Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pontiac G8

I have been excited about the Pontiac G8 since the official word came that GM would be importing a left-hand drive version of its Australian subsidary's Holden Commodore to the United States as a Pontiac. This isn't the first time GM has played the Holden-as-Pontiac card: the 2004-06 Pontiac GTO was a thinly disguised Holden Monaro, a coupe version of the previous-generation Commodore. I lusted mightily after the Australian Goat; can the new Pontiac sports sedan with an Aussie accent inspire the same desire?

FIrst things first: the exterior. Pontiac has long billed itself the Excitement division of General Motors, and the slightly revised sheetmetal of the G8 - only the nose is different, everything else is pure Holden - is meant to reflect that. Unfortunately, twin fake hood scoops don't say "Excitement" to me. They say, "well, the styling department had to justify its existence somehow, and anyway it worked on the GTO, right? Right?" (Wrong.) Pontiac's trademark two-nostril grille is inoffensive enough, but on the whole, this is one Holden that could have done without a nose job. The rest of the body is muscular without being butch; it's aggressive but not menacing. Think of an Audi that's shed the curves by hitting the gym, or a BMW without Bangle and with biceps.

Pontiac certainly wants you to think Audi or BMW 5-series, at least to hear the salesman's pitch, and it's not far off: this is a big car, inside and out. It's five inches longer and two inches wider than a 5-series, and that translates into extra interior space - two more inches of shoulder room front and rear, plus one more inch of legroom front and 3.4 inches rear. That may not sound like much, but it means that four adults should be able to cover long distances in the G8 in comfort.

And covering long distances is what this car is all about. Although billed as a sports sedan, the G8 feels more like a grand tourer. While driving it, one phrase came to mind: effortless speed. GM offers buyers their choice of a 3.6-liter V-6 making 256 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque or a 6.0-liter V-8 making 361 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 model has a five-speed automatic transmission with a manumatic function; the V-8 gets six speeds, also with manumatic, although why you'd want a manumatic is anybody's guess. The sporting pretensions of the manumatic are just that, pretensions. If you want to be more involved with driving your car, get a manual transmission. Except you can't in the G8, at least not yet. My advice? Leave it in automatic mode, or wait for next year's GXP version, which will feature the Corvette's 402-hp LS3 engine and a six-speed manual.

As for the engine, I drove a V-6 model and can't imagine needing anything more: on the highway, the car rocketed to 88 mph without any serious encouragement, and would have kept going had I not a) realized how fast I was going, and b) decided discretion was the better part of valor. (As the salesman warned me, any tickets are your own.) On a winding back road, the car maintained speeds close to 70mph, again without any serious prodding. While I didn't get a chance to wring it out on a mountain road, the big rear-drive Pontiac felt poised and in control at all times over the curves I did take. As I said: effortless speed.

Almost too effortless. The Pontiac G8 is big, comfortable, and fast, a fine highway cruiser that handles well on the interstate, in the city, and over winding roads. It eats up the miles quickly and quietly, never breathing hard even at extra-legal speeds. It's not a car in which you can really explore the limits, at least not on public roads - it's just too easy to drive it fast.

And therein lies the problem, one the G8 shares with many modern cars: while the V-8 offers an extra hundred horses for less than three grand more, even the V-6 model has more power than you'll ever really use without becoming the star of "World's Scariest Police Chases." Sure, the G8 is a nice car, and at around $30,000 nicely equipped - $15,000 less than the BMW 5-series it's targeting - the Pontiac is a steal. But as a wise man once said, it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. The G8 is a fast car, a good car, and in its segment it's a bargain - but if Driving Excitement is what you're after, the G8 may not be your car. If, on the other hand, you're after a capable highway cruiser that can haul the passengers and the mail, if you want something a little out of the ordinary, if you want something with an accent that isn't German, Pontiac has your Holden.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

God's will

I want God's will and mine to converge. That's hard to say with a fully genuine heart, because what we usually really want, deep down, is for God's will to converge with ours - not the other way around. We want what we want and we hope God will give it to us.

I guess recognizing that is about as much as we can do. I don't know how to get to a state where I really completely want God's will, not mine, for my life. Human beings aren't good at submission. We're a stubborn, stiff-necked people, all of us. Strong-willed.

I guess a good start might be to realize that my life isn't really mine. It's like the rest of the world, like the rest of the things I have - it's on loan from God. He gave it to me to do something with. What exactly that is, I don't know. Maybe I ought to get on with finding out. I don't know how to do that either, but I pray He'll help me in that. I'm pretty sure He will.

