Chinese and Soviet involvement in Vietnam

chinese and soviet involvement
Ho Chi Minh photographed during a visit to the People’s Republic of China.

As the United States poured men and money into South Vietnam, Chinese and Soviet involvement in Vietnam also increased. As the world’s largest communist powers, both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China also lent moral, logistic and military support to North Vietnam. Both Moscow and Beijing hoped to consolidate and expand communism in the Asian hemisphere. Not only would the rise of Asian communism help tip the balance against the West in the Cold War, it would also serve Russian and Chinese national interests. Neither the Soviet Union or China were frank or open about the nature of the support they provided to North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (NLF). To this day there is much speculation about exactly what was given and by whom. What can safely be assumed is that Soviet and Chinese support was vital to Hanoi and contributed to the successes of its operations in South Vietnam.

Western governments, of course, condemned North Vietnam as a puppet state and Ho Chi Minh as a slave to Moscow and Beijing. The extent of Ho Chi Minh’s communism is open to question, however, there is no doubt of his strong links with the Soviet Union. The young Nguyen Sinh Cung gravitated towards Marxism in late 1919, after his dreams of Vietnamese independence were rejected by Western leaders in Paris. In 1920 Ho became one of the foundation members of the French Communist Party. Three years later he travelled to Moscow, where he undertook further studies in communist theory and international activism. He also became Vietnam’s delegate to the Comintern, a Soviet committee charged with promoting and supporting socialist revolution around the world. There is no doubt that Ho Chi Minh had the pedigree of a communist – but it is also true that he was no puppet. Unlike some of the pro-Soviet rulers in eastern Europe, Ho’s first allegiance was to his country and its people, not to Moscow, the Comintern or ‘world revolution’.

soviet involvement vietnam
Ho Chi Minh speaks during an official visit to Moscow in 1955

After World War II Soviet Russia gave only marginal support for communist movements in Vietnam, which was then well outside Moscow’s sphere of influence. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sought to maintain his wartime alliance with the West, temporarily at least, and chose not to antagonise them by backing the Viet Minh in 1946-47. Stalin also had an immovable distrust of Asian communist groups, considering them weak, undisciplined and tainted by self-interest and nationalism. By the end of 1949, the situation had changed markedly. US-Soviet tensions were rising and Mao Zedong’s communist victory in China (October 1949) was a radical development in the Cold War. In January 1950, Moscow belatedly recognised Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh as the ‘official’ rulers of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh journeyed to Moscow and sought Soviet military backing for his war of independence against the French. But Stalin, whose attentions were concentrated on Europe, rejected his overtures. Stalin instead encouraged his communist ally, Mao Zedong, to support the Viet Minh.

chinese involvement vietnam
Ho Chi Minh with Chinese leaders Mao Zedong (left) and Zhou Enlai, 1955

The Chinese already had a history of working with the Viet Minh. Chinese communists and the Viet Minh had provided each other with cover and material support during their struggles to gain control in their countries. This relationship was particularly strong in border regions. Chinese communist forces often retreated into North Vietnam, to rest or prepare for further offensives. In return, the Chinese provided the Viet Minh with weapons, munitions and training. Beijing continued this assistance in the early 1950s, providing significant amounts of military aid to Hanoi, while also supplying North Korea during the Korean War (1950-53). Most Chinese supplies arrived in Kunming in Yunnan province, where they were transported to the Vietnamese border, then carried down a narrow jungle track – a forerunner of the famous ‘Ho Chi Minh trail’.

Chinese communism also had some influence on Vietnamese communist ideology, organisation and policy. Chinese advice and technical expertise influenced Hanoi’s programs of land reform and industrialisation during the 1950s. When the Indochinese Communist Party was reformed as the Lao Dong in early 1951, it embraced an organisation and structures modelled on those of the Chinese Communist Party. The rhetoric that passed between the Viet Minh and Beijing was usually effusive. Hoang Van Hoan, the Viet Minh’s chief diplomat in China, was reportedly offered unconditional support and a “blank cheque” for the supply of equipment. And while Chinese support was flowing, Ho Chi Minh was prepared to return the gushing praise. At a ceremony in February 1951, Hoang Van Hoan told a visiting Chinese delegation:

“Because of the geographic, historic, economic and cultural connections between Vietnam and China, the Chinese revolution has had a tremendous impact upon the Vietnamese revolution. Our revolution shall follow, as we have already seen, the course of the Chinese revolution. By relying on the Chinese revolutionary lessons, and relying on ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, we have further understood the thoughts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, so that we have won great victories in the last year. This we shall never forget.”

