The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 precipitated an era of tension and animosity between the United States and the new communist power in Asia. One of the major points of contention involved the island of Taiwan (previously named Formosa). Fleeing from the communist-controlled Chinese government led by Mao Tse-tung, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist followers relocated to Taiwan with the hopes of one day regaining control of China. During the next few years, Taiwan and the nearby islands of Quemoy (also known as Jinmen) and Matsu became the focal point of one of the most contentious episodes of Cold War history.
Determined to avoid the numerous clashes since 1949 between China’s warring factions, U.S. President Harry Truman initially adhered to a policy of military nonintervention with regards to Taiwan. However, with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Truman abandoned his noncommittal stance, instead declaring the Taiwan Straits as neutral waters. Keenly aware of the strategic importance of Taiwan in containing the spread of communism in the region, Truman deployed the Seventh Fleet to the straits in an effort to prevent Mao from launching a military strike against the Nationalists. Although the U.S. action did not qualify as a commitment to defend Taiwan against the Chinese, it did signify a major shift in American foreign policy toward a more aggressive approach to diffusing conflicts in the area.
Shortly after taking office in January 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower, in response to the end of the Korean War, lifted the U.S. naval blockade of Taiwan, meant to prevent an outbreak of hostilities between the Nationalists and mainland China. With the removal of an American military presence in the Taiwan Straits, Chiang Kai-shek remained free to intensify his efforts to regain control of China. During August 1954, he authorized the movement of troops to the Nationalist stronghold islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Despite Washington’s stern warnings to the communists against any retaliatory measures, Mao viewed the blockade removal and subsequent increased activity of the Nationalists as an opportunity to “liberate Taiwan.” Hoping to use Taiwan as a way to unite his people against potential foreign threats like the United States, Mao ordered the bombing of the occupied offshore islands beginning in September 1954.
With tensions between the two groups continuing to grow, the United States considered a range of possible responses, including the drastic measure of utilizing nuclear weapons to terminate the hostilities in the region. In the end, Eisenhower and the United States Congress followed a diplomatic path by enacting the Formosa Resolution in January 1955. The legislation pledged the American defense of Taiwan in the case of a communist invasion, but it left deliberately vague whether the United States would intervene to protect the islands off China’s mainland. Though critics attacked the measure for granting the President advance authorization to wage war (it would, in fact, be the model for the far more controversial Tonkin Gulf Resolution a decade later), the Formosa Resolution sailed through the House, while after a prolonged Senate debate, only three senators voted against it. Passage of the resolution produced a series of indirect negotiations between the United States and China (in which the Chinese agreed to cease bombing Quemoy and Matsu), and the First Taiwan Straits Crisis ended in May 1955.
Alongside passage of the Formosa Resolution, the United States and Taiwan entered into a mutual security pact, strengthening the connection between the two nations and making Mao’s “liberation” efforts more difficult to achieve. Between 1956 and 1957, Mao altered his strategy, expressing a desire to achieve a peaceful settlement of the conflict with the Nationalists, despite Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to remove troops from Quemoy and Matsu. By 1958, however, tension in the Taiwan Straits resumed. Concerned with increased American involvement in Taiwan and frustrated with the failure of a more moderate policy, Mao switched gears once again and assumed a hard-line approach to Taiwan. Another contributing factor to China’s decision to win back Taiwan by force involved Mao’s “socialist transformation” of Chinese society, known as the Great Leap Forward. Gambling that Taiwan could play a significant factor in popular mobilization behind the radical movement aimed at the rapid advancement of China’s industrial and economic capabilities, Mao directed the bombing of Quemoy in August 1958.
Though Mao claimed the renewed shelling resulted from a desire “to teach the Americans a lesson” for intruding in China’s affairs with Taiwan, in actuality, his decision was grounded in the belief that an international crisis could benefit the Chinese. Besides being able to paint the Americans as imperialist aggressors, Mao also wanted to manipulate the Taiwan situation to demonstrate China’s independence from the dominant communist power of the era - the Soviet Union.
The United States, in turn, responded to China’s attack of Quemoy with little ambiguity. Eisenhower reiterated America’s resolve to defend Taiwan (and the offshore islands even though they weren’t explicitly listed in the Formosa Resolution), both in rhetoric and by his decision to send a large naval contingent to the Taiwan Straits. Threatening that the United States would not retreat “in the face of armed aggression,” Eisenhower’s forceful stance convinced the Chinese to end the bombing and seek a peaceful settlement with the Nationalist government in October 1958.
Throughout the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, Mao carefully avoided any direct confrontation with the United States, seeking instead to solidify his power both at home and abroad. Despite its brevity, this second confrontation had the potential to trigger a widespread conflict during a period in world history in which the temptation to use nuclear weapons to settle international disputes prevailed. Ultimately, war was averted, but both of the strait crises contributed to the underlying animosity and growing distrust between the three superpowers of the era—the United States, China and the Soviet Union—and thereby should be remembered as significant events in cold war history.
Accinelli, Robert. Crisis and Commitment: United States Policy toward Taiwan, 1950-1955. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Chen, Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
First Taiwan Strait Crisis,
Second Taiwan Strait Crisis,
“Editorial Comment on Eisenhower’s Speech on Taiwan Strait.” 13 September 1958. New York Times: 2.
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