Eisenhower Library, Eisenhower papers, Whitman file

No. 293
Memorandum of Discussion at the 214th Meeting of the National Security Council, Denver, September 12, 19541

top secret
eyes only


Present at this meeting, held at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado, were the following: The President of the United States, presiding; the Vice President of the United States; the Secretary of State; the Secretary of Defense; the Director, Foreign Operations Administration; and the Director, Office of Defense Mobilization. Also present were the Secretary of the Treasury; the Attorney General; the Director, Bureau of the Budget; the Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission; the Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Director of Central Intelligence; Robert Cutler, Special Assistant to the President; Robert R. Bowie, Department of State; Bryce Harlow, Administrative Assistant to the President; and the Executive Secretary, NSC.

Following is a summary of the discussion at the meeting and the main points taken.

[Page 614]

1. Report by the Secretary of State2 (NSC 5429/1 [2?])3

. . . . . . .

Secretary Dulles then described his talks of about five hours with Chiang Kai-shek. The burden of the talks was a great plea by Chiang for a mutual security treaty with the United States. Chiang said that this was the basic reason why they felt isolated, since the U.S. had treaties with all of the other free nations in the area. Chiang realized that the reason the U.S. was concerned about a treaty was the possibility that the Chinese Nationalists would bring the U.S. into an effort to reconquer the mainland. Chiang said that they wished to do that themselves, with only U.S. logistic support, since in fact U.S. participation would be a liability from the Asiatic viewpoint. Chiang felt that the Chinese Nationalists had shown their willingness to cooperate with the U.S., particularly by obtaining U.S. approval for everything they did regarding the Chinese Communists. In fact, Chiang said that they had waited four days, before retaliating for the artillery shelling of Quemoy, in order to get U.S. approval. Admiral Radford said he doubted this was an accurate statement.

Secretary Dulles told Chiang that it was funny that when he was in the Philippines they had been upset because they weren’t covered by the Seventh Fleet orders to protect Formosa. It seemed that everybody thought the other fellow was better off. Secretary Dulles suggested that Chiang think twice before changing the present situation under which U.S. operations regarding Formosa were covered by clear Executive order. If there were a security treaty he was not sure that the President would feel as free to take action. Secretary Dulles expressed to Chiang the belief that the Chinese Nationalists were better off for the time being the way they are. Secretary Dulles said he could not say that he had persuaded Chiang, but he thought he had aroused new considerations in his mind.

Secretary Dulles said that Chiang made no special plea for help regarding the offshore islands. Secretary Dulles knew that Chiang would like to have it, but thought he might have been afraid of being turned down, so he never asked.

Secretary Dulles had a feeling that Chiang was beginning to get tired and had aged considerably. He wondered whether Chiang still believes that he can reconquer the mainland. Chiang says so, but [Page 615] without the previous conviction. The President observed that Chiang’s only hope was in a general uprising in China, for which Chiang would be called back, like Napoleon from Elba. Secretary Dulles commented there was no evidence that such an uprising would occur. He said that Chiang had applauded the Manila pact as a great achievement. Chiang thought the U.S. was doing better in Asia than in Europe. The President observed that Chiang had pointed out long ago that our future lay in the East, and was probably trying to prove it. Secretary Dulles said he had also explained to Chiang the principle underlying our redeployment in the Far East, and Chiang had made no criticism.

. . . . . . .

2. Chinese Nationalist Offshore Islands (NSC Actions Nos. 1206–f and 1215;4 NSC 5429/2; NSC 146/2, paragraphs 9–10)

General Cutler introduced the discussion by reading the current policy and indicating that he had briefed the President fully on the papers and discussion at the previous Council meeting on this subject.

Mr. Allen Dulles, with the aid of a map, gave a factual background briefing on the Quemoy situation, and read a new summary estimate by the Intelligence Advisory Committee.5 Mr. Dulles pointed out that the IAC were still substantially in agreement except for dissents by the Assistant Chief of Staff, G–2.

Admiral Radford read large parts of a new Joint Chiefs of Staff paper6 on the subject, particularly the views of the majority and the minority view of General Ridgway, together with Admiral Radford’s own comments. Admiral Radford said that Admiral Stump (CINCPAC) had stated that the importance of the offshore islands to the defense of Formosa cannot be overemphasized, but he could not say that they were essential, although the loss of these islands would make the defense more difficult.

