Appu K. Soman. Double-Edged Sword: Nuclear Diplomacy in Unequal Conflicts: The United States and China, 1950-1958. Praeger Studies in Diplomacy and Strategic Thought. Westport, Conn. and London: Praeger, 2000. x + 258 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-275-96623-2.
Reviewed by Thomas A. Breslin (Division of Sponsored Research and Training and Department of International Relations, Florida International University)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2001)
Soman begins his work, "This is a study of the role of nuclear weapons in the American policy toward China in the 1950s. I have followed a traditionalist approach, focusing exclusively on power as the determining factor in inter-state relations." He frankly eschews factors such as gender, race, and culture and laments that major gaps remain in archival sources, particularly where nuclear weapons are concerned. [pp. vii, 11].
This work is based on research into various holdings of the Harry S Truman Library; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library; the Public Records Office; the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University; the Columbia University Library; the Library of Congress; and the National Archives. Additionally, the author lists two pages of diaries, memoirs, and other published primary sources and ten pages of secondary sources.
In his introduction, Soman argues that every post-World War II American administration has employed nuclear weapons in its diplomacy. While nuclear threats carried heavy diplomatic costs for America, the top American politicians benefitted at the polls from a gunslinger image. [pp. 5-6]. Only in the case of China, however, did American nuclear threats against a non- nuclear state play anything more than a marginal role. [p. 7]. Those threats took place in the context of the Korean War and the two Taiwan Strait crises of 1954-55 and 1958. He argues that, apart from the Suez crisis of 1956 these were the "most serious international crises in the period between the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis of 1950s in which the United States was a principal participant. Nuclear diplomacy occupied a central role in the American policy in each of these crises. American nuclear diplomacy in its confrontation with China is, therefore, an important topic in the history of the Cold War as well as the history of American foreign relations." [p. 10]
Specialists might want to question whether the Taiwan Strait crises were as important as those involving Berlin and whether they outweighed European affairs. Buried in footnote 133 on p. 160 is an explanation that the Eisenhower "administration's principal concern during this period [of the 1954-1955 crisis] was the fate of the treaty for the Western European Union and the admission of West Germany to NATO, due for ratification by European nations. Dulles feared that a war with China involving nuclear weapons would turn European opinion away from the United States and thus jeopardize ratification of the treaty. See memo of 240th NSC meeting, 10 March 1955, FRUS 1955-1957, II, 347-348."
Soman focuses on the "diplomatic and political utility"of nuclear weapons in the three confrontations. By utility he means "how atomic capability enabled American presidents to make the choices that they desired in critical situations in those episodes, but which they would have been reluctant, or unable, to make in the absence of atomic weapons." [p. 7]. Subsequently, he heavily tempers this by arguing, "The American atomic capability facilitated the US decision to oppose the North Korean invasion. This does not mean that Truman would not have decided to intervene in the absence of atomic weapons, just that atomic weapons made it easy for Truman to decide on intervention and to win public and congressional support." [p. 98].
Chapter 2 lays out the background of atomic diplomacy. It is based mainly on secondary sources but gems drawn from the archives provide sparkle. Soman approvingly quotes Sherwin's argument that Roosevelt's and Truman's policy choices "were based on the assumption that the bomb could be used effectively to secure postwar [diplomatic] goals; and this assumption was carried over to Truman's administration." Truman toyed with the idea of sharing atomic secrets. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, supported a postwar US monopoly on atomic weapons. Soman has dredged from the National Archives a March 1946 warning from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that even arms control was no protection against the use of atomic weapons in war. Unless America had atomic weapons and was willing to use them, they argued, "the absence of fear of immediate retaliation with atomic weapons," might "make a renegade nation less hesitant to begin a war of aggression." [p. 19]. Brushing aside Truman's doubts and orders, Secretary of Defense Forrestal encouraged the outspoken military to include atomic weapons in their war plans. Nonetheless Truman successfully kept nuclear weapons under civilian control. [pp. 20-1]. Indeed, with little of his successor's fanfare, Truman foreshadowed Eisenhower's reliance on atomic weapons to avoid higher conventional arms costs while pursuing ambitious foreign policy goals [pp. 23-4].