So much of this comes back to the what God asked Job. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" I wasn't there. I don't know what it's all about. Why are we here? Couldn't say.

But Job answers God with an affirmation of faith in God, His wisdom, and His purpose. "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted." If God has a plan for my life - and I believe that He does - then it will be fulfilled. My job, in the constant tension that exists between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, is not to screw it up.

A while back I prayed this prayer: "Be with me, Lord, and let me also be with you." A voice answered and said, "That's what I've been waiting to hear." It's an imperfect way of submitting to the will of God - but you can get there from here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I like airplanes. Maybe it's because I grew up around them. I built a couple of model airplanes when I was a kid, and I used to play with cast metal airplanes called Dyna-Flites. Dozens of model airplanes hung from the ceiling of the hobby shop where I spent a lot of Saturdays - a B-17 and B-52 with the X-15 hanging from its wing stand out in my memory. There were plenty of airplanes in the news, too: I was ten years old when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The F-117 was all over the news, but so were the F-15E Strike Eagles and A-10 Warthogs that came from local Air Force bases. And I read some aviation books in my early years too - the late, great Martin Caidin's Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38, about Lockheed's magnificent World War II fighter, and Zero, which Caidin co-wrote with one of that Japanese fighter's designers and one of the Imperial Navy's surviving staff officers. Another outstanding book was John Comer's Combat Crew, which was part diary and part memoir, the story of a B-17 gunner/flight engineer and the men he flew and fought with.

I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and daydreaming about airplanes as a child, and today I still like them. I enjoy visiting aviation museums and talking to the people who flew and maintained them. My favorite part of the Smithsonian is the National Air & Space Museum. I think the World War II gallery at the museum on the Mall is a magnificent study in the contrasts between the characters of five countries, as expressed through the design of the fighter aircraft on display there. I think the Supermarine Spitfire is a work of art, the most beautiful aircraft ever to take wing. I think the aircraft carrier is one of the most remarkable organizations ever devised by man - a triumph of technology, seamanship, airmanship, leadership, and plain hard work. I love the things and I admire the people who make them work.

But I hate flying. I don't exactly know why, but there's something absolutely terrifying about being in a pressurized aluminum can winging through the airy nothingness. Takeoffs are the worst. Once I get to altitude the terror subsides - a certain fatalism sets in. I'm stuck there and there's nothing I can do about it. Besides, there's also not much going on; you're just cruising along. And I love landings. Nothing becomes a flight like the safe end of it.

I think it's probably the lack of control. I know that, statistically, air travel is safer than driving. But I can drive a car, and as a driver, I have the illusion that I can avoid all the dangers out there. Plus, if it breaks down, I can pull over. Can't do that in an airplane. It's the same with rail travel. I'm not in as much control as if I were driving, but I also know that it's safer than driving - or flying. It also has other rewards, like the chance to enjoy the scenery and chat with people you never met before and will probably never meet again. There's a social aspect to traveling by train that other modes are missing.

I'd probably feel better about the whole flying thing if they gave me a parachute. Illusions are important. Of control, of safety - when dealing with irrational (or even completely rational) fears, illusions are a great shield against the unknown. And the known, too, come to that.

I have to fly tomorrow. It's the cheapest, quickest, most sensible option for where and when I have to go.

Still, on the whole, I think I'd rather walk.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Tomorrow, I graduate from college.

It doesn't seem real to me. I mean, college has been the greatest ten years of my life. How can something that's taken so long be over?

Even when you count down the days, when you check off the papers to be written and the finals to be taken, when you see it coming from a long way off...when all of a sudden you've done everything on the list and all that's left is to walk across the stage...what do you do?

Ten years. That's a long time. A decade of missteps, starts and stops, narrow escapes and near-misses, and finally...The Day.

I don't know what tomorrow is going to be like. I don't know what the future holds. This is something I've wanted for a long time, and now it's here, and now, at the moment of attainment, I almost feel a sense of loss. I guess that's true of any long journey. There's a destination in mind when you set out, and when you get there, well, it's what you've been working for, isn't it?

Or was the journey the thing all along?

I guess I have to take comfort in the fact that, even though this journey will end tomorrow, another one will begin when I step off that stage. I don't know what it is, or where it will take me. The goals I have now are only dimly perceived, and I know that they will change. If there's anything I've learned from these last ten years, it's that you don't end up where you expect. Your life never follows the script you wrote for it. It always changes.

