During the Cold War American generals pressed for a nuclear strike against China that they expected would lead to Soviet retaliation and the deaths of millions, leaked documents show.
The papers indicate that the world came closer to nuclear war in 1958 than had previously been understood.
Then, as now, tensions over the independence of Taiwan threatened to bring Beijing and Washington into confrontation. The Cold War crisis arose when Communist China began shelling islands in the Taiwan Strait controlled by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, which retreated to Taiwan nine years earlier after defeating on the mainland.
Historians already knew that the US contemplated using atomic weapons to support its ally. Dozens of pages in a top-secret 1966 study of the stand-off show how aggressive military leaders were in advocating to initiate nuclear attacks if Mao Zedong did not back down.
The document, which is apparently still classified, was disclosed by Daniel Ellsberg, 90. Fifty years ago Ellsberg also leaked a government study of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the lies that successive administrations had fed the American people about the war in Southeast Asia.
Parts of the Taiwan Strait study had been released previously, with the most sensitive sections censored. Those pages reveal that in 1958 General Laurence Kutner, the top air force commander in the Pacific sought authorization for a nuclear attack on China. He advocated a plan to bomb airfields, making it harder for “misguided” opponents of nuclear conflict to object.
China was not yet a nuclear power but US planners considered it likely that the USSR would launch retaliatory nuclear strikes to de