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7. A Horrible Dilemma in the Taiwan Straits

While Australian, New Zealand and American delegates met in Manila to finalise SEATO in September 1954, another crisis broke out in the Taiwan Straits after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began shelling the Nationalist-held offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Even though by sheer geographical size and position alone it would be unthinkable that a global war might erupt over such small islands, there was a very real possibility that any miscalculation by the United States could spark a war with China, and by extension, the Soviet Union. America had long established its determination to prevent Taiwan and the Pescadores falling into Communist hands, but to achieve this, Eisenhower’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) thought it was important that these lesser offshore islands also remain in Nationalist hands. Others, such as Australia, New Zealand, Britain and most of the American public, were not convinced. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, for one, described them as “a bunch of rocks.”1

Less than nine months before the PRC shelled Quemoy, Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson approved a JCS recommendation to loan US naval vessels to the Nationalists to assist in the defence of the offshore islands. These loans included two destroyers, ten patrol crafts, two landing repair ships, and less than one hundred small landing crafts. Approving these loans meant that, at the very least, Eisenhower and his military staff hoped that the Nationalists could hold these islands if hostilities broke out in the immediate future.2 Yet once the crisis began, Eisenhower was certain that the offshore islands could not possibly be defended by the United States. After Dulles presented the NSC with the “horrible dilemma” that confronted the United States on 12 September, Eisenhower stressed that “Quemoy is not our ship.” According to the former General, defending Quemoy by force would lead to war with China. Public opinion seemed to support this position. Eisenhower went on to tell the NSC that he had constantly been receiving letters from the American public saying “please do not send our boys to war” and “do we really care what happens to those yellow people out there?”3

Political opinion aside, most US military planners argued that the offshore islands were important to the defence of Taiwan. A JCS report, submitted to the President on the afternoon of 3 September, recommended that current American policy towards the Taiwan Strait area be changed to assist in the defence of Quemoy as well as nine other offshore islands. The JCS Chairman Arthur Radford, a strong-minded former admiral with a wealth of experience in Pacific naval planning, argued particularly strongly for the defence of the islands. He recommended to the State Department that the United States commit to defending Quemoy and Matsu even with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Not all of the Chiefs of Staff agreed with Radford’s radical approach, but along with the Chief of the Air Force Nathan Twinning and Chief of Naval Operations Robert Carney, the JCS majority opinion concluded that defending the offshore islands was important and any withdrawal would have a considerable psychological effect on Nationalist morale.4 In opposition, Army Chief of Staff Matthew Ridgeway and Secretary of Defence Charles Wilson thought that any psychological effect did not outweigh the alarming consequences that could ensue if the United States committed to defending these islands. Ridgeway argued that defending Quemoy was “not substantially related to the defence of Taiwan”, whereas Wilson simply saw no worthwhile reason for the US to defend those “doggoned little islands.”5

Figure 16. Map of the Taiwan Strait. Created by Andrew Kelly, adapted from map by NordNordWest (2008), Wikimedia,, CC BY 3.0.

In Canberra, opinion was unanimous that defending the offshore islands was out of the question. Even before the outbreak of hostilities, Casey drew a line between the defence of Taiwan and the offshore islands. On 25 August he told Spender that there was a “distinction” between the two and “hoped that the US could see that.”6 Thomas Critchley, Head of Australia’s East Asia Section in the Department of External Affairs, echoed Casey’s concerns over American policy. According to Critchley, “[the offshore islands] problem was critical […] because of the dangers of US involvement.” He was particularly concerned that ANZUS obliged Australia to respond if the United States was attacked in the Taiwan Strait. In this event, any Australian failure to respond would be catastrophic for its relationship with the United States, even if Canberra was “left free” of any strict military obligation to defend the offshore islands.7

Casey and Critchley’s position did not change once the attacks began. In fact, Australian policy closely matched British policy toward the islands. British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden told Dulles on 17 September that Quemoy and the other offshore islands had “no conceivable strategic importance”, and he hoped to keep “as much water as possible” between the PRC and ROC.8 To achieve this, Eden argued that Chiang Kai-shek should evacuate Nationalist troops stationed on the offshore islands. Although the Australians did not express their disagreement as openly to the United States in mid-September, there was a strong feeling in Canberra that Australian interests were best served by following the British example. “We agree with the United Kingdom”, Attorney General John Spicer told Casey on 16 September, “with the proximity of the offshore islands to the Chinese mainland […] fighting [for the islands] would be difficult to justify.”9

Although the United States and Britain did not agree on the defensibility or otherwise of the offshore islands, they did agree that war must be avoided at all costs. With this thought in mind, Eden and Dulles met in London during September to plan for a potential UN resolution that would call for a ceasefire in the strait. Eden felt that it would be best if the United States did not itself initiate action in the United Nations, fearing that the PRC might respond aggressively. Instead, Eden suggested that New Zealand might propose the resolution because at the time it was a temporary member of the Security Council. Moreover, as New Zealand was a much smaller power than the United States or Britain, a call for a ceasefire from Wellington was far less likely to provoke a strong international backlash from China or the Soviet Union. Dulles agreed with Eden’s recommendation, believing that a UN resolution had substantial political benefits.10 He had told the NSC before he left for London that if a joint US-UK resolution could be reached in the Taiwan Straits, it may lead to a “coming together” of Anglo-American policy in the Far East. In Dulles’s view, it had an additional benefit. If the Soviet Union vetoed the resolution, it would demonstrate the aggressive and dangerous threat that Communism posed and spur allied support. If Moscow supported the resolution, it would mean the PRC was acting “against the will of the majority in the UN.”11

