Many scholars have argued that a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons became widely accepted in the 1960s, spurred on by the Cuban missile crisis and the subsequent growth of U.S. and Soviet long-range nuclear missile forces. The Eisenhower administration, in contrast, has been seen as relatively more willing to use nuclear diplomacy to achieve its military objectives. This article examines the Eisenhower administration's attitudes toward nuclear weapons during four crises in East Asia: the end of the Korean War, the siege of Dien Bien Phu, and the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu in 1954–1955 and 1958. U.S. officials at first acted almost as if nuclear weapons were simply “bigger bombs,” but as the decade progressed, nuclear weapons were increasingly seen as all but unusable. Much of the confusion regarding Dwight Eisenhower's attitude toward this issue resulted from changes over time and the complex interactions he had with members of his administration who argued for a more aggressive stance toward foreign enemies.
Scholars have devoted a good deal of attention to the study of the “taboo” on the use of nuclear weapons. The behavior of the Eisenhower administration in East Asia has been of particular historical importance for this line of research. In his 2005 Nobel address, Thomas Schelling marveled at the fact that nuclear weapons had not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He stressed the importance of historical contingency, arguing that the Eisenhower administration could well have used nuclear weapons against the Chinese had the Communist regime been more aggressive.1 Schelling contrasted the policy of the earlier Republican administration with the thinking of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, presidents whose governments began to see the non-use of nuclear weapons as an accomplishment worth preserving. John Lewis Gaddis takes a similar view on the hawkishness of the American government in the 1950s, writing that “[i]t is clear, in retrospect, that the Eisenhower administration was prepared to ‘go nuclear’ in any of several contingencies,” including “a violation of the Korean armistice, an escalation of the fighting in Indochina, or a Chinese Communist assault on Quemoy and Matsu.”2
The evidence presented here challenges this narrative and shows that the attitudes of President Dwight Eisenhower and other high-ranking officials toward the nuclear question were more complex. Indeed, their thinking on the issue evolved in a remarkable fashion. Initially, they viewed nuclear weapons as just “bigger bombs,” but by the end of the 1950s the taboo on the use of these weapons was not only a serious obstacle to be overcome but one that made nuclear warfare against an enemy nearly impossible.3 This is perhaps why Michael Gordon Jackson writes that “in regard to questions about nuclear weapons and their use by the Eisenhower administration … the literature seems schizophrenic.”4 There was not just one Eisenhower policy or attitude. Rather there was a progression of views that is most conspicuous in the private statements of the president himself.
The idea of a nuclear taboo was widely popularized by Nina Tannenwald, who argues that the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since Nagasaki cannot be explained through conventional theories of deterrence.5 Rather, leaders and their populations have developed a normative objection to the use of nuclear weapons, making it unlikely that such weapons would be used in modern warfare. T. V. Paul argues that the norm is actually quite fragile, preferring to describe it as a “tradition” maintained as a result of reputation concerns among states.6 Although scholars disagree about the exact mechanisms involved and the best terminology to use, the notion that there is a stigma attached to the use of nuclear weapons has been confirmed by historical investigation of the decision-making processes of world leaders and the fact that these weapons are not used even when there is no risk of retaliation from the other side. In the seven decades since the end of World War II, we have seen non-nuclear states attack nuclear states without any expectation from either side that the nuclear state would resort to the weapons one might expect would give it the greatest tactical advantage.
By the 1960s, the taboo was well established, and the United States did not consider using nuclear weapons even as it lost tens of thousands of men in the Vietnam War.7 Scholars also acknowledge that throughout the Eisenhower administration, the public's willingness to tolerate the use of nuclear weapons decreased, and a similar attitudinal shift was evident abroad.8 Comparatively little attention, however, has been paid to the ways these changes influenced U.S. leaders during crises. When scholars investigate this period, they sometimes discuss a single Eisenhower policy or insufficiently distinguish between different crises during which the use of nuclear weapons was actively considered and debated within the administration.
This article analyzes the gradual strengthening of the nuclear taboo through an in-depth analysis of the four most serious crises the Eisenhower administration faced in East Asia: the end of the Korean War, Indochina, and the 1954–1955 and 1958 standoffs across the Taiwan Strait. John Gaddis has claimed that in each of these cases the Eisenhower administration was ready to “go nuclear,” but in fact the thinking of senior U.S. officials differed starkly in each crisis, reflecting evolving political realities both at home and abroad.9
These four crises in East Asia provide a natural experiment that can help us see how the attitudes of U.S. officials toward the use of nuclear weapons changed in the 1950s. First, the main enemy in each case—the People's Republic of China (PRC)—was the same, as were many of the main decision-makers on the U.S. side. Second, in each crisis, the threat of nuclear retaliation was limited. The PRC did not acquire its own nuclear weapons until 1964. In the Korean War, the United States occasionally worried about Soviet nuclear retaliation against Japan but not against the United States itself.10 None of the crises presented a direct threat to U.S. territory. Thus, because of the similarities underlying each of these foreign policy issues, a comparative survey of attitudes toward nuclear weaponry can help us trace the robustness of the nuclear taboo over time and its development throughout the Eisenhower administration.
The United States sacrificed much more blood and treasure during the Korean War than it did during the other crises. Therefore, differences in the willingness of senior officials to consider the use of nuclear weapons may have been due in part to how large the stakes were. Unfortunately, no historical experiment is perfect, and it is true that Eisenhower may have been more willing to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War for reasons other than the fact that the taboo was at its weakest at the beginning of his presidency. On the other hand, the two crises over Quemoy and Matsu may be as close to a natural experiment as we can expect to find in international politics. Although no two situations are identical, the four crises reviewed in this article share enough similarities to be instructive regarding the development of the nuclear taboo.
In each crisis, I begin with a historical overview of the facts and discuss how previous scholars have addressed the nuclear question. I rely on original documents, many either unavailable to or missed by previous scholars, to focus on the issue of whether the Eisenhower administration ever realistically came close to being ready to use nuclear weapons. At first, U.S. policymakers showed no doubt about using nuclear bombs if necessary to end the Korean War. In later crises, the president consistently held back his advisers who wanted to treat the decision to use nuclear weapons in the event of war as a fait accompli. By the end of his presidency, Eisenhower was so concerned about the political consequences of using nuclear weapons that he disregarded the advice of those who advocated using them, especially during the Second Taiwan Strait crisis. This was for the most part not due to moral considerations, however. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were constantly aware of the nuclear taboo, which they often deplored and even consciously tried to soften or eliminate. They and others in the administration nonetheless worried about the likely adverse reaction of U.S. allies to use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. This comparative focus across the four East Asian crises allows us to trace the development of the change in thinking about nuclear warfare in the years when the nuclear taboo first became unquestionably robust and widely recognized.11
Nuclear Weapons as an Instrument of Policy: 20 January 1953–27 July 1953
On 25 June 1950, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), backed by the PRC and the Soviet Union, invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly approved a resolution calling for a U.S.-led coalition to go to Korea and expel the Communists from the south, back across the 38th parallel. Within a few months, the North Koreans were turned back and UN forces were approaching the Yalu River. Fearing a threat from the U.S. advance, China sent its own soldiers into Korea in a major escalation of the war, which dragged on for the next few years. By the time Eisenhower entered the White House, the Korean War had reached a stalemate, with battle lines having hardened around the 38th parallel since the summer of 1951.12 Yet violent clashes continued, as did U.S. conventional bombing of North Korean targets.
One of the main issues preventing a peaceful settlement was the fate of Chinese and DPRK prisoners of war. At least some of the captured Communist forces did not want to be repatriated to their home countries, and the United States opposed sending soldiers back against their will. This view was unacceptable to the Chinese and North Koreans. Eisenhower, however, as he was entering the White House, publicly made clear that his administration would take steps to prevent an indefinite stalemate. In private, the administration discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons and tried to make sure that the word got back to its adversaries.
On 8 June, China agreed to the principle of voluntary repatriation, and a UN commission was set up to handle the logistics. Despite ROK leader Syngman Rhee's vigorous protests, the removal of this stumbling block left the United States with no reason to continue fighting. The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on 27 July, establishing a demilitarized zone close to the original borders of the two countries, and it remains the dividing line between the Koreas to this day.
Observers noticed that the Eisenhower administration was able to turn a stalemate into a final agreement relatively quickly. Dulles explained to the public his version of how the Korean War ended in the January 1956 issue of Life Magazine. According to Dulles, Eisenhower said he had decided in December 1952 to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese if a satisfactory conclusion to the war could not be negotiated.13 Dulles, the story went, was awakened one night in June to learn that Rhee, in an apparent attempt to sabotage peace negotiations, had released enemy prisoners under his control. Dulles then went to the president, who reaffirmed the previous decision to use nuclear weapons if peace talks broke down.14 Dulles then emphasized that he and Eisenhower had achieved their goals:
But the North Koreans and the Red Chinese did not walk out of the conference.
They continued to negotiate, thus accepting a propaganda defeat by acknowledging that almost half of their captured soldiers did not want to return. They did so, Dulles believes, because they had had unmistakable warning that further delays would no longer be met with U.S. indecisiveness.
