How a State Department Study Prevented Nuclear War With China

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How a State Department Study Prevented Nuclear War With China

The U.S. considered preemptive strikes to prevent Mao from attaining nuclear weapons.

How a State Department Study Prevented Nuclear War With China

Chinese Leader Mao Zedong smiles and waves in 1969.

Credit: AP file photo

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Zedong was the nuclear “rogue state” of the 1960s in the eyes of the United States. The PRC was viewed by officials in two consecutive U.S. administrations — John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — as both extremist and irrational, a country where the prevailing U.S. Cold War strategies of containment and deterrence would not apply. President Kennedy reportedly saw a nuclear China as “the great menace in the future to humanity, the free world, and freedom on earth.” Lyndon B. Johnson told a reporter in 1964 during the ongoing presidential campaign that “we can’t let [Barry] Goldwater [Johnson’s opponent] and Red China both get the bomb at the same time. Then the shit would really hit the fan.”

Given the possible disastrous consequences of a nuclear-armed PRC for the United States, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations discussed the option of launching preventive strikes on Chinese nuclear weapon facilities. Amid these deliberations, a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Council, Robert H. Johnson, compiled two studies arguing that a nuclear China will not significantly alter the military balance of power in Asia and that, as a corollary, the United States would not need to take radical steps, including military action, in the foreseeable future. Johnson’s papers helped to broaden the discussion about possible policy options vis-à-vis China and may have contributed to the United States not launching a preventive attack on Chinese nuclear facilities in the early 1960s.

China: The Rogue State of the 1960s

The PRC was seen by the United States as both aggressive and expansionist in the 1960s. It had attacked India in 1962; continued to threaten Taiwan with invasion; and was supporting both North Vietnam and North Korea. China had also denounced the burgeoning détente between the United States and the Soviet Union following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. One 1964 U.S. government analysis stated that China appeared “determined to eject the United States from Asia” and “would exploit their nuclear weapons for this end.” Mao’s open bravado about “the inevitability of nuclear war,” made a nuclear confrontation with China “almost inevitable,” according to a presidential adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson.

While U.S. policymakers were divided over how to respond to China’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program, they were united in their conclusion that a nuclear-armed PRC would threaten U.S. national interest across the globe.

“In sum, China’s ascension to the nuclear ranks threatened to weaken the United States’ position in Asia, unleash worldwide proliferation, and undermine geopolitical stability in the heart of Europe,” writes Francis J. Gavin in his book Nuclear Statecraft. The last point in particularly worried the United States in the 1960s. If the United States was not able to prevent China from getting the bomb, the thinking went, other states including allies such as West Germany would follow suit and go nuclear, with detrimental effects on the U.S.-Soviet relations. “German national nuclear capability is virtually a Soviet obsession, based upon a deep-seated emotional fear of resurgent German militarism,” one U.S. official noted.

Military Options

The United States knew by 1959 that Mao Zedong had initiated a nuclear weapons program. (Mao had in fact given the order to build an atomic bomb in 1955.) The U.S. intelligence community estimated that China would test its first weapon in 1963 or 1964. According to a 1960 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), “[China’s] arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor, and distorted view of the world may lead [it] to miscalculate risks. This danger would be heightened if Communist China achieved a nuclear weapons capability.” The United States faced a ticking time-bomb scenario, with many policymakers seeing a war with China as inevitable. “In anticipation of eventual Chinese nuclear capability, the natural answer was sooner rather than later,” acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Curtis LeMay said at the time.

Kennedy was mulling the use of “an anonymous airplane to go over there,” and “take out the Chinese facilities.” The United States also sought to explore military options with the Soviets but were rebuffed. While the American president was pursuing diplomatic options to stop the Chinese nuclear weapons program, including a Limited Test Ban treaty initiative, he asked the Pentagon to prepare a list of military options to take out China’s nuclear capability. According to Lyle J. Goldstein, choices included “infiltration, sabotage, invasion by Chinese Nationalists, maritime blockades, South Korean invasion of North Korea, conventional air attacks on nuclear facilities, and the use of tactical nuclear weapons on selected targets.” The Pentagon stressed, however, that without Soviet cooperation, military action will not prevent a nuclear China in the long run.

