The Soviet Union was on the brink of launching a nuclear attack against China in 1969 and only backed down after the US told Moscow such a move would start World War Three, according to a Chinese historian.
I am an avid historian…but my specialty is European History, I fear I am sufficiently ignorant of Asian and Russian History. So here is my question: what was the motive behind such agression between Communist allies, who tend to be some of the tightest allies around?
I’m not a historian, but am old enough to remember the animosity between the two countries. Okay, these are old memories and a bit rusty, but as I recall part of the problem is Soviet fear of losing their Far East territory to China. They have a long border, and China’s military strength is in the Far East, the Soviet Union much less so. There was also concern of China cultural influence on indigenous peoples living in the Soviet Far East. Again, the concern was that Soviet Union could lose control of their territory.
On the other side, China was not at all happy with the Soviet Union aiding North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. China saw SE Asia as its sphere of influence, and was worried about the size of the military there. China and Vietnam, not on friendly terms.
A related factor is that they were rivals for leadership of the Communist movement. Both wanted to be the major influence over other countries.
And there were actual ideological differences in the Communist philosophies the two governments practiced. I remember visiting a bookstore run by the government of the People’s Republic of China in downtown Chicago during the late 1970s. Basically, it was propaganda outlet. Being in college and tickled by the novelty of it all, I bought a copy of Mao’s little red book and a poster of Stalin.
Yes, Stalin! He was definitely on the outs in the Soviet Union, but China’s government apparently loved him.
I remember that the relationship began to deteriorate rapidly in the late 1950’s. There were some border clashes. I really didn’t start reading any USSR/Soviet history until around 1957 and really didn’t get into it until college. I do remember 1969 was not a particularly good year for Sino-Soviet relations. I would have to dig out my history books and go back and do some research. Anyway, I tend to agree with what you have said, Dale M and I remember the animosity also.
I doubt this, and as this writer admits, he cannot supply proof.
The Sino-Soviet “honeymoon” didn’t last very long. The relationship was strained from the very beginning during the Chinese Communist Revolution and Stalin had designs on “Chinese” territory such as Manchuria and Xinjiang before the CCP actually succeeded in expelling the GMD from the mainland (look up the second East Turkestan Republic for example).
By the early 1960’s, the honeymoon was definitely over, but the split began much earlier when Stalin and Mao became rivals with their own nationalist plans (nationalism, by the way, runs counter to Communism).
I know that the CCP, especially in Xinjiang, trained for a Soviet invasion, but if anyone has a couple hours to kill, I love talking about my focus.
I remember the animosity between China and the USSR, but really knew little about it or the cause.
I have read Frederick Forsyth’s “The Fourth Protocol” a few times. It is a fictional story about a Soviet attempt to smuggle a small nuclear bomb into Britain and detonate it close to an airbase hosting American jets armed with tactical nukes. The intention was to make it look like an accident so the British public would blame it on the Americans.
While it is fiction, and pretends to be nothing else, I sometimes wonder just how close to the truth it was. I still remember how savage Margaret Thatcher was at one stage towards the Soviets, and I wonder whether she knew something the rest of us don’t, but decided to keep it under wraps to avoid antagonising the USSR when both sides were very heavily armed with nuclear weapons and didn’t have the countermeasures they’ve got today.
Just a personal suspicion.
I’m not familiar with the book, but perhaps she knew of the divide between the civilian and military leadership within the USSR. Even though the USSR, and the PRC for that matter, are one-party states, there are frequent political struggles within. There are hard-liners, moderates, and so on.
Not a few times have the military or secret intelligence wings of Communist parties pushed for more aggressive policies with their enemies. How many times were there successful or attempted military coups in the USSR? I can’t remember. I think that might be common to military establishments, though - they have the utmost confidence in their abilities to strike first or come out on top.
I recall reading where some high-level former soviet military people declared that there was a Soviet plan to invade Western Europe sometime in the early 1980s. All conventional, because the Soviets desperately needed Western resources. Supposedly that was forestalled by Soviet intelligence’s discovery that the West had some new kind of armor-busting weapon and strategy (supposedly based on Israeli experiences with Soviet-built armor), the Soviet military’s realization that the vaunted Soviet BMPs were a lot more vulnerable than was earlier believed and a deeper distrust of the Poles (especially their troops) that would be at their backs and on their supply lines.
So, cooler heads, it seems, prevailed over a compelling mindset, and it never happened.
Soviet nuclear attack on China seems more like that; something a strong contingent within the Soviet power structure thought about, but that crumbled for reasons perhaps unrelated to any American threat. I am not persuaded yet that America would have nuked Russia for the sake of China. It is very difficult for me to believe an American president or American military leaders would have thought China to be worth all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. On the one hand, America would have been destroyed. On the other hand, China would have been an even worse mess than it was, but America would have been unharmed. The balance does not seem right.
Your calculus leaves out that in a worst-case situation, we would then be faced with a Soviet empire encompassing almost all of Asia.
[quote=A Servant]I am an avid historian…but my specialty is European History, I fear I am sufficiently ignorant of Asian and Russian History. So here is my question: what was the motive behind such agression between Communist allies, who tend to be some of the tightest allies around?
I’m going to guess that your European History expertise is earlier rather than modern (late 20th Century) history. East Germany, Bulgaria, etc were close allies not because they were communist, but because 1) they were all stooges to the Soviets, and 2) they were militarily threatened by NATO. But even within what looked to most Western eyes like a solid communist bloc, you had various countries striking out on their own in different ways: economic experiments in Yugoslavia which if I recall toyed with free market ideas, Romanian megalomania and obsession with style, much of it western-oriented (that was in part why they changed their name from Rumania to Romania), and little Albania that rejected Soviet leadership altogether (for awhile they allied themselves with China, but Beijing was not a pure enough communist state for them).
Moscow and Beijing basically split around 1960 (shortly after the Soviets helped build the Great Hall of the People in Beijing), and were on the outs with each other to a greater or lesser degree until the Sino-Soviet summit in 1989, which provided a great occasion for protesters (Gorby’s greeting ceremony had to be moved to the airport) that eventually grew into the Tiananmen Square incident a month or two later.
My disbelief in this claim lays largely on the U.S. political climate at the time. For one thing, I disbelieve that President Richard Nixon would have launched a nuclear attack on a Communist country to save another Communist country.