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)
In Part 1 of this series we looked at the circumstances which led to the Manchurian War and the outbreak of the war itself. In this chapter we’ll outline the Soviet response to the Chinese invasion of Siberia and the war’s spread to Mongolia; we’ll also look at how the rest of the world reacted to the outbreak of war between China and the Soviet Union.
Going For The Jugular: March 1966-February 1967
Lyndon Johnson first learned of the Chinese attack on Khabarvosk via a coded telex from the US embassy in Moscow. "I don’t need this s---.1" he told one of his White House aides when he was finished reading the message, and it’s likely he was speaking not just for himself but also for U.S. allies in the Far East; at precisely the moment when SEATO2 was trying its hardest to promote regional stability, the outbreak of armed hostilities between China and the Soviet Union threatened to upset the apple cart in the worst possible way.
He might also, without knowing it, have been giving vent to the feelings of CPSU First Secretary Brezhnev and Brezhnev’s cabinet. All attempts by Soviet forces to retake Khabarovsk from the Chinese had so far ended in dismal failure, and much of the Soviet Pacific fleet lay either burning or sunk thanks to the actions of Tactical Combat Battalion 12. There were also unconfirmed reports that at least two PLA divisions had begun mounting a diversionary thrust towards the Siberian industrial hub of Magadan...
Much to Mao’s dismay, the outporing of support he’d expected from the socialist world for his bold campaign to redraw the Sino-Soviet border failed to materialize. He certainly got no backing from the Warsaw Pact-- indeed, the very day of the attack on Khabarovsk East German chancellor Walter Ulbricht had stood before the Volkskammer in Berlin and denounced Mao as "the worst threat to human peace and freedom since Hitler"3. Even Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubcek, a critic of many Soviet policies, disapproved of China’s decision to go to war over Damansky Island.
Nor did he get much encouragement from socialist leaders in Africa. Ghana’s Kwame Nkhrumah, for one, called the Chinese assault on Siberia "a hideous error"4 and called for Mao to pull back his troops before it was too late. In Addis Ababa, the central committee of the Ethiopian Communist Party narrowly approved a resolution disapproving of Beijing’s invasion of the Soviet Union; Algerian military ruler Houari Boumdienne called the attack on Siberia "a disaster that will have tragic results for the whole world".5
Castro might have been able to rally Third World support for China’s actions, but that option had long since been closed off; the deposed Cuban Communist dictator was serving a life sentence in a US military prison along with his brother Raul for crimes against the Cuban people and Western POWs during his brief rule over the island. North Vietnam was out too: even if the Vietnamese didn’t have a long-standing history of animosity towards China, Ho Chi Minh had all he could do to defend his own country from the U.S.-led campaign to destroy the Viet Cong. Albania, while a staunch friend of China, was too small and poor to be of much help.
The bitter fighting between the Red Army and the PLA in Siberia was mirrored by internecine quarrels among the ranks of Communist and socialist parties in the West. In Italy, carabineri were forced to intervene to break up street battles in Rome and Milan between pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions of the Italian Communist Party. In France, the third-highest ranking member of the French Communist Party’s Paris branch resigned rather than give a speech that went against his personal view that the Chinese were in the right on the border dispute. Federal and provincial authorities in Canada, who already had their hands full dealing with radical separatists in Quebec, now found themselves saddled with the added burden of trying to avert pitched brawls between members of rival socialist student groups at Canadian universities. West Germany suffered a rash of arson fires committed by pro-Chinese radicals against pro-Soviet organizations (and vice versa).
Even the United States wasn’t immune from this turmoil; in early April of 1966, CPUSA general secretary Gus Hall was shot and seriously wounded during a party gathering in San Francisco in what was later found to be an assassination attempt by dissidents seeking to force the party to abandon its longtime support of the Soviet Union in favor of a more pro-Chinese platform. The night he was arrested, the shooter confessed to San Francisco police(and subsequently to the FBI) that he’d been planning the hit in revenge for an editorial published by Hall in the Party newspaper People’s Weekly World condemning the Chinese attack on Khabarovsk.
A month after their invasion of Siberia, the Chinese launched their second major land campaign of the Manchurian War, sending three armor and two infantry divisions into Mongolia. This time, however, the Red Army was ready for the blow and stopped their PLA adversaries cold with a punishing counterassault backed up by a rock-solid Mongolian defensive line. On the Siberian front, meanwhile, PLA thrusts toward Magadan and Vladivostok stalled as Soviet defensive lines recovered from the shock of the initial Chinese offensive and hit back against the PLA with the aid of reserve brigades and civilian volunteer militias.
In the China Sea, Soviet and Chinese naval forces engaged in a half- dozen inconclusive but costly skirmishes as Beijing resisted Moscow’s attempts to impose a blockade on China in that region. Back at the Kremlin, long debates raged over whether or not to deploy ballistic missiles along the Chinese border and, if they were deployed, in what sectors.
Finally it was decided that IRBMs should be placed within striking distance of strategic targets in northern China. On May 1st, 1966, in a move deliberately timed to coincide with Moscow's annual May Day parade, the Strategic Rocket Forces deployed over a hundred IRBM regiments along the Sino-Soviet border; at least a dozen of these were aimed at Beijing alone. Chinese foreign minister Chou Enlai, in spite of having previously threatened to use "bayonets of fire" on any foreign power that dared intervene against China in the Manchurian War, was outraged by the Soviet missile deployments and denounced Brezhnev as "the new Ivan the Terrible"6.
Chou found further reason anger when, two weeks after the IRBM deployments, Soviet nuclear missile submarines began taking up patrol stations off the Yellow Sea coast, their captains authorized to launch at their own discretion if communications with Moscow were cut off for any reason. Suddenly Asia had become a nuclear tinderbox, and there was considerable(and somewhat justified) alarm that a match might be tossed into it at any second...
