69. Letter From Secretary of State Dulles to Prime Minister Macmillan0

Dear Harold: The President asked me to thank you for your letter to him of September 3 with reference to the Far East1 and to reply to it, as you suggested. I dictate this reply en route to Washington after seeing the President at Newport.

You will by now have received through normal channels the statement which the President authorized me to make at Newport following conference with him.2 That statement in itself goes a considerable distance in answering your letter. However, I should like to add some further thoughts which the President wanted me to convey to you in strict confidence.

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It is no doubt regrettable that so much should now seem to hang upon two small islands such as Quemoy and Matsu which are so close to the China mainland that they are not readily defensible. We have in the past made serious efforts to bring about disengagement of the Chinese Nationalists from these islands. We have, however, never pushed these efforts to the point of attempted coercion because we have come up against realization of the hard fact that the ability to keep Formosa in friendly hands has not been separable from the National Government holding on to these Islands. If we forced their surrender, or if we allowed the Chinese Communists to force their surrender, there would, we estimate, be a rapid deterioration of the situation on Formosa.

We have had a very careful study of the situation made by our intelligence community, by the State Department officials, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they are unanimous to the effect that if Quemoy were lost either through assault or surrender, this would have a serious impact upon the authority and military capacity of the present government on Formosa; that it would be exposed to subversive and military action which would probably bring about a government which would eventually advocate union with Communist China; that if this occurred it would seriously jeopardize the anti-Communist barrier, including Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of China, the Republic of the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam; that other governments in South-east Asia such as those of Indonesia, Malaya, Cambodia, Laos and Burma would probably come fully under Communist influence; that Japan with its great industrial potential would probably fall within the Sino-Soviet orbit, and Australia and New Zealand would become strategically isolated.

For example, I have, only today, received a cable from our Ambassador to Vietnam which indicated that opinion there was that if the United States abandoned the offshore islands “confidence in the United States would be shaken, the entire psychological alignment in Asia would alter in favor of Communism, and Peiping’s prestige would reach new heights”.3

It was in the light of all of this that the President authorized the statement which I made today. It does not involve any final commitment but does go far to indicate that the President would probably act if there were an effort to take Quemoy and Matsu which was beyond the capacity of the Chinese Nationalists to resist.

This capacity is by no means negligible. There are 80,000 of the best Chinese Nationalist forces on Quemoy. We are helping them logistically, [Page 138] with equipment and with convoying on the high seas, i.e., up to within 3 miles of Quemoy. They and their artillery are well dug in and to take them would be quite an operation, particularly if there were no serial bombardments. So far the Communists have refrained from using their air bases to bombard the offshore islands, perhaps desiring to avoid retaliatory action against these bases which might in turn involve their retaliating against Formosa bases and thus surely bringing us in. Or perhaps they may merely be holding this back for an unpleasant surprise.

There is also a question as to whether if we did intervene we could do so effectively without at least some use of atomic weapons; I hope no more than small air bursts without fallout. That is of course an unpleasant prospect but one I think we must face up to because our entire military establishment assumes more and more that the use of nuclear weapons will become normal in the event of hostilities. If this is not to be the case, then we face a very grave situation indeed in the face of the massive manpower of the Sino-Soviet bloc.

I must admit that we are not entirely happy about the world situation. It seems that the Sino-Soviet strategy is designed to put strains upon us at many separate places and our various commitments to NATO, in Korea, to individual allies, are spreading our forces too thin for comfort—certainly unless atomic weapons are to be used. Our JCS feel that this spreading of our strength is an integral part of the Communist strategy. They also express anxiety over what the JCS, in a report which the President considered at Newport, called “the apparent apathy or lack of information or understanding on the part of the United States public and allies and the world at large”.4

The President hopes that the statement which he authorized me to make will help to some degree in this respect. We have also, as you know, reported on the situation to the North Atlantic Council and also to the SEATO Ambassadors in Washington.

The President and I hope very much that you will, as you suggest, be able to steer your public opinion so that if the worst should happen we could be together. Anything different would be a great catastrophe for both of us.

We continue to believe that the firm position we are taking will in fact deter reckless Communist action. But we also recognize that Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung can be reckless and may miscalculate, and that therefore our position does involve serious risks. But as we said in relation to the Near East situation, it is a case where while acting [Page 139] strongly involves serious risks, these risks seemed less serious than the risks of inaction.

Faithfully yours,

John Foster Dulles5
  1. Source: Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204. Top Secret. Drafted by Dulles and cleared with the President by telephone and with Elbrick and Robertson. According to a note on the source text, Dulles handed the letter to the British Minister at 6:05 p.m. on September 4.
  2. See footnote 4, Document 64.
  3. Document 68.
  4. Telegram 399 from Saigon, September 1. (Department of State, Central Files, 793.00/9–158)
  5. Reference is to the JCS draft cited in footnote 2, Document 64. Dulles’ memorandum of his conversation with the President (cited in the source note, Document 68) states that he showed it to the President.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.