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Washington, D.C., June 12, 2001 – During the spring and summer of 1969, U.S. government officials watched the ideological and political split between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China escalate into fighting on Sino-Soviet borders. Some U.S. officials wondered whether the clashes would escalate; some even speculated that the Soviet Union might launch attacks on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. This electronic briefing book of declassified U.S. government documents captures the apprehensions on the U.S. side as well as on the part of the Chinese and the Russians, with Moscow worried about China's nuclear potential and Beijing worried about a Soviet attack. The briefing book includes some of the most significant sources cited in an article in the current issue of Cold War History, "Sino-American Relations, 1969: Sino-Soviet Border Conflict and Steps Toward Rapprochement," by William Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive. Drawing on archival records and material released through the Freedom of Information Act, the article reviews the Nixon administration's early steps toward a new relationship with the People's Republic of China and the impact of Sino-Soviet tensions on the moves toward rapprochement taken by both Beijing and Washington.
The documents presented here highlight Washington's perceptions of the border tensions that escalated during March 1969 and the internal U.S. government discussions of the possibility of a wider Sino-Soviet war. The material also elucidates the Soviet Union's use of covert military threats to coerce Beijing into entering diplomatic negotiations over the disputed borders. A State Department memorandum of conversation, published here for the first time, recounts one of the more extraordinary moments in Cold War history--a KGB officer's query about the U.S. reaction to a hypothetical Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. Also included is a recently declassified report warning of the danger of a Soviet attack on China, written for Henry Kissinger by the influential China watcher Allen S. Whiting.
Archival documents also illustrate secret White House initiatives during the summer and fall of 1969 to turn a page in Sino-American relations. Convinced that Sino-Soviet tensions provided a basis for rapprochement but also determined to minimize the State Department's role, Nixon and Kissinger tried to open secret communications with China through Pakistan and Romania. Other documents show how State Department officials tried to assert a role in policymaking on rapprochement and, before they were cut out altogether, made important contributions to White House efforts to signal a friendly interest in communications with China.
This briefing book also includes some interesting CIA Directorate of Intelligence material released through the Archive's FOIA requests. Top-secret "Weekly Reviews", published every Friday at noon, helped keep officials "with a need to know" apprised of current events, such as the Sino-Soviet border clashes. A reference in a report on Chinese diplomacy (document 28) to a secret directive from Zhou En-lai suggest that U.S. intelligence, perhaps the Hong Kong "China watchers", could acquire significant information on Chinese policymaking from refugees and other contacts.
On 2 March 1969, the Sino-Soviet border dispute took an exceptionally violent turn when Chinese forces fired on Soviet border troops patrolling Zhenbao (Damanski), an island on the Ussuri River; some 50 Soviet soldiers were killed.2 Although this early State Department report is agnostic as to who sparked the fighting, apparently the Chinese initiated the clash in response to earlier Soviet provocations along the border. State Department analysts correctly opined that neither Beijing nor Moscow sought major conflict.
An early report from CIA's intelligence directorate accurately concluded that Beijing "triggered" the 2 March incident.3 Another bloody exchange took place on 15 March when the Soviets deployed forces for retaliatory action; CIA analysts saw that battle as a "Chinese effort to contest [the Soviet] presence."
CIA's "Weekly Review" appeared in two editions: one was classified "Secret"'; the other was highly classified--"Top Secret Umbra"--the code word then assigned to communications intelligence. Interestingly, the "warning" on the document notified readers that they could not "take action" on comint--for example, use it for diplomatic or military advantage--without the permission of the Director of Central Intelligence.
This CIA report highlights some of the problems that complicated Moscow's efforts to encourage negotiations with Beijing over disputed borders. Although the Soviets wanted to enter into border negotiations with the PRC, they refused to accede to Beijing's demands that Moscow acknowledge that the nineteenth century border agreements were "unequal treaties" akin to those forced on China by Western imperialism. Until the Soviets changed their policy (or the Chinese dropped this demand), Beijing would only agree to participate in comparatively low-level river navigation talks.
