Friday, May 9, 2008

On the Brink in 1958

Yesterday, I commented on the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Sign. It is also the 50th Anniversary of a more ominous event. Declassified documents released the other day revealed the U.S. Air Force devised plans to drop nuclear weapons on Chinese forces during a tense confrontation between the United States and China over Chinese efforts to blockade Taiwan. It happened during the summer of 1958, when Chinese forces were amassing near Taiwan -- which by this time had become home to the Chinese nationalists driven out of the People's Republic of China. Thanks to the declassified documents, we know the Air Force was encouraging the dropping of several 10- to 15-kiloton nuclear devices on Chinese forces in the region. Five B-47s in Guam were placed on high alert to drop the deadly payloads over Chinese bases. The event proved to be a real nail-biter. But unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis four years later, the public was kept largely out of the loop in this confrontation.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (above), who approved of putting Air Force planes on high alert, worried about the effects of fallout from nuclear weapons. Ultimately, he ruled out the use of nukes. The crisis soon subsided and the B-47s were taken off high alert.

Flash forward a half century, to 2008. During the presidential campaign, candidates -- Republican and Democrat alike -- have talked nonchalantly about their willingness to use nuclear weapons on Iran should it attempt to strike Israel. The clinical manner in which the issue is discussed is as stark as it is frightening. There is a Dr. Strangelove-ian quality about the discussion of the use of nukes. It's a lot of macho posturing, and in this case, Hillary Clinton and John McCain sound identical to one another. Nobody is questioning why America still has thousands of active nuclear warheads in its arsenals. In this post-Cold War era, such a deadly stockpile seems like overkill. But don't expect the current group of presidential candidates to challenge what Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex." Good thing it was Eisenhower -- and not Clinton or McCain -- who was president during the 1958 standoff. Otherwise, who would have been the cooler head?

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