The United States is in the midst of the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, and it would be helpful if President Biden and his national security team looked back on the previous crises, especially the crises that came closest to starting a war between the U.S. and China in the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower was president, and he had a first-rate national security team that included Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and retired General Andrew Goodpaster.
On September 3, 1954, Chinese communist forces began shelling the island of Quemoy (Kinmen), occupied by the Nationalist government of Taiwan (Formosa). Two U.S. servicemen on the island were killed and others were evacuated. For the next nine months, the Eisenhower administration dealt with this dangerous crisis in the Taiwan Strait. President Eisenhower in the first volume of his memoirs called it “one of the most serious problems of the first eighteen months of my administration.” Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote that during this crisis “the United States … came closer to using atomic weapons than at any other time in the Eisenhower Administration.” (READ MORE from Francis Sempa: Our Munich Moment: Collective Defense for Taiwan)
The immediate crisis centered on Quemoy and Matsu, island groups situated near the communist-controlled mainland Chinese coast. At the time, there were about 50,000 Nationalist troops on Quemoy and 9,000 on the Matsu island group. In November, Chinese communist forces took control of other offshore islands, and communist spokespersons and media repeatedly called for the “liberation” of Taiwan. This all occurred during a time period when the U.S. viewed China as part of a larger and more threatening Sino-Soviet bloc that controlled much of the Eurasian landmass, as outlined in NSC-68. The French had earlier in 1954 surrendered to communist forces at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. U.S. forces had recently fought Chinese forces to a stalemate in Korea. Many observers warned that communism was on the march in Asia and must be stopped, and Eisenhower himself at an April 7, 1954, news conference invoked the lessons of Munich in the lead-up to World War II to explain what later became known as the “domino theory.” “You have the broader considerations,” the president said, “that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.”
The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis is upon us, as China has conducted military exercises and rattled the saber once again.
In January 1955, after intelligence information showed that communist China was improving their airfields directly opposite Taiwan and the Chinese air force raided other offshore islands, Eisenhower asked Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the president to use armed force to defend Taiwan, the Pescadores Islands, and any other territories as may be determined by the president. The House of Representatives voted for the resolution by a margin of 410 to 3. The Senate voted 83-3 to support the resolution. The so-called Formosa Resolution read in part:
[T]hat the President of the United States … hereby is authorized to employ the Armed Forces of the United States as he deems necessary for the specific purpose of securing and protecting Formosa and the Pescadores against armed attack, this authority to include the securing and protection of such related positions and territories of that area now in friendly hands and the taking of such other measures as he judges to be required or appropriate in assuring the defense of Formosa and the Pescadores.
“For the first time in American history,” Ambrose wrote, “the Congress had authorized the President in advance to engage in war at a time and under circumstances of his own choosing.” What Eisenhower called the “Formosa Doctrine” intentionally vague and imprecise as to which territories the president could use armed force to defend. Congress trusted Eisenhower — one of the hero generals of the Second World War — to exercise sound judgment and prudence in fulfilling the Formosa Resolution. Eisenhower fulfilled that trust. He positioned our army and naval forces to do battle with mainland Chinese forces should war break out. He consulted with our Asian and European allies. And he communicated by both word and deed that the United States would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. In other words, he approached the specific issue of an attack on Taiwan with strategic clarity, while allowing for flexibility with respect to other territories.
Winston Churchill, then in his second term as Britain’s prime minister, agreed with Eisenhower’s determination to defend Taiwan, but he did not think that the U.S. should go to war over Quemoy and Matsu. In a series of letters between the two statesmen, Eisenhower emphasized the need to be firm yet patient and expressed his belief that the non-communist nations of the Western Pacific were nervously watching how America and the West responded to this latest communist aggression.
