Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Interesting Random Piece of History 4

Most people think that the closest the world ever came to nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe, but maybe not. Who has ever heard of Zhenbao Island on the Ussuri River. The Ussuri river in the far east marks the border between China and Russia and in March 1969 the armies of the USSR and Red China fought a brief but fierce battle over Zhenbao island in what I think was the only conventional military engagement between two nuclear powers. The battle in which 68 Chinese soldiers and 31 Soviets were killed marked the climax in the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Beijing that began after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Americas greatest fear was realised in 1949 when China went communist. A grand communist alliance was forming between the vast nations of China and the USSR. It appeared doubtful that the west could contain such fanatical hoards led by monsters like Stalin and Mao seen here together at the Kremlin in 1950. It was the sight of these two men together that prompted much of the 1950s red scare especially since many suspected that leftists in the US state department and elsewhere had favoured non intervention in the Chinese Civil War. However the Moscow Beijing Alliance was not as strong as most had feared. It would ultimately prove, much to the satisfaction of those who stem from the Henry Kissinger school of International Relations that national self interest would triumph over ideology.

There had always been rivalry between the USSR and Red China over the leadership of the communist world. The Kremlin believed that collective urban industrialisation should be the foundation of a communist state where as the Chinese favoured the agricultural model. These divisions remained under the surface until the death of Stalin in 1953 and in particular, until Premier Kruschev's de-Stalinisation programmes that began after he came to power in 1956. It was during this time that the Chinese began to accuse the Soviets of abandoning communist ideals of world revolution in exchange for co existence with the capitalist west. The two powers soon began to broaden this ideological divide to their allies. The Chinese supported the anti Soviet communist government in Albania where as the Soviets weighed in behind the North Vietnamese who were traditionally hostile to the Chinese. Words became war in 1969 in the wake of unrest in the Chinese Muslim province of Xingjiang (remember this from last year) where the Soviets were accused of fomenting violence among the ethnic Uyghurs. Both sides decided to seize this moment to raise a century old dispute over the border. On March 2nd 1969 Chinese soldiers launched a sneak raid onto the Soviet held island of Zhenbao triggering the brief border conflict. The Sino Soviet split was complete.

Nixon meets Mao in the wake of China's split from Moscow.

For more on the Sino Soviet split have a look at my previous post on the movie The Killing Fields which details the consequences of the split. But suffice it to say, this little known clash on the Ussuri river changed everything. President Nixon, a mere two months in office capitalised spectacularly on the event. He famously opened up to China in 1972 which frightened the life out of the Kremlin who clumsily approached Washington the same year to propose an alliance against China. The events of March 1969 would ultimately weaken both the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. I believe it is not a stretch to say that what started on the Ussuri ended with the Berlin Wall being torn down.


Gary said...

Good article! I am a little jealous, this is exactly the kind of historical event I love to put in my blog... These are the things that fill in the important pieces when trying to understand current and historical events.

China has always been far more aggressive than most people in the West seem to realize. They fought small but very bloody border wars with Vietnam (in 1979, over Vietnam's involvement in Cambodia) and with India, while the US and Soviets were distracted by the Cuban Missie Crisis. That started in 1962 but skirmishes were reported until 1967. India is still paranoid about the Chinese today (and I think with good reason).

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Gary

I had a feeling you would like this one.

When I think of China at its worst I think of the evils of communism that were seen with the "great leap forward" and the Cultural Revolution. I never considered communist China to be particularly aggressive in terms of expansionism. During the 50's and 60's in particular China was in complete isolation. Very little was known about what went on there. And although they did get involved in Korea and Vietnam, compared to the Soviets they did little to spread communism around the world. Having said that, your fine blog has educated me to the contrary about Chinese ambitions.

The 1962 war between China and India is something I would love to know more about. It seems to have been completely written out of cold war history.

Gary said...

That 1962 war was a fairly bloody one and was one of the last greaqt land engagements where neither side deployed air or sea power. Both sides claimed victory but it was really more of a stalemate. The Chinese inflicted far more casualties (India lost 1383 killed, 1407 wounded and 3968 captured -China lost 722 killed and 1797 wounded). The cause was basically disputes over control over several border regions.
I'll try to work up a piece about it soon as is has some very interesting aspects and it's effects are still influencing India's military planning today.

Ted Leddy said...


I will look forward very much to reading that post.

Gary said...

I have a piece on this scheduled to post on Tuesday...