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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

1969 - Sino-Soviet Conflict

Nuclear-armed adversaries have engaged in direct conflict, but kept war limited. China and the Soviet Union engaged in border skirmishes over a seven-month period in 1969, incurring heavy casualties on both sides.

On the morning of March 2, 1969, China and the Soviet Union had a fierce battle on Zhenbao Island, followed by three more large-scale armed conflicts on Zhenbao Island. On August 13 of the same year, the Soviet Union created another incident.

On August 28, 1969, the "Washington Star" published a message in a prominent position, entitled "The Soviet Union wants to do a surgical nuclear attack on China." The article said: "According to reliable news, the Soviet Union wants to use medium-range ballistic missiles, carrying millions of tons of nuclear warheads, important military bases for China - Jiuquan, Xichang missile launching base, Lop Nur nuclear test base, and Beijing, Changchun, Surgical nuclear strikes in important industrial cities such as Anshan.”

On September 16, London’s Saturday Post published an article by Soviet freelance journalist Victor Louis, stating that “the Soviet Union may conduct an aerial attack against base in China’s Xinjiang Lop Nur ."

Many years later, the former KGB senior official Shi Xiaoqin, who was in the West, wrote in the New York Times that after 1969, the Soviet military hardliners advocated "to eliminate the Chinese threat once and for all", and indeed considered China. The nuclear facility carried out a surgical assault air raid, which has allowed the Soviet nuclear warheads of 35 missile bases in Asia to target China's missile bases and important urban targets, and has tested the attitude of the United States.

In that situation, China had to make a more urgent estimate of the danger of war. At that time, it was judged that a large-scale war would be launched at a glance. It was even estimated that the time of the Soviet Union’s sudden attack might be on National Day, or it may be the same time that the Soviet delegation arrived in Beijing in October.

The second explanation grew out of the intensification of the Sino-Soviet border dispute in early 1969, which lead to several armed clashes, raising concerns among U.S. officials that these skirmishes would provoke a broader clash between the two Communist powers. Fighting between Soviet and Chinese troops erupted in March along the Ussuri River, which formed part of the eastern border between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. After a brief inter-lude, armed clashes again took place, this time along the frontier separating the Chinese Autonomous Region of Sinkiang and the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, culminating in a serious engagement on August 13 that reportedly resulted in heavy casualties, particularly on the [Page 233]Chinese side. In the wake of that exchange, both the Soviet and Chinese Governments initiated civil defense measures in preparation for a possible escalation of hostilities. Negotiations ultimately staved off a Sino-Soviet war, including talks between Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai in early September and bilateral talks on border questions, which were announced on October 7 and began in Beijing on October 20.

According to the second after-the-fact interpretation, President Nixon, on the recommendations of Henry Kissinger, initially considered placing U.S. forces on alert as a signal to the Soviet Union to deter a Soviet preemptive strike against Chinese nuclear facilities. As the following documentation shows, U.S. foreign policymakers received several credible, but incomplete, intelligence reports beginning in August 1969 that Soviet leaders were considering such a move.

Kissinger, although he did not specifically mention the alert, recalled in his memoirs that the United States “raised our profile somewhat to make clear that we were not indifferent to these Soviet threats.” Such threats included a trial balloon floated by a Soviet journalist with special ties to the Soviet Government, who on September 16 suggested “the possibility of a Soviet air strike” against a Chinese nuclear testing site. According to Kissinger, “A Soviet attack on China could not be ignored by us. It would upset the global balance of power; it would create around the world an impression of approaching Soviet dominance. But a direct American challenge would not be supported by our public opinion and might even accelerate what we sought to prevent.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 184–186)

Nixon offered the most direct evidence of the link between the JCS Readiness Test and Sino-Soviet hostilities during an interview published in the July 29, 1985, issue of Time magazine. The former President revealed that he had “considered using nuclear weapons” on four separate occasions during his Presidency. One was in Vietnam. In weighing options to end the war in Vietnam, Nixon said, “one of the options was the nuclear option, in other words, massive escalation: either bombing the dikes or the nuclear option.” Having decided not to avail himself of that option in Vietnam, the ex-President recalled also considering using nuclear weapons during the war in the Middle East in October 1973 and during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani crisis.

Another time Nixon said he considered using nuclear weapons “involved China. There were border conflicts. Henry [Kissinger] used to come in and talk about the situation. Incidentally, this was before the tapes. You won’t have these on the tapes.” Nixon continued, “Henry said, ‘Can the U.S. allow the Soviet Union to jump the Chinese?’—that is, to take out their nuclear capability. We had to let the Soviets know we would not tolerate that.” (Time, July 29, 1985, pages 52–53)

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Page last modified: 23-07-2019 16:29:26 ZULU