Dulles and Eden proposed a UN resolution codenamed “Oracle” to New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner in London Richard Campbell on 29 September. Interestingly, they both stressed the “extreme secrecy” of the proposal. In other words, even with an ANZUS Council meeting scheduled in less than a month, the Australians were not to be told.12 Upon hearing about the proposal, New Zealand policymakers were excited by the opportunity to assist in an international crisis. They were also hopeful that a resolution might encourage US-UK rapprochement vis-à-vis China. New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland believed that his government should accept responsibility and move ahead with the UN resolution as it presented New Zealand with an “opportunity of playing a constructive role” in joint US-UK policy regarding Far Eastern matters.13 New Zealand External Affairs Minister Thomas Macdonald agreed, but emphasised that New Zealand should not commit beyond the introduction of the resolution to the United Nations unless the United States and Britain were certain they could cooperate. As Macdonald explained, New Zealand might be placed in an immensely difficult position if the United States and British differences on China were exposed publicly once the resolution was presented to the Security Council. “We may find ourselves able to play a useful part”, Macdonald told Munro on 1 October, “but my inclination is not to commit ourselves to any particular course in the UN beyond initiation of the debate.”14

Nevertheless, these concerns were put aside and the next day New Zealand notified the United States and Britain that it was prepared to assist in the project and propose Oracle to the United Nations. All states agreed to submit it under Article VI of the UN Charter, declaring that the crisis threatened international peace and security. As for when the resolution should be submitted, Under Secretary of State W. Bedell Smith told New Zealand Ambassador in Washington Leslie Munro that the submission must wait until after the US mid-term elections in November. Macdonald also asked Munro to find out whether the United States would object to briefing the Australians on the resolution. Macdonald suggested that it would be “highly embarrassing” if Casey found out at the upcoming ANZUS Council meeting in October that discussions had been taking place between America and New Zealand without Australia even knowing about them. Macdonald, in short, thought that it might be best to include Australia in these plans before proceeding to the Security Council.15 When asked about informing the Australians, Dulles told Munro that he preferred that Australia not yet be told but would not object if New Zealand thought it essential. On further reflection, Munro seemed to agree with Dulles that Australia should not be told until the last possible moment. “There is always the risk of Australian intervention at an inappropriate stage and pursued by Spender in his own peculiar style”, Munro told Macdonald, “I do not like the risks that involves.”16

Despite reservations from Munro and Dulles, Casey was told about the Oracle project in mid-October as part of preparations for the ANZUS Council meeting in Washington. Upon being briefed by New Zealand, Casey had immediate objections. He did not understand why his American and New Zealand counterparts could not see that potentially serious issues could occur if a UN resolution was pursued. For one, Casey thought the prospects of a successful UN submission would be “so remote as to throw in doubt [the] value of [the] exercise.” Even in the unlikely event that a resolution was passed, it was clear neither how the full cooperation of the Nationalists in neutralising the islands could be obtained nor how this would be implemented. So far as Casey was concerned, there was also a disconcerting possibility that a Soviet veto could “stimulate pressure” in the United States to defend the offshore islands.17 In short, although Casey wanted a ceasefire in the Taiwan Straits as soon as possible, he did not agree that the New Zealand-American-British UN resolution was the most appropriate action to achieve that objective.

A Mutual Defence Treaty

By late 1954, the United States was also moving ahead with the conclusion of a binding commitment to defend Taiwan and the nearby Pescadores. Due to the close cooperation between the US and New Zealand in the service of the Oracle project, the Americans told the New Zealanders about this plan before the Australians and left it to New Zealand to “keep Australia adequately informed if and when a decision seemed likely.” Once the Australians were briefed about this plan, Spender immediately called a meeting with Dulles on 31 October to express his dissatisfaction with the proposed treaty and the lack of consultation with Australia. During the meeting Spender “expressed some annoyance that the Australians had not been brought into these talks” for the mutual defence pact with Taiwan. He also suggested that a pact would be “unwise” because it would “compel a clarification of the situation with reference to the offshore islands and that a somewhat indeterminate status was preferable.”18 In other words, Spender thought that the United States should avoid a clear-cut commitment and instead keep the PRC guessing as to American intentions in the Taiwan Straits.

