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U.S. Considered '64 Bombing to Keep China Nuclear-Free

September 27, 1998|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — 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.

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