In the Khabarovsk region, a KGB-organized partisan network began mounting guerrilla operations against Chinese occupation troops. When possible, Red Army commandos called Spetsnaz7 aided them either with diversionary raids or by acts of sabotage. The PLA occupation authorities, predictably, punished the local civilian population by means of torture, executions, and detentions for the slightest of offenses(or, sometimes, no offense at all).
Just as predictably, this repressive behavior served only to harden the guerrillas’ resolve to drive the Chinese out. Indeed, after one round of hangings in August of 1966, the partisan forces began to target Chinese officers and civilian administrators for assassination. The PLA high command made up their minds that something had to be done to shake their Soviet enemies’ morale to the core, and it had to be done soon...
In Pyongyang, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was putting aside his customary militaristic foreign policy in an attempt to bring Moscow and Beijing to the peace table. Kim was terrified that his country would be overrun with refugees if the war went on too long, and he was anxious to keep that from happening at any cost.
On Septemer 12th, 1966, the North Korean Communist leader drafted a letter to Brezhnev and Mao urging them both to end the fighting at once and accept a negotiated settlement to the border dispute. The longer the war went on, he said, the greater the chances were that the capitalist powers would try to exploit the divisions it was creating in order to split up the alliances between Communist states. "No matter who wins the war," he direly proclaimed, "all of socialism will lose."
But neither the CPSU First Secretary nor the ruler of the People’s Republic were in much of a listening mood just then; each was certain that the other had insulted his country’s national honor and was bent on avenging that slight no matter what the cost.
The problem of Chinese refugees seeking asylum in North Korea wasn’t yet as serious as it would become the following spring; however, there were enough people trying to cross the China-North Korea border that Kim was worried for his nation’s stability if the flow wasn’t stopped or at least reduced to a trickle. On the opposite side of the 38th parallel, South Korea kept a wary eye on the fighting along the Chinese and Mongolian borders-- the government in Seoul was all too well aware that the same refugee problem vexing Pyongyang would sooner or later reach their own doorstep.
Two months after Kim’s failed attempt at bringing his Soviet and Chinese allies to the bargaining table, the PLA shocked the Red Army (and the world) by making a serious breakthrough on the Mongolian front. On November 20th, 1966, Chinese infantry and armored units captured Ulan Bator and set up a pro-Beijing puppet government there. The news of Ulan Bator’s fall sparked a massive exodus from the cities of Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude, both of which were now within striking range of Chinese ground forces should Beijing decide to mount further attacks on Siberia.
To keep the Chinese from pursuing their Mongolian offensive any further, the Soviets initiated a series of tactical thrusts on the PLA’s defensive perimeter around Khabarovsk in early January of 1967. These were mostly hit-and-run offensives, usually mounted by squad-level or platoon-level Red Army infantry units, but still they complicated things for General Bao and his senior staff.
It was at this point that the Chinese made the fateful decision to do something they had previously refrained from doing-- namely, use chemical weapons against the Soviets. When the Manchurian War began the PLA had considered employing chemical weapons to supplement their conventional attacks, but the idea had been rejected on the grounds that such use might backfire on the Chinese. However, attitudes had changed as a result of the frustration Mao and his commanders were feeling over their inability to make the Soviets quit the fight; as far as he was concerned, the gloves were off when it came to chemical warfare.
The plan was to send PLAAF8 fighter jets to attack Soviet troop positions east Khabarovsk using bombs and rockets armed with mustard gas; the thinking behind this strategy went that fear about what the mustard gas could do, combined with witnessing the actual effects of the gas, would serve to frighten the Red Army into a rout. Once that was accomplished, the PLA could march up to Vladivostok unopposed and seize the vital Pacific port. From there-- or so it was believed --it would be only a matter of time before Moscow realized the jig was up and threw in the towel.
But in late February, ten days before the air strike was scheduled to take place, an alert KGB listening post along the Manchurian frontier tipped the Soviet general staff off to the impending raid. Red Army troops in the Khabarovsk area, already prepared for the worst to begin with, made it a point to take extra precautions to ensure that as many of their number as possible survived the attack. Concurrently, several of the IRBM and ICBM regiments within striking distance of China had their missiles outfitted with chemical warheads as the Kremlin braced itself to respond in kind to the approaching mustard gas attack.
On February 28th, 1967, the CIA station chief in Saigon cabled the White House with news that the Chinese chemical strike was less than 72 hours away. Within minutes of that cable’s receipt, President Johnson instructed the State Department to immediately evacuating all dependents and non-essential personnel from the US embassies in Tokyo, Bangkok, Manila, Canberra, and Wellington. If things got out of hand in Siberia-- and at the time Johnson had little reason to believe they wouldn’t --he wanted to be sure American civilians were out of harm’s way....
To Be Continued
1 Quoted from Chapter 14 of Seymour M. Hersh’s book Walking A Tightrope: The White House and the Manchurian War, copyright 1975 by Harper Collins.
2 Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, a now-defunct mutual defense alliance that was set up in the late 1950s as a Pacific counterpart to NATO.
3 Quoted from the March 3rd, 1966 edition of the official East German government newspaper Neues Deutschland Zeitung.
4 From a speech before the Ghanian national parliament delivered two days after the Manchurian War began.
5 Quoted in the March 4th, 1966 edition of the Manchester Guardian.
6 Quoted from the May 2nd, 1966 edition of the official CPC party news paper People's Daily.
7 A contraction of the Russian words "spetsialnogo naznacheniya", or special purpose troops.
8 People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the air branch of the Chinese armed services.