from the Chinese people about the PLA’s defeat in Kazakhstan, word of the setback managed to reach them in dribs and drabs(aided in no small measure by Radio Moscow’s Chinese-language broadcast service); the news of the Soviet victory in Kazakhstan proved to be just as unpleasant a shock for the Chinese masses as the Tet offensive had been for the American public.
Consequently, ordinary Chinese citizens began to do what until had been unthinkable until then and criticize the Mao regime. On November 4th, 1968 students began gathering in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square to hold a ‘sit-in’ meant to prod the Chinese government into starting peace negotiations with the Soviets. Mao took this and other such protests as a personal insult; in his view, anyone who questioned his handling of the war with Russia was committing treason— and there was only one of handling those guilty of that offense.
Five days after the Tienanmen Square sit-in began, Mao’s secret police attacked the demonstrators, killing 200 and wounding at least 500 more; more than four dozen people were arrested before the raid was over, and an untold number of others were forced to flee mainland China never to return.
If Mao had hoped to silence the demand for peace with the Soviet Union, however, his tactics boomeranged on him; the calls for a negotiated end to the war grew even louder, and much to Lin Bao’s dismay those calls gained support in some sectors of the Chinese military. At least two PLA division commanders resigned their commissions in the wake of the Tienanmen Square tragedy, and an anti-Mao mutiny aboard the flagship of the Chinese navy’s East Sea Fleet was suppressed only after the ship’s political officer shot the ringleader.
By New Year’s Day 1969 Soviet forces held at least a third of Xinjiang province and Red Army advance units were less than 15 miles from the outskirts of Beijing. Across the Taiwan Straits Mao’s ancient rival, Chiang Kai-shek, viewed this turn of events with mixed emotions; while on one hand he was ecstatic at the prospect of seeing his ideological nemesis finally toppled from power after nearly two decades, on the other hand he feared the possibility of having Soviet nuclear forces within striking range of Taipei.
After weeks of deliberation on the matter, he finally flew to Washington two days after Nixon’s inauguration and met with Nixon at the White House. Following the conclusion of that meeting, the new president instructed his National Security Advisor, former Harvard professor Dr. Henry Kissinger, to contact the Chinese and Soviet embassies in Tokyo and request a meeting with envoys from both countries for the purpose of agreeing on a common framework for peace talks.
Ten days later Kissinger secretly met with the Soviet and Chinese ambassadors to Japan in a conference room at the Swiss consulate in Osaka. Understanding the two sides’ cultural sensitivities, he had gone to great lengths not to draw too much attention to his mediation efforts; his circumspection and his unrelenting work to bring Beijing and Moscow to the bargaining table finally paid off in early March when Soviet and Chinese negotiators met in Geneva to begin discussing cease-fire terms for ending the Manchurian War.
The Geneva talks— and the war –went on for almost a year. Twice the negotiations were suspended over accusations by one side that the other was violating international law; they were also briefly put on hold when the head Chinese envoy took ill during a visit home for consultations with Chinese foreign minister Chou En-Lai. But in spite of everything progress was slowly made towards a settlement of hostilities, and in late February of 1970 the war finally came to an end as a cease-fire accord was signed under which China and the Soviet Union agreed to accept UN mediation of their common frontiers along the Ussuri River.
Brave New World: 1970-1977
The Manchurian War left both victor and vanquished alike in a state of exhaustion. The USSR, however, recovered from that exhaustion more quickly than the Chinese could and were soon working to reclaim their old position as the flagship of the Communist bloc. They also sought to gain wider influence with non-Communist countries; by the spring of 1972, over a decade after the Florida Keys War ended, the Soviets had re-opened their embassy in Havana and were in discussions with the United States about a nuclear arms pact, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), whose goal was to reduce and eventually eliminate strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
With the Sino-Soviet conflict ended, world attention turned back to the war in Vietnam. Although the Americans and their Saigon allies still hadn’t managed to eradicate the Viet Cong, by the same token the VC had been unable to make much more headway in their struggle to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. The prevailing consensus in most corners of the world was that the the best either side could hope to achieve at this point was a stalemate.