Secretary Dulles said that he had asked the question whether the islands were “substantially related” to the defense of Formosa because if they were essential then the loss of Quemoy would mean we would have to throw up our hands. His question was really to find out whether the President had Constitutional authority to take action regarding the offshore islands within the present orders to the Seventh Fleet. The President expressed the view, and the Attorney General agreed, that this was a pretty close question. Admiral Radford recalled that when he was CINCPAC the Joint [Page 616] Chiefs had questioned whether even Formosa was essential to the security of the United States.7 The President said that they had then tried to make the case black or white, and that of course we would not desert the Pacific if we lost Formosa.

Secretary Wilson felt that the difference between the Joint Chiefs was largely one of degree. First, all of them agreed that if the Communists attack the offshore islands the Chinese Nationalists can’t hold them without our help. Second, they agreed that we can’t hold them without attacking the Chinese mainland. Secretary Wilson thought the choice was between the loss of morale resulting from the loss of the islands, and the danger of precipitating war with Communist China. The President observed that this was not just a danger but would constitute precipitating such a war.

Secretary Wilson said that with the situation resulting from the Indochina settlement, he questioned whether we should continue supporting Chiang in stirring up hell with Communist China. He thought that we should stick to our present policy. He sees a difference between the position regarding Formosa and the Pescadores, which were formerly Japanese, and the offshore islands, which are involved in finishing up the civil war in China. If we help defend the offshore islands he thinks it will result in war with Communist China more than do the Joint Chiefs. Wars with China are traditionally hard to stop. Communist China would constantly accuse us of expanding the war, and there would be continuing questions as to how far we had to expand it. Secretary Wilson felt that the Communist Chinese could accept substantial attrition of their forces and therefore force us to expand the war. In summary, he believed that we should know how we could end such a war before we started it.

The President supposed that when Formosa was occupied by the Chinese Nationalists, if they had not held the offshore islands he did not think that the defense of Formosa would be considered drastically different from what it is today. He thought that Quemoy was not really important except psychologically, which he agreed was an important question that had properly been brought up.

Admiral Radford said there are military factors relating to the offshore islands. Communications on that part of the China coast were traditionally by water, and the Chinese Nationalists on the off-shore islands interfered with such communications. If they had not, the Communist Chinese would have been able to build up air [Page 617] forces in the Amoy area which might have kept us from our aerial reconnaissance. Moreover, we encouraged the Chinese Nationalists to hold the island. There were Americans there, and the troops were equipped and trained by the U.S. Admiral Radford thought that if we had not encouraged holding the islands, the one the Chinese Nationalists would probably have tried to hold would have been Quemoy, because Amoy is the best staging area for an attack on Formosa. Admiral Radford therefore felt that there were military reasons for holding the islands of considerable importance, and he reread Admiral Stump’s views on the matter.

The Attorney General read excerpts from a memorandum8 he had prepared on the Congressional attitude to Formosa defense, pointing out that the State Department in 1950 had indicated that the Seventh Fleet would protect only Formosa and the Pescadores. (This memorandum was subsequently circulated to the Council for information.)

The President said that there were a number of things to be considered. First, if the Communists, by making faces and raising hell, can tie down U.S. forces, they will use that device everywhere. He was personally against making too many promises to hold areas around the world and then having to stay there to defend them. In each crisis we should be able to consider what was in the best interests of the U.S. at that time. Secondly, if we are to have general war, he would prefer to have it with Russia, not China. Russia can help China fight us without getting involved itself, and he would “want to go to the head of the snake”. If we get our prestige involved anywhere then we can’t get out.

Admiral Radford said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had not envisaged a stalemate situation with the U.S. forces tied down. If the Chinese Communists attacked the offshore islands we would use mostly our carriers which were in the area in normal training and rotation, provided we conducted adequate reconnaissance to be able to take care of the situation. He said that arrangements were in being whereby our forces could go down to that area and come back in case of attack. He did not feel that we would get into a general war with Communist China if we undertook to repulse attacks of the kind under consideration. On the other hand, if the Chinese Communists attacked again in Korea, we would be able to take out key communications and military targets in China and thereby tie up Communist China with the U.S. forces presently in the Far East. Admiral Radford felt that, from a military point of [Page 618] view, handling this kind of attack would not pin down U.S. forces provided we kept mobile forces available in the area.