Thirty-nine days later the truce was signed.15
Eisenhower, in his memoirs, tells a similar story: “My feeling was then, and still remains, that it would be impossible for the United States to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world (without turning into a garrison state) if we did not possess the will to use [nuclear weapons] when necessary.”16 He goes on to describe how he was able to extricate the United States from a deadlocked situation on the ground:
The lack of progress in the long-stalemated talks—they were then recessed—and the nearly stalemated war both demanded, in my opinion, measures on our part to put an end to these intolerable conditions. One possibility was to let the Communist authorities understand that, in the absence of satisfactory progress, we intended to move decisively without inhibition in our use of weapons, and would no longer be responsible for confining hostilities to the Korean Peninsula.17
Eisenhower's private statements after leaving the presidency matched what he said publicly. Brought in to advise President Lyndon Johnson on the situation in Vietnam, the former president portrayed the end of the Korean War as a deliberate and successful case of nuclear compellence.18 In the decades after he left office, several key officials from the administration told the same story repeatedly, whether speaking in private or writing their own memoirs.19
Scholars once doubted this official story, downplaying the claims of U.S. leaders made years after the fact.20 However, as more documents have been declassified and other scholars have examined the evidence, they have come to believe that the U.S. government was actually quite serious about using nuclear weapons to end the stalemate.21 U.S. policymakers repeatedly had explicit discussions about what would happen if a settlement could not be reached with the Chinese. In May, the National Security Council (NSC) considered six options that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had prepared in case ongoing negotiations broke down and the war resumed. If Option C, D, E, or F were selected, none of these paths could be taken “without a concurrent decision to employ atomic weapons on a sufficiently large scale to insure success.”22 The JCS decided on a combination of options C, D, and E, which meant an attack on North Korea and China itself, including “extensive strategical and tactical use of atomic bombs, [to] be undertaken so as to obtain maximum surprise and maximum impact on the enemy, both militarily and psychologically.”23 A piecemeal approach was rejected, as it would reduce the chances of success. On 20 May, the NSC formally decided to endorse the recommendations of the JCS “if conditions arise requiring more positive action in Korea.”24
On 23 July, a few days before the armistice was signed, the NSC again took seriously the idea of using nuclear weapons. Policymakers were concerned about the significance of recent Communist attacks and whether this meant a resumption of large-scale hostilities.25 The minutes of the NSC meeting indicate that “[Deputy Defense] Secretary [Roger] Kyes agreed that our atomic capabilities must be used against the Chinese Communists if the armistice is violated.”26 However, until 1996, the sentence before this was blacked out, making it impossible to know whom Kyes was agreeing with. Further declassification revealed that the previous sentence states: “The President said he would station extra wings in the Far East, and in particular would see to it that atomic capabilities were available on Okinawa for emergency use.”27 Adding credibility to the statement is the fact that the president approved a request by the JCS in early June for nuclear weapons to be deployed overseas because doing so was “essential to operational readiness and military flexibility.”28
The unsanitized version of the 23 July discussion adds to the already formidable body of evidence suggesting that Eisenhower was serious about using nuclear weapons if armistice discussions broke down. What is striking about the NSC discussions in the first half of 1953, especially compared to the president's behavior in later crises, is that Eisenhower was usually the one who brought up nuclear weapons and appeared willing to go even further than his advisers. On 11 February, General Mark Clark reported that the enemy was building up forces in the Kaesong area for a possible attack.29 The president suggested that this concentration of men and material was an ideal target for nuclear weaponry. Without prompting, the president returned to the same topic the next month, saying that nuclear weapons should be used even if there were not good tactical targets in Korea, as long as gains could be made.30 In mid-May, Eisenhower was told that although the military was “anxious” to use nuclear weapons against forces outside Korea, there were no good targets within that country for a nuclear strike. Eisenhower took exception only with the latter point, wondering why nuclear weapons could not be used to dislodge forces within Korea.31 Administration officials were largely in agreement that if the war restarted the United States would attack China with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower was almost alone in suggesting that the same should be done within North Korea.
Of course, much could have happened between the time that peace talks broke down and the moment the Eisenhower administration finally decided to drop nuclear bombs on North Korea or the Chinese mainland. However, there was never any indication that U.S. policymakers were willing to bend on the issue of forced repatriation. If the Communists had not conceded this point, and Eisenhower had concluded that nuclear weapons were necessary for victory, as he undoubtedly had, it is probable that something similar to the JCS plan would have been implemented. This was especially likely to be true if the Eisenhower administration believed it had warned the Chinese that it would use nuclear weapons if talks broke down, regardless of whether the message had actually been received. At that point, not only would military circumstances require a nuclear attack to end the war, but the credibility of the administration would have been at stake. In the words of Brian Madison Jones: “The only evidence to support the idea that Eisenhower would not use atomic weapons was that in fact he did not.”32
Being Pulled in Both Directions: Dien Bien Phu, 13 March 1954–7 May 1954
Less than a year after the end of the Korean stalemate, Eisenhower again faced the question of what to do about the PRC's apparent meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. In the years after the Second World War, France found itself fighting indigenous forces in order to maintain its colonies in Indochina, and U.S. officials watched with alarm as the Chinese threw their support behind the Communist forces of Võ Nguyên Giáp. On 13 March 1954, a French garrison came under siege in the northern Vietnamese city of Dien Bien Phu. Although traditionally opposed to European colonialism, the United States became concerned with the prospects of a French defeat at the hands of indigenous Communist forces supported by the mainland Chinese.33 Pressure for U.S. intervention began to build from inside and outside the Eisenhower administration, especially as it became clear that the French would not be able to hold Dien Bien Phu on their own. On 4 April, U.S. officials learned that the French were requesting an increase in direct assistance. The JCS had already drawn up a plan they called Operation Vulture, which involved bombing Viet Minh forces with conventional and nuclear weapons. By May 1954, after much internal debate within the U.S. government, NSC officials had concluded that they had failed in building an international coalition, which Eisenhower thought was a prerequisite for any intervention. The French garrison surrendered on 7 May, and this defeat influenced negotiations at the Geneva Conference held that summer.
According to some scholars, the Eisenhower administration never seriously considered using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh, except perhaps under the most unlikely circumstances.34 Others, however, point to the Indochina crisis as a case of successful nuclear “brinkmanship” and believe the United States was ready to fight an all-out war with China, and perhaps the Soviet Union, in order to halt Communist advances.35 During the Indochina crisis the nuclear taboo was still relatively new and not yet well established, and therefore both sides in the scholarly debate can present compelling evidence for their views. The evidence for the hawkish position comes in two forms: (1) internal documents from within the administration, including those of the JCS and its war plans; and (2) the supposed offer Dulles made to French Prime Minister Georges Bidault, in which the secretary of state allegedly proposed “loaning” nuclear bombs to France to use against Viet Minh forces.
Proponents of this interpretation, such as Marc Trachtenberg, first point to internal U.S. deliberations. The records, for example, indicate that Eisenhower told the NSC the following on 29 April:
The President again repeated his conviction that if the United States were to permit its ground forces to be drawn into conflict in a great variety of places throughout the world, the end result would be gravely to weaken the defensive position of the United States. Before doing that, it almost appeared that we would have to choose between actually launching an attack on Soviet Russia or gradually permitting ourselves to be exhausted in piecemeal conflicts, as had been the fate of the British.36
Trachtenberg argues that this quotation is evidence that even though Dulles was ready for a general war with China, “Eisenhower was at times even more extreme and on occasion even seemed to contemplate war with the USSR.”37 Eisenhower's more hawkish statements, however, have to be understood in the context in which they were made.
During that meeting of 29 April, hawkish members of the administration clashed with the president but were not able to bring him over to their side.38 JCS Chairman Admiral Arthur Radford offered a particularly bleak prognosis of the French situation. After a brief silence, Harold Stassen, director of the Foreign Operations Administration and former governor of Minnesota, spoke up, saying that now was the time for the administration to decide on the path it wanted to take. He warned that if the United States did not intervene on the side of the French, U.S. interests in Southeast Asia would be endangered. He expressed confidence that Congress and the American people would follow the president if he showed strong leadership and insisted on acting.
Eisenhower doubted every part of Stassen's analysis. He did not think the American people would go along with a hawkish policy on Indochina. Furthermore, if the United States came in to replace the French, the people of Southeast Asia would simply view it as a new colonizer. Finally, he asked, where would the forces necessary for a ground invasion come from?
Stassen did not back down and reiterated his points. The two men debated the feasibility of having U.S. forces replace the French in an orderly way. The president came to concede Stassen's point that it was possible, but then thought of a new reason not to intervene: Eisenhower expressed concern that the United States would find itself in a general war with China and maybe even the USSR. Stassen responded that China would likely stay out if the United States made clear its only aim was to hold the south of Indochina and not to roll back Viet Minh advances. At this point, Eisenhower said he believed that going into Indochina alone would practically be “an attempt to police the entire world,” accusations of which would destroy the image of the United States abroad.39 The two men then went on to argue about the feasibility of finding adequate partners for an intervention.
Later in the meeting, Stassen again said that now was the time to decide how to act. In apparent frustration, “[t]he President answered that before he could bring himself to make such a decision, he would want to ask himself and all his wisest advisers whether the right decision was not rather to launch a world war.”40 Rather than simply allowing themselves to be bled dry in various small wars across the globe, taking the “brushfire” approach to fighting Communism, maybe the United States should just go after China and the Soviet Union directly.
The President said that perhaps Governor Stassen's diagnosis was correct, but went on to say that before he would be prepared to commit U.S. divisions to Indochina—six, eight, ten, however many were required—he would earnestly put before the leaders of the Congress and the Administration the great question whether it would not be better to decide on general war and prepare for D-Day.41
Shortly after this exchange, Eisenhower continued to fend off those who favored intervening. Under Secretary of State Walter Smith inquired whether the United States would be able to go in with air strikes with an alliance of regional states. Eisenhower interrupted to note that he had believed this was plausible until Australia backed out. Subsequently, Vice President Richard Nixon said the British were unreliable and could not have a veto over U.S. policy. Therefore, a coalition involving countries in Southeast Asia should be enough to intervene. Eisenhower replied that he did not agree with Nixon's assumption that the French would remain in the fight. Later, Nixon said the administration should convince the associated states of Southeast Asia to join in guaranteeing their own independence as a possible step toward action.42 The president responded by expressing doubt that they would actually want the United States to intervene in the area. Eisenhower closed the meeting by urging everyone not to discuss the possibility of ground forces in Indochina, lest they frighten the public.
The memorandum summarizing the NSC discussion of 29 April paints a vivid picture. Hawkish advisers, particularly Stassen, gave several reasons why the United States should intervene. Doing so would not stretch U.S. forces too thin, the French would stay and fight, and intervention would find support both domestically and internationally. Eisenhower disagreed with each of these points and often spoke up, seemingly on an ad hoc basis, to explain why intervention was a bad idea. If an adviser pointed out that one condition could be met, Eisenhower would demand another. The president would complain about the lack of support from Great Britain. If someone claimed that an alliance of regional states was enough to intervene, Eisenhower would say this was impossible because Australia would not be involved. When it was suggested that associated states could be enough, Eisenhower doubted their desire for U.S. help. Besides, France was unlikely to stand and fight. Finally, in the face of continued disagreement on the part of his advisers, the president threw up his hands and basically said that intervening in Indochina would lead to a nuclear war. When Stassen argued against this point, the president said, well, perhaps the United States should attack the USSR before intervening in Indochina!
In this context, Eisenhower's references to general war with China and the USSR appear to be a rhetorical device designed to win an argument with his advisers.43 Eisenhower was often strategic in handling cabinet members who wanted a more aggressive U.S. position. On 29 April the president did not believe the public would stomach talk of ground forces in Indochina, and he certainly did not think the country was ready for a nuclear war against possibly two major powers. Scholars agree that the question of U.S. intervention in Indochina was all but settled around this time.44
Throughout the crisis, Eisenhower made clear time and again that he would not intervene unilaterally, much less use nuclear weapons without the blessing of other countries. On 25 March, the president said he “did not see how the United States or other free world nations could go full-out in support of the Associated States without UN approval and assistance.”45 At the meeting on 29 April, before the back and forth with his advisers, Eisenhower said that intervening without allies and a request from the associated states was “quite beyond his comprehension.”46 The next morning he made his feelings clear on the issue. “I certainly do not think that the atomic bomb can be used by the United States unilaterally… . You boys must be crazy. We can't use those awful things against Asians for a second time in ten years. My God!”47 Reflecting the view of the president, the issue of nuclear weapons was addressed in a White House memorandum on 20 May that said “the adverse effect of such use upon neutral and free world opinion would greatly outweigh any possible military advantage to be obtained in this area.”48 The United States simply did not have enough allies and the stakes were never high enough for the idea of using nuclear weapons to be taken seriously, at least by Eisenhower.
