On August 25, President Eisenhower was deep in a bombproof shelter in the North Carolina mountains when he got the news that Red China was bombarding the island of Quemoy. The Formosa Straits crisis of 1954-1955 had come back, like a bad dream. Ike was at the time participating in the federal government’s Operation Alert, an annual drill to evacuate policy makers from Washington in a simulated nuclear attack. The news from the Far East added a touch of reality to the exercise. Once again, Eisenhower had to decide how close to bring the United States, along with the rest of the world, to the nuclear brink.
No national leader talked, or possibly thought, more belligerently about nuclear war than Red China’s Chairman Mao. Under the misimpression that Sputnik signaled the superiority of the Communist bloc over the West, on November 18, 1957, he told Chinese students in Moscow that “the international situation has now reached a new turning point…The East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind.” [i] The Soviets were too ashamed of their inferiority to set him straight. That same November, Mao blustered to Khrushchev that a nuclear war would be a victory for Marxism. “If worse came to worse and half of mankind died, the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the world would become socialist.” The Kremlin leader was dumbfounded. “I looked at him closely,” Khrushchev later recalled. “I couldn’t tell from his face whether he was joking or not.” [ii]
When the United States Marines landed in Lebanon in July, 1958, Mao was disappointed with the Soviet response. He scoffed at Khrushchev’s qualms about setting off a nuclear war. To show his Kremlin comrades how to deal with the imperialists, Mao ordered Red Chinese forces to resume shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in August and vowed that Red China would take the off-shore islands—and then invade Formosa. [iii]
Sworn to defend the islands and protect the Nationalist Chinese on Formosa, the Eisenhower Administration uneasily pondered its options. The Joint Chiefs of Staff informed President Eisenhower, as they had in 1955, that it would be necessary to destroy Chinese airfields on the mainland with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower was more publicly circumspect than he had been in the winter of 1955. There was no more loose talk equating atom bombs with bullets. Now that the Soviets were developing ICBMs, he had to be more careful in his public utterances. Eisenhower knew that neither the American people nor America’s allies could stand the risk of starting a global war over some small islands off the Chinese coast. [iv]
As he so often did, Eisenhower chose studied ambiguity. The president told the military to prepare to fight with conventional weapons, but also to be ready to use atom bombs in a worst-case scenario. At a press conference on August 27, Ike made clear that he alone would decide if and when to use those weapons. On Formosa, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek fumed that Ike seemed to be hedging. In early September, Foster Dulles went to Ike’s summer White House in Newport to press the president on whether he would be willing to use tactical nuclear weapons on Chinese airfields. Ike stalled and wandered off into a marginally relevant reminiscence about D-Day. When it came to nuclear bluffing, Eisenhower followed his own lonely counsel. Tell no one. [v]
Fortunately, Ike’s bluff worked. Mao was perhaps not as cavalier about nuclear war as he pretended to be. On September 5, the Communist party chairman told the Supreme State Conference in Beijing, “I simply did not calculate the world would become so disturbed and turbulent.” [vi] With both sides looking for a way to pull back from the brink, the crisis quickly wound down. By the end of September, secret diplomacy was working towards a deal. The Americans were quietly persuading Chiang to reduce his large army (100,000 men) on the off-shore islands. In a near parody of saving face, the Red Chinese announced they would fire on the nationalist convoys only on odd days of the month—allowing the convoys to sail on the even-numbered days. In his memoirs, Eisenhower, who had seen almost everything, wrote, “I wondered if we were in a Gilbert and Sullivan war.” [vii]
Yet amidst this absurdity was a victory of sorts: Eisenhower and Dulles had been hoping to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and the second Quemoy-Matsu Crisis aided this cause. Khrushchev had promised to provide Mao with a prototype atom bomb. After listening to Mao’s tirades and watching him goad Uncle Sam, he began to think better of the idea. In 1959, Moscow told Beijing that no bomb would be forthcoming. [viii]