WASHINGTON – When the Chinese Communist Forces began bombarding Taiwan-controlled islands in 1958, the United States rushed to provide military support to its allies – including drawing up plans to conduct nuclear strikes in mainland China, as if from a seemingly still The classified document sheds new light on how dangerous this crisis was.
American military leaders pushed for a first-time nuclear strike against China, accepting the risk that the Soviet Union would reciprocate in kind on behalf of its ally and kill millions. Dozens of pages from a classified study from 1966 the confrontation show. The government censored these pages when it was has released the study for publication.
The document was published by Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked a classified history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago. Mr Ellsberg said he copied the top-secret study on the cross-strait crisis at the same time but then did not publish it. He is now highlighting it in the face of new tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan.
While it became known in broader lines That US officials were considering using nuclear weapons on mainland China if the crisis escalated, the sides reveal in new detail how aggressive military leaders pressed for authority when the communist forces that had begun bombarding the so-called offshore islands themselves intensified their attacks.
Instead, the crisis subsided in 1958 when the communist forces of Mao Zedong broke off attacks on the islands and left them under the control of the Taiwan-based nationalist forces of the Republic of China from Chiang Kai-shek. More than six decades later, strategic ambiguities remain about Taiwan’s status – and about US willingness to use nuclear weapons for defense.
The information previously censored is both historical and significant now Strange Arne Westad, a Yale University historian who specializes in the Cold War and China, who reviewed the pages for the New York Times.
“This, at least for me, confirms that we got closer to the United States with nuclear weapons during the 1958 crisis” than I thought, “he said.” In terms of the way the decision-making actually took place, this is it a much clearer level than what we’ve seen. “
Drawing parallels with today’s tensions – when China’s conventional military power has grown well beyond its 1958 capabilities and when it has its own nuclear weapons – Westad said the documents provided fodder to warn of the dangers of an escalating confrontation over Taiwan .
Even in 1958, officials doubted that the United States could successfully defend Taiwan using conventional weapons, the documents show. If China invaded today, Westad said, “It would put tremendous pressure on US policy makers to think about how to use nuclear weapons in the event of such a confrontation.”
“That should be sobering for everyone involved,” he added.
When revealing historical background to the current tensions, Mr. Ellsberg said that this was exactly the takeaway that the public should be discussing. He argued that contingency planning was likely underway within the Pentagon for the possibility of armed conflict over Taiwan – including what to do if defense with conventional weapons fell short.
“With the possibility of another nuclear crisis in Taiwan being questioned this year, it seems timely to me to encourage the public, Congress and the executive to be careful about what I make available to them,” he said of what During the Taiwan Crisis of 1958, he described high-level discussions as “shallow” and “ruthless”.
He added: “I don’t think the participants were more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet.”
Among other things, the pages that the government censored in the official publication of the study describe the attitude of Gen. Laurence S. Kutner, the Supreme Commander of the Air Force for the Pacific. At the beginning of an armed conflict, he wanted permission to launch a nuclear attack on mainland China for the first time. To that end, he praised a plan to drop atomic bombs initially on Chinese airfields but not on any other target, arguing that his relative reluctance would make it difficult for nuclear warfare skeptics in the American government to block the plan.
“A proposal by the military to geographically limit the war to the air force bases would make sense” if this proposal would prevent misdirected humanitarian aid from attempting to limit a war to obsolete iron bombs and hot lead, “General Kutner told Treffen.
At the same time, officials thought it very likely that the Soviet Union would respond to a nuclear attack on China with retaliatory nuclear attacks. (In retrospect, it is not clear whether this premise was true. Historians say that American leaders who viewed communism as a monolithic global conspiracy did not appreciate or understand an emerging Sino-Soviet split.)