The president's views on the nuclear question contrasted sharply with those of JCS Chairman Radford. George Herring and Richard Immerman write that Radford was “An Asia-firster in the mold of Douglas MacArthur and a firm believer in air power” who “often advocated intervention in Indochina and at times even urged the use of atomic weapons against China.”49 Throughout the spring, Radford repeatedly stressed that if the United States became militarily involved in Indochina, nuclear weapons would be used whenever doing so was perceived to be militarily advantageous.50 Historians focusing on Radford and several quotations from Eisenhower and Dulles can build a convincing case that the United States was ready to make use of nuclear weapons. But Radford's hawkish views on the nuclear question put him at odds with the State Department and, more importantly, with President Eisenhower. For example, in commenting on a JCS memorandum expressing the Chiefs’ views on the matter, the State Department replied that, in addition to being a military matter the question of using nuclear weapons must be considered in its political context.51 Radford maintained that nuclear weapons would be used if hostilities started even in late May, after Dien Bien Phu had already fallen, around the time the White House was explicitly saying political considerations ruled out the use of nuclear weapons, and weeks after the administration had already decided against any form of direct intervention.52 It would be a mistake, then, to treat Radford's views as representative of those of the administration.
That said, Eisenhower's thinking on this issue was muddled, and we cannot rule out that he could have been pushed into a nuclear conflict with China and the Soviet Union if circumstances had unfolded differently. For example, on 24 June, National Security Adviser Robert Cutler summarized a paper discussing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons in the event of war. Eisenhower replied that he thought the decision had already been made in February 1953, shortly after his inauguration, when the administration had begun looking for ways to end the Korean War.53 Later in the conversation, Dulles said Communists were making gains across the globe, but, except for a few leaders, the rest of the free world would not do anything to stop them.
The President went on to state that if this were indeed the situation, we should perhaps come back to the very grave question: Should the United States now get ready to fight the Soviet Union? The President pointed out that he had brought this question up more than once at prior Council meetings, and that he had never done so facetiously.54
Regardless of how serious Eisenhower was about taking the fight to the Soviet Union, it seems very unlikely that he would have done so over Indochina, where he was unwilling to commit troops in any capacity without allies. To be sure, many of his statements were contradictory, and one can find statements implying that nuclear weapons were unusable against Asian countries, as well as statements claiming they were the basis of U.S. security policy.
The second piece of evidence adduced by scholars who depict Eisenhower as hawkish on the nuclear issue is the claim by French Prime Minister Georges Bidault that on 24 April, during a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Paris, Dulles offered him two nuclear weapons to use at Dien Bien Phu. Dulles denied the claim, and scholars have taken differing views on whether the proposal was actually made or was the product of a misunderstanding.55 The most convincing case that an offer was made comes from Ted Morgan, who points to several contemporary French sources corroborating the account and notes that within the French government Bidault's version of events was taken as given.56
On 19 April, Eisenhower broached to Dulles the idea of a nuclear loan to the British and French, “so as to place upon them a greater degree of responsibility in deciding whether or not in fact such weapons should or should not be used.”57 That this conversation and the supposed offer a few days later were connected seems certain, but we have no way to know how serious Eisenhower and Dulles were or whether they were working in unison. Did the two policymakers come up with the idea as a way to save Dien Bien Phu while avoiding the political costs of using nuclear weapons unilaterally? Or did Eisenhower whimsically suggest a nuclear loan, which planted the idea in Dulles's head prompting him to gauge how the French prime minister might react to such an offer a few days later?
Adding to the mystery is the fact that on 29 April the NSC decided to “consider saying to the French that we had never yet given them any ‘new weapons’ and if they wanted some now for possible use, we might give them a few.”58 This implies that if Dulles did make an offer on 24 April, he did so in a semi-serious manner or without the knowledge of others in the administration. Another interpretation is that Dulles's comment was a feeler of sorts, with the administration perhaps moving toward something more concrete in subsequent days. Regardless, the document from 29 April implies that the administration did not at the time have a concrete policy in place to make such an offer, since the conversation between Dulles and Bidault had taken place almost one week earlier.
Most likely, Dulles said something to Bidault that was reasonably interpreted as a proposition to “loan” nuclear weapons. But it is difficult to believe that U.S. officials could have thought the French would actually take them up on this offer. The administration harbored deep and serious doubts about France as an ally. After reading a summary of Dulles's meetings with Bidault, Eisenhower wrote back that he understood the secretary's frustration at the unwillingness of France to “internationalize” the war.59 More, just two weeks after the supposed offer, Dulles was telling the NSC that France was so divided that the country could not be dealt with as a reasonable partner.60 This is consistent with other statements from around the time indicating that U.S. officials were frustrated by French fickleness and division.61 Whether blessed by Eisenhower or not, Dulles was likely speaking off the cuff and perhaps trying to test French resolve. French officials apparently took the secretary's remarks very seriously.
French leaders clearly and emphatically rejected the loan offer, whether it was actually made or not.62 Bidault, in apparent shock, marched into the office of Maurice Schumann, the French deputy minister of foreign affairs. “He was chalky faced and blurted out, ‘Can you imagine what Dulles told me? He proposed atomic bombs to save Dien Bien Phu.’”63 Schumann's response shows that he understood the nature of the situation better than the prime minister did. “Calm yourself, it was only hypothetical. If you had agreed, he'd really be worried.”64 What is interesting here is not only that the French could not be convinced to accept the use of nuclear weapon under the most desperate conditions, but also that using nuclear weapons was still unthinkable for them, even in late April. This implies that the Eisenhower administration would have been unable to build support for using nuclear weapons among other major allies, most of which could not be convinced to support even a conventional intervention. Because Eisenhower consistently took the position that the United States could not use such weapons unilaterally, they were all but unusable throughout the Indochina crisis.
Eisenhower was probably not ready to use nuclear weapons over Indochina, despite some statements of his and the views of his more hawkish advisers, particularly Radford. Even intervention was highly unlikely without international support, which was not forthcoming. Yet the president's seeming willingness to confront China and the Soviet Union creates a more complex picture, which is why scholars have differed in their interpretations of the role nuclear weapons played in U.S. thinking. This is likely because Eisenhower was too busy thinking about the conditions under which to intervene to give the idea of how to intervene the focus it deserved.
Two characteristics of the Indochina crisis go to the heart of the nuclear question. First, there was a deeply held belief that all decisions about foreign interventions were political matters, and that policies needed to be sold both domestically and internationally. This was especially true when it came to the possibility of using nuclear weapons. Second, although Eisenhower occasionally made statements suggesting an extremely aggressive stance, he spent much of his time both publicly and privately fighting off his more hawkish advisers. This was particularly the case when talking about the use of nuclear weapons. These characteristics of the Indochina crisis reappeared even more clearly in the standoffs in the Taiwan Strait.
Eisenhower's Campaign to Conventionalize the Bomb: The First Taiwan Strait Crisis, September 1954–April 1955
The Chinese Civil War had ended with the Communists in control of the mainland and the Nationalists in power on Formosa and various offshore islands.65 The Nationalists began to use the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, two archipelagos directly off the mainland coast, to conduct raids against the Communist government. The situation remained tense, and on 3 September 1954 the Eisenhower administration learned that the Communists had begun shelling Quemoy. U.S. and Chinese Nationalists officials began to fear this was a prelude to an all-out PRC invasion of the offshore islands, and perhaps even Formosa itself. In the days after the shelling began, while the United States made clear its commitment to defending the islands of Formosa and Pescadores, it gave ambiguous signals about whether this guarantee extended to the offshore islands under Nationalist control. So began what came to be known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis.
In December 1954, Dulles sought to underscore the U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan proper by negotiating a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the Republic of China (ROC). However, the treaty made no mention of what would happen if the Communists invaded Quemoy, Matsu, or any of the other offshore islands. The crisis took a turn for the worse when the PRC attacked the offshore Nationalist-held Yijiang Island and the Dachens, which were further away than Quemoy and Matsu from Taiwan. On 28 January 1955, amid growing alarm over Communist intentions, the U.S. Congress passed the Formosa Resolution by large majorities in both houses, giving the president broad authority to take whatever actions necessary “in assuring the defense of Formosa and the Pescadores.”66
Although the Nationalists often counterattacked the Chinese mainland, the Eisenhower administration convinced ROC President Chiang Kai-shek to evacuate the Dachens, warning him that attempts to defend the islands would be futile. That left the issue of what the United States would do if the PRC tried to overrun Quemoy and Matsu, the two most important offshore islands that remained under Nationalist control. In March, as a standoff persisted, both Dulles and Eisenhower publicly stated that in the event of war with China, nuclear weapons would likely be used.67
On 23 April 1955, Chinese Premier Zhou publicly made clear that the Communists did not want war with the United States and hoped to find a peaceful settlement to the stalemate. The Eisenhower administration almost immediately took a similarly conciliatory line, and before long the Chinese shelling of Quemoy and Matsu came to an end. To this day, the legal status of the islands remains unclear, with Quemoy being administered by Taiwan and different parts of the Matsu islands controlled by each of the two Chinese governments. Gordon Chang claims that Eisenhower recklessly took the United States to the “nuclear brink” over the offshore islands.68 This analysis contradicts the earlier view of Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose, who argued that even the president himself did not know whether he would use nuclear weapons in the case of an attack on the offshore islands.69 Both interpretations have merit, but what is perhaps most notable about the crisis is the change in the administration's attitude toward nuclear weapons over the spring and summer of 1955.
During the early part of the standoff, the question of the offshore islands dominated deliberations at NSC meetings. However, from September 1954 through the beginning of March 1955, when the Eisenhower administration discussed under what circumstances it would go to war, senior officials did not even mention the possibility of using nuclear weapons.70 Because of this fact, those who argue that nuclear weapons were usable in the offshore islands crisis rely mainly on original documents and public statements from March 1955. Because this was the period when the Eisenhower administration most seriously contemplated the nuclear question, an investigation into this issue must focus on the deliberations of that time. However, the fact that policymakers spent six months considering war with China while rarely if ever mentioning the possibility of using nuclear weapons shows that the Eisenhower administration considered the issues of whether to go to war and whether to use nuclear weapons to be related but also distinct.
Near the end of February, shortly after the fall of the Dachens, Dulles took a trip to East Asia. He came back in early March believing the worst about Chinese Communist intentions and thinking that at least low-yield nuclear weapons would have to be used if China attacked the offshore islands as a prelude to an assault on Taiwan.71 According to Dulles, the president had agreed that there should be no difference between nuclear and conventional weapons in the case of war.
Declassified documents along with public statements seem to make a convincing case that, in the event of a Communist assault on Quemoy and Matsu, U.S. forces were ready to make use of tactical nuclear weapons. But such evidence tells only part of the story. Indeed, the Eisenhower administration, as one would expect, wanted as many options as possible available in the event of increased Chinese aggression. As scholars have shown, this was the motivation behind their seeking the “blank check” from Congress in the form of the Formosa Resolution.72 But documents show that the government saw public opinion, both domestic and international, and the views of allies as the main obstacles to using nuclear weapons. Leaders understood that the costs of doing so in terms of public relations would be tremendous, and they therefore would have used every other option available before making what the president and his cabinet believed would have been a uniquely fateful decision.
