110. Message From Prime Minister Churchill to President Eisenhower1

My Dear Friend: We have all here been watching with the closest attention your decisions and moves in the Formosan crisis. For the last three weeks I have been wanting to write to you. Your most kind letter of February 102 has reached me and I find that much I had already put on paper still represents my steadily growing theme. Anthony and I, who have composed this message together, wish to do our utmost to sustain you and help you lead world opinion. There is wide recognition of the efforts you have made to keep out of war with China in spite of gross provocation. As you know, I feel strongly that it is a matter of honour for the United States not to allow Chiang Kai-shek and his adherents, with whom the United States have worked as allies for so many years, to be liquidated and massacred by Communist China, who are alleged to have already executed in cold blood between two and three millions of their opponents in their civil war. Our feeling is that this is the prime and vital point. According to our lights we feel that this could and should be disentangled from holding the off-shore islands as bridgeheads for a Nationalist invasion of Communist China. Besides this we do not think that Formosa itself, while protected by the United States, ought to wage sporadic war against the mainland.

So the problem before us at this stage centres on what should be done about the off-shore islands, which we here have to admit are legally part of China and which nobody here considers a just cause of war. You know how hard Anthony and I have tried to keep in step with you and how much we wish to continue to do so. But a war to keep the coastal islands for Chiang would not be defensible here.
I had understood that the United States Government had so far been resolved to resist Chiang’s pressure to give assurances about these islands, even in return for Chinese Nationalist evacuation of the Tachens, and had succeeded in doing so. I hope your last sentence on page 23 does not conflict with this.
I cannot see any decisive relationship between the offshore islands and an invasion of Formosa. It would surely be quite easy for the United States to drown any Chinese would-be invaders of Formosa whether they started from Quemoy or elsewhere. If ever there was an operation which may be deemed impossible it would be the passage of about a hundred miles of sea in the teeth of overwhelming naval and air superiority and without any tank and other special landing-craft. You and I have already studied and indeed lived through such a problem both ways.
Guessing at the other side’s intentions is, as you say, often difficult. In this case of Quemoy, etc., the Communists have an obvious national and military purpose, namely, to get rid of a bridgehead admirably suited to the invasion of the mainland of China. This seems simple.
Diplomatically their motives are more fanciful. It may be, as your third paragraph suggests, that the absurd Chinese boastings about invading Formosa are inspired by the Soviet desire to cause division between the Allies in the far more important issues which confront us in Europe. It costs very little to say, as the Chinese are now reported to be doing, that “the possession of the Tachens will help the liberation of Formosa”. It adds to the pretence of Communist China’s might and is intended to provoke the United States into actions and declarations which would embarrass many of us, and add influence to Communist propaganda.
I have already expressed my convictions about your duty to Chiang whom you rightly called your “brave ally”. But I do not think it would be right or wise for America to encourage him to keep alive the reconquest of the mainland in order to inspirit his faithful followers. He deserves the protection of your shield but not the use of your sword. (“Sword” in this case is a rather comprehensive term.) The hope of Chiang subduing Communist China surely died six years ago when Truman on Marshall’s4 advice gave up the struggle on the mainland and helped Chiang into the shelter of Formosa.5
We were, of course, glad to see your decision, now bloodlessly carried out, to evacuate the Tachen Islands, but we still feel very anxious about what may happen at the Matsus and Quemoy. The operation of evacuating 50,000 Nationalist troops might present serious dangers especially to the rearguard. On the other hand, to linger on indefinitely in the present uncertainty might well reach the same conclusion by a slower process.

Before I got your message I had been wondering whether the following threefold policy would be acceptable and I send it now for your consideration.

to defend Formosa and the Pescadores as a declared resolve.
to announce the United States intention to evacuate all the off-shore islands, including Quemoy in the same way as the Tachens, and to declare that they will do this at their convenience within (say) three months.
to intimate also by whatever channel or method is thought best that the United States will treat any proved major attempt to hamper this withdrawal as justification for using whatever conventional force is required.

This would avoid the unbearable situation of your overwhelming forces having to look on while Chiang’s 50,000 men on Quemoy and any other detachment elsewhere on the off-shore coastline were being scuppered. To me at this distance the plan seems to have the merit of being simple, clear, and above all, resolute. It would, I believe, command a firm majority of support over here. It puts an end to a state of affairs where unforeseeable or unpreventable incidents and growing exasperation may bring about very grave consequences.

To sum up, we feel that the coastal islands must not be used as stepping stones either by the Communists towards the conquest of Formosa or the Nationalists towards the conquest of China. But they might all too easily become the occasion of an incident which would place the United States before the dilemma of either standing by while their allies were butchered or becoming embroiled in a war for no strategic or political purpose.
If this is so, the right course must be to make sure that the United States are not put in the position of having to make such a decision over the coastal islands. This can only be done by taking advantage of the present lull to remove the Nationalists from Quemoy and the Matsus—as they have already been removed from the Tachens—before they become the occasion of further dangers. Opinion in this country, and so far as can be judged in the Commonwealth, would regard such a decision as right in law, in morals and in worldly wisdom.
Our long friendship made me wish to put these thoughts before you and now I have the generous invitation of your closing paragraph. Anthony and I deeply desire to do our utmost to help you [Page 273]and our strongest resolve is to keep our two countries bound together in their sacred brotherhood.

With my kindest regards,

Your sincere Friend,

  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, International Series. A copy is in Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, Churchill Correspondence with Eisenhower. Sent with a covering note from Ambassador Makins to the President, dated February 15 and classified Top Secret.
  2. Document 104.
  3. The sentence reads: “The morale of the Chinese Nationalists is important to us, so for the moment, and under existing conditions, we feel they must have certain assurances with respect to the offshore islands.”
  4. General George C. Marshall, Secretary of State, January 1947–January 1949.
  5. The Nationalist Government moved to Formosa in December 1949.
  6. The source text bears a typed signature.