79. Editorial Note

On September 17, 1969, the Washington Special Actions Group met to discuss revisions to NSSM 63 on “U.S. Policy on Current Sino-Soviet Differences.” Minutes of this meeting are in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 32. The following actions were agreed: “(a) re-do section on reconnaissance capability; (b) strengthen section on Soviet blockade of China with special emphasis on U.S. military responses should the Soviets deny access to Hong Kong or interfere with U.S. shipping on the high seas; (c) take [Page 237] another look at the operational consequences of ‘partiality’ or ‘impartiality,’ especially in the light of U.S. actions that can be taken in NVN;(d) delete section on civil defense.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, WSAG Minutes, Originals, 1969 and 1970)

Additional revisions to NSSM 63 were considered at a meeting of the National Security Council’s Review Group on September 25. The paper was “to be revised to spell out the consequences of policy choices in three situations: (a) continued Sino-Soviet tension but no hostilities;(b) active U.S. effort to deter hostilities; (c) hostilities [with] one-shot strike or protracted conflict.” Minutes of this Review Group meeting are in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 36.

U.S. policy toward Sino-Soviet hostilities was also on the agenda for the Washington Special Actions Group meeting on September 29, but the conflict was discussed only briefly. According to the minutes of this meeting, “Kissinger was called out of the meeting but paused long enough to respond to a question from [William] Cargo [Director for Plan Coordination, Policy Planning Council, Department of State] pertaining to the Sino-Soviet study and its relationship to the NSSM 63 Report. Cargo said that the two efforts were distinctively different, especially in their time frames. He questioned the real utility of developing a detailed analysis, in the NSSM 63 Report, of the contingency involving an escalating crisis or rapid deterioration of the overall Sino-Soviet situation. Kissinger deferred to Cargo’s judgment on how the problem should be approached but requested that neither paper neglect to examine the relationship between courses of action and their probable outcome.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, Minutes, Originals, 1969 and 1970)

NSSM 63 was revised again on October 17. The summary portion on “U.S. Policy on Current Sino-Soviet Differences” reads as follows:

“This paper considers the policy options posed for the United States by the Sino-Soviet dispute on the assumption that the dispute continues to be fought out in terms of an essentially political rivalry on the present pattern; analyzes the nature of the interrelationships between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, and examines in general terms the problems and opportunities for the United States which would result from major hostilities between the Soviet Union and China. (The immediate short-range options in the event of Sino-Soviet war are the subject of a separate contingency study.)


“Three broad strategies are considered.

[Page 238]
  • Option A would have the effect of supporting Communist China, the weaker of the two contestants, and would probably take the form of making various unreciprocated gestures towards China, such as endorsing Peking’s border claims, while, at the same time, displaying reluctance to engage in negotiations with the USSR, e.g., on SALT. Pursuit of this strategy might result in some long-term improvement in the U.S.-Chinese relationship and it might also help prolong the Sino-Soviet dispute, but the Soviet reaction would be strong and adverse. The Soviets would probably pursue an intensified policy of attempting to detach Western Europe from the U.S., win over Asian countries, particularly Japan, strengthen their hold over Eastern Europe, and step up their own military program.
  • Option B would have the effect of supporting the Soviet Union, the stronger contestant, and would take the form of maintaining our present posture towards China without change, while we adopted a generally softer line towards the USSR. It could result in a more accommodating Soviet attitude on some of the major issues between us and in the general Soviet posture, but it might have the effect of making the USSR more difficult to deal with and more ready to take preemptive action against the Chinese. It would damage the changes of an improvement in our relations with China.
  • Option C would be one of overt neutrality and could be applied in one of two ways.
  • Option C. 1. would involve our taking no action which might be construed as favoring one contestant or the other. Accordingly, we should make no effort to develop our relations with Communist China and, at the same time, avoid trying to arrive at understandings with the USSR. Such a policy would reduce to a minimum the dangers of U.S. involvement in the Sino-Soviet dispute, but would hamper pursuit of our own interests, vis-à-vis both China and the USSR.
  • Option C. 2. would involve maintenance of a policy of neutrality, while we pursued our own long-term interests towards both China and the USSR, without undue regard to the interpretation either side might put on our actions. In implementing this policy, we should attempt to develop our relations with China, while continuing our basic support of the GRC on Taiwan, and simultaneously seek to negotiate with the USSR on the important issues between us. This option would have the advantage of leaving us free to try to work out a satisfactory relationship with each of the contestants, but it would be difficult to pursue, since it calls for constant awareness of how each of them reacted to it.

“The Interrelation: The Soviet Union, China, and the U.S.

“The Soviets almost certainly see their relationship with China as the most compelling problem in foreign affairs now confronting them. [Page 239] Short of a conceivable Soviet decision to strike militarily against China, it can be anticipated that Moscow will persist in efforts to strengthen its military position along the border with China, to develop improved relations with both Communist and non-Communist countries on the Chinese periphery, to shore up its overall security position (particularly in Eastern Europe), to diminish Chinese influence in other Communist countries, to protect its political gains in the Middle East, and to establish a generally less hostile relationship with the West.

“The character of Soviet policy could change if Moscow comes to believe that the Chinese are on the way to breaking out of their largely self-inflicted isolation, and most especially if this seemed to be happening in a way that foreshadowed a real and far-reaching Chinese rapprochement with the U.S. In this event, the Soviets might well see a need to strengthen further their general military position; they might feel greater compulsion to strike militarily at China; and they might adopt a more hostile attitude toward the U.S. Alternatively, the Soviets might decide that a serious effect to improve relations with the U.S., even at the expense of concessions on specific issues, was more likely to serve their interests.

