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Trouble in the
Taiwan Strait,

One of hundreds of anti-aircraft
guns set up on Taiwan to defend
against attacks from the mainland

Paul Letters examines why Mao Zedong and the USA seemed willing to risk nuclear war

Exam context
In the new IB Diploma history syllabus (first examination 2017), ‘The
Cold War: superpower tensions and rivalries’ is one of the 12 world
history topics (of which all SL and HL students will answer questions
on two topics). The syllabus specifies the ‘Chinese offshore island
crisis (1954/1958)’ — which means the First and Second Taiwan Strait
Crises — as suggested examples to study.


arly on 3 September 1954, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation
Army (PLA) began shelling Kinmen (also known as Jinmen
and, in the past, Quemoy), an island under Republic of
China (ROC) control just a few kilometres from mainland China.
The First Taiwan Strait Crisis had begun. Many saw this as the first
step of a communist invasion of all of the ROC’s islands — and
the first step towards a war that could involve the USA and its
nuclear arsenal.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the official name of
mainland China, run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The
Republic of China (ROC) controls Taiwan (also known as Formosa)
and several smaller islands, and was run at this time by Chiang
Kai-Shek and the Chinese Nationalists, who are also known as the
Koumintang (KMT) or Goumindang (GMD).

Superpower interest
Why did the USA see Taiwan as important? After the Nationalists
lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan, the USA
had an uneasy relationship with Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese
Nationalists. The USA was particularly concerned about corruption.
For example, President Truman believed the aid money the USA
had been sending the Nationalists had largely been embezzled by
Chiang Kai-Shek and his friends.
Similarly, the USSR was cautious in its support for its new
communist ally, the People’s Republic of China. Mao wanted a war
to ‘liberate’ Taiwan, and the USSR feared being dragged by the PRC


1949 Nationalists lose the Chinese Civil War and
retreat to Taiwan.

Korean War

September 1954 Communist China’s People’s Liberation
Army (PLA) begins to shell the Nationalistheld island of Kinmen. Over the following
months other ROC-held islands would be
hit, including Matsu
10 January 1955

PLA invade the island of Yijiangshan.

29 January 1955 US Congress passes the Formosa Resolution.
March 1955 The mutual defence treaty between the USA
and the ROC comes into effect.
April 1955 PRC orders an end to the shelling of ROC
islands (including Kinmen).
August 1958 PLA masses troops on coast and again
begins to shell Kinmen. The USA responds
with a show of military force.
October 1958 USSR indicates it will provide the PRC with
more military technology, including nucleararmed submarines. PRC suspends shelling
and pulls back troops.

Theory of knowledge
1 One of the historians quoted in this article, Jung Chang, who now
lives in the West but was brought up in Mao’s China, wrote a memoir
( Wild Swans) that focused on her family’s suffering at the hands of
communist policies. The biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, which
she wrote with her Irish husband Jon Halliday, is relentlessly critical
of Mao. Does Jung Chang’s background present problems with the
knowledge claims she makes? Should we trust sources produced by
anyone who suffered under Mao?
2 Are Western sources likely to be biased against the PRC? If so,
does this mean Chinese communist sources are, in general, at least as
valid as Western sources?
3 Taiwanese sources reporting discussions with US officials under
President Eisenhower indicate that before the First Taiwan Strait Crisis
the USA had been quietly encouraging Chiang Kai-Shek’s aggressive line
towards the mainland. As east Asia Cold War expert Haruka Matsumoto
argues, ‘This suggests that the US government should assume its
fair share of blame in contributing to the crisis, more so than the
conventional wisdom [the traditional view] indicates.’ What questions
would you wish to have answered about Taiwanese sources — or any
other sources — in order to give their knowledge claims high value?

into a nuclear confrontation with the USA. Beijing had secretly
begun plans for an invasion across the Taiwan Strait, although Mao’s
military advisers told him it would take a year or two to build up
sufficient air power and the landing craft needed to invade Taiwan.
The USA did not view Taiwan as strategically important in the
new Cold War, and the Truman administration said as much in
January 1950. President Truman promised that the USA would not
get involved in any future Chinese civil war: the USA was willing to
give up Taiwan. Then the Korean War changed everything.


When communist North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June
1950, the Cold War became hot for the first time. East Asia was the
new Cold War frontline, and Taiwan quickly became a key strategic US
support base in that fight. Truman sent a naval fleet to the Taiwan Strait
and began military aid to the ROC. This response surprised Moscow
and Beijing. Mao considered the US actions to be an act of war, and in
October 1950 PLA troops joined the North Korean war effort.
The Korean War continued on into 1953. After President
Eisenhower took office early in 1953, in a public speech he suggested
that he might drop atomic bombs on China. Historians Jung Chang
and Jon Halliday argue that:

‘ ’
This threat was actually music to Mao’s ears, as he now had
an excuse to ask Stalin for what he wanted most: nuclear

Why did the PRC attack the ROC?

