Diplomatic biographer Sir Harold Nicolson once wrote that the worst kind of diplomatists are zealots, lawyers, and missionaries; the best kind are humane skeptics. In his first years as secretary of state, John Foster Dulles seemed to fall clearly in the first category. He was a dyed-in-the-wool lawyer with Cold War missionary zeal. For him, Soviet aggressive moves toward the West invited “massive retaliation”; neutrals were “immoral”; and his policies and acts gave rise to a new term in diplomacy: “brinkmanship.” He was also associated in the minds of many Foreign Service officers with Senator McCarthy and his ilk, who pilloried the Foreign Service and hounded out of office several of our best China specialists whose only “crime” was the accuracy of their reports out of China during World War II, predicting the decline of the Chinese Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang and the rise of Mao’s Communists.
I came to see a rather different Dulles when I was his working-level action officer during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958. My involvement in China policy dates back to 1956, when I was assigned as regional planning adviser in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, which was then headed by Walter Robertson. Robertson was the quintessential Virginia gentleman, a banker by profession, who had powerful connections in the administration and Congress. His overriding interest in world affairs was to uphold the position of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as president of all of China, even though the “Gimo” and his forces had fled the mainland in 1949 to take refuge on Taiwan, China’s island province. For several months in 1958, I had chaired a small working-level interagency task force (State, Defense, and CIA) 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 task force scenarios related to a Chinese Communist (Chicom) aerial or artillery interdiction of the Quemoy island group, held by one-third of the Nationalist forces, though located just a few miles off the shore of mainland China.
When, in fact, an artillery interdiction was launched against the Quemoy and Matsu islands on August 23, 1958, I was able that same day to have on Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Parson’s desk 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. Parson and Robertson approved the recommendations, which were forwarded to Dulles. However, Robertson commented to me, the United States would, of course, never make first use of nuclear weapons. I found this remark rather astonishing, coming from one of our leading hawks.
Dulles, flying down from his vacation retreat on Duck Island in the St. Lawrence River, immediately called a meeting in his office. He had read our recommendations, but his first concern was legal. What were U.S. defense obligations toward 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.-Republic of China 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, had 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 U.S. forces was more difficult. The Quemoy group 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 the 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 in 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, rough seas, and alleged 27-foot waves in landing 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 howitzers.
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 nuclear weapons or extensive air-drops of napalm bombs, actions President Eisenhower strongly opposed, as did Dulles. 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 also 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 United States, such as 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 accordingly was 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.-People’s Republic of China ambassadorial-level talks in Warsaw could achieve on this issue, though he appreciated that public awareness of these talks forestalled criticisms that the United States was out of diplomatic contact with the Peking government on this and other issues.
Very early on the morning of September 7, I received a phone call from Dulles, who had evidently had a restless night. He suggested that it might be best for the United States 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 UN Security Council calling for a UN-supervised cease-fire and neutralization of the offshore islands. I was strongly opposed to this suggestion, which both Peking and Taipei would reject out of hand. 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 immediately prepared a memorandum, approved by Jeff Parsons and signed by Robertson, pointing out the negative factors entailed in the secretary’s 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 Peking and Taipei resolve this issue 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 farther away from Chicom territorial waters, with the Nationalists suspending artillery fire from Quemoy, to see whether this invited any reciprocal moves from the Communist side.
However, before any of these strategies could be pursued, our attention focused on the immediate, urgent issue of Quemoy running out of supplies. The daily consumption of supplies by the 80,000 troops and 45,000 civilians on Quemoy was estimated at 700 tons and yet, since August 23, only 125 tons had been delivered. This appalling record was ascribed to all the usual reasons—bad weather, tidal conditions, heavy shelling—but it also occurred to some in Washington that Taipei was deliberately holding back, or providing us with false figures, in an effort to get the United States more involved in the islands’ defense.
Our Joint Chiefs of Staff could see no reason why, with the exercise of guts and ingenuity, the Nationalists, under existing rules of engagement, could not off-load up to 1,000 tons of supplies a day under favorable weather conditions. Admiral Burke recommended new ways of delivering supplies, including floating them ashore. Over the next two weeks there was some improvement in deliveries but not enough to prevent an alarming diminution of food and ammunition on the Quemoys. By September 28, Taipei reported that only a few days of supplies remained. Cables from the U.S. embassy in Taipei were full of dire warnings.
