This Nuclear-Armed Leader Was More Terrifying Than Kim Jong-un
China’s revolutionary leader did not let persistent hostility with the United States get in the way of picking a fight with his country’s most important patron, the Soviet Union. Sino-Soviet tensions built up over many years because of issues like disagreements about how to export communism, Khrushchev denouncing Stalin and myriad other disputes. The dispute reached its apex in 1969, when Chinese troops ambushed Soviet border guards, killing fifty soldiers. Once again, Mao was risking war with a much more powerful and nuclear-armed country.
Arguably the most terrifying aspect of Mao was his views on nuclear weapons, which Beijing first tested in 1964. Initially, the Soviet Union had agreed to help China build its own nuclear weapon, but later cut off all assistance, in part because of concern over Mao’s seemingly cavalier attitude about nuclear war. And indeed, Mao did say the darndest things about nuclear war. In 1955, he told the Finnish ambassador in Beijing:
The Chinese people are not to be cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail. Our country has a population of 600 million and an area of 9,600,000 square kilometers. The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the U.S. atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.
Even more troubling, he seemed to welcome a nuclear holocaust as a means of promoting communism worldwide. At one point, Mao confided to Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru: “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist; in a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more.” This was not the only time Mao made such an argument. Little wonder, then, that both the United States and the Soviet Union seriously considered launching a preventative attack on China’s nuclear program.
Ultimately, neither side pulled the trigger, and China became a nuclear-weapons state with Mao at the helm. Deterrence held. That is not to say that the United States shouldn’t be extremely concerned with North Korea’s rapid nuclear progress. Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Nonetheless, the Mao example does suggest that the United States shouldn’t rule out the deterrence option simply because of the nature of the Kim regime.
Zachary Keck is the former managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.