40. Atomic War Over Quemoy?

It was obvious to neutral observers, notably British government leaders, that official Washington was reacting with a sky-is-falling mentality about Red designs on the tiny Dachen islands, thirty miles off the Zhejiang coast. They were virtually useless as military bases, with no decent harbors and within easy reach of aircraft from mainland bases. Only Chiang Kai-shek's military incompetence had caused them to be heavily garrisoned in the first place. American leaders recognized they had to be evacuated and Chiang, under pressure, agreed. But American leaders saw the withdrawal as a psychological defeat which might lead to the collapse of Taiwan.

To salve wounded pride and to restore presumably shattered morale, Dulles, Eisenhower and a number of American military leaders believed it mandatory to hold Quemoy and Matsu, the last significant Nationalist outposts along the mainland coast. It's a shame no one examined whether Nationalist morale really would be greatly damaged if the Nationalists abandoned the islands.1

President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles decided to ask Congress for authority to defend Taiwan and the Pescadores and also considered asking Congress for authority to defend Quemoy and Matsu specifically. But Dulles concluded on January 21, 1955, it was best "not to nail the flag to the mast" by publicly identifying the offshore islands the U.S. was going to defend. Therefore, the message Eisenhower sent to Congress on January 24 left vague just how and where U.S. forces might be used. The resolution, passed overwhelmingly by Congress, gave the president authority to use forces wherever he wanted to in the area.2

To shield the Dachens evacuation, the U.S. concentrated four aircraft carriers and escorts south of the islands and dispatched a fifth carrier to join them. The U.S. Air Force also flew in to Taiwan seventy-five F-86 jet aircraft.3 This marked the first stationing of a U.S. combat force on Taiwanese soil. The Dachens evacuation went off anticlimactically without any action by the Reds. The U.S. withdrew its warships and sent back all but one squadron of F-86s, rotating in a replacement squadron on a regular basis.4

Meanwhile the U.S. Senate approved (64-6) the mutual-defense treaty with Taiwan on February 9.5 Thus the U.S. adopted Taiwan and what became known as the "two Chinas" policy. The U.S. continued to recognize the Nationalists as the "official" government of China in the United Nations, although this policy flew in the face of the wishes of much of the rest of the world. From this point on, American power, not conviction of most other countries, kept Red China out of the world body.

But in early 1955 the long-term aspects of the mutual-defense treaty were of minor concern. The danger of the burgeoning crisis over the offshore islands was frightening leaders everywhere. Dag Hammarskjöld, UN secretary general, informed the U.S. on February 11 he'd received a message from Zhou Enlai offering to discuss differences with the U.S. Zhou was not "a man intent on wild adventures," Hammarskjöld said, and he urged the U.S. to negotiate. The U.S. was not interested.6

The strongest attack on Dulles's policy came on February 15, when Prime Minister Churchill, backed by Anthony Eden, called for abandonment of the offshore islands. Churchill, though he supported U.S. efforts to preserve the Nationalists on Taiwan, informed Eisenhower that "a war to keep the coastal islands for Chiang would not be defensible here." Churchill could see no relationship between them and defense of Taiwan. "It would surely be quite easy for the United States to drown any Chinese would-be invaders of Formosa whether they started from Quemoy or elsewhere. If ever there was an operation which may be deemed impossible it would be the passage of about a hundred miles of sea in the teeth of overwhelming naval and air superiority and without any tank or other special landing craft."7

But Eisenhower remained under the spell of Dulles's rhetoric. At an NSC meeting on February 17, after Defense Secretary Charles Wilson said the U.S. should require the Nationalists to evacuate Quemoy, Matsu and Nanji, Eisenhower responded: "The surrender of the offshore islands would result in the collapse of Chiang's government."8

As belligerent as Dulles had been up to now, he became positively warlike at a SEATO meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, in late February, 1955. Dulles did telegraph back a recommendation that the United States inform Chiang it would not help him defend Nanji island (isolated off the coast of southern Zhejiang). But Dulles got Eisenhower's approval to warn Anthony Eden, also at Bangkok, that the U.S. could not long continue to forbid Nationalist air attacks on airfields, artillery emplacements and roads the Reds were constructing opposite Quemoy and Matsu. Dulles's only solution was a UN-ordered cease-fire.

