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Mao Zedong: Vietnam War
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao, 1966. (New China News Agency, Beijing, PRC.)


According to Life’s March 3, 1972 issue, “Rotund and jovial, the great revolutionary welcomed Richard Nixon to his private study as if the United States and China had been warm friends for the last quarter century, instead of bitter enemies. It was the extraordinary beginning of the most extraordinary week in the history of personal Presidential diplomacy. Only an hour or two later, Nixon was locked in intense discussion with Chairman Mao Zedong’s chief associate, Premier Chou En-lai…” that would help wind down the Vietnam War at long last by bringing in the People’s Republic of China as an ally on the side of the US, opposed to its former Stalinist partner, the Soviet Union.

In his 1978 work, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, the later former President wrote, “A few days before leaving for China, I invited the great French philosopher Andre Malraux to the White House…During the talk I had with him in the Oval Office, I asked whether just a few years ago, he would have thought that the Chinese leaders would agree to meet with an American President.

“’This meeting was inevitable,’ he replied. ‘Even with the Vietnam War ?’ I asked. ‘Ah, yes, even so. China’s action over Vietnam is an imposture. There was a period when the friendship between China and Russia was cloudless, when they allowed Russian arms to pass over their territory on the way to Vietnam, but China has never helped anyone!

“ Not Pakistan. Not Vietnam. China’s foreign policy is a brilliant lie! The Chinese themselves do not believe in it; they believe only in China. Only China!

“’For Mao, China is a continent—it is an Australia by itself. Only China is important. If China has to receive the Sultan of Zanzibar, then China will---or the President of the United States. The Chinese don’t care.’

“I asked Malraux for his impressions of Mao. ‘Five years ago,’ he said, ‘Mao had one fear: that the Americans or the Russians, with 10 atom bombs, would destroy China’s industrial centers and set China back 50 years at a time when Mao himself would be dead. He told me, ‘When I have six atomic bombs, no one can bomb my cities…The Americans will never use an atomic bomb against me.’”

Malraux concluded his remarks to the President thus: “You will be dealing with a colossus, but a colossus facing death. The last time I saw him, he told me, ‘We do not have a successor.’ Do you know what Mao will think when he sees you for the first time ? He will think ‘He is much younger than I!’ Mr. President, you will meet a man who has had a fantastic destiny and who believes that he is acting out the last act in his lifetime. You may think that he is talking to you, but he will in truth be addressing death…It’s worth the trip!’”

Having landed at Beijing, President Nixon met Chou En-lai, heard the national anthems of the two countries played, and reviewed a Chinese martial honor guards—much as his successor Bill Clinton did 26 years later. Recalled Mr. Nixon, “The honor guard was one of the finest I have ever seen. They were big men, strong-looking men, and immaculately turned out. As I walked down the long line, each man turned his head slowly as I passed, creating an almost hypnotic sense of movement in the massed ranks.”

These were the men whom Nixon and his predecessors as President---John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson---had feared would cross over from China and into North Vietnam to fight the Americans and South Vietnamese, as they done before, in 1951, against the US and its client state, the Republic of South Korea during the hard-fought Korean War.

Johnson also feared that such a renewed development might force his hand on the domestic political front and that the American right would demand the nuclear strike that Mao dreaded. Fortunately for the US and China, neither event occurred, however, and the credit belongs to both President Nixon and Chairman Mao, each now dead.

In RN, the President described his meeting with the Chairman thus: “We were escorted into a room that was not elaborate, filled with books and papers. Several of the books were open to various pages on the coffee table next to where he was sitting. His girl secretary helped him to his feet. When I shook his hand he said, ‘I can’t talk very well.’ Chou later told me that he had been sick for about a month with what was described as bronchitis. This, however, was not known to the Chinese public.”

The topics of conversation during this and later meetings were Korea, Vietnam, China, Japan and the USSR, as expected.

What President Nixon—presumably---did not know was how ill his host really was, as revealed in the 1994 memoirs of his private physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao.