The Eisenhower administration engaged in an orchestrated campaign in March 1955 to make nuclear weapon use seem acceptable to the public. On the evening of 6 March, Dulles told Eisenhower that nuclear weapons would need to be used in defending Quemoy and Matsu.73 Eisenhower agreed and told Dulles, who was preparing to give a nationwide televised address on the issue, to include a statement to the effect that nuclear and conventional weapons were interchangeable. The two men continued their conversation the next morning, when they discussed the importance of “education with reference to the distinction between atomic missiles for tactical purposes and the big bomb with huge radioactive fallout.”74 Eisenhower recommended that the references to nuclear missiles “might usefully be done in an incidental way.”75 Taking that advice in his 8 March address, Dulles was cautious, referring to nuclear weapons only indirectly. He told viewers that the United States was now in possession of “new and powerful weapons of precision, which can utterly destroy military targets without endangering unrelated civilian centers.”76 This was widely taken as a reference to nuclear weapons.
Two days after the speech, the NSC met to discuss the crisis and deliberate over the nuclear issue. Dulles and Radford in particular took a hawkish position on the offshore islands and insisted that everything in the U.S. arsenal would have to be used in their defense.77 Dulles believed the intention of the Chinese Communists was to “liquidate” the Nationalist forces. They would perhaps keep probing and escalating until the United States decided to “shoot off a gun.”78 Conversations with U.S. military officials in East Asia had convinced Dulles that nuclear weapons would have to be used if war broke out. Radford chimed in to say that this had always been the position of the JCS in the event of a Communist attack. In fact, Radford argued, the United States lacked sufficient military bases in the area to allow a successful conventional attack against the Chinese mainland.
Even at this meeting, however, Dulles stressed to the rest of the NSC that he was aware the administration needed to shift public opinion toward accepting the use of nuclear weapons. This was despite his speech two days earlier all but promising that nuclear weapons would be available in the event of war. The secretary of state worried that one day the government would realize such weapons had become politically impossible to use and that the United States had accumulated its arsenal for nothing. Over the next week, the administration made a concerted effort to stress explicitly the points Dulles had made implicitly in his 8 March speech—to wit, that nuclear weapons were now conventional and that they could be used without causing major civilian casualties. This latter point, it was hoped, would make the conventionalization of nuclear weaponry more palatable to the public.
Speaking to the press on 15 March, Dulles made the point bluntly: “I imagine that if the United States became engaged in a military activity anywhere in the world that these weapons would come into use because … they are more and more becoming conventional.”79 When Eisenhower was asked to comment on the matter the next day, he said, “of course they would be used” as long as the weapons were directed at “strictly military targets and for strictly military purposes … just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”80 Finally, on 17 March, Vice President Nixon was even blunter, stating that “tactical atomic explosives are now conventional and will be used against the targets of any aggressive force.”81 The fact that these statements made by Eisenhower, Nixon, and Dulles all came in rapid succession over three days shows the orchestrated nature of the campaign to pressure the Communists while preparing the U.S. public for the possible use of nuclear weapons.
In fact, Dulles had noticed a “taboo” on the use of nuclear weapons as early as 1953, and by 1955 the Eisenhower administration had been trying to “conventionalize” their status for a few years.82 Tannenwald sees the public comments in March 1955 as part of a campaign that lasted throughout the decade and had as its “primary purpose … to counter growing revulsion toward nuclear weapons at home and among allied publics.”83 Hence, the stress put on the idea that these were small nuclear weapons that were now part of the U.S. arsenal. Yet by the time of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, the administration had not yet come close to achieving its goal. Thus, the attempts to change public opinion in March 1955 were part of a long-standing campaign, one that had been given urgency by recent events. This was the thinking throughout the crisis. At a January 1955 NSC meeting, Dulles agreed with Radford's position that although there was no military reason to prevent the United States from inflicting heavy losses on the Chinese mainland relatively easily, doing so would cause such a shift in international opinion that it could thwart U.S. plans in Europe and elsewhere.84
Despite the wishes of senior U.S. officials, their public musings did not make domestic or international opinion significantly more receptive to the use of nuclear weapons, no matter how small, in a conflict with China. In fact, the campaign may have had the opposite effect. Although the JCS supported Eisenhower's public comments, “Democrats found it difficult to avoid hysteria.”85 Meetings and discussions with world leaders provided little assurance of support overseas. Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, for example, made clear that public opinion in his country would not support a war over the offshore islands.86 Around the same time, Winston Churchill was citing British public sentiment in trying to convince Eisenhower to abandon Quemoy and Matsu.87 Even though Dulles was thought to have made a good impression in a late March visit to Ottawa, U.S. officials understood that the majority of the Canadian cabinet would rather the United States give up the offshore islands than fight for them.88
Remarkably, soon after U.S. policymakers had begun assuring the public that small nuclear weapons were now conventional, public statements began to indicate the opposite, and private discussions and correspondence started to reflect the failings of the campaign. On 23 March 1955, Eisenhower reverted to taking an ambiguous public line on the nuclear question.89 By 1 April, the president believed he had failed at building domestic and international support for an “all-out” war with the Chinese Communists. In a White House meeting that day with high-ranking officials, he reacted negatively to Radford's suggestion to send 10,000 U.S. troops to Formosa and explained why war with the Chinese would be undesirable.90 Among the factors he cited was a lack of domestic and international support. The use of nuclear weapons was not even discussed at the meeting. Throughout the crisis, the Eisenhower administration was thinking along two tracks—namely, the domestic and international reaction if war were to break out and if nuclear weapons were to be used.
In early March, administration officials had discussed how public opinion on the matter could be brought in line with the views of the administration. By the end of the month, however, there seemed to be little hope of a convergence between the views of the U.S. government and those of either the wider U.S. public or the international community.91 Underscoring this point, a message from the Taiwanese embassy on 30 March reported that when members of the press were told the offshore islands could be defended only with nuclear weapons, they took that to mean the United States would not go to war over them.92
On 5 April, Eisenhower wrote to Dulles that the United States “would be much better off if our national prestige were not even remotely committed to the defense of these islands, and if greater force, ready to take advantage of unforeseen opportunity, were concentrated on Formosa and the Pescadores.”93 Again stressing the role of public opinion, he wrote that not only would a war with China divide the United States, but “[b]ecause the world generally regards the coastal islands as part of the mainland, our active participation would forfeit the good opinion of much of the Western world, with consequent damage to our interests in Europe and elsewhere.”94 If general war broke out, the United States would probably need to use nuclear weapons to ensure success, and this in particular would antagonize world opinion. Once the president had made up his mind that the United States should stay out of the conflict, the necessity of using atomic weapons was presented as a reason not to escalate the situation.
Even Dulles seems to have quickly realized that the campaign to change public opinion had failed. On 31 March he expressed concern that the use of nuclear weapons might have highly damaging political repercussions.95 That same day, Eisenhower and Dulles met with a bipartisan group of legislators.96 If Dulles still held out hope of changing opinion on the nuclear weapons issue, he should have been making his case to these congressional leaders. Rather, he stressed the downside of using nuclear weapons, saying that it not only would deplete the U.S. stockpile but would also likely be a public relations disaster within China and therefore ruin Chiang's hope of ever returning to the mainland.
Even before the public relations campaign failed, the Eisenhower administration had expressed caution about getting into a conflict with the Chinese and had stressed that nuclear weapons would be a last resort. The day after the NSC meeting of 10 March 1955, Eisenhower met in his office with senior advisers to discuss the crisis again.97 The president said he had called the meeting to discuss how best to avoid war and, if war were unavoidable, how to keep U.S. involvement to a minimum. He made clear that the United States should help the Nationalists defend themselves, that if U.S. forces had to intervene they should do so conventionally, and that only if such support was not decisive “the U.S. might have to intervene with atomic weapons, but that should come only at the end, and we would have to advise our allies first.”98 The comments here leave no doubt that Eisenhower had not accepted Radford's claim on 10 March that the United States would be forced to use nuclear weapons in the event of war. Even Dulles agreed that if nuclear weapons were to be used, it should not happen in the first 40 or even 60 days of the conflict. Eisenhower agreed on the grounds that using nuclear weapons would “critically damage us in Europe” during an especially sensitive time.99 Similarly, in mid-March, Admiral Felix Stump, Eisenhower's top commander in the Pacific, told the president it would be four to eight weeks until an assault on Quemoy and Matsu and that an “all out” attack would be needed to overcome the opposition of the Nationalists alone.100 A few weeks later, Eisenhower wrote in his diary that he disagreed with his advisers who believed war would break out between the United States and China within the next month.101 With domestic and international opinion being what it was, the Eisenhower administration was unlikely ever to believe the use of nuclear weapons would be anything but a public relations disaster, one with the potential to complicate or even undermine other U.S. objectives throughout the world.
The Eisenhower administration, then, was not preparing the public for the imminent use of nuclear weapons in mid-March. Rather, the government had begun a public relations campaign that would, if all went well, make the option of using low-yield nuclear weapons seem acceptable if war were to erupt with China a few months down the line. Eisenhower saw nuclear weapons as a last resort and believed there was no need for an imminent decision. But he shortly came to see that he did not have domestic or international support for even a conventional war over the offshore islands, and he began to do what was possible to avoid any form of conflict.
The Eisenhower administration saw U.S. and international opinion as the main obstacles preventing the use of even low-yield nuclear weapons. No matter what side of the issue they were arguing, Eisenhower and Dulles asked what the political repercussions would be among allies and the domestic public. Throughout the offshore islands crisis, discussion of psychological factors was not limited to the blast and radiation effects of using nuclear weapons. Every aspect of the crisis was approached from the perspective of concern over the ways in which various governments and publics would interpret U.S. actions.
