191. Highlights From Secretary of State Rusk’s Policy Planning Meeting0


  • A Chinese Communist Nuclear Detonation and Nuclear Capability

[Here follows a distribution list, including the Secretary of State and 21 other high-level officials of the Department, the Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the United States Information Agency.]

The paper under discussion1 was favorably commented upon as a fine example of creative and imaginative thinking. There was consensus with the paper’s thesis that the advent of a ChiCom nuclear capability would heighten already existing issues rather than pose wholly new problems.

Reference was made to the possibility that a ChiCom nuclear capability might create rather more difficulty with respect to the position of the Republic of China than the paper concluded. For example, it could [Page 400] significantly affect morale on Taiwan, help undermine international support for the GRC (either as a result of international reaction to mainland raids or of pressures for expanded communication with Peiping) and create difficulties through Peiping’s possible exploitation of the offshores situation.

The Soviet estimate puts a later date upon the development of ChiCom advanced weapons capabilities than U.S. estimates; the possibility exists that we have overestimated the extent of Soviet technical aid to the ChiComs. U.S. intelligence may, however, now be better than that of the USSR on the ChiCom program. Prevention of a ChiCom nuclear capability is one important goal that we share in common with the Soviets. The USSR may mobilize all the means at its disposal to forestall the ChiComs from acquiring a nuclear capability. The test ban treaty may have been a step in this campaign.

There was discussion of how the Chinese Communist nuclear capability would affect the Moscow-Peiping alliance. In September the Soviets made it clear that there were at least two areas in which the USSR would not feel obliged to honor the treaty: in the event of ChiCom aggression against India, or in the Taiwan Straits. Thus, the Soviet nuclear umbrella over the “Socialist camp” does not mean unqualified support for ChiCom aggression.

There was discussion of whether a ChiCom nuclear capability would cause other Asian nations to move closer to either China or the U.S. (in the light of the estimate in the paper that Asian countries were likely, at least initially, to be confirmed in their present policies). It was pointed out that it did not require a large nuclear arsenal to terrorize Asian neighbors and coerce them into political compromises favorable to Peiping. The threat of one nuclear bomb on Calcutta could conceivably give Communist China considerable political leverage. The ChiComs might also hope to use their nuclear capability as a deterrent to response to major conventional aggression. On the other hand, the fear of a U.S. nuclear response to a nuclear attack would act as a major restraint on Communist China. U.S. countermoves and the U.S. military posture in the area will go far to determine the course which China’s Asian neighbors will adopt once China has the bomb. For reasons developed in the paper, including effects on the willingness of Asian countries to seek U.S. aid, the emphasis should be on a strong U.S. conventional capability.

Question was raised as to whether we should reject outright as a future course of action the possibility of bringing Communist China into the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Commission (ENDC) (Issue No. 3).2 In the second stage of the disarmament plans discussed at Geneva the adherence of the ChiComs, France and others would be needed. It was agreed that Issue 3 should be revised to make it clear that exclusion of Communist China from the ENDC referred only to the immediate future.

Regional disarmament arrangements were unrealistic because there was little prospect that China’s neighbors could reduce arms below present levels without endangering internal security needs. It was suggested that we should attempt to divert Peiping from regional solutions, nuclear free zones, etc. (It was noted that it was for this reason that the paper proposed development of the Asian components of the Outline Treaty rather than a separate Asian disarmament scheme.)

The difficulties of providing even “temporary limited” increases in military assistance to Asian countries as a form of reassurance following ChiCom detonation of a nuclear device were discussed. It was emphasized that the paper did not contemplate a massive increase in aid, but only modest increases. Nonetheless even the provision of modest additional MAP could become very difficult or impossible in view of the rapidly decreasing availabilities of MAP funds. Such increase would require, at a minimum, hard planning of MAP programs and hard selling to Congress.

