Indochina

by | July 5, 1954

Even months ago, the leaders-of the Grand Alliance met at Bermuda. Little was accomplished, perhaps because US spokesmen grandly assumed that "the initiative" in the Cold War had in fact been "seized" by the Alliance, or certainly by the US. Whatever the cause, Bermuda was hardly a meeting between equals, rather between the leader and his subordinates. The arrival in Washington of Sir Winston Churchill and his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in a sense continues the Bermuda conference, but with a difference.

During the past seven months, the major antagonists in the Cold War have sat twice at conference tables— in Berlin and Geneva—and the US byconstantly opposing suggestions of its allies without offering alternatives they could support has lost leadership of the Alliance.

The Communist threat to Southeast Asia was the first item on the Washington agenda. For nearly eight years the French have fought a colonial war in Indo-China, refusing to internationalize that war or make any of the radical and self-denying concessions necessary to trans forming that conflict into a clear-cut case of resistance to Communist aggression. When finally France did begin bidding for popular, native support and the assistance of other free nations, only massive military intervention by the US might have saved the situation.

Britain insisted that the continuation of a "white man's war" to hold Indo-China would imperil the West's position in all that is left of Asia—seeming to confirm, in the minds of neutral Asians, Communist charges of "Western imperialism." She called for the creation of a "new situation" based on a negotiated peace in Indo China. We could then, said the British, work toward adefensive regional alliance, draw and guarantee a line against Communist expansion, and stand a good chance of winning at least passive approval of our actions from India, Burma and the other Colombo powers. "In my view," said Eden on the eve of his departure for Washington, "tbere will never be any red security in Southeast Asia without the good will of the free Asian countries." This was the final statement of a policy which, whatever the criticisms, Britain has consistently followed.

In contrast, the US has had no policy at all—goals, yes; high-principled rhetoric, yes; but no coherent, consistent plan of action. First the Administration listened to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, who called for immediate naval and air intervention. The fiction that such intervention could alone do the job was kept alive for weeks. But finally the view of the other Joint Chiefs, and of the British military broke through: Indo-China would require an effort, primarily of ground forces, far exceeding that made in Korea. To mount such an effort in the wake of the Republican cutback of American military strength, while still maintaining our strength on other fronts, this nation would have had to go into nearly full-mobilization. The Administration was unwilling to do that.

But the only positive alternative was endorsement of the British plan, or some version of it which preserved its basic premise: the West must not dissipate its strength in peripheral wars which smack of colonialism, but rather seek, through negotiation, "peaceful co-existence." This approach, the Republican Administration—its ears still ringing with accusations of "treason". and "appeasement" it hurled at the "Addison gang"— seemed unable to accept. Instead it called for the formation—at once— of a Southeast Asia Defense Alliance to back up an ultimatum against further Communist advance, and turned its back disapprovingly on French efforts to save the expeditionary force first, and some territory, second, in Indo-China.

Again the US demonstrated an almost flippant disinterest in negotiating—a confidence that somehow we are powerful enough to shape any situation to fit our own vision without "wasting time on talk" to convince others.

England countered with the speech Anthony Eden made to Parliament on June 23. He sought to capitalize on a slight shift in Asian opinion, following Geneva, toward approval of Western policy, by proposing the kind of reciprocal guarantees against aggression which India favors as a means of achieving peace in Asia, without abandoning the Southeast Asia defense alliance championed by the US. Official Washington was "shocked!" For Eden seemed to imply that defense measures should hot be undertaken until some vague unspecified future time after a Locarno-type pact had been signed.

Thus, long standing differences between the British and the US were brought to a head: the American "hard" line of demanding immediate "action" of one kind or another in Asia regardless of consequences on Asian opinion or Western capacity to follow through successfully was matched by the British position of "wait, see, negotiate and pamper the neutrals."

Eden's speech, given on the eve of the Churchill visit, set up a British bargaining position. In return for quick action on a defense arrangement, Washington could be asked for something Britain held necessary to any defense arrangement: assurance to free Asian nations that the West would take every step possible to insure peace, even while preparing for war.

US leadership has long been convinced that no treaty with the Communists is worth the paper it is written on. But the British know that much of the rest of the world clings to the old-fashioned notion that a treaty will be honored by any nation if it is in that nation's interest to honor it. Avoiding an agreement with the Communists for fear it will be broken is, in this view of things, impractical diplomacy. Our aim should be the devising of accords which will be in the interest of Communists to honor, for a time at least.

The British and many others believe that there is a positive reason for strenuous effort to avoid war: to gain time which can be used to diminish the threat of war. The "master thought of the Locarno Treaty," said Churchill, "is everyone going against the aggressor." So if the US joined in guaranteeing such a pact in Asia and that pact were broken by the Communists, we would not be called on to do anything but what we did in Korea and seem anxious to do elsewhere in Asia—with or without a treaty. Why then do we hold back, is the question put to us.

In Washington, Churchill gave every indication that he had not succeeded in persuading the US to budge. He stressed that the original Locarno Treaty had been violated largely because the US was not a partner to it. He made it plain that England wanted a period of "peaceful co-existence" (which he termed the "heart of the matter") in order to establish closer ties with China now while there is still an opportunity to exploit Chinese aversion to dependence on Russia. The

Churchill policy would compel the admission that the Communists do control China and eventually serious consideration to admitting Communist China to the UN.

But denunciations of Yalta "appeasement" — the dragon's teeth sown by Republicans to win an election —haunt any Administration—especially a Republican Administration—which might admit to thinking of negotiation with Communists. On this basic question of "do you want peaceful co-existence? and what do you want it for?", it appears that Washington talks produced only an implicit admission that the President and his Secretary of State are captives of the most imprudent and near-sighted elements in both parties. The first Anglo-American statement said only that plans for "collective defense" would be "pressed forward" whether France won an Indo-China settlement or not. Which probably means that the British have agreed to begin planning a SEATO immediately. In return they may have won a kind of modus vivendi by which the US agreed not to interfere too much with British efforts to strengthen friendly ties in free Asia. In its pursuit of Asian allies the British government — as Richard Strout reports on page 9—enjoys strong support at home, and if the US persists in a course which made it mandatory for Walter. Bedell Smith to preface his report on the Geneva conference with a strong assurance that he had made every effort to avoid conversations with the Chinese, the Anglo-American division will widen and perhaps fatally weaken the free world.

In the meantime. Premier Chou En-lai of China has been very busy mending fences. First he met with the new Premier of France, who, as Frank Gorrell reports on page 10, also enjoys popular backing for his policy of negotiation. Quickly, he went to India and publicly joined Nehru in calling for a political settlement in Indo-China "creating free states which should not be used for aggressive purposes or be subjected to foreign intervention." Both men, the leaders of some 960 million Asians, urged that relations between the nations of Asia be guided by the preamble to the India-China agreement on Tibet—non-aggression, non-interference and peaceful co-existence. Chou's next step was Burma, where he again spoke of peace and pacts. The courtship of Indonesia: will follow. In short, Chou recognized the threat to his cause of British diplomatic wooing of Asian opinion and acted accordingly.

Whatever agreement is reached in Indo-China, the West has suffered a serious loss there. It will be easy for moralists to charge that it is wrong to negotiate away the chance of genuine democratic sovereignty in one area for the slim chance of preserving freedom elsewhere.

But the free world's loss in Indo-China will not be made less now by partisan recriminations in the US, or by seeking a scapegoat for Western failures in Asia in "perfidious Albion."

This article originally ran in the July 5th, 1954, issue of the magazine.

 

 

 

 

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