Vietnam war. The view from Hanoi, Peking, Moscow

An International History of the Vietnam War: The Kennedy Strategy, by R. B. Smith. New York: St. Martin's Press. 429 pp. $25. THIS book adds a new dimension to the multiple retellings of the Vietnam war. The emphasis in the title should be on ``international.'' This is not a military history concerned with battles. Nor is it simply a recounting of policymaking in Washington, or of what happened in Saigon or Hanoi, or even of reactions in Peking and Moscow. It is all of these things, as well as what was happening at the same time in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, even Cuba.

This technique provides some new insights into the ironies and tragedies of the time. For both sides, Vietnam became a country where a major confrontation had to be played out, though both sides wished for another locale. Johnson and Rusk appear to have been more cautious than their critics have charged; and in Peking and Moscow, as well as Hanoi, there was a greater desire to avoid confrontation than many Americans then thought.

R. B. Smith is reader in the history of Southeast Asia with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. This is the second volume of a projected larger work. Volume I deals with 1955-1961, the Dulles period of containment. Volume II covers not only the Kennedy doctrine of counterinsurgency but also the Johnson transition by early 1965 to active American engagement.

Mr. Smith has set himself a task which is as difficult as it is worthwhile and ambitious. Although many American records remain under lock and key, the American government during this period is an open book compared with the source material which is available in Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow. Mr. Smith is not always able to resist the temptation to draw inferences and make connections where it is doubtful that any exist.

This is the book's major weakness. Describing several apparently unrelated events in September 1963, Mr. Smith remarks that they ``may or may not have been coordinated by the Communist side.'' That sort of statement does not advance anybody's understanding.

Mr. Smith also makes too much of what he sees as Washington's preoccupation with Indonesia during the early 1960s. For both Kennedy and Johnson, he writes, ``the main interest of the United States lay in achieving stability in the maritime areas of Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia.'' According to Smith, American policymakers were convinced that abandonment of South Vietnam and Laos would further Sukarno's designs. This conviction was certainly not apparent to Washington observers at the time, however. Indeed, in 1965 -- shortly after the end of Smith's Volume II -- Sukarno was overthrown and hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists were slaughtered, thereby removing the presumed reason for staying in Vietnam.

Such lapses are more than balanced by the book's real contributions. Even with the paucity of communist sources, Mr. Smith manages to patch together a fascinating account of the interplay among Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow and of resulting communist policies which were not always taken adequately into account in Washington.

In Smith's view, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations seriously misread the Sino-Soviet split and assumed that China was the principal ``enemy'' in Asia while the Soviet Union was potentially a ``friend.'' In fact, the increasing American involvement in Vietnam became the principal unifying factor in the world communist movement. Thus, American policy might unwittingly have served to paper over the Sino-Soviet split, the encouragement of which would have been much in American interests.

There were other complexities. Ho Chi Minh was not anxious for a larger commitment in the south. He saw this as draining resources from rebuilding the north, and possibly as making him more dependent on China than he wished to be. How Ho maneuvered to avoid this Chinese dependency and to maintain his ties with both rival communist superpowers is only suggested in the book. One hopes that someday it can be told in full. It might be one of the great diplomatic stories of the century.

If Ho did not wish to become dependent on the Chinese, neither did the Soviets wish him to be. Especially after the humiliation of the Cuban missile crisis, they felt they could not afford to appear soft on imperialism, even though escalating demands for foreign aid (Cuba, Indochina) were straining their resources. And so, at least partly because of their relations with each other, neither Moscow nor Peking would compromise with the West.

There is much more food for thought in Smith's international history. The reader should be forewarned that it is heavy going. It is not for the scanner or the idly curious. But those who are willing to work at it will be rewarded.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.