By Andrew Wheeler
The conflict in Vietnam from 1950-1975 defined the cold war and has since served as an epitome example of proxy conflict. The western backed South Vietnamese fought against the communist supported North Vietnamese. For over 20 years the competing powers used Vietnam as a proxy for their larger ideological struggles. For South Vietnam American weapons, equipment, and manpower fueled the war until the aid ended in 1975. On the other side, the North Vietnamese were greatly aided by communist support from communist countries especially The Soviet Union and China. While it is widely known the USSR backed the North Vietnamese with material and logistical support, less has been written about the Chinese aid given to Vietnam during the war. The communist support had just a direct impact on the outcome of the war as the American aid did. However, it seems that the history of the communist support for North Vietnam is often under represented. This brief article will explore the communist support for the war in Vietnam with focus upon the Chinese aid given to North Vietnam. A study of this aspect of the Vietnam War is crucial because the military aid provided by China directly shaped the conflict and helped secure victory for the North Vietnamese.
To understand the Vietnam War it is necessary to look beyond the American involvement to the paralleling communist history. China played a massive role in the Vietnam war first against the French, then the Americans a decade later. Due to proximity and independent political factors, Chinese support for the communist Vietnamese was unique when compared to aid lent by the Soviets. This role will be explored through an example from each phase of the war in Vietnam: the struggle against the French in the First Indochina war, and the American war that occurred after. The example studied from the first Indochina War will be the fight at Dien Bien Phu and the crucial Chinese role in supplying artillery to the Viet Minh during that battle. In regards to the American War, the operations of the Special Operations Group (SOG) will be studied to explore how the flow of Chinese support both influenced the development of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and then directly created an entire theatre of the war along the Ho Chi Minh trail network.
Prior to the end of the cold war it was impossible for historians to examine the Chinese involvement in the Indochina conflicts. Chinese documents regarding communication between Beijing and its allies were classified. American sources regarding Chinese involvement were also hidden from public view due to national security concerns. Regarding the United States the last of the classified documents regarding covert actions to observe and document Chinese support for North Vietnam became declassified by the Senate POW/MIA affairs Committee headed by John Kerry in 1993. China has progressively released sources such as cables and telegrams since the Cold War de-escalated. This resulted in newly available documents that lend insight into the Communist motives behind their involvement in the Vietnam War.
The discussion concerning Chinese military evolvement in Vietnam by academics has been discussed through the political lens of the Vietnam War’s legacy. Political actions of the Russian and Chinese Communist elite during the war are given the majority of the focus in the academic works. There has been little attempt from many historians to confront how political decisions directly impacted the fighting experienced in the war itself. This article will hopefully reconcile the political history with the combat history.
For reliable commentary on the implementing of Chinese aid and the impact it had on the war, the author turned to American veteran accounts written post war alongside official communist cables and figures. Veteran memoirs are primary documents told first hand by the men who were there. When analyzed, a large portion of American veteran accounts provide incredibly detailed information as to how Chinese material and infrastructural support impacted the war itself.
Chinese military aid to a burgeoning communist movement in Vietnam began long before American involvement. In a message Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai sent to Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam articulates the desire the Chinese fostered to support war:
“Please convey our greetings to Comrade Ho Chi Minh… We sincerely congratulate Vietnam’s joining the anti-imperialist and democratic family headed by the Soviet Union.” (Feb. 1st, 1950)
At that time in the early 1950’s Chinese relations with Russia were strong. China had adopted a brotherly attitude toward Soviet communism. China also adopted Stalin’s strong desire for new allies in the united communist coalition against the west. On January 17, 1950 Mao personally ordered the recognition of Ho Chi Minh’s Communist government in a show of solidarity with the Vietnamese communist movement.  This solidarity would extend beyond political posturing to direct military support of Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule.
