US Relations With the Republic of China, 1943-1960

Insights from Martin B. Gold.

Mercy A. Kuo

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Martin B. Gold  recognized authority on U.S. Congressional rules and author of nine books, including “Crosscurrents: US Relations with Nationalist China, 1943-1960” (Lexington 2023) – is the 363rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

How was the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower instrumental and decisive in setting the foundation for current U.S. policy toward Taiwan?  

The civil war between Chinese Communists and Nationalists was, for the most part, suspended during the Korean conflict, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. After the armistice in Korea, PRC Chairman Mao Zedong renewed efforts to complete what he considered the unfinished business of the civil war and ousting the Chiang Kai-shek government on Taiwan. President Eisenhower sought to keep Taiwan out of Communist hands while simultaneously avoiding being drawn into a war with China and the Soviet Union. 

Eisenhower shielded Taiwan and Nationalist islands adjacent to the coast of China through two instruments. One was the Formosa Resolution, the first Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed in the 20th century. The second was a Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and Nationalist China. 

However, even as Eisenhower extended the shield of American protection, he guarded against the possibility that Chiang could instigate a war. Thus, he insisted that the side letters accompany the treaty, guaranteeing that offensive actions could not be undertaken without mutual agreement. Accordingly, the treaty was a defensive document and never a blank check that would allow Chinese Nationalists to launch attacks against the mainland. 

The U.S. withdrew from the treaty in 1979. Presently, the United States maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity that suggests there are conditions under which America would help defend Taiwan, but also does not offer a blank check.

Analyze the factors that shifted Washington perceptions of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the erosion of Nationalist China’s strength. 

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt received a stream of assessments from U.S. government observers in China that cast Chiang’s wartime posture in a negative light. Some of these reports were from American diplomats. The most influential came from General Joseph Stilwell, whom Roosevelt had dispatched to China to serve as Chiang’s military adviser. Stilwell repeatedly belittled Chiang’s war commitment and strategies. ADVERTISEMENT

The discord between the Generalissimo and Stilwell grew to the point that the Chiang demanded his recall. In October 1944, Roosevelt reluctantly acquiesced. However, the president felt aggrieved, writing to Chiang, “I regret the inevitable harm it will do to the sympathetic attitude of the American people toward China.” Following Stilwell’s departure, a series of critical press accounts badly tarnished Chiang’s reputation and the value of China’s contribution to the war effort against Japan. 

After the war, President Harry Truman sent General George C. Marshall to China in an unsuccessful attempt to broker a coalition between the Nationalists and Communists. Marshall’s assessment of Chiang’s leadership and the ruling Kuomintang Party reinforced skepticism at senior levels of the Truman administration, which concluded that America could not invest further in propping up Chiang’s government. 

Thus, in January 1950, Truman announced, “The United States Government will not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China.” Truman reversed himself after the Korean War began six months later, interposing the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait to forestall a Communist amphibious attack to topple Chiang.

Explain President Eisenhower’s rationale behind the Formosa Resolution submitted to Congress in 1955.

President Eisenhower believed that a strong message needed to be sent to America’s adversaries and allies that both parties and the whole of government stood behind U.S. policy in the Formosa (Taiwan) Strait. He was also aware that President Truman was criticized in Congress for not seeking its express authorization for U.S. engagement in the Korean conflict. Eisenhower believed Truman had erred in not doing so and sought to avoid repeating the mistake. 

Leading congressional Democrats, such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn and House Majority Leader John McCormack, advised Eisenhower that he already had sufficient powers as commander-in-chief to respond to military challenges in the Strait and did not need legislation, but Eisenhower insisted that Congress join hands with the president on the framework and implications of U.S. policy.

Examine the intersection of historical and current challenges and opportunities in U.S. political discourse on the Taiwan issue.  

Support in Congress for the Formosa Resolution and for the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1955 was nearly unanimous. Partisan divisions over the Nationalist government, which were prominent before the Korean War, appeared to have been shelved. While there were several members of Congress who argued that the United States should not help Chiang defend the offshore islands, who opposed preemptive military engagement in the Strait, or who mistrusted Chiang’s motives, these were lonely voices. Relations with the PRC were in deep freeze, especially after direct U.S.-Chinese military hostilities in Korea, so no one in Congress at the time cautioned against strengthening Taiwan as a counterweight to Communist China. 

Support on Capitol Hill for Nationalist China had ebbed by the time President Carter recognized the PRC government in 1979. As a condition of normalization, the United States proclaimed adherence to a one China policy, which included Taiwan, rather than two Chinas or one China, one Taiwan. 

However, the evolution of political democracy on Taiwan and deteriorating relations between the U.S. and the PRC has driven support in Congress to levels unseen since the mid-1950s and, from Beijing’s perspective, weakened U.S. commitment to the one China policy. The U.S. remains opposed to Taiwan separatism and any resolution of the Taiwan question by coercive means.ADVERTISEMENT

Are the seeds of U.S. relations with Nationalist China underpinning Washington’s current approach to Taiwan’s security?

The advent of the Korean War converted what was an exhausted and somewhat recriminatory relationship between the United States and Nationalist China into a firm anti-Communist alliance. As a key link in the island chain that stretched from the Aleutians to Australia, Taiwan assumed a central place in U.S. security planning for the Pacific. A 1952 memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense stated, “the self-interest of the United States demands that Formosa be strengthened as an anti-Communist base militarily, economically, politically, and psychologically. The denial of Formosa to Communism is of vital importance to the long-term United States position in the Far East.” 

The strategic importance of Taiwan remains constant to the present day. If it were to come under PRC control, such would enhance Beijing’s capacity to project power in the Western Pacific and complicate the security of the United States and U.S. allies.

(Source: The Diplomat)