Amid the utmost secrecy, top aides of President Lyndon B. Johnson agonized during the early months of 1964 over a single, preoccupying national security issue: Should the United States bomb China to stop it from becoming a nuclear power?
“I’m for this,” scrawled Johnson’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, on one memo about a possible preemptive strike that might cripple Chinese nuclear installations.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff studied options for military action, including the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. The CIA plotted covert action against China’s test facilities at Lop Nor. American officials even sounded out the Soviet Union about collaborating to stop China from getting the bomb.
The Soviets weren’t interested, and Johnson administration officials decided, after considerable debate, that the problem was not worth the risks inherent in a military attack.
In the end, the United States resigned itself to China’s possession of nuclear weapons.
The details of this remarkable hidden drama are unveiled for the first time in a recently released collection of U.S. government documents about American policy toward China during the Johnson years. The papers were made public by the State Department, which is responsible for declassifying documents about the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Since the advent of nuclear weapons during World War II, there has been only one instance when a nation used military force to stop another country from becoming a nuclear power: In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in an action that damaged and delayed, but did not stop, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons.
On several other occasions, experts say, governments have contemplated preemptive military attacks against nuclear facilities and then held back.
“People who look seriously at that option have trouble answering the inevitable question: Can you get all of it [the nuclear material]? What are the consequences if you don’t?” observes Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, a defense-oriented research organization. “What are the consequences even if you succeed?”
China’s first nuclear test, on Oct. 16, 1964, marked the last time until this year that any country had openly sought to break into the elite club of declared nuclear powers. At the time, only the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France had nuclear weapons. (India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests this past May. Israel is widely assumed to have nuclear weapons, but it has never formally acknowledged that.)
What emerges from the historical documents is a revealing tale of how the United States struggled and plotted unsuccessfully to prevent China from acquiring nuclear weapons. American officials studied in painstaking detail how China’s nuclear weapons would affect military balances in Asia and the chances that other nations would follow China’s lead.
The secret memos are dry in language but scary in their implications.
“The Chinese could eventually do significant, but not crippling, damage to U.S. forces in Asia, while the United States will have the ability to destroy Communist China,” says one memo on the military implications. “This makes Chinese first-use of nuclear weapons unlikely.”
The United States’ efforts to stop China from getting the bomb did not begin with the Johnson administration. President John F. Kennedy also flirted with the idea.
Stanford University historian Gordon H. Chang described in his book “Friends and Enemies” how Kennedy instructed W. Averill Harriman, an American specialist on the Soviet Union, to ask Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev what he thought about China getting nuclear weapons. Harriman sounded out the Soviet leader, but Khrushchev did not answer.
At the time, the United States had better relations with the Soviets than it did with China. In 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the nuclear test-ban treaty. The Chinese accused the Soviets and Americans of collusion.
Main Agenda Item After Assassination
The newly released papers show that in the months after Johnson took office following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, one of the main subjects under discussion in Washington was what to do about the Chinese nuclear weapons program.
The State Department had asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in mid-1963 to draw up a contingency plan for an attack, with conventional weapons, on China’s nuclear facilities.
On Dec. 14, 1963, the answer came back. The Joint Chiefs said a bombing operation against China would be feasible. But, they added, if there was to be such an attack, they recommended consideration of the use of nuclear weapons.
But American policymakers realized that military action would have only limited success.
“Direct action against the Chinese Communist nuclear facilities would, at best, put them out of operation for a few years (perhaps four or five),” one policy memo said.
The CIA was brought into the planning. One possibility was a clandestine operation against China’s nuclear facilities.
“Covert action seems to offer the politically most feasible form of action,” said Johnson’s foreign policy team in April 1964.
“Study of covert action should continue,” concluded another memo a few weeks later.
The CIA’s main task, however, was simply to find out as much as it could about China’s nuclear program, and particularly where and when China might be ready to conduct a nuclear test.
Much of the CIA’s knowledge was coming from its secret aerial reconnaissance flights with high-altitude U-2 airplanes. However, finding China’s nuclear facilities in its vast territory was a mammoth task.
In late August 1964, the CIA completed a Special National Intelligence Estimate, a top-secret memo summarizing intelligence findings for policymakers.
“Overhead photography of 6-9 August shows that the previously suspect facility near Lop Nor in Xinjiang is almost certainly a nuclear testing site,” the CIA said. It said the test site could be ready within two months.
Nevertheless, the CIA predicted--wrongly, as it turned out--that China would not be ready for its nuclear test “until after the end of 1964.” In fact, the agency did not believe China would have enough nuclear material to conduct a test for at least another year.
‘Joint Action’ With Soviets Proposed
On Sept. 15, 1964, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Johnson met with his top advisors--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, CIA Director John A. McCone and Bundy--to figure out what they should do about the Chinese nuclear program.