The PRC’s first objective was to reduce the prospect of a USA–ROC
treaty. Chiang Kai-Shek had been asking the USA for a mutual
defence treaty — a guarantee of military protection from the USA
should the PRC attack. Mao wanted to disrupt plans for such a deal
because it would hinder his ambition to make Taiwan a part of one
China once again. The PRC was angry at the possibility that Taiwan
might join SEATO (southeast Asia’s equivalent to NATO) and line up
more allies against mainland China.
Mao’s atomic ambitions were also a factor. He was hoping the
USSR would respond to the US threat in the Taiwan Strait by sharing
atomic bomb technology with mainland China. Mao decided to test
not only US commitment to Taiwan but also Soviet commitment
to the PRC. The USSR had a defence treaty with mainland China,
so it had to be prepared to fight alongside the PRC or give it the
tools to fight alone. If the PRC provoked the USA into nuclear war,
the Russians had to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against the
USA. The alternative, Mao suggested, was that the USSR could take
the easier option of supplying the PRC with nuclear weapons — just
as Mao wanted. Mao said to the Soviets:


Give me the Bomb, so that you will not be drawn into a
nuclear war with America.

Why did the PRC stop attacking?

The PRC shelled Kinmen from September 1954 and, over the next
few months, began bombing other ROC-held islands off the coast
of the mainland, including Matsu. On 10 January 1955 another
island, Yijiangshan, was attacked and taken over by the PLA. This
action encouraged the US Congress to pass the so-called Formosa
Resolution on 29 January 1955. This resolution authorised the
president to use any means that were deemed necessary to defend
the ROC from PRC attacks. It suggested the USA might take military
action to defend the ROC.
For some years, Chiang Kai-Shek had been asking Washington for
a mutual defence treaty, but the USA had wanted to avoid making
promises to protect Taiwan. Mao’s aggression changed the USA’s view.
Between December 1954 and March 1955 the USA and the ROC
negotiated the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty. If one country
came under attack, the other would provide military support. The
USA would protect Taiwan and related positions and territories in case
of attack by the People’s Republic of China. The treaty did not specify
which of the ROC-held islands would be protected: it was unclear
IB Review November 2016

whether the USA would go to war over Kinmen or Matsu, which were
located far from Taiwan’s main island and close to mainland China.
In March and April 1955 the Eisenhower administration began
to publicly discuss using atomic weapons to end the crisis. The
president told a press conference he could see no reason why nuclear
weapons should not be used:


just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.

In April 1955, PRC Premier Zhou Enlai called for a ceasefire and
proposed talks with the USA. The US government agreed and talks
began in July 1955. The shelling had ceased, but there was far from
total agreement. For example, the PRC refused to give up the right to
use force to resolve the Taiwan issue in the future.
The treaty and the US threats may have encouraged Mao to
stop the shelling. But the USSR also helped: seeking to avoid the
USSR’s own nuclear confrontation with the USA, Soviet leader
Nikita Khrushchev promised Mao the training and facilities to build
China’s own atomic bomb.

What caused the second crisis?
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis was similar to the first. On
23 August 1958 the mainland recommenced shelling Kinmen —
firing over 30 000 shells, mostly made in the USSR. In part this was

Cold War The period of hostility that existed between communist
countries and Western powers from (approximately) 1945 to 1990.
Great Leap Forward Mao Zedong’s failed attempt to speed up the
process of industrialisation and improve agricultural production in
China from 1958 to 1960.
NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization: a group of European
and North American states, formed in 1949 for the defence of Europe
and the north Atlantic against possible Soviet aggression.
One China Policy of Chinese communists which considers that
Taiwan should be part of the PRC.
SEATO Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, founded by the USA in
1954 with the aim of containing communism. This defence alliance
existed between 1954 and 1977 and included Asian nations Pakistan,
the Philippines and Thailand, together with Australia, France, New
Zealand, the UK and the USA.

to distract from economic problems caused by collectivisation — by
1958 private ownership had been abolished in mainland China.
In launching this attack, Mao had decided to test US resolve once
again, and again put pressure on the USSR. He had been asking

PRC propaganda
calling on the PLA
to invade Taiwan







Figure 1 China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC) and the islands

Khrushchev for the technology and equipment needed to produce
a naval fleet, including aircraft carriers and, most importantly for
Mao, submarines — he wanted 200 or 300 submarines, armed with
nuclear missiles.
Without consulting Moscow, by August 1958 Mao had built up
troops in the coastal region around Fujian province, facing Taiwan.
It seemed like a full-on invasion was about to occur. Again, Mao
wanted the USA to raise its head high enough for the USSR to
relent and supply China with military technology — nuclear-armed
submarines, this time.

Sino-Soviet relations
Mao told Moscow that war with the USA might not be a bad thing.
China could lure the Americans in and the USSR could hit them,
in Mao’s words, ‘with everything you’ve got’. It was a game of
nuclear brinkmanship, and the Soviets were concerned. But Mao
was bullish. According to Mao’s personal physician, Dr Li Zhisui, in
his book The Private Lives of Chairman Mao, Mao complained that:

Khrushchev just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Our
cannon shells have been in storage for so long they’ve become
useless. So why don’t we just use them for a celebration?
Let’s get the United States involved... . Maybe we can get the
United States to drop an atom bomb on Fujian. Maybe ten or
twenty million people will be killed. Chiang Kai-Shek wants
the United States to use the bomb against us. Let them use it.
Let’s see what Khrushchev says then. 