Nonetheless, a mutual security treaty between the United States and the Nationalist Government was eventually signed on 2 December 1954. This treaty guaranteed that the United States would defend Taiwan, potentially even with the use of nuclear weapons. It also required Chiang to consult with the United States before launching any attack on the Chinese mainland. This provision ensured that the Nationalists could not drag the United States into an unwanted war over mainland China. As Dulles had hoped, the wording over the commitment to defend the offshore islands was left unclear. Eisenhower stressed later that the decision to defend Taiwan’s “closely related territories” would be made by the President.19

Once the treaty was put into force, Dulles hoped to clear up this fuzziness with American allies. He spoke with New Zealand Ambassador Leslie Munro and British Ambassador Roger Makins about US willingness to commit privately to defending Quemoy and Matsu even with the use of nuclear weapons. To be sure, neither Munro nor Makins were pleased with this new American policy. Determined to sway allied opinion, Eisenhower went one step further and wrote to Churchill directly to stress the strategic usefulness of using these types of catastrophic weapons. Believing that the British were not properly seeing how effective a nuclear response could be, Eisenhower argued that even the tactical deployment of a dozen atomic bombs on critical defence infrastructure could effectively paralyse the PRC and award the Western powers a decisive upper hand in the Northeast Asian region.20 It was quite a startling suggestion from the former US Chief of the Army, particularly because the use of nuclear weapons could provoke a Soviet retaliation and escalate a regional crisis into a much larger international war.

Despite his vast military experience, Eisenhower failed to convince the Britons of the feasibility of a nuclear approach. Churchill, Eden and the British Foreign Office were not just concerned by the escalation of war in the Taiwan Straits; a nuclear attack might have provoked the Soviets to launch their own nuclear warheads in Europe, much closer to Britain and its critical strategic interests. Upon hearing about the policy, Eden asserted that Oracle should not be pursued until the United States gave up its proposal to defend Quemoy. He simply refused to entertain the idea of using nuclear weapons, going so far as to insist that the search for diplomatic solutions through the UN could not continue until the US abandoned these reckless ideas. Eden was also particularly critical of any of his own policymakers who even hinted that Britain would support US policy in the Taiwan Straits. After British Ambassador to the United Nations Anthony Nutting made several comments about Britain supporting the United States over Quemoy and Matsu, Eden wrote scornfully to Nutting that:

Criticism of your interview is principally directed against implications that United Kingdom will necessarily be involved in hostilities if China attacks Formosa. It is by no means certain that an attack on Formosa ‘would no doubt call for collective action of the United Nations’ […] they seem cumulatively to create the impression that it was your intention to declare that the United Kingdom would answer the war on the side of the United States if the Chinese launched an attack. “Times” Washington correspondent in his full account of your interview today states that you have in fact created the impression in America, and imply that we have undertaken something new […] I rely on you to say as little as possible on this thorny subject and to limit your pubic interviews to the utmost.21

In Australia, once Eisenhower announced publicly his intention to defend Taiwan—and, if he thought it necessary for Taiwan’s defence, its “closely related territories”—Casey grew similarly concerned that a war over the offshore islands may eventuate. For the mindful External Affairs Minister, it was just as dangerous as a possible UN resolution. “We are considerably concerned”, Casey told Spender, “it seems equally foolish and dangerous to contemplate [war] in the defence of islands whose security value is, to say the least, doubtful.” In summation, he “[did] not regard these islands as worth the risk of war.”22 Casey, a long-time advocate of a more realistic approach to China, explored the alternative possibility of recognising the PRC in an effort to reduce tensions. He wrote to Menzies on 10 December suggesting that on balance, the “majority of the Australian press seemed to be in favour for recognition” of the PRC. He also stressed that even though free world nations should not condone Communist aggression, current relations with Beijing were not on a satisfactory basis.23

Casey continued to make a connection between recognizing the PRC and reducing the tensions in the Taiwan Strait. When drafting an announcement about the current situation in East Asia, Casey reasoned that “the conduct of international affairs is made more difficult so long as the PRC is not recognised and so it would be logical to change this situation.”24 Although Casey concluded that the offshore island crisis should be settled first before considering “recognition later”, he clearly thought that recognising the PRC might in some way reduce tensions or prevent future Chinese aggression. This part of his statement was never publicised, as Menzies opposed any suggestion that Australia was at the time considering changing its public opposition to recognition of the PRC. Nevertheless, policymakers such as Casey appeared willing to consider the possibility of recognition far more openly than policymakers in the United States.

There was strong support in Australia for Casey’s suggestion. Casey was encouraged by both the public and the federal opposition to pursue recognition in exchange for a ceasefire in the straits. For example, an article written by journalist John Bennetts published in the Sunday Times in early 1955 suggested that Australia, the United States and Nationalist China should abandon any interest in the offshore islands as a quid pro quo for recognition of the PRC. For “assurances and demonstrations of goodwill and peaceful intentions” in the Taiwan Straits, Bennetts wrote that Communist China should be “offered eventual membership of the United Nations and general recognition as the lawful Government of mainland China in return.”25 Reports emerged later that Labor backbencher Allan Fraser accused Casey of not “seeking to exploit every opportunity for negotiation with Red China” while the offshore island crisis remained unresolved. Casey should be “prompting the recognition of the Chinese mainland Government”, Fraser told the press, “as a means to pave the way for a long-term settlement.”26

On mainland China, Mao’s response to the recent US-ROC defence treaty was particularly aggressive. On 10 January 1955, he ordered an attack on the Tachen Islands. Eight days later, PRC forces also attacked and captured nearby Ichiang Island. The Tachens themselves were approximately 320 kilometres north of Taiwan, far outside the original area the US considered strategically important for defending the island. Nonetheless, Eisenhower and Radford thought these attacks indicated the PRC’s “clear intent” to capture all offshore islands, with the ultimate purpose of taking Taiwan and the Pescadores.27 To combat this, the US convinced a reluctant Chiang Kai-shek to evacuate the Tachens in exchange for a private commitment to defend Quemoy and Matsu in the event of a full scale attack. This drastic change in American policy confirmed that Dulles’s original plans had “backfired.” As Wilson told the NSC on 20 January, US “diplomatic efforts […] had failed.”28

