30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

China's First Nuclear Test 1964 -- 50th Anniversary

The first Chinese nuclear test
Published: Oct 16, 2014
Briefing Book #488

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

China's Advance toward Nuclear Status in Early 1960s Held Surprises for U.S. Analysts, Generated Conflicting Opinions about the Potential Dangers

Early RAND and INR Views Proved More Accurate than DOD's Office of International Security Affairs' Overwrought Scenario

The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-1964 Part II

Washington, D.C., October 16, 2014 – Fifty years ago today, on 16 October 1964, the People's Republic of China (PRC) joined the nuclear club when it tested a nuclear device at its Lop Nur test site in Inner Mongolia. For several years, U.S. intelligence had been monitoring Chinese developments, often with anxiety, hampered by the lack of adequate sources. Early on, opinions within the U.S. government varied widely -- from the views of RAND Corporation and State Department INR [Intelligence and Research] analysts who estimated that a nuclear-armed China would be "cautious" to the Institute for Defense Analyses, which saw "increase[d] risks for the United States and its allies that China will escalate hostilities to the point of initiating nuclear operations." As the Chinese nuclear test approached, the Defense Department's Office of International Security Affairs was alone in taking an alarmist view, projecting 100 million dead Americans in the event of conflict with China in 1980.

To mark the anniversary of the Chinese test, the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project are publishing, mostly for the first time, a wide range of declassified U.S. government documents from the early 1960s on the Chinese nuclear program and its implications. Documents include intelligence estimates and analyses reflecting efforts by U.S. intelligence to forecast when Beijing could and would test a weapon and what its diplomatic and military implications could be. During the summer of 1964, the discovery through satellite photography of a test site led to speculation that Beijing would soon stage a nuclear test. Other documents provide information on the State Department's decision to announce the Chinese test in advance — which it did on 29 September 1964 — in order to minimize its impact on world opinion.

Today's publication sheds light on the internal U.S. debate over the significance and implications of an initial Chinese nuclear capability. For example, the Institute for Defense Analyses saw increased risks that "China will escalate hostilities to the point of initiating nuclear operations, " while RAND Corporation analysts argued that "Chinese policy is likely to continue to be cautious and rational and to seek gains by exploiting those opportunities that represent acceptable levels of' risk." Similarly, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) believed that China would avoid "rash military action" because of its "relative weakness," and the risks of nuclear retaliation.

While President Kennedy had been worried enough about the prospects of a nuclear China to support contingency planning for preventive military action, by the time of the test the U.S. government had decided against such action. The arguments of an April 1964 top secret State Department study may have been influential: "the significance of [a Chinese nuclear] capability is not such as to justify the undertaking of actions which would involve great political costs or high military risks." Indeed, the author of that study noted that a preventive strike could miss important facilities and Beijing would continue to build the bomb. As views about Chinese caution became more typical, a report from the Defense Department's Office of International Security Affairs, prepared in early October 1964, was an outlier: based on the assumption of rapid growth of Chinese nuclear forces, it saw "very important and potentially dangerous consequences," including the need by 1980 to "think in terms of a possible 100 million U.S. deaths whenever a serious conflict with China threatens."

Nonproliferation concerns shaped U.S. thinking about the significance of a nuclear China.[1] The possibility that a Chinese nuclear capability would encourage decisions for national nuclear programs among China's neighbors raised some anxiety, especially with respect to India. Whatever the exact risks were, Secretary of State Dean Rusk observed in late 1963, "Our interest in a formal agreement on non-proliferation is 95% percent because of Communist China." A study produced in 1964 by theArms Control and Disarmament Agency shows how apprehension about a Chinese nuclear capability deepened interest in a global nonproliferation agreement as way to make "more difficult any national decision by non-nuclear powers … to acquire a nuclear capability."

Before China conducted its test, Washington had expected that it, like nuclear powers before it, would test a plutonium-fueled device; the evidence at hand was thought to corroborate that. U.S. government officials and intelligence experts were startled when technical information collected by the Air Force showed that the device was fueled by highly-enriched uranium from a then-unknown source. An INR report prepared a few weeks after the test demonstrated how perplexed the U.S. intelligence community was over how Bejing had acquired the U-235. While a gaseous diffusion plant in Lanzhou had in fact produced the U-235,[2] U.S. intelligence did not believe that it had been in operation long enough to produce enough fissile material, but could not identify another possible source in China; moreover, it was "difficult to imagine that the Soviets would supply weapons-grade U-235."

