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 five chapters of this series we recalled the runup to the Manchurian War, the early years of the war itself, the war’s effects on American interests in the Far East, and the beginning of peace negotiations to bring about the war’s end. In this segment we’ll review some of the war’s final battles and the peace accord that finally put a stop to the slaughter.
Last Licks: September 1969-January 1970
Though there were no further major offensives by either the PLA or the Red Army after the Geneva cease-fire talks resumed, tactical ground assaults would go on for the rest of the Manchurian War. Some of these were simple exercises in glory-seeking, carried out by would-be Zhukovs and Lin Baos desperate to earn their combat laurels before the guns were silenced. Others were reprisal operations carried out in retaliation for POW atrocities committed by one belligerent against the other. A few were suicide missions designed to eliminate potential malcontents.
But the vast majority of such raids sought to achieve a broader purpose-- enhancing each side’s battlefield holdings so that in turn it would enjoy a stronger position at the conference table. On that score, the Soviet Union was winning rather handily. With its tank and artillery advantage offsetting the numerical advantage of the PLA’s infantry divisions, the Red Army took Damansky island back from the Chinese in early September of 1969; by mid-October it had expanded its holdings in Manchuria to the mouth of the Yalu River.1
On November 7th, 1969, in a statement timed to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of the 1917 Communist Revolution, Leonid Brezhnev declared that beginning on December 1st most of the Red Army’s front-line troops in the Chinese theater would be rotated back home and their assignments in that area transferred to reserve units. Battle-weary vets, seeing a change to finally rest, welcomed Brezhnev’s decision, as did hundreds of thousands of families worried about losing a son, husband, or brother to the meat grinder of the Manchurian War.
One month later the Soviet air force began standing down its bomber squadrons along the Chinese border from combat duty, taking them off full alert and returning them to their previous assignments patrolling the ‘fail-safe’ zones near the limits of US airspace. Even the missile submarines that had been roaming the China Sea gradually withdrew from firing range, thankfully quelling the last vestiges of fear that the Manchurian War might erupt into global nuclear conflict.
But before the peace treaty was signed and the guns were put away, both sides would find time for one last bout of savagery. It happened just after New Year’s Day 1970 near the Siberian border town of Krasnokamensk when a handful of winter-weary PLA infantrymen ventured into Soviet territory foraging for fuel supplies...
Most of the PLA soldiers who strayed into the area around Krasnokamensk late on the evening of January 6th, 1970 had little or no interest in tangling with Soviet troops; they just wanted to gather firewood, or maybe heist a few cans of gasoline from unguarded enemy supply depots, so they could start a fire back at their own outpost to fend off the chill of the notoriously brutal Siberian winter.
Unfortunately for them, they ran into a Red Army corporal who was looking for a fight and spotted them as they were attempting to smuggle a jerrican of heating fuel back to the Chinese lines. The corporal immediately opened fire on the Chinese troops, who didn’t hesitate to fire back, and before long a full-fledged firefight was in progress; the hapless PLA intruders and their Red Army foes battled for over two hours before a squad of airborne troops finally chased off what was left of the Chinese foraging party.
Had it not been for the fact that both Moscow and Beijing were tired of the war, the Krasnokamensk incident could easily have provoked a renewed escalation of hostilities; as it was, the two adversaries would content themselves with slinging propaganda barbs at one another in the aftermath of the firefight. Other than that, and a 24-hour boycott of the Geneva cease-fire talks by the Soviet Union, there were no further repercussions over Krasnokamensk.2
While there were still a few bones of contention between Soviet and Chinese negotiators at the Geneva talks, both sides agreed unanimously on one point: the use and manufacture of chemical weapons had to be immediately and permanently outlawed. Such weapons, after initially showing promise as an alternative to nuclear bombs, had proven too unreliable, proving as dangerous to their users as to the intended targets. Furthermore, the United States-- which a year earlier had begun unilaterally scrapping its own chemical weapons inventory-- was capitalizing on world outrage over the continued existence of the Soviet and Chinese chemical arsenals as a means of undermining the Communist cause worldwide. Moscow and Beijing were understandably anxious to yank that propaganda weapon out of President Nixon’s hands as soon as possible.
Finally, in late January the word came from Geneva that a cease-fire agreement had been reached and would formally take effect as of February 2nd. Under its terms, Soviet troops would pull out of Manchuria within 18 months; the Chinese would suspend their claims to Damansky Island pending review of the Sino-Soviet border question by an international arbitration panel; both sides would immediately release all their remaining POWs; Soviet short-range missiles would be pulled back from the Chinese border; and in what had to be a painful sacrifice for Brezhnev as well as Mao, the combatants agreed to let let UN monitoring teams onto their soil to observe the implementation implementation of the cease-fire.
