James W. Pfister: Same mistake: Vietnam and Taiwan

James W. Pfister
James W. Pfister

The United States attempted to defend the entity of South Vietnam. South Vietnam fell to our adversary, North Vietnam, on April 30, 1975. Vietnam is now a unified state in international law.

President Joe Biden has said at least four times that the United States will defend Taiwan from a Chinese attempt at forced reunification. Certainly, there are major differences between the two cases. Taiwan is a more cohesive and economically developed entity than South Vietnam was. And the threat of nuclear war is much greater with Taiwan. Both cases, however, share important similarities: Both were unified with the dominant entity in history, both were disunified by a more powerful external intruder, and both experienced United States intervention to frustrate the reunification process. Also, both were way out of the United States’ natural sphere of influence being peripheral to China. Both cases can be seen as a civil war, where the so-called domino theory should not apply. We made a mistake with Vietnam. Are we about to make the same mistake with Taiwan?

In the 16th century, Vietnam was divided in three parts: the Mac, the Trinh and the Nguyen. The country was eventually unified under Nguyen Anh, who assumed the title of Gia Long, on June 1, 1802. The Vietnamese began to lose their unity to French colonialism in the 1860s and were firmly under French control by the 1880s.

In Taiwan, the island was controlled by China by 1683, which had driven out the Dutch and the Spanish. It became a province of China. But China lost Taiwan to the Japanese as a result of the China-Japanese War and the Treaty of Shimonoseki of April 17, 1895.

Thus, in both cases, the dominant entity had sovereignty and possession over the weaker entity, until it lost it to a stronger external power in the latter 19th century. The goal of both stronger entities was to regain that sovereignty and possession it once had.

In Vietnam, France was defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese nationalists on May 7, 1954. The United States had been paying 80% of the French war costs. The Geneva Conference Settlement, of July 21, 1954, provided for an honorable French withdrawal and elections in July 1956 which were expected to be the basis for unification under the dominant Viet Minh entity.

In Taiwan, the Japanese were driven out as the result of World War II. An officer of the Chinese government accepted the Japanese surrender in Taiwan on Oct. 25, 1945. The Chinese Nationalists lost the civil war in China; Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China (herein PRC) on Oct. 1, 1949, at Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party referred to the 1943 Cairo Declaration that declared Taiwan be returned to China, according to Frank S. T. Hsiao and Lawrence R. Sullivan, “The Chinese Communist Party and the Status of Taiwan,” 1979. Taiwan was considered to be a PRC province in the PRC constitution.

The United States became an intervenor in both Vietnam and Taiwan. In Vietnam, the United States refused to accept the Geneva Conference Settlements and responded with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (herein SEATO), a defensive alliance against communism, which, contrary to the Geneva Settlements, allowed a procedure whereby South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, could be protected by SEATO as “protocol” entities.

In Taiwan, the United States prevented unification by putting the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait during the Korean War and by entering into a defensive treaty in 1955 with Chiang Kai-shek regarding Taiwan. Immediately after the United States finally recognized the PRC as the government of all of China on Jan. 1, 1979, including Taiwan (the One-China policy), and terminated said defensive treaty, the United States passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which continued our defensive relationship with Taiwan and created the strategic ambiguity we presently have regarding the PRC.

Again, as with South Vietnam, we are defending the weaker entity which in history was unified with the dominant entity. In both cases we have intervened to prevent the natural outcome of reunification. We should repeal the Taiwan Relations Act and mind our own business, instead of spending lives and money in another losing cause.

James W. Pfister, J.D. University of Toledo, Ph.D. University of Michigan (political science), retired after 46 years in the Political Science Department at Eastern Michigan University. He lives at Devils Lake and can be reached at jpfister@emich.edu.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: James W. Pfister: Same mistake: Vietnam and Taiwan