Nuclear Attack On Chinese Airbases: How US Used India To Threaten Communist China During The Korean War

Media reports published late last year suggested that China may have amassed more nuclear warheads than the US. There was an indication that China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads had surpassed 400 in a surprisingly short period.

Further, a key US Pentagon report on ‘China’s Military Power,’ also published last year, emphasized that the Chinese were accelerating their nuclear expansion on a war footing and predicted that Beijing could amass around 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 if the growth continues at the same pace.

According to American assessments, China is believed to possess 300 ICBMs and ICBM launchers. Yet, it is unknown how many nuclear warheads China actually has.

In an unusual move, China attacked the US report but chose not to answer the criticisms of its nuclear program, leaving room for uncertainty and concern, as noted by EurAsian Times.

Although this seems like one of the many reports that attest to China’s massive military modernization and growth, it was not always this easy for Beijing. Perhaps because of the rapid modernization of China’s military over the past 20 years, many people forget a time when the country was at risk of a nuclear assault.

China was first threatened by the possibility of a nuclear assault years before it developed its nuclear bomb. China and Russia entered a covert deal in 1951 whereby China supplied Uranium ores in exchange for Soviet assistance in nuclear technology.

In the late 1950s, China started working on nuclear weapons with significant Soviet aid.

The Soviet Union withheld atomic bomb plans and data and removed its advisors when Sino-Soviet relations soured in the late 1950s and early 1960s. China vowed to continue developing nuclear weapons despite the Soviet Union’s help ceasing.

In the 1960s, China made significant strides toward developing nuclear weapons. China detonated its first nuclear device on October 16, 1964.

However, by this time, the country had already braved a looming nuclear threat in the wake of the Korean War, when the newly established Communist China stood on the side of North Korea while the US put its weight behind South Korea.

Minuteman III Missiles

How The US Nuclear Weapons Threatened China?

To help the embattled North Korean forces that were being forced back by the US and its allies in October 1950, Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung ordered 300,000 PLA troops to cross the border into North Korea.

In November of that same year, the Chinese launched a massive counterattack on the allies, dashed any chances of a speedy conclusion to the war, and raised the possibility that the Korean War could spark a larger conflict. The entry of the Chinese military into this war changed its course and outcome forever.

The Soviet Union had already conducted its first nuclear test in 1949. With a first-mover advantage, the US was the only country at the time that could transport nuclear bombs over great distances.

Famous US Army General and World War II hero Douglas MacArthur, who was in charge of the allied troops in Korea, made a case for attacking China. In addition to attacking Chinese bases and factories in Manchuria, which supported the war effort in North Korea, he also intended to employ nuclear weapons in the struggle.

An explosive interview released after the death of MacArthur revealed that the General claimed that he would have dropped “30 or so atomic bombs… strung across the neck of Manchuria” to reach the end of the prolonged Korean War quickly.

Historians claim that MacArthur even wished for the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek (of the Republic of China/Taiwan) to invade the mainland and start a revolution against the fledgling Communist government.

However, Harry Truman, the then US president, disagreed with MacArthur’s requests, as he believed this could worsen the conflict. Truman fired MacArthur in April 1951, to the entire world’s shock. The US refused to abandon the possibility of using nuclear weapons even after MacArthur left.

Truman, and his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower, mentioned nuclear weapons as a possible option to force an end to the Korean War. Interestingly, the possibility of a nuclear assault was communicated to China through an Asian country that today remains in a perpetual state of border conflict with it.

India, the flag bearer of non-alignment and the crusader of peace in the Korean War emerged as the chosen one. This seemed more sensible given New Delhi’s role in trying to convince China to drop hostilities and come across the US on the negotiating table.

India was among the first nations in Asia to recognize the Communist state as it had cordial relations with the Communist Party of China, despite the Tibet and Xinjiang annexation.

How Nehru Played His Part In The Korean War

In 1956, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, asserted in an interview with Life Magazine that he had forewarned China, through Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that the “US was prepared to attack Manchurian bases with atomic weapons if the Communists did not sign a truce agreement…”

Zhou Enlai Jawaharlal Nehru
Zhou Enlai & Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru frequently contacted China, especially premier Zhou Enlai with whom he enjoyed a special relationship, to put an end to the Korean War. This was in addition to trying to arrange for the repatriation of prisoners of war.

Finally, on July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed to formally end hostilities in the Korean War. China and North Korea were pressured into agreeing to a truce by the Soviet Union’s new leadership. It is accurate to say that Dulles traveled to New Delhi at the end of May 1953 to meet with Nehru.

The Chinese operation of sending troops to North Korea shocked the globe, pulling off one of the biggest surprise attacks in warfare history. Jawaharlal Nehru, though, was more irritated than startled in New Delhi. He had alerted Americans of this possibility for several weeks, but Washington disregarded him.

The US was on one side and threatened to use the atomic bomb. Mao, the dictator of China, was on the opposing side, arguing that the vast Chinese people would not be much affected by a few nuclear bombs. Nehru commented, “the world is determined to commit suicide.”

The New York Times reported in 1984, “On May 21, 1953, Mr. Dulles met in New Delhi with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and told him that, if the armistice negotiations failed, ‘the United States would probably make a stronger, rather than a lesser military exertion, and that this might well extend the area of conflict.'” Experts argue that the claims by Dulles did not explicitly mean the use of nuclear weapons.

Several accounts have been published over the years suggesting that some towering voices in the White House rallied behind the idea of using atomic weapons and winning what is remembered as the first major war after World War II.

Nehru might have served as a go-between for the US to alert China to more forceful military action to terminate the Korean War.

In a cruel twist of fate, Washington was by 1970 employing the assistance of two tyrants, Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and Pakistani commander Yahya Khan, to develop communication channels and normalize relations between the US and China.

India and the Indian Prime Minister, by virtue of his friendship with the newly established Communist regime, became involved in the conflict, albeit without ever picking up a gun.