Mission to Moscow

It was clear to McNamara that keeping China nuclear free would require substantial leverage: export restrictions on oil, petroleum, lubricants, chemical fertilizers, and foodstuffs; perhaps even surgical strikes. Whether Khrushchev would go along was another question. Military action would have to await his “tacit consent.”

After conciliatory gestures by both Kennedy and Khrushchev, negotiators from the United States led by Harriman, and Great Britain, led by Lord Hailsham, arrived in Moscow in 1963 to explore a new treaty—a prohibition against nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space. They would stay in Moscow for 11 days, working on a test ban, sketching out a non-diffusion pact, stalling on European non-aggression, and gauging how the Soviets felt about the People’s Republic.

A CIA photo of a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile in Red Square, Moscow sometime between 1959 and 1968.

The two sides saw a test ban very differently. When Harriman met with Khrushchev, the Soviet leader made clear his lack of interest in a total ban that would cover underground tests. As for China, he limited his criticisms to those based on the public battle lines of the Sino-Soviet split—peaceful coexistence versus national liberation.

When Harriman pressed him on a nonproliferation pact, he demurred, teasing the heir to an American railroad fortune that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not issue visas to capitalists. When the American persisted, he downplayed China’s nuclear potential. While they might explode a crude nuclear device, it would take a huge investment of time, energy, and resources to match U.S. and Soviet capabilities. In the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Khrushchev said, China simply lacked the wherewithal.

President Kennedy and U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Foy Kohler in the Oval Office in 1963.

For all his nonchalance, Khrushchev had not dismissed the notion of U.S.-Soviet joint action against China’s nuclear program, or so Kennedy thought. From the Oval Office, he told Harriman to keep pressing because the China problem was so grave: “I agree that large stockpiles are characteristic of U.S. and U.S.S.R. only, but consider that relatively small forces in hands of people like the Chinese Communists could be very dangerous to all of us.” For now, the president argued, a limited test ban offered the best means to limit diffusion.

Harriman surmised from conversations with Yuri Zhokov, Pravda’s foreign editor, that Sino-Soviet disputes were all-consuming for the Russians. 

Khrushchev wanted to use a test ban to ostracize China in world opinion, exposing it to attacks from developing states in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where Moscow competed with both Washington and Beijing for influence. He vowed that the three nuclear powers then in Moscow should make all 130 countries in the United Nations General Assembly sign and ratify the treaty to make China’s isolation as severe as possible. 

Khrushchev hoped that nonaligned Afro-Asian nations rather than Moscow or her communist allies would pillory China. When Harriman put forth a clause in which a nuclear test justified withdrawal from the treaty (an obvious reference to China’s looming detonation), Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko refused because others would interpret it as an “open admission” that the United States was applying pressure on the Soviet Union to rein in the People’s Republic. They were happy for African and Asian nations to give Mao a black eye, yet loath to be seen cheering them on against their sworn comrades.

France tested its first nuclear weapon in 1960 and tested many subsequent nuclear weapons in French Polynesia, such as this one in 1971 (left). After France tested its first nuclear weapon in the Sahara in 1960, students from Mali studying in Germany protested the testing as “the African people need no atomic bomb. [They are] living in peace and calling for the immediate end of colonial rule in Africa” (right).

Moscow was even happier for Washington to do its dirty work, and encouragement came from unexpected quarters. At a boozy reception at the Polish Embassy, Lydia Gromyko, the wife of the Soviet Foreign Minister, cornered Foy Kohler, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, to urge him and Harriman to finalize the test ban. “We have to have this,” she said, “so that when those Chinese have their first nuclear explosion, we will have a basis on which to call them to account.

At their final meeting, Khrushchev brushed Harriman aside once more. A nuclear-armed China, he assured the American emissary, would buttress the communist world against the capitalists. When Harriman retorted that Chinese rockets might one day target Moscow, Khrushchev asked if Kennedy and Johnson also trembled at the thought of London and Paris launching nukes against Washington, D.C.

