The Cold War was a conflict defined by secrecy and propaganda. As such, it can be difficult to get an idea of what really happened during those tense years when the world stood on the brink of nuclear disaster. Perhaps a side effect of this is the perception among the American public that “Communism” was a vast, monolithic bloc that threatened to sweep the world. This thinking certainly informed American foreign policy at the time, leading the US to embroil troops in southeast Asian wars to contain the spread of Communism in those regions. However, despite the prevalence of this thinking, the reality was in fact far different. The Communist powers were not nearly as unified as Western powers would have believed. Perhaps the biggest and most potentially cracks in the monolith occurred between the Soviet Union and China in the late 1960’s. Known by the rather sterile moniker “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict,” this clash between Communists put the world on the brink of a nuclear war.
A clash with deep roots
The spark that lit the smoldering tensions between the Communist powers occurred on March 2, 1969, when Chinese troops attacked a Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island, located on the Ussuri River, the de facto border between the Soviet Union and China. Naturally, this attack did not come out of a vacuum. The boundary at the Ussuri River was established by the 1850 Treaty of Peking. This was only one of a series of treaties that, in the Chinese view, was a land grab by the Russians. By forcing China, who was weaker in the 19th century than many of the more technologically advanced European powers, to sign away its lands in a series of treaties, Tsarist Russia was able to bloodlessly conquer new territories. These lands were inherited by the Communists when they toppled the Tsarist regime. The Soviets, of course, wanted to keep these territories. They claimed that the Chinese had no legal claim to the river islands, that according to the Treaty of Peking, their side of the border was the riverbank on the Chinese side of the river.
China felt differently, but the river islands themselves were not the only issue (they were uninhabited and seen as pretty well useless of themselves). The Chinese saw the Soviets as becoming more and more aggressive. After all, they had invaded Czechloslovakia in 1968, and were massing troops along the Sino-Soviet border. The Soviets had embraced the Brezhnev Doctrine, which essentially stated that it was the duty of Communist powers to defend socialism against capitalist incursions (with some nice little clauses that gave the Soviet Union’s leadership the ability to define exactly what “socialism” and “capitalism” meant.) This was meant to justify the invasion of Czechloslovakia, but the Chinese saw it as meaning that the Soviets could intervene in the affairs of a Communist power whenever it so chose. The Chinese attacked the border post to show the Soviets that an attack on China would not end well for them.
For the Soviet’s part, they saw the border attack as an incursion into Soviet territory by a large, increasingly hostile neighbor. On March 15, the Communist nations clashed again at Zhenbao. It is not clear the size of the battle, but it was definitely a Soviet retaliation for the attack two weeks before. Little is known about the resulting battles in the months following, as both countries were very secretive and little archival evidence has been made available to the West on the matter.
On the brink
As battles raged on the border, the war of words escalated to terrifying levels. Moscow wanted peace, and tried to use strong arm tactics to get China to the negotiating table. Specifically, the Soviet Union threatened China with a nuclear attack, specifically aimed at its recently established nuclear facilities. China dismissed these threats as nothing but bluff and bluster, at least until August 27, when CIA Director Richard Helms went to the press. He reported that the Soviets had approached several foreign governments to see how they would respond to a Soviet nuclear strike on Chinese soil. America, for its part, basically decided to remain neutral in the conflict, fearing what a nuclear exchange or an all out war (or both) between China and the Soviet Union might mean for troops stationed in Vietnam.
However, the ruse worked out well for the Soviets. Chinese leadership began to take the Soviet threats seriously after the August 27 announcement. The next time the Soviets asked to negotiate, the Chinese agreed. Just in case the negotiations were some sort of a distraction that could cover up a nuclear sneak attack, Mao Zedong, dictator of Communist China, fled Beijing with his family. China’s nuclear forces, such as they were, went on full alert, the first and only time that has ever happened. Negotiations dragged on for years, but the military conflict between the countries ended.
The world came close to the brink during those tense months. While China did not have the nuclear capabilities of, say, the United States, even a relatively limited nuclear strike would have devastating effects on the environment and would have killed thousands of people. Furthermore, fallout knows no borders; there is no telling where the radiation would have landed. Worse, the conflict could have potentially dragged other powers into the fray, including the US, leading to a global war with unthinkable consequences. It would not have even taken an overt action on either side to trigger such a war. Everyone who had nukes had their fingers on the button in those years (which is, ironically enough, why the Soviets eventually built their doomsday device–to prevent itchy trigger fingers from ending the world), and it wouldn’t have taken a lot to force someone over the brink. A single misstep could have led to the extinction of the human race by its own hand, a species wide suicide.
Gerson, Michael S. “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict: Deterrence, Escalation, and the Threat of Nuclear War in 1969.” CNA Strategic Studies. November 2010. http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/D0022974.A2.pdf