Britain contemplated China nuclear attack
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain discussed raising the threat of
U.S. nuclear retaliation to dissuade China from attacking its
Hong Kong colony at the height of the Cold War, previously
secret papers revealed on Friday.
Dismissing Hong Kong as strategically irrelevant, highly
vulnerable and indefensible by conventional means, the British
government nevertheless decided that it did have a vital
symbolic role as the country’s sole frontier with the Communist
“For political reasons we have no choice but to stay there
at present,” cabinet secretary Norman Brook wrote to Prime
Minister Harold Macmillan in July 1959.
“Though at any time the Chinese could make conditions
impossible by cutting off food and water supplies and
strangling the trade as to make our presence virtually
untenable,” he added.
Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 after 155 years
as a British colony.
Developing the argument in 1961, foreign secretary and
Macmillan’s successor Alec Douglas Home broached the delicate
issue of both approaching the Americans to act if necessary and
at the same time making the Chinese aware.
“It must be fully obvious to the Americans that Hong Kong
is indefensible by conventional means and that in the event of
a Chinese attack, nuclear strikes against China would be the
only alternative to complete abandonment of the Colony,” he
wrote in a letter marked “top secret.”
“In these circumstances it is perhaps not so much formal
staff talks with the Americans that we need so much as an
informal exchange of views involving a discussion of the use of
nuclear strikes,” he added.
However, he also noted the delicate balance of waving the
nuclear deterrent at the Chinese while at the same time not
“While we should encourage the Chinese to believe that an
attack on Hong Kong would involve nuclear retaliation, we must
avoid anything that would allow the Chinese to claim that the
Colony is a military outpost of the Unites States,” he added.
The records of the Prime Minister’s office between 1957 to
1961 were among a batch of papers released by the National
“Our object is to encourage the Chinese to believe that an
attack on Hong Kong would involve U.S. nuclear retaliation,”
wrote Minister of Defense Harold Watkinson.