Partly based on information from sources in Hong Kong as well as a NCNA [New China News Agency] article, this report analyzed the anti-Soviet campaign then mobilizing in China. INR's China watchers suspected that Chinese authorities promoted the campaign to "coalesce internal unity" and strengthen the regime, but they also believed that it reflected a "genuine fear of [Soviet] attack." To that extent, Beijing designed the domestic mobilization--the manifestation of "national consciousness of the Soviet danger"--to have a deterrent effect on the Kremlin's decisionmaking. Significantly, the NCNA piece suggested some concern about Soviet nuclear-armed missiles on the border while INR cited a nuclear threat made during an unofficial Soviet radio broadcast during March 1969.
This document records a conversation between Soviet diplomat Yuri Linkov and John H. Holdridge, Director of Office of Research and Analysis for East Asia and Pacific at INR, although he was about to join Kissinger's White House staff. More incidents of border fighting had broken out and the discussion gave Holdridge an opportunity to express concern that the conflict could escalate, especially if "some junior lieutenant [made] a wrong decision." Tacitly warning the Soviets to avoid escalatory measures, Holdridge referred to the unforeseen dangers of full-scale war: it could "extend into other areas of the world and indeed threaten a large proportion of the world's population."
Possibly written by John Holdridge, this report helps explain why he worried about the risks of escalation. Treating Beijing as the "provocateur" in the border conflict, INR analysts argued that Chinese "tactics make sense as an attempt to deter a Soviet attack, using traditional Chinese methods." The problem was that if the Soviets remained obdurate and the Chinese met obduracy with more provocations, there was an "increased chance of escalation into wider conflict."
This document reports on a discussion of the border clashes by the State Department's China and Soviet specialists headed by Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern and Pacific Affairs Marshall Green. The participants agreed that the border conflict was "serious" and that "suspicion of US collusion with the other" increased "nervousness" on both sides. Although the analysts believed that neither side wanted the conflict to escalate, they recognized that there "seems to be no common ground for agreement." The Soviet watchers considered the possibility that Moscow might launch a "surgical strike against Chinese nuclear installations" but suggested that it was a less than likely option because military action could not "permanently remove the Chinese military threat." Less unlikely was a "punitive" strike along the border by the Soviets.
During late July and early August 1969, President Nixon made his first trip to Asia, with a trip to Romania on his way home, during which he intensified his efforts to communicate to Beijing his interest in a new relationship. Most significantly, during a meeting with Pakistan's prime minister Yahya Khan, Nixon asked Khan to send a friendly message to China on his behalf.5 National security assistant Henry Kissinger accompanied Nixon and selectively briefed State Department officials about some of the talks with Pakistani officials. This cable, originally sent from Pakistan to the State Department, recounts Kissinger's talk with Air Marshall Nur Khan. Khan had recently met with Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai and passed on to Kissinger what he learned of Zhou's apprehensions about Soviet intentions. Reportedly, Zhou was ready to make some concessions to the Soviets about border claims6, but he worried about the possibility of a Soviet "preemptive attack." If Moscow struck, Zhou claimed, Beijing was ready to "respond in a war that would 'know no boundaries.'"
A few days after one of the most violent border incidents on 13 August (see document 11, below), Allen S. Whiting met with Henry Kissinger at the Western White House and briefed him on Chinese policy and the dangers of Sino-Soviet conflict. Whiting, a leading China scholar, had worked successively at INR and the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong during the 1960s and then joined the University of Michigan's faculty. He also worked as a consultant for the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA, where he was based during the summer of 1969. Using highly classified intelligence information that he had collected during consultations in Washington earlier in August, Whiting used the briefing to convey his foreboding that massive Soviet deployments on the Sino-Soviet border spelled early offensive action against the PRC, such as an attack against nuclear facilities, possible escalation of the conflict, and even nuclear weapons use. Besides suggesting steps to deter wider conflict and to reassure the Chinese that Washington was not colluding with Moscow, Whiting argued that the Sino-Soviet crisis provided an opening for a U.S. approach to Beijing: China needed a relationship with Washington to balance off the Soviets. Apparently unaware of the intelligence information on Soviet military activity near the Chinese border, Kissinger asked for a written report that he could show to Nixon; Whiting produced it after staying up all night. Whiting's briefing significantly influenced Kissinger's thinking about rapprochement with China.7 It also inspired highly secret National Security Council planning on possible U.S. steps in the event of Sino-Soviet war.8
A few days after the Kissinger-Whiting meeting, the Soviets directly probed for U.S. reactions to a strike on Chinese nuclear facilities. During the early 1960s, the United States had probed Soviet interest in possible joint action against China's incipient nuclear capabilities but Moscow would go no further in pressuring China than signing the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.9 Six years later, the tables turned. Boris Davydov, a KGB officer with diplomatic cover, surprised INR Vietnam expert William Stearman by asking how the United States would react if the Soviets solved one nuclear proliferation problem: by attacking Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. The fact that this extraordinary meeting took place has been disclosed before, but Stearman's "memcon" has never been published.10 Soviet archives and perhaps the memories of former Soviet officials may someday disclose whether Davydov's approach was part of a campaign to intimidate the Chinese or an effort to test U.S. reactions to real contingency plans (or both).
