Blast from the Past: When Hawks Wanted to Bomb a 'Suicidal' China
The author notes the similarities to recent calls to pre-emptively strike Iran to similar arguments during the 1960s' to attack China before it could develop a nuclear weapon, which have since been proven to have over-inflated the threat from China based on their rhetoric.
The second prominent feature in the hawkish case is the eerie similarity of their arguments to those made fifty years ago regarding Communist China’s nuclear program. Today’s proponents of preemptive war insist that Iran’s clerical regime is irrational and, therefore, cannot be deterred. According to that logic, a nuclear-armed Tehran would at a minimum use its arsenal to threaten and intimidate its neighbors, thereby putting the Middle East under the domination of a virulently anti-Western power. Even worse, hawks insist, Iran might well use its nukes against Israel or even U.S. forces in the region, plunging the world into the nightmare of nuclear war .
Yet even Israeli intelligence officials have concluded that Iran’s leaders are not irrational, much less suicidal. And suicidal they would have to be to start such a conflict against Israel—a country that has 150 to 300 nuclear weapons. The mullahs would have to be even more suicidal to initiate a nuclear war with the United States and its arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons.
The Cold War–era predecessors of today’s advocates of preemptive air strikes used strikingly similar logic regarding China’s embryonic nuclear-weapons program. National Review, the flagship publication of the conservative movement, published two editorials in 1965 warning that China’s communist leaders could not be deterred the way that the United States had deterred the Soviet Union. The second editorial appeared with the headline “Bomb the Bang.” National Review’s editors admonished U.S. officials not to sit passively “like a man who watches and waits while the guillotine is constructed to chop his head off.”
Writing in Red Flag, the main ideological publication of the Communist Party in the 1960s, General Lo Jui-ching argued that while a nuclear war would cause “sacrifices and destruction, it will also educate people.” Therefore, he stressed, the party must give “first priority” to preparing the Chinese public psychologically for such a war. One would be hard-pressed to find comments from Iran’s clerical leaders comparable to the extraordinarily scary and inflammatory statements of Mao and his colleagues. Mao’s and Lo’s comments led prominent nuclear scientist Ralph Lapp, writing in the pages of Life Magazine, to conclude that Chinese leaders “may not be rationally deterred from starting a nuclear war.” For them, he worried, “the unthinkable may be thinkable.”
Yet when China joined the global nuclear-weapons club later in the 1960s, it did not behave in a reckless fashion. That gap between statements and behavior confirms an observation that has been valid throughout history. Although political elites may sometimes engage in apocalyptic rhetoric, their actions are almost never suicidal. Fortunately, cooler heads in the U.S. foreign-policy community prevailed regarding China’s nuclear program, and the United States never launched a preemptive war. Relations with Beijing today would likely be far different—and vastly more hostile—if the hawks of that earlier era had won the debate. American leaders face a similar choice today regarding Iran, and one hopes that they are wise enough to spurn the irresponsible advice of taking a fateful—potentially disastrous—military action.
The Iranian regime probably can be deterred, either from using its nuclear arsenal or from taking other aggressive actions in the belief that its nuclear arsenal will itself deter countermoves by the United States or other states. Although willing to tolerate very high costs when core interests are threatened, key members of this regime -- including Khamenei and Rafsanjani --have also demonstrated that they will concede in the face of heavy damage and are often unwilling to suffer more modest damage when their core interests are not threatened.