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Soviet Aid to North Vietnam

The Soviet Union had three clear objectives regarding the Vietnam conflict: to maintain the advantages of peaceful cooperation with the US; to support national liberation movements and their role in the eventual final victory of communism; and to reduce the influence of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the world communist movement. The PRC was a major factor from the Soviet position. Moscow was ostensibly "pressing" for negotiations while watching the protracted conflict sap the strength of its major international foe. Washington's repeated use of bombing just after proposing an initiative for reducing the hostilities undermined Moscow's credibility.

North Vietnam initially acknowledged the Soviet Union as leader of the "socialist camp" and accorded Moscow first place in its eulogies of the Communist countries. Had there not been the Russian October Revolution, there would not have been an Indochinese Communist Party, the precursor of today's CPV. Had the Red Soviet troops not defeated German fascism and Japanese militarism, the 1945 August Revolution in Vietnam would never have occurred. Had the Soviet Union not been powerful, Vietnam would not have been able to defeat French colonialism, US imperialism and international reactionaryism.

Comrade Ho Chi Minh, still in France at that time, was the first Vietnamese who, after reading the first draft of Lenin's thesis on national and colonial problems, realized the truth that, to save the country and liberate the nation, there was no other road than that of proletarian revolution. (Ho Chi Minh: "Forever Following the Road of Great Lenin," Su That Publishing House, Hanoi, 1970, page 51) From that moment, Marxism-Leninism spread to Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh wrote "The Great October Revolution Has Opened the Way to the Liberation of All Nations" [1 November 1967] "By following the path charted by the great Lenin, the path of the October Revolution, the Vietnamese have won very large victories. Therefore, the bond and the gratitude that the Vietnamese feel toward the glorious October Revolution, the great Lenin and the Soviet people are exceedingly deep."

Since the rise of Communist China and the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations, however, North Vietnam maintained the position, as did other Communist states, that all "socialist" states are equal and independent. Nevertheless, it acknowledges that the Soviet Union has been an important contributor of economic and military aid, especially since early 1965 when Moscow initiated measures to improve Hanoi's "defense potential."

Soviet emphasis on military intervention began with Soviet aid to Cuba and Vietnam. Both countries faced confrontations against the United States. Military aid to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq was directed at Israel, considered an outpost of American imperialism. Soviet military aid to Vietnam began after the Second World War to assist Ho Chi Minh in his struggle against returning French rule. This aid continued after Vietnam divided. North Vietnamese-backed guerrillas tried to overthrow the South Vietnamese government using this aid. Estimates of the total cost of the Soviet Union's support to the North Vietnam government range from $3.6 billion to $8 billion [in then-year U.S. dollars].

The top leaders and other officials of the two governments had also consulted during visits to each other's capitals: President Ho Chi Minh in 1955 and 1957; Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan in 1956 and President Kliment Y. Voroshilov in 1957. At the 1960 Lao Dong Party Congress, Premier Pham Van Dong supported the Soviet Union's thesis on the possibility of avoiding open warfare with imperialist powers and on the tactical importance of peaceful coexistence with the West. For its part, the Soviet Communist Party representative declared his government's intention to broaden its cooperation with North Vietnam.

An agreement signed with Moscow in December 1960 assured Hanoi of Soviet economic and technical assistance; a similar Soviet pledge was made in an agreement signed in September 1962. Between 1961 and late 1964, Hanoi's relations with Moscow were generally cordial, although there were indications, especially after March 1963, that Hanoi was inclined to agree with the militant position of Peiping in ideological disputes between Communist China and the Soviet Union.

At the 16th session of the UN General Assembly (1961), the Soviet Union proposed that 1962 be declared the year of the total elimination of colonialism and demanded an end to wars of aggression, the dismantling of military bases overseas. During this period, various nations won large and continuous victories in their brave struggle.

Beginning in November 1964, relations with the Soviet Union took a new turn, evidently because of Moscow's avowed intention to render active support to Hanoi in its political and military confrontation with the United States. On 17 November 1964, the Soviet Politburo decided to send increased support to North Vietnam. This aid included aircraft, radar, artillery, air defense systems, small arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies. They also sent Soviet military personnel to North Vietnam-the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Vietnam (DRVN). Some 15,000 Soviet personnelserved in Indo-China as advisers and occasionally as combatants. The largest part of the Soviet adviser personnel were air defense officers.

