Daniel Ellsberg’s nuclear disclosures over Taiwan

May 27, 2021

Working on Canberra’s China desk, some time after the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis, we knew already from various sources what Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg has now formally disclosed – that at the height of the crisis the US was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend Quemoy, a Taiwan-held island close to China’s coast and under heavy Chinese attack. 

The US was concerned the fall of the island would seriously upset the weak Taiwan regime. But Washington’s planners were also concerned that Moscow would make a nuclear retaliation. So fortunately the bomb was not used.

Later I was able to say there would have been no retaliation. But that was no cause for celebration. Why? Because working in our Moscow embassy in 1963 I had been able to reason out that it was precisely Moscow’s refusal to provide nuclear backing to Beijing during the crisis which had led to the vicious Sino-Soviet dispute erupting around us.

Unfortunately, that reasoning found little support. The conventional wisdom among China watchers was that the dispute was ideological and that a bellicose Beijing had had to be restrained by a gentler Moscow. The Russians were the ‘good’ communists, those in Beijing were the ‘bad’.

With the outbreak of the Vietnam War, this conventional wisdom about China’s inherent bellicosity did a lot of damage. For one, it led to Canberra’s strange beliefs that China was using its ‘Vietnamese puppets’ to expand southwards towards Australia.

Yet at the time there was no evidence that Hanoi was in the grip of Beijing puppet masters. Indeed this should have been obvious as early as November 1964, when our then foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, made his abortive and rushed visit to Moscow to recruit the Soviet Union to join us in Vietnam to stop the allegedly bad communists in Beijing.

In response, Soviet Prime minister Alexsei Kosygin had told Hasluck bluntly that the Soviet Union was not interested in his offer. Instead Moscow “would  continue to do all it could to support the brave Vietnamese people in their struggle against US imperialism” and that he wished the Chinese would do more to help.

I was present at that Kremlin meeting but my report to Foreign Affairs of the secret proceedings clearly did little to ease the rampant paranoias in Canberra about China in Vietnam.

The same was also largely true when in 1967 I published my research into the origins of Moscow’s dispute with China (In Fear Of China, Lansdowne Press). That research showed Beijing had also been the good communists in other areas – urging Soviet moderation in eastern Europe in the 1950’s for example. But it was most evident in Beijing’s backing for Khruschev in his June 1957 confrontation with Soviet hardliners. As a reward, Khruschev had promised Soviet help for Beijing’s efforts to get a nuclear bomb.

But when China had begun its efforts to recover the so-called offshore islands, including Quemoy, which the Taiwan regime had continued to occupy after their 1949 defeat, Khruschev had realised his hopes for detente with Washington would be damaged if he came out in nuclear support for Beijing – hopes which in any case were going to be killed by the Washington hawks, as Beijing had predicted.

The earlier Khruschev promise of nuclear help to China was withdrawn. The dispute, and the conventional wisdom about it (which Kissinger has since said helped lead the US decision to intervene in Vietnam’s civil war), was unleashed.

Years later, I discovered an interesting twist to the Hasluck story. From the start it had seemed very unlikely that an Australian foreign minister would suddenly want to fly to Moscow demanding an immediate meeting with the Soviet leadership. We in the Embassy had just managed to arrange the meeting. But it was clear the Soviets were not very keen.

It was only when Hasluck began to claim he had a very important message to give Moscow that they relented. It seems that the message came from Washington.

Just weeks earlier, on October 14, Khruschev had suddenly been deposed as Soviet leader. Washington, which was also dominated by the ‘good communist-bad communist’ wisdom, seems to have decided that the new Soviet leadership, under the ‘good’ communists, would be open to an offer to cooperate against China, and had chosen Canberra to be the message bearer.

To this day, few, even in Australia, seem to have realised that on behalf of the US we had been inviting the Soviets to go to war with us against China in Vietnam. When he returned to Australia a chastened Hasluck said he had gone to Moscow simply so he could be among the first to congratulate the new Soviet leadership.

And even fewer, it seems, know what the Sino-Soviet dispute was about anyway. The image of Beijing somehow being inherently aggressive still lingers on, especially in the minds of our anti-China lobby in Australia.

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