A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker
Dwight Eisenhower (Ike) entered the presidency with less understanding of East Asia than he had about Europe or the Middle East. He relied more on his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, when shaping policy for this region. Together, they confronted Mao Zedong’s new communist regime in China and secured and kept the peace in one of the least stable regions of the High Cold War.
Ending the Korean War was Ike’s first objective upon assuming office. He had inherited the conflict from Harry Truman, his predecessor. Ike saw North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950 as part of worldwide communist aggression. He initially supported Truman’s intervention into the Korean War, saying, “We’ll have dozens of Koreas soon if we don’t take a firm stand.” However, Ike believed Truman could have deterred North Korea’s aggression if he had not demobilized the military so quickly after WWII and had not withdrawn all American forces from South Korea in 1948. He also disagreed with Truman’s decision to authorize General MacArthur sending UN forces north of the 38th parallel in an attempt to unify the Korean Peninsula. He believed the UN’s mission in Korea was to repel the North’s aggression, not to reunite the country through force.
The Korean War became a stalemate when China entered the conflict on the North’s side. Ike ran for President in large part to end the war. He pledged he would visit the front lines if elected. He met with General Mark Clark, the UN commander in Korea, after the election. Clark and Sigmund Rhee, South Korea’s leader, wanted to launch a new offensive against the communists and attack the Chinese mainland. Ike disagreed, saying, “I know how you feel militarily, but I have a mandate from the people to stop this fighting. That’s my decision.” Ike did not think the war was worth the cost in UN lives and was prepared to codify the stalemate in an armistice.
Dulles opposed Ike’s decision to seek an armistice in Korea. He thought an armistice with China made America look weak. Ike ignored him, saying, “If Mr. Dulles and his sophisticated advisers really mean that they cannot talk peace seriously, then I’m in the wrong pew.” Soon after taking office, Ike sent a message to the Chinese government, through India, saying that he was prepared to use nuclear weapons to break the stalemate in Korea. Mao and Zhou Enlai knew of Ike’s role in WWII and that he had used every tool at his disposal to defeat Hitler’s Germany. They believed his threat and began negotiating with Dulles, leading to an armistice in July 1953, six months after Ike’s inauguration.
Sigmund Rhee, South Korea’s leader, did not want an armistice. He wanted to reunify the peninsula under his control. Ike said he did not, “understand the mental processes of the Oriental… we don’t know how they will react.” Ike threatened to cut off aid to South Korea, forcing Rhee to accept the armistice.
Ending the Korean War was Ike’s biggest achievement in his first year as president. He spoke to the American people the night the armistice was signed. He said, “We have won an armistice on a single battleground--not peace in the world.” He finished his speech by quoting Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “‘With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.’ This is our resolve and our dedication.”
Rhee wrote to Ike in early 1954 saying that he wanted to invade North Korea. Ike said he would not assist the invasion and Rhee’s army would probably be destroyed. Furthermore, Ike said he would veto a bilateral mutual defense treaty the Senate had passed. This would deny South Korea funds meant for economic rehabilitation, not for a new military offensive. Rhee abandoned his idea. Ike promised he would use nuclear weapons if China or North Korea attacked the South again.
Korea was Ike’s first showdown with Mao. Taiwan was the second and third. Mao’s forces began an artillery barrage against Quemoy and Matsu, islands off the coast of Taiwan in September 1954. Mao wanted to invade and annex Taiwan, toppling Chiang’s regime. Ike did not care much for Quemoy and Matsu but knew he would have to intervene to save Taiwan. The French had recently withdrawn from Indochina, and the West could not lose another ally in Asia.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged Ike to launch air strikes, including nuclear weapons, against China to break up Mao’s forces. Ike refused. He said, “We’re not talking about a brushfire war. We’re talking about going to the threshold of World War III. If we attack China, we’re not going to impose limits on our military actions, as in Korea. And if we get involved in a general war, the logical enemy is Russia, not China, so we’ll have to strike there.”
Ike was determined to save Taiwan while avoiding World War III. He considered asking Chiang to abandon the islands while fortifying Taiwan. Ike convinced Congress to pass the Formosa Resolution, which pledged American support to Taiwan while keeping the fate of Quemoy and Matsu ambiguous. Mao was left unsure what would provoke an American response.
The crisis continued into March 1955. Ike was scheduled to deliver a press conference. Press Secretary Jim Hagerty warned Ike he would be asked a question about the Taiwan Crisis. Ike replied, “Don’t worry, Jim. If that question comes up, I’ll just confuse them.” One of the first questions was whether the US would use nuclear weapons to defend Quemoy and Matsu. Ike’s answer was deliberately confusing, “The only thing I know about war are two things: the most changeable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature… So I think you have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may some day face a president.” After the conference Ike told Hagerty he must have “given fits to the Russian and Chinese translators trying to explain to their bosses what he meant.” The Chinese government was unsure whether Ike would use nuclear weapons. They ceased their aggression, ending the crisis. Ike had stood up to Mao without triggering World War III; it was a tour de force of crisis management.
A Second Taiwan Crisis occurred in 1958. Chiang had reinforced Quemoy and Matsu in order to provoke Mao into attacking Taiwan. Chiang hoped this would lead to an American-Taiwanese invasion of China to return him to power. Mao, for his part, wanted to test Ike’s resolve and began shelling the islands. Ike had none of it. He refused to let Chiang escalate the crisis and reached out to Mao, through Poland, to find a diplomatic solution. Khrushchev threatened WWIII if the US attacked China with nuclear weapons. Ike ignored the Soviet dictator and defused the conflict between Mao and Chiang. Mao began only bombing the islands on odd-numbered days, reducing the crisis into a farce. The violence ended by the end of the year.
Ike had come to the brink of using nuclear weapons against China on three separate occasions. However, he foresaw the possibility of a Sino-American rapprochement that could divide China and the USSR. Ike had fought Hitler during WWII but was now allied with Chancellor Adenauer of West Germany; he knew enemies did not have to be enemies forever. He said, “Communist China is not yet a member of the UN. But it would be foolish to completely tie our hands on this matter for the future. Remember 1945 when Germany was our deadly enemy. Who would have thought that a few years later Germany would be our friend?” The 1950s was the height of the Cold War; a Sino-American rapprochement was impossible. This diplomatic breakthrough was left to Richard Nixon, Ike’s protégé, who went to China in 1972.
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