Bear’s Teeth, Dragon’s Claws:
A 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Manchurian War
by Chris Oakley
(based on the "Venceremos!" series by the same author)
The Clock Is Ticking: April 1965-March 1966
The air in Odessa, Ukraine on the morning of April 24th, 1965 was gloomy— and not just because of the typically damp, chilly spring weather or the grief Odessa’s citizens felt over the passing of native son and World War II hero Radion Malinovsky the previous day; the city’s malaise was a microcosm of the decline in national morale the Soviet Union as a whole had suffered in the four years since its chief Third World ally, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, had been driven out of power in the Florida Keys War. The Kremlin’s failure to defend Latin America’s only Marxist state had seriously damaged its influence abroad and raised long-dormant doubts at home about the merits of the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat" Lenin and his Bolshevik associates had established nearly a half-century earlier.
Wherever he looked, CPSU First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev saw alarming signs that his country’s power was beginning to crumble. America’s 54 - day victory in the Florida Keys War and its unwavering stance against Moscow during the Turkish crisis had strengthened NATO’s hand in Europe while planting the seeds of dissent within the previously quiescent populations of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact clients; in Asia and Africa, Chinese ruler Mao Zedong was replacing Lenin as the archetype of the ideal socialist revolutionary leader. As for Latin America, Castro’s downfall had shattered the late Nikita Khrushchev’s ambitious plans to use Cuba as a beachhead for expanding Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere1. Within its own borders, the CPSU was being confronted with the unthinkable— open criticism of its policies by the masses.
But most dangerous of all, its claim to territorial jurisdiction over the Ussuri River regions along its common border with China were being challenged with unusual aggressiveness. Sensing that the time might be ripe for his nation to settle accounts with Moscow on the territorial question once and for all, Mao had authorized PLA2 commander-in-chief General Lin Bao to begin a massive buildup of Chinese ground and air forces in Manchuria; at the very least these forces could be used as a trump card to pressure Moscow into ceding its own claims on the Ussuri territories, and if worst came to worst they would make an effective advance guard for invading Siberia.
Simultaneously, a special commando unit known as Tactical Combat Battalion 12 began training in the Yangtze River. This unit, formed in December of 1964, would have the task if war came of conducting a limpet mine attack on the Soviet naval base at Vladivostok; given the significant airpower advantage the Soviets enjoyed over China at that time, the limpet mine stratagem was considered the PLA’s best— perhaps only –hope for gaining an early advantage on the battlefront.
Arguments between Beijing and Moscow about their common border were nothing new— in fact, the territories which would finally push the Chinese into war with the Soviet Union in the spring of 1966 had been a bone of contention between China and Russia since the days of Peter the Great. But the feud gained new momentum after the Sino-Soviet ideological schism of the late 1950s, and the damage dealt to Soviet international prestige by the Brezhnev regime’s abrupt pullout from Cuba during the Florida Keys War convinced Mao that the lands his nation coveted were ripe for the taking.
Mao’s plan was to conduct a large-scale invasion of Siberia and seize three of its most important cities: Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and the industrial town of Magadan. His hope was to catch the Soviets off-guard in a blitzkrieg-style assault and put them in a position where they’d have no choice but to accede to whatever demands Beijing made regarding the Sino-Soviet frontier.
It was critical that the invasion forces advance as far into Soviet territory as they possibly could in the first hours of the attack; the USSR not only held the edge over China in terms of air power but also had the stronger hand when it came to nuclear weapons— the Chinese hadn’t detonated their first atomic bomb until July of 1964, at which time the Soviet Union had already amassed a nuclear arsenal second only to America’s and was constantly striving to increase that arsenal. For all his fiery bluster in public speeches, in solitary moments Mao held an abiding fear that any mistake on the PLA’s part could lead to a full-scale Soviet nuclear strike against his country.
He was also concerned about the Americans. Galvanized by their swift dispatch of the Castro regime in Cuba, the United States had undertaken a massive military campaign in South Vietnam to crush that country’s five-year-old Marxist guerrilla movement; many of General Lin’s senior staff were concerned that this might serve as a pretext for Washington to send troops into mainland China…and if came to that, Beijing was determined to have the Siberian territories under its thumb so that it would have plenty of bases and material for a long war with the West.
Last but not least (although he didn’t say so openly), Mao was eager to settle the score with Japan once and for all. He’d never forgotten the misery and hardship Japan’s occupation forces had caused him and his fellow countrymen during their eight-year war against the old Kuomintang regime in the 1930s and ‘40s. He had grand if quite unrealistic notions of using the territory the PLA conquered in Siberia as a springboard for a massive invasion and occupation of Japan.
