Red Guards and Nuclear Missiles
All histories are plagued by mistakes, rumors, and the biases of the times in which they are written. But researchers and writers owe it to themselves and others to try and seek every source, especially when writing about things that occurred in a country with a long record of secrecy, with whom our relations are often fraught, and where a different language is spoken. This is the story of a failure to do that.
Gregory Kulacki / Union of Concerned Scientists 7 January, 2015
China’s nuclear weapons are a source of unending controversy in the United States, in part because the debate is littered with misinformation. The problem is so pervasive that even seasoned researchers have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.
An outstanding investigative journalist and the author of a well-documented book on the troubled history of the U.S. nuclear weapons program mistook fiction for fact when commenting on the history of China’s nuclear program in a November 2014 editorial, writing:
“During the Cultural Revolution in China, members of the red guards launched a missile with a nuclear warhead on a flight path over populated areas – an extremely risky and perhaps unauthorised launch.”
China did conduct this risky test on 27 October 1966. But the nuclear-armed missile was not launched by red guards. It was authorized by Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, supervised by General Nie Rongzhen—the military officer in charge of China’s nuclear weapons program— and certified as technologically feasible by Qian Xuesen, the founding director of the U.S. Joint Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who returned to China from the U.S. after being accused of espionage during the McCarthy era…
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