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125. Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hilsman) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Harriman)0


  • US Posture, Nationalist Chinese Interests, and Chinese Communist Intentions

We have considered the effects of alternative US decisions to defend or not to defend the offshore islands in the event of eventual communist attack. We assume the decision is made in the near future and under present circumstances (i.e., there is an ominous Communist Chinese buildup but no offensive action against the offshore islands) and a decision of such magnitude would become known to Peiping and Taipei whether or not the US so intended. Our last assumption is that Peiping’s intentions are offensive and at the very least involve a phased, probing approach to possible ultimate attack.

Our conclusion is that there are clearcut disadvantages in making any firm decisions on US defense of the offshore islands under present circumstances.

  • —A decision not to defend risks encouraging Chinese Communist efforts to seize the islands, a lessening of possible Soviet influence for restraint, and grave worsening of US-GRC relations.
  • —A decision to defend risks increased GRC efforts to involve us even more deeply in their counter-attack actions as well as a tightening of the Sino-Soviet alliance.

Continued ambiguity as to US intentions coupled with a military posture capable of interpretation by the Chinese Communists as preparatory to defense of the islands, while offering the GRC no exploitable assurances, combines the advantages of plausible deterrence and preparedness with maximum flexibility and maneuverability for the US. It avoids a sharp worsening of US-GRC relations and possibly serious domestic US repercussions, while keeping the Chinese Communists seriously in doubt as to the ultimate risks involved in a grab for the offshore islands.

The primary justification for a decision to be made at this time not to defend the offshore islands would be a policy decision to bring about GRC withdrawal from the islands.

Correspondingly the primary justification for a decision to be made at this time to defend the offshore islands would be a policy decision to give full support to the GRC.

[Page 261]

It is generally agreed that the Chinese Communist military buildup opposite Taiwan and the offshore could be, from the military point of view, compatible with Chinese intentions to:

Defend against a possible GRC attack on the mainland (with or without US support),
Initiate a political-military crisis on the order of that of the 1958 shelling of Kinmen (Quemoy), or
Attack one or more of the offshore islands for the purpose of seizing it by military means.

However aggressive Peiping’s intentions may be, its actual course of actions as the situation develops will be significantly affected by a number of factors (other than purely military considerations) which include the posture of the US, the attitude and actions of the GRC, and the relationship between Peiping and Moscow. In our view, the most important single factor in Peiping’s eyes will be the posture and apparent intentions of the US simply because the risk of direct confrontation with US military power is the most critical single limitation on Chinese Communist freedom of action in the situation.

If We Now Decide Not to Defend the Offshore Islands.

Convincing evidence that the US would not participate in the defense of the offshore islands would sharply reduce the risks Peiping would see in an attack on the islands. It would at the same time reduce the likelihood that Moscow could exert any restraining influence on Peiping since the latter would regard Soviet support as less likely to be required.

In this situation, the Chinese Communists would be encouraged to launch intensive propaganda and subsequently artillery barrages against one or more of the islands in the expectation of reducing them to surrender through blockade and attrition of troop morale without the necessity of launching an amphibious assault. Such a probe would also constitute a further test of the firmness of the US decision not to defend the islands. If the US continued to show no evidence of supporting the GRC through logistic and other assistance to maintain their island positions, and if Peiping became convinced its probing tactics would not be successful, the Chinese Communists might be emboldened to accept the lessened but still formidable military costs of an amphibious assault. (Even if Peiping’s intentions are strictly defensive, evidence that the US would not defend the islands could cause them to move over to the offensive.)

The GRC would react to the US decision with horrified disbelief. “The GRC attaches great political and psychological importance to the offshore islands. Nationalist leaders are convinced that the islands must be held not only to assist the defense of Taiwan, but more importantly to [Page 262]maintain their claim to be a national government, to prevent a serious blow to morale, and to preclude any further decline in the prestige and international position of the GRC.” [NIE 43-61, June 20, 1961]1

The GRC would view the US decision as a fundamental change in its China policy implying adoption of a “two-China” position, as an unwarranted and cowardly retreat under communist threat of force, and as an invitation to Peiping to apply further force not only in the Taiwan Straits but also elsewhere in the Far East.