The Eisenhower administration, especially the president, did not believe that the offshore islands had military importance.102 Yet they did not want to leave the Nationalists to fend for themselves. A report from the NSC meeting on 2 November 1954 explains the U.S. decision to sign the MDT with Taiwan without specifying whether the United States would defend the offshore islands.103 The following passage sums up part of the presentation given that day by Dulles to the rest of the NSC:
According to this language the U.S. action specified in the treaty would not be specifically and explicitly limited to an attack on Formosa and the Pescadores, but would leave open to U.S. determination whether or not to construe an attack on the offshore islands as an attack on Formosa itself. The advantage of this fuzzing up would be to maintain doubt in the minds of the Communists as to how the U.S. would react to an attack on the offshore islands.104
The record of the NSC meeting on 17 February 1955, which took place shortly after the MDT was signed, reveals the same line of thought:
The President stated that everyone knew the U.S. was committed to defend Formosa and the Pescadores. The question of the offshore islands created a terrible dilemma. If we announced that we would assist in the defense of the offshore islands, world opinion would not support us. On the other hand, if we announced that we would not assist in the defense of these islands, the Communists would immediately attack them and take them. The President stated his belief that there was nothing more that we could now do except to watch the situation as it develops and act on a day-to-day basis.105
On the one hand, the United States could come out and say that it would defend the offshore islands. Such a step, however, would be apt to embolden the Nationalists and make war with Communist China more likely.106 U.S. policymakers often suspected that Chiang was trying to draw the United States into an armed conflict.107 Even in early March, when Dulles believed the worst about Chinese Communist intentions, he could not promise Chiang that the United States would defend territory outside what was included in the MDT, indicating that any decision would have to be made by Eisenhower.108 On the other hand, if the administration stated openly that it would not defend the islands, this would encourage the Communists to behave aggressively and would demoralize the Nationalists.109 If the PRC managed to regain Taiwan, it would likely move on to make trouble elsewhere, sparking fears all across East Asia.110 As Eisenhower wrote to Churchill, it was important to worry about Quemoy and Matsu because “[w]hat they are really interested in is Formosa—and later on Japan—and the coastal islands are marginal.”111 Yet, even as Eisenhower took a tough stance during the offshore islands crisis and thereby helped to deter the Chinese, the administration was aware that its position could alienate public opinion in the United States and elsewhere.112
Hence, throughout the crisis, Eisenhower and his advisers had to maintain a delicate balance. Quemoy and Matsu were important for psychological reasons, and whether they stayed under Nationalist control affected the likelihood of keeping the Communists out of Formosa. The potential loss of Taiwan itself would have tremendous psychological repercussions in Europe and the rest of Asia.
Putting the nuclear issue into this context makes clear that, without confidence that it could win over the necessary domestic and international support, the Eisenhower administration would have been extremely unlikely to use nuclear weapons. In making decisions throughout the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, U.S. policymakers constantly worried about how U.S. policy would affect anti-Communist resistance movements and governments throughout East Asia and the rest of the world. Deterring the mainland Chinese and reassuring allies about U.S. resolve were only part of the equation. The United States also needed to maintain a positive image throughout the world. Taking a reckless position in the offshore islands crisis would harm the country's reputation. Using nuclear weapons was seen as a move that would have been in its own special category, causing perhaps irreparable damage to the domestic standing of the administration and the international reputation of the United States and even its Nationalist allies.
On more than one occasion, even Dulles explicitly stated that the greatest danger that could come from a war over the offshore islands was the possibility that it would hurt U.S. standing abroad.113 He assumed the Chinese Communists were thinking the same way. On 8 April, he sent a telegram to the U.S. embassy in Turkey saying that whether a general war broke out “may in large part be determined by ChiComs’ judgment on whether majority of Asian nations would feel resort to force by ChiComs justified.”114
By the end of the crisis, the Eisenhower administration was even willing to leave itself militarily vulnerable in order to maintain a non-aggressive image. Although fighting for the offshore islands and letting them go were both unacceptable options, Eisenhower came down on the side of giving them up, telling Dulles on 5 April to “make clear that neither Chiang nor ourselves is committed to full-out defense of Quemoy and the Matsus, so that no matter what the outcome of an attack upon them, there would be no danger of a collapse of the free world position in the region.”115 A short time later, U.S. intelligence officials warned that the PRC was engaging in a military buildup that would soon give it control of the air over the offshore islands. Eisenhower, however, decided not to act to stop the buildup because “the moral and political advantages of this avoidance of the fighting initiative offset the military disadvantages” of encouraging the Nationalists to refrain from attacking Communist positions.116 If the United States and the Nationalists were seen as the aggressors in the conflict, they would receive less support from the U.S. public and the rest of the world. Eisenhower and Dulles explicitly balanced military interests against concerns rooted in psychology and concluded that the latter were more important, at least in this situation.
Eisenhower and other senior officials would have welcomed the “conventionalization” of the use of nuclear weapons. By changing domestic and international opinion on this issue, they could have accomplished all their goals simultaneously: credibly deterring Communist forces, reassuring allies, and maintaining a positive reputation throughout the world. This explains the March 1955 campaign to make the use of nuclear weapons seem conventional, in some statements even trying to portray the decision as a fait accompli. But Eisenhower and Dulles soon came to consider that goal futile, at least in the short term. Documents from the time reveal the trajectory of public statements made by top officials regarding the use of nuclear weapons. They saw a taboo relating to their use and, no matter how much they decried that constraint, could do nothing to change public perceptions. Neither the U.S. public nor the international community was interested in the distinction between “clean” and “dirty” nuclear weapons. At the start of the crisis, Eisenhower and other senior officials may have assumed that nuclear weapons would be used if war broke out. Nevertheless, given the psychological nature of all aspects of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis and the administration's willingness to sacrifice military advantages in order to achieve public relations goals, it is difficult to believe that by late March the United States would have decided to use nuclear weapons before exhausting every other plausible option.
Crystallization of the Taboo: The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, August–October 1958
Despite the avoidance of war, tensions persisted regarding the status of Quemoy and Matsu. What is now called the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis began on 23 August 1958 when the Chinese Communists again started shelling the offshore islands.117 As in 1954–1955, Washington feared an invasion of Quemoy and Matsu was imminent. Making matters worse, Chiang had stationed 100,000 men, one-third of his forces, on the islands.118 Two days after the shelling began, Nationalist ships coming to resupply the offshore islands came under attack, and the United States decided to begin escorting and protecting some of the Nationalist convoys. On 29 August, a Communist army spokesman called on Quemoy to surrender when it became apparent that a blockade was in place against the islands.
After days of high-level deliberations and consultations, the Eisenhower administration made clear that it was still committed to the survival of the Nationalist regime. Speaking on 4 September, Dulles announced that the Formosa Resolution was still in effect and that it gave the president the authority to use force in defense of the offshore islands. During this same period U.S. naval and air units in the area were reinforced. The U.S. government decided that if the Chinese attempted to take the offshore islands, U.S. military forces would have the authority to hit back at the invaders and allow Nationalist air strikes against the mainland. However, any decision by the United States itself to attack the mainland, and especially to use nuclear weapons, would be left solely to Eisenhower.119
On 6 September, Zhou Enlai announced that the PRC desired a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The United States responded favorably, and ambassadorial talks with China began in Warsaw on 15 September. In early October, the Chinese Communists announced a ceasefire, and U.S. forces were instructed to stop escorting the Nationalist convoys so long as the other side did not attack them. As in the First Taiwan Strait crisis, both sides granted and took advantage of face-saving opportunities as hostilities eventually petered out. From 23 August to 6 October, nearly 500 of Chiang's soldiers were killed, in addition to an unknown number of PRC troops.120
Nina Tannenwald contrasts U.S. thinking on the nuclear question during the two offshore island crises, arguing that the likelihood of a U.S. decision to use nuclear weapons was much higher in the earlier one. She attributes the difference to the rise of the nuclear taboo, which was much stronger in 1958 than it had been even a few years earlier.121 Gaddis, on the other hand, holds that the two standoffs over the offshore islands, particularly the second, “discredited [the administration] in the eyes of the American public and allies overseas by revealing how little it would take to push the U.S. into a war with China involving the probable use of nuclear weapons.”122 Matthew Jones, by contrast, emphasizes the political and psychological factors that restrained the administration.123
What is striking about the Second Taiwan Crisis is how similar it was to the first, making it instructive for our purposes. In both standoffs, the main issues were psychological. The offshore islands were seen as having little to no military value, but the United States could not abandon them because doing so would undermine the morale of the Chinese Nationalists and other anti-Communist forces across the globe.124 As in 1954–1955, the Eisenhower administration received correspondence from foreign governments about how little international public support there was for an aggressive stance vis-à-vis the Chinese. Once again, Dulles and the JCS chairman, now General Nathan Twining, took a hawkish position on the nuclear issue.
There were, however, many differences between the two crises that underscore the general strengthening of the nuclear taboo. First, there was no casual public talk about using nuclear weapons if war broke out. Second, Eisenhower himself served as a more serious check on Dulles and the JCS on the question. During the first crisis the president seemed at times to agree with the more hawkish members of his cabinet, whereas by 1958 he had given up completely on the idea that political constraints on the use of nuclear weapons could ever be overcome, at least for the foreseeable future.
The first few days of September 1958 are key to understanding the internal debates within the Eisenhower administration over the possible use of nuclear weapons. On 2 September, Dulles explicitly asked the JCS what kind of military action would be taken in the event of war.125 Twining replied that low-yield nuclear weapons would be used against Communist airfields. Echoing Radford's position from the earlier crisis, Twining said that nothing short of nuclear weapons would prevent the United States from getting bogged down in another protracted struggle like the one in Korea. Dulles and the JCS agreed that if they were unwilling to make hard decisions about using nuclear weapons now, they would perhaps never be able to do so. The next day, Dulles received a JCS policy statement explicitly stating that nuclear weapons would be used if necessary to prevent the fall of the offshore islands.126 Over the next week, Dulles prepared his own policy statement that was endorsed by the Department of Defense and the JCS.127 The paper admitted that the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese would damage the reputation of the United States abroad. Dulles also acknowledged other risks:
If relatively small detonations were used with only air bursts, so that there would be no appreciable fallout or large civilian casualties, and if the manner were quickly closed, the revulsion might not be long-lived… . It is not certain, however, that the operation could be thus limited in scope or time, and the risk of a more extensive use of nuclear weapons, and even a risk of general war, would have to be accepted.128
The expectation was that nuclear weapons of some kind would be used if needed to defend the offshore islands. The only question was how “extensive” the nuclear attack would be if the PRC mounted a full assault. Dulles expressed the same view in a letter he wrote to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan:
There is also a question as to whether if we did intervene we could do so effectively without at least some use of atomic weapons; I hope no more than small air bursts without fallout. This is of course an unpleasant prospect but one I think we must face up to because our entire military establishment assumes more and more that the use of nuclear weapons will become normal in the event of hostilities.129
Dulles presented his policy paper to Eisenhower on 4 September.130 The meeting records give no indication that the president was as eager as either Dulles or the JCS to commit to using nuclear weapons in case of war with China. According to Dulles's memorandum summarizing the discussion:
In connection with the possible use of nuclear weapons, the President observed that this was the heart of the matter and I said I thought we had acknowledged the risk of the political and psychological dangers of the use of these weapons when we decided to include them in our arsenal. I reviewed for the President the views of the Joint Chiefs, as expressed in my meeting with them on September 2, with particular reference to air bursts. The President noted that Communist retaliation with nuclear weapons might well be against Taiwan itself and beyond rather than directed simply at Quemoy.131
Nothing in this passage explicitly states that Eisenhower disagreed with the hawkish position taken by Dulles and the JCS. However, it is not difficult to read between the lines. Unless the president showed hesitancy on the issue, Dulles would have had no reason to remind him that the decision to use nuclear weapons had supposedly already been made. Eisenhower soon after brings up the idea of nuclear retaliation against “Taiwan itself and beyond” as a reason to back off.132 The president at one point seemed to recognize the schism between himself and Dulles, telling an aide on 12 September that he wanted an “honorable way out of the Off-shore Islands dilemma” but that “perhaps his views as to methods were somewhat at variance with the Secretary of State's.”133
Eisenhower's comment on his fear of nuclear retaliation can be understood as a strategic ploy. In late August 1958, West German intelligence passed on to the U.S. government a report claiming that although the Chinese wanted to attack the offshore islands, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had urged restraint.134 This was despite the belligerent public rhetoric used by the Soviet Union.135 Whether Eisenhower actually feared nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union is impossible to know for sure. But it is plausible that he had already made his decision based on concerns about public opinion and the international situation and used the possibility of a wider war as a further reason to try to de-escalate the crisis. Dulles, the JCS, and the Defense Department all wanted nuclear weapons to be used in the event of war, a fact that must have put a great deal of pressure on Eisenhower. That he would use indirect means to make clear his opposition to taking a strong line on the offshore islands is thus not surprising. He employed the same tactic after he had made up his mind against intervention in Dien Bien Phu.