Given this failure, military options were revisited. Earlier on 20 January, a meeting was held between the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and several Congressmen to brief Capitol Hill on new developments in the Taiwan Straits. Dulles said that the situation in the Taiwan area was developing “in an acute way which seems to call for a sounder defensive concept. There is no doubt in [my] mind that the ultimate purpose of the Communist Chinese is to try and take Taiwan and the Pescadores”, Dulles stressed, “the problem had reached such magnitude that it had to be dealt with in a comprehensive way.” On the advice of Admiral Radford, Dulles said that there would be a regrouping of Nationalists forces and with help from the United States they would hold the remaining islands (Quemoy and Matsu). Hoping to secure Congressional support for such action, Dulles argued that “it would be criminal folly on our part to sit and watch these islands be taken which could be held with minor help on our part.” Most of the Congressmen agreed with this approach, but they wanted Eisenhower to make it extremely clear that US military action was limited only to reorganising Nationalist forces on Quemoy and Matsu and defending these islands in the possibility that they were attacked. As Senator Earle Clements told Dulles, the President must make clear “what we are willing to defend, where we will draw the line, and where we will retreat no further.”29

In Canberra, the Tachen attacks presented an increasingly dangerous and uncertain period for Australian policymakers. Yet instead of making any immediate public statement, the Australian Department of External Affairs kept their policies behind closed doors in the belief that the State Department was best placed to handle the crisis. The ever-tactful Casey reasoned that his Government’s interests were best served by simply staying quiet, because announcing that Australia saw a clear distinction between Taiwan and the offshore islands could only complicate the situation for the United States. “The attitude I have been taking”, Casey penned in his diary on 28 January, “is not to talk unless it would do more good than harm.” He also recommended against an ANZUS meeting on the crisis, thinking that at that time Australia had “nothing positive to suggest that had not already been considered by the US.”30

Escalating tensions, however, forced him to outline Australian policy publicly. In an address given almost a month after the Tachens were first shelled, Casey stated the Australian Government’s desire for “disengagement” from the offshore islands as these were clearly part of Chinese territory. This position sat uneasily with his US counterparts, who had determined so recently to hold Quemoy and Matsu. It was also no coincidence that Casey’s statement came after Eisenhower’s address to Congress on 24 January that outlined only the President had the power to decide whether the US would defend Taiwan’s “closely related territories.” Though Casey recognized in his statement that the situation was “in the hands of President Eisenhower more than anyone else”, his timing affirmed Australian discontent over defending the islands.31

Although New Zealand shared Australian concerns over the Tachen attacks and recent changes to American policy in the Taiwan Straits, the New Zealand External Affairs Department still believed that Oracle should be pursued rather than defending the offshore islands or pursuing recognition as a quid pro quo for the cessation of PRC aggression. “The Government has no intention of entering into any sort of commitment involving New Zealand in developments around Taiwan”, New Zealand External Affairs Minister Thomas Macdonald announced on 27 January. Instead, Macdonald suggested that New Zealand was “anxious that the threat to peace which appears to be developing in that area should be dealt with by the normal machinery of the United Nations.”32

In Washington, Munro agreed wholeheartedly with Macdonald’s announcement. He certainly did not agree with the US decision to secure a formal defence treaty for Taiwan and its efforts to create uncertainty over the potential American reaction to attacks on the offshore islands, describing both responses as the “two worst courses of action.” “I must say I am seriously disturbed by the American course of conduct”, he told Macdonald on 21 January 1955.33 Munro still believed Oracle could serve a useful purpose, but it could only proceed if the US and UK could agree to support the resolution. This seemed increasingly unlikely once Britain signalled its complete opposition to America’s commitment to defend Taiwan and possibly the offshore islands. After Dulles informed British Ambassador in Washington Roger Makins on 19 January that the United States would assist in the defence of Quemoy, Makins responded a day later with British views on the subject. Its message was clear: “the British government is disturbed by developments”, Makins told Dulles on 20 January, and “the Cabinet did not like the idea of a ‘provisional guarantee’ of Quemoy.34

Upon receiving word that Britain was unlikely to support a UN resolution while the United States committed privately to the defence of Quemoy and Matsu, Dulles backed down and agreed to reconsider presenting Oracle to the UN instead of committing to defend Quemoy and Matsu. American, British and New Zealand delegates met on 23 January to decide how the resolution might be proposed. It was decided that Britain should inform Beijing and Moscow of Oracle, then New Zealand would invite the PRC to attend UN discussions after the presentation of the resolution. On 31 January the United Nations invited China to attend the debate on the offshore islands, but Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai rejected the invitation. He stated that Oracle opened the door to the possibility of “two China’s” and was an illegal intervention into Chinese internal affairs.35

