In March 1955, President Eisenhower publicly threatened to launch nuclear strikes against China. He was hoping to deter an attack on Taiwan and to stop the shelling of Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces on outlying islands. It didn’t work.
Mao Zedong’s communists defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949. What was left of Chiang’s Republic of China (ROC) fled the mainland to the offshore islands. President Truman refused to recognize the PRC but also ruled out protecting Chiang.
Things changed in June 1950 after Korean communist leader Kim Il-sung tried to reunify his country by force. American and UN troops led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur turned back Kim’s army and headed north to wipe them out. At the same time, Truman pledged to protect Chiang’s government, which had fled to the island of Taiwan.
As MacArthur approached China’s border, hundreds of thousands of Chinese communist soldiers entered Korea and pushed MacArthur’s army back behind the line that divided Korea at the end of WWII. The fighting resolved into a bloody stalemate and ended in July 1953.
Chinese chess, not dominos
The Korean War convinced many Americans the Chinese communists were wild-eyed aggressors acting in consort with Moscow. But Mao, unlike Stalin, opposed Kim’s decision to invade southern Korea. He didn’t want to increase US military involvement in East Asia or see US troops on China’s northern border. Mao’s priorities were to eliminate Chiang, unify China and claim China’s seat in the United Nations, which was still held by the ROC.
The PRC returned to those priorities after the fighting in Korea ended. Mao told Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev attacking Taiwan was not an option as long as the American military protected it. But attacking ROC forces on the smaller islands closer to the mainland might push the United States to abandon the islands and negotiate with the PRC on the status of Taiwan.
Mao started shelling the offshore islands in August 1954. Eisenhower worried it was the beginning of an assault on Taiwan. Those fears increased when PRC troops attacked the Dachen islands in December. Chiang could not hold the islands without U.S. help. Eisenhower didn’t want the fight. He convinced Chiang to withdraw, just as Mao had hoped.
But Chiang refused to surrender two islands farther south: Quemoy and Matsu. He had deployed nearly 100,000 of his best troops on the islands. Chiang told Eisenhower this demonstrated his intent to retake the mainland. He claimed removing those troops would destroy morale and collapse his government. Eisenhower believed him.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Eisenhower they could not hold Quemoy and Matsu without taking out the PRC’s airfields. They told Eisenhower that using nuclear weapons was the only way to guarantee success. In early March 1955 Eisenhower instructed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to publicly threaten nuclear strikes against the PRC. The shelling continued. The chiefs urged the president to act quickly.
Peace gets a chance
Eisenhower decided to wait. PRC Premier Zhou Enlai was scheduled to attend an historic gathering of Asian and African leaders in Bandung, Indonesia at the end of April. Eisenhower figured the PRC would not attack Taiwan until the meeting in Indonesia was over. Dulles pushed U.S.-friendly leaders to isolate Zhou and criticize PRC aggression. But U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons worried those leaders and undermined U.S. diplomacy. Zhou was widely praised for closing the conference with an offer to settle the Taiwan issue peacefully through negotiations.
Dulles dismissed Zhou’s statement. But Eisenhower, pressured by anxious U.S. allies seeking to avoid a nuclear war, agreed to talks in Geneva, just as Mao had hoped. The crisis was over, almost.
The talks dragged on for years without progress. A frustrated Mao resumed heavy shelling of Quemoy and Matsu in August 1958. Once again, the Joint Chiefs prepared nuclear options but this time Eisenhower took them off the table. He limited American military involvement to helping Chiang’s forces ride out the bombardment, which subsided a few weeks later.
The PRC continued periodic shelling of Quemoy and Matsu until 1979, when the United States finally agreed to recognize the PRC, rather than the ROC, as the sole legitimate government of China.
In 1955, at the beginning of the crisis, Eisenhower almost started a nuclear war over a misunderstanding. The PRC had no intention of invading Taiwan, and Chiang’s government was in no danger of collapsing. Fortunately, Eisenhower figured this out by 1958 because diplomacy bought him time to understand the situation.
The status of Taiwan remains the most volatile problem in U.S.-China relations. U.S. officials continue to believe threatening to use nuclear weapons can solve it. Diplomacy is still the better choice.
Dr. Kulacki received his Ph.D. In Government and Politics from the University of Maryland in 1994. He was the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange, an Associate Professor at Green Mountain College and the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College. He joined UCS in 2002. His research focuses on China’s nuclear arms control policy and US extended nuclear deterrence policy in East Asia, where Gregory has lived and worked for the better part of the last thirty years. Gregory also blogs on the Equation.