FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

When China Got the Bomb

“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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3]  John Lewis Gaddis may be correct when he observes that: “Chinese records suggest that most of this was Maoist bravado.”[4]  (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.”[5]  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.”[6]

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.”[7] Chang notes, however: “It is not clear whether Harriman actually presented Kennedy’s proposal for joint action against China” to Khrushchev.[8]  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.[9]  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.[10]  The North could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans along with thousands of the 130,000 Americans residing in South Korea.[11]

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.

Notes.

[1]  Gregory Elich, Trump’s War on the North Korean People, counterpunch.org, Sept. 19, 2017

[2]  The Soviets resumed nuclear tests in 1961, the first of the three parties to abrogate the moratorium.

[3]  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.

[4]  JOHN LEWIS GADDIS, WE NOW KNOW: RETHINKING COLD WAR HISTORY (1997), page 251.

[5]  Gordon Chang, JFK, China, and the Bomb, JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY (March 1988), page 1300 (my emphasis).

[6]  Id. at 1304.

[7]  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.

[8]  Chang at 1305.

[9]  NICOLA HORSBURGH, CHINA AND GLOBAL NUCLEAR ORDER: FROM ESTRANGEMENT TO ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT (2015), page 62.

[10]  Kori Schake, What Total Destruction of North Korea Means, theatlantic.com, Sept. 19, 2017.

[11]  Ibid.

More articles by:

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omaorosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
Dean Baker
Fact-Checking the Fact-Checker on Medicare-for-All
Weekend Edition
August 10, 2018
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Militarizing Space: Starship Troopers, Same As It Ever Was
Andrew Levine
No Attack on Iran, Yet
Melvin Goodman
The CIA’s Double Standard Revisited
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Grifter’s Lament
Aidan O'Brien
In Italy, There are 12,000 American Soldiers and 500,000 African Refugees: Connect the Dots 
Robert Fantina
Pity the Democrats and Republicans
Ishmael Reed
Am I More Nordic Than Members of the Alt Right?
Kristine Mattis
Dying of Consumption While Guzzling Snake Oil: a Realist’s Perspective on the Environmental Crisis
James Munson
The Upside of Defeat
Brian Cloughley
Pentagon Spending Funds the Politicians
Pavel Kozhevnikov
Cold War in the Sauna: Notes From a Russian American
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail