70. Message From Prime Minister Macmillan to Secretary of State Dulles 0

Dear Foster : I am most grateful for your full and informative message.1 I will try to reciprocate, not to reach conclusions, but to help to clear my own mind.

From your analysis, it is obvious that you do not feel that, as things now are, the position in Quemoy and Matsu can be abandoned without endangering the strategic balance in the Far East which is vital for the defence of the whole free world. At the same time, you do not hide from yourself or from me that we may be on the edge of operations which could be the prelude to a third world war.

As in all these cases, the risks of action and inaction have to be weighed against each other. In estimating these risks, however, I think I must be frank and give you my best thoughts about the present state of opinion in the countries that I know best, and for which, as the leading nation in the Commonwealth, we have a special responsibility.

The new Commonwealth countries—India, Malaya, Ceylon, Ghana etc.—will of course be against any action. I do not attach overwhelming importance to that, because they are always neutralist, but they have a considerable influence on Asiatic opinion at least. So far as Pakistan is concerned, I should think they would hope that the Chinese would not risk war, but would like to see some kind of settlement. In any case, they are not, I am afraid, very strong, either politically, economically, or in general influence.

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Now for the old Commonwealth countries. You know the Canadian position well yourself, but I feel sure that they will be cautious at the best. Australia, which is normally robust, will have anxieties about this area. On the one hand, they will be fearful of trouble which might involve them. On the other, they will no doubt be impressed by your analysis of what may happen if the Communists get away with it. Unfortunately, they are just approaching an election. New Zealand, also a robust little country, under Nash’s leadership will tend to favour words rather than actions. South Africa will keep aloof. As for this country, as I warned you in my first message,2 public opinion will not be easy to steer. We are on record in 1955 as having said that Formosa and the Off-shore Islands were in different juridical categories, and Churchill took the line that “a war to keep the coastal islands for Chiang would not be defensible here”.3 This of course was in a private letter to the President but represented fairly the instinctive reaction of the man in the street.

I feel I should let you have this analysis of opinion because these are important factors in the problem: For if we have to face war, we also know from experience that even in the more tolerable contests of the past, something like unanimity of peoples is the only basis on which they can be induced to hold fast under its hardships.

Having said all this, which is not an attempt to do anything but set out the facts as objectively as I can, I agree with you that a Communist triumph by force, or even by the threat of force, might perhaps prove a Munich for the East.

What then are we to do? There is of course the possibility that after the President’s statement, the Chinese Communists will avoid direct assault and try, at any rate in the first place, to make the position of the Islands intolerable by ground bombardment and by blockade. I imagine their 12-mile declaration is intended to give some legal cover to the latter, and it might well be that you could enable the defenders to withstand blockade by action that did not in itself lead to anything like the operations envisaged in your message.

This would only follow, presumably, if you had to attack the air bases. But a sort of half-war could not continue indefinitely; there would be the risk at any moment of its enlarging itself in the way that you envisage, perhaps even, as you suggest, the use of atomic weapons.

In this difficult position ought we to seek some means of solution, or at least a better public posture, such as we have had to fall back on in other parts of the world? Is there anything to be done through the Security [Page 141] Council or through the Assembly? I can see that it would be no good using this machinery unless we had a plan, or unless somebody had a plan. In any case, since the Assembly is about to meet, what line are you going to take there, and how are we best to play our part? In your conversations with Lord Hood, which he has reported to me, you made some reference to the possibility of demilitarisation of the Islands if the Communists can be got to consider that either permanently or temporarily.4 It seems to me that this idea might at any rate give a good public position, whether they accept or not, and would serve, if properly handled, to strengthen us where we are weakest—in the public opinion of all those countries upon which we normally rely. Would it be a good idea, either now or in a few days’ time, to launch this suggestion, in the hope that it would be a point round which anti-Communist, and even in the long run neutral, opinion might rally? I am chiefly concerned about rallying robust anti-Communists, the friends we normally rely on; but it is also useful if moderate neutrals can be won over.

Since this thought of yours offers the only line of approach that I can think of, I would be very grateful if you would let me have your thoughts upon how it might be elaborated. I do not see that such a proposal, properly handled, need destroy the value of your firm declarations on which, probably, the best hope lies: that is that the Communists, whether Chinese or Russian, will shrink from pressing the issue. It would only do so if this suggestion appeared to our enemies to be a sign of divergence between us. But if it is one which you could either welcome or accept in principle, then this difficulty would be avoided.

Demilitarisation can be, as I say, put forward publicly. If so, there are different ways in which it could be done: either in the Security Council or in a public statement by the British Government, or by some friendly but uncommitted Government. Alternatively, we could approach the Russians privately.

It is possible that the Russians have privately agreed with the Chinese only to press the issue to a certain point and not to the point of war. In that case, they will have no serious anxieties; but it may be that they are themselves uncertain what will happen, and such a proposal then might be one by which, in one form or another, they would be attracted and press upon their allies. I can hardly believe that they and the Chinese have agreed to want a war. That would be contrary to the general Russian attitude. But, of course, they may think that they can frighten you out of it [Page 142] by the weakness of your allies. It is that that I am determined to avoid if I can. It is in that spirit that I am sending you my personal appreciation of certain factors and the only positive proposal that seems at all practicable.

With warm regards,

Yours ever,

Harold 5
  1. Source: Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204. Top Secret. Enclosed with a note of September 5 from Hood to Dulles.
  2. Document 69.
  3. Of September 3; see footnote 4, Document 64.
  4. In his message of February 15, 1955, to Eisenhower; for text, see Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. II, pp. 269272.
  5. A memorandum by Dulles of his September 4 conversation with Hood states that he “remarked in a very casual way” that “I thought perhaps if there could be obtained assurances which seemed reasonably dependable that the Chinese Communists would not attempt to take these islands by force, then some demilitarization might be accomplished.” (Eisenhower Library, Dulles Papers, General Memoranda of Conversation; see Supplement)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.