Meantime, after the U.S. informed Chiang it would not help him defend Nanji, Chiang evacuated it.9

At Bangkok, Dulles told Eden he thought the Red Chinese intended to take Taiwan by force and that Beijing showed no willingness to seek a possible settlement, thus ignoring Zhou Enlai's offer to talk.10 Having closed the door to any accommodation, Dulles now raised the specter of Armageddon. The United States, Dulles announced, had reached the point where the "line of retreat nears its end." If the U.S. gave up the offshore islands, morale on Taiwan might "disintegrate" and Nationalist groups there might make deals with the Communists. "It would be virtually impossible to retain the islands."

The picture Dulles painted was bleak in the extreme but Eden replied flatly that Britain didn't accept it. Whitehall had decided to go along with the U.S. demand that Taiwan not be lost to Communism, though Churchill didn't think the island was important strategically. However, public opinion in the British Commonwealth and elsewhere would not support a U.S.-instigated war over the offshore islands. He also told Dulles that, though the Chinese Communists were likely to attack Quemoy and Matsu, Taiwan and the Pescadores were safe because the Reds were not going to risk certain defeat in a major amphibious operation.

Eden pointedly asked Admiral Felix B. Stump, U.S. Pacific fleet commander who was attending the meeting, why the U.S. wanted to defend Quemoy and Matsu. Stump argued for their strategic importance. Field Marshal Sir John Harding, chief of the Imperial General Staff, responded by comparing an assault on Taiwan with the 1944 invasion of Normandy. The critical factor, Harding said, was sustaining assault forces after they had landed. He believed the Communists would not attack so long as the Seventh Fleet commanded the sea and air and prevented ammunition, supplies and reinforcements reaching the beachheads. Harding implied that all the talk about Quemoy and Matsu having strategic value was poppycock.11

British comments made no impression upon Dulles. Back in the Washington on March 6, he emerged as a true war hawk. Dulles told Eisenhower he didn't think "we could stand by and watch the Nationalist forces" on Quemoy and Matsu be crushed by the Communists. Dulles said the U.S. should help Chiang support these two positions and their defense "would require the use of atomic weapons." Eisenhower agreed on both defending Quemoy and Matsu and the necessity of using atomic weapons to do it. Thus the transition of the American leadership to actually anticipating a nuclear holocaust had taken place.12

The drumbeat for war intensified in the next few days. On March 7 Dulles traced for Senator Walter George of Georgia a world-shaking disaster if the U.S. failed to keep the Reds off Quemoy and Matsu. The repercussions, Dulles insisted, would "make it almost certain that most of Asia would be lost to us."13

On March 10 Dulles told the NSC he believed the Chinese Reds were determined to capture Taiwan. Even if the U.S. pressed the Nationalists to give up the offshore islands, the U.S. would still face the threat to Taiwan. Dulles called for urgent steps to create a "better public climate for the use of atomic weapons" if the U.S. found it necessary "to intervene in the defense of the Formosa area." Having insisted that the Chinese Reds were bent on the capture of Taiwan and that attacks on Quemoy and Matsu would be only preliminaries to this assault, Dulles now jumped to the conclusion he had already made to Senator George: the entire U.S. position in Asia depended upon possession of Taiwan. The great problem with Taiwan, Dulles insisted, was that morale on the island was not good and numbers of Nationalist troops might defect if the Reds made a landing. China was noted for generals who could be bought, Dulles said.

Admiral Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out foursquare for the use of atomic weapons. The whole American military structure, he said, had been built around this assumption. The United States, Radford asserted, "simply does not have the requisite number of air bases to permit effective air attack against Communist China using conventional as opposed to atomic weapons."

With an actual nuclear war becoming more likely, Eisenhower began to backtrack on his earlier endorsement of using nuclear bombs. The United States alone couldn't save Taiwan if the people didn't want to be saved, he said. Dulles interjected that Taiwanese morale depended largely upon the U.S. itself. Eisenhower replied he thought at least Chiang's army was loyal to him. Radford responded that this wasn't necessarily so. Morale depended upon hopes of the 700,000 military men on the island to return to the mainland. Eisenhower replied this might be true but he "could not see what the Quemoys and Matsus had to do with the business." Radford answered that "continuing to hold these offshore islands" tended to provide for Nationalist troops "some tangible hope of ultimate return to the mainland." Dulles insisted that loss of Quemoy and Matsu would lead to "such repercussions that we would be likely to lose Formosa itself as a result." The U.S. also could not force the Nationalists to evacuate the islands, Dulles added, although he never explained why not. After all, the U.S. had forced Chiang to evacuate the Dachens and Nanji without any problems arising.14