Eisenhower sent Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Europe and Asia to sound out the leaders of allied nations about the crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Dulles returned and told the president that the situation was dire and opined that Taiwan could only be successfully defended by the use of tactical atomic weapons against mainland targets. White House Staff Secretary (and retired general) Andrew Goodpaster agreed. On March 15, Dulles publicly warned the Chinese that the U.S. was prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of Formosa. The next day, Eisenhower when asked at a press conference to comment on Dulles’ statement about the use of nuclear weapons, said, “Yes, of course they would be used.” In his memoirs, Eisenhower wrote that he hoped his answer effectively communicated to China the U.S. determination to defend Taiwan. Soon thereafter, Eisenhower wrote a letter to Churchill in which he compared Chinese aggression toward Formosa to Japanese aggression in Manchuria and Nazi aggression in Europe in the 1930s.
By May 1955, in the wake of the Bandung Conference of unaligned nations, the First Taiwan Strait Crisis was over. Chinese shelling of the offshore islands ceased. China had blinked. Ambrose called Eisenhower’s handling of the crisis a “tour de force” and “one of the great triumphs of his long career.” The president had combined firmness with patience. In his memoirs, he recalled, “[W]e refused to retreat, and the enemy … refused to attack. The crisis had cooled; it would not heat up again for three years. The hard way is to have the courage to be patient.”
Three years later, in August 1958, a Second Taiwan Strait Crisis developed when Chinese communist forces again began shelling the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which now hosted 100,000 Nationalist troops. Again, as in 1954–55, Eisenhower looked to Dulles and Goodpaster for advice. Again, as in the previous crisis, the president was determined to defend Taiwan and was even more convinced that this meant defending Quemoy and Matsu, too. In the second volume of his memoirs, Eisenhower wrote, “If the capture of the offshore islands should, in fact, lead to the loss of Formosa, the future security of Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and even Okinawa would be placed in jeopardy and the United States vital interests would suffer severely.” And as in the previous crisis, Eisenhower was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan. “We recognized,” Eisenhower wrote, “that to be successful we might face the necessity of using small-yield atomic weapons against hostile airfields.”
China continued to shell the islands, committed warplanes to the conflict, and imposed a blockade designed to prevent the Nationalist government from reinforcing the islands. Eisenhower ordered the Seventh Fleet to situate itself for the defense of Taiwan, added two aircraft carriers to the fleet, and augmented U.S. air power in the region. All U.S. forces in the region were placed on readiness alert. And U.S. ships began to act as escorts for Nationalist convoys to the disputed islands. Eisenhower in his memoirs wrote that he made sure that the Chinese communists were made aware of these moves. There would be no appeasement. The dominoes would not fall.
By September to October 1958, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis faded away, as the U.S.-supported Nationalist convoy system supplied the beleaguered islands and the Chinese communists reduced their artillery bombardments. Eisenhower negotiated a ceasefire by an agreement whereby the Nationalists significantly reduced their garrisons on the islands. “Eisenhower,” Ambrose wrote, “had used a combination of threats, firmness, and resolve, combined with a willingness to negotiate and be reasonable, to achieve an outcome satisfactory to him.”
There was a Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 during the presidency of Bill Clinton. In March of that year, in the midst of Taiwan’s presidential election, China conducted military exercises, which included firing missiles near and over Taiwan and conducting amphibious assault exercises near the outlying island of Penghu. President Clinton responded by deploying an aircraft carrier battle group in international waters near the island. The crisis soon subsided.
The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis is upon us, as China has conducted military exercises and rattled the saber once again. Unlike President Eisenhower in the 1950s and President Clinton in the 1990s, President Biden has sent mixed signals — at one moment stating that the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, and at other moments retreating to a position of “strategic ambiguity.” The lesson of Eisenhower’s leadership is to embrace strategic clarity, consult with and receive authorization from Congress before going to war if necessary, and showing a firmness and resolution in defense of America’s vital interests. But sadly, there is no Eisenhower in the White House, and no national security advisers of the stature and maturity of Dulles and Goodpaster. Elections have consequences.
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