A contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers raided a Soviet border outpost. The incident brought Russia and China to the brink of war.
After conquering Manchuria in 1945, the Soviets looted Japanese industry and left. A similar scenario might have ensued in 1969, but only if the Chinese leadership could bring itself to face reality. With the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the very recent rear-view mirror, and competing factions still trying to ideologically out-radicalize one another, Moscow might have struggled to find a productive partner for peace negotiations. Continued Soviet advances might have resembled the Japanese main advance of 1937, albeit without the naval dominance that the Imperial Japanese Navy enjoyed. Expecting such attacks, the PLA might have withdrawn to the interior, conducting a scorched earth campaign along the way.
Americans tend to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous moment in Cold War brinksmanship. Despite some tense moments, Washington and Moscow resolved that crisis with only the death of U.S. Air Force pilot Maj. Rudolph Anderson Jr.
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Seven years later, in March 1969, a contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers raided a Soviet border outpost on Zhenbao Island, killing dozens and injuring scores. The incident brought Russia and China to the brink of war, a conflict that might have led to the use of nuclear weapons. But after two weeks of clashes, the conflict trailed off.
What if the brief 1969 conflict between China and the Soviet Union had escalated?