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 month — June 1959 — the Soviet advisers pulled out.
Kennedy had seriously considered ordering attacks to stop or slow the Chinese nuclear program. An April 1963 a memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff listed options ranging from raids by Chinese Nationalist soldiers based in Taiwan to an airstrike against Chinese nuclear facilities.
To deal with the threat, the United States sent nuclear-capable bombers and a ballistic missile submarine to Guam in 1964. But questions of feasibility and the acceptability of a surprise attack on China restrained the Americans, Mr. Goldstein wrote in a 2003 paper “When China Was a ‘Rogue State’: The Impact of China’s Nuclear Weapons Program on U.S.-China Relations During the 1960s.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, who assumed office after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, was wary of using force against China’s nuclear program, worried that it could trigger a large-scale intervention of Chinese forces in Vietnam, echoing fears from a decade earlier.
China’s reluctance to press North Korea too hard to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs is often attributed to its fear that the country could collapse, sending refugees streaming into China and creating a unified Korea that is aligned with the United States right at China’s border. But China’s own history with developing the bomb may be a factor, too, with some suggesting North Korea might one day become a more responsible nuclear actor.
“When China obtained nuclear weapons in the 1960s its government was also regarded by Western countries as a dictatorship,” Shen Dingli, an international relations scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote in 2006. “Yet, China did not threaten to sell them or use them, except as a deterrent force for ensuring national security.”
So the possibility exists that the fears over North Korea’s program could ease. But getting there will not be easy, and before that comes a period that Mr. Goldstein calls “valley of vulnerability.”
“My bottom line is, It is an incredibly dangerous historical parallel there,” Mr. Goldstein said. “If there is good news on the historical parallel — there does seem to be a tendency of once you pass through the valley of vulnerability, you could argue that moderation ensues, everything cools down, because things are less ambiguous.”