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China’s Fight for Tiny Islands — The Taiwan Straits Crises, 1954-58

Recent disagreements over Beijing’s claim to the South China Seas (in which a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a non-binding decision in July 2016 in favor of the Philippines) in many ways is reminiscent of the potentially far more serious clashes over the Taiwan Straits, the first of which occurred shortly after the Korean War broke out.

Following the Chinese Civil War, tensions remained high between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1950 with the Communists victorious, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created and established in mainland China. The ROC was forced to relocate to Taiwan and the outlying islands of Penghu, Quemoy, and Matsu. However, no armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed, thus the civil war never formally ended. People have used this for justification of the PRC’s attack and capture of islands under the ROC’s jurisdiction.

In early 1950, President Harry Truman stated that the United States would remain neutral in matters regarding the Taiwan Strait. However, the outbreak of the Korea War in mid-1950 complicated matters. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait became a high priority to the United States, as PRC occupation of Taiwan would pose a threat to the security of the region and U.S. forces fighting in Korea. Truman consequently sent the Seventh Fleet into the Strait in a futile attempt to prevent conflict between the two sides.

On September 3, 1954, the PRC began bombing the Tachen Islands, 200 miles north of Taiwan. On January 20, 1955, the PRC seized the Yijiangshan Islands, eight miles from the Tachens; the Seventh Fleet then helped evacuate 30,000 Republic of China civilians and soldiers from the Tachens.

Nine days later, Congress passed the Formosa Resolution, which stipulated the use of U.S. force to defend Taiwan against attack. Under the threat of U.S. force and through bilateral negotiations with China, the PRC backed down and ended the shelling of the both the Tachen Island chain and Quemoy and Matsu islands. This ended what would be known as the first Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Three years, however, the PRC and ROC were again at odds. Despite the ceasefire that ended the first Strait crisis in 1955, the fundamental issues remained unresolved and both sides remained wary of future attacks.

Thus, the PRC and ROC built and strengthened their military forces on their respective sides of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese Communists tried to pressure the ROC to abandon the islands. Eventually, the PRC began bombing the islands of Quemoy and Matsu heavily on August 23rd, 1958, while threatening an invasion.

Just like the First Strait Crisis, this one was over in slightly more than one month, after the loss of over a thousand lives. After several of its MiG fighters were shot down and with few artillery shells left in its arsenal, the PRC announced it would bomb the islands only on odd-numbered days — with shells containing propaganda leaflets. Taiwan then began to do likewise on even days of the week. This odd arrangement continued until the PRC normalized relations with the U.S. in 1979.

David Osborn, stationed in Taiwan from 1949-53, relates civilian interest in the conflict. He was initially interviewed by Bert Potts in early January 1989. Ralph Katrosh was stationed in Taiwan during the early 1950s. He was interviewed beginning in August 1992. Joseph Greene worked in the Office of Political Affairs in Embassy Bonn from 1954-56 and was interviewed beginning March 1993. Ralph Clough served at the Department of State as Deputy Director of Chinese Affairs from  1955-58 and was interviewed beginning in April 1990.

On the Second Straits Crisis, Oscar Vance Armstrong worked at the State Department’s Bureau for Intelligence and Research (INR) on China from 1957-61. He was initially interviewed in March 1991. Marshall Green worked as the Regional Planning Advisor for the Far East starting in 1956. He began his memoirs in 1998. Joseph A Yager served as the Acting Deputy in Taiwan from 1957-61. He was initially interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in November 1999.

Check out our other Moments on the Second and Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.  Read other Moments on Taiwan and on China.  Go here for background on the Law of the Sea negotiations.


First Taiwan Straits Crisis, 1954-55

“From the Chinese Communist standpoint, we put the Seventh Fleet in the Strait before they had challenged our position on Taiwan”

David L. Osborn, Taiwan, Office of Chinese Affairs, 1949 – 1953

OSBORN:  It was impossible, in the Taiwan of 1949 and ’50, not to become involved, virtually for one thing, the Taiwan problem — that is to say, the China problem, Who had lost China? — had begun to dominate the American political scene in 1949 and ’50. (Graph: CIA World Fact Book)

So it was during this assignment that we were all on Taiwan debating the pros and cons of a United States commitment to Taiwan, the argument being between those who felt that the United States had been pouring sand down a rat hole in trying to help the forces of Chiang Kai-shek [leader of the Republic of China from 1928 until 1975]; and on the other hand, the forces of the China lobby — loosely identified as such — who argued that we had never aided Chiang Kai-shek enough and we should now do more.

