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The Day the Chinese Got the Bomb

Forty-four years ago, the United States confronted a new nuclear power — Red China.

On Oct. 16, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson told the nation that the Chinese had conducted their first nuclear test, a determination he noted had been confirmed by American detectors. In his brief public comments, LBJ took a measured tone, a bit at odds with the current hubbub over Iran's nuclear program (or Iraq's dismantled one).

This explosion comes as no surprise to the United States Government. It has been fully taken into account in planning our own defense program and our own nuclear capability. Its military significance should not be overestimated. Many years and great efforts separate the testing of a first nuclear device from having a stockpile of reliable weapons with effective delivery systems.

Still more basic is the fact that if and when the Chinese Communists develop nuclear weapons systems, the free world nuclear strength will continue, of course, to be enormously greater.

That difference in context does separate Johnson's almost dispassionate reference to having a bigger stick than the Chinese (and their erstwhile nuclear patrons the Soviets). The current Bush administration has posed the idea of state actors like Iraq and Iran as a question of terrorism, not deterrence.

"Some citizens wonder," President Bush asked on Oct. 7, 2002, during an address to the nation urging war on Iraq, "after 11 years of living with this problem, why do we need to confront it now? And there's a reason. We've experienced the horror of September the 11th. We have seen that those who hate America are willing to crash airplanes into buildings full of innocent people. Our enemies would be no less willing — in fact, they would be eager — to use biological or chemical or a nuclear weapon."

Iraq, unlike the People's Republic of China and so far unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran, was invaded to quash such a possibility.

But Both Johnson and Bush ultimately saw new nuclear players as a tragic development for their own populations.

First Johnson:

The Chinese Communist nuclear weapons program is a tragedy for the Chinese people who have suffered so much under the Communist regime. Scarce economic resources which could have been used to improve the well-being of the Chinese people have been used to produce a crude nuclear device which can only increase the sense of insecurity of the Chinese people.

And now Bush, commenting on Europe's efforts in March 2005 to negotiate an end to Iran's program:

We want our allies to succeed, because we share the view that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be destabilizing and threatening to all of Iran's neighbors. The Iranian regime should listen to the concerns of the world and listen to the voice of the Iranian people, who long for their liberty and want their country to be a respected member of the international community. We look forward to the day when Iran joins in the hopeful changes taking place across the region. We look forward to the day when the Iranian people are free.

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