When the U.S. Last Faced an Emerging Nuclear Threat in East Asia

But there are “major similarities on both sides, a kind of deep sense of vulnerability on both sides, all kinds of very bellicose rhetoric and a kind of coming up to the brink,” said Lyle J. Goldstein, an associate professor at the United States Naval War College.


A replica of an atomic bomb China exploded in 1965 was featured at an exhibition in Beijing in 2009.

Feng Li/Getty Images

China’s nuclear program is not often discussed as a top security concern in the United States today. But President John F. Kennedy told a visiting French diplomat in 1963 that China’s nuclear ambitions were a “great menace in the future to humanity, the free world, and freedom on earth.”

Americans tended to agree, putting China ahead of the Soviet Union as the biggest global menace in 1964, the historian Gordon H. Chang wrote in his 2015 book “Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China.”

China’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons date from the Korean War, when the United States still dominated the technology. The United States weighed using nuclear weapons in the war, both in the early months when the American-led forces faced defeat, and after China entered the conflict as American troops drove the North Korean Army to China’s border.

President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, decided not to use such weapons a few years later against North Korea or China, believing it would only expand the conflict. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower later indicated a willingness to deploy nuclear weapons if the Korean War dragged on or reignited after the armistice was signed in 1953.

China’s leader, Mao Zedong, had once belittled the atom bomb as a “paper tiger,” but after the Korean War and the first Taiwan Strait Crisis in the 1950s, he grew increasingly worried about the possible use of nuclear weapons by the United States. So Chinese leaders ordered the development of China’s own program.

The Soviet Union initially helped the effort, but China’s leaders grew wary of the risks to their nation’s autonomy. The rift between the two Communist allies deepened, and in 1959 the Soviet Union ceased its technological help of the Chinese nuclear program. China’s first successful nuclear test in 1964 was named “596” for the year and…

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