The State Department Responds

While Kennedy was considering preventive war against China’s nuclear weapons capability, several U.S. State Department officials grew skeptical about the White House’s alarmism and militancy. The then-head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council (PPC), Walt Rostow, noted in July 1963 that even if Beijing developed nuclear weapons, its “desire to preserve its nuclear force as a credible deterrent might tend to make China even more cautious than it is today in its encounters with American power.” Rostow’s opinion was influenced by the first draft of a study titled “A Chinese Communist Nuclear Detonation and Nuclear Capability,” compiled by PPC staffer Robert H. Johnson in close cooperation with officials from the Pentagon, the CIA, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the U.S. Information Agency.

A 100-page version of the paper was distributed in October 1963 to select officials. It is unclear, however, whether Kennedy ever saw it. Its conclusion was distinctly non-alarmist. Most importantly, the report concluded that “apart from serving as an additional inhibition on some levels of U.S. attack upon the mainland, a Chinese nuclear capability need impose no new military restrictions on the U.S. response to aggression in Asia (…)” Even intercontinental ballistic missiles would not “eliminate this basic asymmetry.” Furthermore: “The basic military problems we will face are likely to be much like those we face now: military probing operations (…) relatively low-level border wars” and “‘revolutionary wars’ supported by the ChiComs [Chinese Communists].”

In short, the study suggested that the United States pursue status-quo policies vis-à-vis China (“present policies require no change”) anchored on nuclear deterrence.

The Impact

According to the scholars William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, the study had an immediate impact. It was received favorably by then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and, according to National Security Council staffer Robert Komer, made the issue of preventive war against China largely irrelevant at the State Department. Komer reported to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, a proponent of preventive actions, that should Johnson’s conclusion be correct, “there would be less incentive for us” to strike Chinese nuclear facilities. And while the study did not stop military planning at the Pentagon at CIA, “it may have been enough to give some senior officials pause for thought about the policy implications of the use of force,” Burr and Richelson argue. “For all of the talk about taking out Chinese nuclear facilities, no one on the civilian side had subjected the idea to a detailed analysis,” they add.

As a result of the study’s impact and his expertise, Johnson was tasked with preparing a more substantive paper in the fall of 1963 on policy options regarding a nuclear-armed China. (The report remains classified, although Johnson published declassified portions of it.) While he was working on the study, again in close coordination with the CIA and Pentagon, Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in as president. President Johnson made no public comments about the PRC’s nuclear program. However, privately he did not rule out preventive strikes.

The second study, published in April 1964, laid out various military options, concluding, however, that they merely would delay the nuclear weapons program by four or five years. An attack would also carry enormous political risks and possibly force China to retaliate against Taiwan and U.S. bases in Asia. The Soviet Union’s position was also unclear and the possibility of “retaliatory action (…) could not be ruled out.”

While Johnson stated that covert military action was “the most politically feasible form of action” (no one was seriously considering a ground invasion) he cautioned using it only in the event of open Chinese aggression. Indeed, his conclusion reflects his first report: “The significance of a [Chinese nuclear] capability is not to justify the undertaking of actions which would involve great political costs or high military risks.” At the end of April 1964, Dean Rusk sent a condensed version of the study to the president. President Johnson’s reaction is not recorded, although he presided over a principal’s meeting in September with the group ruling against “unprovoked unilateral U.S. military action” against Chinese nuclear facilities unless military hostilities between the United States and China where to break out, or the Soviets would agree to joint military action. While the upcoming presidential elections in November influenced Johnson’s more dovish stance, as he was campaigning against hawkish Barry Goldwater, the conclusion drawn from the meeting also reflected Robert H. Johnson’s recommendations in his report.