Furthermore, other administration officials did not argue with Eisenhower when he said he feared retaliation from the Soviet Union. There are two possible reasons for the lack of disagreement. On the one hand, they may have been less worried that the United States would be attacked with nuclear weapons. More likely, they understood that Eisenhower was using the argument to signal his unwillingness to defend Quemoy and Matsu. Discussion of public opinion, potential allied reaction, and the usability of nuclear weapons went back and forth. However, if senior officials truly believed there was a serious risk of nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union, then serious discussion of that possibility ought to have been as worthwhile as debating the potential political and psychological costs of using nuclear weapons. The record shows, however, that the debates of the time generally revolved around how domestic and international opinion would react to a hawkish position or a nuclear strike by the United States. This implies it was generally understood that the risk of nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union was low, even if the possibility was brought up by the president, who most likely had already made his decision based on other criteria.
On 6 September, Eisenhower met once again in the White House with this top aides.136 The conversation focused on comments made by Zhou Enlai earlier that morning indicating that the PRC wanted to restart talks between the two powers. Dulles handed Eisenhower the draft of a presidential statement he and others had prepared. Eisenhower suggested the addition of a “concrete and definite acceptance of Chou Enlai's offer to negotiate.”137 After this part of the discussion, General Twining asked Eisenhower for permission to allow U.S. forces to support Nationalist bombings of the Chinese mainland in case of an attack on the offshore islands or Taiwan. Eisenhower would not accept such a proposal.138 The military could allow Nationalist air strikes against the mainland, but U.S. forces could “strike [only] against invaders actually moving to the islands.”139 The JCS could, however, attack the mainland if an invasion of the offshore islands and Taiwan occurred so rapidly that there was no time for presidential consultation. Regardless, no matter what happened, Eisenhower would have to sign off on any use of nuclear weapons.140 Dulles and other more hawkish members of the administration could no longer harbor any illusions, if they ever did so, that the president would agree to any kind of prearranged plan to use nuclear weapons, especially one that could be set in motion before he himself had a chance to weigh in and make the final decision.
On 9 September, Abbott Washburn, deputy director of the United States Information Agency, sent a memorandum to Eisenhower warning that if the United States took a hawkish position on the offshore islands, and had to use nuclear weapons, it would have terrible consequences for U.S. interests.141 Washburn contended that “[a]nother atom-burning by the U.S. of Asian civilians would do incalculable damage to the U.S. in the eyes of Asian and all colored peoples and governments for years to come—perhaps irreparable harm.” The United States, if it resorted to nuclear weapons against the Chinese, “could lose the respect of mankind, possibly for all time.”142 In the immediate term, the continued presence of U.S. bases in countries as diverse as Japan and Morocco could be in peril. Washburn enclosed a study explaining the depth of international opposition to the U.S. position on the offshore islands and what the global reaction to the use of nuclear weapons would be. Eisenhower forwarded this memorandum to Dulles with a summary heavily implying that he agreed with Washburn's positions, particularly with regard to nuclear weapons.143
Eisenhower surely heard from many people on the question of what to do regarding the offshore islands. Yet he decided to pass this note on to Dulles, who seemed more ready than the president to resort to nuclear weapons. Washburn's memorandum must have been among the most pessimistic documents Eisenhower saw regarding whether a nuclear war could be contained and the adverse political repercussions from any use of such weapons against the Chinese. Even if Eisenhower in his note to Dulles did not explicitly endorse all of Washburn's views, he left little doubt that he agreed with the thrust of the letter. This evidence strongly suggests that debates within the administration revolved around the potential public relations nightmare that would result from nuclear weapons use and that concerns over Soviet retaliation did not factor into the decision-making process of the highest officials. The day after forwarding the Washburn memorandum, Eisenhower told Dulles that, although he could not admit the fact publicly, he was “quite prepared to see the abandonment of Quemoy,” which, along with Matsu, was not necessary for the defense of Formosa.144
The declassified records show that, in contrast to Dulles and the JCS, Eisenhower was even less willing than he had been three years earlier to contemplate using nuclear weapons to defend the offshore islands. There are at least three reasons for this. First, as Robert Suettinger makes clear, and consistent with the idea that the nuclear taboo developed over the 1950s, domestic politics had made the job of the administration more difficult.145 Congress was now firmly in the hands of Democrats, and the roles of hawkish foreign policy figures were greatly diminished. At one point, a group of prominent Democrats even accused Dulles of leading the country toward a “nuclear holocaust.”146 All of this must have influenced Eisenhower, even if the views of Dulles hardened over the same period.
Pressure from allies also remained an obstacle. Friendly countries made clear that no matter what happened between the United States and China, the use of nuclear weapons would have dire consequences. The British, for example, asked the Eisenhower administration to take a more cautious approach.147 At one point, Prime Minister Macmillan wrote to Dulles that if war broke out, it would be very difficult to steer public opinion in any of the commonwealth countries toward the U.S. position.148 A U.S. State Department report likewise noted that Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker
had received the strong impression in talks with African and Asian delegates to the recent Commonwealth Trade Conference that while they showed increased awareness of the nature of the Communist menace, they were unanimous in their conviction that if the US were forced in the present crisis to use atomic weapons, all colored peoples would be irrevocably united against the white.149
On 9 September, the administration learned that although German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was pleased with the strong U.S. stance, he still “expressed the hope there would be no question of using atomic weapons should the Chinese Communists attack the islands.”150
Of all the countries that might oppose the use of nuclear weapons, Japan was apparently the one that caused U.S. officials to worry the most. This concern was notably absent during previous crises, when Japan had only recently emerged from occupation as an independent country. In 1958, Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II reported to Dulles that if the United States used nuclear weapons against China, U.S. military bases in Japan might be at risk.151 On the other hand, some world leaders expressed the opposite view on the nuclear question, with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem being a notable example.152 In general, however, even U.S. allies sensitive to the Communist threat did not support the use of nuclear weapons, knowing what the public relations effect would be. Dulles and the JCS acknowledged the risks of stirring up anti-American sentiment, but they still believed it was a cost they would have to face. Eisenhower, however, came to the opposite conclusion.
A final important distinction between the two crises is that in 1958 U.S. policymakers, especially the president, were even more suspicious of Chiang's motivations than they had been before. The JCS, despite their hawkish policy recommendations, thought the Nationalists might be trying to “draw the United States into hostilities.”153 Eisenhower had a similar suspicion as soon as he became aware of the crisis.154 Many other U.S. officials were also skeptical about Chiang's motivations in stationing so many forces on the offshore islands.
During both crises over Taiwan, Eisenhower remained in full charge of final decision-making, particularly regarding the use of nuclear weapons. He was less hawkish than Dulles, his principal policy adviser, and also less hawkish than the JCS. During the first crisis Eisenhower on occasion seemed privately ready to use nuclear weapons if the Chinese attacked the offshore islands (and even said so in public), but he did not take the idea seriously during the second crisis. This was likely attributable to lessons learned in 1954–1955, estimations about Chiang's motivations, and changes in public and international opinion during the three years between the crises.
Throughout history, when great powers have fought wars, they have generally used the newest and most effective technologies at their disposal. After the Second World War, there was every reason to expect this trend to continue, and the Eisenhower administration, possessing a near-monopoly on nuclear weapons, assumed in its earliest days that this would continue to be the case. Hence the New Look Policy, which treated nuclear weapons as a normal part of the U.S. arsenal.
This attitude was tested throughout the 1950s in four East Asian crises. Scholars have differed on how ready Eisenhower was to use nuclear weapons in each of these cases. A thorough review of his statements and behavior, however, makes clear that although the majority view on Korea is correct, the president was much less ready to use nuclear weapons in the later crises than has often been assumed. By the end of the decade, despite the urgings of some high-ranking members of the administration, Eisenhower was intent on de-escalating conflicts in East Asia and was so concerned about domestic and international opinion that he no longer even contemplated ordering a nuclear strike against the Chinese.
In the Indochina crisis, Eisenhower's views are ambiguous, although he fended off members of his cabinet who called for direct U.S. involvement when it became clear that no meaningful international coalition was ready to provide support. Although his administration tried to bring other countries on board, those efforts were unsuccessful, and the crisis never reached the point that a decision on the nuclear question would have to be made. Later that year, however, the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu began, which Eisenhower saw as more directly endangering U.S. interests. Therefore, he pushed for the MDT with the Chinese Nationalists and the Formosa Resolution. In March 1955 the administration genuinely believed it needed to get the U.S. public ready for war and the possible use of nuclear weapons. To the president's dismay, however, this public relations campaign faltered, and senior officials quickly came to see that, without being able to budge international and public opinion, a decision to use nuclear weapons would seriously harm U.S. interests.
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis was in many ways a repeat of the first, providing unusually good conditions for a natural experiment. By 1958, Dulles and Eisenhower had moved in opposite directions. Although both men knew that using nuclear weapons would greatly harm the reputation of the United States abroad, Dulles was convinced that the importance of defending the offshore islands made it worth the risk. Eisenhower, on the other hand, seemed to have come to understand that public and international opinion would impose prohibitive costs if the United States used nuclear weapons against the Chinese. The president, who had been ready to use nuclear weapons if a peaceful settlement of the Korean War could not be reached and had been as hawkish as anyone else in his administration on this question, was now trying to avoid war precisely because nuclear weapons might be necessary to win. This was most clearly the case in the second standoff over Quemoy and Matsu, when Eisenhower did not even attempt a serious public relations campaign on the issue and seized the first chance to find a negotiated solution to the crisis.
The fact that Eisenhower became less willing to contemplate using nuclear weapons as the decade went on does not mean these weapons were unusable under any circumstances. Had the Chinese tried to take Taiwan or the Soviet Union overrun West Germany, public opinion at home and allies abroad would likely have tolerated a more forceful U.S. response. But as time went on, when faced with less serious crises the Eisenhower administration had few plausible options to use nuclear weapons as fill-ins for conventional arms. The threshold point at which nuclear weapons would be usable rose as the decade progressed. By the time of the 1958 crisis, the administration was ready simply to give up the offshore islands rather than risk being drawn into a war that would require using nuclear weapons to ensure success.
