Nuclear Threats - China - 1958
The year 1957 saw Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan making heightened preparations for an invasion of the mainland. Chiang believed the mainland population was ripe for revolt and the invasion plans were accompanied by preparation for guerrilla operations.
In the summer of 1958 a series of events, including the shooting down by the Communists of two Nationalist F-84 aeroplanes, the stationing of Chinese jets on airfields close to the Nationalist-held offshore islands (see China I) and threatening rhetoric from Beijing caused growing concern in Washington. Ominously, after Khrushchev’s meetings with Mao in Beijing between 31st July and 3rd August, the incidents became more frequent. On 23rd August Communist forces opened a massive artillery bombardment of the Jinmen islands.
The State Department’s immediate response was to order an increase of military power in the area. Two days later, army units were ordered to prepare to assist the Nationalists. This aid was to include attacks on coastal air bases on the mainland. The overall attitude was cautious, however, and the orders were accompanied by a warning that offensive action against the mainland should be taken only as a last resort.
Eisenhower’s caution reflected not so much a lack of American resolve confusion over China’s intention. As yet China’s objectives appeared to be limited to the island of Jinmen. Eisenhower sanctioned Nationalist counter-strikes, as long as they did not “drag us into attacking Peiping and the whole of China.” United States policy was to stand firm over Taiwan, while going to all possible lengths to avoid war. Eisenhower declared on 11th September 1958 that America “shall never resort to force in settlement of differences except when compelled to do so to defend against aggression.”
American diplomacy now focussed on calming the exasperated Nationalist leadership and the possibility of a ceasefire, with a Communist commitment to non-aggression. As the shelling of the offshore islands continued, distrust grew between America and Taiwan, the former fearing unilateral action by their ally. Dulles worried whether the Nationalists would be satisfied with American logistical support for a retaliatory move. Taiwan was by now champing at the bit and the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet estimated an attack would occur within two weeks.
The primary purpose of Chinese military action was deterrence and China seemed willing to negotiate a ceasefire. Talks in Warsaw failed to find a solution, however, and it is likely that nationalist belligerence would have blocked a settlement. While Eisenhower considered the loss of the islands a precursor to the fall of Taiwan, force remained his least favoured option and plans for the de-militarization of the Taiwan Strait were considered.
Escalation at the end of September quickly made talk of de-militarization academic. Yet the United States clung to the line of peaceful settlement and Chiang, unable to make provocative moves, was forced by the end of the month to present a more moderate policy, explaining that his forces were defending the islands, rather than positioning themselves for an invasion. With regard to American intervention, he maintained that “we shall not ask our ally to participate with ground forces. This is a guarantee I can responsibly and openly offer to the world at large.”
By the time Dulles visited Taiwan in late October, the crisis had subsided and the greatest tensions were between Washington and Taipei over future strategy. America’s disinclination to fight had tied the hands of its Chinese ally. Whereas Chiang’s forces saw themselves as fighting a continuing battle, American policy was to maintain a pocket of ‘Free China’ in the hope that it would prove inspirational to the mainland in the event of a ‘Hungarian-style uprising’ against the Communist regime. Nevertheless, independent action by Nationalist forces may well have dragged the United States into a war it was powerless to prevent.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|