General Cutler asked whether, if the Chinese Communists attack our carriers, we would not have to go into Communist China in retaliation. Admiral Radford expressed the belief that we could prevent the loss of the Tachens and the Matsu Islands without hitting Communist China, but could not defend Quemoy without an attack on the mainland. He believed that the minute we knew that the Chinese Communists were about to launch an air attack on Quemoy, we should go after the airfields in China from which they would launch such an attack.

The President said that to do that you would have to get Congressional authorization, since it would be war. If Congressional authorization were not obtained there would be logical grounds for impeachment. Whatever we do must be done in a Constitutional manner.

Admiral Radford said that all the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that we should not go into such a war with any arbitrary limitations on our forces. The President said he could not agree more.

Secretary Wilson said that the defense of the offshore islands would come closer to war with China than if we had tried to save Dien Bien Phu. The President commented that he was damned if he knew what effect such action would have on Britain and our other allies.

Mr. Stassen believed that the majority view of the Joint Chiefs was right. He said that in the Korean and Indochina settlements we had gone a long way to carry out the U.S. policy of trying to stabilize peace in the Far East. He thought the Communists were now trying to probe to see how tough we would be and to discount the Chinese Nationalists without a U.S. reaction. If we do not react there is not much chance of keeping the United Nations from voting in Communist China within a year, with all the deteriorating effects which will follow. If we show the Communists we are going to slap them down, we will be able to hold our position in the Far East. In answer to the President’s comments, Mr. Stassen felt that if we need Congressional action we should undertake to get it. He thinks that what has happened in Europe is a reflection of the Indochina settlement. He believes we have a whole cycle of deterioration in the world situation, and we have got to show strength and determination. Moreover, by holding back we have not got closer to Britain and our other allies, but have just encouraged them more along their lines. Since Indochina the free world has taken no aggressive action, and it is clearly the Communist Chinese who have opened up with violence by their artillery bombardment of Quemoy. Mr. Stassen felt it was essential that when the [Page 619] Communists were probing, we not back up. In addition, the whole world knows that we have been on those islands.

The President said that the Council must get one thing clear in their heads, and that is that they are talking about war. If we are to attack Communist China, he was firmly opposed to any holding back like we did in Korea. We have no authority to do this except by obtaining it from Congress. The President said that the policy proposed by the majority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cannot be limited to Quemoy. We would also have to say that we would oppose any Communist advances in the rest of the world. He reiterated that the islands were only important psychologically.

Secretary Dulles expressed the hope that the Council would never have to make a more difficult decision. An overwhelming case can be made on either side. We can make a case that the Communists are probing and pushing to find out where we will stop, and that any sign of weakness will not make peace more likely, but that we will finally have to fight, possibly under less advantageous conditions. There are signs that the Indochina settlement gave the Chinese Communists their head. They have shown an aggressive policy against Formosa, both by their propaganda statements and their actions, such as at Quemoy. A powerful case can be made that unless we stop them, a Chinese Nationalist retreat from the islands would have disastrous consequences in Korea, Japan, Formosa, and the Philippines. Secretary Dulles said the other side was that to go to the defense of the offshore islands as they now stand would involve us in war with Communist China. Outside of Rhee and Chiang, the rest of the world would condemn us, as well as a substantial part of the U.S. people. The British fear atomic war and would not consider the reasons for our action to be justified. Possibly very few Americans would agree.

Secretary Dulles said this presented a horrible dilemma. He had thought of a possible course of action that was not yet considered and maybe should not be adopted yet pending further study. This would be to take the offshore island situation to the UN Security Council to obtain an injunction to maintain the status quo, on the theory that what the Communist Chinese were proclaiming was not directed only against Quemoy but also against Formosa. We could point out that such aggression will have certain definite and grave consequences. We would take it to the UN as an incipient aggression. The fact that the Communists would claim that this was civil war would not be effective, since they made the same claim in Korea and all the other UN nations disagreed. This could be presented under Article V of the UN Charter in order to prevent an aggravation of the world situation and to maintain the status quo pending further study.

[Page 620]

Secretary Dulles said that we would benefit whether the Russians vetoed the action or not. If they vetoed it, then Communist China would be taking action against the will of the majority of the UN. Under those conditions there would be a totally different atmosphere regarding our allies and the American people. If the Soviets went along in the Security Council, this might be the beginning of a series of steps to stabilize the situation in the Far East. Moreover, we would not then face the loss of Quemoy. While the Chinese Nationalists might not be happy at such an injunction, Secretary Dulles thought they would like it better than being left alone to take a defeat.

