Part III


The Triumph Of Apocalypse Management



Chapter 7:  The Formosa Straits Crisis


As the president's public words fostered public anxiety, his private words and policies fostered anxiety within his innermost circle of advisors.  The New Look had created more problems than it solved.  As 1954 turned to 1955, growing nuclear fears in western Europe put growing pressure on the U.S. to enter serious disarmament negotiations, which might well undermine the entire New Look strategy.  Yet U.S. reluctance to negotiate gave the Soviets a chance to score valuable points in the psychological warfare contest.  It also gave the Soviets more chance to develop weapons capable of a surprise attack on U.S. soil.

The same kind of conundrum plagued the administration in specific cold war hot spots, too.  In Vietnam, the agreement signed by the allies called for free elections, which the communists were almost sure to win.  Yet blocking the elections would give the communists new propaganda opportunities and might well alienate the allies.  To the north of Vietnam, the Chinese Communists had begun shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which were controlled by Chiang Kai-Shek’s government in Taiwan.  A credible policy of containment required a stern response.  But if the response were too stern it might trigger the very war that the New Look was supposed to avert, or at least alienate the allies.  NSC 162/2 offered no clear guidance on how to respond to any of these issues.  So the administration found itself unsure of its aims and sometimes pursuing contradictory aims simultaneously. 

In the first week of 1955, when the NSC discussed revisions to the national security policy, the JCS proposed a seemingly simple solution:  commit the United States to a single clear-cut goal—destroying “the international Communist apparatus.”  But Eisenhower demurred because “while it might be possible for the United States to ‘neutralize’ the Communist apparatus in the free world, it would be next to impossible to destroy it completely.”  He saw “no foreseeable prospect of stopping the growth of Soviet nuclear capabilities…or of significantly reducing other basic Communist military strength” except by negotiated compromise agreements, which he was still determined to avoid.[1]

Eisenhower acknowledged the obvious implication:  “In many cases U.S. policy was not dynamic but negative.”  He asked the NSC rhetorically “where and how we got more dynamic.”  Dulles agreed that the U.S. had reached a static stopping point:  “Experience indicated that it was not easy to go very much beyond the point this administration had reached.”  Still, they never seriously considered any fundamental change in their stated goal.  As Robert Wampler concludes:  “The President and Dulles had come to see there was little the U.S. could do to prevent the impending rise of the USSR to nuclear parity with the U.S.   Faced with this fact, the U.S. could only continue its alliance commitments, which had staked out the vital areas in the world which it was prepared to defend to the point of general war.”  The defensive stance of containment would remain the administration's goal.[2]

The Grand Strategy Reaffirmed

In the nuclear age, though, containment required credible threats that the nation would go to war if provoked.  So it needed some measure of the apocalyptic language desired by the JCS and often used by the president himself.  Eisenhower showed his apocalyptic penchant in late 1954, as the NSC discussed NSC 5501, an updating of the basic strategy document NSC 162/2. 

Treasury Secretary Humphrey argued that “we should withdraw from those positions in the world which we do not propose to defend by military action.…We would in effect be practicing a policy of co-existence.…The United States must participate in a world division of power so carefully balanced that neither side dares to ‘jump’ the other.”[3]  Eisenhower had good reasons to endorse Humphrey's idea.  It would solve a number of strategic problems for him and gain great favor among his allies. It would simply codify in principle the practical workings of the New Look.  Moreover, he had already confessed publicly that co-existence was all he could hope to achieve.

But he rejected Humphrey’s suggestion with several revealing objections.  “The President commented that if and when you should decide on a policy of drawing a defensive line beyond which you tell the enemy he cannot step without risking a clash, you automatically give the initiative to the enemy to seize whatever falls short of the defensive line.  For this reason he had always rejected the concept of linedrawing.”[4]  This was not quite precise.  In fact, his grand strategy depended on drawing a line that clearly defined the geopolitical balance of power.  What he rejected was publicly admitting that he had drawn a line and allowing any appearance that the enemy could move the line at will. 

The apocalyptic element in Eisenhower's discourse required a vision of the enemy as innately dynamic, always threatening to trigger total war, yet paradoxically contained by the threat of total war.  However, he saw no escape from this perilous situation:  “The President pointed out that every locality in the world is a source of irritation if you are dealing with Communists.  There would be no chance whatever of removing irritations unless we were prepared to get off the earth.”  In Eisenhower’s discourse, the line where the “free world” met its enemy was treated as a single sensitive membrane.  Movement anywhere along the line had to be interpreted as a prelude to global catastrophe.  For example, when Humphrey suggested that the U.S. should commit itself to defend the Middle East but not India, the president refused.  Losing India would mean losing the Middle East, he insisted, “which would necessitate resort to preventive war.”[5]

Even a staunch cold warrior could hold a more pragmatic view, as Humphrey demonstrated.  When Eisenhower refused to take the more pragmatic course, he showed that his own discursive structure held compelling power over his practical judgment.  The strategy of apocalypse management made no sense unless there were an impending apocalypse to manage.  The threat of apocalyptic war would soon grow hollow, Eisenhower knew, because a balance in military power, like the geopolitical balance, would soon be inevitable.  The only way to prevent the Soviet Union from achieving “atomic plenty” was to initiate a war. 

