An Orphan From the Beginning

A review of David M. Finkelstein’s Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950

Taiwan’s fear of abandonment by the great powers that are seen as instrumental to the island’s ability to maintain its de facto sovereignty are deeply rooted. In the current context of China’s “rise” and the growing influence of lobbyists calling on Washington to drop perceived irritants in order to improve cooperation with Beijing, it may be tempting to conclude that Taiwan’s time as a sovereign democracy is up, that capitulating to Chinese irredentism is a decision that lies in an inevitable future. Although pessimism seems warranted, historical context helps us understand that the island’s prospects of surviving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were bleak from the start. What is extraordinary is that nearly 65 years after the birth of the PRC, Taiwan is still here, still vulnerable but nevertheless blessed with a much stronger sense of entity.

The Naval Institute Press’ reissue of David M. Finkelstein’s Washington’s Taiwan Dilemma, 1949-1950, first published in 1993, allows us to revisit a period in Taiwan’s early modern history — that is, following the end of hostilities in World War II and Japan’s relinquishing of what had been its most successful colony — when its survival seemed highly uncertain and a Communist takeover written in the stars.

As is the case today, the U.S. was Taiwan’s principal guarantor of security and the main buffer against China. But from very early on, Washington was growing uncertain of the wisdom of propping up Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Finkelstein’s fascinating account of the institutional infighting that occurred between the various branches of the U.S. government, starting in 1947, is accompanied by many useful excerpts from key government documents: PPS 39, NSC 37 and NSC 48 show the vacillations of a government that was struggling to cope with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory in the Chinese civil war just as the Cold War was starting to congeal ideological camps into place.

The reasoning that prevailed at the time, and which silenced those few who sought to help Chiang whatever the cost, was that the U.S., facing the Soviet camp, could not afford to “lose” China (having already “lost” it to the Communists) to the Soviets. Therefore, Washington’s best hope in the context of the Cold War was to encourage “Titoism” in Beijing — a split in the Communist camp akin to what had occurred in Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito, and which, it was hoped, would deepen following expected Soviet adventurism in China’s north. “State was prepared to subordinate Taiwan’s salvation to the larger policy objective of fostering Titoism on the mainland,” Finkelstein writes. The U.S. was thus banking on “Mao Tse-Tito,” and hopes of such an outcome, based on predictions of Mao’s future problems with the Soviets, became the guiding policy.


Overarching every other consideration at the time was the need to contain the Soviets. Although Dean Acheson and his advisers had little desire to abandon Taiwan to the CCP, their Taiwan policy, if one can call it that, was first and foremost about the Cold War; even China was secondary. Above all, planners in Washington feared that open support, in the form of defense articles, money, and political backing, for Chiang would only alienate Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and force him, along with “angry Chinese,” into the Soviet camp — the exact opposite of the desired split between the CCP and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The better option, therefore, was to abandon Chiang, who was increasingly regarded as a failure and unwilling to implement the reforms that were necessary to improve the lot of the Taiwanese whose homeland had been taken over by the Chinese. It was soon clear that Chiang only acquiesced to calls for reform, and then never followed through, if doing so ensured his political survival. The KMT’s abysmal handling of Taiwan after its retreat to the island in 1949, punctuated by rampant abuse, mass murder, and quick nationwide impoverishment, undoubtedly made Washington’s decision to bet on Mao Tse-Tito a lot easier. From that point on, propping up Chiang’s regime was never again a policy in Washington, though limited economic aid, it was hoped, would help delay a Communist takeover.

NSC 37/8, issued on October 6, 1949, summed up the state of affairs. Taiwan’s problem was the result of “… the transfer of the Island of the ills and malpractices that have characterized the Kuomintang in China.” Despairing with Chiang and the KMT, the Truman administration feared that any assistance to Taiwan on the scale desired by Chiang and his supporters would be counterproductive. “Were the U.S. to now engage in an expanded program of military and economic assistance, then, it was argued, the rulers on the island would be lulled into a false sense of security that Washington felt Taiwan so important strategically that it would never let it go under,” Finkelstein writes.

For contemporary readers, it is also interesting to note how, as early as 1947, U.S. defense officials were already of the opinion that while strategically important, the American military was not prepared to sacrifice its young men and women for Taiwan’s defense, or to base troops on the island to deter a Chinese invasion. That isn’t to say that there were no dissenting voices. Surprisingly, George Kennan briefly proposed a bold course of action that included American military action to depose the Nationalist government. General Douglas MacArthur, ensconced in Tokyo, warned that the loss of Taiwan would cost the U.S. access to the entire Pacific (his apocalyptic visions and insubordination during the Korean War would lead to his dismissal) and used independent channels to initiate assistance to Chiang, though those efforts did not avail to much.