Dr. Li—22 years later—told what had happened behind the scenes in Peking before Mr. Nixon’s arrival: “For weeks I had been burdened by a fact still secret from the Chinese people. China’s history was about to be transformed. President Nixon was coming to China. He was scheduled to arrive on Feb. 21, 1972. Mao wanted to meet with him. I had three weeks to make him well. We swung into action immediately…

“At first, we nearly lost Mao…Mao began coughing. He was weak, and had no strength to expel the phlegm. The liquid caught in his throat, and suddenly he was choking, unable to breathe, gasping for breath. He collapsed…Mao’s collapse was the closest call we ever had…Zhou (Chou) was so shocked that he lost control of his bladder, soiling his pants. He washed and changed his clothes before rushing to the swimming pool. Mao had recovered by then…

“Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972. Since Feb. 1st, when Mao finally agreed to be treated, the medical team had worked around the clock to restore the Chairman’s health. His condition had improved considerably. His lung infection was under control, and his heart irregularities had subsided. His edema was better, but he was still so bloated that he had to be fitted with a new suit and shoes. His throat was still swollen, and he had difficulty talking.

“His muscles had atrophied from weeks of immobility, so we put him on an exercise routine a week before President Nixon’s arrival. He practiced sitting down and getting up, and an attendant guided him slowly around the room to get him used to walking again.

“Mao was as excited as I had ever seen him the day Nixon arrived. He woke early and immediately began asking when the President was scheduled to arrive. Zhou Fuming gave him a shave and a haircut—his first in more than five months---and rubbed scented tonic into his hair…

“The medical team had made extensive preparations for the meeting. The emergency medical equipment—including oxygen tanks and a respirator that Henry Kissinger had sent after his secret visit the previous July, in preparation for Nixon’s visit—had to be removed from Mao’s room. We dismantled Mao’s hospital bed and moved the rest of the equipment into the corridor connecting Mao’s study and bedroom. We had to be prepared for an emergency treatment if Mao’s heart suddenly failed.

“We put the oxygen tank in a huge lacquered trunk and hid the rest of the equipment behind big potted plants. No one could guess from a casual glance, but we were prepared to reassemble the equipment within seconds should anything go wrong. Zhou En-lai had told Nixon that Mao had been ill with bronchitis, but I do not think the President was ever fully informed of Mao’s problems. Mao only explained to Nixon that he could not talk very well,” as we have seen from RN’s account.

“Mao was delighted with Nixon’s visit. As soon as the President left, he shook off his formal clothes and changed back into his customary bathrobe. I joined him immediately to take his pulse, which remained strong and steady. Mao wondered whether I had heard the talk. I assured him that I had been right outside the door, listening to every word.”

Dr. Li reported that the Chairman liked the President, conceding that their mutual interest was in containing the Soviet Union, “The polar bear to the north,” and it was this that had brought them together, ultimately helping to end the Vietnam War as well.

The current writer has had occasion to personally review the official American White House pictures covering the President’s visit to China. Interestingly enough, however, those of the handshake between the President and Chairman are in black and white only, and not from the color shots taken by the Americans. Thus, I have concluded this aspect was covered by the New China News lensmen only.

Of this, Dr. Li wrote, “In the picture of Mao shaking hands with Nixon that was published, both were smiling broadly, and the Chinese report described Mao as energetic and glowing with health, his face flush with color. Many noted that Mao had gained weight and took that as a sign of good health, too.

“The American press, knowing that Mao had been ill and was having trouble speaking, speculated that the Chairman had had a stroke, but the Chinese and Americans were both wrong. Mao had not gained weight. He was bloated by edema. He had been suffering from congestive heart failure, not a stroke.”

President Johnson and his advisors had not been wrong about the Chairman’s decision to send Chinese troops into Vietnam, however, as revealed by Dr. Li 30 years after the events. “While Mao was most interested in Chinese history, he had also read something about the great leaders of the West. Napoleon was his favorite. Napoleon’s concentrated use of cannon fire, in Mao’s view, was a revolution in military strategy.

