Billions Almost Died: In 1969, Russia and China Almost Went to Nuclear War

Robert Farley

Key point: Russia would have won, but at a cost.

Americans tend to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous moment in Cold War brinksmanship. Despite some tense moments, Washington and Moscow resolved that crisis with only the death of U.S. Air Force pilot Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr.

Seven years later, in March 1969, a contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers raided a Soviet border outpost on Zhenbao Island, killing dozens and injuring scores. The incident brought Russia and China to the brink of war, a conflict that might have led to the use of nuclear weapons. But after two weeks of clashes, the conflict trailed off.

What if the brief 1969 conflict between China and the Soviet Union had escalated?

History

The incident on Zhenbao Island, where the initial ambush and the bulk of the fighting occurred, represented the nadir of Soviet-Chinese relations. Just ten years earlier, Beijing and Moscow had stood hand in hand as bulwarks of the Communist world. Struggles over ideology, leadership and resources, however, resulted in a sharp split between the allies that had global repercussions. The split exacerbated territorial disputes that had existed since Tsarist and Imperial times. The long, poorly demarcated border left numerous gray zones in which China and the USSR both claimed sovereignty.

After a few minor incidents, the Zhenbao Island incident drove tensions through the roof. A Soviet counterattack incurred serious casualties, as did a similar incident in Xinjiang in August. A consensus has emerged on both sides that the Chinese leadership prepared for and orchestrated the clash. Why would the Chinese provoke their much more powerful neighbor? And what if the Soviets had responded more aggressively to the Chinese provocation?

Avenues of Escalation

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