The China Threat: Memories, Myths and Realities in the 1950s
Nancy Bernkopf Tucker shines a new light into former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s soul to reveal a man more prone to pragmatism than previously thought
The China Threat is essentially a new look at former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his attitude to China during his time in office, from 1953 to 1961. It argues that his personal records show he was more of a pragmatist, and less of an intransigent Cold War warrior, than has previously been supposed.
The book opens with the story of Eisenhower telling John F. Kennedy before his inauguration that if he sought to change the US attitude to “Red China” — for instance, by recognizing it — then he, Eisenhower, would come out of retirement and make speeches on the folly of such a policy reversal. This conversation, the author asserts, can’t possibly have happened. The reason she thinks this is destined to become the book’s theme — that Eisenhower privately wanted to recognize Mao Zedong and his revolutionary government, but was prevented from doing so both by his aides and by his own fear of Republican public opinion.
Eisenhower undoubtedly thought along these lines, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker writes, but it’s also important to understand that he didn’t take Asian affairs in general over-seriously. His experience as commander of US forces in Europe during the closing years of World War II made him see global politics from what was essentially a European perspective. What mattered to Eisenhower was the menace of Communism in Europe, and hence of Russia (then the USSR) and its nuclear threat. China, too, was to develop nuclear weapons, but, vast though that country was, it was also extremely poor, hadn’t put a man into space, and had anyway been successfully confronted already over the issue of Taiwan.
There is an important and detailed chapter on the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, which centered on the offshore islands of Kinmen and Mazu. Mao’s foreign policy goals, Tucker writes, didn’t include taking control of these islands, waging war with the US, or even endangering US forces. Instead, they were to test US resolve, waste US resources, and demonstrate to the world the extent of Taipei’s dependence on the US in general.
Taken for a ride
The issue of the islands divided US opinion, however, at least among those who actually knew where they were. Adlai Stevenson, who’d been the Democrat Party’s presidential candidate in both 1952 and 1956, insisted the islands were not part of Taiwan at all, while Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state but by this time in ostensible retirement from politics, declared Eisenhower hadn’t any international allies on the issue, and that the islands were not worth the sacrifice of one American life.
As for Eisenhower himself, he’s revealed as feeling that Chiang Kai-shek was taking him for a ride by increasing troop numbers on the islands as if constantly challenging the US to increase its own commitment. The chapter is supported with very detailed footnotes giving the author’s sources — a characteristic, in fact, of the book as a whole.
But the US was in something of a cleft-stick over Taiwan anyway. It favored a “two Chinas” solution, but neither Beijing (then as now) nor Taipei (under monolithic Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) control) would hear of it. At the same time the US had to go on supporting Taiwan in its stance against the “Red menace” represented by the China, however exorbitant Chiang’s demands. Nevertheless, on the surface Eisenhower continued to the end as an intransigent Taipei supporter. On his visit to Taiwan in 1960 he assured the crowds that there had been “not the slightest lessening in our determination” to support them.
In this context, it comes as a surprise that Taiwanese sources scarcely figure in this author’s bibliography. Also, she lists 18 people whom she interviewed; 11 are from Beijing, but not one of them is from Taipei.
All this is seen by Tucker against the background of the 1950s, with its catchphrases “massive retaliation,” “agonizing reappraisals” and (with luck) “peaceful coexistence.” Anti-Communism was extremely strong in the US, and with the Democrats controlling Congress for much of his presidency, Eisenhower couldn’t afford not to continue with his strongly anti-Communist stance, at least in public.
This book claims, however, that on several matters Eisenhower would have liked to be more flexible. One was trade. He believed that US-China trade would benefit the Americans, and cost them a lot less than a continuing confrontation. Nevertheless, because of his fears of the results of such an easing up, US trade embargoes against Beijing remained in place throughout his presidency.
There are several choice moments in this book. We learn that Eisenhower distrusted Nixon, his vice president throughout his entire eight years in office, remarking that he’d repeatedly had to suppress Nixon’s enthusiasm for “sending American troops to every continent to destroy Communism by force.” His secretary of state John Foster Dulles, by contrast, quickly produced in him “the slow glaze across the blue eyes, signaling the end of all mental contact.” As for the Grand Old Party’s far-right voters, they were, Eisenhower confided to his dairy, “the most ignorant people now living in the United States.”
So why, asks Tucker in conclusion, did Eisenhower never adopt more positive initiatives towards China, while remaining loyal to Taiwan, during his two presidential terms, despite privately stating he wanted to do so? The essential reason, she suggests, was his belief that improving relations with the Soviets while continuing to vilify China would protect his administration from the hostility his negotiations with the former might have led to. Eisenhower and Dulles “publicized the harshest aspects of their China policy in the hope that this would protect them against the Lobby [the China Lobby, strongly against Mao’s China] and the broader Republican right.”
This, then, is an interesting new look at the US’ lack of engagement with China during the 1950s, and in particular at president Eisenhower’s own take on some of the most central issues. It was an era we can only look back on with a sense of relief that it ended as it did, and that the Cold War never escaped from the freezer.
The China Threat: Memories, Myths and Realities in the 1950s
By Nancy Bernkopf Tucker
By Bradley Winterton
22 May 2012
The China Threat: Memories, Myths and Realities in the 1950s, by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker
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