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  • Targeting ChinaU.S. Nuclear Planning and "Massive Retaliation" in East Asia, 1953–1955
  • Matthew Jones

The subject of U.S. nuclear planning for general war with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and early 1960s has received a great deal of attention from scholars.1 Far fewer attempts have been made to examine how U.S. nuclear planning for conflict with the People's Republic of China (PRC) evolved as Sino-American hostility intensified in the aftermath of the Korean War. Apart from studies of the possible use of nuclear weapons during the Korean War itself and mention of China's broad inclusion in the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) first devised in 1960, little has been published on the period in between, from 1953 through the late 1950s.2 What makes this omission especially pertinent is that the United States under Dwight D. Eisenhower was involved in multiple crises with China in which use of nuclear weapons was one of the options frequently mooted, most notably during the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954–1955 and 1958. "Massive retaliation," the Eisenhower administration's strategy of relying on nuclear threats and pressures to deter Communist aggression, was given some of its sternest tests in East Asia. A study of the military planning that lay behind this strategic approach can illuminate [End Page 37] how it might have operated in practice.3 It is also worth bearing in mind that the PRC, unlike the Soviet Union, was a non-nuclear state during this period. Although China received some degree of protection through the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty, Chinese leaders had no direct means of retaliating against a U.S. nuclear attack. The United States therefore had greater leeway for possible attacks against China than against the USSR. U.S. military planners expected that war with the Soviet Union would lead to a large-scale nuclear exchange, but they were able to plan for nuclear strikes against China without being as concerned about nuclear retaliation. They could even consider more limited nuclear options and give clearer expression to their views about the potential threat posed by China.

This article presents new evidence about some of the detailed discussions on nuclear targeting policy toward China conducted by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in 1953–1955, the period in which the doctrinal thinking encompassed by the Eisenhower administration's New Look defense policies began to influence war plans. Analysis of these debates highlights important differences of emphasis and opinion, as SAC developed a concept of nuclear operations aimed at the total destruction of the military-industrial potential of China, displaying impatience with the Joint Chiefs' stipulation that targets should be selected according to their relationship to the local area of Communist aggression in the Far East and that the number of nuclear strikes should be limited. The JCS had adopted this guidance after the NSC, at the behest of Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, embraced the view that allied support would be indispensable in an all-out war with China. Nothing was more likely to alienate allies and other potential friends than the indiscriminate use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese civilian population. U.S. officials also worried that the large-scale destruction of the PRC might trigger some form of Soviet intervention and escalation of the fighting to global war. Military planning for the use of nuclear weapons, as Eisenhower and Dulles repeatedly stressed, had to conform to the overall requirements of [End Page 38] national security policy and the compelling need to gain support from allied governments. But this injunction was inherently problematic because SAC's operational planning and ethos were shaped by principles of strategic air warfare derived from lessons acquired during the bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in 1944–1945—campaigns that, at their extremes, hardly reflected the preferences of those in higher authority.4

The Setting of High-Level Policy: The New Look and Korea

The period that followed the end of the Korean War in July 1953 was marked by the Eisenhower administration's insistence that the United States would...


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pp. 37-65
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