At this point Secretary Dulles decided to go to New York to take the issue to the UN along the lines he had suggested over the phone on September 7. However, the very day he left for New York, I received word from the CIA that a reliable report had just been received from Quemoy stating that its supply situation was nowhere near as desperate as we had been led to believe. There were several weeks of supplies on hand in the extensive network of tunnels on Quemoy.
Robertson asked me to deliver this information in person to Acting Secretary Christian Herter, who immediately called a meeting in his office. There it was decided that I should go to New York to bring these developments to the attention of Dulles, with a recommendation from Herter that the secretary might wish to postpone any UN initiative.
I was met in New York by UN Ambassador Philip Crowe, who took me early the following day to the secretary’s suite in the Waldorf. When Dulles heard our reports, he canceled scheduled meetings with the British and French ambassadors to the UN, returned to Washington, and called a meeting that evening at his house. There, Admiral Burke was very upbeat on prospects for resupplying the Quemoys, mentioning for the first time in my hearing the fact that two of the Navy’s huge landing ship docks (LSDs) were about to arrive in the Taiwan Straits. These could contain dozens of amphibious landing craft, manned by trained Nationalist crews, which would run up on the shores of Quemoy with supplies.
Meanwhile, spirits on Taiwan had been lifted by the deadly effectiveness of several Nationalist fighter aircraft on patrol, whose U.S.-provided Sidewinders 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. When Dulles departed on October 20 for Taipei, via Italy and England, Peking announced the end of its cease-fire on the alleged grounds that one of our LSDs had intruded into the territorial waters of Quemoy. On October 25, following the issuance of a joint U.S.-ROC communique at the conclusion of Dulles’s visit to Taipei, Peking announced its intention to observe a cease-fire on the offshore islands on odd-numbered days. Taipei retaliated by firing on 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 forces off the offshore islands. But we felt we had to be careful in handling this effort, lest sharp open differences between Washington and Taipei tempt Peking to renew bombardment.
I well recall Secretary Dulles’s 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. Eventually, there was a reduction, but meanwhile we came to appreciate that the Chinese in their own particular way had found a solution by turning their hot war into an endless propaganda battle—of propaganda shells, blaring loud speakers, and balloon-delivered leaflets. Peking also issued a long series of “serious warnings” to the United States 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 reached the thousand mark by the time President Nixon’s trip to China was announced. Thereafter the warnings ceased.
In retrospect, I have often wondered whether Moscow had any hand in Peking’s decision to halt the heavy bombardment of Quemoy. We know that almost all of the 580,000 shells fired on the islands were produced in the Soviet Union, and that the first signs of serious Moscow-Peking differences appeared soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, about a year before the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis. However, we assumed during that crisis that Peking had Moscow’s unqualified support. Moscow said nothing to suggest otherwise. In fact, Khrushchev warned on several occasions that any use of nuclear weapons would not go unanswered by the USSR. (Peking exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1964.)
Finally, a few comments about Secretary Dulles’s handling of the crisis. I was deeply impressed by his excellent working relations with President Eisenhower as well as with his associates in State, Defense, and CIA (headed by his brother, Allen). On several occasions, near the conclusion of meetings in his office, Dulles would pick up the secure phone and tell the president of our conclusions and solicit his comments or, where relevant, his approval. Dulles thus made it clear to all present that he was acting under Eisenhower’s orders. That, in turn, strengthened Dulles’s position with all his associates.
I was also impressed by the way Dulles took charge of the problem, making it his personal responsibility to work out a peaceful solution, losing many hours of sleep in the process. Yet he sought advice from his associates. I recall how Gerard Smith, at that time director of the Policy Planning Staff, used to argue almost instinctively against the emerging consensus of several of our meetings. Dulles seemed to welcome the ensuing debate, which helped to fine-hone the final decisions. John Foster Dulles may be remembered by history as one of our most zealous, hardline secretaries of state, especially in his dealings with Moscow and Peking, but, from my vantage point during the last year of his life, he appeared as a man of moderation and reason, an able practitioner of diplomacy as well as of law.