From China to North Korea

Lydia Gromyko’s slip was probably intentional. She and her husband could not have missed how insistently Harriman was pressing the China issue. It was also clear that a Chinese nuclear arsenal would unsettle U.S. relationships throughout the Asia-Pacific.

First Kennedy and then Johnson thought seriously about hitting Beijing’s nuclear facilities and missile installations, but only if China furnished them military grounds to do so. But the Kremlin would not countenance measures against China that went beyond propaganda.

Premier Zhou Enlai announcing the successful first test of a Chinese nuclear bomb in 1964 (left). The mushroom cloud from China’s first nuclear weapon (center). General Zhang Aiping reporting the successful first detonation to Premier Enlai in 1964 (right).

China tested a nuclear bomb on October 16, 1964. That same day, Khrushchev was ousted as leader of the Soviet Union, in part because of how he had handled the Sino-Soviet split. In the end, super-power diplomacy did not prevent the People’s Republic of China from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Yet China’s bomb did jolt the U.S. government into redirecting its attention toward the arrival of atomic arsenals in new hands. When the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) on August 5, 1963, they laid the foundation of a global nuclear nonproliferation regime that internationalized efforts to slam the nuclear club’s door shut.

A United Nations stamp to commemorate the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

It was no accident that first the LTBT and then the NPT, which opened for signature in July 1968, originated at a time when decolonization was revolutionizing the international community from a pre-1945 order of empires to a postwar order of interdependent and heterogeneous nation-states. 

Faced with a new nuclear threat in East Asia in the form of the People’s Republic of China and the persistence of the Sino-Soviet military alliance for all Mao and Khrushchev’s venom, the United States turned to global arms treaties to harness African and Asian opinion against the next member of the nuclear club.

China’s neighbors—India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, among many others—welcomed the LTBT on both geopolitical and humanitarian grounds in 1963. All but India also drew comfort from the U.S. nuclear umbrella they sheltered under.

So when Harriman, Hailsham, and Khrushchev put the finishing touches on the LTBT, they forged an enduring association between nuclear testing and deviant state behavior.

A map of nations’ status on the Partial Test Ban Treaty as of 2008.

They also set the foundation for a global nuclear regime whose ultimate guarantors were a U.S. nuclear arsenal that extended formally over 18 allied countries and (increasingly more since the fall of the Soviet Union) the U.S. military’s ability to police the globe.

America’s campaign to limit the spread of nuclear weapons succeeded according to its public rationale. In 1963, Kennedy warned that he saw “the possibility in the 1970s of the President of the United States having to face a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 may [have] these weapons.” Fifty-five years later, only nine nuclear powers exist.

A 1965 cartoon with a mushroom cloud with a likeness of Mao Zedong rising between Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson looking on anxiously. A 1965 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation (left). During negotiations for a nuclear test ban agreement, President Kennedy remarked at a press conference that if they did not act soon, “the genie [might be] out of the bottle.” This 1963 cartoon depicts this idea with President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan on one side of a jar and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the other as a menacing hand rises between them like a mushroom cloud. A 1963 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation (right).

While Israel had surreptitiously acquired a basic nuclear capability before the ink on the NPT was dry in 1968, the treaty and its accompanying regime of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards helped the United States to halt military programs in South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil. It delayed the arrival of nuclear arms in Indian and Pakistani hands until the late 1990s and stimulated their removal from South African, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Kazakhstani territory after the Cold War ended.

The ends have not always justified the means by which the United States has pushed nonproliferation. The United States turned a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal as long as Tel Aviv does not test and was not “the first to introduce [them] into the Middle East.” American diplomats drafted the NPT in ways that permitted the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe and, until 1991, South Korea.

The emblem for the International Atomic Energy Agency (left). Leftover bomb casings at an abandoned nuclear bomb production facility near Pretoria, South Africa, which stopped its nuclear weapons program in 1989 and dismantled all its bombs (right).