This debate was so powerful that we all became engaged in it. And then on top of that, in 1950 the Korean War broke out. This had the effect of freezing the positions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. We feared an attack, so we put the Seventh Fleet in the Strait.  The Chinese on the mainland saw the action as a United States declaration of hostility towards China, as a step towards seizing Taiwan….

It’s important to note that from the Chinese Communist standpoint, we put the Seventh Fleet in the Strait before they — on their part — had challenged our position on Taiwan, militarily certainly. We put the Fleet there in anticipation of a Chinese Communist threat to Taiwan. So that was the origin of the question from the Chinese Communist side.

From our side, the question also had a strong domestic political component. That is to say, people were still arguing whether we were doing the right thing to support Chiang Kai-shek, or whether we should write him off as a bad bet.

The old China hands had during the war tended to favor working toward some kind of mutual understanding with the Chinese Communists, which would avoid conflict there. Whereas there were many people who assumed that conflict between us and Communist China eventually was inevitable, and that we should simply prepare ourselves for it. These debates were going back and forth, and that’s how the Strait issue assumed its most urgent form.

“Quemoy is in Amoy Harbor, and it is like holding Manhattan against the United States Army”

Ralph J Katrosh, Taiwan, Nationalist China, 1950 – 1951

KATROSH: One of the things that did happen…there was just enough of the Chinese Air Force left on Taiwan and just enough of our fleet in the Formosa Straits….

At that time we had a policy of physically separating the two sides…to force the Chinese Communists to keep a good number of their divisions in Fuchien and Chechiang Province. Also, the Chinese Nationalists [on Taiwan] held a number of offshore islands, many of which they still hold. On those offshore islands the Nationalists built up a guerilla force which raided the China coast and captured small Chinese Communist and other flag merchant vessels.

Quemoy, Matsu, Wu Chen, Poichuan. There is a string of them, most of them lighthouses, but the sizeable one, of course, was Quemoy. Tachen was very small but very strategically located off the coast of Chechiang just outside the port of Wenchou.

There was a rather effective blockade of the Fuchou and other Fuchienese ports. Butterfield and Swire [the Far Eastern trading company which opened its Shanghai office in 1867 to handle textile shipments to China and closed all its offices on the mainland after the PRC was founded] used to love to run blockade runners into the Formosa Straits and try to cut into  Amoy or Fuchou on a dark night.

The Chinese Nationalist guerrillas would bring these ships to one of the offshore islands and steal their cargo and send the ships back to Hong Kong saying, “Don’t try it again.”

The guerrillas on the islands would take the cargo that they stole from the steamers to Hong Kong and sell it. They then would buy provisions. They were fully self-supporting….They weren’t going to get a heck of a lot out of Taipei.

The British complained to us that the situation was getting expensive and they didn’t want to confront the Chinese Nationalists or us with a military escort for these ships. They wanted us to tell the Chinese to back off. Eisenhower did and that silliness, up to a point, ceased.

But at the same time the people on the offshore islands became even more dependent on Taiwan….I have been on a number of them and they are not self-sufficient, particularly if you have more than the basic population in residence. If there is a military unit or guerrillas, then you have to send additional supplies to the islands.

This went on all through the Korean War. The Taipei government, of course, when we had tens of thousands of Chinese Communist prisoners in Korea, went up there to try to entice as many of them as they could to defect. My recollection is about 12,000 of the hundreds of thousands did. But this action had no real effect on the Korean War.

The Chinese Communists tried to take Quemoy soon after Chiang left the mainland. An old Chinese general, Hulien, one of the few good ones, beat them back.

Quemoy is in Amoy Harbor and it is like holding Manhattan against the United States Army. The Chinese Communists didn’t try to take Quemoy all through the Korean War, which surprised many of us in the area at the time.