Soman picks up the U.S--China relationship in late 1949. He follows Nancy B. Tucker's argument that Acheson brought the U. S. to the verge of extending diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China. Then the China Lobby and the congressional China Bloc intervened. Given such pressure, a dispute with the Communists over US consular property, the Sino-Soviet friendship treaty, the emergence of Joseph McCarthy, and the desire to obtain Congressional support for the European recovery program, Acheson was unable to defeat the coordinated moves of the Pentagon and the Chinese Nationalist government to have the administration defend the island from the communists. [pp. 25-7]. The outbreak of the Korean War saved the Chinese Nationalist Party in its redoubts on Taiwan and the offshore islands. Soman argues that, "Irrespective of the strategic importance of South Korea or Taiwan, the Truman administration had no choice but to intervene, not only in the Korea peninsula but in the Chinese civil war as well." [p. 29] He later repeats this contention: "No American president in 1950 could have withdrawn from Korea in the face of a communist advance without using the atom bomb--either militarily or diplomatically." [p. 70]. It is arguable that this constitutes political determinism. There are no profiles in political courage in this book.
If indeed political factors were driving Truman willy nilly into war, then how does the author come to argue in his conclusions, "In the eight years covered by this study, American presidents found themselves on several occasions in situations where nuclear weapons placed them in invincible positions as they faced critical decisions that, in the absence of nuclear weapons, they would have been hard pressed to take. The first occurred when the Korean War started and Truman faced the choice of intervening or not intervening in the defense of South Korea." [p. 215].
"Truman" Soman writes, "left his successor in the White House a stalemated war in Korea, a costly military buildup, and armed forces that despite nearly three years of massive conventional rearmament still left the United States heavily dependent on its atomic arsenal." [p. 36]. Eisenhower was prepared to accept complete nuclear disarmament without simultaneous arms limitation but fretted that verification would be difficult [p. 42]. Washington chose to reject a Soviet ban on use of nuclear weapons in 1954. "Acceptance of this proposal would have ruled out the kind of nuclear diplomacy the administration practiced during the Taiwan Strait crisis only a few months later and again in 1958." [p 43]. Soman completes his background treatment by describing the rise of the doctrine of flexible response initiated by John Foster Dulles during the last years of Eisenhower's presidency.
In Chapter Three, "The Limits of Nuclear Coercion: Nuclear Diplomacy in the Korean War," Soman follows Dingman and Cumings in arguing that "the atom bomb did figure prominently in the considerations of the Truman administration during the Korean War..." [p. 59]. But mere possession or even rattling of the atomic bomb did not make the Truman administration's diplomacy efficacious. Soman is unsure that the Soviets even heard the rattling, if that is what it was: "Until one has access to the relevant Soviet documents, it is impossible to pass a definitive judgment on what lessons Soviet leaders drew from Truman's overseas movements of atomic bombers. One might, however, hazard a guess that Stalin did not consider the absence of an explicit' atomic threat particularly reassuring." [pp. 98- 9]. Despite American possession of the atomic bomb, the Chinese entered the war and the North Koreans fought on. Against Chen Jian, who argues that the Chinese entered the war out of an excess of revolutionary zeal, and Zubock and Pleshkov, who argue that the Chinese did so under Stalin's pressure, Soman argues convincingly that Chinese intervention had to wait until Mao had overcome domestic opposition to intervention.
Soman is highly critical of Truman's inability to end the war in Korea through diplomacy. "In opting for a strategy of compelling China to capitulate in the negotiations, the Truman administration completely misjudged the position of the adversary. New evidence now available suggests that China was looking for a face-saving formula to compromise." [p. 84].
