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The Possibility of “An Accidental Drop” on Chinese Nuclear Facilities

December 15, 2014

“Accidental drop” passage included in 21 June 1963 Glenn Seaborg diary entry, (L), deleted from FRUS (R).

Recently the National Security Archive published an Electronic Briefing Book of documents on the United States and the Chinese nuclear weapons program during the early 1960s. One of the themes of the compilation was the Kennedy and Johnson Administration’s consideration of preventive military action to prevent or to delay China from acquiring a nuclear capability. A pertinent document that I overlooked when preparing that compilation is worth presenting. It is an entry for 21 June 1963 from the journals of Glenn Seaborg, who was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971. Seaborg’s journal recounts a White House meeting on the nuclear test ban negotiations with the Soviet Union and forthcoming talks in Moscow. According to Seaborg’s account the discussion turned to China–which had refused to support a test ban treaty–when Kennedy asked how the United States might handle that subject in the Moscow talks. Reflecting ongoing discussions of the possibility of working with Moscow against the Chinese nuclear program, William C. Foster, the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, confidently observed that “if we could get together with the USSR, the Chinese could be handled even if it required an accidental drop on their facilities.”

The reference to an “accidental drop on their facilities” was excised when the diary entry was published in the Foreign Relations of the United States but it was declassified through a request to the Department of Energy for a new review of the document. An “accidental drop,” –presumably a bombing– is an unusual form of arms control and just how the United States or even the Soviet Union could have staged such an event in the interior of China, where Chinese nuclear facilities were located, is an interesting problem. The Kennedy Presidential Library Web site does not indicate whether a sound recording for this meeting exists, so if there was any discussion of the concept of “accidental drop” it is not available. In any event, Foster’s statement is one more bit of evidence that senior officials were interested in the possibility of taking action against the Chinese nuclear program, even to the point of arranging an “accidental” bombing with Moscow. As it turned out, when Kennedy’s representative, W. Averell Harriman, brought up the Chinese nuclear program during a conversation in Moscow with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the latter would not even allow that he was worried about it.1

1. Telegram from the U.S. Embassy Moscow to Department of State, 27 July 1963,]


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