66. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rogers to President Nixon1

  • SUBJECT
    • The Possibility of a Soviet Strike Against Chinese Nuclear Facilities

Soviet Embassy Second Secretary Davydov brought up the idea of a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities in a Washington luncheon [Page 245]conversation with a Department officer on August 18. I am enclosing the memorandum of conversation which details the rationale for such a move which he adduced in asking what the United States reaction might be.2

Davydov’s conversation was unusual for the length of the argument that he presented for such a Soviet course of action. None of the other occasional references to the idea in talks with Soviets which have come to our attention have spelled out such a justification.

  • —In late March or early April Kosygin’s son-in-law Gvishiani and Professor Artsimovich who were visiting in Boston reportedly said that the USSR would have to destroy Communist China’s nuclear arsenal. They seemed to be soliciting the reaction of the American to whom they were speaking.
  • —Italian Communist Rossana Rossanda has claimed that, in July, the Italian Communist leadership received a message from Moscow asking how the Italians would react if, in self-defense, the Soviet Union were forced to make a preventive strike against Chinese missile and atomic installations. On the basis of past experience, Rossanda is not to be taken too literally as a reporter, and a more accurate version of her information may be contained in a Finnish Communist account of the consultations in Moscow at the World Communist Conference in June. According to this report, a Soviet leader then asserted that the USSR had a capability to deal China an immediate mortal blow (presumably more than just a strike at nuclear facilities), but did not wish to do something so un-Leninist,” except as an extreme defensive measure.
  • —In June the science editor of Izvestia’s Sunday supplement asked an American Embassy officer in Moscow what the American reaction to a possible Soviet attack (nature of the blow not specified) on China might be. The same Russian has avoided the subject more recently, and in response to the American’s latest query two weeks ago, the editor merely said that the USSR was trying to better its relations with China. In July Sidney Liu of Newsweek was asked by Delyusin of the Soviet Institute of Asian and African Affairs what he thought the Chinese popular reaction would be to a major Soviet attack on China (the nature of the attack was not otherwise defined in the report.)
  • —A Soviet communication to foreign Communist parties in early August left an impression of great concern over the future of Sino-Soviet relations, but neither of the two accounts of the message that we have indicates that it discussed such specific courses of action as a strike against Chinese nuclear facilities.
  • —Finally, the most recent Soviet statement on the subject was by Southeast Asia Chief Kapitsa of the Foreign Ministry who insisted to a Canadian newsman that a Soviet strike against Chinese nuclear targets was “unthinkable” and that the very idea was an invention of the Western press.

It is extremely unlikely that Davydov would be privy to top-level Soviet discussions on this matter, much less any decisions taken. Rather, it is likely that he has been given the job of getting as much information as he can on American attitudes on the China issue, and his questioning about the strike hypothesis was in the context of trying to elicit discussion of American views of Sino-Soviet relations. The idea of a strike against Chinese nuclear targets is one which has been mentioned in the United States press and talked about among diplomats and newsmen in Washington. Moreover, Davydov had been asked—at a meeting with Congressional interns a few days before the above cited luncheon—what he thought the United States attitude ought to be in the event of a Sino-Soviet war, and thus would have had occasion to have thought through some of the argumentation he used in the memorandum.

What emerges clearly from the foregoing evidence—as well as from Soviet leaders’ speeches, from Moscow’s propaganda, and from clandestine source reports on Soviet diplomatic anxieties—is an obvious sense of Soviet concern over troubles with China and of great interest in how others view Sino-Soviet tensions. What remains doubtful is whether the Soviets have ordered their officials systematically to canvass for reactions to a specific potential course of action—attack on Chinese nuclear targets. Nevertheless, the Department has considered the possibility that Davydov’s conversation might have been the first move in such a probing operation, and, with that in view, has alerted key American posts abroad to be certain to report analogous conversations. The only response so far was from the American Embassy in Rome. A Soviet First Secretary told Italian officials he foresaw new and more serious incidents; he was not reported to have sought reactions and there was no reference in the report to the idea of a strike against Chinese nuclear facilities.

In the absence of a cluster of such reports in a relatively short time, it would appear that Davydov’s recent conversation, as well as the remarks in Boston five months ago, are curiosities rather than signals. It is certain that Moscow remains preoccupied with its Chinese problem, and the Kremlin is probably reviewing all of its options. Thus the possibility of a Soviet strike at Chinese nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, my advisers and I do not believe such a move to be probable. The Soviets would have to weigh the risk of triggering an all-out war with China, a war for which the Soviets are not likely to believe themselves yet well prepared despite their buildup since 1965. Moreover, [Page 247]they would not be sure of getting the entire inventory of Chinese bombs, and would in any case face the prospect that the Chinese would most likely rebuild their nuclear arsenal with renewed determination.

The National Intelligence Estimate of August 12, 19693 on the Sino-Soviet dispute notes that a conventional air strike aimed at destroying China’s missile and nuclear facilities might be the most attractive military option available to Moscow, if the Soviets believed that they could do this without getting involved in a prolonged and full-scale war. The National Intelligence Estimate did not think it likely that the Kremlin would reach this conclusion, but felt that there was some chance that it would. Considering all of the military, political, economic, foreign policy, and ideological implications of any such Soviet attack, the Department’s analysts judge that the chances of this particular course of action are still substantially less than fifty-fifty and that Sino-Soviet conflict, if it does occur, might more likely result from escalation of border clashes. That assessment seems reasonable to me.

WPR
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, DEF 12 CHICOM. Secret. Drafted on August 29 by Robert H. Baraz of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Office of Research and Analysis for USSR and Eastern Europe (RSE). Cleared by INR Deputy Director George C. Denney, Jr., INR Deputy Director for Research David E. Mark, INR/RSE Acting Director Kenneth A. Kerst, Nicholas Platt of INR/Office of Research and Analysis for East Asia and Pacific (REA), Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European Affairs (EUR) Emory C. Swank, and Samuel G. Wise of EUR/Soviet Union (SOV). On September 12, Sonnenfeldt and Holdridge of the NSC Staff sent Kissinger a draft memorandum for the President informing him of these soundings and Rogers’s opinion that a Soviet strike against Chinese nuclear facilities was unlikely. Kissinger wrote the following on the covering memorandum: “I disagree with State analysis. Soviets would not ask such questions lightly—though this doesn’t mean that they intend to attack.” His note also directed Sonnenfeldt and Holdridge to prepare a new memorandum for the President that provided “a little more flavor of communist probes.” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, Box 710, Country Files, USSR, Vol. V) See Document 70.
  2. Printed as Document 63.
  3. Document 61.