In 1954, the first heavy Chinese Communist bombardment occurred. This was not the 1958 one when President Eisenhower sent in the troops….They didn’t invade, but they bombarded it quite severely. They could do that because of the location of the island.

“I remember “wordsmithing” this ringing declaration of no compromise with Communist China”

Joseph N. Greene, Jr., Bonn Germany, Office of Political Affairs, 1954 – 1956

GREENE: There came a time that the Secretary [John Foster Dulles] persuaded the President to make a definitive speech about the U.S. policy in the Formosa Strait. It was getting pretty nasty.

The Chinese tried to intimidate us and the Nationalist government of Taiwan into giving Taiwan over to them, starting with Quemoy and Matsu.

The State Department prepared drafts for the President’s speech and they were sent to him in Newport, where he was taking a little break at the Naval War College. At one point, the President suggested to the Secretary of State that he come up so they could talk about the final text.

The Secretary took me along and I remember our sitting there “wordsmithing” this ringing declaration of no compromise with Communist China over a couple of little islands in the Formosa Straits. We flew back to Washington and that evening I assembled my family around the television to watch the President make this ringing declaration of intent.

And it rang great when the President said that we would never give up Quemoy and Matsu, we will not be party to another Munich, and, if necessary, we will send troops to help the Nationalist government defend itself. We thought that established all the strategic and moral parameters.

Invasion and Negotiations

Ralph Clough, Department of State, Deputy Director of Chinese Affairs, 1955 – 1958

CLOUGH: Our China policy had just come through the period of late ’54, early ’55, when we signed a defense treaty with the Republic of China. The Formosa Resolution was passed authorizing the President to intervene in any attack on offshore islands, which he considered to be part of or preliminary to an attack on Taiwan. So that had happened in early ’55….

In January of ’55, the Chinese Communists had attacked and occupied Yijiangshan Island, which was one of the Dachungs (Tachen Island Chain), and then we assisted the Nationalists in withdrawing their troops and civilians from the Dachungs….They occupied Yijiangshan Island. They launched a very effective amphibious assault….

These islands have always been considered part of China. In ’55, our military operation was designed to help the Nationalists withdraw from those islands, because they were considered too far away…

[It was a] very limited operation, but it involved, at least implicitly, a greater commitment by us to the other offshores, the bigger ones, Quemoy and Matsu particularly.

Q: So then in ’58, when the Chinese Communists launched this artillery interdiction against Quemoy, they made the declaration that this was the first step towards Taiwan, it gave Dulles the ammunition he needed for invoking the agreement we had with the Republic of China with regard to defense.

CLOUGH:  That’s right, although we still did not intervene militarily in defense of the offshore islands. In other words, our forces weren’t involved in combat. We moved the Seventh Fleet in….(Photo: Getty Images)

We convoyed the supply ships to within three miles, but we did not engage in combat, nor did we agree to the bombing of mainland airfields by the ROC Air Force….

I became the Director in ’58. I had been Deputy, but I was barely in the job before the agreement was reached to open the ambassadorial talks with the Chinese Communists in Geneva.

Secretary Dulles sent Ambassador Alex Johnson to Geneva, August 1, ’55, to open those talks with Wang Pingnan, the Chinese Communist Ambassador from Warsaw. Alex was at that time Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. They met in Geneva amid great press attention, hundreds of press people there at the first official relatively high-level meeting between Americans and Chinese Communists.

There had been an international conference in ’54, at which there were somewhat distant encounters. That was the conference at which Dulles was accused of having refused to shake hands with Zhou En-lai [the first Premier of the PRC from 1949 until 1976].

Anyway, I was sent to be the advisor to Alex Johnson at those talks in Geneva, and I was there for probably two and a half months. We reached our first agreement with the Chinese on the return of civilians, which was, from our point of view, the number one object on the agenda. We signed that agreement in September.


Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, 1958

“‘Are they actually going to start an invasion of the islands?'”