In February 1965 Soviet Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin visited Hanoi, accompanied by Air Chief Marshal Konstantin Vershinin, who was commander in chief of the Soviet air force and a deputy defense minister. A joint communique issued at the conclusion of his visit on February 10 announced that the two. governments had signed an agreement on measures for strengthening Hanoi's "defense potential." After returning to Moscow, Premier Kosygin said that his government had already taken necessary steps to implement the agreement. It appeared that the Soviet military aid consisted mainly of surface-to-air missiles (SAM's), jet fighters and technical advisers. In late March 1965 the Soviet Communist Party's first secretary, Leonid I. Brezhnev, announced that his government had been receiving "many applications" from Soviet citizens offering to serve as volunteers in Vietnam.

Since 1965 the Soviet Union and Communist China had been haggling over the military aid each is providing North Vietnam and over the mechanics of moving Soviet aid to North Vietnam. The dispute was a facet of the broader Sino-Soviet conflict and was interwoven with issues arising from US-North Vietnamese negotiations. Parts of the continuing argument surfaced, periodically in polemical exchanges between Moscow and Peking.

Both Moscow and Peking, throughout the dispute, had other considerations in mind in addition to North Vietnam's war needs. A paramount Soviet purpose was to use aid to Vietnam as a means of strengthening Moscow's influence over Hanoi and elsewhere at the expense of Peking. Sino-Soviet political enmity and military rivalry worked to limit to some extent what aid the North Vietnamese received and how they received it. Because of China's insistance on a right to inspect Soviet shipments in transit to North Vietnam, the Soviets appear to have held back or delayed shipment of some sophisticated military equipment. Third, both Moscow and Peking were been constrained in their aid to North Vietnam by a desire to avoid a direct conflict with the US.

The USSR repeatedly suggested that it believed the Chinese wish to provoke a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Gulf of Tonkin. A widely-distributed CPSU letter to other parties in February 1966 claimed that the Chinese sought such a conflict "in order to be able to, as they themselves say, 'observe the battle of the tigers while seated on the hill.'" In April 1966, the Soviet leaders circulated a document at the 23rd CPSU Congress which accused the Chinese of trying to force the Soviet Union to ship its military aid by sea and risk a clash with the Seventh Fleet, and thereby to force a Soviet-US showdown.

The Hanoi government received continued support from Moscow on the political, military and economic fronts. Moscow endorsed the peace proposals of both Hanoi and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. The Soviet Union, in agreements signed in July 1965 and December 1965, respectively, also pledged to give increased military and economic aid.

In early March 1965 (presumably in accordance with the understandings Kosygin had reached with the Vietnamese in Hanoi in February) the Soviets proposed to send to the DRV by rail through China eight battalions of SAMs and four thousand Soviet advisors and technicians. The Chinese strongly objected, but they repeatedly claimed in April and May that it was North Vietnamese reluctance to accept Soviet personnel that had caused the offer to be rejected, On the other hand, the Soviets claimed that the Chinese were placing a limit on the transit of Soviet personnel. Under the influence of the mounting US bombing, the DRV prevailed upon China to permit a limited quota of Soviet SAM personnel to pass. It was not until 24 July 1965 that the SAMs were fired for the first time, by Soviet crews.

In December 1965 the Soviet army newspaper, Red Star, reported for the first time that Soviet antiaircraft missiles had been supplied to North Vietnam. Still another Moscow pledge of military and economic assistance was made in an agreement signed in January 1966, when Aleksandr N. Shelepin, a member of the Soviet Communist Party Presidium and Secretariat, visited Hanoi.

The extent of Soviet aid, though never officially announced, was reported by various sources. In February 1966 the chairman of the Canadian Communist Party, Tim Buck, was quoted by Radio Djakarta as having said that some 5,000 North Vietnamese were being trained in the Soviet Union to become fighter pilots. This information was reported to have been obtained from President Ho Chi Minh while the Canadian Communist was visiting Hanoi in late 1965. The extent of the Soviet aid to Hanoi was estimated in some quarters to be "worth about half a billion rubles", ranging from rocket installations to planes, tanks and warships.

In March 1966 Le Duan, First Secretary of the Lao Dong Party, headed a delegation to Moscow to attend the twenty-third Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Communist China had boycotted this Congress. In his speech before the Congress, Le Duan declared that he had two fatherlands, North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and thanked Moscow for its "huge and many-sided aid."