Once hostilities erupted in Vietnam between the Communists and the French, Stalin himself would personally advocate for Chinese PLA involvement in spreading Communist revolution in Vietnam. A May, 1949 diplomatic message from Stalin to Mao specifically stated:
“Anglo-Franco-Americans cannot help but understand that the approach of the PLA to the borders of Indochina, Burma [and] India will create a revolutionary situation in these countries, as well as in Indonesia and on the Philippine Islands.” 
Such diplomatic envoys illustrate the nature of Sino-Russian relations during this period. For example, the February 1950 message from Mao to Liu Shaoqi exemplifies the subsidiary nature China had taken to Stalin and the USSR. The Soviets were the leaders of worldwide communist revolutionary movement and were intent to use China as a middle-man to supply and support Communist expansion in South East Asia. This relationship would change in the 1960’s as China developed independence from the USSR and a competing nature of communist ideology. However, during the first Indochina War against the French the Chinese role would be one of Soviet influence and control. Stalin would reach through China to spread revolution to Vietnam in the 1950’s.
The first official Chinese aid to Vietnam began in April of 1950 when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or “PLA” formed the Chinese Military Adviser Group, or “CMAG”. CMAG was specifically formed in answer to requests by Vietnamese Communists for aid in the war for independence against France. Through CMAG, China would send advisors to Vietnam before the end of the year. This influx of military aid contributed to the success of the border campaigns of 1950 when the French lost nearly 6,000 men. Those French soldiers were stationed in outposts along the northern Chinese-Vietnamese border. The eviction of the French from the Northern border led to the fall of North Vietnam as a whole once supply routes were opened up and Chinese support could freely flow South.
During the first Indochina war the Chinese advisers from CMAG assumed direct control of Vietnamese military decisions in advisory roles. The reason for this was the lack of cohesive Viet Minh military leadership and non-existent Vietnamese Communist logistical infrastructure.
The Chinese ensured the victory of the Vietnamese forces throughout the conflict. This began in 1950 and lasted through 1954 to the climatic French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The battle at Dien Bien Phu was perhaps the most poignant example of how direct Chinese control of Vietnamese operations resulted in victory over the French colonial forces. The results of the battle showed how weak the French were and how powerful the Viet Minh had grown. The Chinese PLA General Wei Guoqing personally advised Vietnamese forces during the battle. General Guoqing was a veteran of the anti-Japanese war of WWII, the Chinese Civil War, and was personally appointed to command of CMAG by Mao. Due to his experience General Guoqing recognized the tactical opportunity for decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu. During the battle itself, the Chinese were present at all levels of command and support. Chinese labor dug gun emplacements, they hauled supplies, and CMAG advisers issued orders. The Chinese contributed 4,620 tons of petrol to the campaign, 1,360 tons of small arms ammunition, 46 tons of small arms and 1700 tons of rice to feed the Communist forces.
A vital element that allowed for Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu was their use of heavy artillery during the battle. Prior to the battle at Dien Bien Phu the French had under estimated the ability of the Vietnamese to deploy artillery in the highlands where the battle occurred. But the Viet Minh with Chinese assistance had formed a formidable modern artillery unit: 351st Artillery-Engineer Division. The 351st had been formed under CMAG supervision in 1951. The Chinese trained the division and supplied heavy artillery cannons as well. The artillery supplied by CMAG came in the form of WWII era American howitzers that had been given to the Chinese Nationalists during the Chinese civil war. The Nationalists had lost the civil war and their American supplied artillery was captured by the communists, who in turn gifted some of it to the Viet Minh as war aid. The howitzers were M101 105mm howitzers and M116 75mm pack howitzers. During the battle for Dien Bien Phu, over 200 of these howitzers were dismantled and carried by hand into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The unexpected presence of this heavy artillery directly supplied by the Chinese to the Viet Minh drastically aided the Viet Minh in the battle.
Alongside supplying the artillery that pounded French positions the Chinese had taken control of almost the entire operation at Dien Bien Phu to assure success. The Chinese support can be starkly contrasted by the fact that the French troops defeated at Dien Bien Phu wore American helmets, used American weapons, and wore American uniforms. Such evidence shows that Vietnam had already become an American and Soviet proxy war even though the Americans themselves were not yet fighting there. However the nature of the communist aid given to Vietnam would change considerably by the time American troops would be directly involved in Vietnam.
