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."
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.