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 four installments of this series we chronicled the runup to the Manchurian War and the first months of the war itself, along with the war’s effects on American interest in the Far East. In this segment we’ll look at the Soviet drive to push the Chinese out of Kazakhstan and the beginning of President Nixon’s effort to bring Moscow and Beijing to the conference table to negotiate an end to the war.
When The Going Gets Tough: September 1968-February 1969
In early September of 1968 the Red Army high command began laying the foundations for what would be remembered as the most important Soviet land campaign of the Manchurian War: Operation Wolverine, the campaign to liberate eastern Kazakhstan from Chinese occupation. Soviet defense minister Andrei Gretchko was adamant that the PLA must be driven out of Kazakhstan before winter set in, and accordingly Red Army commanders in the area where the assault was to begin positioned their artillery and armored resources to strike the hardest possible blow against the Chinese right at the start.
Following the same principle, Soviet air force tactical attack squadrons in the region redeployed from their normal bases to temporary airstrips near the western side of Lake Balkash from which they could hit the PLA at full-tilt the minute the shooting started on the ground. Also on hand for the coming showdown: two Tu-16 squadrons in neighboring Uzbekistan. Even the Soviet navy had a role in Operation Wolverine, albeit only a peripheral one-- transport ships were on standby near the port of Baku to pick up emergency oil supplies for the attack force in the event that their existing fuel stocks proved inadequate for the task at hand.
Western sigint1 personnel monitoring Soviet communications around that time noticed a major surge in traffic between Moscow and Red Army field commanders in mid-September; from this they concluded that the assault was, if not imminent, certainly on the horizon. Their hunch proved to be right on the money-- on October 4th, after 48 hours of almost continuous artillery bombardment, Red Army infantry, armor, and special operations detachments tore into the Chinese defensive lines on the other side of Lake Balkhash. Soviet tactical attack aircraft and Uzbekistan-based Tu-16s backed up the offensive with massive bombing raids against all major PLA outposts in the Chinese occupation zone.
The effect was shattering: the PLA not only lost all the territory it had acquired during its initial invasion of Kazakhstan, but also found itself under Soviet attack on its home soil as the occupation forces retreated across the Chinese border. Knowing that the Mao regime would censor its own media in an attempt to keep the masses from learning the truth about the PLA’s final defeat in Kazakhstan, Brezhnev authorized Radio Moscow’s Chinese-language service to broadcast reports about the retreat as often as possible every day.
Thousands of miles away, the 1968 US presidential campaign was in its final stages as the Kennedy-McGovern ticket fought to keep the Oval Office in Democratic hands while Richard Nixon and his running mate, then-Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, sought to regain it for the GOP. The Manchurian War was a major campaign issue that year, and Nixon had claimed a valuable tactical advantage for himself with his bold pledge to use American influence abroad to bring about peace talks between Beijing and Moscow. Sen. Kennedy found himself in the unenviable position of having to play catch-up-- something his wealthy and famously successful family hadn’t had much experience with.
Both candidates followed with interest the reports of growing unrest inside mainland China. Despite the Mao regime’s best efforts to maintain its iron-fisted control of the masses, ordinary Chinese citizens were braving prison or even execution to protest Mao’s conduct of the war and proclaim their desire to end hostilities with the Soviet Union. It was the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 that China’s own people had dared to openly criticize their government. The largest and most dramatic display of such criticism was in Tienanmen Square in the heart of Beijing, where daily rallies organized mostly by the young alternated calls for an end to the war with pleas for greater political freedom.
Mao found these displays intolerable, and he resolved to put an end to them without delay. While the US presidential campaign was reaching its climax and the Soviets were continuing to prosecute Operation Wolverine, he and General Lin Bao prepared to crush the rallies with a show of force he was certain would end forever all challenges to his rule...
On November 7th, 1968 Richard Nixon won his six-year-long battle to escape political exile, defeating Robert F. Kennedy to become the 36th President of the United States. In his victory speech he promised that during his tenure as commander-in-chief, America would serve as "the world’s great peacemaker"2; he had ambitions not only of bringing Moscow and Beijing to the bargaining table and ending Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but also of reducing the threat of nuclear war that had hung over the entire human race for nearly a quarter-century.
