So now we know, officially, that the U.S. military contemplated a nuclear attack on China during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. But what few realize is how this then led to a violent slanging match between Beijing and Moscow, which in turn was to lead to the Vietnam and other Indochina wars, which in turn were to lead to far more casualties and damage than could have been inflicted by the planned nuclear attack that U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower fortunately vetoed back in 1958.
I was peripherally involved, working at the time in the East Asia section of Australia’s External Affairs Department. We realized the seriousness of the U.S.-China confrontation over the so-called Offshore Islands — islands very close to the Chinese mainland over which Beijing normally would have had legal claim but which the Nationalist government in Taiwan was determined to defend, partly to maintain its own claim to the Chinese mainland.
Beijing’s bombardment of the islands, if successful, would have severely damaged Nationalist prestige. The United States was determined not to let that happen, even though just a few years earlier, in 1949, it had tacitly accepted Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. (It reversed its position with the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War.)
Even in distant Canberra we had hints of the U.S. nuclear plans. But our concern disappeared when Beijing ceased the bombardment. Soon after, however, we were to run into another bombardment, this time in the form of Beijing’s violent and never-ending ideological attacks on the Soviet Union and its leader Nikita Khrushchev, and the Soviet ideological response. The entire affair was puzzling. Why would the two communist monoliths be at each other’s throats arguing obscure points of ideological doctrine?
Beijing seemed to be playing the role of Marxist-Leninist hardliner determined to upend an allegedly soft-line, revisionist Moscow. But when you looked more closely at what both sides were saying about each other, it was often hard to see any genuine ideological difference. Indeed, on aid to communist movements abroad, Moscow was a hardliner, accusing Beijing of soft-pedaling.
When you looked at events before the dispute the mystery deepened. On many issues — East Europe policy especially — Beijing had been the moderate and Moscow again the hardliner. In November 1957, Mao Zedong had even endorsed Moscow’s claim to be leader of the communist bloc.
So why the determined effort just a few years later to prove that Moscow had no right to be the leader? Something was out of place, even allowing for typical communist verbal violence. Indeed, some U.S. military strategists believed the entire dispute was a hoax aimed to lull the West into dropping its guard.
Soon after, I was in Moscow and tried to find out what was going on. Gradually I began to realize that it had nothing to do with ideology. But it did have a lot to do with nuclear weapons.
The chronology of events was all-important. Before 1958 the Chinese had suffered two U.S. nuclear threats, one in 1953 in an Eisenhower bid to end the Korean War and then in 1954 during the first Offshore Islands dispute.
Clearly if a nonnuclear China was to recover the Offshore Islands, not to mention Taiwan, it had to have Soviet nuclear backing. It thought it had this with its Oct. 15, 1957, agreement with Moscow on “new technology for nuclear defense” under which Beijing has claimed it was to receive “a sample of an atomic bomb and the technical data concerning its manufacture.” Yet less than two years later, on June 20, 1959, Moscow canceled that agreement.
Clearly something must have happened between those two dates to change Moscow’s mind and that something could only have been the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis over the Offshore Islands.
Some have since argued that personal antagonism between the haughty Mao Zedong and the plebeian Khrushchev underlay the dispute. And it is true neither had much love for the other. But personal love rarely enters affairs of state. For in June 1957 when Soviet hardliners (the so-called anti-Party group) moved to unseat Khrushchev, at a crucial stage the Chinese came out in support of Khrushchev.
Just a few months later the Chinese got the nuclear support agreement they wanted so badly. Beijing only turned anti-Khrushchev after Khrushchev had turned anti-Beijing. So why did Khrushchev renege on the agreement?
In 1957 he had been fighting for his political life and was keen to keep Beijing on-side. By 1959, however, his moves for detente with the West (which had begun in 1954 incidentally with his “Geneva Spirit” diplomacy leading to an important concession to Japan over the Northern Territories dispute, which Tokyo then promptly upended in a bid to seek more concessions) had matured to the point where he could visit Camp David and come away describing Eisenhower as a “a man of peace.”
Clearly none of that would have been possible if he had been supporting Beijing in a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. over Taiwan. He had no choice but to cancel the agreement, but not before he made a little-known offer of Soviet military support provided it was under Soviet control — an offer Beijing contemptuously rejected.
This in turn provided the grist for Beijing’s ideological attacks on Moscow — that the U.S. was the implacable enemy, that Moscow’s detente hopes were a sellout for communist ideals, and so on. Meanwhile, Beijing set out determinedly to develop its own nuclear weapons, which it successfully tested in 1964.
Seen in this context it is clear that both Moscow and Beijing were acting in defense of what they saw as their justified national interest. Beijing’s concern over Taiwan has become even clearer since the end of the Cold War.
Khrushchev’s efforts to end the Cold War were sadly to end with his overthrow by Moscow hardliners in 1964. But few Western observers at the time seem to have realized the clash of national interest that the U.S. had provoked. Instead they preferred to see it in purely ideological terms — as dangerous hardline communists in Beijing opposed to moderate communists in Moscow.
This, together with the distorted version of 1959 Tibet events and the 1962 frontier dispute with India, led directly to the image of a belligerent China on the move in Asia, and the Washington-Canberra decision to intervene in Vietnam.
Indeed, in Moscow in 1964, I was to sit in on a bizarre attempt by an Australian foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, acting on U.S. request, to persuade the “good” Soviet communists to work to restrain the “bad” Chinese communists over Vietnam. Premier Alexsei Kosygin’s chilly response to Hasluck said it all: “We would like to see our Chinese comrades doing much more to assist the brave Vietnamese people suffering U.S. aggression.”
For the U.S.-British military and spy agencies keen to justify Western interventions in Asia, the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute coinciding with the 1959 Tibet uprising and the 1962 Sino-Indian frontier dispute were godsends. Indeed both former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Robert McNamara, former U.S. defense secretary, have since admitted that these exaggerated views of China were crucial to their own Vietnam intervention policies.
When I left the foreign service in 1965, I managed to have published my own inside — and since authenticated — view of both disputes. But there is little a single individual can do against the weight of conventional opinion backed by the black information activities from Washington and London. The academics, pundits, editorialists and the many others determined to see China as an aggressive monster won the day. And many Vietnamese lost their lives as a result.
Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net, where relevant chapters from his 1968 book “In Fear of China” can also be found.