How Russia and China Almost Started a Nuclear War
China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, theoretically giving Beijing an independent deterrent capability. However, their delivery systems left much to be desired—liquid-fueled missiles of uncertain reliability that required hours to prepare, and that could only remain on the launch pad for a limited amount of time. Moreover, Chinese missiles of the era lacked the range to strike vital Soviet targets in European Russia. China’s bomber force—consisting of an extremely limited number of Tu-4 (a Soviet copy of the U.S. B-29) and H-6 (a copy of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger)—would have fared very poorly against the USSR’s sophisticated air defense network.
The Soviets, on the other hand, were on the verge of achieving nuclear parity with the United States. The USSR had a modern, sophisticated arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, easily capable of destroying China’s nuclear deterrent, its core military formations and its major cities. Sensitive to international opinion, the Soviet leadership would have resisted launching a full scale nuclear assault against China (U.S. and Chinese propaganda would have had a field day), but a limited strike against Chinese nuclear facilities, as well as tactical attacks on deployed Chinese forces might have seemed more reasonable. Much would have depended on how the Chinese reacted to defeats on the battlefield. If the Chinese leadership decided that they needed to “use or lose” their nuclear forces in anticipation of decisive Soviet victory, they could easily have incurred a preemptive Soviet attack. Given that Moscow viewed Beijing as abjectly insane, Moscow could very well have decided to eliminate the Chinese nuclear force before it became a problem.
The United States reacted to the clashes with caution. While the border conflict reassured Washington that the Sino-Soviet split remained in effect, officials disagreed over the likelihood and consequences of broader conflict. Through various official and non-official channels, the Soviets probed U.S. attitudes towards China. Reputedly, the United States reacted negatively to Soviet overtures in 1969 about a joint attack on Chinese nuclear facilities. However, even if Washington did not want to see China burn, it would not likely have engaged in any serious, affirmative effort to protect Beijing from Moscow’s wrath.
What Comes Next?
A decade before, Dwight Eisenhower had outlined the Soviet Union’s biggest obstacle in a war with China: what to do after you win. The Soviets had neither the capacity, nor the interest, in governing another continent-sized territory, especially one that would likely have included masses of disaffected resisters. And the United States, husbanding a “legitimate” government on Formosa, would eagerly have supported a variety of resistance elements against a Soviet occupation. Indeed, if a rump Beijing had survived the war, the United States might still have considered “unleashing Chiang,” in an effort to restore parts of China to the Western column.
The most likely outcome of war would have been short Chinese success, followed by a sharp, destructive Soviet rebuke. Such an outcome would have served to drive Beijing even more fully into the arms of the United States, which is likely one reason that the Soviets decided not to risk it.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
This first appeared in Feb. 2016 and is being reposted due to reader interest.