In 1969, I was eleven years old, and my family had just moved to Sacramento. Little did I know, as I started sixth grade and worried about making friends, that the Soviets were on the verge of nuking the tar out of China:
The Soviet Union was on the brink of launching a nuclear attack against China in 1969 and only backed down after the US told Moscow such a move would start World War Three, according to a Chinese historian.
The extraordinary assertion, made in a publication sanctioned by China’s ruling Communist Party, suggests that the world came perilously close to nuclear war just seven years after the Cuban missile crisis.
Liu Chenshan, the author of a series of articles that chronicle the five times China has faced a nuclear threat since 1949, wrote that the most serious threat came in 1969 at the height of a bitter border dispute between Moscow and Beijing that left more than one thousand people dead on both sides.
He said Soviet diplomats warned Washington of Moscow’s plans “to wipe out the Chinese threat and get rid of this modern adventurer,” with a nuclear strike, asking the US to remain neutral.
But, he says, Washington told Moscow the United States would not stand idly by but launch its own nuclear attack against the Soviet Union if it attacked China, loosing nuclear missiles at 130 Soviet cities. The threat worked, he added, and made Moscow think twice, while forcing the two countries to regulate their border dispute at the negotiating table.
So, while Moscow was planning on reducing Beijing (and Canton and Shanghai and…) to radioactive cinders, Nixon was promising to do the same thing to Mother Russia, if the Kremlin didn’t back off.
This was the period of Nixon’s outreach to China, and his and Kissinger’s grand scheme saw the Chinese as a counterweight to the USSR’s aggression. They were also worried about the effect a nuclear strike on China would have on US troops in the region, and undoubtedly on our allies in the area, too. The President played the ultimate US trump card and, fortunately, Brezhnev and company weren’t willing to call him on a bluff.
Not only is this another illustration of how close we sometimes came to ending the world, but it also stands in contrast to our modern confrontation with would-be nuclear powers, especially Iran. While Moscow was indeed on the verge of nuclear war, the USSR was still a modern European state with a rational interest in its own survival. In the face of a credible threat from the US, it made a calculation of its interests and decided the price for carrying out its planned attack was too great to pay. It is just this kind of rational decision-making in an environment of mutually assured destruction that paradoxically kept us all safe from the end of World War II to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
But, would this threat work with Iran, whose leaders see themselves as having a divine mission to bring about the Islamic version of the End Times? Their intellectual paradigm is very much different from that shared by US and Soviet leaders, and I fear that, after gaining the bomb, Tehran might decide the price of a devastating counterstrike would be worth paying, in order to bring about the return of the Mahdi and Islam’s final victory.
In that case, many, many children will not have the close escape I had.
PS. Do click through to the article, if only for the picture of Nixon with Brezhnev. Britons especially will appreciate the gesture Tricky Dick is making toward the Soviet leader.
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)