The National Security Archive
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January 12, 2001
For more information contact:
William Burr: 202/994-7032
Jeffrey Richelson: 703/684-8274
Washington, D.C. -- President John F. Kennedy and top advisers considered bombing strikes and covert paramilitary operations to destroy China's nascent nuclear weapons program in the early 1960s, according to recently declassified documents cited in the current issue of International Security, a journal published at Harvard University's Belfer Center.  During meetings with senior Taiwanese officials, Kennedy's aides and CIA officials discussed the possibility of preventive military action against Chinese nuclear facilities.  These and related developments are discussed in an article by National Security Archive analysts William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, "Whether To 'Strangle the Baby in the Cradle'": The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64,"which is the most detailed account available of the Kennedy and Johnson administration's reactions to the Peoples Republic of China's emerging nuclear weapons capabilities.  Some of the highlights are:
  • President John F. Kennedy saw the prospect of a nuclear-armed China as a dangerous threat and the Pentagon and the CIA looked closely at the possibility of covert para-military operations to destroy China's nuclear weapons installations.

  • National security adviser McGeorge Bundy played a key role in encouraging covert  planning against China's nuclear program, which included discussions of paramilitary operations such as raids by Taiwanese commandos as well as the prospect of joint action with the Soviet Union.

  • Other officials, including State Department analysts, were not persuaded by worst-case analyses of a nuclear China and argued that Beijing would be more cautious, not more aggressive.

  •  The CIA's systematic efforts to monitor Chinese nuclear weapons developments included a failure to discern China's path of nuclear development but success in detecting Beijing's preparations to test a nuclear device.

  • Worried about the prospect of a confrontation with China, the Johnson administration rejected unilateral unprovoked action and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy found that Moscow was not interested in cooperation against Beijing's nuclear program.

  • After Beijing exploded a nuclear device in October 1964, Taiwanese president Chiang Kai-Shek pressed Washington in vain to support military action against Beijing's nuclear facilities.
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