James I. Matray Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of American-East Asian Relations; California, State University, Chico, USA

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During the 19th Century, U.S. leaders developed a policy for conferring recognition on new governments assuming power in foreign nations. Establishing formal diplomatic relations required that a country’s new leaders demonstrate control over the machinery of state and not face significant internal opposition to their rule, while providing evidence of the likelihood of its future stability. By 1900, they had added to the definition the willingness and ability to fulfill their international responsibilities. Foreign governments valued recognition because those that were unrecognized did not have standing to sue in U.S. federal and state courts to secure, for example, the resources of the government it had replaced. Woodrow Wilson, however, would change the standards required of a new foreign government to receive U.S. recognition after he became president in March 1913. He introduced a subjective requirement of assessing how the transfer of power occurred to ensure that it was legitimate and morally correct. Apparently, the way that the republican government replaced the monarchy in China in 1912 satisfied Wilson, as the United States became the first to recognize it in May 1913. A different outcome occurred in Mexico, where Wilson withheld recognition of Victoriano Huerta’s government. According to the U.S. president, Huerta was “a thug and a butcher” who came to power after the assassination of his predecessor. Wilson was able to persuade some other nations to follow suit and this may have contributed to Huerta fleeing Mexico in July 1914. Perhaps seeing efficacy in his strategy, Wilson after November 1917 withheld recognition of the new Bolshevik government in Russia, although this had no impact on the Soviet Union’s survival. However, Wilson’s new approach on granting recognition would create difficult complications for future U.S. foreign policy.

President Warren G. Harding used the non-recognition strategy against Mexico, not for moral reasons, but to compel it not to limit the ability of U.S. business firms to exploit Mexican oil resources. President Herbert Hoover, however, reinstated the traditional policy regarding the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. After 1929, the Great Depression had a devastating impact on Latin America, as economic distress promoted political instability and revolutions led to the toppling of several governments. Hoover consistently recognized these new regimes once they demonstrated control over state affairs. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first year in office negotiated an agreement resulting in formal recognition of the Soviet Union. But the advent of the Cold War revived Wilson’s approach on recognition, as the United States rejected the legitimacy of the government of East Germany in October 1949. That same month, it refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China (prc), instead maintaining relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s regime that fled to Taiwan. U.S. allies in East Asia such as Thailand and the Philippines also withheld recognition, as did Japan as part of its bargain with the United States to regain sovereignty. While it was no surprise that the Soviet Union and its clients in East Europe quickly recognized the prc, Britain displeased the United States when it established diplomatic relations, as did Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, in 1950. Other U.S. allies in Europe continued to withhold relations with the prc into the early 1960s. Also, the United States prevented the prc’s admission to the United Nations. But then in January 1964, France and the prc issued a joint announcement that in three months they would establish diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors. In the first article of this issue, Qiang Zhai explains the significance, as the title indicates, of “Sino-French Normalization and Its Impact on the United States and Taiwan.”

Zhai examines the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the prc and France in 1964, arguing that Chairman Mao Zedong and President Charles de Gaulle made this “bold and extraordinary move to forge a new relationship based on the geopolitical calculations of countering American-Soviet domination of world affairs.” While scholars have discussed France’s reasons for normalization, he explains, none have noted Mao’s motive of undermining the French Communist Party because it had aligned with Moscow in the Sino-Soviet dispute. Both Beijing and Paris considered bilateral recognition in 1954 and 1955, but France chose not to alienate the United States, while the prc backed off because continued French recognition of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime on Taiwan meant normalizing relations would constitute acceptance of a “two China” solution. The Suez Crisis hardened Mao’s negative attitude toward France, but his interest in normalization resumed after de Gaulle became prime minister in 1958 because his pursuit of a united and independent Europe “would spur the growth of neutralism and anti-Americanism ….” France’s fight to maintain control of Algeria caused further delay, as Beijing provided money, arms, and advice to the rebels, resulting in de Gaulle postponing recognition of the prc. By late 1963, de Gaulle’s desire to work with Beijing to mediate a peace settlement in Vietnam, Zhai argues, determined “the timing of [his] secret initiative to the prc” to normalize relations. Agreement on mutual recognition followed after Beijing dropped its demand for Paris to repudiate Taiwan because it expected Chiang to terminate relations with France and prevent a “two China” solution. Chiang obliged, despite intense U.S. pressure to delay that only “hurt his pride” and “revealed the troubled relationship between Washington and Taipei.” “Ambitious and persistent,” Zhai insightfully concludes, “both Mao and de Gaulle were able to transcend their ideological differences to construct a relationship based on geopolitical realism.”