This change can be attributed to the charge experienced in China during the 1960’s. Inside China, Mao had initiated “The Great Leap Forward” which was a massive upheaval of Chinese society. The Great Leap Forward created an incredibly fragile political and economic state at home exemplified by famine and the death of 20 million between 1959 and 1962. With such turmoil within its own borders China became unable to send resources to Vietnam and became isolationist in foreign policy. However China resumed support of Vietnam in 1963 once the terrible ramifications of The Great Leap Forward stabilized. It was during the isolationist period of The Great Lead Forward that the Americans assumed a greater role in Vietnam. After the French were defeated and the Chinese pulled back the CMAG; a power vacuum had been created.
Mao Zedong began to see US presence in SE Asia as a serious threat to China National security. American build-up in Japan, the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam had solidified American military might terribly close to China’s borders. By the end of 1963, 16,000 American military personnel were stationed in South Vietnam. Mao subsequently began to resume support of Vietnamese communists. The aid given was material in nature. Over 2 million rounds of artillery shells delivered with 200 million rounds of small arms ammunition. More exotic items sent to Vietnam were 15 Mig jet aircraft, 28 naval vessels, and 1.18 million uniforms. The stage was being set for the next stage of the proxy conflict.
When American marines hit the beach at Da Nang in 1965 China had resumed full scale commitment to Vietnam. Shortly after the landing of the Marines in September of 1965, China agreed to ship North Korean war aid to North Vietnam free of charge. However the reception of the war aid was different than in the first “Indochina War” in several ways.
The North Vietnamese had been able to coordinate and create cohesive command and control leadership that it had lacked in the first war. One of the top priorities for the Vietnamese communists would be to not let the Chinese assume the same level of influence over Vietnamese war making as seen against the French in the 1950’s. During the war against the Americans the Vietnamese did not want Chinese troops to be in direct control of NVA personnel. The Chinese support would consist of two types: A) support troops to occupy defense positions like Anti-Aircraft positions to free up NVA units to go fight in the South, and B) material aid in the forms of weapons and equipment. These guidelines came at the direct request of Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese communist leader met with Mao in a visit to China in May 1965 and requested Chinese support troops to construct roads and aid in defending above the 21st parallel. However Ho Chi made it explicitly clear that the Vietnamese wanted operational control of the war.
By the 25th of May 1965, Premier Zhou Enlai under direct order from Mao chaired a meeting to discuss sending over 100,000 Chinese engineering troops to Vietnam to aid in infrastructure construction. By early June 1965 seven divisions of Chinese labor troops, (close to 80,000 men) had been dispatched to Vietnam.
On the 24th of July the Vietnamese General Staff telegraphed the Chinese General Staff and formally requested that China send the two anti-aircraft artillery divisions to aid in defense of North Vietnam. This envoy was a direct response to escalations in US Air strikes on North Vietnam. On the 1st of August the first two Divisions of Chinese Anti-Aircraft personnel entered North Vietnam. Within two weeks the Chinese divisions shot down three American planes, and possibly damaged another. 
As the war progressed China would rotate troops through Vietnam on 6-month tours of duty. The units would provide support but were blocked by Vietnamese officials from influencing the Vietnamese civilian population. The Vietnamese feared that the Chinese would assert control over operations again like they had in the first Indochina War, and were also cautious of Chinese influence on Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese had always valued independence from China and had historically fought to keep cultural independence from their powerful Norther neighbor. Mao thought that by giving aid to the Vietnamese in their struggle for independence he could overcome this history and gain a subordinate ally after the communist flag was raised over Vietnam as a whole.