Commonwealth Discussions for a Ceasefire

Once the PRC declared that it was unwilling to discuss the offshore island problem in the United Nations, Commonwealth countries grew further concerned that the United States would defend the islands if an invasion took place. These issues were discussed at length during the Prime Ministers’ Conference in London from 31 January to 8 February 1955. Aside from discussions over the insurgence of Communist forces in Malaya, delegates discussed reaching an agreement on the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis. Menzies was especially determined to influence British opinion when relaying at the conference that his Cabinet agreed unanimously that the Nationalists should disengage from the offshore islands. Eden agreed firmly with this policy, in line with what he had said to Dulles previously about the offshore islands holding “no conceivable strategic importance.” Feeling that this summarised neatly the “consensus of opinion” from the conference, Eden asked Menzies to write to Dulles and outline the position of the Commonwealth nations. The letter stressed that delegates at the Prime Ministers’ Conference were convinced that “further resolutions and debate in the Security Council at present would do harm” and that “Australia and Britain were very much opposed to the risk of war over the offshore islands.”36

Menzies’s letter provided the State Department with a clear warning that Britain and Australia were moving away from supporting a UN solution to the crisis. Even New Zealand Prime Minister Holland, who had been a strong supporter of Oracle and was concerned by American action in the Taiwan Straits, pledged his support to Australian and British efforts to at least delay Oracle.37 In response, Eisenhower wrote to Churchill and noted that while he appreciated British efforts to avoid a rift in Anglo-American relations, in his view the British did not understand fully the Communist’s “constant pressing on the Asian frontier.”38 Churchill, however, remained steadfast on his government’s position on China and later informed Washington that Whitehall no longer supported Oracle. As a result, the United States could not realistically hope to find a long-term solution or even a temporary ceasefire through the UN.

During the Prime Ministers’ Conference, Spender cabled Menzies on 6 February to offer a more detailed assessment of the situation as it stood in the Taiwan Strait. Even though he was unaware of the importance the American JCS attached to holding the offshore islands, he told Menzies the problem was because of a continued Nationalist military presence on the islands rather than American insistence that protecting the islands was essential. Believing that Chiang would be a difficult man to convince, he proposed that in return for Nationalist withdrawal from the islands, Australia and other Commonwealth countries should declare their intention to defend Taiwan if attacked. Although Menzies did not take up Spender’s suggestion immediately—like many Australians, Menzies was reluctant to commit to Chiang’s defence and only considered doing so in the hope that it might prevent a wider war with the PRC—it did form the basis for a proposal that Menzies submitted to the United States after the crisis came to an end.39

In any event, Spender had more pressing matters on his agenda. Following the Prime Ministers’ Conference, Dulles held an important meeting with Spender on 11 February to discuss the Australian and Commonwealth position on Taiwan and the offshore islands. Spender opened the meeting by first relaying the consensus of opinion reached in London. In outlining the Australian position, he stressed that:

It is causing us deep concern […] we cannot see that [the offshore islands] are either vital, or even important, to Taiwan-Pescadores defence. It is, therefore, hard for us to see why they are made a policy issue. Our view is that the correct aim is disengagement from the islands […] these views are not dissimilar to those already expressed by Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.40

Dulles appreciated Spender’s open yet firm expression of Australian and Commonwealth policy. He told Spender that “none of his colleagues had so clearly or so categorically” been as helpful on the offshore island issue. Australia was “more engaged in the area than others”, Dulles added, “Australia is not a country on the sidelines.”

Dulles was not surprised by the Australian position. It was, as he pointed out, not too dissimilar from the views reached in the NSC meeting in mid-September 1954. Nevertheless, he told Spender that the US now considered that withdrawing from the offshore islands would have a substantial psychological effect on Taiwan and nearby areas. Dulles also shared with Spender that the JCS thought the islands held strategic importance because (1) they blocked two natural harbours and (2) their proximity to the Chinese mainland made them a useful staging area for potential counterattacks. In short, Dulles stressed that the United States had been “reluctantly compelled” to move from its original position (which generally coincided with current Australian policy) to its present position.

Neither Spender nor Dulles wanted war in the strait. They both agreed on the strategic necessity of keeping Taiwan and the Pescadores out of Communist hands, but disagreed on the way that it should be done. For Dulles, it was important to highlight that although the US had determined Quemoy and Matsu be defended, there was considerable flexibility in any decision to do so. In his view, the decision “was entirely ours.” Spender—and, for that matter, almost all other Commonwealth nations—seemed unconvinced by this reasoning. Though Spender well understood Dulles’s arguments for the defence of the offshore islands and sympathised with his awkward position, Menzies’s recent letter to Washington best captured the majority of Australian opinion over American involvement in the strait. American Ambassador to the United Kingdom Winthrop Aldrich also informed Washington that Australia and Britain were deeply concerned that they might be dragged into an unwanted and unnecessary war. He told the State Department that a recent Walter Lippman article called “Towards a Ceasefire”—based on the agreements reached at the Prime Ministers’ Conference—argued that “sound American policy would be to do what is being done in the Tachens to Quemoy and Matsu.” In other words, Australia and Britain believed the ROC and US should evacuate all offshore islands. This, according to Aldrich, summarised the Commonwealth position to an “extraordinarily exact degree.”41