Another government that the United States refused to recognize after World War ii was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (drv). What made this surprising was that during World War ii, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services had worked directly with those who founded this government in August 1945. Ho Chi Minh and his Vietminh provided valuable intelligence in fighting the Japanese, as well as assisting in the rescue of downed U.S. pilots in southern China. But rising fears of Soviet expansion as the war came to an end caused the Truman administration to place greater emphasis on the fact that Ho was a Communist. Yet it hesitated until 7 February 1950 to recognize the French-installed postwar Associated State of Vietnam under Bao Dai. The outbreak of the Korean War in June would convince U.S. leaders that Ho Chi Minh was a Soviet puppet, hardening its non-recognition policy toward the drv. Seeking to create an alternative to Ho’s government, the Eisenhower administration acted to prevent reunification of Vietnam after the Geneva Accords had divided the nation temporarily in 1954. The next year, Ngo Dinh Diem gained election as president of the Republic of Vietnam (rvn). South Vietnamese Communists, with drv support, led an increasingly powerful insurgency to end Diem’s regime, resulting in Diem adopting brutal tactics to suppress opposition, but only spurring more widespread hostility. The United States steadily increased economic and military aid to Diem’s government, while at the same time encouraging domestic reforms to win popular support. American journalists such as Bernard Fall, Jim Robinson, and Homer Bigart reported on rising violence in South Vietnam during the late 1950s, increasingly attributing it to the failures of Diem’s government. Nathaniel L. Moir, in the second article of this issue titled “To Each His Turn … Today Yours, Tomorrow Mine: François Sully’s Turn in History” describes the experiences of a French correspondent who recorded the unpleasant consequences of U.S. recognition of the Republic of Vietnam.

Moir contends that prior scholars have “underestimated or overlooked” Sully, arguing that “his reporting introduced Vietnam to American readers, and his journalism influenced a generation of Western reporters covering the intervention of U.S. forces in Vietnam.” After fighting the Nazis in France during World War ii, Sully was a soldier in France’s Expeditionary Forces in Southeast Asia from 1946 to 1947 and then briefly managed a 200-acre plantation, which amplified his developing concern for the welfare of the Vietnamese people. Shifting his career to journalism, he wrote for a small newspaper until he started reporting for Time-Life in 1954, United Press in 1958, and Newsweek after 1961. “His familiarity with Vietnam, along with his French and growing Vietnamese language skills,” Moir explains, “ … contributed to his appeal among incoming journalists unfamiliar with Vietnam and its complicated history.” But Sully’s relations with the rvn deteriorated because he endorsed neutralization of Vietnam and criticized the Diem regime for corruption and policies oppressing its citizens. Then, in July 1961, he praised the battlefield performance of an rvn army unit that was part of a failed coup attempt the prior November against President Diem. U.S. officials persuaded Diem not to expel Sully until August 1962 when he published an interview with Bernard Fall blaming the rnv for “an over-militarized approach to addressing South Vietnam’s political problems” along with a photograph of Madame Nhu’s female militia with a caption demeaning its fighting ability. Sully returned to Vietnam in late 1964, a year after Diem’s assassination, and continued reporting until February 1971 when, at age 43, he died in a helicopter crash near the Cambodian border. Moir’s powerful resurrection of Sully’s significance shows how a decade earlier he “was at the center of an evolving and profoundly problematic American relationship with the Republic of Vietnam.”