It was questioned whether military assistance for conventional military equipment would be a relevant form of response to a ChiCom nuclear capability; it was pointed out that we did not want to burden ourselves with needless additional assistance requirements. In answer it was noted that assistance in air defense was likely to be considered relevant so long as the ChiComs depended upon aircraft for delivery. India was cited as a case where assistance to air defense probably increased the will to resist. Moreover, the real threat would continue to be conventional rather than nuclear in character and Asian countries were likely to seek additional U.S. aid as a form of general reassurance of the U.S. commitment to their defense.

It was suggested that the colored peoples of the world might rally to a nuclear-armed China. However, the colored peoples would also tend to fear China and to press a settlement on her rather than to rally to her standard. It was partly for this reason that Communist China could be [Page 402] expected to emphasize its defensive and peaceful purposes in the post-detonation period.

ChiCom acquisition of the bomb will pose immediate problems that are diplomatic or political, rather than military, in nature. China is likely to strike a conciliatory stance from her new position of strength and wait for her neighbors to rush to the bargaining table. A good example of this tactic was China’s sudden acceptance of a cease-fire and partial withdrawal after the invasion of India.

The question of the nuclear threshold was discussed and the similarity to the problem in Germany suggested. Just as the Germans demand an unambiguous commitment to nuclear defense, so the Asians might want to lower the nuclear threshold, rather than raise it as the paper advocates. We may well be put in the same position as in Europe-that of asking our allies to increase their conventional forces while they prefer to solve defense problems through greater nuclear protection. However, it was pointed out that the Germans, when it comes to cases rather than questions of general defense theory, admit the need of a conventional response as less likely to lead to obliteration of their country. Similar attitudes may be expected in Asia where, in any event, attitudes toward nuclear weapons are somewhat different.

There are few real targets for nuclear attack by Communist China in the area. In the Korean War we were ourselves faced with a similar situation: outside of the mass bombing of cities, there were no targets in China whose destruction would affect matters on the battlefield. Japan would present targets, but some of the most important targets in Asia would be U.S. military installations and the Chinese were most unlikely to attack these with nuclear weapons.

It was suggested that the statement of the second major conclusion in the summary paper3 was somewhat misleading. As the basic paper itself made clear, a “pre-emptive” counter-force strike by the U.S. was ruled out. While the conclusion intended only to refer to the ChiCom perception of their situation and to the concern that perception could generate, it might be misinterpreted to imply the possibility of such a pre-emptive strike. It was agreed that the paper should be revised to avoid any such implication.4

  1. Source: Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 70 D 199, Secretary’s Policy Planning Meetings. Secret. The source text does not indicate the drafter, although it was drafted on October 24. Nor does it list the participants at the meeting.
  2. Reference is to a draft policy statement entitled “A Chinese Communist Nuclear Detonation and Nuclear Capability,” circulated with a summary, headed “A Chinese Communist Nuclear Detonation and Nuclear Capability: Major Conclusions and Key Issues.” (Ibid., S/P Papers) A revised draft, also with a summary, is dated October 15. (Ibid.) For the October 15 summary, see the Supplement. An October 18 memorandum from Rostow to Planning Group members states that the paper was prepared in an interdepartmental group, including the Departments of State, Defense, CIA, and USIA. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, China)
  3. Reference is to Issue No. 3 in the summary, which asked how the United States could meet probable Chinese Communist efforts to demonstrate peaceful intentions through proposals for Asian nuclear-free zones and the like with positive initiatives, without taking actions seriously unsettling to its Asian allies or inconsistent with other U.S. policies. Several actions were proposed, but bringing Communist China into [Page 401] the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Commission was specifically rejected.
  4. It reads:

    “Whatever U.S. intentions, so long as the ChiComs have only soft, vulnerable delivery means, they will have to take account of the danger of pre-emptive U.S. counterforce action in military crisis situations. This could increase ChiCom caution.”

  5. The second major conclusion in the revised paper of October 15 reads:

    “Whatever actual U.S. intentions, so long as the ChiComs have only soft, vulnerable delivery means, they will have to take account of the danger of a U.S. nuclear or non-nuclear counterforce attack as a possible U.S. response to major ChiCom aggression. This could increase ChiCom caution.”