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
Summary: In the previous ten chapters of this series we recalled the runup to the Manchurian War; the course of the war itself; the aftereffects of the war on human history; and the effort by historians and scholars around the world to come to terms with the war’s legacy. In this final installment of the series, we’ll examine several possible instances where the course of the war might have been changed.
It wasn’t necessarily a given that the Manchurian War would end in a Soviet victory; for that matter, it wasn’t a given that the war would happen at all. From the moment the commandos of TCB-12 began their raid on Vladivostok Harbor in 1966 to the day that the Geneva peace treaty was signed in 1970, there were literally endless forks in the road at which the course of the war could have changed from what we know, and here we’ll try to identify a few of those turning points and see how the world as a whole might have been transformed by them.
One turning point, naturally, is the prewar diplomatic effort by outside parties to get Moscow and Beijing to peacefully settle their quarrel over the Sino-Soviet boundary line. Suppose these efforts had succeeded and the Manchurian War averted completed. What would the world have been like then? Would the last four decades have been less violent than they actually turned out to be?
Sad to say, probably not. Even without the Manchurian War in the mix, the ‘60s still would have for the most part been a very turbulent time; the early part of the decade had already seen the Florida Keys War, the Sharpeville riots, and the assassination of JFK, while the latter part of the decade would be marked by the Vietnam War, yet another Arab-Israeli conflict, social unrest in Europe and the United States, and mass murder and repression in China rivalling the worst of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 might, however, have had more men to back it up had so many Soviet soldiers not been needed to push the Chinese out of Kazakhstan and the Ussuri River territories.
Then we come to the moment that began the war: Tactical Combat Battalion 12’s raid on Vladivostok Harbor in March of 1966. It succeeded largely because the Beijing government kept Moscow in the dark about the commando operation until the first limpet mines started detonating in the harbor’s chilly waters. But let’s imagine for just a moment that the Kremlin had been alerted to what TCB-12 was up to before the raid came off and decided to mount a pre-emptive strike...
February 27th, 1966. A PLA sentry on routine patrol along the Sino-Soviet border prepares to end his shift. Things have been mostly quiet during this long night, and the sentry is looking forward to getting some much-overdue sleep when his relief takes over the post for the late night watch; as they exchange the appropriate password and response, neither man is aware that a team of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos has slipped across the frontier as part of a mission to wreak havoc with China’s border defenses.
On a prearranged hand signal from their leader, the Spetsnaz troopers swing into action. The sentry and the man who was supposed to relieve him get their throats slit; the border post shakes under the impact of explosive charges set off by the Soviet commandos. Similar raids are going on at other Chinese frontier installations, leaving the People’s Republic vulnerable to invasion-- an invasion which takes place just before dawn as Red Army infantry, armor, and artillery units sweep down from Siberia in the largest Russian military campaign since the assault on Berlin at the end of the Second World War. China’s skies become filled with Soviet air force jets and the air resonds with the roar of bombs as military and industrial targets from Port Arthur-Dairen to the Kazakhstan frontier come under punishing attack.
Within 36 hours the Ussuri River territories are fully under Soviet control and Soviet troops are advancing on the Manchurian provincial capital of Harbin; making matters worse, additional Soviet forces are ramming through the Mongolian frontier in what the PLA high command quite rightly suspects is a drive towards Beijing. There are even signs that the Red Army is preparing an attack out of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan aimed at gaining a foothold in the Xinjiang province.
Despite Chairman Mao’s best efforts to calm his people, the Chinese masses are in a state of near- total panic...
So what might have happened next once Moscow had gotten a foothold on Chinese soil in this alternate beginning of the Manchurian War? Any number of things, actually. The Soviets could have, for instance, pulled off a blitzkrieg-style triumph and rolled all the way to Beijing before the first flowers of spring bloomed in the Ukraine. Conversely by the same token, the Chinese could have stopped the invaders cold in their tracks with "human wave" counterattacks, much as they had responded to MacArthur’s advance through North Korea in late 1950. There could even have been a situation where the Soviet invasion stalled and the Red Army found itself bogged down in a quagmire resembling the bloody stalemate the Americans faced in Vietnam from the spring of 1966 onwards.
