Deterrence and Commitment Across the Taiwan Strait: Lessons from Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy
Instead of embracing either strategic clarity or strategic ambiguity on Taiwan, the United States has now ended up with a very non-strategic form of ambiguity. Facing the dual challenge of deterring a Chinese invasion without encouraging Taiwanese leaders to engage in political risk-taking, successive administrations have only muddied the waters with a series of conflicting statements and policies.
In articulating a better approach, Washington would do well to look at the ways in which Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy handled China and Taiwan during the early Cold War. Each president’s approach had three elements: First, strategic clarity about America’s willingness to defend Taiwan; second, explicit limits on what Taiwanese policies they would support; and third, a commitment to preserving tactical flexibility and diplomatic maneuver. While their policies leaned toward strategic clarity, that clarity left space for Beijing to vent and signal and for Washington to calibrate its deterrent and levels of reassurance to Taiwan as each crisis might dictate. All three presidents hoped that they could find a balance to ensure that U.S. actions in the Taiwan Strait were determined by decisions made in Washington, not in Taipei or Beijing.
Muddying the Waters
Briefly consider the recent history of U.S. Taiwan policy. With head-spinning rapidity, President Donald Trump first challenged but then committed to a “one China” policy in 2016 and 2017. Republican-sponsored legislation, like the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act of February 2021, preauthorized the use of force in response to attacks by China on Taiwan. But this is a hollow gesture when it comes only after Republicans have lost control of the White House and Congress.
President Joe Biden seemed to make the full jump to strategic clarity, announcing in August and October 2021, and May and September 2022, that the United States would defend Taiwan. His administration, however, added ambiguity, perhaps even confusion, into the mix by walking back some of the statements and insisting that U.S. policy had not changed. Even Biden’s National Security Strategy of October 2022 tilted toward strategic ambiguity. It stated that the United States would “maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan.” But “we can” is not quite the same as “we will.”
The question of U.S. support for Taiwan’s independence was also briefly muddied. The State Department eliminated the sentence “we do not support Taiwan independence” from its Fact Sheet on Taiwan in May 2022 and then restored it one month later. Speaker Nancy Pelosi added her own spin in July 2022 before her trip to Taiwan, saying the issue of independence was “up to Taiwan to decide.” Both her trip and the shifts in language have angered China and exacerbated the already deteriorating U.S.-Chinese relationship. Some analysts now believe that the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis” is already here.
Truman Learns on the Job
From 1945 to 1947, Truman’s immediate post-war policy on China was a bid, led by Gen. George Marshall, to broker a power-sharing arrangement between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. As negotiations failed and China’s civil war escalated, the administration concluded that the Nationalists could not win and ended military aid in January 1949. Eight months later, Mao’s forces captured Beijing, while Chiang’s Nationalists established their de facto government-in-exile on Taiwan.
The Nationalists, however, had deep support in the United States and kept their cause alive. A well-funded China Lobby and its allies in Congress haunted and taunted the Truman administration, asking “Who Lost China.” The administration defended itself in a historic 1949 White Paper, arguing that not even direct U.S. intervention could have saved the Nationalists.
Defiant, but feeling the pressure, the administration tried to thread the needle on deterring China and committing to the defense of Taiwan. On Jan. 5, 1950, Truman gave a statement at the White House formally announcing that his administration would neither establish military bases on Taiwan nor give military aid or advice, as he considered Chiang’s military to be sufficient to defend itself. Truman emphasized that he would “not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China.” While that seemed to be an invitation to China rather than a deterrent, and a clear end to any commitments to the defense of Taiwan, Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s National Press Club speech of Jan. 12, 1950 tried to clarify Truman’s statements and internal administration thinking. Acheson argued that although an attack on Taiwan would not lead to U.S. intervention, it would trigger “the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations.” Tired of shouldering the entire burden and frustrated with the Nationalists, Truman sought to make the defense of Taiwan a multilateral task.
Rhetorically and politically the statements failed miserably. What Acheson saw as a burden-sharing issue was perceived as abandonment of allies. Critics charged that the administration was giving up the defense of Taiwan and Korea. Administration policy ultimately followed Acheson to the letter: When North Korea attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950, the Truman administration did not hesitate. It organized a U.N.-based multilateral effort within two hours of receiving confirmed reports of North Korean hostilities, and decided to use U.S. air and sea power in support of South Korean forces within days.
