A regime, born out of a fanatically anti-Western revolution and the veteran of a long bloody war has emerged as a ‘rogue nation’ to the established international order. Said nation has, directly and indirectly, went to war with the United States, unleashing its troops and arsenals to damage the US military and pin it down defending a new client state out of fear for its own survival. Now the US security establishment sits nervously as said nation, which has emphasized an unconventional approach to warfare to make up for its lack of an effective conventional arsenal, moves closer and closer to building a nuclear weapon.
And yet, some hope-could the regime be a lesser evil? Could a deal with it actually work?
This could be a description of Iran today, but it also describes Maoist China in the early Cold War. Throughout the early 1960s, the intelligence community navigated a fog as the country moved through its atomic development program, mystery continued and rhetoric escalated until the PRC detonated its first nuclear weapon in October 1964. Throughout the decade and beyond, the nation became the biggest wild card in the Vietnam War, and offers, if not lessons, then observations.
John F. Kennedy remained especially vigilant about the Chinese bomb, leaning towards a forcible strike against it. Against him, one unknown Policy Planning Council analyst named Robert Johnson continued to push for calm. Johnson-no relation to president Lyndon Johnson-’s view eventually won out, and the long-awaited nuclear test passed without much incident.
A surviving JFK, or a more hawkish administration, may very well have ordered a strike on PRC nuclear facilities. One of the best available sources is this document laying out a large array of options for fighting China’s nuclear ambitions, that range from the mild (condemn it and conduct a PR campaign) to the impossibly bold (support a Taiwanese reinvasion of the mainland (!) )
China detonated its first nuclear bomb in October 1964. However, its capacity remained extremely limited-missile production was slow, and delivery systems remained limited to clunky H-6 bombers. As anticipated, the psychological effect was greater than the military changes.
Still in fear, the PRC rushed to support -within limits- the North Vietnamese, showing that the United States was not the only power politically restrained in the Vietnam War. Many thousands of Chinese troops, most being laborers and specialist engineers, were deployed to North Vietnam, where they assisted in infrastructure repair, construction, and deployment of anti-aircraft artillery. Although using a “volunteer” legal fiction for reasons of law and war, they did not even attempt to use a shallow “duelist deniability” and remained overt in all other means.
The fear of offensive forces deploying, even if in an unconventional capability, remained on the table throughout Rolling Thunder, and while unlikely, could not be discounted altogether (nor did planners feel it wise to, after the debacle of Korea).
The rest is history. China was approached as a balance to the Soviets, and in hindsight, the nuclear arsenal-with first bombers and then a small number of missiles-, proved less decisive than the worst fears indicated.
How many parallels are there between China in the 1960s and Iran today? Less than the initial comparison may seem. But some still exist. One may be to overestimate the effects of nuclear weapons by themselves. A nuclear missile that can destroy one thing at the expense of bringing a hundred Minutemen down in return is, in many ways, less of a threat than a conventional missile capable of accurately hitting any airfield on the Arabian Peninsula.
Another is the gap between public rhetoric and private will. This is why I get annoyed by the “only alternative to a nuclear deal is war” talk-if Iran wasn’t overtly attacked while Bush was in office and there was a more valid military reason to, why would there be the will for it in much more dovish circumstances? Similarly, I’d bet that for all of Israel’s public (and understandable, much as the Nationalist government on Taiwan’s worries of mainland nuclear weapons in a fairly similar situation were understandable) warnings, it has privately resigned itself to a nuclear Iran for some time.
The document of proposals and plans shows an array of PRC responses to US-led measures. They range from naval harassment to the takeover of Hong Kong or renewed attacks against India, after their victory in 1962. China’s arsenal at the time was numerous but low-technology-in naval/air matters, the best it could manage was mass production of fighters one generation (later two generations) behind its opponents.
The Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations simulation offers many opportunities for simulating the what-ifs. Areas surrounding China’s nuclear program have inspired many scenario ideas from me, including full-scale B-52 raids on the infrastructure itself. However, the most I’ve managed to actually make is a scenario called “Probe or Feint”, a limited aerial recon-in-force by F-106s over the Yangtze.
I’ve taken an interest in simulating a hypothetical blockade, although the scope of that is room for concern (Too small an area and it becomes unrealistically cramped, too big and you have scenario creep).
As both a historical example and wargaming effort, the political and military plans surrounding the Chinese nuclear weapons project are well worth studying.