The United States, China, and the Bomb
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 1
Edited by William Burr
For more information contact:
Washington, D.C. – The National Security Archive has initiated a special project on the Chinese nuclear weapons program and U.S. policy toward it. The purpose is to discover how the U.S. government monitored the Chinese nuclear program and ascertain what it knew (or believed that it knew) and thought about that program from the late 1950s to the present. Besides investigating U.S. thinking about, and intelligence collection on, the Chinese nuclear program as such, the Archive's staff is exploring its broader foreign policy significance, especially the impact on China's relations with its neighbors and the regional proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities. Through archival research and systematic declassification requests, the Archive is working to collect key U.S. documents on important developments in Chinese nuclear history, including weapons, delivery systems, and strategic thinking. To put the nuclear issue in the broader context of the changing relations between the United States and China, the Archive is also trying to secure the declassification of key U. S. policy papers that elucidate changes in the relationship.
In particular, the Archive's project is exploring Washington's thinking about the Chinese nuclear weapons program in the context of U.S. nuclear proliferation policy. The Archive is probing Washington's initial effort to brake the development of the Chinese advanced weapons program by encouraging allies and others to abstain from the shipment of products that could have direct or indirect military applications. Moreover, the Archive is seeking the declassification of materials that shed light on an important concern since the late 1980s, China's alleged role as a contributor to the proliferation of nuclear capabilities in South Asia and elsewhere. To the extent possible, the Archive will try to document the U.S. government's knowledge of, and policy toward, China's role as a nuclear proliferator and its efforts to balance proliferation concerns with a policy of cooperation with Beijing.
In the spring of 1996, the Archive began a series of Freedom of Information and mandatory review requests to the CIA, State Department, Defense Department, National Archives, and other agencies to prompt the release of relevant documents. Although this will take time, the State Department's own systematic declassification review of central files from the 1960s has already made available some very useful material. Moreover, previous declassification requests by the Archive are beginning to generate significant material. This makes it possible for the Archive to display, on our Web site, some newly released documents on U.S. policy toward the Chinese nuclear weapons program.
The documents that follow are from 1964 when U.S. government officials recognized that China would soon acquire a nuclear weapons capability. As this material indicates, the degree of apprehension varied, with some officials truly worried that a nuclear armed China would constitute a formidable threat to the security of China's neighbors as well as the United States. Others, however, believed that Beijing's orientation was fundamentally cautious and defensive and that the political and psychological implications would be more immediately consequential than any military threat. Although China's attitude toward U.S.-Soviet nonproliferation efforts was hostile, as far as can be determined, no one anticipated a development of later decades: the PRC's apparent role as a purveyor of nuclear weapons and delivery systems technologies.
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Document 1: "Implications of a Chinese Communist Nuclear Capability", by Robert H. Johnson, State Department Policy Planning Staff, with forwarding memorandum to President Johnson by Policy Planning Council director Walt W. Rostow, 17 April 1964.
Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1964-1966, file DEF 12-1 Chicom.
Robert Johnson (now associated with the National Planning Association) was one of the Department's leading China experts. Between 1962 and 1964, he directed a number of studies on the Chinese nuclear program and its ramifications, not only for the United States but also for China's neighbors in East and South Asia. This document is a summary of a longer study which remains classified but is undergoing declassification review. In this paper Johnson minimized the immediate military threat of a nuclear China, suggesting instead that Chinese leaders were more interested in a nuclear capability's deterrent effect and were unlikely to engage in high-risk activities. Consistent with his relatively moderate interpretation, Johnson ruled out preemptive action against Chinese nuclear facilities except in "response to major ChiCom aggression." Johnson explored the issue of preemption in another study: "The Bases for Direct Action Against Chinese Communist Nuclear Facilities," also April 1964. That study is unavailable but is discussed in document 5.
Document 2: Special National Intelligence Estimate, "The Chances of an Imminent Communist Chinese Nuclear Explosion" 26 August 1964.
Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library
The timing of a Chinese atomic test was a controversial subject during the summer and fall of 1964. As this document shows, CIA officials believed that the Chinese would not test a weapon until "sometime after the end of 1964." State Department China specialist Allen Whiting, an official at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, thought otherwise. Like his colleagues he was unaware that the Chinese had an operating gaseous diffusion plant which was producing weapons-grade material. Yet, he made more than the CIA of the fact that the Chinese had already constructed a 325 foot test tower at Lop Nur. Whiting was certain that the Chinese would not have taken the trouble to construct a tower unless a test was impending, although CIA technical experts were dubious. As other intelligence information becomes available, Whiting estimated a test on 1 October. (Interview with Whiting by William Burr, 13 December 1996).
Document 3: Memorandum for the Record, McGeorge Bundy, 15 September 1964
Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
This report of a meeting between President Johnson's top advisers discloses the administration's basic approach toward the first Chinese nuclear test but nevertheless raises questions that have yet to be settled. Although it is evident that the administration had provisionally ruled out a preemptive strike, it is unclear whether Secretary of State Rusk ever had any substantive discussions of the Chinese nuclear issue with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin during the weeks after this meeting.