Other highlights of today's publication:

  • Newly available Keyhole [KH]-4A satellite reconnaissance photographs of the Lop Nur test site, before and after the 16 October detonation, provided by Tim Brown of Talent-Keyhole.com.
  • A State Department INR memo from July 1963 recounting the CIA's insistence that a Special National Intelligence Estimate include language about the possible impact of nuclear weapons on Chinese foreign policy that in effect meant: "we don't believe that something will happen, but if it does, we want you to remember we warned that it might."
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff reports on the military and security implications of a nuclear China and proposals for military programs to counteract them.
  • A hitherto unknown draft of a Special National Intelligence Estimate from late 1962 on the Chinese nuclear program that was abandoned for lack of new evidence.
  • A major study prepared in 1963 by State Department official Robert H. Johnson on the potential consequences of a nuclear-armed China. Johnson did not believe this event would "alter the real relations of power among the major states," but the U.S. would have to find ways to reassure U.S. allies, in part to forestall "the possibility of development of independent nuclear capabilities by Asian countries (especially India)."
  • An unofficial and unusual analysis prepared by INR analyst Helmut Sonnenfeldt. Taking a classic balance of power approach to the Sino-Soviet dispute, he argued that "our efforts should be to weaken the stronger and strengthen the weaker side in order to prolong a dispute which is to some extent debilitating to both." Accordingly, Sonnenfeldt suggested that it might be in the U.S. interest if China had "modest" nuclear forces which could threaten the Soviet Union, but not the United States.

The Chinese leadership sought nuclear weapons because of their experience in confrontations with the United States during the 1950s. In this respect, the 1955 Taiwan Straits crisis had central importance to Mao's decisions.[3] As he explained to the Communist Party Politburo in April 1956: "Not only are we going to have more airplanes and artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today's world, if we don't want to be bullied, we have to have this thing." By then, the Chinese leadership had already made major decisions to launch a nuclear program. Moreover, they reached out to Moscow for scientific and technical assistance in launching a nuclear program. That Beijing wanted nuclear weapons, at least for basic security purposes, was well understood in Washington. According to a major State Department study from October 1963, a nuclear capability had "direct military value" to China as a deterrent against attack on its territory.

Today's posting follows up, and includes a few items from, an Electronic Briefing Book on "The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-1964," that the present editor and Archive senior fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson compiled in early 2001. That collection of estimates and studies coincided with an essay that International Security had recently published in its Winter 2000/2001 issue: "Whether to 'Strangle the Baby in the Cradle': The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64." That article reviewed early U.S. government intelligence and policyanalysis of the Chinese nuclear program and the internal debate during 1963-1964 over the significance of a Chinese nuclear capability and whether it was necessary to initiate preventive action to forestall a Chinese nuclear capability.


[1] For proliferation and other concerns about China, see also Francis Gavin, "Blasts from the Past: Proliferation Lessons from the 1960s," inNuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 75-81, and Shane Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[2] For the successful production of highly-enriched uranium at Lanzhou during 1963 and related activities, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai China Builds the Bomb (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988), 98-105, 114-125, and 134-136. For further background, see Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 148-153.

[3] Wilson and Litai, China Builds The Bomb, 34-49; Gordon Chang and He Di, "The Absence of War in the U.S.-China Confrontation over Quemoy and Matsu in 1954-1955: Contingency, Luck, Deterrence," American Historical Review 96 (1993): 1500-1524.

[4] For Soviet nuclear aid in the context of the changing Sino-Soviet relationship, see Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia, Between Aid and Restriction: Changing Soviet Policies toward China's Nuclear Weapons Program: 1954-1960, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project Working Paper #2 May 2012. See also documents on the Web site of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on "Chinese Nuclear History."

[5] For a valuable study on the RAND Corporation's early years, see Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).

[6] For the role of Taiwanese pilots in flying U-2 missions for the CIA, see Chris Pocock, The Black Bats: CIA Spy Flights Over China from Taiwan, 1951-1969 (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2010).

[7] See Gordon Chang, "JFK, China, and the Bomb," Journal of American History 74 (1988): 1289-1310, for background on these developments, as well as Noam Kochavi's. A Conflict Perpetuated: China Policy during the Kennedy Administration (Westport: Praeger, 2002).

[8] For more on these developments, see Burr and Richelson, "Whether to 'Strangle the Baby in the Cradle': The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64," 67-76. See also Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid, 153 and 234-237, and Kochavi, A Conflict Perpetuated, 214-233.

[9] Burr and Richelson, "Whether to 'Strangle the Baby in the Cradle': The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64," 83-86.

[10] Contrary to the ISA apprehensions, during the decades that followed China developed relatively small ballistic missiles forces on the basis of a minimum deterrent posture. See Jeffrey A, Lewis, Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (MIT Press, 2007).

[11] Wilson and Litai, China Builds the Bomb, 166. On China and the gas centrifuge, see R.Scott Kemp, "The Nonproliferation Emperor Has No Clothes: The Gas Centrifuge, Supply-Side Controls, and the Future of Nuclear Proliferation," International Security 38 (Spring 2014):  51-52.

[12] For the origins of AFTAC, see Charles A. Ziegler and David Jacobson, Spying without Spies: Origins of America's Secret Nuclear Surveillance System (Westport: Praeger, 1995).