Eisenhower's nuclear policy toward China during the first Quemoy and Matsu crisis, September 1954-April 1955
Thomas D. Friedenbach
May 11, 2011
Department or Program
This thesis explores President Eisenhower’s navigation of the first Quemoy and Matsu crisis from September 1954-April 1955. In particular, it asks why the president and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, issued a series of statements in March indicating a willingness to use nuclear weapons against China. This thesis concludes that Eisenhower’s decision to threaten the Chinese Communists with nuclear weapons evolved from the combination of a perceived inability to resolve the crisis and a belief in the inevitability of a U.S.-China war. From September to February, Eisenhower and Dulles followed the guidelines of the New Look doctrine by issuing generalized threats to the Chinese while pursuing a peaceful end to the crisis through the United Nations. The intent in those months was to approach the situation with a degree of flexibility; by not committing to a definitive course of action, the president could leave his options open. In early March, after an extended diplomatic tour of Asia, Dulles concluded that the policy of flexibility had failed and that the Chinese Communists had no intentions of backing down. Dulles’s March assessment of the situation persuaded American decision makers that the offshore islands crisis would invariably culminate in a war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. From a strictly military point of view, Eisenhower and other administration officials decided that such a war would necessarily involve tactical nuclear weapons. Worried about the political consequences of a preemptive nuclear first strike against China, Eisenhower and Dulles issued a series of statements, interpreted as threats, designed to prepare domestic and international public opinion for the initiation of a nuclear war. In short, Eisenhower’s nuclear policy during the first Quemoy-Matsu crisis stemmed from a combination of the belief that atomic weapons would be necessary to defeat China and political concerns regarding the ramifications of a nuclear first strike.