The death of Joseph Stalin (March 1953) and the stabilisation of events in Europe drew Moscow’s attention back to south-east Asia. While the Viet Minh were preparing to drive out the French and move toward reunification, the Soviets preferred a more conciliatory approach. Soviet delegates at the Geneva conference urged the Viet Minh to accept a negotiated peace and the proposed transitional division. A divided Vietnam, Soviet strategists argued, would allow for a period of stabilisation: the communist regime in the North would be able to consolidate its power, undertake economic reforms and improve its military capability. Moscow also had broader concerns: it was worried that US military involvement in Vietnam would require some kind of Soviet response. Under pressure from the Soviet Union, Ho Chi Minh advised his representatives in Geneva to sign the accords.

chinese involvement vietnam
A Chinese poster (1963) calling on resistance to US imperialism in Vietnam

The Gulf of Tonkin incident (August 1964) and the arrival of US combat troops (1965) triggered an escalation in Chinese support. This came mainly in the form of equipment and construction. In 1965 Beijing sent several thousand engineering troops into North Vietnam, to assist in building and repairing roads, railways, airstrips and critical defence infrastructure. Between 1965 and 1971 more than 320,000 Chinese troops were deployed in North Vietnam. The peak year was in 1967 when there were around 170,000 Chinese in the communist state. Their work on military installations meant that Chinese troops were susceptible to American bombing runs. An estimated 1,000 Chinese were killed in the North in the late 1960s. Beijing also supplied Hanoi with large amounts of military equipment, including trucks, tanks and artillery.

soviet involvement vietnam
Viet Cong soldiers in front of a Soviet-supplied SA-2 anti-aircraft missile

Soviet support for North Vietnam remained lukewarm through the 1950s and early 1960s. The Soviet Union supplied Hanoi with information, technical advisors and moral support – but Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev preferred to limit his backing and keep his country at arm’s length from the unfolding trouble in Vietnam. Khrushchev was removed as leader in October 1964, shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The new Soviet premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was more eager to consolidate and assert his power, mainly to placate hardliners in the Soviet military. In November 1964 Kosygin sent a public message of support to the National Liberation Front and announced a state visit to North Vietnam in the New Year. The Soviet leader arrived in Hanoi in February 1965, when he met with members of the Lao Dong Politburo and NVA commanders. They signed a defence treaty that would provide North Vietnam with both financial aid and military equipment and advisors. A public statement from the Kosygin delegation read:

“The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the outpost of the socialist camp in south-east Asia, is playing an important role in the struggle against American imperialism and is making its contribution to the defence of peace in Asia and throughout the world. The governments of the USSR and DRV have examined the situation… Both governments resolutely condemn the aggressive actions of the USA on August 5th 1965, and especially the barbaric attacks by American aircraft on DRV territory on February 7th and 8th 1965… The USSR will not remain indifferent to ensuring the security of a fraternal socialist country and will give the DRV necessary aid and support.”

Moscow now became North Vietnam’s main benefactor. Like China, the Soviet Union increased its aid to Hanoi after the US military escalation of 1965. The true extent of this support has never been fully disclosed, though it was certainly substantial. In 1966 there were widespread reports that North Vietnamese fighter pilots, aircrews and anti-aircraft gunners had received training in the Soviet Union. It was subsequently revealed that around 3,000 Soviet personnel served in North Vietnam in 1964-65 and that some were responsible for shooting down US planes. By the spring of 1967 TIME Magazine was reporting that a “river of aid” was flowing from Russia into North Vietnam. According to some analysts, by the late 1960s more than three quarters of the military and technical equipment received by North Vietnam was coming from the Soviet Union. And unlike the equipment and weapons supplied by Beijing – which demanded deferred payment – most Soviet assistance was supplied as aid rather than loans.

“Ho Chi Minh was able to exploit Chinese and Soviet jealousies of one another to gain maximum support for his goals in South Vietnam. From 1965 until early 1968, the rivalry between Beijing and Moscow also served to scuttle multiple Soviet-inspired proposals for peace talks between the Vietnamese communists and the United States.”
Thomas Christensen, historian

To complicate matters further, the relationship between the Soviet Union and China deteriorated through the 1960s. Changes in leadership in Moscow, coupled with the 1966 Cultural Revolution in China, increased tensions between the two communist superpowers. By 1968 almost one million Soviet troops were massing on the Chinese border. The following year, a series of border clashes led to around 200 deaths. The Sino-Soviet split effectively forced Hanoi to choose between Beijing and Moscow. It was not a difficult decision. In November 1968, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam signed a new set of military and economic agreements. According to one report, they “provided for large Soviet deliveries of food, petroleum, transportation equipment, iron and steel, other metals, fertilisers, arms, munitions and other commodities, for strengthening [North] Vietnam’s defences”. Mao Zedong responded by winding back Chinese aid and ordering the withdrawal of all Chinese personnel from North Vietnam. Russian supplies bound for Hanoi still had to pass through Chinese territory, where they were often held up by suspicious officials.

1. As the United States provided aid and support to South Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union did the same for North Vietnam, though the nature and extent of this support is not fully known.
2. The period 1946-49 was one of co-operation between Chinese communists and the Viet Minh. This continued after the communist victory in China (1949) in the form of military aid and support with policies and rebuilding.
3. The Soviet Union, in contrast, paid little regard to the situation in Vietnam. Stalin urged China to assist with the supply and development of North Vietnam, which it did through the 1950s.
4. Seeking to avoid direct involvement in Asia, Moscow urged the North Vietnamese to accept the terms of the Geneva Accords (1954). Soviet interest in Vietnam increased later, under new leader Aleksei Kosygin.
5. By the late 1960s, Moscow had become North Vietnam’s main benefactor, providing most of its aid and equipment. The Sino-Soviet split in this period forced North Vietnam to align closely with Moscow.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
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