Robert Accinelli. Crisis and Commitment: United States Policy toward Taiwan 1950-1955. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. xvi + 358 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2259-3.
Reviewed by David R. Buck (Department of History, West Virginia University)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 1999)
With the return of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC) remains as the last major region claimed by the PRC not yet under PRC control. The friction between these two entities, the PRC and the ROC, continues and occasionally appears set to flare into hostilities. Both, the PRC and ROC claim to be the "true" government for all of China's territories. The situation has remained a delicate balancing act since the Chiang Kai-shek led Koumintang (KMT) fled mainland China in 1949. Since this time, the United States has played a central role in trying to maintain the peaceful resolution (or non-resolution) of the China question. In Crisis and Commitment, Robert Accinelli ably conveys how the United States became more entrenched in protecting this Nationalist stronghold against the mainland Communists forces during the first half of the 1950s -- a slow process in which two presidential administrations grudgingly accepted Taiwan as part of the U.S. defense perimeter. According to Accinelli, the United States and the PRC were divided by the growth of United States and ROC relations, then by any other event in Asia during the 1950s.
The United States did not go willingly to the defense of Taiwan. While the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recognized the strategic importance of Taiwan for U.S. security in Asia, they initially "did not deem the island so vital that they were willing to support armed intervention to keep it out of the Communist grip." (p. 8) The United States simply did not want to make a full commitment to Chiang and the Nationalists in Taiwan. As a series of crises arose from 1950 to 1955, however, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations became more committed to protecting Taiwan.
The initial push setting the United States down the road to expanded commitment to Taiwan came from the Korean War. According to Accinelli, the North Korean crossing of the thirty-eighth parallel was "a major cause for the intervention in the Taiwan Strait and more than just the occasion for it" (p. 29). The United States responded to the outbreak of the war by committing the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. In addition, the United States was forced (by the development of the Korean War) to deepen its relationship with Taiwan and the KMT for a couple of reasons. First, U.S. diplomats hoped to forestall the advance of China as an agent for the further spread of Soviet communism in Asia. Second, the Truman administration had to deal with Senator Joseph McCarthy and potential political repercussions from inaction in Taiwan, following the perceived "loss of China." As the Korean War progressed and the PRC became involved, the United States developed a deeper political relationship with the KMT by increasing both economic and military aid. The United States feared that allowing the communist bloc to gain Taiwan would result in a loss of American prestige in the international community. Likewise, Accinelli points out that following this crisis the United States denied the PRC a seat on the United Nations in an attempt to reenforce U.S. standing as an anti-communist nation. By the end of Truman's administration, U.S. Policy toward Taiwan had been altered dramatically: Taiwan went from being expendable, to being essential to U.S. national security. Taiwan was now considered vital (1) to U.S. defensive capability in the Far East, (2) "as a useful potential threat against the south and southeast China coast," and (3) as a method of pressuring the PRC to break from the Soviet Union (p. 108).
According to Accinelli, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did not trust or like Chiang and his leadership, but were forced into a deeper commitment because of Taiwan's retention of the offshore islands of Quemoy, Matsu, and Tachen. As the PRC assaulted the Tachen Islands, Chiang and his forces demanded more support from the United States. The U.S. commitment grew steadily and culminated in 1955 when the United States signed a defensive treaty with Taiwan that guaranteed U.S. protection of Taiwan. As Accinelli points out, the United States became immersed in this quagmire because the Eisenhower administration believed that U.S. national security was threatened by the possibility of communist expansion. He argues that U.S. national security issues "were defined in military-strategic and politico-psychological terms and enmeshed with images of an aggressive Communist China linked to the Soviet Union." (255)
Throughout the entire work, Accinelli does not have the United States acting in a vacuum when developing U.S. policy toward Taiwan. He includes the efforts of the British in resolving the crises without a military commitment to Taiwan. Also, he includes the British push for a two-China policy, which he suggests the United States was more willing to accept by 1955. On the other hand, he notes that both the PRC and ROC were (and are) resolutely opposed to any such policy. The ROC also opposed any meeting of the United States and the PRC. The inclusion of these nations illustrate that the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had to act with some restraint and discretion to ensure some international support (or at least limit opposition among its allies) when trying to resolve the crises with minimal commitment of force.
The main flaw of this book is that neither Chiang's nor the KMT's side is throughly explored. Accinelli, however, should not be blamed for this. As he points out in his Preface, the ROC's archive records that are needed are unavailable. Therefore, further investigation into the position and actions of Chiang and the ROC will be needed.
Accinelli provides a detailed account of how the United States became more entangled with Taiwan during the first half of the 1950s. He argues that the development of U.S.-Taiwan relations, built by a series of crises, was the fundamental reason that the United States and the PRC were divided in the 1950s. His work will help students understand how international and Chinese internal crises led to a deeper commitment on the part of the United States during U.S. action in the Asia theater for the second half of the twentieth century.
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