As tensions rise over Taiwan, leaked documents on 1958 crisis reveal lessons for today

Two opposing armies stand on high alert, separated only by the sea. An amphibious invasion could be imminent. The United States military is planning for nuclear war. 

To some, this might sound like the outlines of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but many don’t know that the U.S. also came to the nuclear brink four years earlier. 

A hemisphere away, off the coast of mainland China, the island country of Taiwan was at the center of rising tensions between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. While it remains so today, in 1958, U.S. strategists were ready to unleash nuclear war upon China and its then-ally the Soviet Union to prevent the capture of small islands controlled by Taiwan, Kinmen and Matsu. American leaders knew this risked the nuclear destruction of Taiwan and the Japanese island of Okinawa.

This spring, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg provided GroundTruth and the New York Times unredacted copies of a 1966 study titled “The Taiwan Straits Crisis: An Analysis” that  demonstrates the willingness of U.S. military leaders to use atomic weapons in response to a Chinese invasion.

The study describes the assumptions of U.S. war planners that atomic weapons would be used if the Chinese military escalated beyond an artillery bombardment of Taiwanese territory to “conditions short of total war.” But there was disagreement over the policy among the diplomatic and defense wings of the government. 

Within the State Department, there was resistance to this low bar for the use of nuclear arms, and a response limited to “conventional” weapons was favored. “However the Joint Chiefs, in particular Air Force General Nathan Twining, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, felt that the use of atomic weapons was inevitable and the planning proceeded on that assumption,” according to the study. 

In the final episode of the GroundTruth series “The Whistleblower,” Ellsberg discussed the 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis study and shared revelations about the U.S. military’s estimates of casualties from a nuclear war. While conducting research as a nuclear war planner in 1961 for the Kennedy administration, Ellsberg was provided by the military with an estimate of total deaths from a nuclear war with Russia and China: 600 million. Or, as Ellsberg called it, “100 Holocausts.”

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The leak was announced by Ellsberg during the April 30-May 1 GroundTruth and UMass Amherst conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers release. Ellsberg told GroundTruth he previously released a translated version to the Japanese government in the 1980’s and mentioned having this unredacted version on his website in his 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine,” about his experiences as a nuclear planner, but downplayed it in the memoir because his publishers were nervous about its inclusion.

“But this year, with the prospect again of a Taiwan crisis, I thought that this was time for everyone to know the insanity of the decision making with respect to nuclear weapons that characterizes our entire nuclear policy for the last 70 years,” the 90-year-old whistleblower and anti-nuclear activist told GroundTruth. And now, 50 years after he risked life in prison by leaking the Pentagon Papers, he hopes to use this latest leak in a test case to defend the rights of whistleblowers.

In a May interview with the National Security Archive, the study’s author Morton H. Halperin said “there was no valid reason to keep any of the study classified when I wrote it and certainly not decades later.” While RAND, the think tank commissioned to conduct the study, did get permission to declassify most of the document at his request, Halperin told the archive that “RAND was in no position to challenge the decision to keep the nuclear portions secret.”

The New York Times reported that the Department of Defense was unable to locate the unabridged version, including the redacted sections, when a request of review for declassification was submitted some 20 years ago.

When GroundTruth asked for comment, a Pentagon spokesperson responded by email that “we refer you to the National Archives.” The National Archives did not respond in time for publication.

‘The scariest part of the study’

Only a select few knew how close to nuclear war the U.S. was in 1958. Halperin, a former Pentagon analyst and later deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, was one of those few after researching the crisis in 1966. 

“It was very, very close,” Halperin, 83, told GroundTruth. “I believe that if the Chinese communists, as they were called then, had launched an attempt to take Quemoy [Kinmen], and we had no reason to know they were not going to do that, we would have used nuclear weapons. We would have bombed Chinese air bases. And the history of the world would be very different.”

“I guess the Cuban Missile Crisis, you would have to say, was as close,” Halperin said, who wrote the study while working as consultant to the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank which was conducting research for the Pentagon. “It would have happened inadvertently, or the Russians might have used nuclear weapons.”

In 1958, U.S. military leaders viewed nuclear weapons as “conventional” weapons, according to Halperin. In fact, Twining’s colleague General Laurence S. Kuter is quoted in the now uncensored portions of the study as saying he hoped to “forestall some misguided humanitarian’s intention to limit a war to obsolete iron bombs and hot lead.” 

“[They] really thought that you could use nuclear weapons in combat and the world would go on in a way that we now understand that it would not,” Halperin said.