And that's okay. I will step out into the world unafraid. One journey ends, another begins: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Proliferation versus Non-Proliferation: China and the United States, 1955-1964

Proliferation versus Non-Proliferation: China and the United States, 1955-1964

by Theodore Leverett


On October 16, 1964, at a place called Lop Nor in the Tien Shan mountains of northwestern China, the People’s Republic of China initiated its first nuclear device. Called “Device 596,” it was a U-235 fission device with a yield estimated at 20-22 kilotons. The test represented the culmination of a decade of effort by Chinese nuclear scientists to produce a nuclear weapon. It also represented the end of American efforts to prevent China from joining the nuclear club - efforts that, had events unfolded differently, might have taken the form of preemptive war.

Why did China go nuclear? Why was the United States unable to prevent China from going nuclear? More specifically, why did the United States not execute any of the preemption options it contemplated in the early 1960s? What forces led to China’s decision to develop nuclear weapons, and what forces kept the United States from stopping them?

As the United States faces would-be proliferators, present and future, it is important to understand both Chinese and American actions during this period. China had a particular set of reasons for developing a nuclear capability; the United States had a particular set of reasons for pursuing a non-proliferation policy with respect to China. Other forces acted on the United States in shaping the specific non-proliferation strategies taken - or not taken - during this period. In order to understand how future proliferators will act, and how the United States will act toward them, it is necessary to understand the causes both of Chinese proliferation and of the American failure to prevent Chinese proliferation.

The primary motives for Chinese nuclear proliferation appear to have been security-oriented, strongly influenced by Communist China’s essentially realist outlook on the world as what Robert Cooper would call a modern state and informed by early expressions of deterrence theory. Normative factors - principally prestige - appear to have played a distinctly secondary role. It is unclear to what, if any, extent domestic political considerations influenced China’s nuclear decision. Chinese nuclear proliferation appears to have been driven entirely by demand: China got nuclear weapons because it wanted them. Supply-side reasons do not appear to have had any role whatsoever; indeed, China continued to pursue its nuclear program even after considerable difficulties in the supply of nuclear technology and material arose.

The primary motives for American non-proliferation policies toward China were similar to the Chinese proliferation policy. They were security-oriented and influenced by the United States’ essentially realist outlook on the world as a modern state. The specific decision not to launch a preemptive war to prevent China from acquiring nuclear weapons - inasmuch as there was a specific decision - appears to have had multiple causes; there are both security-oriented and normative explanations for why the United States ultimately did not preempt China’s nuclear program: the United States did not go to war with China because what the United States stood to gain in security was a great deal less than what it might lose, both in security and in normative terms. The United States decided that, for security reasons, it should not bomb China; but even had it decided that it should, it may be that the United States could not bomb China because of the political costs of preemption - both at home and abroad.

Theoretical Approaches

If both China and the United States were modern states during these years, it is necessary to understand the nature of a modern state. To Robert Cooper, modern states are power maximizers of the old school; they exist in a world in which “power and raison d’etat are the things that matter...[T]his is the world of the calculus of interests and forces” (Cooper, 22). Their behavior is driven, at least theoretically, by the national interest and nothing more. The national interest of a modern state is, in turn, “defined by...security problems in a world of fundamentally predatory states” (Cooper, 38). Moreover, for a modern state, “success entails managing the balance of power” (Cooper, 76). Thus, a modern state can be expected to act in ways that serve the national interest, managing the balance of power in a way that maximizes its own power - and minimizes that of others.

Security considerations may play a specific role in the decision to acquire nuclear weapons. William Epstein describes several possible security motives related to nuclear proliferation, all revolving around the need to gain military superiority or deny it to an enemy or potential enemy: “problems of military security are paramount questions for all governments...defense based on military force is the customary preferred path” (Epstein, 17). That is, if nuclear weapons are the most effective solution to a security problem, a state can be expected to go nuclear.

Scott Sagan’s argument about the nature of security-oriented proliferation is more fundamental: “Because of the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons, any state that seems to maintain its national security must balance against any rival state that develops nuclear weapons by gaining access to a nuclear deterrent itself” (Sagan, 57). That is, any modern state with a nuclear neighbor can be expected to go nuclear itself, provided it has the ability to do so. Specific security considerations such as those described by Epstein may be convenient rationalizations, but the existence of a nuclear neighbor is by itself sufficient reason to go nuclear. A nuclear capability is a nuclear threat. This applies equally to nuclear states and non-nuclear states; a nuclear capability may provide a proliferation motive for a non-nuclear state, but a nuclear program may also provide a non-proliferation motive for a nuclear state.