Despite the belief by Dulles that the Chinese Communists were planning to attack, the Reds themselves remained quiescent, although they continued to build tunnels and emplacements for 250 artillery pieces on the mainland facing Quemoy. However, General Nathan F. Twining, air force chief of staff, said the Communists were not going to attack Taiwan soon because they had not built up airfields sufficiently. As a consequence Eisenhower decided on March 11 to postpone any decision on use of atomic weapons for forty to sixty days if possible.15

The intense panic about the imminence of war that had seized Eisenhower and stirred the U.S. military was almost wholly the invention of Secretary of State Dulles. The Chinese Communists exhibited no warlike behavior. A national intelligence estimate of March 16 stated flatly that Red China did not have the capability of attacking Taiwan in 1955, though it could seize Quemoy and Matsu.16 Dulles came up with a rationalization for Red China's current lack of aggression: a conference of twenty-nine African and Asian countries to be held in April at Bandung, Indonesia. Dulles concluded Red China would wait until after the conference to move.17

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (but not General Matthew B. Ridgway, the army chief) produced a highly provocative proposal on March 26: the U.S. should inform the Red Chinese that the United States would defend Quemoy and Matsu. The JCS also recommended that they suspend indefinitely planned reductions in U.S. military forces. Secretary Wilson opposed the JCS saber rattling because it would cause turmoil in the country. But Dulles thought the JCS plan to call off reductions in military forces would show the world "we are serious in our intention to defend Formosa." However, he opposed a public announcement on U.S. resolve to defend the offshore islands because Eisenhower did not want to "take this decision until a situation occurred which would clearly indicate that the defense of Quemoy and Matsu were related to the defense of Formosa."

General Ridgway, who stood throughout the crisis as an island of moderation and reason, had refused to concur in the JCS recommendation. He believed that U.S. defense of the offshore islands would inevitably expand into a nuclear war. He did not consider the offshore islands important and he certainly did not want to risk atomic war over them.18

Admiral Radford, chairman of the JCS, suffered no such doubts. He noted that the Reds were building up airfields on the mainland. Radford recommended that the U.S. should tell Beijing if the buildup did not cease the United States would consider it an act of war and would respond accordingly. Secretary Wilson responded sharply that the United States was constantly improving airfields in various parts of the world and this wasn't an act of war, he said. Robert B. Anderson, deputy secretary of defense, put his finger on Radford's true motivation. As he understood it, Anderson said, Radford didn't believe the situation could be stabilized without hostilities and without the Reds getting a bloody nose. Radford replied this, indeed, was his view.19

Eisenhower remained mesmerized by the offshore islands. He wrote Prime Minister Churchill on March 29 he would be happy if Chiang voluntarily withdrew from them but was unwilling "to put so much pressure on him that he might give up the entire struggle in utter discouragement," thus leading to the loss of Taiwan. This in turn would "doom the Philippines and eventually the remainder of the region."20 Thus, Eisenhower was considering the possibility of a nuclear holocaust because he would not require Chiang to withdraw from the offshore islands. This demonstrates the bizarre extremes to which the falling-domino theory carried the president.21

The idea of getting Chiang to withdraw voluntarily from the islands had caught on, however, and Eisenhower sent Admiral Radford and Walter S. Robertson, assistant secretary for Far Eastern affairs, to Taipei convince him to do so.22 In a conference on April 25, the two Americans manfully attempted to sell the program. If Chiang would agree to abandon Quemoy and Matsu, the U.S. would station aircraft (under American control) with atomic capabilities on Taiwan and also would add more antiaircraft weapons, an American air wing and marine ground forces.

Chiang Kai-shek, who saw the great political advantage to him of an American war with Red China, would have nothing to do with evacuating the offshore islands where the greatest chance for a confrontation existed. Chiang told Robertson and Radford he'd defend Quemoy and Matsu with or without American support. He refused the American proposal.23 Doubtless Chiang believed, when the time came, the United States would not leave his forces in the lurch.

Chiang also knew the issue was not pressing, despite the alarms raised by Dulles and top U.S. military leaders. Zhou Enlai had opened a dazzling peace offensive at the Afro-Asian conference at Bandung and this guaranteed Taiwan's safety, at least temporarily.