The GRC would probably calculate that the decision was not immutable. It would mobilize all its political resources to attack the decision not only on the grounds cited above but also as vitiating the impact of the 1958 Joint Resolution of Congress as a deterrent to communist attack on the offshores and on Taiwan itself. The GRC would reassert its determination to defend the offshores to the last man, whatever the consequences, and might take actions designed further to prove its determination, e.g., reinforcements of the offshores and further military mobilization on Taiwan. It would put the offshores themselves on intensified alert and might respond sharply to Chinese Communist shelling (for example, by returning HE for propaganda). It would probably welcome an escalation of military activity at the offshores but would be cautious about altering the levels or terms of conflict in ways that the US might regard as dangerously provocative.

The GRC would probably anticipate that the US would seek to persuade it to withdraw from the offshore islands without bloodshed, and its position (as above) would be intended in part to forestall any such attempt. If the US nevertheless did seek to persuade the GRC to withdraw, “… the GRC would refuse, banking on US reluctance to use its leverage. We believe that the GRC leaders would eventually yield, but only when they were convinced that the US would in fact use whatever means were necessary to force compliance—e.g., drastic curtailment of economic, military and diplomatic support.” [NIE 43-61]

If the Chinese Communists eventually launched an attack on the offshore islands, the GRC would desperately attempt to reverse the US decision and agree to evacuate the islands only if utter defeat were imminent.

If We decide Now to Defend the Offshore Islands

US commitment to defend the offshore islands would, at the very least, diminish any doubts Peiping may have that an attack on the islands could result in a direct clash with the US. The Chinese Communists would in consequence become very cautious in their approach. At the [Page 263]same time, however, Peiping’s concern over the likelihood of a GRC-US attack on the Chinese mainland would almost certainly be aggravated by the sudden hardening of a position the US had previously maintained ambiguously. This concern would be communicated to and probably shared to an increased extent by the Soviet Union, even should we attempt to relieve Soviet anxieties about our offensive intentions against Communist China. Aside from the anticipated propaganda exploitation by the bloc of anxieties among US allies and others about the extended US commitment, there might well be at least a temporary tightening of the Sino-Soviet military alliance. This could carry with it attendant risks of escalation in the event of any GRC or Chinese Communist moves to take advantage of the apparently increased support from their allies.

The GRC would welcome the knowledge that the US had decided to help defend the offshore islands as further commitment to the GRC cause and as offering new hope that it might involve the US in offensive actions against the mainland.

The GRC would attempt to place greater reliance on US military and logistic capabilities for the defense of the offshores and to devote more of its own resources to other operations. Therefore the GRC could be expected to seek US assistance in launching airdrops or even amphibious strikes on the mainland outside the area of Chinese Communist buildup. Knowledge of Chinese Communist strength and readiness would make the GRC cautious about any action without definite US support, but the GRC might either provoke an incident with the Chinese Communists which would be calculated to engage US forces, or might be less careful to avoid such an incident in their patrols and probes along the coast.

The GRC might seize on any appropriate Chinese Communist military action, such as shelling the offshores with high explosives, to argue that the activity was preliminary to an assault and that the US should take preemptive measures such as air strikes at military positions in the immediate area or even at supporting airfields and communications lines. The GRC would probably not contemplate independent strikes against the mainland but would increase pressures on the US to provide planes and equipment for later airdrops or amphibious landings.2

  1. Source: Department of State, FE Files: Lot 64 D 25, Communist China. Secret.
  2. Document 31. All brackets are in the source text.
  3. Hilsman elaborated on his views in a June 21 telephone conversation with Forrestal. According to notes of the conversation, Hilsman stated, referring to a cable from Hong Kong, “We think there is a lot in this that the mainland people are running scared, and that we have got to leave them a way out. This memo I will send you [presumably a copy of the one printed here] doesn’t make it clear that one of our concerns is to give the ChiComs a way of saving face.” (Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Box 8, Memoranda of Telephone Calls) Telegram 1503 from Hong Kong, June 21, conveyed a report that Chinese Communist leaders, beset by domestic problems and fearing U.S.-fomented external attacks, had lost their confidence. (Department of State, Central Files, 793.00/6-2162) See the Supplement.