Memorandum of Conversation, by the Secretary of State

Participants: General Omar N. Bradley
General J. Lawton Collins
Lt. General Lauris Norstad
Admiral Forrest Sherman
The Secretary
Dean Rusk, Deputy Under Secretary
W. Walton Butterworth, Assistant Secretary, FE
Livingston T. Merchant, Deputy Assistant Secretary, FE

The Joint Chiefs of Staff met with me this morning in my office at my request for the purpose of obtaining clarification of their memorandum of December 2387 submitted to the National Security Council.

In reply to General Bradley’s opening statement to the effect that he assumed I desired them to discuss their strategic concept in the Far [Page 464] East, I replied that I was specifically interested in ascertaining exactly what is the strategic importance of Formosa. I stated that my understanding of their past pronouncements on the subject was that the strategic importance of Formosa was insufficient to warrant the use of United States armed forces; that the Department of State had been doing its best to execute the existing policies laid down by the National Security Council with respect to Formosa; and that we had reported to the Council last summer that we foresaw the probability of ultimate failure. The Joint Chiefs’ most recent memorandum, however, I said, appeared to give a different view or weight to the matter.

General Bradley denied that there had been any change in the position of the Joint Chiefs. He recapitulated their past statements, pointing out that they had always considered Formosa important and mentioning that their recommendation last February to base minor U.S. Naval units on Formosa had been overruled by the National Security Council. He added that a study made by the Joint Chiefs in October arrived at the conclusion that military assistance to the Nationalist Government was desirable but that since no funds were then available for the purpose, the matter was not pressed. The December 23 recommendation, General Bradley continued, was based on the existence of funds under Section 303 of the Military Assistance Act88 and on the estimate that in the recent past the situation had changed on Formosa. In this connection, he pointed out that Chinese Air Force units have been brought to the Island in force, that the families of officers had been moved from the Mainland to the Island with resultant lessened risk of individual defections and that it was evident that the Chinese Air Force, ground force and Navy were in need of gasoline, bombs, ammunition and certain maintenance parts. General Bradley then asked Admiral Sherman if he had adequately covered the Joint Chiefs’ position, which the Admiral agreed had been done but added that in the recent past K. C. Wu had been installed as Governor. General Bradley concluded by stating that they believed a survey team should now assess the needs of the Chinese since money was available to meet those needs. General Collins interjected that the Intelligence Estimate of October 19 was going to be changed and added that the Joint Chiefs’ views were that by comparatively small expenditures Formosa might be placed in a position where it would hold out longer than otherwise, with a consequent significant effect on the ability of the Chinese Communists to consolidate their regime.

In response to Mr. Butterworth’s question, General Collins elaborated on the underlying reasoning of the Joint Chiefs. He referred to the importance of preventing an extension of Communist domination [Page 465] to Indochina, Burma and Siam, agreeing that the risk was one of infiltration and subversion rather than invasion by armed forces from China. He emphasized the importance of maintaining Formosa for its diversionary value, expressing the belief that Chinese Communist expansion to the south might be deflected so long as they had Formosa to contend with or subdue.

Mr. Rusk and Mr. Butterworth questioned whether there was not an element of pre-judgment in the JCS paper in that it stated that it was in our security interests to give military aid to Formosa and then suggested sending a team in to ascertain what the need was. They were also asked whether the Joint Chiefs visualized such aid as a Government-to-Government transaction and whether it was their intention to establish a new JUSMAG or merely to permit the Chinese to employ ex-military men as advisers.

It developed from these and other questions that there was no intention to send combat troops into Formosa, that it would be up to the State Department as to the mechanics on which the aid would be made available and that, if anything, the Joint Chiefs had a preference for ex-officers being employed by the Chinese as advisers. During the course of this phase of the discussion, General MacArthur was stated to feel very keenly the importance of preventing the early fall of Formosa, but that he did not recommend sending U.S. troops in.

