Sworn to defend the islands and protect the Nationalist Chinese on Formosa, the Eisenhoweradministration uneasily pondered its options. The Joint Chiefs of Staff informed PresidentEisenhower, as they had in 1955, that it would be necessary to destroy Chinese airfields on themainland with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower was more publicly circumspect than he had been inthe winter of 1955. There was no more loose talk equating atom bombs with bullets. Now thatthe 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.As he so often did, Eisenhower chose studied ambiguity. The president told the military toprepare 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 Ikeseemed to be hedging. In early September, Foster Dulles went to Ike’s summer White House inNewport to press the president on whether he would be willing to use tactical nuclear weaponson Chinese airfields. Ike stalled and wandered off into a marginally relevant reminiscence aboutD-Day. When it came to nuclear bluffing, Eisenhower followed his own lonely counsel.
Fortunately, Ike’s bluff worked. Mao was perhaps not as cavalier about nuclear war as hepretended to be. On September 5, the Communist party chairman told the Supreme StateConference in Beijing, “I simply did not calculate the world would become so disturbed andturbulent.” With both sides looking for a way to pull back from the brink, the crisis quicklywound down. By the end of September, secret diplomacy was working towards a deal. TheAmericans were quietly persuading Chiang to reduce his large army (100,000 men) on the