Davydov's query caused some consternation at the State Department and a few days later a cable went out (drafted by Stearman) asking a number of U.S. embassies to keep their ears open for similar queries from Soviet officials. Stearman prefaced his message with an excerpt from National Intelligence Estimate on Sino-Soviet relations; intelligence community analysts opined that there "is at least some chance" that Moscow "may be preparing to take action" to prevent Chinese nuclear forces from threatening the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the analysts suggested that the likelihood was not high that such a scenario could unfold because the Soviets, like the Chinese, wanted to avoid a "full-scale war."
Prompted by concern over a particularly bloody clash at the Xinjiang province border on 13 August, political advisers (POLADs) to the various national delegations at NATO headquarters in Brussels prepared to discuss Sino-Soviet developments. As background for the discussion, INR prepared background information for the U.S. POLAD, Gerald B. Helman. INR considered the possibility of a Soviet strike against Chinese nuclear facilities but saw many reasons why the Kremlin would conclude that such an attack was unwise.
Besides Zhou's worried comments about a Soviet attack, U.S. China watchers became aware of other indications of Chinese apprehension about Moscow's intentions. At the same time, by the late summer of 1969, Beijing was beginning to send out "feelers" expressing interest in improved relations with Washington. In this cable, a staffer at State's Asian Communist Affairs (ACA) desk commented on a CAS (Controlled American Source or CIA) report that the State Department was "struck by the frequency with which these feelers [were] accompanied by new and more urgent expressions of concern that Soviets may be about to take further military action against China."
William Hyland, the author of this paper, was a Soviet analyst at CIA's Directorate of Intelligence before he was recruited for Kissinger's NSC staff. In this memorandum, Hyland critiqued an interagency study on Sino-Soviet relations that Kissinger has requested in National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 63. In the course of the analysis, which Kissinger characterized as "1st rate," Hyland acknowledged that a limited Sino-Soviet war was "by no means a disaster for the US." For example, implying that a war would involve Soviet strikes to destroy Chinese nuclear facilities, Hyland observed that it might be a "solution" to the China nuclear problem.12
State Department academic consultants on China and the Soviet Union were less sanguine than Hyland about the benefits of a Sino-Soviet war. During a discussion of the draft response to NSSM 63, the consultants argued that a Soviet attack could inflame Chinese nationalism and strengthen Mao's standing; moreover, a "non-nuclear Soviet strike would have a vast destabilizing effect" in Asia and Europe. Like Whiting, the consultants worried that Beijing might believe that the United States was tacitly colluding with the Soviet Union against China, the consultants recommended that Washington "avoid any whiff of collusion" with Moscow, a point that Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson would include in a speech a few days later to the American Political Science Association.13
The danger of the border situation and the hope of some Soviet military officers that Washington would collude with Moscow against Beijing is apparent in this summary of a conversation with Major General Sergei Krakhmalov, the Soviet military attache in Tehran. Showing no compunction about nuclear weapons use, the general argued that Moscow "would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese if they attacked with major forces."
Like INR's Soviet analysts, observers at the U.S. embassy in Moscow saw "many rules of reason" why the Kremlin was unlikely to launch a premeditated attack on China. Nevertheless, the Soviets saw the "Maoists" as a "universal threat" and if border fighting escalated, embassy analysts did not rule out the possibility that Moscow would take punishing military actions to teach Beijing an "exemplary lesson."
In a conversation with a U.S. diplomat Michael Newlin, Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet official at the United Nations, showed hawkishness on the border dispute: the Chinese were wrong to think that Moscow would "compromise" or to think that the Kremlin would not "use larger-than-tactical nuclear weapons."14 During the early 1970s, Shevchenko switched sides and began to provide information to the CIA. He defected in 1978 and later published a controversial memoir of his years in the Soviet system, Breaking with Moscow.
