The Strange Story of Russia and China's Cold War Nuclear Weapons Break-Up

The Strange Story of Russia and China's Cold War Nuclear Weapons Break-Up

And the CIA had a frontrow seat. 

Late last year, the CIA declassified a treasure trove of information — the daily briefs it wrote for U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from 1961 to 1969. The agency’s memos cover one of the most fascinating and frightening periods of American history.

During the 1960s, communist ideologies ruled in both the Soviet Union and China. At the time, propaganda often depicted the two countries marching in lockstep to plant the red flag across the globe.

The truth, however, was far more complicated. At some points, just based on the CIA’s briefings with no outside historical knowledge, it seemed as if Beijing outright hated Moscow … especially Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

The agency seemed to take glee in reporting the ins and outs of the Sino-Soviet split. Sometimes that joy got weird.

Relations were not always frosty between the two communist powers. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s the two maintained a cordial, even helpful relationship. But the commie buddy routine didn’t last, and by 1961 China’s leadership had formally denounced the Soviets as “revisionist traitors.”

The reasons why are complicated and varied, but one of the points of contention between the two powers was nuclear weapons. Moscow detonated its first nuclear warhead in 1949. By the middle of the 1950s, Mao Zedong decided China needed nukes too, and he looked to his Soviet friends for help.

The Kremlin was happy to oblige at first. It sent advisers and agreed to help China develop its own weapons program. As late as 1958, China had sent uranium to Russia in exchange for two R-2 ballistic missiles. Then Khrushchev told Mao he planned to discuss nuclear arms control with the West.

Mao didn’t take it well. By 1960, the Soviets were no longer helping China develop a nuke.

The CIA took great pleasure in the breakup and that pleasure bled over into the agency’s briefings to the president. In 1962, the agency began to write to the president about how the two great communist powers seemed at odds.

“We cannot confirm press reports that [Beijing] has asked the USSR to close all of its consulates in China,” the CIA wrote on Sept. 21, 1962. “There is, nonetheless, tenuous evidence suggesting that Moscow’s posts at Harbin in Manchuria and [Urumqi] in [Xinjiang] may in fact have been closed.”

“Nevertheless, we are coming to believe that a new period of open hostility between the two powers has arrived.”

Beijing took every opportunity to remind both Russia and the West that the superpowers’ stranglehold on nuclear weapons was one of China’s biggest problems.

“The Chinese communists have told Moscow in strong language that [Beijing] will speak for itself when it comes to renouncing the right to nuclear arms,” the agency wrote on Oct. 12, 1962 . “Beijing has been saying publicly that the purpose of our arms limitation proposals has been to cheat them out of nuclear arms.”

As autumn wore on that year, relations between China and Russia worsened. The spies recounted every moment of the division with fervor.

“The Chinese have started using troops instead of police and border guards to patrol their border with the USSR,” the CIA explained in early October . “With relations at a low ebb, the Chinese evidently do not exempt the Soviets when they speak … of the danger of agent infiltration and subversion by the imperialists.”

Later that month, as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, China took every opportunity to call out the Kremlin and its leadership for what it saw as a bungled opportunity. “[Beijing] … is grumbling that Moscow … has shown itself to be weak-kneed,” the CIA wrote on Oct. 26 .

“Communist China’s leaders have recently stepped up their criticism of Soviet foreign policy and appear determined to undermine confidence in Soviet Leadership,” the agency wrote in late October as the Cuban Missile Crisis wound down.

China used the moment to score easy propaganda points against the USSR … and let the Soviets know exactly why. “[Beijing’s] latest note charges the Soviets with betrayal for allowing international communism to fall behind in the nuclear arms race by not sharing technical information with China since 1959.”

In 1963, the United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The agreement prohibited the countries from conducting nuclear test detonations above ground. At the time, scientists and leaders worried about radioactive fallout and an uncontrolled nuclear arms race.

Except China.

“The Chinese yesterday handed diplomatic missions in [Beijing] a letter from [Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai] calling for a meeting of all chiefs of state to discuss the Chinese proposal for a total ‘prohibition and destruction’ of nuclear weapons,” the CIA explained to Kennedy in early August . “It appears that the Chinese are trying to spread the letter as widely as they can in an effort to trump the test ban agreement.”