Consistent with the summary Aldrich gave to the State Department, Eden rejected flatly Dulles’s view that evacuating the offshore islands would seriously affect Nationalist morale. Even if it did, he told Dulles on 26 February that “further deterioration in morale is preferable to breaking up the [Anglo-American] alliance.” This presumably meant that if push came to shove, London would not support Washington on the offshore island issue.42 Fearing further rifts between Washington and its allies, Dulles took the opportunity to remind Casey and New Zealand External Affairs Minister Macdonald that “if fighting broke out in the future over Taiwan […] Australia and New Zealand would be concerned as partners of ANZUS.”43 It was a disconcerting situation for Australia to be in. If Canberra supported Washington, it risked isolating itself from Britain and the Commonwealth. It also risked placing itself on the frontlines of a nuclear war over islands that Australians policymakers had consistently determined to be strategically insignificant. However, if Canberra supported London, it would both marginalise its relationship with Washington and call into question the usefulness of ANZUS.

Prompted by these Australian-American-British divisions, Menzies visited Washington to discuss possibilities for bringing the crisis to an end. In a meeting with Dulles on 14 March, his first agenda item was to gather US financial and military support for the defence of Malaya, one of Australia’s most important strategic interests. As part of Australia’s forward defence policy in Southeast Asia, Australian and British defence talks had been moving recently towards creating a Far East Strategic Reserve (which came into effect later in April) that would entail a joint military force stationed in the region to protect Malaya and other Commonwealth interests. Unfortunately for Menzies, he convinced neither Dulles nor the American JCS to commit to Malaya’s defence or a broader defence scheme outside of SEATO.

Next, talks moved to the escalating situation in the Taiwan Straits. He first asked Dulles to explain the difference between his position and that of Casey and Eden’s. According to Dulles, there were two elements informing these differences: a misunderstanding of the US approach and questions of judgment as to the best way to achieve the same objective. Dulles stressed that the British House of Commons did not understand that psychological and political factors were just as important as military considerations and that these factors were shaping the US position. He also suggested that there could be no categorical assertion whether the US would or would not defend the islands.44 Menzies sympathised with Dulles’s difficult position. However, American ambiguity ultimately sat uneasily with Australian policy. Menzies, who believed that the “unconditional surrender of offshore islands would intensify Communist truculence”, asked Dulles about the possibility of a ROC withdrawal from the islands in exchange for a group of nations guaranteeing the defence of Taiwan (Australia, Britain, New Zealand, and any other Commonwealth nation willing to commit to this scheme). Dulles quite liked this idea. He thought the suggestion had “merit” and would “give further thought” to the proposition. He even told Menzies that he had proposed a similar idea to Eden previously, but had received no response.45 The unfortunate reality was that Chiang was unlikely to agree. The Generalissimo had already secured a guarantee from the United States, and any offshore island evacuation would work against his plans to recover the Chinese mainland.

Even if a Commonwealth guarantee could not be reached, Menzies wanted to make sure that Dulles understood how the Australian public viewed the situation. While the Australian public might support holding Taiwan if a broader war broke out, he told Dulles that there would be no support whatsoever for a war fought over the offshore islands. In Menzies’s view, there was only support for larger efforts to prevent aggressive Communist behaviour. “The Australian public would support a war in the defence of freedom”, Menzies stated, “but not of Governments per se (such as Chiang’s regime) or offshore islands.”46 Dulles could at least be certain of Australia’s commitment if war eventuated, but did not find the agreement on offshore island policy he was looking for.

While Spender and Menzies met with Dulles in an attempt to find a resolution to the crisis, New Zealand policymakers continued to debate whether pursuing Oracle might still serve a useful purpose despite Zhou’s rejection in late January. In March, Ambassador Munro wrote to Macdonald and explained his thoughts on the project. In his mind, New Zealand could either introduce the Oracle resolution on its own or jettison the idea entirely. Munro appeared to favour the first option, fearing that if New Zealand postponed Oracle and then the United States went ahead with the resolution it would make New Zealand’s “position in the operation […] very invidious.”47 Concerned by this prospect, Munro suggested to Dulles that while New Zealand was not prepared to abandon the Oracle project, it made sense to delay a decision to see whether tensions could be relieved on their own accord.

In response, Dulles suggested to Munro on 23 March that New Zealand’s role in the Oracle project was still important and that its presentation to the United Nations should not be delayed. He argued that while tensions had calmed in recent weeks there was no telling when the PRC might mount another attack. Moreover, in April the Soviet Union would assume the Security Council presidency, making it even more difficult to proceed with Oracle. However, this pressure from Dulles to introduce the resolution concerned Munro. He believed that it forced New Zealand to “choose between the British and American points of view in an area where action by the United States, our chief bulwark in the Pacific, might not be supported by the United Kingdom.”48

Fortunately for the Oracle sponsors, tensions eased on 23 April 1955 when PRC Premier Zhou Enlai announced that China did not want war with the United States and was willing to enter into negotiations. Zhou’s announcement meant that Oracle would not have to be introduced in the United Nations in order to resolve the crisis. Though sceptical of Chinese intentions, the Americans agreed and entered into ambassadorial talks in Geneva from August 1955. Realising the weight of domestic and international opinion against any American action in the defence of the offshore islands, President Eisenhower was surely relieved that he never had to decide between whether to intervene militarily or concede defeat to a Communist government. At least for now, the United States had avoided the “inevitable moment of decision between two unacceptable choices” in the Taiwan Straits.49

