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Document Friday: “This Would be the Signal for General Nuclear War”

March 26, 2010

In August 1958, five nuclear capable B-47 bombers on Guam were placed on alert.

According to today’s hot doc, the US Air Force was ready and willing to drop nuclear bombs on Communist China at the outset of the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis.  This 13 August 1958 State Department memo describes blow-by-blow how a dispute over two islands in the Taiwan Strait could have evolved into “general nuclear war between the US and the USSR.”

This memo, sent to President Eisenhower’s Under Secretary of State, Christian Herter, depicts how nuclear war between the USA and USSR could have evolved from a dispute between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.  Taiwan held these two strategically important islands, but the PRC also claimed (and shelled) them.  America’s “existing contingent war plans,” derived from its 1954 security agreement with Taiwan, “call[ed] for the defense of Quemoy and Matsu by nuclear strikes deep into Communist China, including military targets in the Shanghai-Hangchow-Nanking and Canton complexes where population density is extremely high.“

From the US Air Force hisotry, Air Opperations in the Taiwan Crisis of 1958.

The memo’s author, the Department of State’s Director of Policy Planning, Gerald C. Smith, predicted that these nuclear strikes -“comparable to the 20 KT weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki”- would lead to millions of “non-combat [read: civilian] casualties.”

And that would not be the end.  According to a contemporaneous National Intelligence Estimate, “If our present military planning was carried out Peiping [Beijing] and its Soviet ally would probably feel compelled to react with nuclear attacks at least on Taiwan and on the [US] Seventh Fleet.  Under our present strategic concept, this would be the signal for general nuclear war between the US and USSR.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.  President Eisenhower agreed with Smith’s conclusion that without a local, non-nuclear defense force, “The US does not have a politically feasible capability to defend Quemoy and Matsu… [and] will run the very grave risk of general nuclear war attendant on our present military planning.”

An Air Force History of the Taiwan Crisis, obtained by a National Security Archive  lawsuit, provides further information on this nuclear decision.  At the height of the crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approached Eisenhower “for permission to use nuclear weapons at the outset of hostilities,” the President overruled them and clarified that “under no circumstances would these weapons be used without his approval.”  China did not invade the islands, but tensions between the PRC and Taiwan  remain to this day.

The Air Force history concluded –with an almost melancholy tone– that after Eisenhower’s strong rebuke of first use, “The armed forces must expect civil authority to impose tight controls on them in times of emergency.”  After reading this Top Secret description of the alternative, I think that’s probably a good thing.

  1. March 26, 2010 4:58 pm

    Nuke the greatest cities of China, causing millions of civilian casualties, then predicting global nuclear war without an eyeblink, for such little territories concerns… Wow, this is so insane!

  2. OsamaMike China permalink
    November 16, 2013 3:43 am

    If the US wants to use nuclear weapons on China,don’t expect the US to be immune.
    If the Pentagon wants to destroy China with out cost,it’s ano go.
    That is what is holding them back.
    Sooner or later thePLA will be able to cause more destruction on US assets and there is nothing Obama can do about it een with missile shield/gun,etc.That is he starts a war asap,

  3. Mike China permalink
    February 2, 2015 4:10 am

    From the Korea war up to 2000,the US could have destroyed China with minimal cost.Since then the PLA has increased its military power.Though the Pentagon has a substantial military superiority in both conventional and nuclear forces,it will be unable to prevent Chinese conventional and nuclear retaliation.It could soon get worst with the Chinese deploying the hypersonic missiles.
    The taiwan problem will soon be settled on way or another.If the Taiwanese are stupid enough to declare independence ,the PLA need not take over the island. All they have to do is destroy the island.With the 1000 missiles opposite the island,the deterrent is sure to
    make sure sure 100% the islanders aint that dumb.
    Oh the US can intervene.They can drop nuclear bombs on China but this time the CONUS could be subjected to Chinese attack.


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