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The Vietnam peninsula after the war

Brother Enemy: the War after the War, by Nayan Chanda. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 479 pp. $24.95. Nayan Chanda is an Indian journalist with the the Far Eastern Economic Review. His authorative account of the Vietnam peninsula after the war begins in April 1975, with Communist victory and American flight. The long American intervention, the boat people tragedy, the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia: These he mentions only in passing, offering instead a richly detailed account of diplomatic and political maneuvering during 1975-79. From these sprang the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia late in 1978, which combined with the ensuing thrusts by China along the Vietnamese border to trigger a third Indochina war that now continues as a desultory, stalemated, guerrilla struggle in Cambodia.

Chanda has dug deep into specialized sources, drawn on his extensive experience, and talked at length with the small circle of Western experts who form the book's true audience. This book focuses on policymaking at the very top, primarily in Peking, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and secondarily in Vientiane, Moscow, and Washington.

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Only in several brief inter-chapters does a hero emerge: Norodom Sihanouk, whom Chanda portrays convincingly as a sincere Cambodian patriot, not the tricky fellow traveler so despised in Nixon's Washington. Sihanouk, in de facto house arrest while the massacres raged under Pol Pot, kept himself sane with foreign news broadcasts, hoping against hope for better times. Vietnamese offers in 1978 to help form a ``friendly'' government he rebuffed: To turn collaborationist with the national enemy, even against Pol Pot, was to stand condemned forever.

With Sihanouk as tragic hero, and Pol Pot as evil personified, Zbigniew Brzezinski entered the game, as part of his rivalry with Cyrus Vance over American foreign policy. While Vance and his lieutenant, Richard Holbrooke, understood the likely consequences of giving China a free hand against Vietnam, Chanda contends that Brzezinski cared less about peace than about winning China to an anti-Soviet coalition. Washington's culpability was far less, however, than that of Peking, which has consistently opposed any strong power on its southern flank that could catch China in a pincers with the northern barbarians. Hence, China was ambivalent about the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, supported Cambodia against Vietnam, and is delighted to have American rightists block good relations with Vietnam by raising the MIA controversy.

Chanda shows how simplistic is Washington's stereotype of Vietnam as an Asian Prussia, out to gobble up little Cambodia. Certainly the Vietnamese, flushed with victory in 1975, have accepted the united Indochina doctrine that France developed and now regard Cambodia as ``their space'' (much as Syria does with Lebanon, or Iran with eastern Iraq).

Pol Pot's dreams of transforming Cambodia - through massacre and de-urbanization - did not, however, stop at the frontier. Even anti-communist Cambodians hoped to restore Cambodia's former greatness by regaining the provinces (including Saigon) conquered by Vietnam in centuries past. Pol Pot, confident of Chinese backing and of his zealots' moral superiority over the ``inferior'' Vietnamese, consciously kept the border in turmoil.

In all this there is little of Marx, of ``proletarian internationalism,'' of ``workers of the world unite,'' but much of the indigenous forces that smoldered during the colonial interlude: traditional geopolitics and realpolitik, historical fears, hatreds, and rivalries, and racist attitudes toward neighbors, especially the overseas Chinese. We know that victorious revolutions are arrogant and expansionist, and that great powers merely worsen matters by jamming local complexities into a communist vs. anti-communist mold. This supremely important book helps us recognize what this has meant for Indochina, and how to move toward a wiser future.

Leonard Bushkoff reviews books frequently for the Monitor.

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