It's curious that American officials did not foresee the démarche Beijing would make at the Afro-Asian conference, since the "Bandung line" that Zhou presented was identical with the five principles of peaceful coexistence he and Indian Prime Minister Nehru had agreed to the year previously and represented the tack China had been on since.24 The Bandung line identified Red China as a peace-loving state while attempting to label the United States as warlike. "What our nations in Asia and Africa need is peace and independence," Zhou announced.25 He also offered to negotiate with the United States on relaxing tensions in the Taiwan strait.26

The Beijing peace offensive isolated the United States and made its combative position even more suspect.27 Zhou's move brought about a reassessment in Washington, especially by Eisenhower who had become increasingly reluctant to use atomic weapons against the densely populated Chinese mainland, since these, at the very least, would involve heavy civilian casualties and alienate Asian opinion.28

Other leaders also raised their voices. On April 27 the Australian prime minister, Robert Gordon Menzies, telegraphed Washington that the U.S. should follow up Zhou Enlai's proposal and suggested Red China be invited to a July conference in Geneva of the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union, something Dulles and Eisenhower would not permit.29 In early May, Indian Prime Minister Nehru's itinerant troubleshooter, Krishna Menon, told the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi that Red China was not expansionist and he believed Zhou's offer regarding easing tensions with the U.S. was made in good faith.30 On May 11, the Belgian foreign minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, informed Dulles that recognition of the People's Republic was inevitable. It would be necessary to deal with Zhou Enlai to resolve the Taiwan question, just as it had been necessary to deal with him to make peace in Korea and Indochina.31

In early May, Sir Anthony Eden asked Zhou to elaborate on his offer to negotiate on Taiwan strait issues.32 Eden had replaced Churchill as British prime minister on April 6 upon Sir Winston's retirement. Zhou responded that talks could be at a general conference involving a number of powers or directly between Red China and the U.S. Zhou's only stipulation was that the "Chiang Kai-shek clique" could never take part in any international conference.33

After considerable pressure by its European allies, the U.S. agreed on July 25 to issue a joint statement with the People's Republic on opening direct China-U.S. talks at the ambassadorial level at Geneva on August 1. The United States appointed Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson as its representative and the People's Republic named Wang Bingnan.34 It was a small, tentative move and did not indicate a significant change in American policy. However, the talk in Washington about an atomic war over Quemoy and Matsu subsided, due, not to a change of heart by American leaders, but to the absence of provocation by Red China.

The Geneva ambassadorial talks gained some benefits for the United States. Beijing announced that eleven American airmen held as spies were being released. Of American civilians held captive, Wang said twelve were to be sent home. Soon thereafter Wang announced the remaining twenty-nine American prisoners would be freed soon, though the releases took a number of months and much negotiation.35

It was for Zhou Enlai, however, to make a gesture to reduce the still-taut tensions in the Taiwan strait and to extend his peace offensive into a broad offer to settle outstanding issues. Speaking before the National People's Congress on July 30, 1955, Zhou said Red China was ready to "seek the liberation of Taiwan by peaceful means." Beijing was willing to enter into negotiations with "the responsible local authorities of Taiwan to map out concrete steps for Taiwan's peaceful liberation," Zhou announced. But he emphasized that any talks would be between the "central government" and "local authorities." The Chinese people, he insisted, "are firmly opposed to any ideas or plots of the so-called 'two Chinas.'" There was a hint that Beijing was willing to work toward an accommodation with the United States. The ambassadorial talks at Geneva, Zhou said, had as one of their purposes to "facilitate further discussions and settlement of certain other practical matters now at issue between both sides."36

Dulles remained as hostile as ever. But the rest of the world breathed easier, recognizing in Zhou's statement that Communist China had turned away from confrontation with the United States. Beijing had by no means abandoned its aim to drive Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists out of the last remnants of China they occupied. But, despite the suspicions of American leaders, the offshore islands and Taiwan were only peripheral and long-term concerns for the People's Republic. Far more urgent was China's drive to become a great industrial power.