On 10 September, Secretary of State Rogers presented Nixon with the memcon for the Davydov-Stearman meeting as well with more details on Soviet threats against China and the INR's analysis of Davydov's probe for U.S. reactions to Soviet military action. Downplaying the significance of Davydov's query, the Department saw it as a "curiosity" and estimated a less than "fifty-fifty" chance that the Soviets would attack Beijing's nuclear facilities.
Soviet soundings also raised questions among National Security Council staffers John Holdridge and Helmut Sonnenfeldt who worried that the Kremlin might conclude that Washington would tacitly accept an attack on the PRC. A marginal note on this document by presidential assistant Henry Kissinger showed his disagreement with the State Department's assessment that Davydov's probe was a curiosity. Tacitly showing the influence of Whiting's thinking, Kissinger wrote: "I disagree with State analysis. Soviets would not ask such questions lightly."
The Chinese leadership found tensions with Moscow worrisome but that problem coincided with worries about lack of control over labor and students as well as unrest and criminal activity throughout the country. To accelerate preparations for border war and to facilitate stricter internal controls, Mao signed off on a Central Committee directive on 28 August. The directive was widely distributed and U.S. authorities soon got wind of it, probably from Chinese emigres or visitors to Hong Kong. The actual directive has since been translated and published in The Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project.15
The Nixon White House included France in its efforts to communicate with China through secret channels; no doubt this raised Nixon's interest in French Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann's thinking about Sino-Soviet tensions. Schumann discounted the possibility of a Soviet preemptive strike because of the danger of "major conflict." Instead, he believed that Moscow was making threats to "scare China stiff" and thereby get Beijing to enter into negotiations. Certainly, the meeting between Zhou and Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin at Beijing airport a week later suggested that both sides were seeking to avoid a crisis.16
In his talk with Nixon, Schumann observed that Soviet communications with the pro-Chinese Australian Communist Party indicated how far the Kremlin was willing to go to let Beijing know that it "meant business." Apparently, the Soviet message was ominous enough to prompt the Australians to send a letter to other Communist parties warning them of the danger of Chinese-Russian warfare. As INR experts noted, the border fighting raised serious dilemmas for the world communist movement; both Russia and China were acting like "traditional great powers" with their claims to be "the sole interpreter and custodian of Marxism" becoming more and more disreputable. Indeed, both Beijing and Moscow "may become the chief ideological target for a growing number of communist parties."
Although the Kosygin-Zhou meeting suggested that the crisis was passing, apparently Kissinger did not see it that way. In this belated memo to Nixon on the Davydov probe, Kissinger showed that he was especially apprehensive about Chinese perceptions of U.S.-Soviet collusion: that the Soviets were "using us to generate an impression ... that we are being consulted in secret." With that in mind, he asked Nixon to approve a request to the State Department to prepare guidance to the field "deploring reports of a Soviet plan to make a pre-emptive military strike against Communist China." Nixon's initials may be seen on Kissinger's request but whether it went forward to the State Department is unclear: the guidance may have become unnecessary because Sino-Soviet talks would soon be under way and the chances of a confrontation had lessened considerably.
Wanting to find ways to balance off their Soviet adversary, the Chinese leadership was looking for ways to begin a dialogue with the United States, just as Washington was interested in ties with Beijing to strengthen its bargaining position with Moscow.18 As this memorandum by Marshall Green indicates, State Department officials were looking for any and all signs that Beijing was taking a new tack in its approach to Washington. Thus, Green found it especially important that Zhou En-lai would tell the French Ambassador that he had noticed that Washington had not tried to "worsen" Sino-Soviet tensions and would not find a Sino-Soviet war to its advantage. In this context, Green proposed new initiatives, such as withdrawing U.S. destroyers from the Taiwan Strait, trade and travel measures, etc., which Nixon and Kissinger followed up as signals to elicit a friendly Chinese response.
Within a few weeks after the Kosygin-Zhou meeting, the two sides agreed to border negotiations at an ambassadorial level. In agreeing to the talks, Beijing backed away from its demand that Moscow recognize the old border agreements as "unequal treaties." As the authors of this CIA report argued, this concession suggested that Beijing had "flinched" under the pressure of Soviet military threats. The analysts did not expect the talks to produce a settlement but they believed that both sides had found it imperative to negotiate, even if only "agreeing to disagree," in order to head off a serious crisis.