In August 1966 Soviet authorities confirmed that an undisclosed number of North Vietnamese fighter pilots were being trained in the Soviet Union. In addition, Radio Moscow on October 2, 1966, announced for the first time that Soviet officers and specialists had been sent to North Vietnam to train antiaircraft units in the use of Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles. Nhan Dan announced in October that Hanoi had signed in Moscow an agreement on the new Soviet "nonrefundable" aid to Vietnam and an agreement on supplementary Soviet loans to Vietnam for 1967.

The USSR obviously had great anxiety over the sea supply route to North Vietnam -- the main channel for Soviet economic and military-support shipments to the DRV. The Soviets were concerned over U.S. bombing of DRV ports and over the possibility that the United States might take steps to close DRV ports by mining or blockade. Through repeated vigorous protests the Soviet Union sought to convey the impression that the USSR regarded access to DRV ports as important to Soviet interests.

What the Soviets apparently wanted was a way to carry weapons by sea to the Far East, yet have someone else assume the burden of actual delivery to the DRV. Such a solution would be available if the Chinese were willing to accept Soviet shipments at Chinese ports -- such as Canton -- for transshipment to the DRV either by rail or by Chinese ship.

After the 02 June 1967 strafing incident at the DRV port of Campha, a Soviet Foreign Ministry note threatened "to take appropriate measures to insure the safety of Soviet ships" if the incident were reported. On 05 January 1968, after two more incidents had actually occurred, a Soviet protest note said that "the corresponding Soviet departments will be compelled to take measures for insuring the safety of Soviet vessels bound for DRV ports."

It is possible that the Soviet navy, in the spring of 1967, was instructed to prepare contingency plans for a possible Soviet attempt to break a hypothetical US blockade of Haiphong - leaving implementation open as a matter for politburo decision. Czechoslovak Defense Minister Lomsky reported to the collegium of the Ministry that the Soviets had issued an order to the Soviet navy to provide escorts for Soviet merchant vessels in the event that Haiphong was blockaded or a Soviet vessel bombed in Haiphong harbor. This order also allegedly called for efforts to break any blockade, including steps to sweep minefields. Lomsky, who had just returned from Moscow, said that the Soviets had told him that they would resist any U.S. moves to prevent Soviet ships from going to Haiphong. The Soviet order was supposedly issued at a time when U.S. statements pointed to a possible blockade of Haiphong. However, no Soviet naval escorts were in fact provided.

The Soviet Union indicated that some of the weaapons requested by the DRV had been denied. The CPSU document on Soviet military aid to Vietnam circulated among visiting foreign Communists in Moscow in November 1967, stated that "the USSR has speedily satisfied practically all the requests of the DRV for delivery of military equipment." The DRV did not receive the KOMAR or OSA-class guided-missile-firing patrol boats, which it wanted and, apparently, at one time thought it was going to receive. The failure to receive such boats must be particularly annoying to the DRV because, over the previous decade, the USSR had distributed KOMARs and OSAs to about a dozen countries around the world, including some whom the DRV must regard as far less deserving than itself.

The military aid figures reflect the level and intensity of combat operations in Indochina. The high level in 1968 resulted both from replacement requirements for ground forces equipment following the 1968 Tet offensive and the delivery of substantial amounts of Soviet air defense equipment before the bombing halt that year. Combat levels were lower during the next two years and military aid declined. This trend was reversed in 1971 when Hanoi began preparations for the 1972 spring offensive. Military assistance jumped sharply again in 1972, reflecting an upsurge in deliveries of ground forces equipment and air defense equipment. Shipments apparently turned down in 1973 following the ceasefire agreement.

Economic aid from the USSR exceeded $300 million annually during the l968~7l reconstruction period'and could have been higher if North Vietnam's absorptive capacity were not so limited. Soviet aid fell sharply in 1972, however, as a result of the mining of North Vietnam's ports and the halt in reconstruction activity during the 1972 bombing.

Economic Aid3053853453202102001,765
Military Aid415175901653751751,395
US Intelligence estimate, 1974 dollars

Following the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, Hanoi sought to retain the equilibrium of its wartime relations with both China and the Soviet Union, but mounting tensions with Beijing, culminating in the loss of Chinese aid in 1978, compelled Hanoi to look increasingly to Moscow for economic and military assistance. Beginning in late 1975, a number of significant agreements were signed between the two countries. One coordinated the national economic development plans of the two countries, and another called for the Soviet Union to underwrite Vietnam's first post-reunification Five-Year Plan. The first formal alliance was achieved in June 1978 when Vietnam joined Comecon.

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