Since nuclear bombs were first dropped on civilians seventy-six years ago, the world has come close to nuclear war nearly a dozen times that we know of. At various times, sometimes at the height of tension, sometimes at entirely innocuous moments, mistakes, malfunctions, and misunderstandings have nearly brought us past the brink, were it not for last-minute realizations or a few courageous, clear-thinking individuals who refused to sign on to the unthinkable.
In many ways, things right now are more perilous than they were even during the Cold War. A series of nuclear arms control agreements have been shredded, and the United States and Russia are both adding new, more dangerous weapons to their nuclear arsenals. The “mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past,” in the words of the UN secretary-general, are no longer in place. Meanwhile, US tensions with the nuclear powers of Russia and, particularly, China are only getting worse, with the Pentagon embarking on a massive military buildup against the latter and talk of US-China war over Taiwan restarting.
It’s in the middle of all this that Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers fifty years ago in an effort to end the Vietnam War, has released dozens of pages from a 1966 study revealing just how close the world came to nuclear war while conflict over Taiwan was brewing in 1958. The pages show that the US government’s top brass made concerted plans to drop nuclear bombs on China should it try to take not just Taiwan — the headquarters of the anti-communist Chinese nationalists backed by Washington — but several of the offshore islands administered by it.
Officials today would be “asking themselves the same questions that these folks were asking in 1958,” Harvard historian Michael Szonyi told the New York Times, which broke the news of the disclosure last week. Ellsberg similarly told the Times that he didn’t believe the US officials who engaged in such “reckless” talk then were “more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet.”
It’s important to keep those points in mind while reading the documents themselves, which give a startling view into foreign policy decision-making at the highest levels of the US government, and the warped mindset that underlies it.
Destruction for Dignity
The plan, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and developed before the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis began, envisaged only two phases in the response to a Chinese attack: patrol and reconnaissance, followed by the defeat of Chinese forces, who would be “countered by an American attack with atomic weapons against the Chinese mainland.” The nuclear attacks would begin against Chinese air bases before moving incrementally up into the Chinese mainland as far north as Shanghai, as was discussed at one point.
As the study took care to point out, the plan didn’t include any intermediate step involving conventional weapons: “the phase immediately following patrol and reconnaissance would involve atomic weapons strikes by both sides.” In fact, military officials actively ruled it out, in large part to avoid another long war. While members of the State Department initially pushed for an alternative plan based only on conventional weapons, the study notes, the joint chiefs of staff put the kibosh on this idea, particularly the chairman, General Nathan Twining.
“The use of conventional weapons mean protracted involvement in another Korean-type conflict,” goes the study’s account of Twining’s argument. He insisted the Korean War could’ve been “done in two or three days” if they’d deployed nuclear strikes.
By the time officials sat down to discuss the no-longer-hypothetical fighting between Chinese and Taiwanese forces, the idea that any conventional weapons initially used must be “quickly followed” by nuclear attacks was a “unanimous belief,” according to the study. “The entire military establishment” increasingly assumed it would be inevitable. Then-president Dwight Eisenhower had directed the Joint Chiefs “to prepare for the use of atomic weapons in any situation larger than a very small brush fire war.”
The closest thing to a dove was Admiral Harry Felt, then the commander in chief of US Pacific Command, who felt the islands weren’t worth defending, but that if they were going to defend them, then doing so with non-nuclear weapons was “questionable.” General Laurence Kuter, commander of the Pacific Air Forces, was “increasingly bitter” about the “lack of vehemence” with which Felt opposed the push for conventional operations, states the study.
Officials were well aware of how extreme this position was, and how isolated the United States would be by taking it. The study recounts British prime minister Harold Macmillan telling secretary of state John Foster Dulles that the entire British Commonwealth was opposed to any retaliatory action and trying to ward him off the idea by quoting Winston Churchill, while the British foreign secretary warned him of the “obvious” risk of a chain reaction that could result. Indeed, Twining acknowledged the plan he was urging would probably spark nuclear strikes on Taiwan and Okinawa in retaliation.
The Joint Chiefs worried about the “lack of world understanding of the US position,” and the study suggests they saw the need to massage global opinion. Any attack on the Chinese mainland would have to be conventional to start with, for “political reasons,” said an August paper adopted by the Joint Chiefs, and China’s attack “must be made to appear the beginning of further expansion,” in case US allies deny the use of their bases. Admiral Arleigh Burke insisted that, while a nuclear counterattack would meet “international opposition,” foreign leaders would come to see it was in their interests.
Maybe the most eyebrow-raising revelation in the study is that US officials were willing to do all this over something they openly admitted had, at most, symbolic value. “The continued possession of these Islands by the [nationalists] is far more important politically and psychologically than tactically,” the plan originally read. “Should these off-shore islands fall to the [communists], the [nationalists] (and the US) would lose, and the [communists] would gain considerable prestige.”
A Loaded Gun Onstage
In short, the picture painted by the study is the very opposite of the sensible, responsible US leadership pined for by those who have spent the past five years feeding the public the image of an idealized pre-Donald-Trump past. It instead shows US officials rashly jumping to nuclear strikes as a first response to Cold War conflict and ruling out the less inflammatory course of conventional warfare, well aware of global opposition to this idea and of the potential for things to spiral out of control into all-out nuclear war that informed it — all for the sake of prestige and psychological one-upmanship.
As Ellsberg told the Times, there’s no reason to believe the individuals in charge of US foreign policy today are any more reasonable, or have a view of reality any less distorted, than those who were itching to drop nuclear bombs on China in 1958. Under Trump, it was the supposed adults in the room who often urged some of the former president’s most reckless decisions on foreign policy.
We’ve always been lucky that, since 1945, the worst, most foolhardy parts of human nature have never won out when it comes to nuclear conflict. But luck has a way of running out, particularly now, as Washington stokes tensions again with China and embarks on a massive military buildup, while upgrading a nuclear stockpile that hasn’t been cut in a decade. The invention of nuclear arms was a real-life Chekhov’s gun whose damage is on a planetary scale; let’s not wait until the third act to see if it goes off.