But American military officials preferred that risk to the possibility of losing the islands. The study circumscribed General Nathan F. Twining, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If atomic bombs on air bases did not force China to break off the conflict, there would be “no alternative but to carry out far-reaching nuclear attacks on China as far as Shanghai. “
He suggested that such strikes “would almost certainly involve nuclear retaliation against Taiwan and possibly Okinawa,” the Japanese island where American forces were stationed, “but stressed that the consequences would have to be if national policy would defend the offshore islands. ” accepted.”
The study also described Foreign Secretary John Foster Dulles, who stated to the joint chiefs of staff that “no one would bother the loss of the offshore islands very much, but this loss would mean further communist aggression. Nothing seems worth a world war until you see the effect of not facing up to every challenge. “
Ultimately, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed back against the generals and decided to rely on conventional weapons for the time being. But nobody wanted to enter into any other protracted conventional conflict like the Korean War, so there was “a unanimous belief that nuclear strikes would have to follow quickly if the Chinese communists did not abandon this operation.”
Mr Ellsberg said he copied the full version of the study when he copied the Pentagon papers. But he didn’t share the Taiwan study with reporters who wrote about the Vietnam War Study in 1971, such as The Times’s Neil Sheehan.
Mr. Ellsberg quietly put the full study online in 2017when he published a book, “Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner”. One of his footnotes incidentally mentions that passages and pages that were left out of the study are available on his website.
However, he did not cite the study’s material in his book, he said, because his publisher’s attorneys were concerned about possible legal liability. Nor has he done little else to draw attention to the fact that the edited pages are visible in the version he has published. As a result, few noticed.
One of the few who did so was William Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archives at George Washington University, who noted this in a footnote in A blog post from March about threats with the use of nuclear weapons in the Cold War.
Mr Burr said he tried more than a decade ago to use the Freedom of Information Act to get a fresh review of the study’s declassification – written by Morton H. Halperin for RAND Corporation – but the Pentagon failed no unabridged copy can be found in its files. (RAND, a non-governmental think tank, is not itself subject to requests for information laws.)
Mr Ellsberg said tensions over Taiwan did not seem so urgent in 2017. But the rise in the saber rattle – he pointed to a current cover of The Economist magazine This called Taiwan “the most dangerous place on earth” and a recent column of opinion by Thomas L. Friedman of the Times entitled “Is there a war between China and the US?” – led him to conclude that it was important to make the information available to a wider public.
Michael Szonyi, a Harvard University historian and author of a book on one of the barrier islands at the heart of the crisis, “Cold War Island: Quemoy at the Front,” said the availability of the material was “extremely interesting.”
Any new confrontation over Taiwan could escalate and officials today would “be asking the same questions these people asked in 1958,” he said, linking the risks of “dramatic” misjudgments and misunderstandings in seriously planning the use of nuclear weapons 1958 and today’s tensions.
Mr Ellsberg said he had one more reason to highlight his exposure to this material. The 90-year-old said he wanted to run the risk of being accused in a test case that challenges the Justice Department’s growing practice of using the espionage law to prosecute officials who divulge information.
The Espionage Act, enacted during World War I, makes it a crime to hold or disclose without authorization, defense-related information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary. The wording applies to everyone – not just spies – and it does not allow the defendants to press juries to acquittal on the basis that the disclosure was in the public interest.
The use of the Espionage Act to track leaks was once rare. In 1973, Mr. Ellsberg himself was charged before a judge dismissed the government wrongdoing charge. The first successful conviction of this type came in 1985. It has become routine for the Justice Department to bring such charges.
Most of the time, defendants conclude plea agreements to avoid long sentences so that there is no appeal. The Supreme Court has not considered whether the wording or application of the law interferes with initial adjustment rights.
Mr Ellsberg said the Justice Department should incriminate him for his open admission that he disclosed the classified study of the Taiwan crisis without authorization, and said he would handle his defense in a way that addressed the First Amendment issues for the Supreme Court would.
“I will, if charged, reaffirm my belief that what I do – like what I have done in the past – is not criminal,” he said, arguing that the use of the Espionage Act “is used to criminalize secret truth-finding in the EU “public interest” is unconstitutional.