“They didn’t know about nuclear winter then, which really meant… there were then 3 billion people in the world,” Ellsberg said. As he explains it, nearly the entire human population could have perished in the aftermath, from the smoke lofted into the stratosphere, which would kill off harvests and most vegetation, starving nearly every human within a year. “…The notion that humans, Americans, people I knew, colleagues of mine, envisioned and prepared to kill…, at the lowest, a fifth of the population was stunning, it was not something that happens to us, it is something we do. It seemed to me to define evil.”

These ideas around the use of nuclear and atomic weapons lived on in defense circles past the Eisenhower Administration.

“And that’s, for me, the scariest part of the study,” said Halperin, “that had that not been turned around by Kennedy and McNamara, we would have eventually stumbled into a war and would have had to use nuclear weapons. And what Eisenhower was thinking, I do not understand.” 

While this policy did eventually change under the Kennedy administration, the willingness of U.S. leaders during the Cold War to resort to nuclear weapons was public, and Eisenhower in particular touted America’s arsenal. When asked by a CBS News reporter during a 1955 press conference whether America would use nuclear weapons in an East Asian conflict, the president said that “In any combat where these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.” This amid the 1954-1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the first in a long history of strife between mainland China and Taiwan, which it claims as a territory and has pressured many in the international community to not recognize it as an independent state. 

Growing tensions

In this Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, Taiwanese soldiers move during a military exercises to show its determination to defend itself from Chinese threats, in Hualien County, eastern Taiwan. Taiwan will look to its domestic arms industry as well as foreign suppliers to respond to China’s continuing military buildup, but has no interest in engaging in an arms race with its cross-strait rival, the defense ministry said Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (Photo by Chiang Ying-ying, File/AP Photo)

In his July 1 speech celebrating 100 years of the Communist Party of China, the country’s leader Xi Jinping said that taking control of Taiwan is an “unshakable commitment” of the party. “No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.

On July 17 the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times published an opinion piece, bluntly titled “US, Taiwan could face sudden blow at any time in Taiwan Straits.

“Soon, it’s conceivable we’ll see escalation short of all-out war,” wrote Lee Hsi-min, the former chief of the general staff of Taiwan’s armed forces in a July 9, 2021 op-ed. “The exchange of fire between Chinese and Taiwanese forces, small-scale missile attacks and Chinese seizure of Taiwan’s outer islands are all possible.” 

While in 1958 a Chinese invasion was avoided and the crisis was resolved diplomatically, the tensions between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan never went away. Today, China is building up the strength of its military to not only overcome the Taiwanese military, but also key U.S. advantages in support of Taiwan.

According to a 2020 report to Congress on the Chinese military, the Department of Defense wrote that despite the democratic country’s strategic advantages against the People’s Liberation Army, long bolstered by the U.S., “China’s multi decade military modernization effort has eroded or negated many of these advantages.” Efforts to address these challenges such as growing its defense-industrial base, improving joint operations and crisis response capabilities, and strengthening army leadership, these reforms “only partially address Taiwan’s declining defensive advantages,” the report says.

Regional allies who have been historically quiet on Taiwan have recently joined the U.S. in openly addressing Chinese aggression. Last week, the Defense Ministry of Japan, a key ally in the region, echoed American concern in its annual “Defense of Japan” report. “The overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting to China’s favor, and the gap appears to be growing year by year,” the report said. “Attention should be paid to trends such as the strengthening of Chinese and Taiwanese forces, the sale of weapons to Taiwan by the United States, and Taiwan’s own development of its main military equipment.”

“Now, the Chinese could probably win a conventional war for Taiwan, even if the U.S. was massively engaged,” said Halperin. 

Halperin, who served in the Clinton, Nixon and Johnson administrations, finds it hard to believe that America would use nuclear weapons today, given the Chinese nuclear capacity and the long history of conflicts without nuclear weapons. “Now I think cooler heads would prevail before that started, but I think there’s every reason to be concerned about that.”

But those in Chinese state media and government have included the nuclear threat in their hawkish rhetoric. 

In June, Global Times published an opinion piece by its editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, urging that the country should build up its nuclear arsenal. “The number of China’s nuclear warheads must reach the quantity that makes US elites shiver should they entertain the idea of engaging in a military confrontation with China,” he wrote.

Last week, the Chinese Communist Party committee of Baoji, a city in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi, created an international stir when it reposted a video suggesting that the Chinese military was justified in nuking Japan if the U.S. ally intervened on Taiwan’s behalf. According to Taiwan Times, the vlog post from a pro-Chinese military channel has since been deleted, but not before garnering 2 million views on the Chinese government video sharing platform Xigua, and being uploaded to social media giants including YouTube and Twitter.

