September 11, 1958 – a day of saber-rattling and military overtures. The long-running dispute over The People’s Republic of China (Communist) versus The Republic of China (Nationalist), and claimed territory islands Quemoy and Matsu in the Formosa straits erupted once again into a conflict of words and hail of artillery shells.
The importance of the islands in the Taiwan Strait was rooted in their geographic proximity to China and Taiwan and their role in the Chinese Civil War. Jinmen (Quemoy), two miles from the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen, and Mazu, ten miles from the city of Fuzhou, are located approximately one hundred miles west of Taiwan. When the Nationalist Government of the ROC under Chiang Kai-shek recognized that it had lost control of mainland China during the Chinese Civil War, the officials and part of the Nationalist Army fled to the island of Taiwan, establishing troops on these two islands and the Dachen Islands further north. In the early 1950s, Chiang’s forces launched minor attacks from Jinmen and Mazu against the coast of mainland China. Leadership on both sides of the strait continued to view the islands as a potential launching pad for an ROC invasion to retake the Chinese mainland and had an interest in controlling the islands.
U.S. policy toward East Asia in the early Cold War contributed to the tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In late 1949 and early 1950, American officials were prepared to let PRC forces cross the Strait and defeat Chiang, but after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the United States sent its Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent the Korean conflict from spreading south. The appearance of the Seventh Fleet angered the Chinese Communists, who transferred their troops poised for an invasion of Taiwan to the Korean front. This served to delay military conflict in the Strait until the United States withdrew its fleet after the Korean War.
Over the next few years, the U.S. Government took steps that allied it more firmly to the ROC Government on Taiwan. In 1954, the United States led the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which was designed to unify the region against the perceived Communist threat. Moreover, U.S. officials openly debated the possibility of signing a Mutual Defense Treaty with Chiang Kai-shek. The PRC viewed these developments as threats to its national security and regional leadership. In the interest of bolstering its strategic position in the Taiwan Strait, the PRC began to bombard Jinmen in September 1954, and soon expanded its targets to include Mazu and the Dachen Islands.
U.S. policymakers considered sending part of the U.S. fleet into the Strait. Discussions centered on whether this maneuver would reopen the Chinese Civil War and, if so, what effect that would have on U.S. security concerns in the region. U.S. policymakers did not want to be drawn into the conflict, but wanted the ROC to maintain control of the islands. The loss of Jinmen and Mazu to the People’s Republic might mean an irreparable blow to Nationalist Army morale and the legitimacy of the ROC regime on Taiwan. To assert its continued support of that regime, the United States signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with the ROC. Although the treaty did not commit the United States to defending the off-shore islands, it promised support if the ROC engaged in a broader conflict with the PRC.
In September of 1958, the conflict erupted again, this time taking advantage of U.S. intervention in Lebanon and threatened another invasion.
On this day in 1958, President Eisenhower made a national address on the situation and explained what was going on and what needed to happen to prevent this from blowing up into another World War.
Here is President Eisenhower’s complete address.