China Goes Nuclear

On October 16, 1964, China detonated its first nuclear weapon at the Lop Nor test facility in Xinjiang. Hours after the detonation, President Johnson issued a statement reaffirming the United States’ defense commitments in Asia: “Even if Communist China should eventually develop an effective nuclear capability, that capability would have no effect on the readiness of the United States to respond to requests from Asian nations for help in dealing with Communist Chinese aggression.” A week later, the president commissioned a high-level group of “wise men” to work on recommendations on “means to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.” Robert H. Johnson’s papers were severely criticized during the meetings and his conclusions questioned by proponents of nuclear rollback (i.e. preventive strikes). The Pentagon had also circulated a paper in December 1964 that tried to refute Johnson’s analyses.

Nonetheless, Burr and Richelson emphasize that the committee rejected a radical anti-proliferation policy and “tacitly followed [Robert H.] Johnson’s approach by eschewing proposals for attacks on China’s nuclear facilities.” This did not prevent the U.S. Navy from conducting its first nuclear deterrent patrol by a ballistic missile submarine in the Pacific in December 1964 and the dispatch of 15 B-52 nuclear-capable bombers to Guam. In January 1965, the committee proposed a reexamination of U.S. policy toward China and recommended efforts to negotiate a nuclear non-proliferation agreement as well as a comprehensive test ban treaty, next to several other suggestions. President Johnson, however, did not immediately follow-up on the recommendations as his administration got sucked deeper and deeper into military engagement in South Vietnam. (Though he would eventual negotiate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968.)

While fears over China’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities would periodically pop up in the years and decades after 1964, preventive strikes were no longer seriously considered by the United States. Indeed, China and the United States would enter a tacit anti-Soviet alliance in 1972, a mere eight years after the PRC acquired a nuclear weapons capability.


There are numerous reasons why the United States did not choose to attack China. First, it remains unclear how committed the U.S. government really was to a military option in the run-up and right after China’s first nuclear test. Second, there was a high chance that military strikes against nuclear facilities would end in failure due to logistical difficulties as well as targeting problems due to missing intelligence. Third, military strikes could only postpone and not stop China’s nuclear weapons program. Consequently, it was always only a short-term solution.

Fourth, there remained the chance that the Soviet Union would intervene on the Chinese side in the event of an attack. Fifth, the United States would have violated its own norms against Pearl Harbor-like sneak attacks and the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a preventive strike. Sixth, based on conversations the president had with his military advisers, the United States was deterred not so much by possible Chinese nuclear retaliation, but by Chinese manpower — 650 million people of strong unity and consciousness” with which it “can defeat any enemy,” as the front page editorial of the People’s Daily emphasized six days after the China detonated its first atomic bomb in October 1964.

Robert H. Johnson’s reports helped accentuate the reasons against preventive war. They offered U.S. policymakers alternatives to more hawkish views on how to deal with a nuclear China. The direct impact of his studies on U.S. policy is impossible to ascertain with certainty as it is not known to what degree it impacted Lyndon B. Johnson. However, without a doubt, the study succeeded in presenting a nuanced and non-alarmist assessment of the implications of a nuclear-armed China for the United States. “The point was to assure, as far as possible, that all parts of the government were singing from the same sheet,” Robert Johnson said in a 1999 interview. And that was not “going to happen automatically.”

Considering the current U.S. administration’s disjointed responses to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the repeated talk of the possible necessity of military action, getting the government to “sing from the same sheet” on a very complex issue is no minor achievement. Indeed, our best hope may be that somewhere in the D.C. bureaucracy a 21st century incarnation of Johnson can get the ear of a senior administration official with access to U.S. President Donald Trump and offer a nuanced perspective on the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.

Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate editor at The Diplomat. He tweets @hoanssolo.