Nie was born in Jiangjin county in Sichuan, near Chongqing, the cosmopolitan and well-educated son of a wealthy family. In 1920 Nie joined the group of Chinese students in France on a work-study program, where he studied engineering and became a protégé of Zhou Enlai. Zhou recruited him in 1921 when Nie was performing technical-scientific studies in Belgium, and he joined the Communist Party in 1923. A graduate of the Soviet Red Army Military College and Whampoa Academy, Nie spent his early career first as a political officer in Whampoa's Political Department, where Zhou served as Director, and in the Chinese Red Army. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, he was first assigned as the deputy division commander of the 115th division of the Eighth Route Army, with the commander being Lin Biao, and in the late 1930s he was given a field command close to Yan Xishan's Shanxi stronghold. In the Chinese Civil War he commanded the Northern Chinese Field Army, and with his deputy Xu Xiangqian, his force defeated Fu Zuoyi's forces near Beijing. During the Korean War, Nie took part in high command decision making, military operations planning, and shared responsibility for war mobilization. Nie was made a Marshal of the PLA in 1955 and later ran the Chinese nuclear weapons program.