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Halperin on Nuclear Weapons and the 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis

May 29, 2021 (EIRNS)—In 1958, the U.S. came closer to waging nuclear war against China than anybody outside the Eisenhower Administration or anyone for decades afterwards, realized.

Morton Halperin, the author of the still partially classified 1966 Rand Corporation study that was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg and recently highlighted by the New York Times, stressed in a May 26 interview with the National Security Archive at George Washington University that the U.S. military was so structured at the time that it would have had little choice but to use nuclear weapons at the outset of a conflict.

“As the documents I cite and quote make clear, the Administration labeled nuclear weapons as ‘conventional’ weapons, and what we know as ‘conventional’ weapons were called ‘obsolete iron bombs,’” he said. “U.S. military forces including those engaged in the Taiwan Straits were equipped and trained only to fight a nuclear war and had nuclear weapons on board and ready. As the Joint Chiefs kept reminding the President, they could only fight for a few hours without using nuclear weapons.”

When the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Eisenhower that the U.S. had to intervene immediately if the Chinese Communists attacked the Nationalist-held Quemoy Islands, he responded by authorizing the military to resist an invasion but not to use nuclear weapons without his permission, Halperin reported. The JCS again reminded him that once they started fighting they would quickly run out of “obsolete iron bombs” and would need to use nuclear weapons.

“Only the decision of the P.R.C. to curtail the bombardment of the islands and not to invade prevented a nuclear war,” Halperin said. “Thus, our nuclear doctrine and war plans were for early mandatory first use. The posture in my view was extraordinarily dangerous.”

Halperin pointed out that by the time he did his research, the policy had been fundamentally changed by John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Nuclear weapons were relabeled nuclear weapons and conventional weapons were once again called “conventional weapons.”

As for the relevance of that 1966 report, Halperin argued that the ambiguity of U.S. policy towards the defense of Taiwan remains the same as it was in 1958. “In 1958 the United States felt it had a choice as to whether to help Taiwan defend Quemoy,” he said. “Eisenhower made the decision to do so without consulting Congress or the public and appeared to be ready to use nuclear weapons. The offshore islands all remain under the control of Taiwan and the P.R.C. might well begin its offensive by seizing the islands.”

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