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 defend its ally.
The study paraphrased General Nathan Twining, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that if the bombing were insufficient there would be “no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes . . . as far north as Shanghai”.
That would “almost certainly involve nuclear retaliation against Taiwan and possibly against Okinawa”, a Japanese island where American forces were based, “but he stressed that . . . the consequences had to be accepted”.
John Foster Dulles, the Republican secretary of state, told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “nobody would mind very much the loss of the offshore islands but that loss would mean further communist aggression”. He added: “Nothing seems worth a world war until you looked at the effect of not standing up to each challenge posed.”
President Eisenhower relied on conventional weapons and Mao withdrew.
Ellsberg told The New York Times he was releasing the papers to draw attention to “reckless” calculations in 1958. “I do not believe the participants were more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet.” He believes the documents illustrate the risks today of escalating tensions in East Asia.