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The Pentagon seriously contemplated nuking China in 1958

Newly leaked documents show that US officials in 1958 cavalierly planned a nuclear strike on China over a handful of disputed islands. As Washington once more stokes tensions with China, it’s a reminder of the callous recklessness at the heart of US foreign policy.
 
by Branko Marcetic 

Part 2 - Destruction for Dignity

The plan, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and developed before the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis began, envisaged only two phases in the response to a Chinese attack: patrol and reconnaissance, followed by the defeat of Chinese forces, who would be “countered by an American attack with atomic weapons against the Chinese mainland.” The nuclear attacks would begin against Chinese air bases before moving incrementally up into the Chinese mainland as far north as Shanghai, as was discussed at one point.

As the study took care to point out, the plan didn’t include any intermediate step involving conventional weapons: “the phase immediately following patrol and reconnaissance would involve atomic weapons strikes by both sides.” In fact, military officials actively ruled it out, in large part to avoid another long war. While members of the State Department initially pushed for an alternative plan based only on conventional weapons, the study notes, the joint chiefs of staff put the kibosh on this idea, particularly the chairman, General Nathan Twining.

The use of conventional weapons mean protracted involvement in another Korean-type conflict,” goes the study’s account of Twining’s argument. He insisted the Korean War could’ve been “done in two or three days” if they’d deployed nuclear strikes.

By the time officials sat down to discuss the no-longer-hypothetical fighting between Chinese and Taiwanese forces, the idea that any conventional weapons initially used must be “quickly followed” by nuclear attacks was a “unanimous belief,” according to the study. “The entire military establishment” increasingly assumed it would be inevitable. Then-president Dwight Eisenhower had directed the Joint Chiefs “to prepare for the use of atomic weapons in any situation larger than a very small brush fire war.

The closest thing to a dove was Admiral Harry Felt, then the commander in chief of US Pacific Command, who felt the islands weren’t worth defending, but that if they were going to defend them, then doing so with non-nuclear weapons was “questionable.” General Laurence Kuter, commander of the Pacific Air Forces, was “increasingly bitter” about the “lack of vehemence” with which Felt opposed the push for conventional operations, states the study.

Officials were well aware of how extreme this position was, and how isolated the United States would be by taking it. The study recounts British prime minister Harold Macmillan telling secretary of state John Foster Dulles that the entire British Commonwealth was opposed to any retaliatory action and trying to ward him off the idea by quoting Winston Churchill, while the British foreign secretary warned him of the “obvious” risk of a chain reaction that could result. Indeed, Twining acknowledged the plan he was urging would probably spark nuclear strikes on Taiwan and Okinawa in retaliation.

The Joint Chiefs worried about the “lack of world understanding of the US position,” and the study suggests they saw the need to massage global opinion. Any attack on the Chinese mainland would have to be conventional to start with, for “political reasons,” said an August paper adopted by the Joint Chiefs, and China’s attack “must be made to appear the beginning of further expansion,” in case US allies deny the use of their bases. Admiral Arleigh Burke insisted that, while a nuclear counterattack would meet “international opposition,” foreign leaders would come to see it was in their interests.

Maybe the most eyebrow-raising revelation in the study is that US officials were willing to do all this over something they openly admitted had, at most, symbolic value. “The continued possession of these Islands by the [nationalists] is far more important politically and psychologically than tactically,” the plan originally read. “Should these off-shore islands fall to the [communists], the [nationalists] (and the US) would lose, and the [communists] would gain considerable prestige.

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