One form of response to the security threat posed by nuclear weapons is, as both Epstein and Sagan observe, the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent force. Nuclear weapons may be acquired as a means of preventing nuclear attack on the vital interests of a state. To states which view deterrence as robust, even a small number of nuclear weapons is sufficient: “deterrence is achieved with the very first deployments of nuclear weapons” (Lewis, 7). This concept of “minimum deterrence” may thus help shape the decision to proliferate.

A particularly important normative explanation for nuclear proliferation is the international prestige associated with a nuclear capability. “[T]he acquisition of nuclear weapons and the technology for making them enhance[s] a nation’s prestige and status in the world” (Epstein, 21). Possessing nuclear weapons is the key to great power status; thus, a country seeking great power status can be expected to pursue nuclear weapons. Put another way, to be a nuclear power is to matter; to be non-nuclear is to be irrelevant.

Normative causes also help to explain why certain non-proliferation policies are taken. Nina Tannenwald describes the development of a “nuclear taboo” after World War II. “Driven by a growing fear of nuclear war and a general sense of revulsion regarding nuclear weapons...the anti-nuclear weapons movement contributed to the formation of a taboo” against the use of nuclear weapons” (Tannenwald, 21-22). This taboo inhibited the exercise of one option for dealing with Chinese nuclear proliferation.

The nuclear taboo was only one taboo against the use of force. There is a long-standing principle that diplomacy is preferable to war; after World War II, this was further enshrined through the formation of the United Nations and the development of a set of international norms regarding the use of force. Tannenwald’s “general sense of revulsion” applied not only to nuclear weapons, but to war in general.

While the UN Charter recognizes the use of force self-defense as an inherent right, it is less clear exactly how self-defense should be defined, limiting the cases in which the use of force could be legitimized. The rise of collective security institutions such as the UN and NATO further muddied the waters by giving preference to multilateralism over unilateralism. Thus, it became increasingly difficult to justify the use of force after World War II; the new international norms that arose in the postwar era placed new taboos on how and when force could be used, influencing the American choice of non-proliferation strategies. These taboos, as will be seen, could apply not only to international politics, but also to domestic politics.

It is a rare policy decision that has only one cause. Multicausality is the rule, and where there are multiple causes, there must be multiple explanations; and where there are multiple explanations, there will be interactions, overlaps, and the occasional gap. Thus, these explanations have some weaknesses.

The assumption that modern states will act with a single-minded dedication to security interests works only in a vacuum; it makes no allowance for normative factors. Machiavelli notwithstanding, states do not always go by the book. Normative factors such as international prestige, taboos against the use of force, and norms regarding the nature of legitimate uses of force may not completely fill the gaps left by security theories; domestic politics may also play a role, and it is often unclear to observers - particularly to outside observers, and more particularly to outside observers of closed societies such as Communist China was during this period - what those roles may be. Nevertheless, these approaches do a great deal to explain the story of Chinese nuclear proliferation and American non-proliferation efforts vis-à-vis Communist China.

Chinese Nuclear Proliferation

While much contemporary thinking views China as the next superpower, the industrializing economic powerhouse that is modern China is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1950s, China had suffered a decade of invasion and humiliation at the hands of other powers, ranging from the British and the Opium Wars to a series of clashes with Japan, culminating in Japan’s full-scale invasion of China beginning in 1937. Concurrent with the Sino-Japanese War was a low-level civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government and Communist rebels under Mao Zedong following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Chinese Civil War turned into a full-scale conflict that did not end on the mainland until 1949. The very next year, China intervened in the Korean War, bringing itself into direct conflict with the United States.

Chinese intervention and the ensuing stalemate in Korea led to the first nuclear crisis between China and the United States. The United States contemplated and rejected the use of nuclear weapons against China during the early stages of the Chinese intervention; China may not have been aware of these discussions. However, in early 1953, as armistice negotiations dragged on, the United States gave more serious consideration to the use of nuclear weapons - or at least to the threat of nuclear weapons - as a means of either breaking the military stalemate or forcing the Chinese to sign an armistice. However, “Washington...never clearly warned the Chinese that the United States could and would use nuclear weapons against them. The Chinese never knew that the United States possessed tactical nuclear weapons, and they never detected the deployment of these weapons to the Far East” (Zhang, 150.) Even so, China had discounted the possibility, “consider[ing]...the use of nuclear weapons impossible because of the pressure of world opinion and the threat of Soviet retaliation” (Zhang, 133). The Korean armistice would be achieved by conventional means.