At this point, Truman was fine-tuning the balance between deterrence and commitment. He moved to deter China, ordering the U.S. Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait in case Beijing contemplated using the Korean conflict as a cover for military action against Taiwan. At the same moment, Truman made a commitment to Taiwan that had clear limits. While Truman’s June 27 public statement on the war and Acheson’s private telegram to Chiang obligated the administration to defend Taiwan from China, the telegram also asked Chiang to end his attacks on the mainland, fearing that he might use the Korean crisis as a diversion for a large-scale attempt to retake it. Truman instructed the Seventh Fleet to both protect Taiwan from China and to discourage Taiwanese operations against the mainland. When Chiang volunteered his military forces for use in South Korea, the administration declined the offer, nervous about the implications of a Nationalist foothold on the continent. For Truman and Acheson, this was just the kind of help that it did not need — a linkage of the Korean and Chinese conflicts. In effect, while deterring China and committing to Taiwan’s defense, Truman built in a cushion for maneuver intended to insulate the Taiwan Strait from the Korean War.
Still a Lot to Like About Ike
Eisenhower inherited a policy of deterrence against Chinese attacks on Taiwan, but clear limits on U.S. commitments to Taiwan. Initially, he loosened Chiang’s bonds a bit, announcing in his 1953 State of the Union speech that the Seventh Fleet would no longer have orders to prevent Nationalist attacks on the mainland, which he suggested “required the US Navy to serve as a defensive arm of Communist China.” Ultimately, he added clarity and cushion to U.S. policy by institutionalizing it in written agreements as he dealt with two Taiwan Strait crises.
The first Taiwan Strait crisis began on Sept, 3, 1954 with Chinese shelling of the Nationalist-held offshore islands of Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu (Mazu), which were closer to the mainland than to Taiwan. While the administration debated whether to use force — and the Nationalists retaliated against Chinese positions on the coast — Secretary of State John Foster Dulles visited Taiwan. The deal he struck with the Nationalists was a commitment with limitations. Even as Chiang lobbied for greater U.S. action, Eisenhower drew a line between how his administration would respond to attacks on Taiwan and how it would respond to strikes against Quemoy and Matsu. During National Security Council meetings on Sept. 9 and 12, 1954, Eisenhower reminded all involved that they were debating whether to commit to war with China. In the United States-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty, signed on Dec. 2, 1954, the administration agreed to defend Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghus), but not Quemoy, Matsu, or the Tachen Islands. In a secret side agreement — that was eventually leaked by administration officials in order to restrain Chiang — Washington and Taipei agreed that the United States would not help the Nationalists retake the mainland. Retaliation against Chinese attacks was allowed, but any offensive action against the mainland required Washington’s approval.
Eisenhower then asked Congress for formal authority to defend Taiwan. The Formosa Resolution, passed in late January 1955, gave Eisenhower the authority to use force, but again, only in defense of Taiwan and the Pescadores. In Eisenhower’s eyes, a firm response could deter a larger attack by China, but the loss of Quemoy and Matsu would not lead to “a collapse of the free world position.” The distinction between what the United States would defend and what it would not gave Eisenhower his geographic cushion.
The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, triggered by renewed Chinese shelling of Quemoy and Matsu in August 1958, tested the U.S. ability to limit that commitment. Chiang had redeployed roughly one third of all Nationalist forces to Quemoy and Matsu, creating an invitation for Beijing and a dilemma for Eisenhower. Significant attacks on the offshore islands might become a tripwire, requiring the United States to use, in Eisenhower’s words, its “full military power” to prevent a catastrophic defeat for Taiwan. Even while recognizing Chiang’s manipulation, the administration considered both threatening to use and actually using nuclear weapons. Pressure from Congress and from allies restrained the administration, particularly as it was clear to Dulles that the use of nuclear weapons might seriously damage U.S. relations with Japan. As the United States and Taiwan continued to resupply the islands into October, Chinese shelling tailed off. In the end, neither side chose to escalate. Eisenhower then made it clear to Chiang that he wanted a reduction in Taiwanese military operations against the mainland and a redeployment of troops out of the offshore islands. A joint communique, released after an October meeting between Dulles and Chiang, explicitly renounced the use of force as a means for Taiwan to retake the mainland.
Not Another Bay of Pigs for Kennedy
Kennedy’s challenge was preventing Chiang from using the political instability in China caused by the Great Leap Forward as a pretext for expanding attacks against the mainland. Deterrence was not the issue: Restraining Taiwan and limiting U.S. commitments were the tricky parts.
Chiang saw the new administration and China’s domestic turmoil as an opportunity to start a Taiwanese-led insurrection that might lead to the overthrow of the Communist regime. The administration, however, saw this as wishful thinking. Mao’s grip was not weakening, and a Taiwanese invasion of the mainland would be perceived as having Kennedy’s support, even if he had opposed it. The result might be a healing of the Sino-Soviet split, if not a larger war.
