The 1964 Gilpatric Committee and the Origins of America's Counterproliferation Policy

Frank Gavin
University of Texas

May 14, 2003

Imagine the scenario: only a decade ago the U.S. fought a bloody ground war against a rogue state led by a totalitarian dictator with expansionist ambitions. Fueled by an extreme ideology, his country is now on the verge of nuclear capability, and he may not be deterrable. Is a preventive attack justified?

The rogue state in question is not Iraq in 2003, but China in 1963. Chinese nuclear proliferation raised the question of preventive war for the United States and sparked intense debate on the scope and nature of American counterproliferation policy. To what extent did Chinese nuclear proliferation threaten American interests, and what would be the most effective counterproliferation policy?

The intelligence estimates were bloodcurdling, projecting Chinese thermonuclear weapons by 1970 and the ability to kill 100 million Americans by 1980. McGeorge Bundy warned President Kennedy that the nascent Chinese nuclear capability was the single most severe threat to the security of the United States in 1963. The president agreed and redoubled his support for the Test Ban Treaty, which was signed in the summer of 1963.

When Chinese nuclear weapons became a reality in October 1964, the Johnson Administration tried hard to appear less concerned than it actually was. This was not difficult in an eventful week that included the replacement of Khrushchev in the Soviet Union; the fall of the Tory government in Great Britain; and the sordid sexual scandal involving Walter Jenkins, White House chief of staff, with a U.S. presidential election only three weeks away.

Despite the cultivated façade of nonchalance, the Johnson Administration was deeply worried about a nuclear China, and formed a secret committee to evaluate American counterproliferation policy and chart a course into the future. Formation of the Gilpatric Committee marked a watershed between passive and active counterproliferation policies.

The Gilpatric Committee identified four major counterproliferation options on a spectrum ranging from passive acceptance to aggressive rollback of nuclear capabilities. The first option would accept proliferation as inevitable and work toward peaceful accommodation of multiple nuclear powers. The second option, which corresponded to existing U.S. policy, would regard proliferation as a problem worth addressing, but not at the expense of other important foreign-policy goals. The third option would be an activist policy, with a willingness to accept substantial costs and risks for counterproliferation. The fourth and final option would call for an extremely aggressive counterproliferation policy, in which U.S. foreign policy would be dedicated to the pursuit of nuclear rollback.

Each of these four options implied significant changes in U.S. foreign policy. The first option was grounded in the realpolitik prediction that proliferation could lead to regional balances of power and therefore a modicum of global stability. Chinese proliferation would be balanced by a nuclear Japan, and the Soviet Union by a united, nuclear Europe. In a world of multiple nuclear powers, the United States would be able to withdraw from military commitments around the world in relative safety.

The second option would be to maintain the status quo. This relatively passive approach was seen as unsustainable and even dangerous, since open-ended American security guarantees would be required to keep key allies non-nuclear.

The third option, ultimately recommended by the committee, called for greater cooperation with the Soviet Union and paved the way toward détente. This option identified nonproliferation as an area of "limited mutuality of interest" between the U.S. and the USSR, and referred to the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe as a model. This bold reordering of American priorities demonstrated a certain intellectual courage on the part of the committee, considering that the Cuban Missile Crisis had happened only two years earlier.

The fourth option recommended that counterproliferation become the top priority in U.S. foreign policy. This implied aggressive American engagement around the world toward the goal of nuclear rollback. This option recommended "brutal" measures against Israel and Egypt, and stern treatment of other allies such as France and West Germany.

The Gilpatric Committee's deliberations identified three paradoxes intrinsic to counter-proliferation efforts. The first paradox was that the more effort the United States put into counterproliferation, the more valuable nuclear weapons appeared to smaller powers for use as political bargaining chips. This undermined the American argument that nuclear weapons had no political value, and made counterproliferation an expensive prospect in terms of political capital.

The second paradox was that effective counterproliferation could only be achieved with the cooperation of the Soviet nemesis, at the expense of close allies such as Israel, Japan, and West Germany. John McCloy argued that to sacrifice German interests at the altar of disarmament would be to risk a repeat of the 1920s. Dean Rusk, meanwhile, argued that a policy of blanket counterproliferation implied a moral equivalence between Sweden and Mao's China, unfairly tarring friendly peaceful countries with the same brush as aggressive Communist powers. Nevertheless, the Committee concluded, to let any individual state proliferate on its own merits would be to undermine the architecture of global nonproliferation: how could the U.S. tell West Germany to refrain from proliferation while encouraging India to balance a nuclear China?

The third paradox the Gilpatric Committee identified was that the goals of counterproliferation were often incompatible with the American nuclear posture. In Europe, for example, American nuclear weapons strengthened extended deterrence but also undermined the moral high ground that any effective European nonproliferation regime would have to stand on. This would also be true of an ABM system. An American pledge of no-first-use, on the other hand, would have the opposite effect, demonstrating commitment to nonproliferation while eroding the credibility of nuclear deterrence.

The convoluted logic of nuclear weapons and counterproliferation had tragic effects for the United States in Vietnam. The Chinese nuclear test in October 1964 strengthened the Johnson Administration's resolve to maintain its military commitments to South Vietnam. The logic was that an American withdrawal from Vietnam would validate Chinese nuclear proliferation, which could frighten Japan and India into developing nuclear weapons, which could weaken the constraints on West German nuclear proliferation, which could threaten détente with the Soviet Union. And thus President Johnson authorized Rolling Thunder only four months after the Chinese nuclear test, and deployed American ground troops to Vietnam only five months after that. Within a year of the Chinese nuclear test and the formation of the Gilpatric Committee, the United States had over 200,000 troops in Vietnam.

The recommendations of the Gilpatric Committee remain largely unknown today. Johnson had prepared to announce a new American counterproliferation policy during a speech to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations, but Robert Kennedy discussed counterproliferation in a speech a few days earlier, leading Johnson to abandon the theme. The Committee's report was then kept classified for three decades. Although it did not steer American counterproliferation policy in a major new direction, there has been a slow drift toward a more aggressive posture: witness the recent war in Iraq. While the Committee did not solve the dilemma of the nuclearization of world politics, it did raise a number of important issues that still bear close examination today.

Trained as a historian, Francis J. Gavin teaches international relations, economic history, and security studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. His book, Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958-1971, will be published in the New Cold War History series at the University of North Carolina Press in January 2004.

Rapporteur: Daniel Landau

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