193. Memorandum From Fritz Ermarth of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Sino-Soviet Relations

On 16 January, the East-West Planning Group met to discuss Indochina, possibilities for a Sino-Soviet confrontation, and implications for East-West relations. Attending were Ermarth, Bartholomew, Odom, Hunter (NSC), Shulman, Berry (State), Bowie, Horelick (CIA). A groping, discordant discussion yielded several points of consensus:

—To avoid the “paper tiger syndrome”, the pressure on China to take stern action against Hanoi is considerable.2 The timing would probably be sometime after Deng’s visit.3

—Nevertheless, while mobilizing resources for a military move against Vietnam, the Chinese are probably still pondering what to do [Page 714] and the odds are that they will look for a way to sustain a Cambodian insurgency, to keep the Vietnamese very nervous about their border, and to exploit the broad antipathy to Soviet-Vietnamese moves revealed in the UN, rather than take more dramatic military action.

—The group appeared to agree that China would suffer a drubbing at almost any level of direct military clash with the Soviets, that China shares this view of the military realities, and that this is a major deterrent to a Chinese riposte against Hanoi.

—Because of the likely adverse consequences for China, not to mention for East-West relations, it is in the US interest that an escalating Sino-Soviet confrontation over Indochina be avoided.

The non-operational nature of this group made it impossible to develop a focused discussion on two questions I had hoped to illuminate: 1) Though improbable (and that we’ll see), what would be the scope and consequences of a major military escalation? 2) At what point would escalating conflict face the US with the choice of a clearer alignment with China or recognition that the US could not really do much for Chinese security?

In my own opinion, a Sino-Soviet confrontation could go far, fast. Once the Soviets determined that the Chinese were not to be intimidated by minor skirmishes, Soviet military and political leaders alike would commit to quick, decisive operations aimed at carving off buffer regions or cracking the morale of the Beijing regime or both. They would be horrified by the prospect of a protracted struggle that would, while bleeding them white, earn them greater enmity, but not fear, from the Chinese, and also from the West. At this point, the US and its allies would have very little leverage on events. Should such a scenario occur, it would be faintly comforting to assume that a universally galvanizing effect on the West would result. One probably cannot make that assumption. A quick successful Soviet offensive against China for important but limited goals might have the contrary effect on some.

These forbidding prospects should not obscure alternative courses of events that may be more likely and more congenial. Although smarting from their defeat in Cambodia, the Chinese presumably do not want to court disaster in pursuing revenge. With a little luck, and some help from their friends, they may be able to take revenge slowly (second tick, first page). The point is that a smoldering crisis in Indochina, presenting the constant potential of escalation but never quite the pretext for a major Soviet military move, could cause some hesitancy in Moscow about running risks elsewhere, say, in Iran. Surely the Vietnamese would begin to tire in time.

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Deng believes, according to Manfred Woerner, who spent some hours talking to him, that “the Americans have no sense of strategy.” Perhaps we could surprise him a bit on this score.4

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Presidential Advisory Board, Box 74, Far East: Box 2. Secret; Sensitive; Outside the System. Sent for information. The first page is stamped, “ZB has seen.”
  2. Following increasingly vicious border skirmishes, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and captured Phnom Penh in January 1979. During this fighting, the Soviet Union supported Vietnam and China supported Cambodia.
  3. Brzezinski underlined the word “after.”
  4. In the right margin next to this paragraph, Brzezinski wrote, “How? Outline a coherent approach.