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 first three segments of this series we talked about the circumstances that led to the outbreak of the Manchurian War and the initial battles of the war itself, as well as how the United States’ own military operations in southeast Asia were affected by the hostilities. In this installment we’ll examine the end of the pro-Chinese uprising in Mongolia, the PLA’s invasion of Kazakhstan, and the turmoil of the 1968 US Democratic National Convention.
You Don’t Need A Weatherman: January-August, 1968
From the beginning Soviet authorities in Moscow smelled a rat when it came to the pro-Chinese rebellion that had abruptly broken out in the Lake Hyargas region of Mongolia. Up until now there had been precious little sign of any genuine opposition to Russia either in the Mongolian people or in their government; the uprising, one KGB general asserted, had to be a Chinese diversionary tactic. And sure enough during the second week in January KGB operatives in Mongolia uncovered what was soon identified as an improvised munitions dump for Chinese-manufactured weapons of the type confiscated from the insurgent forces. Soon after that a Chinese counterintelligence officer confessed under interrogation that he and several associates had infiltrated the Lake Hyargas region in the late summer of 1967 and recruited several local residents to act as a command cadre for the revolt.
This same interrogation yielded a treasure trove of data regarding the routes the Chinese used to smuggle arms and ammunition to the rebels, as well as a list of names of Chinese operatives involved in orchestrating the insurgent forces’ attacks. Armed with this information, the Soviets struck at the insurgents and their Chinese sponsors with a vengeance; over the next four months, Spetsnaz troopers struck savagely at known and suspected insurgent cells while conventional Soviet ground forces moved to block off Chinese supply routes so that the guerrillas would be deprived of the weapons they needed to carry out their war.
But it would be Soviet air power that finally drove the stake through the heart of the pro-Chinese Mongolian insurgency. On May 7th, 1968 two squadrons of Sukhoi fighter-bombers and a contingent of Tu-16 medium bombers struck the insurgents’ headquarters full force; using a modified form of the tactics American warplanes had employed when they bombed Havana in the first hours of the Florida Keys War, the Soviet jets came in at treetop level to frustrate insurgent anti-aircraft defenses.1 In a saturation assault lasting nearly two hours they pounded the rebels’ HQ to dust, killing the rebel leader and his entire senior staff along with two of the Chinese operatives who’d been directing their attacks. By the time the last planes were recalled back to their bases, the pro-Chinese rebellion had effectively been decapitated; within 48 hours the handful of surviving insurgent cells would surrender to the Red Army.
Two weeks after the air strike, Soviet ground troops entered Shenyang, one of China’s most important industrial cities; the PLA, knowing that the Chinese war effort would be seriously impeded if the Red Army were to succeed in capturing the city, met the attackers head-on, bringing about a firefight the likes of which Soviet soldiers hadn’t experienced since the battle of Stalingrad during World War II. This triggered a massive Soviet air strike which left vast stretches of Shenyang in ruins and compelled the city’s defenders to surrender to the Soviets just 12 hours after the fight for Shenyang had begun.
Brezhnev didn’t waste any time capitalizing on the significant military and propaganda victory his troops had gained for the Kremlin; the moment Shenyang’s capture was confirmed, he went on Soviet state television to boast that the war would be won by Christmas Eve.2 Then, once he was off the air, he ordered his generals to begin preparations for a full-scale assault on Beijing at the earliest feasible moment.
Today Kazakhstan is best-known to most people as the homeland of the fictional TV journalist Borat Sagdiyev, but in the summer of 1968 it was the linchpin on which Chinese strategy would hinge as Mao’s generals sought to divert Soviet resources away from the threatened Red Army push on Beijing. On June 2nd, PLA infantry and armor divisions crossed the Soviet border near the town of Druzhba and began a full-throttle drive towards the eastern shores of Lake Balkhash.
Within a month at least a third of the province was in Chinese hands, and the PLA were making a determined bid to swallow up as much as they could of the rest. Behind the lines citizen militias and KGB-trained guerrilla forces did what they could to disrupt Beijing’s plans; ahead of the lines, Red Army troops were re-directed from other sectors of the battlefront to initiate counteroffensives against the invaders. At the Kazakh provincial capital of Astana, tank traps were dug and homemade bombs3 were prepared in anticipation of an all-out Chinese assault on the city.
Meanwhile, out in the Betpak-Dala Desert, one of the fiercest tank battles in Russian history was being waged in an effort to keep Chinese troops from reaching the Kyrgyz provincial capital of Tashkent or the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the headquarters of the Soviet space program. Both sides had taken extensive measures to "desert-proof" their armored vehicles, and for the Soviets at least those measures paid off as they succeeded in slowing the PLA offensive in Kazakhstan to a crawl. At the Kremlin, the Red Army general staff began laying out their plans for retaking the Lake Balkhash regions from the PLA; the war might not be over by Christmas, but the Rodina would certainly be that much closer to final victory over its sprawling Asian adversary if Moscow played its cards right...
Back in the US, the fight for Kazakhstan played second fiddle to the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination; since Tet, Lyndon Johnson’s re-election prospects had been steadily declining and would-be successors had been crawling out of the woodwork every time he blinked. Minnesota senator Eugene J. McCarthy and former US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy were the two most formidable challengers to his position; Kennedy in particular was riding a tidal wave of popular support following his primary win out in California, and as if the race for the Democratic nomination didn’t have enough drama already a mentally disturbed Jordanian immigrant named Sirhan Bishara Sirhan had seen fit to add a further touch when he tried to assassinate Kennedy just moments after the ex-AG’s victory speech.
