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Testing Massive Retaliation Credibility and Crisis Management in the Taiwan Strait H. W. Brands, Jr. IF o r eight months in 1954 and 1955, much of the world wondered whether the U.-S. would go to war with the People’s Republic of China over Jinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu) in the Taiwan Strait. The crisis was an early test of the EisenhowerDulles doctrine of “massive retaliation.” Was the American threat to protect its commitments by using anything in its arsenal, including nuclear weapons, a credible one? How should such commitments and threats be signalled, to whom, and when? Could they be effective to promote U.S. interests? As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles recognized during the crisis, the U.S. would shortly reach the point when it would have to ”face up to the question whether its military program was or was not in fact designed to permit the use of atomic weapons.” He feared that the longer the U.S. went without using these weapons, the less would be their deterrent value. Dulles and Eisenhower recognized that the U.S. was thus approaching the brink of nuclear war over strategically trivial islands. However, they appeared to believe that U.S. credibility was on the line, and that if their approach didn’t succeed, their entire defense policy might be undermined. The documentary record of the decision-making process in Beijing, Moscow , and Taibei remains closed to researchers, thereby precluding a complete and balanced history of the crisis, but on the American side much of the highest-level material has recently been declassified. As a consequence it is now possible to trace the evolution of American policy in considerable detail. The documents reveal the Eisenhower administration struggling to preserve important strategic assets in the Far East in the face of competing diplomatic, political, and bureaucratic forces. To President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Arthur Radford, and nearly everyone else of influence in Washington, a secure Taiwan in friendly hands represented the sine qua non of American policy in the Strait. Beyond this, however, opinions rapidly diverged, and considerable disagreement arose among decision-makers over the issue of the offshore islands. Much of it involved the fact that any course of action would antagH . W . Brands, jr., teaches history at Texas A G. M University. He is the author of Cold Warriors: Eisenhower’s Generation and American Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming in 2988) and is completing a study of American policy toward the Third World from 2945 to 2960. lnfernRfiomdSecurify, Spring 1988 (Vol. 12, No. 4) 0 1988by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 124 Testing Massive Retaliation I 125 onize groups in positions to inflict damage on the administration, the United States, or both. What would please the Republic of China (ROC) would provoke, to one degree or another, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Soviets, the NATO allies, and a significant portion of moderate-to-liberal opinion in America. Soothing the Communists and allaying the war fears of Europeans would set off Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and the Nationalists on Taiwan as well as conservatives in the United States, and it might demoralize friends and clients in Asia. Over the whole affair hung the nuclear question, more pressing than ever with the recent development of fusion devices on both sides of the cold war. Were atomic weapons necessary to defend the offshore islands? Would the threat of their use deter attack, or widen the area of conflict? Were they a special breed of armaments, or simply big bombs? Could they be utilized in a strictly tactical sense, or would escalation inevitably follow? How would American and world opinion respond to their use? To their non-use? To threats of use that were not carried out? The story of the Eisenhower Administration’s handling of this early major test of the massive retaliation doctrine is a sobering one. Eisenhower and Dulles succeeded in avoiding war while protecting the American position on Taiwan, but their success owed as much to luck as to skill, as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4804
Print ISSN
0162-2889
Pages
pp. 124-151
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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