The next nuclear crisis arose soon after the end of the Korean War. Chiang’s Nationalist government had survived by retreating to Taiwan, and in 1954 the first Taiwan Straits crisis blew up over the Nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which China . This time, American security guarantees to the Nationalist government threatened to bring Communist China and the United States into direct conflict once again. As the crisis developed, in March 1955 the United States made its first overt nuclear threat, warning that it viewed nuclear weapons as “interchangeable with conventional weapons” (Zhang, 213). Further pointed comments made by US officials got the point across; in April the Communist government backed down.

Some writers trace the Chinese decision to go nuclear to the Straits crisis and the American nuclear threats of March-April 1955. However, Jeffrey Lewis writes that “the actual decision seems to have been undertaken earlier at a meeting, in January 1955, that Mao Zedong convened to consider the question of nuclear weapons” (Lewis, 55-56). The Chinese nuclear program enjoyed substantial Soviet assistance until 1959, when the Soviet Union cut off nuclear assistance amid worsening relations between Moscow and Beijing. A year later, the Soviets withdrew all advisors from China.

The loss of Soviet assistance and “the turmoil of the Great Leap Forward” (Lewis, 58) complicated Chinese efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The Chinese were forced to temporarily abandon efforts to build a plutonium reactor, so that all early Chinese nuclear devices were fueled by uranium. (China would not test a thermonuclear device until 1968.) In spite of these difficulties, the Chinese nuclear program continued, culminating with the test of Device 596 at Lop Nor in October 1964.

Explaining Chinese Proliferation

Why did China pursue a nuclear capability? The classical security-oriented explanations would expect China to initiate nuclear development immediately upon being threatened by a nuclear power - that is, China should have begun developing nuclear weapons no later than March 1955, when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons in defense of Taiwan, and preferably earlier. It is obvious from the immediate actions to calm the crisis taken by China that they took these threats seriously. However, we know that China had taken the basic decision to become a nuclear power two months before. How to explain this?

There is some evidence to suggest that Chinese leaders were interested in acquiring nuclear weapons prior to the decision to go ahead with a nuclear program. At that meeting in January 1955, Mao commented that “in the past...there had not been enough time for us to pay attention to this matter...now, it is time” (Zhang, 232). It is therefore uncertain whether the Straits crisis - even prior to American nuclear threats - was the proximate cause of Chinese nuclear proliferation.

There is also evidence that, whether or not they believed that the United States would use nuclear weapons in Korea, the Chinese had considered the possibility (Lewis, 57). As a modern state, China could be expected to act in accordance with its security interests. Because of the strong American military presence in Asia and the history of direct conflict between China and the United States, for all intents and purposes, the United States was China’s nuclear-armed rival. Thus China’s decision to go nuclear was entirely predictable under Sagan’s security model: “any state that seeks to maintain its national security must balance against any rival state that develops nuclear weapons by gaining access to a nuclear deterrent itself” (Sagan, 57).

China had specific security goals that fit Epstein’s criteria for nuclear proliferation. One of these - “to achieve a greater degree of military independence without having to rely on the support of one or more nuclear powers” (Epstein, 18) - appears especially prescient in light of the Sino-Soviet split that took place while China was developing its nuclear capability. In the anarchical state system occupied by modern states, no ally can truly be relied upon; modernist China was fully prepared to deal with that eventuality. “Access to a nuclear deterrent” is not enough. A state must have its own.

Another security goal may have been the most important of all. In announcing its first nuclear test in October 1964, the Beijing government released a statement which said, in part: “China is developing nuclear weapons for defense and for protecting the Chinese people from US threats to launch a nuclear war. The Chinese government hereby solemnly declares that China never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” (Lewis, 60).