As the days and hours ticked down towards the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, even the most cautious political observers were predicting that it would take at least four ballots for the party to choose its nominee. Former Vice-President Richard Nixon, who had already clinched the Republican nomination for President, had little to say about the controversy in public but in private told just about anyone on his campaign staff who would listen that the Democrats’ disarray offered the GOP a perfect opportunity to reclaim the Oval Office after eight years of being on the outside looking in.
Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and groups seeking to foster greater US involvement in efforts to end the Manchurian War also viewed the convention as an opportunity. They knew media coverage would be very intense, and they hoped to exploit it in order to enlist public support for their respective agendas. In short, conditions were ripe for a blowup...and when that blowup came all of America would feel the sting of the shrapnel.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention opened on August 26th amid demands that President Johnson end his re-election bid and resign from office. His handling of the Vietnam War and the Sino-Soviet border conflict continued to draw harsh criticism from all ends of the American political spectrum, and there were suggestions that Johnson’s "War on Poverty" economic program was failing as well. Chicago police were on full alert, worried that some of the more militant anti-war protestors might incite a riot in the streets outside the convention hall.
Their concerns were vindicated the following night as some of the more militant demonstrators got into a physical confrontation with CPD riot squads. It started with pushing and shoving, escalated to fistfights, and then morphed into a full-scale insurrection; chants of "Off the pigs!" could be heard over the wail of sirens as police fought to get the rioters under control. Because of the use of nightsticks and tear gas by the CPD, critics of then-mayor Richard J. Daley would later allege that the police had actually been the ones to instigate the disturbance-- an accusation that Daley would deny to his dying day.
Gene McCarthy was at the podium outlining his proposals for endingAmerica’s involvement in Vietnam when word reached the convention hall about the riots going on outside. Seeking to end the rioting before it escalated into something even worse, he ventured out into the streets to try and personally convince all parties involved to stop the violence before it was too late.
That decision would end up costing the Minnesota senator his life. As he was pleading with the demonstrators and the police for restraint, a particularly angry protestor hurled a brick in the direction of a CPD mounted patrolman; the brick missed the patrolman by nearly half a foot and caught McCarthy straight on the back of the head, fracturing his skull. The horrified scream of a bystander finally brought the rioting to a stop and an ambulance was called to take the senator to University of Illinois Medical Center for treatment. There was, however, little that doctors could do for him-- within 48 hours, McCarthy would be dead from his injuries, dealing a blow to the Democratic Party that would be felt for at least the next quarter-century.
Former Vice-President Richard Nixon, who had accepted his party’s nominiation for president at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach a month earlier, waited nearly 24 hours to make a public statement on the riots. But when he finally did speak up, his words made it clear that the Democratic Party’s days in control of the White House were numbered; stating that he spoke for the "silent majority" of Americans who wanted peace and domestic stability, Nixon told a packed audience at a campaign stop in Cincinnati that the riots in Chicago and Gene McCarthy’s death were proof positive that it was time for a change in the White House. In a bold gesture aimed at winning the hearts and minds of those worried that the United States might get dragged into the Manchurian War, he pledged that in his first 100 days in office he would use America’s influence abroad to bring Beijing and Moscow to the peace table.
Many of Johnson’s fellow Democrats apparently shared Nixon’s desire for a fresh face in the White House; in the early morning hours of August 31st, after four ballots, the party finally nominated Robert Kennedy as its 1968 presidential candidate, with Senator George McGovern of South Dakota chosen as his running mate. A disconsolate Hubert Humphrey broke the news to President Johnson in Johnson’s hotel room ten minutes later; Johnson, according to an aide who was with him at the time, "looked like he’d socked in the kisser" when he learned the Democratic Party had gone with Kennedy. He delayed his return to Washington by a week to take some time for reflection on his ranch back home in Texas; it took no small effort on his part to concede the hard truth that his political career was over, but when he finally emerged from his self-imposed seclusion and came back to the White House, he looked and felt more tranquil than he had in years.
At about the same time that President Johnson was beginning to wrap up his White House tenure, his eventual successor was engaged in a series of phone conferences with Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, said to be one of America’s foremost experts on the Soviet Union. Kissinger had been impressed by Nixon’s boldness in promising to bring an end to the Manchurian War and written him a letter outlining his own proposals for achieving that goal; Nixon, in turn, appreciated the professor’s keen understanding of the Soviet mindset and offered to nominate Kissinger for Secretary of State once he was safely ensconced in the White House.
In Moscow, meanwhile, the Red Army general staff was in conference too; with the Chinese push into Kazakhstan now at a complete standstill, the consensus within the Kremlin was that the Soviet armed forces would soon have the perfect chance to drive the PLA out of Kazakhstan altogether. And Brezhnev was intent on ensuring that his troops made the most of that chance when it did come. Nothing less than an overwhelming victory would suffice to take the wind out of Beijing’s sails...
To Be Continued
1 Not that there were many to frustrate; the outpost had no SAMs whatsoever and painfully inadequate flak batteries.
2 A boast which, as it turned out, was somewhat premature.
3 Or "improvised explosive devices", as the KGB euphemistically called them.