They tentatively decided against the idea of an unprovoked, unilateral U.S. military strike against China. However, they also agreed that Washington might explore several options for “joint action” with the Soviet Union.
“Such possibilities include a warning to the Chinese against tests, a possible undertaking to give up underground testing and to hold the Chinese accountable if they test in any way, and even a possible agreement to cooperate in preventive military action,” summarized Bundy in his memo on the discussions.
They decided to talk “very privately” to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin.
Ten days later, Bundy had a 2 1/2-hour lunch with the ambassador. The Chinese nuclear program was the main item on his agenda.
“I . . . made it plain that we would be ready for private and serious talk on what to do about this problem if there were any interest in the Soviet government,” Bundy wrote in a memo about the conversation.
However, he was brushed aside.
“The ambassador gave no direct reply,” Bundy wrote. Instead, Dobrynin said the Soviets already took it for granted that China would become a nuclear power.
The Soviets’ lack of interest in the idea was motivated by hopes of rekindling the relatively close relationship that Moscow and Beijing had enjoyed in the 1950s.
Rebuffed in their hopes for joint Soviet-American action against China, Johnson administration officials took one last look at the idea of doing something on their own.
One of the Pentagon’s leading civilian officials, Henry S. Rowen, suggested once again at a meeting in September 1964 the possibility of destroying the Chinese nuclear installations with what he called a “limited, nonnuclear air attack.”
This proposal sparked a fierce internal debate about the significance of China’s becoming a nuclear power. Rowen asserted that the implications over a 15-year period were “horrendous.”
“Even the first Soviet [nuclear] test might have affected [Josef] Stalin’s decision to launch the Korean War,” Rowen argued, according to a summary of the meeting.
“The ChiComs [Chinese Communists] might be even more adventuresome once they went nuclear than the Soviets had been.”
But another Johnson administration official, Walt W. Rostow, disputed Rowen’s reasoning.
“With nuclear weapons comes caution,” he said. “The Soviets advanced less after they had gone nuclear than before. . . . As soon as the ChiComs got nuclear weapons, they’d have to worry lest we might be more inclined to use nucs [nuclear weapons] against them in a local conflict.”
Rowen also worried that China might help other nations seeking to acquire the bomb. “The ChiComs might be freer than we or the Russians in handing around nuclear technology,” he said. “They had already hinted at this to [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser.”
That was an early warning about the possibilities of a Chinese-assisted proliferation of nuclear weapons, a concern that would endure in Washington for decades.
In the years after it became a nuclear power, China helped Pakistan develop nuclear weapons with “a pattern of cooperation that is breathtaking,” the Stimson Center’s Krepon observes.
In the end, those, like Rowen, who suggested military action lost the argument. American policymakers decided they could live with a Chinese bomb.
“We would prefer to have a Chinese test take place than to initiate [a military strike] now,” Bundy wrote.
By mid-September 1964, the CIA began to notice that the Chinese had completed the work at the testing site at Lop Nor.
Johnson administration officials then drafted a plan outlining a series of steps that would prepare the American public, and the world, for a Chinese nuclear test. The aim was to minimize the impact of the event, making it seem less shocking.
McCone privately briefed top leaders of Washington’s West European allies to expect a Chinese nuclear test. In late September, Rusk indicated in public remarks that the U.S. expected that China might soon become a nuclear power.
On Oct. 15, 1964, the CIA formally abandoned its earlier prediction that the Chinese test would not take place until mid-1965. After restudying the nuclear reactor at Baotou, CIA officials decided that it might have been operating for a longer time than they thought and that China therefore might have enough material to detonate a weapon.
“We believe a test will occur sometime within the next six to eight months,” wrote the CIA’s assistant director for scientific intelligence.
That forecast proved overly cautious. China conducted its test the next day.
On Oct. 16, Johnson was in the midst of an urgent White House meeting with Rusk, McNamara, McCone and other members of the National Security Council. The session had been called to talk about the Soviet Union, where, earlier that day, Khrushchev had been ousted from power.
In the midst of this discussion, aides brought in word that China had just carried out the long-feared nuclear test. Early that afternoon, Johnson read to the press a brief statement, telling the nation there was no cause for alarm.
In the aftermath of China’s nuclear test, there was a surprising reverse-twist.
The Soviet hopes about the revival of their alliance were pipe dreams. Over the next five years, the feud between Moscow and Beijing escalated to the point that there were border skirmishes between the two countries. By the end of the 1960s, the Soviet Union was taking the initiative to sound out the United States about possible military action against China.
By that time, Washington was not interested: The Nixon administration was in the early stages of its own rapprochement with China.
Such a rapprochement would have been out of the question if the United States had bombed China’s nuclear facilities in the way that it planned in 1964. If Washington had carried out that military strike, “it’s almost unthinkable what would have happened to American relations with China, bad as they already were,” Chang says.