342. Letter From Secretary of State Herter to Congressman Chester Bowles 0

Dear Chet: Thank you for your thoughtful letter of July 11 concerning the complex and dangerous problem presented by the continuing Chinese Communist threat of aggression in the Taiwan Strait area. I share your deep concern that everything possible be done to minimize the danger of hostilities in this area and want to assure you that the Department of State is keeping the situation under constant review.

I know that you would agree with me that our experience with aggressors has repeatedly demonstrated that retreat from legitimately held positions in the face of their threat or use of force does not in the long run minimize the possibility of hostilities, but is more apt to confirm the aggressors in their dedication to force as an instrument of policy. The so-called offshore islands are legitimately a part of the territory of the Republic of China and have never been under the jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist regime. While from the military standpoint they are exposed positions, they are no more exposed than some others on the free world periphery and are less exposed than a position such as Berlin.

The strong support which we gave to the Republic of China in the 1958 offshore island crisis had a salutary effect throughout the Far East. Asian leaders of countries under the shadow of Chinese Communist power were significantly impressed with the swift action taken by the United States to back up its ally, the Republic of China, when its territory came under attack, even though that territory was small and exposed. At the same time, the Chinese Communists were given a prompt and decisive answer to their probing of what they thought might be a weak spot in the free world’s defenses. Certainly this show of United States determination to support the heroic resistance being put up by its Chinese ally, although no United States troops were employed against the Communists or landed on the islands, must be given primary credit for frustrating the Chinese Communist efforts and damping down the crisis.

Ever since January 1955 when the President obtained from Congress the authority to employ United States armed forces for “the specific purpose [Page 700] of securing and protecting Formosa and the Pescadores against armed attack, this authority to include the securing and protecting of such related positions and territories of that area” as are required for assuring the defense of Formosa and the Pescadores, it has been clear that the so-called offshore islands might have to be defended by United States forces if it were ever necessary for the United States to fulfill its treaty commitments to the Republic of China. In fact, since the passage of Public Law 4, especially since the offshore island crisis in 1958, the Chinese Communists have repeatedly linked the offshore islands with Taiwan and the Pescadores and have given every indication that any attempt by them to seize the offshore islands would be merely a prelude to an attack on Taiwan itself. Under these circumstances it is imperative that the President continue to have the flexibility given him by Public Law 4 to make a military decision as to whether or not the offshore islands should be defended by United States Armed Forces. He must be able to do what appears necessary to him to ensure that the United States can effectively carry out its commitment to the Republic of China under the Mutual Defense Treaty to defend Taiwan and the Pescadores.

That we fully intend to carry out this commitment should be abundantly clear to everyone. Certainly it is of the utmost importance that the Communist powers be under no illusion on this score. They are, of course, aware that we are committed by treaty to come to the defense of Taiwan and the Pescadores. It is unthinkable that the United States should fail to honor a treaty obligation. Nevertheless, we have been at pains from time to time to reiterate our fidelity to this undertaking. Let me cite the two most recent examples. Just last month during his visit to Taiwan, President Eisenhower in a public speech assured a mass rally of the leaders and people of free China that there was not “the slightest lessening of our determination” to stand with the Republic of China, and with all our free neighbors of the Pacific, against aggression.2 In the Joint Communiqué issued by Presidents Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek following their discussions in Taipei “they pledged once again that both their Governments would continue to stand solidly behind the Sino-United States Mutual Defense Treaty in meeting the challenge posed by the Chinese Communists in this area.”3

The President’s specific reiteration of American commitment under the Mutual Defense Treaty recalls a similar assurance contained in the Joint Communiqué issued by President Chiang Kai-shek and Secretary Dulles in October 1958.4 That Communiqué pointed out that the very purpose of the Mutual Defense Treaty was to manifest the unity of the [Page 701] Republic of China and the United States “so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the west Pacific area”. The rapid mobilization of American sea and air power in the western Pacific following the Chinese Communist initial heavy bombardment of Quemoy in August 1958 was in itself a telling demonstration of American preparedness to act under its Treaty commitments.

While our efforts to minimize the possibility of hostilities in the Taiwan area consist of standing firm with our free Chinese allies against the threat of force and of making our intentions in this respect as clear as possible, they also consist of continuing to promote a peaceful resolution of the problem. To this end we have been for nearly five years conducting bilateral talks with the Chinese Communists at Warsaw and Geneva. On September 15 [18], 1958 Secretary Dulles described our position to the United Nations General Assembly as follows:

“We hope that a peaceful solution can be found. Talks are going on between the United States and Chinese Communist Ambassadors in Warsaw. We seek a prompt cease-fire and equitable conditions which will eliminate provocations and leave for peaceful resolution the different claims and counterclaims that are involved.

“The United States reserves the right to bring this matter to the United Nations if it should seem that the bilateral talks between ambassadors are not going to succeed.”5

Our position remains the same today. While no formal cease-fire has been achieved in the Warsaw talks and the Chinese Communists have persistently refused our offers of a mutual renunciation of force in the Taiwan area, Peiping did greatly abate its attacks on the islands in the fall of 1958 and we have felt it worthwhile to continue with the talks despite our disappointment in them. If the Chinese Communists now provoke large-scale hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, they will do so in full knowledge of where we stand both as to our defense commitments and as to our desire for a peaceful solution. These positions have repeatedly been made clear to them at Warsaw.

In view of your special interest in this matter, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I would be glad to talk to you further at any mutually convenient time.

With warmest personal regards,

Most sincerely,

Christian A. Herter 6
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 793.00/7–160. Personal and Confidential. Drafted in FE, revised by Herter, and cleared in draft by the President. A memorandum from George A. Morgan proposing a less detailed draft is ibid., S/P Files: Lot 67 D 548, China, 1959–61.
  2. This letter expressed concern at “the possibility of an explosion on the coast of China during the national election campaign” and urged that the government review the situation to ensure “that everything possible is done to minimize the danger of hostilities in the Formosa Straits.” (Department of State, Central Files, 793.00/7–160; see Supplement)
  3. See footnote 5, Document 336.
  4. See the source note, Document 336.
  5. Document 209.
  6. See footnote 2, Document 103.
  7. Printed from a copy that bears this stamped signature.