22. Editorial Note

On March 3, 1969, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger sent President Nixon a memorandum covering recent intelligence information about a Sino-Soviet border clash of March 2:

“The Soviets have accused the Chinese of violating their border and killing border guards in an attack on a post on the Ussuri River. A protest note has been sent which states that any provocative actions on the border will be rebuffed and resolutely cut short by the USSR. The shooting incident was the first of its kind, although there have been previous instances of border provocations by the Chinese.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 3, President’s Daily Briefs)

Over the next few weeks, Kissinger continued to inform the President about the Sino-Soviet border incidents. Although clashes had occurred periodically, this spate of border incidents revealed an intensity and frequency that worried U.S. policymakers. On March 12, Kissinger wrote the following “information item” to the President:

“Developments arising from the March 2 Sino-Soviet border incident in the Far East continue to be revealed [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. Both the Soviets and the Chinese have conducted border reconnaissance flights during this period with some evidence that the Soviets have violated the border on at least two occasions—[less than 1 line of source text not declassified] by a light attack bomber and [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] by a helicopter. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], a Chinese helicopter operating along the border drew a reaction from a Soviet fighter aircraft. No hostile intent was detected and both aircraft remained within their respective airspaces. In addition, [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] the Soviets violated Chinese airspace in the Vladivostok area.” (Ibid.)

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On March 15, Kissinger wrote the following in a memorandum to Nixon:

“The Soviets today charged that Chinese troops tried to invade Soviet territory in the Far East yesterday and today, and had killed Soviet troops. The clashes took place on and near Damansky Island, scene of a clash on March 2.” (Ibid.)

The CIA’s Office of Current Intelligence prepared an extensive chronology of Sino-Soviet border incidents for the CIA Bulletin, which was disseminated widely to U.S. Government officials. An annex of the CIA Bulletin, released on March 18, 1969, provided a chronology of events from March 2–16 from both the Soviet and Chinese perspectives. (Central Intelligence Agency, Job 93–T01468R, Executive Registry Files, Box 3, Sino-Soviet Border January–July 1969)

On March 20, Richard Sneider, NSC Operations Staff officer for East Asia, sent Kissinger a Department of State Intelligence Note titled “Sino-Soviet Border: Has Peking Bitten Off More Than It Can Chew?” The covering memorandum summarized the note as follows:

“You may find the attached Intelligence Note of interest. Prepared by INR in the Secretary of State, it describes the decreasing bluster in Peking’s handling of the crisis, and suggests that the Chinese have realized that they are in a very bad ‘face’ situation. They cannot dislodge the Soviets from Chenpao Island without an unacceptable risk of escalation, and that they will have to eat their earlier threats of crushing retribution if the Soviets persisted in ‘armed provocation.’ The report concludes that, typically, the Chinese Communists are not likely to retreat and thus acknowledge defeat, nor are they likely to mount a real military challenge to the USSR. They will probably maintain enough activity to conceal the fact that their bluff has been called, as they have done by shelling Quemoy on alternate days for ten years after the subsidence of the offshore island crisis.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 709, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. I)