The Sino-Soviet Clash of 1969
While Russia and China are increasingly chummy these days,
that has not always been the case. In fact, going back to the days
of Peter the Great and on through the 1970s and 1980s, the
relationship was often frosty.
In more recent times, the tension started with Stalin who was
uneasy about Mao becoming a potential Asian Tito. But as Mao
was launching his "Make a Hundred Flowers Bloom" campaign
in 1956, Nikita Khruschev, who had replaced Stalin, was
denouncing Stalin. Khruschev''s criticism was also seen as an
indirect slap at Mao and the Chinese Party.
In Mao''s "Flower" campaign, he had urged the intelligentsia to
speak out boldly against abuses in the bureaucracy or the Party.
Instead of polite criticism, however, it turned into a storm of
protest against the authorities, Communist ideology, and even
Marxism itself. Mao decided, "Never mind," and promptly had
hundreds of thousands dismissed from their posts and sent to
remote labour camps (where they were to be "reformed").
The Soviets harshly criticized Mao''s next venture, the "Great
Leap Forward" of 1958 and 1959, as ''adventurism'' and
''utopianism.'' Mao''s latest campaign was designed to rush China
into a truly ''Communist'' society (through higher levels of
collectivization and mass participation in industrial and
agricultural production). The break between the two countries
became final. All aid programmes were cancelled, Soviet
technicians were recalled from China, and Soviet assistance for
China''s nuclear bomb program was suspended as well. [China
finally exploded their first bomb in 1964]. The sudden
withdrawal of economic aid in 1960 came at a particularly
disastrous time as it fell during the catastrophic famine which
followed the Great Leap Forward (when up to 20 million may
By 1963, there were clashes along the border which would
escalate later on. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1967, Republican
presidential candidate Richard Nixon wrote a piece in "Foreign
Affairs." "We simply cannot afford to leave China forever
outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies,
cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on
this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people
to live in angry isolation."
Nixon had noted the signs of rising tension between the U.S.S.R.
and China, particularly in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of
Czechoslovakia. Soviet Communist Party boss, Leonid
Brezhnev, had initiated a new doctrine bearing his name which
stipulated that the U.S.S.R. reserved the right to intervene in
Communist states in order to preserve international Communism.
The Chinese and many of the Warsaw Pact nations were uneasy.
China feared they could be next. Upon his election in the fall of
1968, Nixon decided to take advantage of this by opening up
overtures to China and thus gaining leverage over the Soviets.
After Nixon''s inauguration in 1969, he sought a new era of
negotiation over one of confrontation with the superpowers.
Nixon thought he could get the Soviets to persuade North
Vietnam to make peace while at the same time he worked the
China angle. If his efforts failed, Nixon was worried that there
was a real possibility of a Sino-Soviet war, one that would most
likely go nuclear.
On March 2, 1969, serious clashes broke out along the Ussuri
River in Siberia which divided the Soviet Union and China. The
Soviets announced that 31 of their soldiers were killed. The
Chinese didn''t release their numbers but the figure was felt to be
high. After this first battle, Soviet diplomats in Washington
supplied detailed briefings of the Soviet version of events.
National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, was startled by the
unprecedented openness. The Soviets seemed to be inquiring as
to what the American attitude would be if these clashes
America had not indicated a particular concern which, Kissinger
said, "Caused us to ask ourselves whether the briefings might not
be designed to prepare the ground for a full-scale Soviet attack
on China." The skirmishes seemed to be taking place near major
Soviet supply bases and far from Chinese communications
centers. There was a relentless Soviet buildup along the entire
4,000 mile-length of the border. Kissinger writes in his book
"The application of the Brezhnev Doctrine to China would mean
that Moscow would try to make the government in Beijing as
submissive as Czechoslovakia''s had been obliged to become the
previous year." The world''s most populous nation would then be
subordinate to a nuclear superpower - an ominous combination
which would reestablish the dreaded Sino-Soviet bloc of the
The Nixon administration had to decide whether the U.S.S.R.
was capable of a full-scale attack on China. Regardless, they
couldn''t risk it, but at the same time, they needed to determine if
the Soviet Union and China were more afraid of each other than
they were of the U.S., which would present a huge opportunity
for the U.S. on the diplomatic front.
On March 15, 1969, the Soviets staged another attack on the
Ussuri River (actually it had never really been established who
fired the first shots on March 2nd). The Chinese refused a call on
March 21, from Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. Chinese leader
Chou En-lai later told Nixon that a Chinese "hot-line" operator,
"completely on his own, said to Kosygin, ''You''re a revisionist,
and therefore I will not connect you.''" Kosygin was not amused.
In April, the Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party
formally turned Beijing''s international policy line somewhat
away from hostility to the U.S. and toward "dual confrontation"
with Moscow and Washington. The Soviets thought the Chinese
were seeking rapprochement with the Americans.
In July, talks on the border dispute were held but the tensions
continued to grow. In June, the Soviets had moved bomber units
into Siberia and Mongolia and practiced attacks on simulated
Chinese nuclear facilities. A Sino-Soviet war involving nukes
In August of 1969, Nixon explained in a NSC meeting that the
Soviets were more aggressive than the Chinese and it would be
contrary to American interests to allow the Chinese to be
"smashed" in a Sino-Soviet war.
In September, the Chinese made a grudging gesture of limited
reconciliation with the Soviets. The death of North Vietnam''s
leader, Ho Chi Minh, was cause for a meeting between Chou En-
lai and Alexei Kosygin in Beijing, the first such encounter in 5
years. But Kosygin was not let out of the airport lounge (as
opposed to Nixon''s red carpet treatment a few years later).
Through diplomatic channels, Nixon now warned the Soviet
Union that the U.S. would not remain indifferent if it were to
attack China. Regardless of China''s attitude toward the U.S.,
Nixon considered China''s independence indispensable to the
global equilibrium, and deemed diplomatic contact with China
essential to the flexibility of American diplomacy. [Back
channel discussions had begun, leading to the eventual opening
to China in 1971-72].
On September 5, 1969, Nixon issued a statement that the U.S.
was "deeply concerned about a Sino-Soviet war."
"We don''t seek to exploit for our own advantage the hostility
between the Soviet Union and the People''s Republic.
Ideological differences between the two Communist giants are
not our affairs. We could not fail to be deeply concerned,
however, with an escalation of this quarrel into a massive breach
of international peace and security." Nixon, according to
Kissinger, was unique among American presidents in this
century by showing his preparedness to support a country with
which the U.S. had no diplomatic relations for twenty years.
Tensions between the Soviet Union and China did not ease for
years. But after Nixon''s trip to China in 1972, the Soviet Union
faced a challenge by NATO in the West, and China in the East.
Soviet pressures became risky as they threatened to accelerate
the Sino-American rapprochement. Once America had opened to
China, the Soviets best option was to seek its own relaxation
with the U.S. and soon Nixon and Brezhnev were meeting.
It should be noted, though, that relations between Moscow and
Beijing weren''t normalized until 1989.
[For more information on the Nixon / China gambit, you can
check the archives below].
Next week, a special report from Radio Free Europe / Radio
Liberty''s reporter, Paul Goble, on Russian President Vladimir
"Diplomacy" Henry Kissinger
"In the Arena" Richard Nixon
"One of Us" Tom Wicker
"The Oxford History of the 20th Century" Howard & Louis
"Twentieth Century" J.M. Roberts