A Myth Is Born

On January 24, 1996, the New York Times carried the following account of a conversation between a Chinese official and Chas. W. Freeman, a former U.S. assistant defense secretary: "Mr. Freeman quoted a Chinese official as asserting that China could act militarily against Taiwan without fear of intervention by the United States because American leaders ...

On January 24, 1996, the New York Times carried the following account of a conversation between a Chinese official and Chas. W. Freeman, a former U.S. assistant defense secretary: "Mr. Freeman quoted a Chinese official as asserting that China could act militarily against Taiwan without fear of intervention by the United States because American leaders 'care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan,' a statement that Mr. Freeman characterized as an indirect threat by China to use nuclear weapons against the United States."

Thus was born one of the more enduring myths in contemporary U.S. foreign policy -- namely, that China might nuke Los Angeles if the United States came to Taiwan's defense in the event of a military assault by China. As Mr. Freeman noted in April 1999, the Chinese official was speaking against the historical backdrop of repeated U.S. threats to launch nuclear attacks on China -- threats that China could today counter. In particular, Freeman stressed that the Chinese official's statement "is in a deterrent context and it is consistent with no first use [of nuclear weapons]. It is not a threat to bomb Los Angeles."

Anyone familiar with nuclear doctrine or Chinese strategic policy would have thought twice before believing that China was dropping its pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, or that China now thought that it could win a nuclear exchange. But such subtleties were lost as proponents of missile defense seized on the New York Times account to bolster their cause. In August 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole said that Chinese communists threatened "to rain down missiles on Los Angeles" -- language that mirrored the 1996 Republican Party platform's statement that "Communist China has mocked our vulnerability by threatening to attack Los Angeles if we stand by our historic commitment to the Republic of China on Taiwan."

On January 24, 1996, the New York Times carried the following account of a conversation between a Chinese official and Chas. W. Freeman, a former U.S. assistant defense secretary: "Mr. Freeman quoted a Chinese official as asserting that China could act militarily against Taiwan without fear of intervention by the United States because American leaders ‘care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan,’ a statement that Mr. Freeman characterized as an indirect threat by China to use nuclear weapons against the United States."

Thus was born one of the more enduring myths in contemporary U.S. foreign policy — namely, that China might nuke Los Angeles if the United States came to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a military assault by China. As Mr. Freeman noted in April 1999, the Chinese official was speaking against the historical backdrop of repeated U.S. threats to launch nuclear attacks on China — threats that China could today counter. In particular, Freeman stressed that the Chinese official’s statement "is in a deterrent context and it is consistent with no first use [of nuclear weapons]. It is not a threat to bomb Los Angeles."

Anyone familiar with nuclear doctrine or Chinese strategic policy would have thought twice before believing that China was dropping its pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, or that China now thought that it could win a nuclear exchange. But such subtleties were lost as proponents of missile defense seized on the New York Times account to bolster their cause. In August 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole said that Chinese communists threatened "to rain down missiles on Los Angeles" — language that mirrored the 1996 Republican Party platform’s statement that "Communist China has mocked our vulnerability by threatening to attack Los Angeles if we stand by our historic commitment to the Republic of China on Taiwan."

A more nuanced and correct view of Freeman’s exchange, such as in the Rumsfeld Commission’s 1998 report, tends to be the exception rather than the rule. In a July 1999 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senator Jesse Helms warned that "Just after China fired missiles off Taiwan’s coast in 1995, a Chinese general publicly boasted that the U.S. would never come to Taiwan’s defense because ‘Americans care more about Los Angeles than Taipei.’"

Helms’s interpretation has become holy writ. Even George W. Bush said in a campaign speech that "a Chinese general reminded America that China possesses the means to incinerate Los Angeles with nuclear missiles." As president, Bush must decide whether building national missile defense is worth the price of a renewed global arms race. He should take the advice recently offered by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and make his decision contingent upon "actual” threats instead of imagined ones.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.