At this point I stated that I would like to explain the background against which I viewed the problem of Formosa and to ascertain whether we were discussing the best methods of checking Communism in Asia or the degree of essentiality of Formosa to the defense of the United States. I pointed out that the Communists now in fact control China and that the conquest has not primarily been by force but due to the collapse of the Kuomintang and the existence of a long-smoldering agrarian revolution on which the Communists have capitalized. We must face the fact that there is no Chinese basis of resistance to Communism. We must also face the certainty that throughout Southeast Asia the Communists will seek to extend their domination, probably by subversive methods and not invasion. We must do our utmost to strengthen the neighbors of China. What we have to do is build up their internal stability, help them to produce more food and raise even moderately their standard of living. Above all we must get ourselves on the side of Nationalist movements, a task which is easier now that the dead hand of European colonialism has been removed. We must help these young countries to organize and assist them by Point IV89 and other demonstrations of our ability and willingness to help them. Moreover, [Page 466] I said we must accept as fact that the Chinese Communists are Marxists who regard the Soviet Union as their great and only friend. In all this we must take the long view not of 6 or 12 months but of 6 or 12 years. I said that in the Soviet effort to detach the northern tier of provinces in China exists the seed of inevitable conflict between China and the Soviet Union. Mao is not a true satellite in that he came to power by his own efforts and was not installed in office by the Soviet Army. This situation, I pointed out, is our one important asset in China and it would have to be for a very important strategic purpose that we would take an action which would substitute ourselves for the Soviets as the imperialist menace to China. For these reasons we oppose waging economic warfare against China. Of course we can’t let them have strategic materials but we must not provide them with a basis for propaganda to the effect that by our actions we are responsible for creating the economic difficulties which the Chinese people are bound to undergo under the Communists, nor must we overlook the fact that Japan, whose natural trade is with China, cannot remain forever a pensioner of the American taxpayer. We are in a position resembling that in which Russia found herself in 1927 when she was driven from China and her influence liquidated. It has taken her 22 years to return to a position of dominant influence and it may similarly take us as long.

I continued that it is against this backdrop that the Department of State looks at Formosa. We ask ourselves is the risk of its falling due to assault—that seems unlikely. The real danger is the continued decay within. With a hostile population, overrun by refugees, a corrupt government, even though K. C. Wu has been brought forward as scenery, it seems likely we will see a continuation of the process which lost the Mainland.

Assuming that by following the course recommended by the Joint Chiefs we can postpone the fall of Formosa for a year, we must ask what price do we pay for this delay. I believe that, first, we will have once more involved U.S. prestige in another failure for all to see; moreover, and of greater importance, we will excite and bring upon ourselves the united Chinese hatred of foreigners. We risk giving the Soviets a chance of bringing us before the Security Council and throughout all Asia we would be represented as the supporters of this discredited, decayed Kmt Government. If at this price we acquire an island essential to the defenses of the United States then it might be worth the price but there does not appear to be demonstrated a claim that the loss of Formosa really breaches our defense.

General Bradley replied that my reasoning was political and the Joint Chiefs were only giving the military view, while recognizing that political considerations often must override military considerations. [Page 467] He added that he inferred that I had decided it was better to let Formosa go for political reasons. I agreed that unless the Joint Chiefs could offer strategic reasons beyond those adduced, I was inclined to regard the political price as too high to pay for the purchase of some additional time. In response to General Bradley’s latter question, however, I stated that from this it did not follow that we should let Formosa go and then recognize the Communist Government.

There followed some discussion on the seriousness of both the military supplies on the Island and the Nationalist gold falling into the Communist hands and, in this connection, I pointed out the British concern over this former risk. The possible covert support of guerrilla activities on the Mainland came up and it was indicated to the Joint Chiefs that we did not feel there was present basis for such support, General Collins having made the point that if such support were intended Formosa had a further usefulness as a base and headquarters.

In response to a question by Mr. Rusk concerning the relative strategic importance of Korea from which we had militarily pulled out and Formosa, General Collins admitted that the former was more important as a base for attack against Japan and that there was little difference in terms of exposure of Okinawa between hostile air bases on the China Mainland and on Formosa. Admiral Sherman pointed out that the value of an island rests on the fact that being surrounded by water it is more easily defended. He also suggested that if Formosa is doomed we should plan some preventive action to avoid the planes and other military equipment on the Island falling into Communist hands in useful condition.

As the meeting concluded, General Bradley reiterated that the Joint Chiefs were presenting a purely military point of view which reflected the fact that Congress had appropriated money to support these people who were resisting Communism and that he recognized that political considerations might override their views.

  1. Ante, p. 460.
  2. Approved October 6, 1949; 63 Stat. 714, 716.
  3. See President Truman’s inaugural address on January 20, 1949, Department of State Bulletin, January 30, 1949, pp. 123–126.