Alongside American trepidations, Menzies could not be certain whether Zhou’s offer to negotiate was genuine or not. Either way, he thought that future hostilities with the PRC were still likely. Menzies thought future tensions in the Taiwan Strait could be settled if the PRC was part of an international discussion to achieve its recognition, just as Casey had believed that this approach might reduce the bellicosity of the PRC. Menzies took this idea one step further, proposing to the State Department that the PRC attend a Four-Power Conference to address current Sino-American differences. Menzies’s proposal outlined that there was a clear “danger of fighting over the offshore islands [because it] could develop into a major war.” Recognition of the PRC should be reconsidered due to “the difficulty of doing anything about the offshore islands while an atmosphere existed of Communist threats to attack the offshore islands and Taiwan.”50 Washington, however, was not convinced that Menzies’s proposal addressed its own interests. Dulles first told Spender on 3 May that the idea was “unfavourable” and the American public would be very much opposed.51 US Ambassador to Australia Amos Peaslee was even more vocal about his dislike for the plan, stating that he was “astonished” and “disturbed.” According to Peaslee, the Australian Government was “180° off course” with this idea.52

After Menzies’s failed proposal, the Australian Joint Planning Committee (JPC) formally reconsidered Taiwan’s strategic importance for future defence planning. Offshore island policy was not in question: as late as May, the Australian Government continued to draw a distinction between Taiwan and the offshore islands, claiming that the latter were “not regarded as important.”53 Yet as far as Taiwan was concerned, the JPC report concluded it was now more strategically important because of its proximity to China and the control it afforded over the Taiwan Straits. More importantly for Australian strategy, the report reasoned that the PRC could only “concentrate their military effort at one point at a time.” In other words, as long as the PRC’s attention was drawn to Taiwan, it acted as a “constant deterrent to further Chinese Communist adventure in Southeast Asia.”54 These JPC findings laid out several reasons why Taiwan was, in fact, an important regional base that had to be kept out of Communist hands, but its strategic importance was considered only in light of Australian interests in Southeast Asia rather than with the intention of coordinating defence policy with the United States.

Moreover, the Department of External Affairs agreed neither with American policy nor that continuing to defend Taiwan was in Australia’s best interests. Casey, for one, told Plimsoll on 13 April that “we’re not as convinced as the Americans are of Chiang and his forces.” He suggested further that American policy was based on a “lie” and that they were “prisoners of their past attitudes.” “For Chiang and his Taiwan forces”, Casey stated bluntly, “common-sense prompts one to believe that they must be a factor of declining importance in the scheme of things […] as time goes on, Taiwan will decline.”55 Convinced that the External Affairs Department should reconsider its China policy, Casey commissioned a major study for the Cabinet in June 1955 titled “The Situation in East Asia: Taiwan and Recognition of China.” Although the report concluded that Australia was not yet in a position to recognise the PRC due to the US position, it stated that the prospects of finding long term peace in the Far East through potential recognition were now greater than they had ever been. This was due at least in part to Beijing’s recent softer diplomacy, which suggested a “genuine [Chinese] desire for a policy of live and let live.” In other words, Casey thought that despite the PRC’s initiation of the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis, Mao’s Government was beginning to act more responsibly and Western powers should award recognition accordingly in the short-term future. “So far as recognition and representation in the United Nations is concerned”, Casey’s report concluded, the issue was “perhaps now one of timing rather than of principle.”56

In the immediate aftermath of the 1954-55 Quemoy-Matsu Crisis, Australian, New Zealand and American policymakers were certainly relieved that the crisis did not escalate into a wider war. Nevertheless, there were heightened concerns in these countries that their respective relationships with Beijing were not working and that opposing recognition might in fact be encouraging further aggression in East Asia. This was especially true in Canberra and Wellington, where recognition was discussed before, during and after the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis despite much stronger opposition to recognising the PRC in the United States. Even then, trans-Tasman views vis-à-vis China were by no means identical. Policy differences between the ANZUS powers, however, soon manifested elsewhere. In the Middle East, the trilateral relationship was seriously strained amidst major British strategic miscalculations in the region.

1 Department of State Conversation, 19 January 1955, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. II, 47.

2 Wilson to Dulles, 7 December 1953, FRUS 1952-1954 Vol. XIV Part I, 339.

3 NSC Meeting, 12 September 1954, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Papers, NSC Series, Box 6, EL.

4 Anderson to Eisenhower, 3 September 1954, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Papers, Dulles-Herter Series, Box 3, EL.

5 NSC Meeting Notes, 10 September 1954, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Papers, NSC Series, Box 6, EL.

6 Casey to Spender, 25 August 1954, NAA, A1838, 519/3/1 Part 1.

7 Critchley Memorandum, 25 August 1954, NAA, A1838, 519/3/1 Part 1; Critchley Memorandum, 19 October 1954, NAA, A1838, 519/3/1 Part 1.