The Manchurian War was finally over. Now it was time to bury the dead and help the survivors rebuild their lives.
An Uncertain Future: February 1970-August 1971
Three days after the cease-fire was signed, Soviet occupation forces in Manchuria began packing up to leave. That same day Soviet IRBM and MRBM bases in Siberia were taken off full alert and the last of the nuclear subs which had been patrolling the China Sea returned to their regular duties in the Pacific. The world at large breathed a collective sigh of relief that Moscow and Beijing had holstered their guns and nuclear conflict had been averted once more.
But at the same time there were a number of questions and uncertainties that had to be addressed in the postwar era. Not the least of these was the fate of thousands of Chinese refugees still living on the Korean peninsula, most of whom were camped south of the 38th parallel. Although legally Beijing was obligated to assist those who wished to resettle in mainland China, Mao and his cabinet were confronted with a previously unforeseen obstacle to achieving this end-- many of the refugees simply didn’t want to go home. Having tasted(however briefly) freedom, comfort, and prosperity in South Korea, they were in no hurry to return to the hardship and deprivation that had marked their old lives under Communist rule.
Mao was infuriated at this development and accused the South Koreans of having corrupted the refugees; the South Koreans, of course, denied his allegations. Seeking to ensure that the feud between Beijing and Seoul over the refugee question didn’t turn into yet another long and costly Asian regional war, the UN formed a committee to probe the refugees’ situation and make a determination on whether they should stay or go home. The committee first met in May of 1970, shortly after Nixon’s ill-fated "incursion" into Cambodia, and spent the better part of four months interviewing refugees throughout South Korea. To Mao’s dismay, the committee concluded its investigation with the findings that 1) Beijing’s corruption accusations were unfounded and 2)those refugees who wanted to stay in South Korea should be allowed to do so.
Exhausted by years of fighting the Soviet Union, China could do little in response to the committee’s decision other than issue harshly worded denunciations of the UN and South Korea. Those refugees who did come back to China returned to a country they scarcely recognized-- and it wasn’t just because of the damage wrought by Soviet bombs and gunfire. The popular discontent which had been sparked by Mao Zedong’s handling of the Manchurian War still simmered among the Chinese masses in the war’s aftermath, and while it had not quite reached the point of open rebellion it was still sufficiently strong enough to compel Mao and his cabinet to rethink some of the more stringent aspects of the Cultural Revolution.
One man who would not be around for the coming change in political attitudes within the CPC elite was General Lin Bao; in March of 1971, Bao and his senior aides were all killed in a plane crash along the Mongolian border. The official explanation was that General Bao had been on his way to an inspection tour of PLA bases on the Chinese side of the frontier; unofficially, however, it was widely suspected by Western and Soviet counterintelligence officials that he had been trying to flee China after an unsuccessful attempt to oust Mao from power.
By May of 1971 the last Soviet troops had left Manchuria; after a brief flirtation with independence, the province was reabsorbed into China a month later. Like their former Chinese adversaries, the Red Army personnel being called home from the battlefront were returning to a nation heading towards substantial change in its political climate. While the process of that change would take longer to happen than it did in China, its effects on world history would be equally dramatic...
In August of 1971 the Chinese foreign ministry quietly dropped a bombshell on the Nixon Administration: through its embassy in Zurich, it indicated that Mao Zedong wanted to normalize diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Nixon, a diehard anti-Communist, found it hard to take the message at face value at first; after all, for years Beijing had been portraying the United States as imperialist warmongers bent on world conquest, and even at the Manchurian War’s height there had been a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric pouring out of Chinese state-run media. On top of that, Nixon was naturally predisposed to suspect the worst about the left both at home and abroad.
But his CIA director at the time, Richard Helms, presented him with substantial evidence that Mao’s desire for improved relations with the US was genuine and considerable. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggested that if approached from the right angle Mao could be turned into a valuable ally in the United States’ ongoing Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union.
With Nixon’s blessing, Kissinger drafted a letter of reply to Mao saying that the US President also desired more cordial relations between the United States and China; from this communiqué sprang the negotiations that led to the historic Nixon-Mao summit in Beijing in April of 1972, which in turn would lead to the Jimmy Carter-Deng Xiaoping talks seven years later that established full diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing...
To Be Continued
1 No doubt quelling any remaining temptations Kim Il Sung might have had to enter the war on the Chinese side.
2 There was, however, a stricter attitude taken by the PLA towards the distribution of alcoholic beverages among its soldiers-- it later developed that at least two members of the foraging party had been somewhat inebriated on stolen vodka when they ventured into the Krasnokamensk area.