As a comparison of the four crises shows, there was not a single Eisenhower attitude or policy toward the use of nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, nuclear bombs went from being a normal part of the U.S. arsenal to a special category of weapons that were nearly impossible to use because of political considerations, an evolving reality captured in public statements and internal deliberations of the time. Although the JCS drew up plans that included nuclear weapons and remained somewhat immune from political developments, other policymakers, especially the president, took a broader view after the Korean War and could not overcome the obstacles created by domestic and international opinion. The nature of politics implies that whoever comes to power in a democracy, and perhaps in most systems, will be sensitive to the nuclear taboo, even when the use of such weapons is militarily advantageous. Such was the case with the Eisenhower administration during the later crises faced in East Asia, and it has likely been true during other times and within various governments. Whether the nuclear taboo would have held if the PRC and USSR had been more aggressive, attacking targets seen as more vital to U.S. interests, is unknowable. At the same time, a different administration might have been more willing to ignore public opinion and accept the political consequences of nuclear warfare. The nuclear taboo was not inevitable. Rather, it came about because of choices made by U.S. policymakers, leaders who had ironically sought the opposite result.
Thomas C. Schelling, “An Astonishing 60 Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 96, No. 5 (September 2006), p. 931.
John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 169.
Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 159.
Michael Gordon Jackson, “Beyond Brinkmanship: Eisenhower, Nuclear War Fighting, and Korea, 1953–1968,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1 (March 2005), p. 53.
Nina Tannenwald, “Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Spring 2005), pp. 5–49; Nina Tannenwald, “The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-Use,” International Organization, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Summer 1999), pp. 433–468; and Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Thazha V. Paul, “Nuclear Taboo and War Initiation in Regional Conflicts,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 39, No. 4 (December 1995), pp. 696–717; and The Tradition of Non-use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).
Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, pp. 184–189.
Ibid., pp. 155–189; and Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945–1965 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, p. 169.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 156th Meeting of the National Security Council, 23 July 1953, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, Vol. XV, pt. 2, p. 1421 (hereinafter referred to as FRUS, with appropriate year and volume numbers).
For a more general discussion of the changing attitudes of the Eisenhower administration and the period directly after, see Tannenwald, “Stigmatizing the Bomb,” pp. 26–30.
For a basic historical summary of the time from Eisenhower's inauguration to the end of the war, see Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change: 1953–1956 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), pp. 171–191; Steven Hugh Lee, The Korean War (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), pp. 89–96; and Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), pp. 235–241.
James Shepley, “How Dulles Averted War,” Life Magazine, 16 January 1956, p. 71.
Ibid., p. 72.
Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, pp. 180–181.
Memorandum of Meeting with the President, 17 February 1965, in Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS), Doc. No. CK3100153651, p. 4.
Edward Friedman, “Nuclear Blackmail and the End of the Korean War,” Modern China, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January 1975), p. 76; Sherman Adams, Firsthand Report: The Story of the Eisenhower Administration (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 102; and Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, A General's Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp. 660–661.
Roger Dingman, “Atomic Diplomacy during the Korean War,” International Security, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Winter 1988–1989), pp. 79–91; and McGeorge Bundy, “The Unimpressive Record of Atomic Diplomacy,” in Robert J. Art and Kenneth Neal Waltz, eds., The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), p. 102.
Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, p. 148; Jones, After Hiroshima, p. 158; Brian Madison Jones, Abolishing the Taboo: Dwight D. Eisenhower and American Nuclear Doctrine, 1945–1961 (West Midlands, UK: Helion, 2011), p. 58; Pape, Bombing to Win, pp. 140–142, 157–159; Jackson, “Beyond Brinkmanship,” pp. 67–68; Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, p. 169; and George and Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, pp. 235–241.
Memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense (Wilson), 19 May 1953, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XV, pt. 1, p. 1061.
Ibid., pp. 1062–1063.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 145th Meeting of the National Security Council, 20 May 1953, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XV, pt. I, pp. 1067–1068.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 156th Meeting of the National Security Council, p. 1421.
Ibid., p. 1422.
Summary of 7/23/53 NSC Meeting, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100088448, p. 10.
Memorandum for the National Security Council, 8 June 1953, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100215295.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 131st Meeting of the National Security Council, 11 February 1953, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XV, pt. 1, p. 1014.
Memorandum of Discussion at a Special Meeting of the National Security Council, 31 March 1953, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XV, pt. 1, p. 826.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 144th Meeting of the National Security Council, 13 May 1953, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XV, pt. 1, pp. 769–770.
Jones, Abolishing the Taboo, p. 58.
For a summary of the facts with a focus on the potential for U.S. involvement, see U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Indochina Incident, 1940–1954 (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Joint Secretariat, 1975), pp. 327–480; Jones, After Hiroshima, pp. 212–216; David L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953–1961 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 30–35; Fredrik Lovegall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2014), pp. 473–519; and Melanie Billings-Yun, Decision against War: Eisenhower and Dien Bien Phu, 1954 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
Anderson, Trapped by Success, pp. 26–27; and Jones, After Hiroshima, p. 233.
Marc Trachtenberg, “Audience Costs in 1954?” International Security Studies Forum, No. 1 (2013), pp. 17–22.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 194th Meeting of the National Security Council, 29 April 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, Pt. 2, p. 1441.
Trachtenberg, “Audience Costs in 1954?” p. 17.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 194th Meeting of the National Security Council, pp. 1431–1445.
Ibid., p. 1440.
Ibid., p. 1441.
Ibid., p. 1442.
Even though the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed by the United States, Britain, and France in September 1954, it included only two Southeast Asian countries (Thailand and the Philippines). The other members, aside from the United States, Britain, and France, were Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan.
See also Billings-Yun, Decision against War, pp. 149–153.
Robert J. Watson, History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy 1953–1954 (Washington, DC: Historical Division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1986), p. 254; Jones, After Hiroshima, p. 216; William J. Duiker, U.S. Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 170–171; and George C. Herring and Richard H. Immerman, “Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dien Bien Phu: ‘The Day We Didn't Go to War’ Revisited,” in Lawrence S. Kaplan et al., eds., Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco-American Relations, 1954–1955 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1989), p. 95.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 190th Meeting of the National Security Council, 25 March 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 1, p. 1165.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 194th Meeting of the National Security Council, p. 1434.
Memorandum from the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (Cutler) to the Under Secretary of State (Smith), 30 April 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 2, pp. 1445–1448; and Ted Morgan, Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War (New York: Random House, 2010), pp. 516–517.
Possibilities of Maximum Support from U.S. Allies (Chiefly NATO) in the Event of U.S. Intervention with Armed Forces in the Conflict of Indochina, 20 May 1954, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100263714, p.6.
Herring and Immerman, “Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dienbienphu,” p. 84.
Memorandum from the Counselor (MacArthur) to the Secretary of State, 7 April 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 1, pp. 1270–1272; Memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense (Wilson), 20 May 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 2, pp. 1590–1592; and Conversation in President's Office, 28 May 1954, in Dwight D. Eisenhower Library (DDEL), Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers as President of the United States, 1953–1961 (Ann Whitman File) [hereinafter referred to as Eisenhower Papers (AW)], International Series, Box 10, Foreign Policy—Miscellaneous Memoranda.
Memorandum from the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Drumright) to the Counselor (MacArthur), 24 May 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 2, pp. 1590–1592; and Memorandum from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Bowie) to the Secretary of State, 27 May 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 2, pp. 1624–1626.
Watson, History, p. 254; Jones, After Hiroshima, p. 216; and Herring and Immerman, “Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dienbienphu,” p. 95 (“the decision against immediate intervention was formalized at a long and heated NSC meeting on April 29”).
Summary of 6/24/54 NSC Meeting, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100224086, p. 12.
For differing takes, see Lovegall, Embers of War, pp. 497–500; Duiker, U.S. Containment Policy, pp. 166–167; and Herring and Immerman, “Eisenhower, Dulles, and Dienbienphu,” pp. 92–93.
Morgan, Valley of Death, pp. 477–480, 484–485.
Memorandum of Conference with the President, 19 April 1954, in DDEL, Papers of John Foster Dulles (hereinafter cited as Dulles Papers), White House Memoranda Series, Box 1, Meetings with the President 1954 (3).
Memorandum from the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (Cutler) to the Under Secretary of State (Smith), p. 1447; emphasis in original.
Eisenhower Letter to Dulles on Geneva Talks, 23 April 1954, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100168174.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 195th Meeting of the National Security Council, 6 May 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIII, pt. 2, p. 1485.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 190th Meeting of the National Security Council, pp. 1163–1168.
Morgan, Valley of Death, pp. 478–480, 484–485.
Ibid., p. 489.
For a chronology of events surrounding the crisis, see Gordon H. Chang, “To the Nuclear Brink: Eisenhower, Dulles, and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis,” International Security, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Spring 1988), pp. 98–117; Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: The President, Vol. 2 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 231–245; Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, pp. 459–483; Thomas E. Stopler, “China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands Together with an Implication for Outer Mongolia and Sino-Soviet Relations,” International Journal of Politics, Vol. 15, No. 1/2 (Spring–Summer 1985), pp. iii–xiii, 1–162; and Bennett C. Rushkoff, “Eisenhower, Dulles and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis, 1954–1955,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Autumn 1981), pp. 465–480.
“Public Law 4,” in U.S. Statutes at Large (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955), p. 7.
Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 239.
Chang “To the Nuclear Brink,” pp. 96–123.
Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 245. Stopler comes to a similar conclusion, arguing that “Eisenhower hoped to convince Peking not to present him with a situation in which he would have to make a definite decision” on the nuclear question. Stopler, “China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands,” p. 90.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 213th Meeting of the National Security Council, 9 September 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 583–595; Memorandum of Discussion at the 215th Meeting of the National Security Council, 24 September 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 658–660; Memorandum of Discussion at the 220th Meeting of the National Security Council, 28 October 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 803–809; Memorandum of Discussion at the 221st Meeting of the National Security Council, 2 November 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 827–839; Memorandum of Discussion at the 228th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, 9 December 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 1004–1006; Memorandum of Discussion at the 229th Meeting of the National Security Council, 21 December 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 1044–1047; Memorandum of Discussion at the 232d Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, 20 January 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 69–82; Memorandum of Discussion at the 234th Meeting of the National Security Council, 27 January 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 135–140; and Memorandum of Discussion, 237th NSC Meeting, 17 February 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 279–286.
Memorandum of a Conversation between the President and the Secretary of State, 16 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 336–337; and Breakfast Conversation with Senator George, 7 March 1955, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100194898.
Chang, “To the Nuclear Brink,” pp. 103–104.
Memorandum of Conversation with the President, 6 March 1955, in DDEL, Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 3, Meetings with the President 1955 (7).
Memorandum of Conversation with the President, 7 March 1955, in DDEL, Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 3, Meetings with the President 1955 (7).
