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In the 1960’s a State Department Study Prevented a Pre-emptive Nuclear Strike on China China

Given the possible disastrous consequences of a nuclear-armed PRC for the United States, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations discussed the option of launching preventive strikes on Chinese nuclear weapon facilities. Amid these deliberations, a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Council, Robert H. Johnson, compiled two studies arguing that a nuclear China will not significantly alter the military balance of power in Asia and that, as a corollary, the United States would not need to take radical steps, including military action, in the foreseeable future. Johnson’s papers helped to broaden the discussion about possible policy options vis-à-vis China and may have contributed to the United States not launching a preventive attack on Chinese nuclear facilities in the early 1960s.

China: The Rogue State of the 1960s……..

The State Department Responds While Kennedy was considering preventive war against China’s nuclear weapons capability, several U.S. State Department officials grew skeptical about the White House’s alarmism and militancy. The then-head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council (PPC), Walt Rostow, noted in July 1963 that even if Beijing developed nuclear weapons, its “desire to preserve its nuclear force as a credible deterrent might tend to make China even more cautious than it is today in its encounters with American power.” Rostow’s opinion was influenced by the first draft of a study titled “A Chinese Communist Nuclear Detonation and Nuclear Capability,” compiled by PPC staffer Robert H. Johnson in close cooperation with officials from the Pentagon, the CIA, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the U.S. Information Agency.

A 100-page version of the paper was distributed in October 1963 to select officials. It is unclear, however, whether Kennedy ever saw it. Its conclusion was distinctly non-alarmist. Most importantly, the report concluded that “apart from serving as an additional inhibition on some levels of U.S. attack upon the mainland, a Chinese nuclear capability need impose no new military restrictions on the U.S. response to aggression in Asia (…)” Even intercontinental ballistic missiles would not “eliminate this basic asymmetry.” Furthermore: “The basic military problems we will face are likely to be much like those we face now: military probing operations (…) relatively low-level border wars” and “‘revolutionary wars’ supported by the ChiComs [Chinese Communists].”

In short, the study suggested that the United States pursue status-quo policies vis-à-vis China (“present policies require no change”) anchored on nuclear deterrence.

The Impact

According to the scholars William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, the study had an immediate impact……..

Robert H. Johnson’s reports helped accentuate the reasons against preventive war. They offered U.S. policymakers alternatives to more hawkish views on how to deal with a nuclear China. ……..

Considering the current U.S. administration’s disjointed responses to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the repeated talk of the possible necessity of military action, getting the government to “sing from the same sheet” on a very complex issue is no minor achievement. Indeed, our best hope may be that somewhere in the D.C. bureaucracy a 21st century incarnation of Johnson can get the ear of a senior administration official with access to U.S. President Donald Trump and offer a nuanced perspective on the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.

Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate editor at The Diplomat. He tweets @hoanssolohttps://thediplomat.com/2017/10/how-a-state-department-study-prevented-nuclear-war-with-china/

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October 27, 2017 - Posted by | history, politics international, Reference, USA, weapons and war

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