8 Australian High Commissioner’s Office to Canberra, 17 September 1954, NAA, A5954, 1415/3.

9 Spicer to Casey, 16 September 1954, NAA, A5954, 1415/3.

10 Dulles to Eisenhower, 18 September 1954, John Foster Dulles Papers, JFD Chronological Series, Box 9, EL.

11 NSC Meeting, 12 September 1954, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Papers, NSC Series, Box 6, EL.

12 Campbell to Macdonald, 30 September 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 264/2/2 Part 1.

13 Holland to Munro, 30 September 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 264/2/2 Part 1.

14 Macdonald to Munro, 1 October 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 264/2/2 Part 1.

15 Macdonald to Munro, 7 October 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 264/2/2 Part 1.

16 Munro to Macdonald, 9 October 1954, Archives NZ, EA, 264/2/2 Part 1.

17 Caseyto Spender, 5 November 1954, NAA, A5954, 1415/3.

18 Memorandum of Conversation between Spender and Dulles, 31 October 1954, NARA, RG 59, 611.43/10-3154.

19 NSC Memorandum, 2 November 1954, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Papers, NSC Series, Box 6, EL.

20 David Watry, Diplomacy at the Brink: Eisenhower, Churchill and Eden in the Cold War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014), 79.

21 Eden to Nutting, 14 December 1954, as cited in Watry, Diplomacy at the Brink, 78.

22 Casey to Spender, 21 January 1955, NAA. A5954, 1415/3.

23 Letter from Casey to Menzies, 10 December 1954, DAFP: China, 87.

24 Letter from Brown to Menzies, 28 December 1954, DAFP: China, 91.

25 John Bennetts, “Australia Moves Fast to End Red China Crisis”, Sunday Times, 30 January 1955.

26 “Casey Accused of Playing-up Hostility and Hatred”, The Canberra Times, 31 March 1955.

27 State Department Meeting, 19 January 1955, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. II, 50.

28 NSC Meeting, 20 January 1955, Ann Whitman File, Eisenhower Papers, NSC Series, Box 7, EL.

29 Meeting of Secretary with mional Leaders, 20 January 1955, John Foster Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 2, EL.

30 Casey Diary Entry, 28 January 1955, Casey’s Diaries, 200.

31 Press Statement, 7 February 1955, CNIA Vol. 26, no. 2, 128.

32 Macdonald Statement, 27 January 1955, NZFP: SD, 377-378.

33 Munro to Macdonald, 21 January 1955, Archives NZ, EA, 264/2/2 Part 2.

34 Memorandum of Conversation, 20 January 1955, NARA, RG 59, 793.5/3-2958.

35 Victor Kaufman, “Operation Oracle: The United States, Great Britain, New Zealand and the Offshore Island Crisis of 1954-55”, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 32, no. 3 (2004), 106-124, See also Williamson, Separate Agendas, 121.

36 Aldrich to Department of State, 4 February 1955, NARA, RG 59, 793.5/2-455.

37 US Embassy in London to State Department, 1 February 1955, NARA, RG 59, 741.13/2-155.

38 Eisenhower to Churchill, 10 February 1955, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 9, EL.

39 Menzies, Cablegram to Canberra, 17 March 1955, DAFP: China, 99; David Lee, “Australia and Anglo-American Disagreement over the Quemoy-Matsu Crisis, 1954-55”, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 23, no. 1 (January 1995), 112,

40 Spender to Canberra, 12 February 1955, NAA, A1838, TS519/3/1 Part 3.

41 Aldrich to the Department of State, 11 February 1955, NARA, RG 59, 793.00/2-1155.

42 Glen St. John Barclay, Friends in High Places: Australian-American Diplomatic Relations Since 1945 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985), 77.

43 Casey Diary Entry, 26 February 1955, Casey’s Diaries, 206-207.

44 State Department Meeting, 14 March 1955, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. II, 368-372.

45 Memorandum for the President, 27 June 1955, White House Central Files, Confidential File, Box 28, EL; State Department Meeting, 14 March 1955, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. II, 368-372.

46 Ibid., 368.

47 Munro to Macdonald, 9 March 1955, Archives NZ, EA, 264/3/2 Part 3; Munro to Macdonald, 15 March 1955, Archives NZ, EA, 264/3/2 Part 3.

48 Munro to Macdonald, 26 March 1955, Archives NZ, EA, 264/3/2 Part 3.

49 Eisenhower to Dulles, 5 April 1955, Ann Whitman File, Dulles-Herter Series, Box 5, EL.

50 Record of Conversation between Tange, Critchley and Peterson, 5 May 1955, NAA, A1209, 1957/5035.

51 Cablegram to Canberra, 3 May 1955, DAFP: China, p.103.

52 Record of Conversation between Tange, Critchley and Peterson, 5 May 1955, NAA, A1209, 1957/5035.

53 Department Memorandum, 13 May 1955, NAA, A1209, 1957/4844.

54 Joint Planning Committee Report, 27 April 1955 NAA, A5799, 5799/15.

55 Casey to Plimsoll, 13 April 1955, NAA, A1838, TS519/3/1/ Part 4; Casey to Plimsoll, 12 April 1955, NAA, A1838, TS519/3/1/ Part 4.

56 The Situation in East Asia: Formosa and Recognition of China, 29 June 1955, NAA, A4906, 404.

© 2018 Andrew Kelly, CC BY 4.0