On the face of it, this statement appears to link Chinese nuclear proliferation directly with US nuclear threats. Given that we know the decision to develop nuclear weapons was taken prior to any direct US nuclear threat, it is difficult to take this statement at full face value; nevertheless, it indicates that the existence of a US nuclear arsenal was enough to justify a nuclear program, while later direct threats may have been enough to sustain the program. More importantly, this statement established the Chinese nuclear force as fundamentally deterrent in nature- a statement given additional credence by the no-first-use pledge. China, battered by a century of weakness and war and threatened by the existence of (by 1964) two direct rivals armed with nuclear weapons, perceived its fundamental security interest in terms any kind of state could understand: “it is the essential business of a state to protect its citizens from invasion” (Cooper, 38). Given the subsequent development of Chinese nuclear forces and doctrine as detailed in Lewis, there is no reason to believe that the Chinese declaration of 1964 was not essentially true. China built nuclear weapons primarily in the belief that deterrence was strong and that a “minimum deterrent” was sufficient to protect the country from invasion or attack.

There is also a normative explanation for Chinese nuclear proliferation. It may be that Communist China decided to pursue nuclear weapons in order to enhance its international prestige. In the 1950s Communist China was an international pariah, recognized as the legitimate government of China only by its fellow Communist countries and a few non-aligned states. Most states, including the United States, continued to recognize Chiang’s Nationalist government - officially the Republic of China - as the legitimate government of all China. Perhaps the weightiest single piece of evidence of the higher regard in which Nationalist China was held was the fact that Chiang’s government continued to occupy China’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. If, as Epstein argues, “states possessing [nuclear] arms are given greater weight in the entire range of foreign policy matters...and their views are treated with greater respect” (Epstein, 21), it may be that Beijing’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons was an attempt to gain international recognition as the legitimate government of China.

American Non-Proliferation Policy Toward China

It is not clear when the United States first became aware that China was pursuing a nuclear capability. Although the Eisenhower administration had some knowledge of its existence, “when the Kennedy administration came to power, the United States’ knowledge about Beijing’s nuclear progress remained heavily conjectural” (Burr and Richelson, 59). There were also serious difficulties in gathering intelligence; American reconnaissance aircraft had difficulty reaching the remote areas of western China in which China’s nuclear facilities were located, while satellites were not available until 1960. Other sources of intelligence were limited. Difficulties in gathering intelligence about Chinese nuclear facilities would remain a common problem throughout the early 1960s.

President Kennedy “found the prospect of a nuclear China disquieting” (Burr and Richelson, 60). At the Vienna summit with Soviet premier Khrushchev in June 1961, Kennedy mentioned a nuclear China as a potential problem, but the Soviets seemed unconcerned. The following year, partly in the hope that it “might somehow prevent the Chinese from developing their atomic weapons” (Chang, 1291), Kennedy revived negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear testing. If the four existing nuclear powers signed, Kennedy believed, “the result would be the end of nuclear proliferation since...no additional country could develop a bomb without testing” (Chang, 1292). Kennedy further hoped that the Soviets would pressure China to join the treaty regime. However, those hopes foundered on rocks of the Sino-Soviet split; although the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on the Partial Test Ban Treaty during the summer of 1963, the Sino-Soviet split meant that Moscow no longer had any influence on Beijing. Thus, although Kennedy got his treaty, he did not achieve the primary goal he had intended the treaty to accomplish: the prevention of Chinese nuclear proliferation.

Even while the test ban treaty negotiations were ongoing, Kennedy was considering other means of preventing China from developing nuclear weapons. In February 1963 the administration requested a Joint Chiefs of Staff study on “the possibility of using ‘persuasion, pressure, or coercion’ to induce China to sign a test ban treaty” (Burr and Richelson, 68). The options laid out by the JCS in April included a variety of indirect and direct measures; the direct measures ranged from covert operations to conventional or nuclear attack on Chinese nuclear facilities. These measures might “be taken unilaterally or by allies, or with the active or tacit support of the Soviet Union” (Burr and Richelson, 68).

While US envoy Averill Harriman was in Moscow in July 1963 negotiating the Partial Test Ban Treaty, he again raised the specter of a nuclear China as a threat to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev again showed no concern.

With the Soviets disinterested, in September 1963 the United States began discussing the possibility of direct action against Beijing’s nuclear program with Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government on Taiwan. These discussions were apparently at the instigation of the Nationalist government, which was “concerned that a nuclear-armed China would end any hopes for a return to the mainland” (Burr and Richelson, 72). On this occasion, President Kennedy dealt directly with Chiang Kai-Shek’s song, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was visiting Washington; the outcome was an agreement “to establish a [joint US-ROC] planning group to study the feasibility of attacks by Nationalist [commandoes] against nuclear sites” (Burr and Richelson, 73). What, if anything, this planning group accomplished is unknown.