South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu thought otherwise, however, and in early 1973 authorized his military to launch Operation Quóc Hõn("soul of the nation"), a combined air and ground thrust across the DMZ that recalled the German blitzkrieg offensives of the early years of the Second World War. In Thieu’s judgement the North Vietnamese were ripe for the plucking; the Soviets and the Chinese, he insisted to the skeptics among his cabinet, were still picking up the pieces from the Manchurian War and unlikely to respond to Quóc Hõn with much more than a few angry words.
In strictly military terms the assault was a brilliant success, as it cut the VC off from many of their normal supply routes and eliminated the best part of five divisions from the NVA’s order of battle. Politically, however, it was a disaster as it played right into Communist propaganda stereotyping about the supposed "war-mongering" tendencies of the US and its allies.
Inevitably, the NVA struck back; with the Manchurian War ended, both China and the USSR had resumed regular arms shipments to Hanoi, and consequently the North Vietnamese were in a better position to deal with ARVN than they had been at the time of the Tet offensive. The NVA’s counterthrust sent South Vietnamese forces reeling back across the DMZ and made it clear that Thieu had badly miscalculated Soviet and Chinese ability to resupply the NVA; by the spring of 1974 there were open calls throughout South Vietnam for Thieu’s resignation.
Thieu appealed to Nixon for further help, but the American president could do little to relieve his South Vietnamese ally’s plight. Nixon’s own political base was crumbling in the face of a scandal over revelations that he had sanctioned a plan by his White House staff to bug the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at Washington’s Watergate hotel complex. Even as NVA and ARVN troops were trading shots a few miles south of the DMZ, the US Congress was drafting articles of impeachment against him; in late July of 1974, Nixon became the first president in American history to resign from office. His vice-president, ex-Michigan congressman Gerald R. Ford, succeeded him and oversaw the final withdrawals of American military personnel from South Vietnam.
On April 30th, 1975 the last remaining US troops in Vietnam flew out of Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon on board a C-130 transport plane just after 3:30 PM local time. The previous day Thieu had been forced out of office and the new South Vietnamese president, famed general Duong Van "Big" Minh, had reached an agreement with Hanoi whereby North Vietnam would end its war with South Vietnam and formally recognize the Saigon government in return for Minh’s acceptance of a coalition with the Communists and an end to the American military presence in Vietnam.
In martial terms the Vietnam War might have ended in a draw, but on the political side it was a huge triumph for Communism; the VC and their Hanoi backers had faced the worst the West could throw at them and survived. There was some grumbling over the fact that the reunification of Vietnam had been postponed once more, but it was counterbalanced by optimism that it would happen eventually on the Communists’ terms.
In fact, it would take another full decade before Vietnam was finally reunified— and it would not work out in the Communists’ favor. No one realized it at the time, but the Vietnam War was Communism’s last major strategic triumph; voices of dissent in eastern Europe that had been silenced in the early years of the Manchurian War were starting to speak up again, and those voices would slowly eat away at Soviet power until the USSR finally disintegrated in the late 1980s.
In the meantime, China sought to rebuild its tattered reputation as a world power and line up allies to help guard itself against Soviet geopolitical pressure. It found one such ally in a most unexpected quarter— the United States. The 1976 presidential elections had swept Gerald Ford out of office and replaced him with former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, who in spite of his disagreements with Nixon and Ford’s politics shared their desire to restore normal diplomatic relations with Beijing.
In February of 1977, about a month after his inauguration, Carter wrote a letter to the Chinese UN mission in New York City asking for their help in arranging a meeting between his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, and new Chinese foreign minister Hua Guo-Feng at the earliest possible date…
Footnotes1 North Vietnamese Army.
2 Communist Party of China.
3 The Chinese had successfully test-detonated their first hydrogen bomb ten days after the Gulf of Tonkin incident and at the time Johnson’s official four-year term began were drilling their air force bomber crews in preparation for one-way suicide missions against Soviet and Western targets in Asia.
4 The clause that forbids Japan from waging aggressive war.
5 From the introduction to his book Mao vs. Lenin: An Examination of the Manchurian War, copyright 1986 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
6 The Soviet Union’s marine corps.
7 A transcript of this speech is available from the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.