I must admit I’m still skeptical about the story that the Soviets were on the verge of nuking China in 1969. But this email from a reader is interesting:
The story in the Telegraph about a close call between the USSR and the PRC seems to have some merit. I checked over in the national security archives and bumped into this tidbit:
A few days after the Kissinger-Whiting meeting, the Soviets directly probed for U.S. reactions to a strike on Chinese nuclear facilities. During the early 1960s, the United States had probed Soviet interest in possible joint action against China’s incipient nuclear capabilities but Moscow would go no further in pressuring China than signing the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.9 Six years later, the tables turned. Boris Davydov, a KGB officer with diplomatic cover, surprised INR Vietnam expert William Stearman by asking how the United States would react if the Soviets solved one nuclear proliferation problem: by attacking Chinese nuclear weapons facilities. The fact that this extraordinary meeting took place has been disclosed before, but Stearman’s “memcon” has never been published.10 Soviet archives and perhaps the memories of former Soviet officials may someday disclose whether Davydov’s approach was part of a campaign to intimidate the Chinese or an effort to test U.S. reactions to real contingency plans (or both).(1)
While not proof, this may tend to support the claim of Liu Chenshan. By August 1969, the PRC had already tested a hydrogen bomb. Presumably then, the Soviets would have thought that they could just about eliminate a counterstrike threat with a first strike.
1. William Burr (ed.). “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict:, 1969: U.S. Reactions and Diplomatic Maneuvers.”