The numbers show the trend of Chinese aid to Vietnam. Chinese supply of weapons and other military equipment to Vietnam sharply increased in 1965. Compared with 1964, the supply of guns increased from 80,500 to 220,767; gun bullets increased from 25.2 million to 114 million; pieces of artillery increased from 1,205 to 4,439; and artillery shells increased nearly 6 times, from 335,000 to 1.8 million. The amount of China’s military supply fluctuated between 1965 and 1968, although the total value of material supplies remained at roughly the same level. But then in 1969-70, a sharp drop occurred. This is when the Sino-Vietnamese relationship of “brotherly alliance” began to falter. The rift was caused by growing relations between Vietnam and the USSR.
Mao had personally grown adverse to Soviet premier Mikael Khrushchev’s politics concerning economic relations with the West. Mao saw the Soviet attempts to maintain a western economy as a degradation of Stalin’s anti-capitalistic sentiments and a corrosion of Soviet revolutionary energy. Where the Soviet’s directly influenced the Chinese in their support of the first Indochina War they were absent from China’s program in the second war. Mao thought that by accepting the massive amounts of aid, the Vietnamese were entering into a mutually understood relationship of Chinese moral supremacy and would take on a sense of loyalty to the Chinese. Mao underestimated thousands of years of rivalry, and the independence of the Vietnamese in turning a cold shoulder to Chinese influence. Mao perhaps could have foreseen and understood this because after all the Chinese themselves had turned their backs on the Soviets, who had at one time sought an obedient ally in China. The Vietnamese were doing the same to China and Mao was personally affronted. However the Vietnamese had already built their War upon freely accepted Chinese support. The North Vietnamese Army had been armed with Chinese weapons and rode to battle in Chinese trucks driven on Chinese engineered roads and bridges.
During the war China supplied the vast majority of weapons used by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops. These weapons ranged from infantry small arms like the Chinese versions of the AK-47 (Type 56 Rifle), the SKS (Type 56 Carbine), and the RPD (Type 56 LMG) machinegun to heavy weapons like anti-aircraft guns, artillery, and tanks. The weapons traveled on Chinese engineered roads and bridges into North Vietnam and filtered down into the war in South Vietnam. The NVA troops fought the war in South Vietnam armed with Chinese weapons and equipment. Such direct support undoubtedly fueled the Vietnamese efforts in the war and shaped the conflict in South Vietnam. But the direct impact of Chinese support bled over into the countries of Cambodia and Laos that bordered Vietnam to the West. A theatre that was not only impacted by the flow of Chinese aid but primarily shaped by it was the reconnaissance of the Ho Chi Minh trail system from 1966-1975. This clandestine war remained classified for decades after the end of the war and continues to unfold today as more is learned about the once secret war. This theatre is perhaps the aspect of the Vietnam War most influenced by the Chinese aid given to North Vietnam.
The massive amounts of Chinese material North Vietnam was directing to the war effort in South Vietnam could not safely pass through the DMZ between North and South Vietnam. The small area was intensely monitored and contested throughout the duration of the American presence in the South. The only reliable method that Beijing and Hanoi discovered was to move the aid illegally though a vast network of jungle roads and trails in Laos and Cambodia, known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. China had a large role to play in the construction of the trail system. An April 1967 message from Zhou Enlai, China’s head of government, discusses how he felt about dealing with the Cambodian Prince Sihanouk to gain passage for the trail through Cambodia: “Sometimes Sihanouk curses us out of his anger, which is understandable. We have to win his sympathy, but at the same time, we have to understand his nature.” 
Th Americans knew the problem of the Ho Chi Minh trail system needed to be addressed. The war was fueled by supplies moving down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Before any bombing or disruption of the flow of supplies could be conducted the secretive trail system had to be mapped and understood. A special group of American Special Forces troops would be gathered to conduct this hazardous duty.
The US military decided to act and President Johnson in 1966 authorized the formation of a Special Operations Group (SOG), to engage in covert cross-border operations to reconnoiter and map the Ho Chi Minh Trail. SOG consisted of American Special Forces leaders who led small teams of indigenous troops to collect information on the location and type of trail systems present in Eastern Cambodia and Laos. The reconnaissance provide by SOG would be used to understand the movement of supplies and that information could be used to disrupt the flow.