Secretary Dulles said that this plan needs further analysis and study, since he had only thought of it while isolated from his staff on the plane. He thought it offered the possibility of avoiding going to war alone with the moral condemnation of the world or of having the effect of the loss of the islands on the defense of Formosa. This effect, while not strictly military, would nevertheless be that the land power on Formosa would collapse. It will be important to find out if the UK will go along with this plan. If so, it might mark the beginning of our coming together on the Far East. The question of the acceptance of the plan by Chiang would have to be considered.

Secretary Dulles thought it important that we not ignore the UN in this situation. It certainly is a situation which endangers the peace of the world. Moreover, if we find that the Soviets or the Chinese Communists defy the UN, there would be a totally different situation. Secretary Dulles felt that no final decision should be made today, either to go to the defense of the islands or not, until the consequences of his proposal had been studied. Secretary Dulles said that information he had obtained close to the horse’s mouth was a feeling that as a result of the Chinese Nationalist reaction at Quemoy and the uncertainty as to U.S. action, we do not need to anticipate a critical situation regarding the offshore islands for some time. This, therefore, gives us more time to consider the question.

The President heartily endorsed having the study made proposed by Secretary Dulles. He wanted to feel out what the British might do. The President said that he did not know what we were pledged to do under the UN Charter if the UN directs members to take action. He noted that this was the basis on which President Truman went into Korea. The President thought it might not require Congressional authority if the UN directive was confined to the defense of the offshore islands.

Secretary Dulles expressed the view that if we act without Congress now we will not have anyone in the United States with us. [Page 621] On the other hand, if we act under the UN we will not have to act without Congressional authorization or at least the agreement of the Congressional leaders. But under those conditions Secretary Dulles felt we could then get such authorization, which we could not get now. In answer to Mr. Flemming, Secretary Dulles said that the UN Assembly could act under the United Action Resolution which he had introduced, if the UN Security Council did not act.

Secretary Dulles said we must recognize that if we go to the UN we may lose some control of the situation as compared to acting independently. We would have to be satisfied that some countries, particularly the UK, would go along with us. We can say to the UK that if they are not willing to cooperate in the UN we may be forced to act alone. In that case Secretary Dulles believed that the UK would accept some form of status quo. Mr. Flemming expressed the view that we should go to the UN even if other nations do not agree.

The President said that he did not believe that we could put the proposition of going to war over with the American people at this time. The West Coast might agree, but his letters from the farm areas elsewhere constantly say don’t send our boys to war. It will be a big job to explain to the American people the importance of these islands to U.S. security. Moreover, if we shuck the UN, and say we are going to be the world’s policemen, we had better get ready to go to war, because we’ll get it. The President said that while he was in general agreement with everything that had been said, we must enlist world support and the approval of the American people.

Mr. Stassen said that he agreed with the UN proposal by Secretary Dulles, but he wished to point out that this was inevitably tied up with our policy toward Communist China. If we are going to the UN we must figure out what ultimate settlement we are prepared to accept regarding China. The President commented that he had been working on that problem with the Secretary of State for weeks and months. Mr. Stassen said that he did not think we would alienate the American Congress and people if the President said that what we were doing was essential for our security. The President agreed, but said that we must be able to make a terrific case. Mr. Stassen expressed the view that war against Communist China does not necessarily mean general war. The President said that suggested a defensive attitude, and that if he was going to send our boys to war out there he would give them the right to go wherever the attack on them came from. The President said that we must recognize that Quemoy is not our ship. Letters to him constantly [Page 622] say what do we care what happens to those yellow people out there?

The Vice President said that he shared the views of the majority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding the psychological and political consequences of the loss of the offshore islands. If we decide not to do anything we must think of an alternative. One possibility would be to announce our decision, so that we do not get a black eye from the symbol of the loss. The other possibility is not to announce any decision, to keep the Communists guessing, but take a chance on the possible consequences. The Vice President thought the latter was the only practical choice. He did not think that the Chinese Nationalists would go along with evacuating the islands.

The Vice President felt that the UN proposal had a great deal in its favor. He cautioned, however, that early in his political life he had learned the maxim that you should never ask advice without being prepared to take the decision, even if it went against you. Secretary Dulles commented that he thought we could find out what would happen in the UN in advance. The Vice President remarked that the UN proposal puts not only the Communists on the spot, but also the UK, and he was in favor of that. Mr. Stassen observed that it puts us on the spot also.

