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Document Friday: “Reducing the Psychological Impact of the First Chinese Communist Nuclear Explosion”

February 5, 2010

China's Nuclear Test no. 6

Despite denials and tepid gestures towards a UN-brokered nuclear compromise, American officials remain concerned that the Islamic of Republic Iran is on the cusp of creating an atomic weapon.  But as this week’s hot doc shows, the United States has been in a similarly precarious situation before.  In 1956 –after years of developing nuclear technology under the guise of peaceful research– the People’s Republic of China announced its intention to develop a nuclear weapon.  According to this declassified State Department doc, “Anticipatory Action Pending Chinese Communist Demonstration of a Nuclear Capability,” US policy makers anticipated a Chinese nuclear detonation as early as 1961.  This explosion, they feared, would “contribute to feeling that communism is the wave of the future and that Communist China is, or soon will become, too powerful to resist.”

While the unease that US policymakers felt towards a nuclear China is not surprising, one “advance action” that high level State Department officials recommended was certainly eyebrow-raising.  State officials considered a plan to encourage nuclear proliferation in Asia so that the “psychological effect” of the imminent Chinese nuclear explosion would be undercut by an earlier, noncommunist nuclear test.

Officials as high as the Deputy Secretary suggested that the US should carefully “sound[] out” India on the possibility of a preemptive nuclear test since, “it would be desirable if a friendly Asian power beat Communist China to the punch.”  The memo does pay lip service to such concerns as India’s previous anti-nuclear pronunciations; the dangers and legality of supplying US nuclear intelligence and materials to other countries; adverse international reaction if US actions became know; and that “Pakistan could be expected to react most adversely to an Indian Explosion.”  But despite these concerns, the memo recommended that quiet consultations with the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission take place.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk vetoed his subordinates’ recommendation.  He wrote that he was “not convinced we should depart from our stated policy that we are opposed to the further extension of national nuc. weapons capability.”  Rusk’s was probably a wise decision, considering the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. China did test a nuclear bomb in 1964 (US estimates were premature) and did reap substantial psychological gains.  But despite the  psychological power of the A-bomb, we can only hope that no one in today’s State Department is kicking around any ideas about undercutting Iran’s likely nuclear test by preempting it with, say, a Saudi, Syrian, or Iraqi nuclear weapon.  We’ll have to submit the FOIA requests to know for sure.

  1. the_matt permalink
    February 5, 2010 4:41 pm

    Why preempt with a Saudi nuke when the Israeli’s already have one? Speaking of which, where’d they get the scientists (ok, so some – if not many – may have escaped from the Nazis to get to Israel, but that’s just my conjecture), funding, and material for their bomb? Have we not already supported the development of a nuclear power in the Middle East?

  2. Nate Jones permalink
    February 5, 2010 6:05 pm

    You’re right. The situation in the Middle East is much different than that in Asia during the early 60s. But the US really didn’t play a role in creating the Israeli nuke. Most of Israel’s assistance came from France. But even Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity” shows that proliferation is now viewed as a threat to world security. (A view that the drafter’s of today’s memo were apparently opposed to.)

    Here’s a good link on the Israeli nuclear weapons program.

  3. CCSCFHF permalink
    February 5, 2010 7:20 pm

    This is especially interesting since India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons.

  4. Nate Jones permalink
    February 5, 2010 7:35 pm

    Yeah. They were good example of the breakneck pace proliferation can take (both tested within months in 1998). BTW, click the links in the article to see vids of all three explosions.

  5. Phil C Walton permalink
    February 6, 2010 3:51 am

    In my 10 years in Strategic Missile Operations both as a Minuteman Launch Control officer and in doing computer support for JSTPS is learned from running many computer simulations of SIOP vs, RSIOP the country that goes preemptive has the best chance of being in a position of terminating the conflict with an infrastructure and economy of relative advantage.

    Neither Iran or North Korea are going to respond to external diplomatic or economic pressure to change their nuclear weapon aspirations. The will refine the weapon technology including tampers and triggers they are going to actual weapons as opposed to non deliverable nuclear test cells.

    The political problem as both the current governments of North Korea will be willing to transfer nuclear weapons and mated delivery system to external entities where Russia, China, India and Pakistan haven’t been will to transfer technology or weapon assets.

    The US does not have a remaining force structure manpower wise to engage in a conventional military operation against North Korea or Iran and maintaining an occupying force for decades it will cost you billions of dollars and keep losing personnel to IEDs. The best solution is a counter value area denial operation using SLBM delivery systems and assets due to the fact tat you can’t over shoot Russia and China using ICBMs.

    Three Trident Submarines using the Trident II D-5 missile. Salt the VRs with Cobalt 60 Iodide it has a half life of 55 – 57 years and you want to induce a rad count of at least 1000 rads/hr at the end of 55 years.

    You are using assets that are eventually going to be scrapped in favor of converting the remaining Trident SSBNs to Tomahawk launch platforms and the weapons would have to be recycled by DOE. any interim use of the assets constitutes a future cost saving under OMB guide lines.

    potential launch locations one Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. all launches are surface ripple fire over three minutes to reduce cavitation problems to the submarines and then they can resubmerg with.surface vulnerability under 6 minutes.

    Master roll is delayed one all missile at maximize staggered height prior to
    RV Bus weapon release; resulting in a high number synchronous detonations of the 556 weapons involved in the operation maximizing synergistic effects of reverberating shock waves and fire storms. Inflict as much damage as possible in a short a time as possible, don’t occupy hostile territory and keep your force attrition to a minimum.

    Deterrence is only effect when it remains totally creditable and a nation state must periodically demonstrate the credibility my flexing it power to keep others in the international arena in check.

  6. Nate Jones permalink
    February 6, 2010 12:16 pm

    Good the hear from an expert on the subject, interesting insight. Though I must admit, your post scares the heck out of me.

  7. jake permalink
    May 26, 2010 10:35 pm

    where does australia sit in this conflict… are we safe ??? when it comes to world power the risk of war against china, india, pakistan and russia is to risky. thier forces are alot better than US and the US allies. we are in big trouble !!!

  8. jake permalink
    May 26, 2010 10:40 pm

    the power of the US millitary is over, thier world power and dominance is overturn. they are no longer the force in the world. i think we now look to those countries such as India, Pakistan, Russia, China, North Korea and Isreal because its those nations that have the power now.

    we cant risk war or any conflict against those nations. the US and UN need to think and think fast before those nations become too powerful, before they become such a big force, before they rule the world because if they take over than its the end !!!

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