From 1966 to 1975 SOG sent reconnaissance teams into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam to gather information on the Ho Chi Minh trail network. The reconnaissance operations were incredibly dangerous because if a SOG recon team was located by NVA forces no ordinary US military unit could come help. The nature of SOG in any of its operational zones meant that any SOG men who were captured or killed would be disowned by the US government. 
The battles SOG fought in its war for information on the trail network were incredible. The recon teams suffered horrible casualties throughout the war. Major Ed Rybat who commanded the forward operating base at Phu Bai on the border recalls the horrendous casualties the dangerous missions reaped on SOG personnel during his command, 1967-68: “FOB 1 took a hell of a plastering during my time up there. We took 51 or 52 percent casualties.” 
Alongside reconnaissance operations, SOG engaged in psychological warfare to widen divides between the Chinese and North Vietnamese. The Americans were fully aware of the Chinese support that had built, fueled and maintained the Ho Chi Minh Trail and this knowledge shows in a 1968 leaflet of the type that SOG teams often left alongside trails for unsuspecting NVA to find and read. The document references booby-trap ammunition SOG teams would leave alongside trails that would explode an AK 47 rifle, killing or wounding the operator.
The document blames the Chinese manufacturers who were supplying cases of ammunition stating: “…while our allies, The People’s Republic of China may be having some quality control problems, these are being worked out… Only a few thousand cases have been found so far.” The direct reference SOG makes to Chinese support references not only the knowledge of the aid but an appreciation of the scale of the aid being provided.
The covert actions taken by SOG were in direct response to the material aid being funneled South. The majority of the material aid sent down the Ho Chi Minh trail network was Chinese in origin. This means that the entire covert theatre was in response to Chinese support. For nearly a decade this clandestine war raged and claimed thousands of lives. Therefore, the impact of Chinese war aid had more direct impacts in the Vietnam war as a whole than has been largely accredited by most historians.
The story of Chinese aid to Vietnam during the 1950’s through the 1970’s is a parallel to the more widely known story of American support of South Vietnam. Mao Zedong was desperate to adopt Vietnam as an Allie so he could claim victory for China over the Soviets in a political struggle for the right to advance Communist Revolution in Asia. His desperation resulted in a gamble that lasted over a decade and cost valuable resources during a fragile period of China’s own economic growth. Mao gambled that unlimited Chinese support would sway the Vietnamese. But Mao underestimated the resilience of the Vietnamese and desire for independence, just as the Americans did.
The gamble backfired on Mao because Vietnam accepted China’s aid but reject its political dominance. China felt that it was using Vietnam to promote communist revolution, but instead Vietnam used China to win their war of independence. In the war the combat was often directly impacted by the military aid from China. For too long historians have only focused on the American gamble in Vietnam and ignored the communist wager in turn. The Chinese first acted on behalf of the Soviets in the 1950’s, but then began their own independent venture to bribe a potential ally in the 1960’s. It was Chinese war aid that shaped the outcome of the Vietnam War just as much as American efforts. The impact of the Chinese aid can not only be seen through the political decisions made during the time between senior communist leaders, but in the life and death struggles of the war itself. In 1954 the Battle at Dien Bien Phu was won under Chinese CMAG leadership and with Chinese artillery. From 1966-1975 an entire covert war was fought under US Presidential order to combat an unstoppable flow of Chinese weapons and material into South Vietnam. Therefore, to ignore the Chinese support of the Vietnam conflict is negligent to the true history.
