restricted access To the Nuclear Brink: Eisenhower, Dulles, and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis
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To the Nuclear Brink Gordon H. Chang Eisenhower, Dulles, and the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis Shortly after the first anniversary of the end of the Korean War, the United States confronted the possibility of renewed hostilities with the People's Republic of China. On September 3, 1954, while Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was in Manila finalizing the establishment of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Chinese Communist coastal batteries began heavy shelling of Jinmen (Quemoy)", one of the small Nationalist-held islands off the coast of the China mainland. Acting Secretary of Defense Robert Anderson alerted President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the intensity of the attack seemed a prelude to an all-out assault. Over the next nine months the United States, in supporting the Nationalists' defense of these islands, lurched toward disasterin Eisenhower's own recollection, the crisis almost caused a "split between the United States and nearly all its allies" and seemingly carried the country to the "edge of war. 112 The president's critics at the time accused him of bringing the country to the verge of war over real estate of little consequence. Much of the historical evaluation was not much kinder. Early literature on Eisenhower portrayed him as a "weak president," surrounded by advisers who wanted to use the crisis in the Strait to bring about a war with China. His administration, it was said, pursued an inflexible foreign policy that assumed, despite evidence to the contrary, a monolithic "international communism." The picture drawn by even those sympathetic to Eisenhower was one of an unimaginative president preoccupied with maintaining the status quo." The author would like to thank Barton Bernstein, David Kennedy, and John Lewis for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article and the MacArthur Foundation for financial support. Gordon H. Chang is a historian at the International Strategic Institute at Stanford University and Coordinator of the Project on Peace and Cooperation in the Asian-Pacific Region. 1. The pinyin romanization system will be used for Chinese names in this essay, except in the title. Traditional spellings will appear in parentheses after the first use of the pinyin. 2. Robert Anderson to Eisenhower, September 3, 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers as President of the United States, 1953-1961 (Ann Whitman File), Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas, hereafter Eisenhower Papers (AW), Dulles-Herter Series, Box 3, Dulles, Sept. 1954 (2); Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953-1956 (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 459. 3. Marquis William Childs, Eisenhower: Captive Hero, A Critical Study oftheGeneral andthePresident International Security, Spring 1988 (Vol. 12, No.4)© 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 96 Quemoy-Matsu, 195455 I 97 In recent years, in contrast, a ”revisionist” literature on Eisenhower has tried to draw an entirely different picture. Now, he is seen as a commanding chief executive, and is applauded for deft handling of the 1954-55 confrontation . One recent account characterizes Eisenhower’s policy as one of ”restraint and avoidance of conflict in the Taiwan Strait.”4 But newly available documentary evidence contradicts many of the revisionist contentions and shows that Eisenhower actually brought the country to the “nuclear brink,” far closer to war than a distraught public feared in 1955, closer than Eisenhower acknowledged in his own memoirs, and closer than most historians have heretofore even suspected.5 Among the revelations of the new evidence, three are most important: (1) the Eisenhower administration made a secret commitment to Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) to help defend Jinmen and Mazu (Matsu) in the event of a major Communist attack; (2) Eisenhower, despite his public ambiguity on (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958),pp. 188-212, 204, 291; Townsend Hoopes, The Devil and John Foster Dulles (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), pp. 262-273; Foster Rhea Dulles, American Policy Toward Communist China, 1949-1969 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972), pp. 130-160; Peter Lyon, Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974), pp. 632, 637, 853-54. Other literature on the 1954-55 crisis: 0. Edmund Clubb, ”Formosa and the Offshore Islands in American Foreign Policy, 1950-1955,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Dec...