WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States Air Force had considered a plan to drop nuclear bombs on China during a confrontation over Taiwan in 1958 but it was overruled, declassified documents showed Wednesday.
When he learned about it, President Dwight Eisenhower instead required the Air Force to initially use conventional bombs against Chinese forces if the crisis escalated, according to previously secret US Air Force history.
The president's instructions seemingly astounded the Air Force top brass but the author of one of the studies released said US policymakers recognized that atomic strikes had "inherent disadvantages" because of the fall-out danger in the region as well as the risk of nuclear escalation.
The report on the crisis by Bernard Nalty, a then historian with the Air Force, included significant detail on nuclear planning, including an initial plan to drop 10-15 kiloton bombs on airfields in Amoy (now called Xiamen) in the event of a Chinese blockade against Taiwan's so-called Offshore Islands.
"This was in accordance with the drift of Air Force thinking which considered nuclear weapons as usable as 'iron bombs,'" according to the report released Wednesday by the National Security Archive.
The body, a non-governmental research institute at George Washington University in Washington, collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act.
"Of course, if there was a real war who knows what would have happened but there wasn't fortunately," William Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, told AFP.
There were two crises on the status of the Offshore Islands -- in 1954 and 1958 -- during the term of Eisenhower, a former military commander, but they did not lead to any serious military confrontation, he said.
"Instead, he ordered the Air Force and Navy to prepare for conventional strikes as a show of determination," the report said, adding however that "if the conflict escalated, nuclear strikes could have followed."
What led the White House to change the ground rules was the recognition that atomic strikes had "inherent disadvantages" -- fallout would cause civilian casualties not only in China but in Taiwanese territory and the risk of nuclear escalation could present itself, the report said.
An important lesson from that crisis was "armed forces must expect civil authority to impose tight controls on them in times of emergency," the report said.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war, but Beijing still sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
The United States, obliged by law to offer Taiwan a means of self-defense if its security is threatened, is the leading arms supplier to the island despite switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
China-Taiwan political ties deteriorated during the past eight years under the rule of President Chen Shui-bian, who had irked Washington and Beijing with his pro-independence stance.
But Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou, who took over from Chen last month, has vowed to improve relations with China, increase trade, tourism and transport links, and work on a peace treaty to end hostilities.
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