Until recently, paragraph 3 of this document was entirely excised but a successful appeal by the National Security Archive led the National Archives to release all but the date of the proposed "Chinat" overflight, presumably by a U-2. The date of the overflight is unknown although a number took place in late 1964 and early 1965 to monitor Chinese nuclear weapons facilities.
Document 4: "China As a Nuclear Power (Some Thoughts Prior to the Chinese Test)", 7 October 1964
Source: FOIA request to State Department
This document was prepared by the Office of International Security Affairs at the Department of Defense, possibly by, or under the supervision of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Henry S. Rowen, who drafted other papers on the Chinese nuclear program during this period. It probably typified the "worst case" scenarios developed by those who believed that a nuclear China would become such a serious threat that it would be necessary to attack Chinese nuclear weapons facilities as a counter-proliferation measure.
Document 5: State Department Telegram No. 2025 to U.S. Embassy Paris, 9 October 1964
Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1964-1966, file DEF 12-1 Chicom
This document provides one example of Washington's efforts to get "hard" information on the PRC's atomic test not long before it occurred on 16 October. In early September, several weeks before the State Department sent this cable, Allen Whiting saw a CIA report on a meeting earlier in the year between Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and President of Mali Modibo Keita, when Zhou was visiting West Africa. Zhou told Keita that China would be testing an atomic device in October and asked him to give political support to the test when it occurred. Whiting was sure that Zhou's statement should be taken seriously and on the basis of this and other information he convinced Secretary of State Rusk to announce, on 29 September, that a test would soon occur. (Interview with Whiting). The CIA report is unavailable but this telegram suggests that Zhou's statement or similar comments by PRC officials to friendly governments may have leaked to the press.
Document 6: "Destruction of Chinese Nuclear Weapons Capabilities", by G.W. Rathjens, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 14 December 1964.
Source: FOIA request to State Department
George Rathjens, the author of this document, was an ACDA official serving on an interagency group, directed by White House staffer Spurgeon Keeny, that assisted the President's Task Force on the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, better known as the Gilpatric Committee after its chairman, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric. Whether Rathjens prepared it as his own initiative or at the Committee's request is unclear, but it may have been the latter because the Committee considered the possibility of recommending an attack on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities as part of a program to check nuclear proliferation. In this document, Rathjens summarized Roben Johnson's still classified study of the costs and benefits of various types of attacks on the Chinese nuclear weapons complex. Apparently one of the possibilities, an "air drop of GRC [Government of the Republic of China] sabotage team" received serious consideration earlier in the year.
Taking a more bullish view of the benefits of attacking Chinese nuclear facilities, Rathjens took issue with Johnson's conclusion that the "significance of a [Chicom nuclear] capability is not such as to justify the undertaking of actions which would involve great political costs or high military risks." However confident Rathjens may have been that a successful attack could discourage imitators and check nuclear proliferation, that recommendation did not go into the final report, which has recently been declassified in full.
Before ACDA declassified this document in its entirety, a lightly excised version was available at the Johnson Library. Shane Maddock of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's History Department, published the excised version with stimulating commentary in the April 1996 issue of the SHAFR Newsletter.
Source: Freedom of Information Act request to State Department
Sections excised from previous releases are outlined in red.
Note: Since the Archive published this document, the Department of State has released Foreign Relations of the United States, Arms Control and Disarmament, 1964-1968, Volume XI, which includes the full text of the Gilpatric Report along with valuable background material.
Here the Archive publishes, for the first time, the complete text of the "Gilpatric Report", the earliest major U.S. government-sponsored policy review of the spread of nuclear weapons. Largely motivated by concern over the first Chinese atomic test in October 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Wall Street lawyer and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to lead a special task force in investigating, and making policy recommendations on, the spread of nuclear weapons. Owing to his extensive connections in high-level corporate and governmental circles, Gilpatric was able to recruit a group of unusually senior former government officials, including DCI Allen Dulles, U. S. High Commissioner to Germany John J. McCloy, White House Science Adviser George Kistiakowsky, and SACEUR Alfred Gruenther. Johnson announced the formation of the committee on 1 November 1964. The committee completed its report in early 1965 and presented it to President Johnson on 21 January 1965.
The report came at a time when senior Johnson administration officials had important disagreements over nuclear proliferation policy. Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk were already heavily committed to a Multilateral Force [MLF] designed to give the Germans and other European allies the feeling of sharing control over NATO nuclear weapons decisions while diverting them from developing independent nuclear capabilities. This complicated negotiations with Moscow which saw the MLF as incompatible with a nonproliferation treaty; nevertheless, Johnson and Rusk gave the MLF priority on the grounds that it would secure West Germany's non-nuclear status1. Further, some senior officials thought that nuclear proliferation was inevitable and, among the right countries, potentially desirable. Thus, during a November 1964 meeting, Rusk stated that he was not convinced that "the U.S. should oppose other countries obtaining nuclear weapons." Not only could he "conceive of situations where the Japanese or the Indians might desirably have their own nuclear weapons", Rusk asked "should it always be the U.S. which would have to use nuclear weapons against Red China?" Robert McNamara thought otherwise: it was "unlikely that the Indians or the Japanese would ever have a suitable nuclear deterrent2.
