There is nothing new in this story that back in ’69 Nixon threatened to nuke the Soviets if they nuked the Chinese. I first read about this back in the early ’80s. It was the war prevented by an exchange of ping pong players.
The entire three-sided conflict is a fascinating example of how complex and multilayered the generic “Great Game” gets. It also serves as a demonstration of why the simplistic models that many people, especially those on the left, use to justify foreign policy stances are really just silly.
The Soviets and the Chinese had initially formed a coordinated bloc cooperating against the West in the Korean War and Indochina. They had a falling out in ’67 when Mao broke with the Comintern and went his own way. This break triggered the Cultural Revolution which Mao used to wipe out those idealistic international communists still loyal to Moscow. The USSR and China came to an actual shooting war across the northern border. The USSR planned to solve the matter by nuking and then invading China.
However, while all this was going on, both communist powers had troops in North Vietnam (65,000 for the USSR and 150,000 for the Chinese) who were actively supporting the war against the non-communist South. Even as America was saving his bacon on their northern border, Mao was de facto extending Chinese air space over the northern border of North Vietnam to prevent US air power from wiping out the North Vietnamese air bases. He might even have allowed them to base planes in China proper.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, the USSR and China backed both the Khmer Rouge and the massive North Vietnamese invasion (never happened, said John Kerry) aimed at overthrowing the non-communist Cambodian government. However, China was backing the Khmer Rouge in often open warfare against the North Vietnamese at the same time.
After our abandonment of the people of Indochina, the Khmer Rouge and communist Vietnam instantly began border skirmishes. China withdrew its troops from Vietnam and by 1979 was in open warfare. Vietnam invaded Cambodia and the region was enmeshed in bloody, democidal Red-on-Red warfare until the early ’90s.
Right now, all the Sunni states in the Middle-East are rabidly opposed to the increasing power of Shia Iran but they still cooperate with Iran to attack Israel. Around and around it goes.
This pattern has been repeated over and over again in every era and in every corner of the world. In the Great Game, ideology means nothing. Political actors form alliances based on immediate, naked self-interest and then turn around and attack former allies when it suits them. Even liberal democracies are forced into the game, finding themselves backing Stalin against Hitler, Mao against Brezhnev or some random local autocrat against another random local autocrat supported by an opposing great power.
Yet even the most cursory examination of most left-wing foreign-policy theory demonstrates that the left believes against all evidence that ideology always trumps practical self-interest. Most recently, in the run-up to the liberation of Iraq, leftists widely mocked the idea that the secular ethnic-socialist Baathists of Iraq would ever find common cause with deeply religious Al-Qaeda. In reality, Al-Qaeda was either already on the ground and allied with the Baathists when the liberation started or they arrived there within hours of the balloon going up.
The left has an academic mindset in which words are reality rather than tools to describe and communicate reality. They really can’t seem to grasp the cynical nature of autocrats who constantly scramble and claw for any physical advantage. They prefer to parse words instead of looking at concrete advantages and concrete actions.
More and more, leftists have become detached from reality. They believe that their concerns are the concerns of illiterate tribesmen in the mountains of Pakistan. They believe that their keen understanding of ideology allows them to not only predict the behavior of autocrats but to control them with “dialog.” They believe that moral posturing is the most powerful force on Earth.
The story of the nuclear war that Nixon headed off destroys that arrogant delusion. In the modern leftist’s mindset, that war would have never happened because communists would never have a falling out to the degree they did with their ideological cohorts. Moreover, communists only had nuclear weapons because of the war-mongering of the hysterical western right wing. Well, they’re wrong. Autocrats seek advantage, not ideological purity.
The story also suggests that the people of China should be building giant statues of Nixon in homage. He and Kissinger might have saved hundreds of millions of lives in China. That bastard might have saved the whole of Asia and even Russia herself.
That is the weirdest thought of all.