The administration reminded Taiwan that U.S. policy was still based on the 1954 understanding that “the use of force will be a matter of joint agreement.” The shadow of the Bay of Pigs debacle defined the administration’s thinking. Kennedy’s support for Cuban exiles in 1961 had been based on the belief that they could secure a beachhead and launch a counterrevolution overthrowing Fidel Castro. The plan failed miserably, and the administration faced considerable political fallout for both supporting the Cuban forces and not supporting them enough. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Roger Hilsman summed up the administration’s view of Chiang’s plans, calling them “an even grander Bay of Pigs.”
And yet, against its own judgment, in March 1962 the administration approved the planning and preparation for a potential airdrop of a maximum of 200 men onto the mainland. Chiang set a date of Oct. 1 for the operation, even as administration officials reminded him that he had not been granted approval. While Kennedy worked on discouraging Chiang, Beijing responded to Taipei’s preparations. In June, an estimated half a million Chinese troops redeployed to positions on the mainland coast.
On June 20, Kennedy met with his key advisors and made the same choice that Truman and Eisenhower had by imposing clear limits to what he would do in support of Taiwan. Military operations against the mainland that could pull the United States into a larger war were out of bounds. Having failed to discourage Chiang, the administration moved to outflank him by publicizing its decision as widely as possible, in effect undermining Chiang’s ability to manipulate it into supporting offensive attacks against the mainland. For political cover, officials briefed Eisenhower and received his support on June 21. Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Averill Harriman met with Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin on June 22, telling him that the administration hoped to deter Chinese action against Taiwan, and prevent Taiwanese action against the mainland. A similar message was sent to Beijing: “the US Government had no intention of supporting any GRC [Government of the Republic of China] attack on Mainland under existing circumstances.”
Finally at a June 27 press conference, Kennedy tried to shut the door on Chiang’s ambition, referencing Eisenhower’s policy several times, the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty, and even quoting Dulles for further political cover. Kennedy used strategic clarity here to define the limits of U.S. commitments to Taiwan in hopes of providing a deterrent to China and a cushion for maneuver that might prevent Taipei from instigating a war. He emphasized that the United States still had a veto over any Taiwanese attacks on the mainland, and that its policy “is defensive,” working toward “a renunciation of the use of force.” In private to Chiang, Washington repeated its opposition to large-scale attacks on the mainland, even as Chiang continued to lobby through 1963 and into the Johnson years. Chiang would have to be content with studies of possible action against the mainland by the joint U.S.-Taiwanese Blue Lion Committee.
Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy’s policies demonstrate the value of clarity on the defense of Taiwan, limits on Taiwan’s ambitions, and preserving a cushion for tactical flexibility. Truman’s efforts to keep the Korean War and the Taiwan Strait separate issues, Eisenhower’s geographic limits on what the United States would defend, and Kennedy’s restraints on Taiwan and reassurance to China all represent efforts to preserve flexibility. In each case, deterrence and commitment had limits or restraining conditions that provided a cushion for tactical and diplomatic maneuver — bargaining and signaling — designed to prevent escalation. As Beijing increasingly stresses unification as a fundamental duty for the Communist Party and an integral part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” all while building its capacity to attempt reunification through force, deterrence becomes both more difficult and more urgent. These developments also threaten to eliminate the cushion that Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy employed. Today the commitment issue pivots on a Taiwanese declaration of independence. In response, the United States should design a strategy with three elements. First, strategic clarity on the defense of Taiwan, rather than a mix of clarity, ambiguity, and backtracking. Second, careful and precise language on support for “one China” and rejection of Taiwanese independence. Finally, a focus on where cushions for maneuver and tactical flexibility might exist.
For both domestic and foreign policy reasons, Beijing will vent at what it sees as provocations or interference in its internal affairs. For similar reasons, as well as for the reassurance of allies, the United States will feel compelled to respond. This means that while additional strategic clarity is essential in today’s environment, it should not be so rigid that it ties the hands of both sides. Preserving flexibility helped Cold War presidents to reduce the pressure of escalation and communicate intentions, allowing Beijing and Washington to avoid a war they did not want.
William W. Newmann is an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research and teaching focuses on U.S. foreign and national security policy, presidential decision-making, and East Asian security. He is the author of Isolation and Engagement: Presidential Decision Making on China from Kennedy to Nixon, University of Michigan Press, 2022.
Image: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.