American interest in joint action with the Soviets continued. Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko visited the United States a few weeks after the talks with Chiang Ching-kuo, but it is unclear whether joint action was discussed.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was much less inclined to do anything about Chinese nuclear proliferation, thanks in large part to the work of Robert Johnson, a staffer on the State Department’s Policy Planning Council. Robert Johnson’s study of the Chinese nuclear program, which began circulating in draft form shortly before Kennedy’s death but probably never reached his desk, argued that “the Chinese wanted a nuclear force to deter an attack on their territory and were unlikely to change their essentially prudent, risk-averse policy” (Burr and Richelson, 77). To Robert Johnson, the Chinese nuclear program was not a particular threat to the United States. The Johnson administration accepted this view.

The United States thus took no steps to block Chinese proliferation for most of 1964. However, on September 25, 1964, with intelligence warning that a Chinese nuclear test was imminent, Assistant Secretary of State McGeorge Bundy again broached the subject of what to do about the Chinese nuclear program, this time with Soviet ambassador Dobrynin. Again, the Soviets were unconcerned; the ambassador “implicitly took a Chinese nuclear capability ‘for granted.’ He argued that Chinese nuclear weapons had ‘no importance against the Soviet Union or against the US’” (Burr and Richelson, 88).

Three weeks later, China tested Device 596. A flurry of public outcry and studies followed, but no action was seriously considered. Non-proliferation had failed; China was a nuclear power.

Explaining American Non-Proliferation Policy Toward China

Why did America choose a diplomatic approach to non-proliferation? Why did the United States choose not to take direct action - to fight a preemptive war? For that matter, why did the United States pursue a policy of non-proliferation at all?

In its basic decision to pursue non-proliferation, the United States acted as Cooper would expect a modern state to act. Modern states attempt to maximize their power; if nuclear proliferation is a path to power, then it is in the interest of a nuclear state to prevent other powers from gaining that power - to maintain a nuclear monopoly. It was a nuclear monopoly that the United States was tacitly trying to maintain by negotiating a test ban treaty; it was a nuclear monopoly that China was expressly trying to break by developing nuclear weapons: “China’s aim is to break the nuclear monopoly of the nuclear powers” (Lewis, 60).

The United States also had specific security goals in mind when it came to non-proliferation policies. Kennedy was very concerned about Chinese aims; he “saw a Chinese nuclear test ‘as likely to be historically the most significant and worst even of the 1960s’” (Burr and Richelson, 60-61). Specifically, Kennedy was concerned that “a nuclear China could only weaken Washington’s influence in [Asia] and its capabilities to intervene on behalf of allies there” (Burr and Richelson, 61). A nuclear China might replace the United States as the dominant regional power in Asia; it was therefore in the United States’ interest to prevent China from going nuclear. When the United States concluded, through the work of Robert Johnson, that the Chinese nuclear program was not actually a threat to US interests, it abandoned non-proliferation efforts. By 1964, there were no longer any perceived security interests strong enough to result in sustain a non-proliferation policy toward China.

However, a modern state should do more than talk - it should act. Why did the United States not preempt the Chinese nuclear program? There were normative forces which acted to constrain American non-proliferation activities. The taboo against the use of nuclear weapons effectively ruled out nuclear strikes on Chinese nuclear facilities; the Eisenhower administration might have been able to say in 1955 that it viewed nuclear weapons as no different from conventional weapons, but the Kennedy administration could not.

The reluctance to act unilaterally against the Chinese nuclear program - manifested in such extreme ideas as a plan for a joint Soviet-American nuclear strike on Chinese nuclear facilities - is a product of another normative force, that of multilateral action. During the Cold War, the United States worked to achieve its security goals through collective security institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, and a series of bilateral defense agreements worldwide. By the early 1960s, the United States had developed a taboo against unilateralism that inhibited it from acting alone to prevent China from going nuclear.

This taboo against unilateralism was reinforced by a general taboo against the use of force. It is unclear what, if any, role was played by international law and whether the United States ever contemplated consulting the United Nations. However, for all the studies conducted by the Kennedy administration, the United States never actually used force to prevent Chinese proliferation. It is, of course, unknowable whether Kennedy would have gone ahead with the use of force, perhaps in concert with Nationalist China, had he not been assassinated. There is a bias toward the use of diplomacy prior to the use of force; whether Kennedy would have concluded that diplomacy had failed and force was necessary is, again, unknowable. However, it does seem clear that the delay bought time - time for China to build its nuclear weapon and time for the United States to decide that Chinese non-proliferation was not actually a vital American interest.