The Gilpatric Committee tried to resolve the debate by taking an unhesitatingly strong position against nuclear proliferation, recommending that the United States "greatly intensify" its efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. Besides calling for an international treaty on "non-dissemination and non-acquisition of nuclear weapons", the report included a range of suggestions for inhibiting proliferation in specific countries in Europe, the Near East, and Asia. The latter generally involved a carrot and stick approach: inducements to discourage independent nuclear programs but a more assertive policy if inducements failed. For example, with respect to Israel, Washington would continue to offer "assurances" against Egyptian-Syrian attack; however, "make clear to Israel that those assurances would be withdrawn if she develops a nuclear weapons capability." With respect to the MLF controversy, the report questioned Johnson administration policy by suggesting the "urgent exploration of alternatives" to permanently inhibit German nuclear weapons potential.
Spurgeon Keeny, the Committee's staff director, believes that the report "got to LBJ that the Establishment was really worried about nuclear proliferation and that steps could be taken to do something about it"3. Yet, however Johnson may have thought about the report's line of argument and recommendations, his immediate response appears to have been skeptical because it challenged the Administration's emphasis on the MLF as a means to manage the German nuclear problem. Unquestionably, this contributed heavily to his decision to bar circulation of the report except at the cabinet level. Dean Rusk fully agreed, according to Glenn Seaborg's account of a briefing for Johnson, Rusk opined that the report was "as explosive as a nuclear weapon." Like Johnson, Rusk worried about leaks; moreover, he opposed the report's message on Germany as well as other countries that it singled out. Uncontrolled revelations about the report would have quickly complicated U.S. relations with France, Germany, and lsrael, among others4.
One important section of the report, on possible initiatives toward the Soviet Union and their relationship to nonproliferation goals, has been declassified for some time. In it (beginning on p. 16), the Committee called for a verified fissile material cutoff (although production of tritium permitted) and strategic arms control agreements. By recommending a strategic delivery vehicle freeze (misspelled "free" in text), significant reductions in strategic force levels, and a moratorium on ABM and ICBM construction, the report presaged (and went beyond) the SALT I agreement of 1972. Elsewhere (p. 8) the Committee called for U.S. efforts to work with the Soviets in building support for a comprehensive nuclear test ban. For the Committee, U.S.-Soviet cooperation in those areas were essential because they would help create an "atmosphere conducive to wide acceptance of restraints on nuclear proliferation."
Participants and close observers have offered conflicting analyses of the report's impact. Some, such as Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Glenn Seaborg, downplay its significance noting that other political developments had more influence on Johnson administration policy. Others, such as Keeny and Raymond Garthoff (who represented the State Department on the Committee's interagency staff) believe that even if the Gilpatric report did not quickly lead to tangible policy changes, it educated the President as well as its members on the significance of the nuclear proliferation issue. Keeny further argues that the report helped prepare Johnson to give strong support to a nonproliferation treaty in 1966 after the MLF approach to the German nuclear problem had lost momentum5.
No doubt owing to classification problems, the literature on the Gilpatric Committee and the early history of U.S. non- proliferation policy is sparse6. With the report fully declassified and other related information becoming available, it should now be possible for historians and social scientists to assess the Gilpatric Committee's contribution to Lyndon Johnson's nuclear proliferation policy. Whatever the Gilpatric report's immediate impact may have been, the future turned out very differently than its critics anticipated. The slowing of nuclear proliferation has proven to be possible and a major goal of the Gilpatric committee--a nearly universal nonproliferation regime--came to pass. To the extent, however, that important measures supported by the Committee have yet to be acted upon--e.g., a fissile materials production cut off--or ratified, e.g., the CTBT--the report stands in harsh judgement of current international efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.
1. For a useful overview of the MLF-NPT interrelationships, see George Bunn, Arms Control By
Committee, Managing Negotiations with the Russians (Stanford University Press, 1992), 64-72.
For further reading:
Willis C. Armstrong et al., "The Hazards of Single-Outcome Forecasting," in H. Bradford Westerfield, Inside ClA 's Private World: Declassified Articles from the Agency's Internal Journal, 1955-1992 (New Haven, 1995), 238-254
Gordon H. Chang, Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1972 (Stanford, 1990)
Rosemary Foot, The Practice of Power, U.S. Relations with China Since 1949 (Oxford, 1995)
John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds The Bomb (Stanford, 1988)
Chris Pocock, Dragon Lady: The History of the U-2 Spyplane (Airlife, England, 1989), especially ch. 6, "Parting the Bamboo Curtain"