The Japan assault plan was later scrapped, but the rest of Mao’s strategy went forward with little change. Simultaneously, China’s defense ministry embarked on a crash program to bulk up the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities; however, seething internal strife and a less-than-robust Chinese economy soon combined to slow this program to a crawl. China’s economic troubles also affected its efforts to strengthen its conventional forces; its industrial capability lagged seriously behind those of the United States and the Soviet Union and there were fears among Mao’s economic advisors that drafting two many men into the People’s Liberation Army would hamper China’s industrial base. In spite of these difficulties, Mao managed to make a fair amount of progress with his military buildup; by January of 1966 one out of every ten Chinese adult males was serving in China’s armed forces.3
On February 8th, 1966 the last nails began to be hammered in the coffin of any hopes for a diplomatic resolution to the border crisis. A Chinese H-5 reconnaissance aircraft4 on a routine surveillance flight along the Sino-Soviet border strayed into Soviet airspace over Damansky Island5 and was immediately confronted by a Soviet air force MiG-21 air defense fighter whose pilot threatened to fire on the H-5 unless it returned to Chinese airspace immediately. The Chinese plane’s crew retorted that it was the MiG which was in the wrong airspace; this led to a dangerous game of chicken that only ended when the H-5 collided with the MiG-21 as the Soviet fighter was turning to gain a missile lock on the Chinese spy plane.
The Soviet pilot, though his MiG was damaged and nerves were rattled, got the better end of the confrontation; he was able to make an emergency landing at a Siberian airstrip a few miles west of Damansky Island. The crew of the Chinese plane wasn’t so fortunate, being killed when their H-5 crashed on the Chinese side of the Amur River and disintegrated. An infuriated Mao gave a televised speech in Tienanmen Square the next day demanding an apology from the Soviet government for the deaths of the H-5’s two-man crew.
Brezhnev’s answer was quick and decidedly negative; in a speech printed on the front page of the official CPSU newspaper Pravda, he stated flat out that the dead Chinese aviators had brought their macabre fate upon themselves by violating Soviet territory and promised that any further Chinese incursions would warrant immediate Soviet retaliation against China. His words provoked fear in the West that nuclear war might soon erupt— or at the very least a highly brutal conventional war.
Concerned that America’s allies in the Far East might suffer if the Sino-Soviet border dispute erupted into open conflict, President Lyndon Johnson and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, convened an eight-nation summit at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Vietnam, Indonesia, and Taiwan each sent a representative to the conference, which was meant to work out a common strategy for meeting the challenges a Chinese-Soviet war might pose to the security of the participating countries.6
The summit opened on February 25th amid fears that it might already be too late to avert armed conflict over the Sino-Soviet border— and sure enough, the next day word reached the participants at the conference that there’d been a firefight on the shores of Damansky Island between Soviet and Chinese troops. Casualties were eleven dead and one wounded for the Soviets, eight dead and six wounded for the Chinese. Indications from all reliable intelligence sources were that Moscow and Beijing were putting their respective armies on full wartime footing, and that it was only a matter of time before China attacked the USSR or vice versa.
On the evening of March 1st, 1966 General Lin Bao received Mao Zedong’s official approval to go to war against the Soviet Union. Bao, in turn, activated Tactical Combat Battalion 12 and sent them into Siberia to deploy their limpet mines against the Soviet naval base at Vladivostok. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army deployed four infantry divisions and three armor divisions in a spearhead formation to attack the city of Khabarovsk…
Dawn was just breaking over Khabarovsk on the morning of March 2nd when the first Chinese shells exploded on the city’s outskirts; its citizens, despite all the precautions that had been taken to prepare their city for such an attack, were caught off-guard and panicked, desperately fleeing into the steppes as local Red Army units broke under the Chinese onslaught. A few miles south, in Vladivostok, Tactical Combat Battalion 12’s training was bearing fruit as limpet mines tore through the city’s harbor like locusts in a wheat field. The first casualty of the Chinese commandos’ attack was the Kashin-class destroyer Provorny, which sank within a matter of minutes taking most of her crew with her. One of the seaman later recalled: "The screams of the men were unbearable… it was all one could do to keep from going mad. The smoke (from fires set off by the limpet mine explosions) was so thick I could hardly breathe. How I and my comrades managed to make it to safety, we may never know."7
Leonid Brezhnev was informed of the Siberian invasion and the Chinese commando attack on Vladivostok’s harbor at 6:05 AM Moscow time. His already burning anger at China’s aggression escalated into an almost Biblical wrath when a senior KGB officer notified him of reports that dozens of civilian women trying to fleet Khabarovsk had been captured and raped by the Chinese. He ordered the Soviet armed forces to strike back with everything they had; in particular, he enjoined the Soviet air force to bomb China’s three most important cities until they lay in ruins.