The armistice finally came from a tempering of U.S.-Soviet relations. "There is no basis for the claim," Soman concludes, "that nuclear diplomacy by the Eisenhower administration ended the war. A change in Soviet policy after the death of Stalin and American moderation, not American nuclear threats, removed the last hurdle in the way of an armistice agreement in the spring of 1953." [p. 60] Indeed, the Eisenhower administration's claims to having used nuclear threats to get the Korea talks started again "might well have been" smoke screen to cover concessions. [p. 100]. Soman's argument on this point is convincing enough to obviate the need for a subjunctive.
Chapter 4 traces the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954-1955 which John Foster Dulles, smarting over the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, hoped to develop into an atomic war against China. But America's allies were unwilling to support a war over the offshore islands. So the US offered a defense treaty to the Nationalists in exchange for taking the dispute to the UN. At the Nationalists' insistence the treaty embraced "such other territories as may be determined by mutual agreement' in addition to Formosa and the Pescadores. Soman observes that, "In reality, the administration lost the best opportunity it would ever have to make a clean break with the offshore islands....The treaty left the Nationalists with enough of an opening to manipulate American policy in the future."[p. 127]
Soman flays Eisenhower for poor leadership and the Eisenhower revisionists along with him. Eisenhower and Dulles had lost the initiative to the Nationalists. They feared blame for losing the islands. "The picture [in his memoirs of a president fully in command of the situation] was far from true. Eisenhower set out to draw the line' on more than one occasion. The line, however, kept shifting....This was hardly a hidden hand president' in action. The presidential hand was absent, not simply hidden, on crucial occasions." Eisenhower and his advisers seem to have forgotten the lessons on limited war learned in Korea. [pp. 148-49].
Chapter 5 covers the offshore islands crisis of 1958. It argues that the crisis highlighted the flaws in Eisenhower's reliance on nuclear weapons. Soman credits Dulles with defusing the situation. [p. 200]. Soman writes that the crisis led to a fundamental change in US East Asia policy. Under domestic and international pressure, the US distanced itself publicly from Chiang's ambitions for a return to the Chinese mainland and clearly signaled its intention to end Nationalist guerrilla attacks on the mainland. This ended the threat to China from its southern flank for the first time since the founding of the PRC. By transforming the US-ROC equation, this crisis ultimately worked to China's advantage." [p. 166].
In a realist framework this is an important claim only if Chiang posed a real threat to the mainland government. One can reasonably disagree, however, that there ever was a threat to the PRC from KMT guerrilla raids. Soman himself relates how the Nationalists were too weak to hold all the offshore islands they initially occupied. [p. 119] Indeed, Soman himself portrays Mao as desiring KMT possession of Quemoy and Matsu lest Taiwan be left in a de fact two-China situation. [p. 194]. Thus we must discount heavily Soman's earlier claim, echoing the Chinese General Xiong Guangkai, that on three occasions in the 1950s (the Korean War and the Taiwan Straits crises of 1954-55 and 1958) the United States used its possession of nuclear weapons to force its will upon the People's Republic of China. [p. 2].
Soman affirms that "At no point is there any evidence of the American leaders' own moral scruples influencing any decision by the Eisenhower administration on the use of atomic weapons." Rabid anti-communism was the decisive influence. [pp. 218-19] For another view of Eisenhower's thinking about the morality of nuclear warfare, readers might want to consult Campbell Craig's Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War[New York: Columbia University Press, 1998].
The book ends on a sobering note, the revival of nuclear diplomacy under the Clinton administration and the rise of China as a nuclear power. Marring the book are inconsistencies in the general argument, as noted above in passing. The review of the literature is thorough but unfortunately did not include the Craig book noted above. I found only one minor error in a footnote [171, p. 56].
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Thomas A. Breslin. Review of Soman, Appu K., Double-Edged Sword: Nuclear Diplomacy in Unequal Conflicts: The United States and China, 1950-1958.
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