US President Donald Trump wants to increase military spending, including a costly upgrade to the country's nuclear arsenal to meet the threat from so-called "revisionist" powers, Russia and China. But the move could pose significant risks to the American economy.Image: iStock/curraheeshutter
The US threatened China with nuclear attacks during the 1950s. Image: iStock

Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg has now formally disclosed that at the height of the 1958 Offshore Islands crisis over Chinese attacks on the two Taiwan-held islands of Quemoy (aka Kinmen) and Matsu, the US was prepared to use nuclear weapons against Chinese airfields to deter continued attacks.

But at the time those US plans were not entirely secret. Some of us working in Australia’s External Affairs Department knew about them. We were not surprised: It was the height of the Cold War. The US feared the fall of the islands – close to Fukien on the mainland – would seriously undermine the still weakly established Kuomintang regime in Taiwan.  

Nor was this the first time the US had threatened Beijing with nuclear attack over the Offshore Islands. In 1954-55 when Beijing seemed about to take over some other Taiwan-held islands near Shanghai, it received a similar threat. Lacking nuclear weapons, Beijing had backed off and offered ambassadorial talks with the US. The talks went nowhere. 

In 1958 Beijing had attacked again, this time on two much closer islands and with much greater force. And this time again Beijing had suddenly backed away with a call for talks, even though the attack was about to succeed. It said weakly that its attack had been simply to reassert its claim to the islands as a part of its “one China including Taiwan” policy.

To us the whole affair had been puzzling. Why, after the failure of its 1954-55 attack and continuing lack of Soviet support, had Beijing decided to make another attack, this time against the more strategic Quemoy and Matsu?  

True, by this time it had moved to telling the world it did not fear US nuclear weapons. But having said it was not afraid of the big, bad US wolf, why then did it call off the Quemoy/Matsu attack so abruptly when it seemed on the point of victory? Was Beijing the paper tiger it liked to label others as being?

Posted to Moscow soon after, I decided to try to get to the bottom it all. What I discovered was the stuff of fantasy. 

The story begins in 1957, or even earlier. Mao Zedong in Beijing was busy establishing his regime. He also wanted to do something about Taiwan. Having been forced to back off in 1954-55, he set out to get the Soviet nuclear backing needed for another attack.

That would not be easy. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was busy coping with unrest among his Eastern Europe satellites. But in June 1957 a group of Khrushchev’s conservative opponents, the so-called anti-Party group headed by the hardline Vyacheslav Molotov, tried to stage a coup. They resented the way Khrushchev was using the then-current de-Stalinization campaign to boost his prestige.

From left, Soviet Foreign Affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikolai Bulganin and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev are seen during a reception of the Conference of Geneva on July 22, 1955. Photo: ATP

At a crucial moment in the struggle, Beijing threw its support behind Khrushchev, who was then able to get the numbers in the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee to outvote his opponents.

As a gesture of gratitude, Khrushchev began to endorse Chinese domestic policies, including the soon-to-be-notorious Great Leap Forward – a previous sticking point. More important, on October 15 of the same year he gave Beijing a long-sought agreement “on a new technology for nuclear defense.” 

What’s more, 1957 was the year of the first Sputniks. As we move into 1958, the theme of Soviet strength versus US weakness becomes a constant refrain in Chinese propaganda.   On August 23, 1958, Beijing began an intensive bombardment of Quemoy. 

But on September 4, when Beijing seemed to be close to victory, US secretary of state John Foster Dulles warned that the US might come to the assistance of the beleaguered Taiwan forces. (This was the nuclear threat of the Ellsberg disclosures.)

Two days later, on September 6, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai proposed a cooling down and talks with the US. On September 7, Khrushchev wrote to president Dwight D Eisenhower protesting US atomic blackmail against China and warning that an attack on China was an attack on the Soviet Union.

On paper it looked as if Moscow, unlike in 1954-55, had come to Beijing’s aid, albeit belatedly. The reality was different. More than a month earlier, at the end of July, Khrushchev had traveled to Beijing.

Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev (R) amuses himself with a Chinese fan while chatting with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong during his August 1958 visit to China. Photo: AFP / Xinhua

In retrospect it seemed clear (confirmed by Polish sources) that he had tried to dissuade Mao from any move against Taiwan. (The Chinese have since claimed he also tried to have Beijing agree to put China under Soviet military control.)

Meanwhile Khrushchev was pursuing his ill-fated attempt to gain detente with the US, with a September 1959 visit to Eisenhower in Camp David. Three months earlier, in June 1959, he had canceled the October 1957 nuclear agreement with Beijing. Presumably he had wanted to show that Moscow could not hope to improve relations with the US if at the same it was giving nuclear aid to China for use against Taiwan.

After Camp David, Khrushchev again visited Beijing to say that Eisenhower wanted to have a relaxation of  tensions – and that peaceful co-existence with the US was the Soviet goal.

