Implications for Canada of a US Nuclear War in China


Myasishchev M-4 Bison & two MiG-17s, ca. 1953-1960, Credit: Unknown/Library and Archives Canada/John D. Harbron fonds/e011316663

In the 1950s, senior Canadian and US officials held a series of ‘meetings of consultation’ on a range of international issues that could involve the use of nuclear weapons. The meetings of consultation focused on Cold War crises in Europe and the continental defence of North America. But in this period, Canadian officials had become increasingly concerned that the US would intervene in the Chinese offshore islands dispute amidst rising tensions between the Nationalists and Communists. They were particularly worried that should the US become involved in direct hostilities with Communist China, it could draw the Soviets in and lead to a broader nuclear war.

In meetings, US representatives often emphasized the political importance of the islands for Communist China’s goal of claiming Formosa and expanding its influence in Asia. While the Americans took a hardline stance and promised to support the Nationalists, the Canadians repeated their unwillingness to directly intervene in the islands without prior approval by the UN, which they knew was unlikely. They were also hesitant to make any firm commitments regarding China as this would restrict the government’s policy options.

While the US was unlikely to deploy nuclear weapons over the islands dispute itself, Canada was worried that should the US become involved at the request of the Nationalists, the Soviets could intervene on behalf of Communist China, honouring promises outlined in the Sino-Soviet Treaty. This situation would further complicate matters for Canada as US requests for aid in a fight over China would be hard to separate from its commitments to defend North America in a conflict with the Soviet Union.

By late 1957, Canadian and Americans representatives agreed that the threat of nuclear war over the offshore islands had largely subsided and the situation was stabilizing. They estimated that in the next half-decade, China would focus on domestic issues and that the Sino-Soviet alliance would remain central to China’s international policies. Yet, the Canadians still worried that if China was convinced the US would not retaliate, it would move to seize the islands.

A series of letters, memoranda, and meeting minutes from 1954 through 1957 explore these Canadian concerns over the implications of possible US involvement in the Chinese coastal islands dispute. Taken together, these documents express Canadian officials’ concerns over a possible nuclear war involving the Americans and Soviets in China and how this could entangle Canadian defence efforts abroad and at home. Officials conducted studies, met with their American counterparts, and planned for a range of possible actions in response to fluctuating tensions in China over the years. Ultimately, however, their contingency plans were not put to the test as the dispute avoided direct warfare and stayed non-nuclear.

Implications for Canada of a US Nuclear War in China