Nixon intervention saved China from Soviet nuclear attack

A rare account reveals how the People’s Republic nearly came to war in 1969

Mark O’Neill
12 May 2010

Mao Zedong moves to Wuhan, Lin Biao to Suzhou and the general staff to a nuclear bombproof bunker in the western hills outside Beijing. The country’s warplanes are scattered around northern China, runways at the main airports blocked and workers given weapons to shoot Soviet airmen when they land.

It is October 1969: China is preparing for a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Lin, second to Mao, orders 940,000 soldiers, 4,000 planes and 600 vessels to scatter from their bases and the transfer of major archives from Beijing to the southwest.

Then US president Richard Nixon intervenes. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tells the Soviet ambassador in Washington that as soon as the Soviets set off their first missile against China, the US will launch nuclear missiles at 130 Soviet cities.

This is the dramatic account in an official magazine of the closest China has come to a nuclear war. The latest issue of Historical Reference, published by the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, describes in detail the five occasions in the post-1949 period when China was threatened by nuclear attack.

It is a rare account by an official publication of the most dangerous moments of the People’s Republic. They are a far cry from the nuclear security summit in mid-April in Washington, where President Hu Jintao was received as an honoured guest and key interlocutor.

Of the five nuclear threats, four came from the United States and one from the Soviet Union.

The most serious came in 1969 after military clashes in March on Zhenbao Island – Damansky in Russian – on the Ussuri River, Heilongjiang, that marks the border in China’s northeast. On March 2, Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards; they retaliated on March 15 by bombarding Chinese military concentrations and storming the island. According to Chinese figures, 58 Soviets were killed and 97 injured.

The conflict provoked an outpouring of official anger on both sides. In China, 150 million soldiers and civilians took part in anti-Soviet demonstrations; the official press said that it was time to “defeat the new tsar” and prepared the public for a war, including one with nuclear weapons. It warned that they would kill any foreign troops who encroached on Chinese territory.

The Soviet government organised huge anti-Chinese protests in Moscow; they surrounded the Chinese embassy and burnt cars in front of it. The Soviets moved thousands of troops to its far east and prepared missiles armed with nuclear warheads. It told its allies in eastern Europe that it planned a nuclear attack “to wipe out the Chinese threat and get rid of this modern adventurer”.

On August 20, the Soviet ambassador in Washington told Kissinger of their plans and asked the US to remain neutral. Wishing to stop the attack, the White House leaked the story to The Washington Post. Its edition of August 28 reported that the Soviet Union planned to launch missiles with hundreds of tonnes of nuclear material on Beijing, Changchun, Anshan and its missile-launch centres of Jinquan, Xichang and Lop Nor.

In late September and October, war fever in China reached its peak. Lin ordered the army to move from its bases and residents of major cities to dig shelters and store food.

In the final step before the attack, Moscow sought the opinion of Washington. Nixon saw the Soviet Union as his main threat and wanted a strong China against it; he feared the effect of a nuclear war on 250,000 US troops in the Asia-Pacific. On October 15, Kissinger told the Soviet ambassador in Washington that the US would not be neutral and would attack Soviet cities in retaliation.

Bluff or not, it worked. “The Americans betrayed us,” the ambassador said. They called off the attack on October 20 and began negotiations with China in Beijing. The crisis was over.

The American refusal was in part revenge for what happened in reverse five years before – a Soviet refusal to participate in an attack on China’s nascent nuclear programme.

It was in January 1955 that Mao decided to develop China’s first nuclear bomb. This involved an enormous investment in money, materials and technology for a country still recovering from nearly 20 years of war.

Beijing selected Lop Nor in the desert of southeast Xinjiang as the centre of its nuclear programme, mainly because of its remoteness and distance from US and Taiwanese airbases in the Pacific.

U-2 spy planes from Taiwan flew at high altitude over western and central China and took photographs of Lop Nor and other nuclear installations. In January 1961, the US Pacific Command said China would explode its first nuclear device by the end of 1962 and a nuclear bomb by 1965.

President John Kennedy said in October 1961 that, armed with its nuclear bomb, China would swallow up Southeast Asia.

The US wanted to attack China’s nuclear installations before it developed a bomb and saw the Sino-Soviet split in 1961 as the perfect opportunity for a joint operation.

On July 14, 1963, an American emissary in Moscow gave a detailed presentation of China’s nuclear programme and proposed a joint operation to stop it. But Soviet president Nikita Khruschev said the programme posed no threat.

Washington considered other options – an attack by troops, American and Taiwanese, dropped by parachute, conventional bombs or nuclear bombs.

In August 1964, Washington predicted that China would explode its first bomb in 1965. Less than two months later, on October 16, China successfully tested its first nuclear bomb. President Lyndon Johnson called it “the blackest and most tragic day for the free world”.

The three earlier nuclear threats all came from the United States. The first was during the Korean war.

Before the Chinese intervention in the war, in October 1950, the US and southern armies were moving comfortably toward the Chinese border and troops expected to be home by Christmas.

The Chinese intervention, at enormous human cost, threw back the Americans. In late November, the US Congress proposed consideration of nuclear attacks against North Korea, northeast China and mainland cities, a proposal supported by its military. On November 30, president Harry Truman said that he was considering a nuclear option.

This plan provoked outrage in Western capitals around the world. Britain was angry that it had not been consulted and feared that US military bases on its soil would become a target for revenge attacks by the Soviet Union. London and Paris led opposition to the plan. Meanwhile, the US air force carried out a rehearsal for a nuclear attack on Pyongyang.

In March 1951, Truman sent nine B-29s armed with nuclear weapons to Guam. In early April, US reconnaissance planes flew over northeast China and Shandong province to select possible targets. In the end, Truman believed their use too dangerous and recalled the nine to the US mainland at the end of June.

The other two threats resulted from military clashes between the mainland and Taiwan, after the signing of a common defence treaty between Washington and Taipei in December 1954.

In January and February 1955, the PLA captured three islands offshore from Fujian . With the help of the US navy, the Taiwanese military evacuated 25,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians to Taiwan and concentrated its defences in Quemoy and Matsu.

On March 6, US secretary of state John Foster Dulles said that if the PLA forced the evacuation of Quemoy and Matsu, it would be a disaster for the defence of Taiwan and other places in Asia. He said that the US would consider the use of nuclear weapons to defend the islands.

At the end of March, B-36 planes in Guam were loaded with nuclear weapons and prepared for action. But, as four years earlier, the threat was met with widespread criticism around the world that the defence of these two small islands did not merit the use of nuclear weapons. The US dropped the idea and held ambassadorial talks with China in Geneva in August that year.

The next threat came in 1958, following the PLA’s aerial bombardment of Quemoy on August 23; it launched 45,000 shells on the island over two hours in the evening. The next day PLA ships attacked vessels leaving the island for Taiwan and enforced a blockade.

From bases in Guam and Japan, the US air force delivered civil and military supplies to Quemoy. The US military proposed the use of nuclear bombs against China. Five B-47s in Guam were put on standby to drop the bombs on Xiamen airport with the same destructive capacity as those delivered on Hiroshima in August 1945.

But, like Truman before him, president Dwight Eisenhower decided that the risk was too high. The US would help Taiwan defend Quemoy and Matsu with conventional weapons – and China was saved again from nuclear attack.

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