“It seems probable that the Chinese, for their part, also now regard the USSR as their most immediate and threatening adversary. They seem determined to give no ground in the quarrel, in spite of their obvious military weakness vis-à-vis the USSR. Since many of the handicaps which encumber Chinese foreign policy are of their own making, the way to greater international maneuverability is open to them—if they choose to use it. It is possible, therefore, that Peking might at some point come to see that it would be better served in the struggle with the Soviets by a more flexible posture. This could, even in the near term, lead the Chinese to seek improved relations with third countries and a somewhat less hostile relationship with the U.S. Peking recognizes its own military weakness in facing the Soviet Union and it is most unlikely that the Chinese will launch a military attack against the USSR. Nevertheless, the Chinese can be expected to react violently against any Soviet attack on Chinese territory.

“The triangular relationship between the U.S., the USSR, and China is, of course, an unequal one: U.S. and Soviet interests intersect in many parts of the world, whereas our problems with China lie mainly in Asia. For the foreseeable future, the views of Peking and Moscow as to how the world should be organized are likely to remain incompatible with ours. Thus, until a fundamental and far-reaching change takes place in China or in the USSR, the resolution of critical differences we have with either is unlikely. Nevertheless, there is today some convergence of interest between us and the USSR in the various parts of the world where our interests interact, arising mainly from our mutual desire to avoid a nuclear war. There is less convergence [Page 240] between U.S. and Chinese interests. Broadly, however, each of the three powers wants to avoid collusion between the other two or any dramatic expansion of the power of either adversary at the expense of that of the other.

“Growing dissidence between the USSR and China has limited both countries in the pursuit of policies basically antagonistic to U.S. interests; this is the most important benefit which assumes to the U.S. from Sino-Soviet rivalry. Beyond this, the dispute has, in a positive sense, heightened Soviet interest in developing a less abrasive relationship with the U.S. and it may at some point lead China in the same direction.

“Problems and Opportunities for the U.S. Assuming Major Sino-Soviet Hostilities

“A change in the degree of tension between the Soviets and Chinese is a more likely prospect than a change in kind. The latter is, however, now well within the realm of the possible. There are two ways in which major hostilities might develop:

  • “(1) through inadvertent escalation, and
  • “(2) by deliberate resort to military force on a large scale.

“Given the calculus of military power only the USSR would be likely to see advantage in the second course.

“The impact of major Sino-Soviet hostilities on U.S. interests could vary significantly depending upon the nature and duration of the hostilities, the general posture of the U.S. toward the two sides, and the outcome of the war. The course and outcome of such hostilities are highly unpredictable.

“Major Sino-Soviet hostilities which did not directly involve third countries (other than Mongolia) and were fought only with conventional weapons would not necessarily be disadvantageous to us. During such a war, the U.S. could expect (1) a drastic reduction in the capability of the USSR and China to pursue policies inimical to U.S. interests elsewhere, (2) a drastic reduction in assistance to Hanoi thereby eventually enhancing the prospect for political settlement in Viet-Nam, and (3) improved relations with third countries anxious to strengthen their own security in an uncertain situation. However, if third countries in Asia or in Europe were to be drawn in on one side or the other, if wars of opportunity should break out as a result (e.g., between North and South Korea), or if nuclear weapons were used in the conflict, serious dangers and problems for the U.S. would arise.

“The general posture of the U.S. toward the Soviet Union and China at the time major hostilities broke out between them—and during the conflict—could affect U.S. ability to maximize advantages and minimize risks. If we clearly supported one side in the conflict, we [Page 241] would be unable to gain advantages in relations with the other and we would have difficulties with third countries not adopting the same partisan attitude. A U.S. posture of neutrality in the dispute would provide maximum flexibility in dealings with third countries and might encourage both Moscow and Peking to make concessions to ensure that the U.S. not become involved in their quarrel, since both would fear U.S. support of the other.

“The outcome of a Sino-Soviet war could have important policy implications for the U.S. If the Mao-Lin regime survived in control of China as it now exists, its prestige would be enhanced and China would probably be a more formidable opponent of U.S. interests in Asia. If the Soviets succeeded in creating puppet regimes in the Chinese border provinces, Peking might become more interested in improving relations with the U.S., but a triumphant USSR would be more difficult to deal with and Soviet influence in Asia would be enhanced to a degree and in ways inimical to our interests. If the Mao-Lin regime should be ousted as a result of the war, China might be fragmented and civil war might follow. The U.S. would then face the question of whether it should not attempt to counter Soviet efforts to gain predominant influence over more than just the border areas.

“The net balance of the advantages and disadvantages to the United States cannot be foreseen, but the possibilities that nuclear weapons might be used, that other countries might be drawn into the war, and that the outcome might shift the balance of power against us, are sufficiently great to make an escalation of hostilities something we should seek to avoid and to raise the question whether there are possible actions we could take to minimize the chances of a major Sino-Soviet military conflict.

“We have little ability to influence directly either Moscow or Peking on the question of relations with the other, since neither regards this as a question in which we have a legitimate interest. Even so, the U.S. could make it clear that it would not welcome a major Sino-Soviet conflict and believed dangerous international complications would ensue. Even if such a position did not reinforce councils of caution in Moscow and Peking, it should serve U.S. purposes in relations with third countries.

“In making contingency preparations if major Sino-Soviet hostilities seemed imminent, care should be taken to avoid creating the impression that we were preparing to take military advantage of either Peking or Moscow since this could contribute to the explosiveness of the situation.” (Ibid.)