Two days after his victory, the President-elect was relaxing at his home in San Clemente when his wife Pat told him to turn on the TV. Something big was happening in China, she said, and she felt he ought to know about it right away. Nixon followed his wife’s advice, and sure enough NBC news anchor David Brinkley was delivering the grim word that troops loyal to the Mao regime had attacked the protestors in Tienanmen Square; the words "massacre" and "butchery" figured prominently in his report, and his voice, normally a model of cool Olympian dispassion, held an undercurrent of barely contained anger. Nixon stayed glued to that TV set for the next 24 hours, following each new development on the carnage in Beijing as it came in.
Nixon drafted a press release that stopped just short of directly laying blame for the massacre at Mao Zedong’s feet but still harshly criticized the Chinese government’s brutal treatment of the Beijing demonstrators. His statement declared: "There is no place in any civilized nation for the use of violence to suppress political dissent".3 Back at the White House, President Johnson met with his senior defense, intelligence, and diplomatic officers trying to get a handle on how severe the crackdown had been.
It had been very severe indeed; 200 demonstrators had been killed and 500 more injured in the government-orchestrated bloodbath, while four dozen of the more prominent protestors had been arrested as they were trying to flee to safety. The Tienanmen Square tragedy sparked a mass exodus from China as thousands of people, either tired of Communist repression or fearful of being killed the next time something like this happened, pulled up stakes to seek a freer life elsewhere.
Mao’s attempt to silence criticism of his handling of the war with the Soviet Union had backfired; though he might have succeed in suppressing the Tienanmen Square rally, hundreds of other antiwar demonstrations followed in its wake. Even certain elements of Mao’s own armed forces showed sympathy for the dissenters’ cause; within ten days after the events in Beijing, two PLA division commanders had resigned their commissions in disgust over the November 9th massacre. One of these officers, in an anonymous statement mailed to the BBC’s Tokyo office, said "I would rather sleep in an alley until my dying day than wear this shameful uniform one more hour".4
A few weeks later, further trouble for Mao manifested itself in the form of a mutiny attempt on board the flagship of the Chinese navy’s East Sea Fleet. The vessel’s chief helmsman had lost a brother in the carnage at Tienanmen Square and before that had been growing steadily disillusioned with the hard-line Maoism his captain still believed in with a fervor; taking matters into his own hands, the helmsman recruited 24 of his shipmates and the ship’s first officer to join him in his uprising. The mutineers’ intention was to put the captain and anyone else who still backed Mao off the ship at Hainan Island, then cross the Straits of Taiwan and claim political asylum on Taiwanese soil. It might have worked but for one small obstacle: at the height of the mutiny, the ship’s political officer shot the helmsman and killed him, taking much of the steam out of the revolt. Eventually, all but one of the mutineers were put to death for their troubles.
Back on land, the Soviets continued to press their advantage as the PLA pulled its last remaining units out of Kazakhstan. Soviet ground and air forces struck into China’s Xinjiang province in early December of 1968; a month later they controlled a third of the province and were making an aggressive effort to conquer the rest. Brezhnev eagerly followed their operations, sensing that the day was getting close when he could finally declare victory over the Mao regime....
On January 20th, 1969, Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the United States. One of the first foreign heads of state to call on him was Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-Shek, who’d been watching the events on the other side of the Taiwan Straits with mixed feelings. While he was glad to see his nation’s two worst enemies pound the stuffing out of each other, he told the new commander-in-chief, at the same time he felt aconsiderable unease at the possibility that the Manchurian War might yet escalate into nuclear conflict.
Nixon shared Chiang’s concerns about a possible Sino-Soviet nuclear war; accordingly, on February 1st he dispatched his newly sworn-in Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Osaka for a secret summit with the Soviet and Chinese ambassadors to Japan to begin sounding out their respective governments about the conditions under which they might agree to end hostilities. Shortly after the summit, Soviet and Chinese negotiators met in Geneva to begin cease-fire discussions; one of the first major concessions made at these talks was an agreement by the Soviet Union to a prisoner exchange with China. In return, the Chinese signed a protocol guaranteeing that they would make no further attempts to occupy Mongolia or to capture Magadan and Vladivostok.
There was little else the two parties could agree on, however, and the fighting would continue to drag on for months as Moscow and Beijing each tried to seize the advantage and gain whatever territory they could grab before the guns finally fell silent...
A Light At The End Of The Tunnel: February-August 1969
Although they’d long since achieved full air superiority and has easily dispensed with most of the few warships Beijing had at its disposal, the Soviets continued to find China a troublesome foe on the ground. Despite the tremendous blows it had taken earlier in the war, the PLA held out with bulldog tenacity against the Red Army units assaulting them fromall quarters. The main Soviet battle force, which at one time had been less than fifteen miles from the outskirts of the Chinese capital, found itself forced to withdraw to a line nearly forty miles from the city.