The Vice President said that there was still considerable feeling in the United States that the UN had kept our boys from doing what should have been done in Korea, and he thought we should anticipate running into that type of criticism. Secretary Dulles agreed that there was a very vocal segment of the United States which was against the UN, but that all the polls indicated an overwhelming majority (about 75%) who were still for the UN. He thought that his proposal would be responsive to the real wishes of the American people that we exhaust all peaceful means before taking military action. The President reiterated that he thought we must be able to explain our actions to the American people. The Vice President said that we would be subject to criticism that this was becoming engaged in another war under UN auspices after the example of Korea. Secretary Dulles noted that this was not a proposal for another war, but rather to stop war from occurring. In answer to General Cutler, Secretary Dulles thought it would not be desirable to have the Chinese Nationalists bring this up in the UN since this would immediately involve the issue of Chinese representation in the UN.

The President stated that while the alternate proposals were under study he wished the military to take all appropriate precautionary measures and remain on the alert in order to be ready for action if we decided to take it. Secretary Dulles said that he thought during this period of study our general posture in the Far [Page 623] East should be continued, particularly as exemplified by our reaction to the recent plane incidents and our naval visits to the Tachens.

The Vice President noted that this meeting had been blown up publicly throughout the world. He also noted that the Intelligence Advisory Committee had agreed that the Chinese Communists would probably not risk an attack if they were kept guessing as to possible U.S. reaction. He felt that if possible we should play poker in order to keep the Communists guessing. The President said that we should only indicate the meeting was to look at the situation in the Far East. General Cutler suggested, and the President agreed, that no statement regarding this meeting should be made by anyone other than the President. Secretary Dulles expressed the view that it would be disastrous if an impression was gained that a decision had been made either way. The President suggested that he might say on the following day that the meeting had been called because the Secretary of State had just gotten back from that troubled section of the Far East, that the Council discussed a number of things, but that everyone could be sure of one thing, and that is that the vital interests of the U.S. in that area will be protected, and if we think that those interests are in danger we will take appropriate action to help our friends out there.

The National Security Council:9

Discussed alternative courses of action available to the United States with respect to possible Chinese Communist attack upon the offshore islands held by the Chinese Nationalists, in the light of further briefings by the Director of Central Intelligence and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the views of the Intelligence Advisory Committee and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, respectively.
Requested the Secretary of State promptly to explore and report back to the Council on the possibility and desirability of taking early action in the United Nations with a view to stabilizing the status quo with relation to the islands now held by the Chinese Nationalists, pending further study and determination of issues relating to Communist China; including in such exploration discussion with appropriate allies.
Pending further Council consideration, agreed that the Department of Defense should continue to take precautionary moves and remain on the alert in order to be ready to take whatever action may be decided upon in the event of Chinese Communist attack upon the islands held by the Chinese Nationalists.
Noted the President’s directive that no public comment regarding this meeting should be made by any official other than the President.

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Note: The action in b above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of State for implementation. The action in c above, as approved by the President, subsequently transmitted to the Secretary of Defense for implementation.

. . . . . . .

James S. Lay, Jr.
  1. Drafted by Lay on Sept. 13.
  2. The portions of Secretary Dulles’ report not here printed concerned the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, signed at Manila on Sept. 8, 1954, and his conversations in Japan. For documentation concerning the treaty, see vol. xii, Part 1, pp. 852 ff.; for the text, see TIAS 3170 or 6 UST 81. For the portion of Dulles’ report concerning Japan, see Document 801.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 256.
  4. See footnote 15, Document 256, and footnote 14, Document 289.
  5. SNIE–100–4/1–54, Document 290.
  6. See the memorandum from Radford to Wilson and its attachments, Document 291.
  7. Radford became CINCPAC in April 1949; the reference is presumably to a JCS memorandum of Aug. 17, 1949, to the Secretary of Defense, printed in Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. ix, p. 376.
  8. The memorandum, undated, was circulated to Council members with a Sept. 13 memorandum by Lay. (S/PNSC files, lot 61 D 167, “Formosa, NSC 5441 and NSC 5503”)
  9. The lettered subparagraphs constitute NSC Action No. 1224. (S/SNSC (Miscellaneous) files, lot 66 D 95, “Record of Actions by the National Security Council, 1954”)