Nuclear Threats - China - 1955
Early on, Eisenhower was often accused of being a weak leader, beholden to gung-ho advisors with an over-simplified view of the communist threat. Later he was lauded as a competent strategist who steered his administration safely through stormy waters. Both claims have an element of truth. Korea and Suez were treated with more caution than is sometimes assumed. The China crisis of 1954-55 took the United States close to the brink.
The crisis began with the shelling of Jinmen, Mazu, Dachen and other small islands off the Chinese coast by the communist forces established on the mainland. While the United States disputed the status of Taiwan and other islands further from the mainland, there was no doubt that the islands held by Chiang Kai-shek’s (Jiang Jieshi) Nationalists were in Chinese territory. In the prelude to the crisis, Nationalist force, with $1.6 billion in American aid, had established the tiny islands, some no more than two miles offshore, as secure forward bases for a future invasion.
In September 1954, Chinese shelling split the National Security Council. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favoured all-out defence of the islands as critical to the protection of the Nationalist redoubt of Taiwan. A proponent of the ‘domino theory,’ Radford was for obstructing any communist advance, with atomic bombs if necessary. Most Joint Chiefs agreed with him.
But the majority of the NSC fought shy of Radford’s hectoring. The politicians, having public opinion, febrile bipartisanship and fractious allies to consider, feared a war. Eisenhower was sceptical of the island’s strategic value. John Foster Dulles wanted neither ignominious withdrawal nor all-out conflict.
In public, the administration condemned Chinese aggression and signed a defence treaty with Chiang. To avoid alienating dissenting allies, Dulles set to work on a United Nations ceasefire plan. Military commitments to the Nationalists were kept deliberately vague to allow room for manoeuvre and keep China guessing. Secretly, the treaty required Chiang to pledge to take no offensive action against the mainland without American approval.
The administration’s “calculated imprecision” had left too much room for interpretation in China. Over the winter, hostilities worsened. On 10th January, 1955, a hundred communist planes raided the Dachens. A week later, a thousand nationalist guerrillas were overwhelmed on Yijiang. The Nationalists retaliated and all-out war for Taiwan threatened.
Eisenhower saw a need to clarify his position and informed the visiting Nationalist foreign minister that the United States would announce unequivocally which islands it would defend. In the NSC, heated debate ensued. Dulles argued that American deterrence had so far been inadequate: the communists now seemed convinced the United States would not fight. He encountered heavy opposition from the Treasury and Defense Secretaries and the President’s National Security Advisor.
Eisenhower backed Dulles. On 28th January the Senate passed what would be know as the Formosa Resolution, an effective blank cheque for the President. But the resolution still did not specify any specific territory to be defended: Chiang was informed privately of the American commitment to Jinmen and Mazu, in exchange for his withdrawal from Dachen. Though furious, Chiang relented and the islands 24,000 inhabitants, both military and civilian, were evacuated.
As the Dachens fell, the communist build up continued. Chiang would not move from Jinman and Mazu and the United States was becoming cornered. Eisenhower had staked his prestige on shaky Nationalist resistance. Dulles’ March trip to the region convinced him that the situation was worse than had been thought. If the islands were lost, the consequence for Taiwan would be “catastrophic,” he told the President. Defence of Jinmen and Mazu would require “drastic measures, including the use of nuclear weapons. Steps must be taken to prepare the squeamish public for their use: In a televised speech on 8th March, Dulles declared that the administration now considered atomic bombs “interchangeable with conventional weapons.” He now considered a fight inevitable and that communist aggression could be halted only by American action. Despite continuing division in the NSC, similar statements followed from Nixon, the Vice-President and Eisenhower.
So far, the Soviet reaction to the crisis had been almost ignored. It was felt that China had by now become almost an equal partner in relations with the USSR. Internal problems were distracting Soviet policy makers and the tone adopted by new leader Nikita Khrushchev was conciliatory. Eisenhower and Dulles thought Soviet influence on China less than was commonly held: The USSR was overextended and reluctant to become involved.
Eisenhower was now fully prepared to use nuclear weapons. On 28th March Chief of Naval operations Admiral Robert Carney leaked to the press that the United States had plans to launch an all-out attack on China and that he expected war to break out on 15th April, at the start of the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung. Eisenhower was furious about the leak; privately he conceded Carney might be right. On 31st March, Strategic Air Command reported plans for B-36 attacks to be launched from Guam, where one squadron of B-36 bombers was based and two would follow. The next day, according to the Chinese, eighteen American planes flew over Chinese territory. The next week, a plane carrying officials crashed on the way to Bandung. China condemned the U.S. flights as provocations and accused the Nationalists and the United States of sabotage. While Eisenhower tried to contain the public’s fears of war, Dulles, after protracted discussions which considered various conventional and non-conventional military options, developed a plan for withdrawal from Jinmen and Mazu and a blockade of the entire Chinese seaboard. There could be little doubt that mining Chinese territorial waters would lead to war. To demonstrate resolve, he proposed stationing nuclear weapons on Taiwan.
War was close. But Chiang refused to evacuate the islands, thwarting the American strategy of retreat and counter-attack. Then, on 23rd April, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai announced at Bandung that China was “friendly to the American people and willing to negotiate.
Why did China back down? The communists may have been concerned that America was about to start a general war. Chinese and Soviet policies had diverged and China may not have felt able to count on Soviet support. Khrushchev is reported to have described the crisis as a local problem. April saw agreement between America and the Soviet Union over Austria, described by Allen Dulles as “the first substantial Soviet concession to the West in Europe since the end of the war. Far from treating global communism as monolithic, Eisenhower and Dulles managed to exploit differences between China and the USSR. On the other hand, Eisenhower’s much vaunted subtlety and ambiguity, with the release of official documents, can be called into question: His policy allowed Chinese brinkmanship between 31st January and 24th April 1955, while he was secretly committed to war in defence of Jinmen and Mazu. Most significantly, Washington’s nuclear threat resulted directly in China’s decision to develop nuclear weapons of its own.
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