Now let’s proceed to the next major turning point in the Manchurian War, the Chinese invasion of Mongolia. What if the Soviets had been caught off-guard when the PLA marched across the Mongolian border? Let’s see what happens next...Late April, 1966. The tension in the Kremlin halls is so thick it can be cut with a knife. The Chinese control all but a tiny strip of Mongolia, have captured Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude in one swift stroke, and are using the Trans-Siberian Railway to move their troops and equipment as the PLA moves deeper into Siberia. Novosibirsk is in danger and there is even a distinct, though remote, possibility that Yekaterinburg may be attacked sooner or later. Though CPSU First Secretary Brezhnev publicly continues to assure his countrymen that the Chinese will be driven out of Mongolia and Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude liberated by conventional military means, deep in his heart of hearts he has started to worry that perhaps only nuclear weapons can turn back the rising PLA tide in Siberia.
Then early on the morning of May Day, he is awakened by the chief of the Red Army general staff with some alarming news: the PLA has launched a three-pronged offensive aimed at seizing Vladivostok, and to make matters even more perilous the Soviet Union’s chief Asian ally, North Korea, is not in a position to assist the Red Army in halting the advance because they themselves are locked in a new conflict(or a new chapter of the old one) with the American-backed regime in South Korea. There has been brutal fighting along the 38th parallel and the KGB station chief in Seoul confirms that the South Korean capital has been bombed by North Korean warplanes; the United States is rumored to be preparing to transfer some of its forces from South Vietnam to support its troop contingents in Korea...
Here we have the possibility of nuclear conflict, or at the very least a serious escalation of the conventional war. The Korean Peninsula has long been a volatile region, and there was lingering hostility between Seoul and Pyongyang in the aftermath of the Korean War’s end in 1953; it would hardly have taken much provocation to spark a shooting war on the 38th parallel. Indeed, throughout the first eighteen months of the Manchurian War the United States had kept its ground and air forces in South Korea in a high state of readiness should the war spread to the Korean Peninsula.
Once the United States had taken up arms in South Korea’s defense, the Soviets, despite their troop commitments on the Mongolian and Manchurian fronts, would have been obliged by treaty commitments-- and personal loyalty toward North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung --to intervene on North Korea’s side. And from there it’s all too plausible to imagine a situation where the course of battle in a second Korean War might have led to the exchange of nuclear weapons. Certainly a conventional US- Soviet conflict would have been quite bloody.
Even without another war on the Korean Peninsula, Brezhnev could have found himself compelled to use nukes to halt the PLA from capturing Vladivostok had his generals not anticipated the Chinese invasion of Mongolia. With morale damaged by a successful PLA occupation of that country and deeper Chinese penetration into Siberia, it is questionable whether the Red Army could have mustered the will to launch the kind of counteroffensive needed to drive their foes back.
And apropos of nuclear weapons, that brings us to the next major crossroads of the war, the March 1967 Chinese chemical weapons attack on Soviet troops at the Khabarovsk battlefront. In our own history, the Kremlin reacted to this chemical strike with one of their own on Shanghai. But suppose for just a second or two that, instead of chemical warheads, the missiles which struck the fabled city on March 10th, 1967 had carried atomic ones....No one in Shanghai knows the nuclear strike is coming until it’s too late. Hitting directly in the heart of China’s ancient hub of commerce, the Soviet missiles burn the city from the face of the earth in a firestorm of Biblical proportions; 90% of Shanghai’s population is killed in a matter of seconds. The remaining 10% are so gravely injured that tending to their agonies puts an almost intolerable strain on the Beijing government’s medical resources. Mao’s top generals are arguing vehemently about what form China’s response to the nuclear strikes should take-- while they’d like nothing better than to drop their own nuclear bomb on Vladivostok or Magadan, the Chinese nuclear arsenal has only been in existence for three years or so, and it is rather paltry compared to those of the Soviet Union and the United States. There’s no guarantee that they could actually get off a nuclear attack on Soviet soil, and even if they did they have every reason to fear that their country might be obliterated by a Soviet retaliatory strike.
After what seems like a century of interminable bickering, Mao calls his advisors to silence and tells them he’s made his decision. As much as it pains him to do this, and however badly he wants to keep up the struggle against the revisionists in Moscow, he has no other recourse but to make peace with the Soviets as soon as possible. Any further armed conflict with the USSR at the present time, he tells them with deep regret, will only spell disaster for the People’s Republic of China....
At first blush it seems hard to accept the notion that a firebrand like Mao Zedong would so easily capitulate to the Soviets. However, Mao was also a realist in some respects; he knew that his country was in no position to trade nuclear blows with the USSR. Any attempt to continue with the prosecution of the war in the face of an atomic attack on Shanghai or any other Chinese city would have meant the ruin of his regime-- even if he hadn’t needed to worry about a crippling Soviet counterstrike he would have been confronted with the dangerous possibility of the PLA general staff ousting him in a Potemkin-style mutiny. It had, after all, been a Russian naval defeat by Japan in 1904 that led to the original Potemkin mutiny a year later, which in turn had brought about the October Revolution of 1917 that overthrew the Kerensky government-- and Mao was not particularly eager to share Kerensky’s fate.