Oscar Vance Armstrong, Bureau for Intelligence and Research (INR) on China, 1957-1961

ARMSTRONG: A major development during my time in INR…was the Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1958, when it appeared that the Chinese were trying to oust the Nationalists from the islands right off the mainland’s coast — Quemoy and Matsu. Quemoy, being only three or four miles off the coast, was heavily fortified.

One issue for the United States was, “Are they actually going to start an invasion of the islands? If not, are they going to try to interdict the islands and if so what should we do about that?” There was another issue, although I never thought it was a serious issue. That is whether or not, if we got involved in some way, were the Soviets going to get involved.

There were some who felt we had edged towards nuclear war. I never felt that way. Partly because the Soviets, although giving a reasonable amount of support to the Chinese, didn’t come out with their real sort of vigorous support and threatening language vis-à-vis the West until it became apparent that the whole thing was going to calm down.

Many years later we learned that one of the problems of the Sino-Soviet relationship was the failure of the Soviets to give China as much support as China thought it should have.

Marshall Green, Regional Planning Advisor for the Far East

GREEN:  [During] and after the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958…I fortuitously became Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ action officer at the working level dealing with the crisis….

For several months before the Chinese Communists (Chicoms) opened up their artillery barrage against Quemoy on August 23, 1958, I had been chairing a working-level interagency task force (State, Defense and CIA) which was one of several established by the White House to examine U.S. capabilities to cope with two or more simultaneous military crises in various parts of the world.

One of the scenarios our task force had just completed related to a Chicom aerial or artillery interdiction of the Quemoy island group (Big Quemoy, Little Quemoy, Tatan, Ehrtan and Tungting) held by the Nationalists but located just a few miles off the shore of mainland China.

So when in fact an artillery interdiction was launched against the Quemoy group where one-third of the Nationalist forces was stationed, I was able to submit to [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State J. Graham] Jeff Parsons that same day our agreed task force recommendations on U.S. countermeasures.

These recommendations called for a cautious escalation of U.S. naval and air support operations as necessary to protect Taiwan from a Communist takeover. Parsons and, subsequently, [Assistant Secretary of State Walter] Robertson approved the recommendations which were forwarded to Dulles. However, Robertson commented to me that the U.S. would, of course, never make first use of nuclear weapons. I found this remark rather astonishing coming from one of our leading hawks.

Peking’s intent was to prevent provisions from reaching the defenders, thereby wearing them down to the point of surrender

Dulles, flying down from his vacation retreat on Duck Island in the St. Laurence River, immediately called a meeting in his office. (Cover art: The Economist)

He had obviously read our recommendations but his first concern was legal. What were our defense obligations towards the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu? What restrictions applied to the involvement of U.S. forces in their defense?

These small offshore islands were not included in the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty’s definition of the treaty area, but a subsequent joint resolution of Congress in January 1955, at the time of the first Taiwan Straits crisis, authorized the President to employ U.S. armed forces in the protection of not just Taiwan and the Pescadores but also “related positions and territories in that area.”

Dulles had no difficulty in making a legal case that the joint resolution covered the offshore islands in this crisis, since Peking, in attacking them, announced that its objective was Taiwan. The President and Congressional leaders agreed. Establishing rules for the engagement of US forces was more difficult.

The Quemoy group of islands was so close to mainland shore batteries that they could be blanketed with enemy shells, although there was no evidence of any impending Chicom landing operation against those islands. In fact, the shelling occurred immediately before the typhoon season when amphibious operations would have been most precarious.

It was fairly clear that Peking did not want to take the islands unless, in doing so, it brought down the government on Taiwan.

Peking’s evident intent was interdiction of the offshore islands: to prevent provisions, including food and ammunition, from reaching the defenders, thereby wearing them down to the point of surrender, which in turn would precipitate a collapse of morale on Taiwan and a takeover from within by the Communists.

The problem therefore came down to one of resupplying the embattled Quemoy group, a task that was beyond the capability of the Nationalist Navy which was not only poorly led at that time but had to contend with incessant bombardment of the Quemoy group by Soviet-manufactured artillery, rough seas and alleged 27-foot tides which further complicated the landing of supplies on the islands.