Less than an hour later, Chinese air defense radar picked up massive Formations of Soviet bombers with accompanying fighter escorts heading for Beijing, Shanghai, and Port Arthur-Dairen. Anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on the bombers the moment they entered Chinese airspace, but it did little good as the escort fighters strafed these batteries and put most of them out of commission. Opposition from China’s own fighter squadrons was negligible, as most of them had already been committed to supporting the invasion of Siberia and the rest were badly understaffed. The bombers were recalled just after 9:30 AM Moscow time, leaving three shattered cities and 50,000 dead Chinese civilians in their wake.
At 1:00 PM that afternoon Moscow’s residents were told to stand by for what the Soviet state-controlled television broadcast service called "a message of the gravest national importance". 23 minutes later, in a brief anger-filled speech from the Kremlin, First Secretary Brezhnev announced that a state of war was now in effect between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. He vowed that he personally would not rest until the Mao regime had been crushed and the USSR’s southern border had been fully secured.
Those words were greeted with alarm back in Washington; listening to his ambassador in Moscow translate the speech for him, President Johnson realized that the worst-case scenario the delegates at the Los Angeles summit had grappled with a few days earlier were becoming reality. Right after the Damansky Island clash he had placed all US military bases in Japan and South Korea on DefCon 2; now he found himself wondering how much longer it would be until they had to go to DefCon 1…
His concerns were shared at 10 Downing Street. British prime minister Harold Wilson, who had ordered a massive swift evacuation of British civilians from Hong Kong following the Damansky Island incident, called an emergency meeting of his top military and intelligence advisors to hammer out a battle plan for defending British interests in the Far East should the Sino-Soviet war spill beyond the borders of the respective combatants. Within minutes after the Soviet foreign minister officially announced the declaration of war, Wilson’s ambassador in Brussels was already on the phone to NATO headquarters arranging for consultations between Wilson and the senior officials of the alliance’s executive council.
In Tokyo, after a long and sometimes raucous debate, the Diet, Japan’s national parliament, had narrowly rejected a referendum which would have suspended Article 9 of the country’s modern constitution— that is, the long-standing prohibition against Japan’s having an offensive fighting force. However, all defensive weapons had been armed and deployed along the island nation’s coastline, and Emperor Hirohito made a televised appeal for calm to his subjects as he assured them that their government was working with the United States to guarantee their security against either Soviet or Chinese attack.
Nowhere were the reverberations of the Chinese attack on Khabarovsk felt more immediately or strongly than on the Korean Peninsula, where both Kim Il Sung’s Marxist dictatorship in Pyongyang and the Western- backed administration of Park Chung Hee in Seoul felt their survival threatened by the events transpiring along the Sino-Soviet border. Both governments feared an overwhelming crush of Chinese refugees if the war went on too long, and Kim’s top military advisors warned him that Seoul might seek to take advantage of the turmoil by mounting an assault on the North…
To Be Continued
1 During his final months as Soviet premier, Khrushchev had envisioned expanding his token advisory contingent in Cuba into a main battle force something along the lines of the Red Army front-line corps then stationed in East Germany. In fact, before the Florida Keys War broke out he and Castro had been negotiating a quid pro quo deal whereby the Cuban government would allow Soviet tactical nuclear missiles to be deployed on its soil in return for an increase in Soviet economic aid to Havana. To see how the Kennedy Administration might have reacted to the prospect of Soviet nuclear warheads in America’s own backyard, read Forrest R. Lindsey’s chillingly realistic scenario "Missiles of October: The Cuban Nuclear Crisis of 1962" in Peter G. Tsouras’ Cold War Hot(copyright 2004 by Greenhill Books).
2 People’s Liberation Army.
3 According to CIA estimates compiled just before the Manchurian War began.
4 A Chinese variation on the Soviet Il-28 "Beagle" bomber/reconnaissance aircraft.
5 Also known as Zhenbao Island.
6 Diplomats from Australia and New Zealand also attended the summit in an unofficial capacity as observers; then-Canadian foreign minister Paul Martin, Sr. received debriefings on the Los Angeles summit courtesy of the American embassy in Ottawa.
7 Quoted from a story in the March 3rd, 1966 edition of the official CPSU newspaper Pravda.