John W. Lewis, China Expert and Vietnam War Critic, Dies at 86

In their book “The United States in Vietnam,” he and George McTurnan Kahin, who were both professors at Cornell University, argued that Washington’s policy since the early 1950s had failed because it “did not differentiate between Chinese power (then assumed to be a projection of Soviet power) and the national Communist movements in Southeast Asia.”

Some critics said the authors underplayed Hanoi’s early military role in the indigenous Communist movement in South Vietnam and discounted the so-called domino theory, which predicted that a Communist victory there would inevitably lead to the toppling of anti-Communist governments in neighboring countries.

But the authors’ overall conclusion proved to be prescient: that Washington would eventually have to accept “an outcome in Vietnam that is reasonably representative of the balance of political forces that actually exists there.”

“It is improbable,” they added, “that such a settlement would mirror the pattern most congenial to the United States, or that it would be attuned to the exigencies of American domestic politics.”

Professor Lewis was a vice chairman of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, which helped arrange the table tennis matches between Chinese and American teams in the early 1970s that thawed relations sufficiently for President Richard M. Nixon to visit China in 1972.

By contrast, Professor Lewis believed that the United States had lost opportunities to ease tensions with North Korea — first when the administration of George W. Bush abandoned an agreement, reached in 1994 under his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to recognize North Korea, and then when President Bush repudiated a communiqué, signed by President Clinton and Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, declaring that Washington had “no hostile intent” toward Pyongyang.

“So they went nuclear,” Professor Lewis said of North Korea in the 2015 oral history interview. “It is terrible. It is getting worse and worse by the day.”

He continued: “Sometimes people should remember history. Sometimes it matters. You know, the Chinese, we had a really bad history with them. Zhou Enlai” — the Chinese premier — “said: ‘You should not let history imprison you. You should remember it, you should honor it, but you should also move forward.’ ”

Professor Lewis was born Albert Lewis Seeman on Nov. 16, 1930, in Seattle. His father, Albert Lloyd Seeman,…

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