The study of Chinese involvement in Vietnam can also serve as a lens through which to view the universality of human nature. America is often seen to be the most humiliated participant that emerged from the struggle. It is important to consider that China perhaps lost more than the United States their Vietnamese gamble. The Chinese supplied massive amounts of resources to Vietnam in hopes of an ally in South East Asia. But the Vietnamese communists never accepted the Chinese as anything more than an opportunistic partner. After the Americans were defeated the Vietnamese turned on the Chinese with increasing hostility that eventually erupted in a bloody war in 1979. The Sino-Vietnamese war killed tens of thousands of Chinese troops and resulted in a new enemy for China. Once both sides of this conflict can be studied, empathy and understanding for the universality of human nature can emerge.
The author wants to develop respect and understanding for the history of the Vietnam War. For too long American historians have heaped inordinate shame upon America’s involvement. Many Americans continue to feel that the Vietnam War is an unhealed wound upon the nation’s military history. But America was not alone in the loss of an ally in South East Asia. Both sides of the proxy war lost because in the end. America lost South Vietnam and China ended up with a new enemy. Perhaps now as Chinese sources become more available and this topic can be explored more broadly, Americans can stop feeling ashamed of the war and finally learn from it. After all- learning that you are not alone in making mistakes can be the first step in the healing of a wound.
1966 Type 56 Carbine
This Type 56 Carbine was made in 1966 by the Jianshe Arsenal. The North Vietnamese Army would have been issued this rifle through the substantial military aid China delivered during the Vietnam War. This rifle was brought back from Vietnam by a US service member who took it home as a war trophy. This artefact serves as a physical testament to the Chinese aid given to North Vietnam during the American War.
Displayed with the rifle are a clip of its ammunition, and a cloth bandolier which would have both been issued with the rifle to an NVA soldier. All the equipment pictured is Chinese made.
Above are Chinese marking on the side of the carbine. The markings shown are: the factory code “26” within a triangle for “Factory 26” (Jianshe Arsenal), three Chinese characters that translate to “Type 56 Carbine”, and the rifle’s serial number.
 Chen Jian, China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69; The China Quarterly, No. 142 (Jun., 1995), pp. 356-387, Cambridge University Press on behalf of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Pp. 356
 “Telegram, Mao Zedong to Liu Shaoqi,” January 17, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi, ed., Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong’s Manuscripts since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China), vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1987), pp. 238
 3) “Cable, Stalin to Mao Zedong [via Kovalev],” May 26, 1949, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF: F. 45, Op. 1, D. 331, Ll. 73-75. Reprinted in Andrei Ledovskii, Raisa Mirovitskaia and Vladimir Miasnikov, Sovetsko-Kitaiskie Otnosheniia, Vol. 5, Book 2, 1946-February 1950 (Moscow: Pamiatniki Istoricheskoi Mysli, 2005), pp. 136-138
 Qiang Zhai, “Transplanting the Chinese Model: Chinese Military Advisers and the First Vietnam War, 1950-1954,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 57, No. 4, October 1993. Pp. 325
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 “Cable from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Economic and Trade Committee, ‘We Agree to Transport North Korea’s Material Aid for Vietnam’,” September 30, 1965, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, PRC FMA 109-02845-03, 12-13.
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 “Discussion between Zhou Enlai and Pham Van Dong,” April 10, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, CWIHP Working Paper 22, “77 Conversations.”
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 Ibid, 141
- Chen Jian, China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69; The China Quarterly, No. 142 (Jun., 1995), pp. 356-387, Cambridge University Press on behalf of the School of Oriental and AfricanStudies
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- “Cable, Stalin to Mao Zedong [via Kovalev],” May 26, 1949, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF: F. 45, Op. 1, D. 331, Ll. 73-75. Reprinted in Andrei Ledovskii, Raisa Mirovitskaia and Vladimir Miasnikov, Sovetsko-Kitaiskie Otnosheniia, Vol. 5, Book 2, 1946-February 1950 (Moscow: Pamiatniki Istoricheskoi Mysli, 2005), pp. 136-138. Translated for CWIHP by Sergey Radchenko. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113370
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- “Discussion between Zhou Enlai and Pham Van Dong,” April 10, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, CWIHP Working Paper 22, “77 Conversations.” http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112152
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