28 April 1995
This month's document is particularly timely given the international gathering that convened on April 17 in New York City to consider the extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The core issue there seems to be whether the NPT will be extended indefinitely (the U.S. position and likely for majority approval) or whether the NPT's extension will have a shorter term, one that is conditioned on steps by the nuclear powers to de-nuclearize (if there really is such a word).
Back in September 1961, the U.S. State Department had a different worry, the psychological impact of the Chinese detonating a nuclear bomb, and de-nuclearization was not the idea on the table. The head of the State Department's policy planning council, George C. McGhee, wrote this memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on September 13 exploring an extraordinary proposal -- "it would be desirable if a friendly Asian power beat Communist China to the punch" and there was "no likelier candidate than India." The memo goes on to detail the problems with this approach, and gives a fallback position of a covert information program.
For those of us who spend our time reading bureaucratic tea leaves, the handwriting across the front of this document speaks volumes. First, Mr. Rusk's special assistant, Lucius Battle, sends the memo back to Mr. McGhee to get formal clearance from various State Department bureaus before it can go to the top. Then, Mr. Rusk vetoes the idea, writing that he is "not convinced we should depart from our stated policy that we are opposed to the further extension of national nuc. weapons capability." However, the covert information program apparently is approved.
It's interesting to note the judgment of history on Mr. McGhee's analysis. John Newhouse writes in his War and Peace in the Nuclear Age (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) that the American government and the Johnson administration in particular "inflated every minatory aspect of China's program: its scale, its worldwide political impact, the aggressive purpose it would serve. The alarmists were wrong on each count. The low-yield weapon China exploded in October 1964 had far less political effect than Washington expected. It did not foreshadow production of nuclear weapons on a meaningful scale, still less any sign that China might use or threaten to use what little it had." (p. 197)
Of course, the effect of the Chinese nuclear program on those of India and Pakistan is yet another story, still shrouded by national security secrecy. We at the National Security Archive are working to put U.S. documents like this one into the hands of Indians and Pakistanis, and even Chinese, in hopes not only to spark public discussion and research within each of those countries, but ultimately, perhaps, among them.
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