Finally, domestic political concerns may also have played a role in the American decision not to preempt. In 1964, while China was drawing close to a nuclear capability, Lyndon Johnson was trying to win an election. “In the heat of the campaign, with Johnson running on a ‘peace platform’ against the hawkish Goldwater, the last thing he wanted to contemplate was any military action against China, with all the risks that involved” (Burr and Richelson, 88). Even had Robert Johnson’s study concluded that China was a threat, the Johnson administration might have chosen to do nothing, at least until after the election was safely won.


Systemic explanations - that is, security reasons - go far in explaining why China developed nuclear weapons. Fundamentally, China went nuclear because it was threatened. The existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of an enemy made nuclear proliferation a Chinese imperative; the decision to go nuclear and the shape that nuclear force took were both driven primarily by security considerations. It is unclear to what extent normative forces may have played a role; some, such as prestige, can be inferred, but others, such as possible internal political struggles, are unknown. Communist China was a closed society in the 1950s, and certain aspects of its political history remain closed to this day.

Systemic explanations help understand why the United States pursued, and eventually abandoned, a non-proliferation policy toward China. They do not, however, explain why the United States did not act. They tend to expect action. The lack of action is explicable, instead, by normative factors. The United States took its particular approach to non-proliferation because of its identity as a Western democracy which values diplomacy and collective action over war (especially nuclear war) and unilateralism. Normative and security motives combined to yield the decision to do nothing.

While every proliferator is unique, China is perhaps more unique than the rest. China was the first nuclear power to adopt a no-first-use policy and the first to adopt theories of minimum deterrence. Her motives for joining the nuclear club appear markedly different from those of other nuclear powers, both before and after 1964. In many respects, China is a nuclear anomaly. Understanding the motives behind Chinese nuclear proliferation may help understand other would-be proliferators, both present and future. If we understand the motives of would-be proliferators, we may be better able to understand how to prevent them from proliferating - or at least decide whether we can live with their nuclear programs.

Understanding how the United States acted in attempting to prevent Chinese proliferation is equally useful to the would-be proliferator. By understanding the ways in which the United States is likely to respond to proliferation attempts, a would-be proliferator can carefully manage its proliferation so as to prevent the United States from taking effective action against it. It should be noted that the United States has learned a great deal about non-proliferation since this, its first serious attempt to prevent a state from going nuclear; even so, the careful would-be proliferator can take lessons in how to use American norms to its advantage. Likewise, the American non-proliferation experience with China holds lessons on how not to execute a non-proliferation policy.

In the end, China got what it wanted from its nuclear program: security. Communist China’s nuclear deterrent has helped guarantee Chinese security for more than 40 years. The prestige associated with its nuclear capability may have contributed to eventual US recognition of the Beijing government and its replacement of Nationalist China on the UN Security Council. For China, this story has a happy ending.

The story is not as pleasant for the United States. Kennedy worried that, once China went nuclear, other Asian governments would follow. It can be argued that the loss of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to Communist regimes, with the consequent millions of deaths, can be traced to the increased influence of a nuclear-armed Communist China. The ineffectiveness of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in preventing Chinese proliferation may be seen as a prelude to the ineffectiveness of the Johnson administration in fighting the Vietnam War.

In 1964, China successfully overcame the opposition of the United States to become a nuclear power. Forty years later, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to achieve the same goal. It remains to be seen which is the exception and which is the rule.

Works Cited

Burr, William, and Jeffrey T. Richelson. “Whether to ‘strangle the baby in the cradle’: the United States and the Chinese nuclear program, 1960-64.” International Security, vol.25, no.3 (Winter 2000-2001), 54-99.

Chang, Gordon H. “JFK, China, and the bomb.” The Journal of American History, vol.74, no.4 (March 1988), 1287-1310.

Cooper, Robert. The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the 21st Century. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Epstein, William. “Why states go and don’t go nuclear.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol.430, no.1 (1977), 16-28.

Lewis, Jeffrey. The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age. MIT Press, 2007.

Sagan, Scott. “Why do states build nuclear weapons? Three models in search of a bomb.” International Security, vol.21, no.3 (Winter 1996-1997), 54-86.

Tannenwald, Nina. “Stigmatizing the bomb: origins of the nuclear taboo.” International Security, Spring 2005, 5-49.

Zhang, Shu Guang. Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-1958. Cornell University Press, 1993.