“The French general, moreover, combined military expansion with academic study, taking with him to Egypt not only soldiers, but also scholars and scientists, who studied the origins of Western civilization. Mao wanted to organize similar studies in China and in 1964 planned a scholarly expedition to the source of the Yellow River, in remote Qinghai Province. The Yellow River had long been considered the seat of Chinese civilization, and Mao wanted to trace that civilization back to its roots.

“Wang Dongxing was put in charge of logistics, and assembled a team of historians, geographers, geologists, water specialists, and engineers. He obtained horses from Inner Mongolia and supplies and equipment from the Army, and Mao and I began practicing horseback riding together.

“Our trip, scheduled to begin on Aug. 10, 1964, was cancelled five days before that. Mao wanted to stay and monitor the situation, finally deciding to send Chinese soldiers—secretly, and wearing Vietnamese uniforms—to fight the United States.”

More would have been sent except that two crucial forces weighed in the balance against Mao---first, contention with the USSR and, second, dissension within his own Chinese Communist Party that many were unaware of in the West until the Great Cultural Revolution broke out in the mid-Sixties. There were also domestic attempts to assassinate Mao in 1971.

The Chairman was born on Dec. 26, 1893 in the village of Shaoshan on the Banks of the Xiang River in Hunan Province in South Central China. His father was a Confucian peasant and his mother a devout Buddhist, and it was on their farm that Mao began doing manual work at age five. He went to school at eight, but was ordered by his father to marry, and quit school at age 13 in 1906. The son disobeyed, called off his wedding, and returned to study, placing at the top in all of his classes.

According to biographer Esme Hawes, “He particularly admired George Washington,” and soon thereafter joined the Chinese Revolution centering on the revered leader Dr. Sun Yatsen. The ruling Manchu Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, and a decade later Mao found himself a Chinese Communist Party delegate from Hunan Province. In the next decade, he established a fighting force against the ruling party of the new Chinese Republic, the Kuomintang Nationalists led by his lifelong rival, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, whom he defeated in 1949 and sent into exile on the island of Taiwan.

During the intervening years, Mao waged a dual war: first against Chiang and second against the invading armies of Imperial Japan. Both Chiang and Mao, realizing that the Western Allies of America, Britain, France and Holland would eventually defeat Japan in the Pacific, concentrated more on fighting themselves than they did the exterior enemy.

Mao was elected Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, but opposition to his domestic policies would continue for the rest of his life. To forestall his foes at home, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign that was a complete economic catastrophe and the Cultural Revolution that was an equal political disaster.

Abroad, he engaged China in a war with the United States in Korea, occupied Tibet (where his troops remain today), almost went into a full-scale war with India in 1962, and waged a series of border clashes on the Sino-Soviet border along the Usurri River that nearly caused war between Russia and China seven years later. In this writer’s opinion, newly-elected President Nixon helped avert a war there that would ultimately have led to a nuclear exchange.

All of the above led to attempts to kill him aboard his special train as well as a planned military coup led by his hand-picked successor, Defense Minister and Marshal Lin Biao (1907-71), who fled by plane to the USSR in September 1971; the plane crashed in Outer Mongolia and all aboard were killed, or at least that is the official version still accepted today.

China’s revolutionary violence, led by the Maoist Red Guards, came to a peak in 1967, however, while the current writer was serving in South Vietnam, and I, for one, shall be forever grateful that Mao’s Communist zeal and domestic excesses kept the Chinese People’s Liberation Army from crossing the border of North Vietnam. Had it done so, I believe that the bloodbath would have been even greater for all concerned than it was.

Mao Zedong died in Beijing on Sept. 9, 1976 at age 82, and Dr. Li has also since passed away. The Chinese exploded their first atomic bomb in 1964, have regained the port of Hong Kong from the British, are still claiming the Nationalist offshore Islands of Taiwan, Quemoy and Matsu as their legitimate territory and—on Oct. 14, 2003—launched their first manned spacecraft into orbit.

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* Mao Zedong: Vietnam War


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