Thus it was arranged that the U.S. Navy would escort Chinese resupply convoys to a point three miles offshore from Quemoy but would not enter Quemoy’s territorial waters. Nationalist vessels had to cover the last three miles on their own, loaded with supplies including shells for Quemoy’s 8″ howitzers and other guns.

Secretary Dulles, acting under President Eisenhower’s instructions, decided against U.S. air operations in the Taiwan Straits and reached agreement with Taipei that U.S. and Nationalist planes would not overfly mainland China, thereby ruling out air attacks on Chicom shore batteries.

One important reason for this decision was that there was no way of silencing these batteries short of use of nuclear weapons or extensive air-drops of napalm bombs, actions President Eisenhower strongly opposed. It was also increasingly apparent that Chicom air capability was being used with great restraint, there being no bombing of any Nationalist-held territories.

Our limited rules of engagement reflected awareness of the lack of support in the United States for getting involved in a war over distant islands that “weren’t worth the life of a single American boy.”

Nor did we have international support beyond that of the Republic of China on Taiwan, South Korea and South Vietnam. Governments of key nations allied to the U.S. like Great Britain and Japan were correctly restrained in their criticisms, but public opinion in these countries was highly averse to U.S. involvement.

Secretary Dulles was accordingly bent on finding some diplomatic course of action to bring the fighting to a halt. He set little store by what the periodic U.S.-PRC ambassadorial-level talks in Warsaw could achieve on this issue, though he appreciated that their publicized existence offered relief from criticisms that the U.S. was out of diplomatic contact with the Peking government on this and other issues.

Very early on the morning of September 7, 1958, I received a phone call from Dulles, who had evidently had a restless night, suggesting that it might be best for the U.S. to take the issue to the United Nations, since the General Assembly would be reconvening the following week.

Dulles mentioned the possibility of having the British and French introduce a resolution in the UNSC calling for a UN-supervised ceasefire and neutralization of the offshore islands.

I was strongly opposed to this suggestion, which both Peking and Taipei would reject out of hand, and it would impose great strains on our relations with Taipei which in turn might strengthen the case for Peking occupying China’s seat in the UN.

However, I said nothing about all this to Dulles over the phone but replied that he would have our Bureau’s reactions as soon as possible.

I forthwith prepared a memorandum, approved by Jeff Parsons and signed by Robertson, pointing out the negative factors entailed in Dulles’ suggestion and alternatively recommending that we ask the British and French to introduce a UN resolution welcoming Washington’s and Peking’s discussions of this issue at Warsaw and urging that the issue be resolved between Peking and Taipei without further resort to force.

Also included in Robertson’s memorandum was a suggestion that our side might at some point in the near future take unilateral and unannounced moves such as shifting our regular Taiwan Straits patrols further away from Chicom territorial waters, and the Nationalists suspending artillery fire from Quemoy, to see whether this invited any reciprocal moves from the Communist side….

Peking announced its intention to observe a ceasefire on the offshore islands on odd-numbered days

Meanwhile spirits on Taiwan had been lifted by the deadly effectiveness of several Nationalist fighter aircraft on patrol, whose U.S.-provided Sidewinders [missiles] downed five MiG-17s.

It was against this background that Peking radio announced on October 6 that it was temporarily suspending its bombardment of the offshores, emphasizing that its action was taken to spare the lives of Chinese compatriots inhabiting those islands. Our side immediately reciprocated by suspending U.S. convoy activities and modifying our naval patrol routes in the Taiwan Straits.

The outlook remained unclear, and when Dulles departed on October 20 for Taipei, via Italy and England, Peking announced the end of its ceasefire on the alleged grounds that one of our LSDs [Dock Landing Ships] had intruded into the territorial waters of Quemoy….

On October 25, following the issuance of a joint U.S.-ROC communiqué at the conclusion of Dulles’ visit to Taipei, Peking announced its intention to observe a ceasefire on the offshore islands on odd-numbered days. Taipei retaliated by firing on occasional Chicom vessels from batteries on Quemoy.

This curious arrangement left each of the Chinese governments with the satisfaction that it was master of the situation, but we had no idea of how long this arrangement would continue.