In the fall of 1969, while Beijing and Moscow were starting to negotiate, the Chinese and the Americans were starting to communicate, in a highly secret fashion, their interest in a dialogue. Nixon and Kissinger approved the State Department's proposal to withdraw the destroyer patrol from the Taiwan Strait; on 10 October Kissinger aired the decision with the Chinese via the Pakistani government. The message took some time to reach the Chinese leadership but on 19 December Kissinger learned from Pakistani ambassador Hilaly that a recent Chinese gesture--the release of two Americans whose yacht had strayed into PRC waters--was a direct response to the White House overture. The friendly Chinese response to U.S. proposals to revive the stalled ambassadorial talks in Warsaw was another sign of a new tack in PRC diplomacy, although both Kissinger and Chinese policymakers would abandon the Warsaw channel as a vehicle of communication. Although it would take months before Henry Kissinger made his secret trip to Beijing, the Pakistani channel played a central role in expediting that development.19
The CIA's China watchers did not know of the Pakistani channel so they could not take into account all of the "signs of life" in Chinese diplomacy. Nevertheless, they were right to suggest that a "new ... period" was underway and that anxiety about a "Soviet threat" had prompted the "diplomatic offensive." Interestingly, the analysts reported that Zhou Enlai had signed a secret directive ordering a "limited flexible approach" toward Washington in order to put Moscow off balance. If the report on Zhou's directive was accurate, perhaps this document will someday surface in Chinese archives and appear in The Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project.
1. Special controls were applied to this document because it specifically referred to information acquired from Japanese security services. "No foreign dissemination" (or "dissem") meant that the report could not be shown to foreign government officials.
2. For a significant recent accounts based on Chinese and Russian sources, see Yang Kuisong, "The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement," Cold War History 1/1 (2000), 21-52, and Viktor M. Gobarev, "Soviet Policy Toward China: Developing Nuclear Weapons 1949-1969," The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 12/4 (1999), 43-47. For further information on the border conflict as well as a useful collection of East German documents, see Christian Ostermann, ed., "East German Documents on the Border Conflict," Cold War International History Project Bulletin 6-7 (1995/96), 186-193.
5. For important documentation on Pakistan's role as a go-between in the Sino-American relationship, see F.S. Aijazuddin, From a Head, Through a Head, To a Head: The Secret Channel Between the US and China Through Pakistan (Oxford University Press, 2000).
6. By stating that China would accept the "thalweg border" provided in the Sino-Russian border treaties, Zhou simply meant that Beijing recognized the line following the deepest part of the river- bed as constituting the border.
7. Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Kissinger (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974),. 226-227. See also James Mann, About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, From Nixon to Clinton (New York: Knopf, 1999), 21. During a recent reunion of Whiting's students and colleagues, Henry Kissinger acknowledged via letter, the importance of the briefing at San Clemente.
8. See the account by former NSC staffer John Holdridge, who was more skeptical of the dangers of a Soviet attack, Crossing the Divide: An Insider's Account of Normalization of US-China Relations (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1197), 34-35.
9. See William Burr and Jeffrey Richelson, "Whether 'To Strangle the Baby in the Cradle': The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Weapons Program, 1960-64," International Security 25/3 (Winter 2000/2001).
10. For earlier accounts of this meeting, see for example, Raymond Garthoff (who attests to Davydov's KGB credentials), Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 237, and Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall, Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), 66-67.
12. For the controversial thesis that the Nixon administration was willing to accept a Soviet attack on China in order to secure Moscow's active help on a Vietnam war settlement, see Tyler, A Great Wall, 62-63.
13. See Richardson's speech to the American Political Science Association, "The Foreign Policy of the Nixon Administration: Its Aims and Strategy," Department of State Bulletin 61/1578 (22 September 1969), 260.
15. "The CCP Central Committee's Order for General Mobilization in Border Provinces and Regions," 28 August 1969, in Chen Jian and David Wilson, "'All Under the Heaven is Great Chaos': Beijing, the Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, and the Turn Toward Sino-American Rapprochement, 1968-69," Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project 11 (Winter 1998), 168-69.
18. For developments in Chinese policy see Chen-Wilson (note 12). For perspective on triangular diplomacy during the Nixon administration, see Raymond Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994).
19. See Aijazuddin (note 5).