“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
—President Donald J. Trump
United Nations General Assembly
September. 19, 2017
Well, that certainly got everyone’s attention. Not as snappy as Trump’s almost Biblical threat to unleash “fire and fury” on Pyongyang, but considering this was Trump’s first address before the UN, definitely impressive.
We have been here before. Whether Trump knows it or not—and he probably doesn’t—in the early 1960s, the US also weighed preventive war against an Asian Communist nation which had the temerity to acquire nuclear weapons.
China joined the nuclear club when it tested a bomb on October 16, 1964. From the very beginning of his Presidency, John F. Kennedy sought ways, including possible military action, to stop China from getting the bomb.
Kennedy turned first to diplomacy. So has Trump. Trump has tried to get China to rein in Kim Jong-un. Trump has had only limited success in enlisting Beijing in the US/UN regime of crippling economic sanctions directed against Pyongyang.
Where Trump has turned to China, Kennedy turned to Russia. Kennedy believed that a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets would marshal world opinion against China and cause Beijing to abandon its nuclear project.
Kennedy thought he had good reason to believe Khrushchev would cooperate with the US in bringing pressure on the Chinese. First, the Soviets had themselves proposed a test-ban in 1955. In 1958, the Soviets initiated an informal testing moratorium which the US and UK had joined.
Then there was Khrushchev’s increasing alarm at Mao’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear war. In a 1957 speech, Mao said: “China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.” John Lewis Gaddis may be correct when he observes that: “Chinese records suggest that most of this was Maoist bravado.” (Compare Kim Jong-un’s bravado today.) Mao also said that he wanted to avoid war, but that China should never be afraid to fight (Gaddis, 251). In 1959, Moscow ended its technical assistance to Beijing’s nuclear program. The impetus was Mao’s risking war in the Taiwan Straits against the Chinese Nationalists, a war which the USSR feared they might be sucked into.
The late 50s and early 60s were the years of the burgeoning Sino-Soviet split when Beijing challenged Moscow for leadership of the world Communist movement. The Chinese Communists had descended to schoolyard taunts, calling the Soviets “revisionists” and “imperialists” and (worst of all) “imperialist revisionists.” Kennedy thought that the US could exploit this growing rivalry to get the Soviets to work with the US.
Nevertheless, at their first meeting in Vienna in June 1961, Khrushchev proved cool to Kennedy’s proposal of a nuclear test ban treaty. Khrushchev defended the Chinese, lashing out at Kennedy over US non-recognition of the PRC. Khrushchev’s performance was made partly to reassert the Soviets’ revolutionary cred and to refute Chinese accusations that the USSR was pro-American and soft on imperialism.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Khrushchev proved more receptive to a test ban treaty. The Soviets and Americans signed a test ban treaty in Moscow on August 5, 1963—a partial test ban treaty which prohibited nuclear testing on land, underwater, and in the atmosphere, but permitted underground testing.
Preventive War on China
Representing the US in the test ban negotiations was Ambassador-at-Large W. Averell Harriman. Kennedy had also tasked Harriman with sounding out the Russians about joint US-Soviet action to prevent China achieving nuclear capability. A July 15, 1963 telegram from Kennedy to Harriman in Moscow directs Harriman to “try to elicit Khrushchev’s view of means of limiting or preventing Chinese nuclear development and his willingness either to take Soviet action or to accept US action aimed in this direction.” Historian Gordon Chang, who was the first to reveal that the Kennedy Administration had considered using force against China, reasons that Kennedy could only have meant military action because at that point the Soviets had no influence left with Beijing. Chang adds that “According to one former high-level official in the Kennedy administration, a joint American-Soviet preemptive nuclear attack was actually discussed.”
Chang points out that the “top secret” briefing books prepared in advance of the test ban treaty negotiations refer to “Soviet, or possibly joint US-USSR, use of military force” against China. Reports and memoranda produced by the State Department’s Policy Planning Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council expressly refer to military action.
Harriman himself had said in a January 23, 1962 letter to the President that “together we [the US and Russia] could compel China to stop nuclear development, threatening to take out the facilities if necessary.” Chang notes, however: “It is not clear whether Harriman actually presented Kennedy’s proposal for joint action against China” to Khrushchev. Khrushchev seemed uninterested in discussing China and Harriman may have been afraid that pushing the matter would derail the treaty negotiations.
Has Trump tried to enlist China in a preventive strike on North Korea?
Backing Away from the Brink
President Lyndon Johnson saw China as much less of a threat than Kennedy had. While a preventive strike continued to be discussed into the Johnson Administration, the US decided against a unilateral attack on China for several reasons.
+ The US feared retaliation and escalation. So should President Trump.
+ LBJ was satisfied that the much larger US nuclear stockpile would deter China’s nuclear weapons.
+ An unprovoked attack by the US would generate adverse world opinion, thus strengthening the Communists’ international position. This is why JFK believed a military operation would have to be conducted in tandem with the Soviets.
+ A unilateral US strike on China might reverse the Sino-Soviet split.
+ A US attack would not eliminate the Chinese nuclear threat indefinitely, but would at most push a Chinese bomb back by a few years.
+ The US decided that a nuclear-armed China would not alter the balance of power in Asia.
The US decided that a nuclear China would not accelerate nuclear proliferation. Political scientist Nicola Horsburgh observes that “China’s test did not inspire a predicted cascade of new nuclear states in the region” as Washington had feared. It would be thirty years before another nuclear-armed state appeared in Asia. More nukes did pop up in Asia from time to time, but they were placed there by the US. The US deployed nuclear weapons to South Korea (1958-1991), Guam (1951-1977), and Okinawa (1954-1972).
A US attack might not cripple or destroy all the Chinese nuclear sites. This is equally true of a potential attack on North Korea, with an added twist. Even if a US strike managed to destroy all of Kim’s nukes (wildly unlikely), Seoul would still be within range of the North’s 8,000 conventional artillery pieces. The North could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans along with thousands of the 130,000 Americans residing in South Korea.
Diplomacy is the only sane path forward. The US must lift economic sanctions against North Korea, stop waving the sword, and pursue a “freeze-for-a-freeze,” i.e., abandon the yearly US war games with South Korea in exchange for the North halting or dismantling its nuclear program.
The moral of our story should be obvious. We can live with a nuclear-armed North Korea just as we have lived for decades with a nuclear-armed China. Living with nuclear-armed countries is doable. Just ask anyone outside the United States.
 The Soviets resumed nuclear tests in 1961, the first of the three parties to abrogate the moratorium.
 Mao’s sangfroid toward nuclear war was outmatched by the mad Argentine Juan Posadas who led a Trotskyist splinter party in the 1960s and 70s. Posadas contended that global thermonuclear war was not merely acceptable, but positively desirable because it would be the death knell of capitalism. Posadas never had access to nuclear weapons, however.
 Id. at 1304.
 William Burr & Jeffrey T. Richelson, Whether to “Strangle the Baby in the Cradle”: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY (Winter 2000/01), page 68 (emphasis added). Nor do we know whether Kennedy proposed a joint military operation against China during a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 10, 1963. Id. at 76.
 Chang at 1305.