And apropos of political dissent, we now focus our attention on the next major turning point in the war: the Tienanmen Square protests of November 1968 that were sparked by the Red Army’s victories over the PLA in Operation Wolverine, the campaign to liberate eastern Kazakhstan. In our own history, the protests were decisively crushed by force when troops loyal to Mao broke them up and arrested or killed many of those involved. But what if, instead of cracking down on the demonstrators, those troops had decided to join their ranks?November 10th, 1968. President Lyndon Johnson convenes a special session of the National Security Council at the White House. CIA sources in the Far East have just flashed Langley that something big appears to be brewing in Beijing. While some of the details have yet to be pinned down and contradictory reports are coming in from all sides, there appears to be credible evidence that an attempt is being made to topple the Mao Zedong regime. The PLA soldiers who were sent to crush the Tienanmen Square antiwar protests several days earlier have instead apparently sided with the protestors, and there are rumors that some of the PLA’s generals have united in a bloc to seize the leadership of the CPC from Chairman Mao.
Across the country, at his San Clemente retreat, Richard Nixon, the man who will inherit the Oval Office from Johnson in just over two months, is already contemplating what this means for U.S.-Chinese relations. If the scuttlebutt from CIA headquarters turns out to be true, and Mao really is being ousted from power, perhaps opportunities will soon open up for a thaw between Washington and Beijing; while Mao had long been deeply and overtly hostile towards the United States, it might be possible to enjoy a better relationship with his successor. Indeed, if the White House plays its cards right, China could be turned into a US ally against the Soviet Union....
So could US-Chinese diplomatic relations have been normalized earlier if a coup had taken place in Beijing after the Tienanmen Square protests of November 1968? Maybe yes, maybe no. To a great extent, much would have depended on the kind of man who took the reins of power from Mao Zedong once he was thrown out of office. If it had been a conservative, chances are that any US diplomatic overtures to Beijing would have been, if not rejected outright, certainly viewed with a high degree of suspicion. On the other hand, if a reformer like Deng Xiaoping had assumed the leadership of the CPC, odds are fairly good that the United States and China would have had full diplomatic relations sooner than 1979.
The U.S. Congress would also have been a factor in any effort to form normal diplomatic relations with China. Aside from the fact that the Senate has the final say on whether to approve or reject diplomatic treaties, many of those who sat in the Senate and House of Representatives at the time of Nixon’s election to the presidency were of a conservative bent, Democrats as well as Republicans; they’d cut their political teeth during the tense days of the Korean War and the McCarthy Red Scare, when China was viewed as an equal threat to, if not more so than, the Soviet Union. Many others, however, leaned leftward and felt that it was past time to end American hostility towards Beijing. So Nixon’s domestic agenda during his first days in office would have been affected by the ideological tug-of-war between left and right as he tried to sell Congress and the American people on the idea of renewing diplomatic ties with the Chinese.
And of course there would have been Taiwan to consider; since Chiang Kai-Shek’s hasty departure to the island at the end of the brutal 1946-49 civil war that racked mainland China, Taipei and Washington had enjoyed close ties with each other, not least when it came to the matter of anti-Communism. Any gesture towards normalization of ties between the PRC and the United States would have created tension in US-Taiwan relations, just as it did in our own timeline in the late 1970s.
The next major possible point of divergence that demands our consideration is the famous April 1969 internal memo sent to PLA commander-in-chief General Lin Bao that urged him to press Mao Zedong to open peace negotiations with the Soviet Union. Simply writing the memo, never minding sending it to General Bao, took a great deal of courage on the part of its authors. But what if the will to draft that historic document had been missing? Would it have meant that the war dragged on longer than it did? Here’s one possible answer...June, 1970. A Soviet artillery post outside Chengdu. The Manchurian War is well into its fourth year by now and shows every sign of dragging on into a fifth. The Red Army lieutenant in charge of the artillery position shakes his head in disbelief at the stubbornness of the Chinese. Why don’t those fools admit they’re licked? Port Arthur-Dairen is in ruins, Beijing is essentially a Russian colony, and Red Air Force bombers are flying almost unopposed over Shanghai, adding to the physical and spiritual damaged first inflicted on the once-prosperous port by the missile strikes of 1967. And yet they obstinately cling to resistance, just like the Hitlerite fascists did in 1945 even as Germany was crumbling around them; another similarity the lieutenant has noticed between this conflict and the Great Patriotic War is that the leader of the enemy camp is cowering inside an underground hole rather than accept responsibility for the suffering he has caused-- Mao Zedong has sworn to shoot himself with his last bullet as the Soviets close in on his bunker....