They shaped a regime that let U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea, and European Union members possess “dual-use” nuclear capabilities—plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment—placing them within months of military nuclear capabilities.

Yet nonproliferation also justifies international sanctions and preventive strikes against adversaries like Syria, Iraq, or Iran who use black markets to procure equipment that a U.S.-led cartel of nuclear suppliers refuses to sell them.

President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in South Korea in 2017 (left). U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holding a vial of anthrax during his 2003 presentation to the United Nations Security Council in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq (right).

Washington acquiesced (unhappily in President Ronald Reagan’s case) when Israel bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. And it illegally invaded Iraq based on trumped-up intelligence that Saddam Hussein’s government had violated its NPT commitments.

The World’s Nuclear Future

These legacies remain relevant today, though for how much longer is unclear. Washington remains ostensibly committed to halting or reversing the spread of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction worldwide. But 53 years separate China’s first nuclear test from the current North Korean nuclear crisis.

The two cases feature striking similarities.

The PRC and the DPRK are the communist halves of divided nations—the Republic of China sits across the Taiwan Straits and the Republic of Korea across the demilitarized zone. Both fought U.S. forces from 1950 to 1953, and aided the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in its war to reunify that nation.

A North Korean image of Kim Jong-un supposedly with a miniaturized nuclear bomb in 2016 (left). Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Kim to China for talks in 2018 and received him with much fanfare (right).

Both counted on an ally—the Soviet Union and China, respectively—to shield them against U.S. military power in alliance with their enemy co-nationals. Their dictators—Mao Zedong and the Kim family—both fostered cults of personality that blurred the lines between the legendary and the preposterous.

For all its iconoclasm, inconsistency, and inexpertness, the Trump administration has embraced a cause that Trump once scorned—nuclear nonproliferation. What Kennedy’s administration did to avert China’s nuclearizing, and what they did not do, remain instructive amid the riskiest nuclear crisis since that in Cuba in October 1962.

Protesters in Chicago, IL in October 1962 against the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and seeking UN involvement (left). As part of a women’s peace activist group seeking to ban nuclear testing, 800 women protested near the UN Building during the Cuban Missile Crisis (right).

While many wonder why North Korea risks war with the world’s foremost military power by so belligerently brandishing its new nuclear arms, fewer ask why the United States has assumed the mantle of judge, jury, and executioner in the court of nuclear law and order. Those answers point back a half century, when Kennedy and Khrushchev harnessed postcolonial world opinion to isolate China as it threatened Moscow’s leadership of world communism and Washington’s dominion over the Pacific.

Of the two Cold War superpowers, only the United States exists today. Yet the globe-spanning military empire that it fashioned in its geo-ideological battles with the two communist titans—a now reduced Russia and a quasi-capitalist People’s Republic of China—remain.

UN propaganda dropped over North Korea in 1952 in an attempt to demoralize the populace by showing them being manipulated and worked by Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin (left). A propaganda flyer from 1951 showing victory over American forces (right).

To understand why the United States treats Iran and North Korea as nuclear rogues, it is worth revisiting the time when its leader laid the foundation stones of the nonproliferation regime.

After China’s test in 1964, President Johnson would assemble a blue-ribbon committee of scientists, businessmen, and former government officials to examine the issue. They concluded that China’s nuclear capability would not pose a direct military threat to the United States for at least a decade. But the example of “a poor, backward non-white power” building the bomb would enhance “the bargaining power of backward nations” and perhaps even cause American society to “revert” to its pre-World War II “isolationism.”

North Korean postcards.

In an era of Muslim bans, border walls, and “shithole countries,” it may well be that when Trump sits down with Kim, American chauvinism will cut against any impulse to enforce a common law for humanity. Or perhaps in placing “America First,” Trump will shrug off the unwritten norms and international laws that have disciplined overweening American military power since 1945.


Read more on nuclear weapons from OriginsCivil Defense and Nuclear WarJapanese Nuclear PowerHiroshima.

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