Nevertheless, the majority of defense officials in Washington, including the Joint Chief of Staff, were of the opinion that Taiwan was not vital to U.S. interests. Such beliefs linger today, at a time when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a much more formidable — and mobile — force than it was at the time. The perception that Taiwan is not a vital interest to the U.S. accounts for the doubts that the American military would intervene in a Taiwan scenario, regardless of whether Taipei “provoked” war or not. (Of course, the advent of anti-access/area-denial capabilities, not to mention the tremendous economic interdependence between the U.S. and China, are factors that weigh heavily today but did not exist at the time.) Another consideration, this one laid out in NSC 48, was the fear in Washington that military aid to Taiwan would anger the Chinese and undermine its credibility in Asia, “where we wish to be on the side of nationalist movements and avoid supporting reactionary governments,” Acheson said at the time.

Despite the general, though by no means universal, agreement in Washington that the sovereignty of Taiwan was only secondary to the imperative of fostering a CCP/CPSU split, a few officials recognized that indigenous Taiwanese had had a raw deal. Some acknowledged the right of Taiwanese to self-determination, aspirations that were in vogue across Asia following the collapse of the Japanese empire and which Washington, as we just saw, wanted to be seen as supporting, if only to prevent them from being hijacked by the CPSU. For a while, plans were discussed to spark a rebellion in Taiwan and use the chaos as justification for military intervention or a takeover by the U.N. American officials established contact with some pro-independence leaders, but this came to naught after it was judged that their chances of success against the relatively well-armed and battle-hardened KMT forces on the island were next to nil. Moreover, as is still true today, Taiwanese self-determination was problematic and highly inconvenient, even if, in principle, it was perfectly justifiable.

One wonders what the consequences of abandonment, what alternative future, would have been like had Fortune not intervened, which it did in the form of North Korea’s decision to invade the South on June 24, 1950. The invasion overturned years of debate and careful policy planning in Washington, and forced President Truman to neutralize Taiwan by interposing the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait — a decision, Finkelstein reminds us, that did not signal renewed political support for Chiang but that was purely made for military-strategic reasons. Without the Korean War and Beijing’s involvement on Pyongyang’s side, Taiwan would likely have fallen to the Communists. CIA assessments from 1949 expected this to happen sometime in 1950. The Cold War froze this likeliest of developments and inadvertently, as this was not Washington’s policy, bought Taiwan sufficient time — decades, in fact — to liberalize and democratize, a process that further widened the chasm between the island and the PRC and that led to the situation we face today.

There are important lessons to be learned from the period explored in Finkelstein’s book, lessons that have significance today. Washington’s policy at the time was guided, as we saw, by a desire to avoid angering China and to foster Titoism in the PRC as part of its Cold War strategy of Soviet containment. The policy therefore was neither “pro-Taiwan” nor “pro-China,” although its outcome tended to be favorable to the latter. The same could be said of Nixon’s opening to China and Washington’s recognition of Beijing as the sole government of China in 1979, though this time the Vietnam War was an additional element.

Though there are signs that this might be changing, Washington’s Taiwan policy today is once again pinned to Chinese imperatives, minus the Soviet element, which disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. This time, China is not a secondary but the direct object of Washington’s Taiwan policy, and the desired outcome of that policy is the emergence of a more liberal regime in China and for Beijing to become a responsible stakeholder and strategic partner of the U.S. In both cases, the aspirations of Taiwanese suffered; self-determination, a principle that is openly supported by American citizens, has taken a back seat to strategic considerations. Ironically, in both instances the careful consideration of Chinese sensitivities has failed. In 1950, Beijing rewarded Washington by entering the Korean War on the side of Pyongyang and Moscow. Today, after two decades of playing nice to Beijing and showing great patience at the slow yield of dividends, Washington has been repaid by a China that, though having modernized, remains brutal, intolerant, authoritarian, and increasingly expansionist, as the current crises in the East and South China Seas attest. The only constant in both scenarios has been the increasing sense of isolation that has descended upon the Taiwanese, the eternal victims of policies that were never exactly about them. Finkelstein’s well-researched book reveals the invisible thread that connects those two eras and helps us understand that U.S. “policy” on Taiwan, Cold War notwithstanding, has been surprisingly constant.



From Abandonment to Salvation

By David M. Finkelstein

380 pages. Naval Institute Press, 2014 (reissue)


Further Reading:

Strait Talk: United States-Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China, by Nancy Bernkopf-Tucker

George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

3 Responses to “An Orphan From the Beginning”

July 03, 2014 at 8:23 pm, Audrey Silva said:

Thanks for a good review summary. Do you know if the book has been translated into Chinese?


July 05, 2014 at 8:29 pm, Jerome Besson said:

Taiwan, that canary in the mine shaft of US-China relations.
For Formosan Japanese it has been “gaman” (我慢する) and teeth-gritting all along.


July 10, 2014 at 12:47 am, Biff Capp said:

Interesting piece…


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