E. Abel, “U.S. Might Cited: Dulles Warns Communist China U.S. Will Meet Force with Force,” The New York Times, 9 March 1955, p. 1.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 240th Meeting of the National Security Council, 10 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 345–350.
Press and Radio News Conference, 15 March 1955, in Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (NPLM), Yorba Linda, California, Pre-Presidential Papers, John Foster Dulles, Speeches, etc., Box 2, Speeches–1955, Jan.–Mar.
Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 239.
Stopler, “China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands,” pp. 89–90.
Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, pp. 140–144.
Tannenwald, “Stigmatizing the Bomb,” p. 26.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 234th Meeting of the National Security Council, p. 138.
Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 239.
Memorandum of a Conversation, Washington, 14 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, p. 371.
Message from the Prime Minister to the President, 15 February 1955, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100696572, pp. 4–5.
Extracts from Embassy Ottawa Report Dated March 25, 1955, on Results of Secretary Dulles’ Visit to Canada, in DDEL, Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 3, White House Correspondence-General 1955 (3).
Stopler, “China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands,” p. 90.
Memorandum for the Secretary, 1 April 1955, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100053628, p. 1; and Memorandum of Conversation with the President, 4 April 1955, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100188628.
Whether the administration's perceptions of public opinion were accurate is unclear. A Gallup poll released near the end of the crisis found that a substantial majority favored the use of nuclear weapons if a war broke out with China. See George Gallup, “A-Bomb Use in Red China War Favored: Gallup Finds 63% in Poll Expect It; Split on H-Weapon,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1955, p. 26. The administration, however, was likely more concerned about the opinion of U.S. elites and was referring to them when it talked about domestic “public opinion.” The Democratic leaders in Congress, among other elites, reacted extremely negatively to the Eisenhower administration's campaign to conventionalize nuclear weapons.
Untitled Telegram, 30 March 1955, in DDEL, Records as President, White House Central Files 1953–1961, Subject Series, Box 28, Formosan Question.
Memorandum from the President to the Secretary of State, 5 April 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 447–448.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 243d Meeting of the National Security Council, 31 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 432–433.
Congressional Luncheon Meeting, Bipartisan, 31 March 1955, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100408873, p. 4.
Memorandum for the Record, by the President's Special Assistant (Cutler), 11 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 355–360.
Ibid., pp. 358–359; Notes Taken during Meeting, 11 March 1955, 16 March 1955, in DDEL, Eisenhower Papers (AW), International Series, Box 9, Formosa Visit to CINCPAC  (1).
Memorandum for the Record, by the President's Special Assistant (Cutler), pp. 358–359.
Memorandum from the President's Staff Secretary (Goodpaster) to the President, 15 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 366–367.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, The Eisenhower Diaries (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), p. 249.
President Eisenhower to British Prime Minister Churchill, 29 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, p. 419; Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation between the President and the Secretary of State, 18 January 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 37–38; Memorandum of Discussion at the 232d Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, p. 73; President Eisenhower to British Prime Minister Churchill, 25 January 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 128–129; President Eisenhower to Prime Minister Churchill, 10 February 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 259–261; Memorandum of Discussion at the 214th Meeting of the National Security Council, 12 September 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, p. 616; and Memorandum of Discussion at the 213th Meeting of the National Security Council, p. 587. Although this is what the record indicates as a general matter, Eisenhower on a few occasions spoke as if he believed the offshore islands were indeed militarily important for the defense of Taiwan. See, for example, Memorandum of Discussion at the 233d Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, 21 January 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, p. 94. However, these instances are heavily outnumbered by examples of Eisenhower and others in his administration dismissing the idea that Quemoy and Matsu had military importance. The JCS were split on the issue, but even Admiral Radford, perhaps the most hawkish member, believed the islands were “not essential to the defense of Formosa,” even though n his view “they had great importance even from the strictly military point of view.” Memorandum of Discussion at the 213th Meeting of the National Security Council, 9 September 1954, p. 587.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 221st Meeting of the National Security Council, pp. 828–829.
Memorandum of Discussion, 237th NSC meeting, p. 283. Ambrose comes to a similar conclusion regarding Eisenhower's intention to create uncertainty about the defense of the offshore islands. See Ambrose, Eisenhower, pp. 233–234.
Memorandum of Discussion, 237th NSC meeting, pp. 279–286; and Secretary of State to the Department of State, 21 October 1954, FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 2, pp. 788–790.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 216th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, 6 October 1954, in FRUS, 1952–1954, Vol. XIV, pt. 1, pp. 693–694; Memorandum of Conversation with the President, 5 February 1955, DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100258577; and Memorandum from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Bowie) to the Secretary of State, 9 April 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 473–475.
Telegram from the Secretary of State to the Department of State, 4 March 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, p. 321.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 221st Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, pp. 834–836.
Memorandum of a Conversation, Washington, pp. 368–372; and Memorandum for the Vice President, 2 March 1955, in NPLM, Pre-Presidential Papers, Vice Presidential Work Files-Executive Branch, Box 5, 1955, Mar.
Eisenhower Corresponds with Winston Churchill Concerning the Defense of Formosa, 19 February 1955, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100322027, p. 5.
Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, 9 February 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 243–247; Memorandum of Discussion, 237th Meeting of the National Security Council, p. 283; Message from Prime Minister Churchill to President Eisenhower, n.d., in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, pp. 270–273; and Memorandum of Discussion at the 234th Meeting of the National Security Council, pp. 138–139.
Memorandum of Discussion at the 234th Meeting of the National Security Council, p. 138; and Memorandum of Discussion at the 221st Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, pp. 833–834.
Telegram from the Secretary of State to the Embassy in Turkey, 8 April 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, p. 466.
Memorandum from the President to the Secretary of State, p. 448, emphasis added.
Memorandum of a Conversation between the President and the Secretary of State, 17 April 1955, in FRUS, 1955–1957, Vol. II, p. 494.
The story is told in Ambrose, Eisenhower, pp. 482–485; George and Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, pp. 363–367; Jones, After Hiroshima, pp. 370–373; Byron R. Fairchild and Walter S. Poole, History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy 1957–1960, Vol. 7 (Washington, DC: Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1986), pp. 207–215; M. H. Halperin, The Second Taiwan Straits Crisis: A Documentary History (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1966); Thomas J. Christensen, Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947–58 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 194–198; and Robert L. Suettinger, “U.S. ‘Management’ of Taiwan Strait ‘Crises,’” in Michael D. Swaine and Tuosheng Zhang, eds., Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006), pp. 268–272.
Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 482.
Fairchild and Poole, History, p. 213.
Halperin, Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, p. 309.
Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, pp. 5–6, 167, 182–185. Suettinger also compares the two crises but stresses the similarities and contends that the Eisenhower administration was “occasionally insensitive to domestic and foreign concerns about the morality and efficacy of nuclear weapons.” See Suettinger, “U.S. ‘Management’ of Taiwan Strait ‘Crises,’” pp. 275–276.
Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, p. 168.
Jones, After Hiroshima, pp. 271–276. Christensen likewise implies that there would have been a significant risk of nuclear escalation had it not been for “Chinese restraint and very good American analysis of Chinese deployment and military plans.” See Christensen, Useful Adversaries, pp. 195–196.
“Secretary Dulles and Eisenhower Discuss Preventing PRC Takeover of Quemoy and Matsu, General Assembly Meeting on the Near East, Suspension of Nuclear Testing, 12 August 1958, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100172623; Summary of Eisenhower and Dulles 9/23/58 Meeting, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100198176; Comparison of Quemoy with Berlin, 8 October 1953, in Digital National Security Archives (DNSA), No. BC00215; and Letter from Secretary Dulles to Prime Minister Macmillan, 4 September 1958, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100192616.
Memorandum of Conversation, 2 September 1958, in DNSA, No. CI01309; and Taiwan Straits: Issues Developed in Discussion with JCS, 2 September 1958, in DDEL, Eisenhower Papers (AW), International Series, Box 11, Formosa (2).
Memorandum of Conversation, 3 September 1958, in FRUS, 1958–1960, Vol. XIX, pp. 125–128.
Summary of Taiwan Straits Situation, 9 September 1958, in DDEL, Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 7, White House—Meetings with the President July 1, 1958–December 31, 1958 (7).
Dulles to Macmillan, p. 3.
Memorandum of Conference with President Eisenhower, 4 September 1958, in FRUS, 1958–1960, Vol. XIX, pp. 130–131.
Memorandum of Conversation with the President, 4 September 1958, in DDRS, Doc. CK3100176020, p. 1.
Memorandum from Gordon Gray, Special Assistant to the President, on a Meeting with President Eisenhower, 12 September 1958, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100103606, p. 6. For more on the disagreements between Eisenhower and Dulles throughout this crisis, see Campbell Craig, Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 80–89.
Untitled Telegram, 28 August 1958, in DDEL, Eisenhower Papers (AW), International Series, Box 11, Formosa (3).
Recent Political Aspects of the Taiwan Strait Crisis, 31 August 1958, in DDEL, Eisenhower Papers (AW), International Series, Box 11, Formosa (3).
Memorandum of Conversation with President Eisenhower, 6 September 1958, in FRUS, 1958–1960, Vol. XIX, pp. 142–144.
Fairchild and Poole, History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, p. 213.
Abbott Washburn to Dwight Eisenhower, 9 September 1958, in DDEL, Eisenhower Papers (AW), Administration Series, Box 29, Quemoy-Matsu-Washburn, Abbott.
Eisenhower Explains Abbott Washburn's Opinions on U.S. Intervention in Defense of Quemoy and Matsu to Secretary of State Dulles, 10 September 1958, in DDRS, Doc. No. CK3100452030.
Memorandum of Conversation between President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles, 11 September 1958, in FRUS, 1958–1960, Vol. XIX, p. 162.
Suettinger, “U.S. ‘Management’ of Taiwan Strait ‘Crises’,” pp. 272–276.
A Statement on Foreign Policy by the Democratic Advisory Council, 12 October 1958, in NPLM, Pre-Presidential Papers, Agnes Waldron General File, China, Box 3.
Untitled, 8 September 1958, in Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, John Foster Dulles State Department Records, Box 4, Folder 23–24, Public Policy Papers, p. 99,842.
Message from Prime Minister Macmillan to Secretary of State Dulles, n.d., in FRUS, 1958–1960, Vol. XIX, pp. 139–140.
Untitled, n.d., in Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, John Foster Dulles State Department Records, Box 4, Folder 23–24, Public Policy Papers, p. 99,947.
Untitled, 4 September 1958, in Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, John Foster Dulles State Department Records, Box 4, Folder 23–24, Public Policy Papers, p. 99,840.
Taiwan Straits: Issues Developed in Discussion with JCS, 2 September 1958; and Untitled Telegram from U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to the Department of State, 30 August 1958, in DDEL, Eisenhower Papers (AW), International Series, Box 11, Formosa (3).
Untitled, 4 September 1958, p. 99,840.
Fairchild and Poole, History, p. 213.
Ibid., p. 210.