Mao Zedong, left, and Nikita Khrushchev, right, during the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, October 1, 1959.. Photo: AFP / Sputnik

When the Chinese came back shortly after with a series of articles warning against the folly of false “peaceful co-existence” hopes, the Sino-Soviet dispute had finally come out into the open. Meanwhile the Chinese would finally develop a nuclear deterrent by their own efforts, in 1964.

A sleeping worker at China’s military museum is pictured napping under a mural of an early atomic blast. Photo: AFP / Mike Fiala

By this time a curious debate with far-reaching consequences had broken out among China scholars in the West. Why had the Chinese and Soviets  split so violently? If we look at the record, it is obvious that policy on Taiwan and the Offshore Islands was the cause. But for some reason most Western scholars, in the US especially, decided the split had begun much earlier. 

It was because a moderate Moscow had long been upset by Beijing’s hard line in foreign and domestic affairs, they said.   

Yet had we not seen Beijing’s support for Khrushchev against the Molotov hardliners in 1957, and its earlier insistence that the Communist movement had to have a leader and Moscow was that leader? That hardly suggested an early split.

And in return we had Moscow’s offer of nuclear support to Beijing in the same year, and even some endorsement for Beijing’s domestic policies. 

True, many frictions came to the surface later, including an ugly frontier clash. But all that was after 1957 – after Moscow had reneged on its nuclear promise to Beijing. They were results, not causes. And by that time the would-be scholar-soldier Mao had taken a strong personal dislike to the rough-hewn Khrushchev – yet another factor in the dispute. 

But before the split, Beijing had been leaning over backward in the effort to be on good terms with Moscow. It had also pursued a moderate foreign policy.

Long-term ramifications

It is hard to underestimate the harm done to Western foreign policies as a result of this good Soviet Communist/bad Chinese Communist mistake. 

Indian Army personnel at the Tawang War Memorial in Arunachal Pradesh on October 20, 2012, light candles in memory of soldiers who died in the 1962 Indo-China war. Photo: AFP / Biju Boro

In October 1962 the first of the Sino-Indian border clashes over the McMahon Line had occurred. On Canberra’s China desk we had the maps showing clearly that the Indian side had transgressed. But the image, and the propaganda, of the Chinese as the bad, aggressive Communists on the move into South Asia prevailed. 

Henry Kissinger has since said that this exaggerated fear of China in turn was a great factor in the US decisions to intervene in Vietnam and to back Indonesia over East Timor, as well as a host of other Cold War decisions. 

Nixon administration US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger speaks to the press in Paris on January 13, 1973, before the ceasefire agreement in Vietnam war signing on January 27, 1973. Photo: AFP

There was a strange twist to this good Soviet Communist/bad Chinese Communist fallacy.

When I was working in Australia’s Moscow embassy in November 1964, shortly after Khrushchev’s fall in October that year, we received an urgent message calling for us to arrange a meeting between Australian foreign minister Paul Hasluck and the top Soviet leadership. Hasluck had an important message (later we discovered it was from Washington) to deliver.

Ushered into a Kremlin inner sanctum with the standard green baize table, Hasluck said the West had taken note of Moscow’s problems with China along its borders. We had similar problems with an aggressive China, in Vietnam. It was time, he said, for Moscow to use its “power” to join us in Vietnam to stop further aggression. 

At this point there was a break in the talks as Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin set out to correct the interpreter. “Power” in Russian had been interpreted as sila, which can also mean “force,” and the Soviet Union would never use force, he said.

With that cleared up, we went back to the talks. But when the full stupidity of the Australian/US proposal was clear – that the USSR should join with the US and Australia to fight North Vietnam (then seen by Canberra as a Chinese puppet), Kosygin and foreign minister Andrei Gromyko drew back in amazement. The USSR, intoned Kosygin, would always be steadfast in its support for the brave Vietnamese and wished the Chinese would do more. 

In other words, if there really was some danger in Asia for Canberra to fret over, then it was Moscow, not Beijing, that was on the aggressive prowl in Asia.

End of bad Communist/good Communist myth? Not quite. It continues through to today and will get another kick along as the US tries to sort out its differences with Moscow over Ukraine by the simple act of agreeing to enforce the 2015 Minsk Agreements at the Biden-Putin summit next month. The aim of the United States is to be able once again to concentrate its energies on those “bad actors” in China.

Meanwhile Beijing will finally decide it is time to do something about Taiwan, most likely by yet another move against those Offshore Islands. Watch this space.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat with postings to Hong Kong and Moscow. After postgraduate studies of Japan’s overseas investments he moved to Tokyo in 1969. There as correspondent for The Australian he came to organize Australia’s pingpong breakthrough to recognition of Beijing. This was followed by three long-term professorships at Japanese universities. In 1967 he published In Fear of China. He speaks Chinese, Russian, Japanese and Spanish.