Chapter 41: The Great Leap and Quemoy Again >>

1. FRUS, China, 1955-57, vol. 2, p. 434, 479-89.

2. Ibid., pp. 83-85, 89-96, 115-9, 162-3, 167-72, 182-3, 204-08.

3. Ibid., pp. 135-42.

4. Ibid., pp. 248-50, 299-300.

5. Ibid., p. 260.

6. Ibid., pp. 231-3, 266-7.

7. Ibid., pp. 270-3, 280-1, 292-5.

8. Ibid., pp. 281-6.

9. Ibid., pp. 299-303.

10. Ibid., pp. 231-3, 266-7; FRUS, China and Japan, 1952-54, pp. 893-5.

11. FRUS, China, 1955-57, vol. 2, pp. 307-12.

12. Ibid., pp. 336-7.

13. Ibid., pp. 337-8.

14. Ibid., pp. 345-50, 353-5.

15. Ibid., pp. 355-60.

16. Ibid., pp. 376-80.

17. Ibid., p. 399.

18. Although there was a lot of talk about the military importance of the offshore islands, the claims never had any validity. An analysis of the island situation on August 25, 1961, by George C. McGhee, counselor at the State Department, contains this appraisal: "The GRC [government of the Republic of China, the Nationalists] often holds that the offshore island positions are essential to the defense of Taiwan; but while we agree that certain advantages are gained by their retention, we do not accept the GRC estimate. The Chinese Communists could hardly use Amoy and Foochow as jump-off points for an amphibious attack on Taiwan so long as Quemoy and Matsu remain occupied but the coastline of Fukien [Fujian] is well supplied with other natural anchorages and other ports to the north and south of that province also would provide alternative if less convenient jump-off points." See Kennedy Library, NSF file, Box 21-23, Memorandum for Mr. McGeorge Bundy the White House, "The Offshore Islands–Alternative Courses and Probable Consequences," August 25, 1961.

19. FRUS,, China, 1955-57, vol. 2, pp. 400-04, 406-08. Eisenhower's diary entry for March 26, 1955, notes "a very definite feeling among the members of the cabinet, often openly expressed, that within a month we will actually be fighting in the Formosa straits. It is, of course, entirely possible that this is true, because the Red Chinese appear to be completely reckless, arrogant, possibly overconfident and completely indifferent to human losses." Nevertheless, Eisenhower didn't believe hostilities were imminent. See ibid., pp. 405-06. Vice Admiral Alfred M. Pride, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, pointed out on April 21 that the Red Chinese airfields were not a great danger. They were little more than runways with no facilities or ammunition or fuel-storage areas. No railways and only a few inadequate roads led to them. Fuel for aircraft would have to be brought by sea. Therefore, a blockade by the Seventh Fleet could ground the Red aircraft. See ibid., p. 500.

20. Ibid., pp. 418-22. In an Eisenhower memo on Taiwan of April 5, 1955, the president said "the principal military reason for holding these two groups of islands [Quemoy and Matsu] is the estimated effect of their loss upon morale in Formosa." See ibid., pp. 445-50. A State Department draft on U.S. policy toward the Nationalists repeated this same reasoning on April 8. See ibid., pp. 455-63. A national intelligence estimate on April 16 gave the view that Taiwanese morale would be severely damaged if the offshore islands fell to Communist attack but would be less so if the Nationalists evacuated them voluntarily. The estimate held that the loss in any event would not cause the Nationalists to fold up. See ibid., pp. 479-89.

21. Eisenhower almost certainly believed the domino theory and a Communist conspiracy of conquest. In a letter on March 29, 1955, to Lewis W. Douglas, former ambassador (1947-50) to Britain, Eisenhower wrote: "The central fact of today's life is that we are in a life and death struggle of ideologies. It is freedom against dictatorship; Communism against capitalism; concepts of human dignity against the materialistic dialectic. The Communists, and I mean Marx, Lenin, Stalin and now their successors and offshoots—such as Mau [Mao] and Chou [Zhou Enlai]—have all announced their adherence to the theory of world revolution and overthrow of all other forms of government by force and violence. They have complete contempt for any of those concepts of honor, decency and integrity which must underlie any successful practice of international law and order as we have always understood it." He asked Douglas: "If you became convinced that the capture of these two places [Quemoy and Matsu] by international Communism would inevitably result in the later loss of Formosa to the free world, what would you do? Beyond question the opinion in southeast Asia is that the loss of Formosa would be catastrophic; the Philippines and Indonesia would rapidly be lost to us." See ibid., pp. 422-3. It's unclear why Eisenhower selected Indonesia when Indochina was much closer. It's possible he meant Indochina. See ibid., pp. 445-50.

22. Ibid., pp. 439-41, 473-5.

23. Ibid., pp. 491-5, 509-17.

24. The five principles were respect for a nation's territorial integrity, nonaggression, noninterference in another's affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

25. Cambridge, vol. 14, pp. 283-4.

26. FRUS, China, 1955-57, vol. 2, pp. 507-09, 519-20. Zhou's statement regarding Taiwan is given in full in ibid, p. 566, footnote 2. See also Lach and Wehrle, p. 171.

27. Ibid., pp. 523-5.

28. Ibid., pp. 526-8.

29. Ibid., pp. 217-8, 535-6; 563-5.

30. Ibid., pp. 536-7.

31. Ibid., pp. 560-1.

32. Ibid., p. 562.

33. Ibid., pp. 581-3.

34. Ibid., pp. 660, 666-8, 678-80, 685-7.

35. Lach and Wehrle, p. 172.

36. FRUS, China, 1955-57, vol. 2, pp. 688-9.