While Ellsberg agrees that U.S. policy has changed in the 60 years since the second crisis in the Taiwan Straits Crisis, he sees in current U.S. defense spending a long trend and a need by the American “political economy” for adversaries like China.

Armaments and nuclear technology

“They’re looking forward to something of a build-up that’s happening in China right now because it’s virtually necessary to justify this vast, really close to trillion-dollar defense – so-called ‘defense’ – budget that we have,” Ellsberg said. “And we’re not talking about defense of the United States when we say that at all. So… we’re prolonging the notion of China as an enemy and for that matter, Russia as an enemy, because we need an enemy with the risk of either accidental or escalatory use of nuclear weapons, which threatens all life.” 

“In other words, it’s a shortsighted policy that has immediate benefits in terms of profits, and not only in our country on arms sales to our government, and to other governments like Taiwan and and the Baltics, for that matter, and Poland,” he added. 

Ellsberg is not the first to raise alarm about the influence of the U.S. defense industry. In his 1961 farewell address, President Eisenhower – who had publicly touted the use of atomic weapons “just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else” – warned the American public of the growing influence of the “U.S. military-industrial complex.”

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” he said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” While this concept was new then, the defense industry has grown since, and it’s global customer base with it. 

Today, the U.S. is the largest exporter of weapons in the world, accounting for more than a third of all transferred arms between 2016 and 2020, according to a study released in March by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (For comparison, Russia and China’s exports collectively totaled about 25% during the same period.) In 2020, arms exports from the U.S. totaled $175 billion, a nearly 3% increase over the previous year, according to the State Department,adding thousands of jobs to the U.S. economy and sustaining many thousands more.” Among the industry’s customers was the government of Taiwan, which purchased $5.1 billion-worth of American armaments, roughly 3% of 2020 U.S. arms exports. 

While U.S. arms exports do not include nuclear weapons, the U.S. has allowed the export of nuclear technology to other countries, regulated by the Eisenhower-era Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Under Section 123, private U.S. companies are permitted to sell nuclear technology and material to other countries with approval from Congress, and adhering to a “set of strong nonproliferation requirements.” 

As of Jan. 1, 2021, the U.S. has so-called “123 Agreements for Peaceful Cooperation” allowing the transfer of U.S nuclear material or equipment to 48 countries including both China and Taiwan, according to the National Nuclear Energy Security Administration. 

In 2019, however, whistleblowers close to the administration of then-President Donald Trump exposed secret authorizations for U.S. companies in the nuclear energy sector to sell to Saudi Arabia. Documents from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration seen by Reuters showed that the authorizations made by then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry were to be kept secret at the request of the companies, despite the fact that such authorizations were typically made public.

Responding to the exposed authorizations, a report by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform under then-Chairman Rep. Elijah E. Cumming (D-MD) warned that strong private commercial interests were pressing aggressively for the transfer of the nuclear technology to the Gulf state, “a potential risk to U.S. national security absent adequate safeguards.”

“These commercial entities stand to reap billions of dollars through contracts associated with constructing and operating nuclear facilities in Saudi Arabia—and apparently have been in close and repeated contact with President Trump and his Administration to the present day,” the report said.

Regardless of congressional concerns, the secretary of energy has, through Part 810 of Title 10 of the U.S. regulatory code, the power to authorize “certain categories of activities which the Secretary has found to be non-inimical to the interest of the United States – including assistance or transfers of technology to the “generally authorized destinations” listed in Appendix A to Part 810.” Saudi Arabia does not appear to be included among “generally authorized destinations.”

And while the report cited a comment by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from a 2018 interview that “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” experts say that security considerations for what countries the U.S. provides nuclear energy technology goes beyond the present day.

“You really need to think about American relations with that country for the long term,” says Matthew Bunn, James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “A nuclear reactor takes years to plan, years to build, operates for 60 years, takes maybe 20 years to decommission. So you’re really talking about a century commitment.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues to maintain nuclear arsenals abroad. A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association estimated in August 2020 that 150 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs are deployed at military bases across five European countries.

“We’re acting as though…we were not risking human civilization on this Earth,” Ellsberg said. 

Ellsberg says he’s often reminded of a quote from the 1962 novel “Mother Night” by Kurt Vonnegut: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

“We’ve been pretending for 70 years that we were ready to reproduce the attacks we made on Japan on a scale of thousands, enormously higher,” Ellsberg said.

In 1958, he said, “we were ready to initiate all-out thermonuclear war.”

You can read the unredacted version of the study below, or on Ellsberg’s website.

Reporting by Mitch Hanley and Charles Sennott contributed to this story.