Thus, when Dulles returned from Taipei, his first concern was to preserve the relative calm while doing everything he could to get the bulk of Chiang’s [Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek] forces off the offshore islands. On the other hand, we felt we had to be careful in handling this effort, lest sharp open differences between Washington and Taipei tempt Peking to renew the bombardment.

I well recall Secretary Dulles’ comments on his return to Washington:  “If nothing is done now and then a year or so hence the Chicoms again attack the offshores, it will be extremely difficult for us to give the ROC any military support. Already we have had to strain our relations with Congress and foreign governments to the breaking point. Our experience with the offshores was agonizing enough in 1955. It is worse today. We can’t go through this a third time.”

Our efforts to effect a drastic reduction in the garrisons on the offshore islands never succeeded. There was an eventual sizeable reduction, but meanwhile we came to appreciate that the Chinese in their own peculiar way had found a solution of turning their hot war into an endless propaganda battle — of propaganda shells, blaring loudspeakers, and balloon-delivered leaflets.

“The bombardment was not a prelude to the landing of troops

Jospeh A Yager, Acting Deputy, Taiwan, 1957 – 1961

YAGER: [Except] at the very beginning when the civil war was still going on, a Communist threat to these islands was not seen as a prelude to an attack on Taiwan, which the Chinese Communists really did not and probably still do not have the capability of mounting. It would be such a large amphibious operation over 100 miles of sea, even wider at some points. (Photo: Getty Images)

So, we thought the shelling was an effort to take these islands and thereby to weaken their Nationalist adversary and possibly to drive a wedge between the Chinese Nationalists and the United States. That was the kind of thinking that we had.

The shelling came as quite a surprise. I was at a dinner in the official guesthouse with some senior Chinese officials and a number of other Americans when the news came of the beginning of the bombardment. It was totally unexpected.

The Nationalist Minister of National Defense was, by a bad coincidence, on Chinmen and he was caught in an open field by the bombardment. It was lucky he wasn’t killed. Later analysis by the U.S. Army attaché of the bombardment concluded the bombardment was not a prelude to the landing of troops. It was not directed appropriately for that purpose.

It was more kind of hit everything and raise a big storm, but it wasn’t directed carefully against the main Nationalist artillery positions and the beach defenses. You might say it was a big political bombardment rather than the prelude to an invasion of the islands….

I welcomed the Congressional resolution because I felt that that was a way of quieting things down. The U.S. had played an important role in ending that crisis successfully. It was basically a Quemoy crisis. Matsu got a lot of shells at it, but Matsu is farther from the mainland or from any other island that can be used by the Communists.

So what happened in Quemoy was really what mattered. We had escorted supply ships to Quemoy up to the old three-mile limit. This really constricted the Chinese Communists from doing anything. They might conceivably have had some idea of landings and maybe gradually bringing more and more troops ashore and taking the islands. But our close involvement constrained what the Communists could do.

We didn’t want the Communists to take those islands. We thought it would be a political blow to the Nationalists and something of a blow to us. There wasn’t any debating in the embassy, because most people were not that informed as to what was going on.

We did later get Chiang [Kai-shek] to reduce the amount of troops he had on Quemoy. He had more there than he needed to defend the island and we felt that made the island a greater prize for the Communists. Getting him to withdraw part of his garrison on Quemoy was consistent with our efforts to get him to reduce the size of his army overall, which was larger than he needed and was costing money that might otherwise have gone into economic development.

We made a deal with him. We gave him some very heavy artillery that the U.S. Army no longer could see a use for, but it fit the Quemoy situation. Quemoy is just full of caves and a lot of artillery was placed in caves that had small apertures through which they could fire. These heavy guns were just the thing that the Chinese could use….

We  saw the U.S. role as trying to keep things calm, avoid any renewal of the civil war, and make Taiwan more and more prosperous and defensible.

GREEN:  Peking also issued a long series of “serious warnings” to the U.S. every time one of our naval patrols in the Taiwan Straits came within Chinese mainland territorial waters as defined by Peking, but not by Washington. The serious warnings had nearly reached the thousand mark by the time President Nixon’s trip to China was announced in 1971. Thereafter the warnings ceased.