While the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the prc in 1979 and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1995, it still has not recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk). In September 1948, Korean Communists under Soviet supervision established a government north of the 38th parallel. From the outset, the Truman administration considered it illegitimate and the Korean War only solidified its non-recognition policy toward the dprk. During truce talks from July 1951 to July 1953, U.S. military officers did have direct contact with North Korean counterparts, but as representatives of the United Nations Command (unc), not the U.S. government. At the Geneva Conference in 1954, U.S. diplomats negotiated with the North Koreans, but again with representatives from members of the unc. U.S. and North Korean military leaders also met regularly at the Military Armistice Commission (mac) after the war in Korea’s demilitarized zone. Otherwise, the United States studiously avoided any action conveyed recognition of the legitimacy of the dprk. Despite detesting the United States, P’yŏngyang attempted to maneuver Washington into dealing with it directly. Most notably, it exploited the U.S. desire to secure the remains of American servicemen located in North Korea since the Korean War. In the 1980s, domestic pressure forced the U.S. government to ask the dprk to surrender these bodies, but it insisted on delivery of them to the mac to avoid indirect recognition, while P’yŏngyang wanted to present them directly to U.S. officials. A compromise resulted in North Korea returning five caskets of U.S. remains on 28 May 1990 at P’anmunjŏm to U.S. Representative Gillespie V. Montgomery (d-ms). This event suggested the possibility of the two nations reaching agreements on other disputed issues, but Liu Zhaokun explains why this did not occur in the final article of this issue titled “P’yŏngyang’s Posthumous Hostages: The Repatriation of U.S. Service Members’ Remains from North Korea, 1991-2018.”

Liu describes how North Korea since the 1990s “has adopted a morally questionable method of holding U.S. soldiers’ remains hostages to extract maximum political and financial benefit to weather an adverse global situation after the end of the Cold War ….” He carefully traces P’yŏngyang’s “evolving prerequisites” for repatriation over three successive stages. First, from 1990 to 1994, North Korea required ranking U.S. officials to visit the dprk to receive remains. In June 1991, P’yŏngyang gave eleven bodies to U.S. Senator Robert C. Smith (r-nh) in return for creating a joint U.S.-dprk committee on returning remains outside of the mac. Although the U.S. government resisted direct contact, from 1992 to 1994, North Korea returned over two hundred containers of remains through the mac. In August 1993, the United States agreed to “provide all necessary support,” but not an exact amount, “for seeking, exhuming, and delivering remains, leaving considerable room for the dprk to inflate its charge.” P’yŏngyang shifted its strategy during the second stage from 1996 to 2005 to maximizing U.S. payments in response to its need for funds to mitigate the disastrous impact of floods on its economy. In May 1996, P’yŏngyang accepted $2 million – half of its request – for remains it already had delivered. In 1997, a series of joint U.S.-dprk recovery operations began. In October 1999, U.S. officials accepted remains in P’yŏngyang, removing the mac from body returns. But when George W. Bush became president, he “abruptly reversed Clinton’s friendly overtures to tame the dprk’s nuclear ambitions.” During stage three from 2007 to 2018, P’yŏngyang’s refusal to denuclearize meant that the only progress was President Donald J. Trump’s receipt of 55 boxes of remains at his 2018 Singapore Summit with Kim Jong Un. Liu perceptively concludes that for President Joseph R. Biden Jr., “offering monetary incentive without broaching denuclearization might be the only feasible approach for the United States to retrieve additional soldiers’ remains.”

For several years, the Journal of American-East Asian Relations has maintained the practice of publishing at least one theme issue annually. In fact, in 2022, there were two theme issues. Regrettably, however, none will appear during 2023. Mark Atwood Lawrence of the University of Texas at Austin and Jana K. Lipton of Tulane University co-edited the most recent theme in the third issue of 2022 under the title “Southeast Asia after Vietnam: Persistence and Transformation.” The editor-in-chief welcomes the receipt of proposals for future theme issues.

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