Mao spoke to Moscow in a manner that suggested a war over
Taiwan — probably a nuclear war — was virtually inevitable at some


point. Khrushchev sought to avoid entanglement in such a war, yet
he believed Mao’s objectives were utterly correct. Khrushchev wrote
in his memoirs:

‘ ’
We made no move to restrain our Chinese comrades because
we thought they were absolutely right in trying to unify all the
territories of China.

Mao would have known that the USSR saw things similarly to
himself, and this could only have emboldened him.
The USA responded to the shelling by moving a large fleet to
the area and preparing for war with the PRC. On 4 September 1958

Questions and activities
1 See if you can place the historians mentioned in this article
— Jung Chang, John Lewis Gaddis and Haruka Matsumoto —
into historiographical schools of thought. Remember, in the
(non-communist) historiography: orthodox/traditional Cold War
historians tend to blame the USSR as much as possible, revisionists
hold the USA to account, and post-revisionists stress that neither the
USSR nor the USA should be blamed entirely for the Cold War or for
each crisis within it.
2 Look at relations between the PRC and the USSR. Can you put the
Taiwan Strait crises into the bigger Cold War picture? From 1949 to
the 1980s, when were China and the USSR at their closest and when
did they grow apart? For instance, Sino-Soviet relations had taken a
turn for the worse by the 1970s, when the USA and China become
friendlier through the policy of détente.

IB Review November 2016

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles
publicly affirmed the US commitment
to defend Taiwan, including Kinmen,
and he threatened to bomb mainland
Mao met with Soviet foreign minister
Andrei Gromyko and told him:

Our policy is that we will take the full
consequences of this war ourselves.
We will deal with America, and…we
will not drag the Soviet Union into
this war. 

Mao added that the PRC would
need help in preparing to fight the
USA: they needed submarines and
nuclear weapons. On 5 October 1958
Khrushchev sent Mao a note stating
that the USSR would let the PRC fight
the USA on its own, indicating that the
Soviets would provide the necessary
arms. The USSR later specified that it
would help China build an array of
Taiwanese home
advanced ships and weapons, including
guard drill, 1956
submarines armed with nuclear missiles.
The next day Mao suspended the
shelling of Kinmen and renounced the
PRC’s claim to the islands: the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis had
ended. The PRC later resumed symbolically shelling Kinmen every
other day for 20 years until 1979. Mao again wrote to Khrushchev
reiterating his desire for China to fight a nuclear war with the
USA alone:



For our ultimate victory, for the total eradication of the
imperialists, we are willing to endure the first [US nuclear]
strike. All it is, is a big pile of people dying.

Chang and Halliday conclude that:

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis had panicked the secrets of the
Bomb out of Moscow; now, four years later, with the Second
Taiwan Strait Crisis, Mao had prised out of Khrushchev
an agreement to transfer no less than the whole range of
equipment needed to deliver the Bomb.

But Khrushchev’s trust in Mao didn’t last and he later slowed
down the provision of nuclear technology to the PRC. In June 1959
the USSR suspended assistance in developing an atomic bomb for
China. The economic costs of the Great Leap Forward also slowed
down Beijing’s investment in expensive weaponry. But the PRC
eventually went on to produce its first atomic bomb in 1964 —
made possible by the initial help from the USSR.
Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis sees the Taiwan Strait
Crises as an instance of the ‘tail wagging the dog’. Just like in
Korea in the early 1950s, the smaller powers (the tails) dragged
the superpowers (the dogs) into the mire. Mao said the offshore
islands, ‘keep Eisenhower and Khrushchev dancing, scurrying this
way and that. Don’t you see how wonderful they are?’ In addition

to Mao getting what he wanted out of the USSR, Chiang KaiShek pressed the USA to pass a mutual defence treaty to protect
ROC-controlled islands near the mainland. Chiang had argued
that the psychological effects of losing these islands would be so
great that the Nationalist regime on Taiwan would collapse if they
were not protected. The treaty Chiang got in 1955, thanks to Mao’s
aggression, committed the USA to protect the ROC from threats
from the PRC thereafter — a relationship that stuck.
Just like Korea in the early 1950s and Vietnam later, the Taiwan
crises of the 1950s showed the limits of superpower power plays.
Neither the USA nor the USSR instigated events: Chiang Kai-Shek
and Mao did that.

Key points
• The Korean War caused Taiwan to become important in the Cold War.
• The Cold War was not necessarily directed by the USSR and the USA:
they were the two superpowers, but other players were capable of
instigating Cold War crises, such as in the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s.
• The 1955 mutual defence treaty between the USA and the ROC
marked the beginning of a formal US promise to protect Taiwan militarily.
• Mao failed to invade Taiwan and join it to mainland China, but he
succeeded in a related aim: developing atomic weapons.

Paul Letters teaches IB Diploma history and theory of
knowledge at King George V School in Hong Kong. He also
presents a regular history podcast with Radio Television Hong
Kong’s 1 2 3 Show and writes for the South China Morning Post.