Those who consider it impossible that the Chinese could have continued to hold out after February 1970 forget one small but important detail: both China’s geography and its population were tailor-made for guerrilla warfare. Three decades prior to the outbreak of the Manchurian War, the Chinese had been fighting the Imperial Japanese Army with such tactics, complicating Tokyo’s plans to conquer mainland China; after the Japanese were driven out, Mao used the knowledge he’d gained from that resistance campaign to successfully wage civil war against the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. So it’s not inconceivable that he could have directed an insurgency from China’s hinterlands had he been given the chance to do so.
Had that happened, the Soviet Union might have been kept out of another guerrilla war-- the one it got drawn into in the late 1970s in Afghanistan. Needing to keep a lid on mainland China, the Red Army would have found it that much harder to shore up the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul; even a world power like Russia can’t be everywhere at once. Given a choice between deserting the Afghan Communists or losing their hard-won footholds inside mainland China, odds are the Brehznev regime could have decided abandoning Kabul was the lesser of two evils and channeled its military resources into crushing the Chinese guerrilla forces.
Then again, they could just as easily have concluded that the Kremlin’s interests hinged on keeping the Afghan Marxist regime alive to serve as an ally in its struggle to crush the Chinese insurgency-- in which case the Soviet armed forces would have dipped deeply into their reserves and more and more of the USSR’s young men would have been called up for the military draft in order to enable Moscow to simultaneously go after the Chinese guerrillas and prop up the Kabul regime.
Now we come to the last major turning point in the Manchurian War-- the Krasnokamensk incident of late January 1970 in which a mission to forage for firewood and other fuels led to a firefight between Chinese and Soviet troops as the war was winding down. In real history, the incident caused little more than an exchange of harsh words between Moscow and Beijing and a temporary halt to the cease-fire negotiations then underway in Geneva. But what if the two sides hadn’t stopped at just trading insults?...Early March, 1971. The Manchurian War is now in its fifth year. At the Associated Press’ Tokyo bureau office, bulletins continue to pour in at least once an hour about the latest spasms of fighting in mainland China. American ground and air forces in South Korea are on a more or less permanent state of DefCon 2 alert; plans to reduce the American troop presence in South Vietnam have, at least temporarily, been shelved while the Nixon Administration waits to see what will happen next on the Manchurian battlefront. Lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand are in the midst of fierce debate on the question of whether to increase their respective nations’ defense budgets for the coming fiscal year. In Hong Kong, the economy is in another downturn at the moment as its citizens nervously wait for any sign that the long, brutal Sino-Soviet conflict is finally starting to wind down for good.
In Hanoi, North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong and NVA general Vo Nguyen Giap stare mournfully at a map of their divided country. During the Geneva cease-fire talks between the Soviets and the Chinese, Pham and Giap had nourished a glimmer of hope that they might soon get more help in their struggle to overthrow the US-backed Saigon regime. Now that the talks have collapsed, however, it is all too clear that Hanoi has no option but to keep making do with whatever crumbs it can get from the table of the rest of the Communist bloc; some of Giap’s own senior staff have glumly predicted that it make take another five or even ten years before the struggle to reunify Vietnam can be won....
Could the Communists have won in Vietnam if the Manchurian War had extended into a fifth year? Perhaps, but the price of victory would have been a very high one indeed. The Viet Cong’s insurgency against Saigon had been partly fueled by Chinese and and Soviet aid in its early years; once the Manchurian War broke out, Hanoi was largely on its own in its fight to reunify Vietnam under Marxist rule. That aid shortfall, according to some history and military affairs scholars, may have contributed to a great extent to the stalemate in which the Vietnam War ended as well as the eventual collapse of the Communist regime in Hanoi at the end of the Cold War.
Even today, the effects of the Manchurian War are still being felt-- and will probably continue to be for some time to come. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the war’s end in 2010, there are ominous signs of new tension between Moscow and Beijing over the common Sino-Russian frontier; it is the hope of all people of goodwill, whatever their nationality, that history doesn’t repeat itself and see the outbreak of a second Manchurian War.