Nonetheless, in his speeches to his fellow countrymen and his official statements to the foreign press, Leonid Brezhnev continued to radiate a glowing confidence that final victory in the Manchurian War would go to the Soviet Union. And this confidence was to a great extent justified: although the Red Army was outnumbered 3-1 in regard to infantry troops, it held the advantage in terms of tanks, artillery, APCs5, and support/logistics capabilities. Furthermore, with Chinese casualties now having reached 4 million-- and that number sure to rise as the war went on -- even some of Mao Zedong’s own generals had started to question the wisdom of continuing hostilities against the Russians.
Some of these doubts surfaced in April of 1969 in a confidential memo sent to General Lin Bao by the commander of a PLA infantry division that was among the units assigned to defend Beijing. The fact that such a thing could happen at all in a society as notoriously conformist as Communist China’s was remarkable enough; that it involved one of Lin Bao’s most respected field commanders sent shock waves throughout the world. Among some of the harshest criticisms expressed in the memo: 1)that political considerations had been routinely allowed to take precedence over military ones from the moment the war began; 2)not enough had been done before the war to ensure an adequate supply of combat aircraft for the PLAF; 3)unless China’s diplomats could somehow rally world opinion to pressure Moscow into softening its negotiating stance at the Geneva cease-fire talks, the war would likely end with Manchuria essentially becoming a Soviet colony.
But the memo proved to be far more than just a rebuke of Mao’s handling of the war; it was the first tremor of an ideological earthquake which would rock the CPC elite to its core in the final years of his life. The hardliners in the party’s upper echelons took it as a personal insult and demanded its author’s head on a platter, while a more moderate wing of the party leadership saw it as an opportunity for self-criticism that could only strengthen China. The radicals, of course, viewed it as a call to end the war immediately. At first Mao sided with the hardliners, not wanting to be viewed as weak or indecisive; however, with the war continuing to take a heavy toll on his people as well as his armies his views gradually shifted in favor of the moderates in the party.
By June of 1969 even the most ideologically rigid of the hardliners could see that the war was drawing to a close; accordingly, there was a shift in priorities within the PLA high command. The focus was no longer on winning the war but putting China in the strongest possible negotiating position at the Geneva cease-fire talks; accordingly, PLA ground strategy became defensively rather than offensively oriented as Beijing sought to wear their more powerful Soviet adversies to the point where Moscow would agree to peace on terms favorable to China.
On July 20th, 1969 the world got a welcome if all too brief respite from the war as millions tuned in to watch the Apollo 11 spacecraft fulfill the age-old human dream of landing on the moon. For once even the battlefields of mainland China were silent as troops on both sides of the conflict sat in their barracks listening to minute-by-minute radio accounts of the landing from the BBC, Radio Moscow, or the Voice of America’s Chinese-language service.6
A month later the Soviets made a dramatic concession which would serve to hasten the war’s end: they agreed to China’s long-standing demand that Moscow withdraw its intermediate and medium-range nuclear missile regiments from the Chinese border. In return, Beijing granted the Kremlin’s request for an international arbitration panel to settlethe Ussuri River border dispute once hostilities had ended.
The Geneva cease-fire talks resumed on August 13th amid an atmosphere of great hope; at long last, one could begin counting the weeks and days until a peace accord was finally written up and signed. There were, of course, many other political issues still to be settled, and low-level ground fighting between Red Army and PLA units would continue until late January of 1970. But there was no mistaking it: the Manchurian War, which so often had threatened to escalate intothermonuclear conflict, was nearing its end....
To Be Continued
1 Signal intelligence.
2 Quoted from the Los Angeles Times, November 8th, 1968; the complete transcript of Nixon’s victory speech is on file at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calfornia.
3 From a Nixon press release issued November 10th.
4 The author of the statement eventually defected to Japan and found work as a translator for NHK’s radio news service.5 Armored personnel carriers.
6 Though Chinese citizens were forbidden by law to listen to foreign broadcasts, PLA field commanders had by this time become somewhat lax in ensuring their troops’ compliance with such laws. Whether it was from simple war-weariness or from the same desire for broader political freedom that motivated the November 1968 Tienanmen Square protests is a still a matter of intense debate.