But this policy decision would destroy the “free world” coalition that the war would be fought to preserve.  “We cannot hope to get the continued support of public opinion in the free world if we always say ‘no’ to any suggestions that we negotiate with the Soviet Union,” the president reminded the NSC.  “Accordingly, we should negotiate wherever and whenever it looks profitable.”  In the president's discourse, negotiations were “profitable” only if they produced “a peaceful and orderly world environment” (in the words of NSC 5501).  In other words, they would require impossible Soviet concessions.  So negotiations were no more likely than war threats to keep the line immobile.[6]

Yet Eisenhower had to deny these contradictions, for they grew out of the fundamental contradiction between containment and apocalyptic victory, both of which he wanted to embrace in the same discursive paradigm.  After hearing all sides in open debate, “he once again repeated his inability to detect basic policy differences among the Council members, and added that what we’ve really been talking was not policy but operation.…The U.S. did not need more aggressive security policies, but rather more intelligent execution of those already on the books—better courses of action.”  The policy was to keep a firm line between the two blocs; exactly where that line should be drawn, or how and when it should be allowed to move, was relegated to the secondary realm of “operation” or “courses of action.”  In effect, Eisenhower redefined both Humphrey’s balance-of-power proposal and the JCS’ rollback policy as merely two operational methods by which containment might be pursued.  This was his way of evading the JCS’ challenge.  He merely folded their dynamic language into his larger commitment to stasis.  Certainly he was playing a political game, trying to hold together the competing elements of his administration.  But he was also remaining true to his own discursive ways.[7]

The resulting ambiguity was embedded in the final text of the revised policy statement, NSC 5501, which could not decide between an endless balance of power and an impending final resolution of the struggle.  It saw the U.S. in “a period of armed truce, which may either continue for many years or be broken by an atomic war.”  It proclaimed that its strategy “offers the best hope of bringing about at least a prolonged period of armed truce, and ultimately a peaceful resolution of the Soviet bloc - free world conflict and a peaceful and orderly world environment.”  But the nature of that strategy was left unclear.  The text declared only that “the U.S. must choose between two main lines of policy, aimed respectively at a. Destroying the power of the Soviet-Communist bloc; or b. Modifying the policies of the Soviet -Communist bloc along lines more compatible with U.S. security interests.”[8] 

Eisenhower's ultimate comment on the whole reconsideration of policy was that “as so often, we had come round in a circle and come back to the same place.”[9]  However contradictory, it was the place he wanted to be.  Perhaps it was the only place he could be.  He was articulating very perceptively (though unwittingly) the subtle blending of traditions that made up the New Look, using apocalyptic language to preserve a stasis that would stave off genuinely apocalyptic change. 

The "Island Barrier"

In September, 1954, the People's Republic of China began shelling islands in the Formosa Straits occupied by the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek.  Between the settlement of the Indochina conflict in the summer of 1954 and the Geneva summit meeting in the summer of 1955, this issue overshadowed all others for Eisenhower.  It showed more clearly than ever the fundamental instability of the New Look strategy.  It brought the U.S. closer to war than at any other time during Eisenhower's two terms in office.  Yet in the end the crisis committed him, his administration, and the nation were more firmly than ever to apocalypse management.   

When the Chinese began shelling Quemoy and Matsu in September 1954, Eisenhower told the NSC that these islands were “not really important except psychologically, which he agreed was an important question," perhaps important enough to fight for.  He explained to his old friend Al Gruenther:  "If there were no other factors than the military to consider…we would see no reason for American intervention."  But he had to sustain "the morale of the Chinese forces on [Formosa].  Their willingness to fight and to keep themselves in a high state of readiness for fighting" would be critical in case they were attacked by PRC forces.  Suppose Formosa fell to the PRC.  "With international Communism having thus penetrated the island barrier…threaten[ing] the Philippines and Indonesia immediately and directly, all of us would soon be in far worse trouble than we are now."  Morale on Formosa was the key to maintaining the "island barrier" (he described it to Churchill as “this great chain”) that held back communism from Japan to Indonesia.[10]

Most Americans would support his strong stand, the president believed, for "there was hardly a word which the people of this country feared more than the term 'Munich.'"  In the context of apocalypse management, though, Munich took on a new symbolic meaning.  It no longer represented a faulty assessment of an adversary’s intentions in diplomatic negotiation (since the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with the PRC).  Now it symbolized the immense danger of even the tiniest breach in the global geopolitical dividing line.  Only an absolutely impermeable line of containment could preserve stability, which Eisenhower called "our ultimate objective…in the Far East.”  He described opponents of the U.S. defense of Quemoy and Matsu as "certain pacifist elements" who "think that we can surrender to the Communists the Japanese productive capacity and all the richness of the South Pacific territories and still be perfectly safe in this country.  There are people who did not believe Hitler's threats."[11]

Sometimes his critics were far from pacifist, however.  At a January, 1955, NSC meeting Treasury Secretary George Humphrey argued strenuously that stability required no commitment to protecting the offshore islands.  Eisenhower responded that the Chinese Communists “were after Formosa.  Secretary Humphrey denied this."  Many others, at home and abroad, denied it too.  Eisenhower recognized that "the world won't support war for the offshore islands.…To judge from the flow of letters and communications to the White House, all the pressure was on the side of peace, peace, peace.…He did not believe that we could put the proposition of going to war over with the American people at this time. Letters to him constantly say what do we care what happens to those yellow people out there?"  To the voters, peace meant merely the “free world” permanently protected from any risk of violent conflict.  Most of the public did not yet grasp the new pattern of national security discourse.[12]

Dulles explained the new pattern to the NSC.  The distinction between fighting wars and being at peace, once taken for granted, no longer held good:  "Now we were trying to educate people to face the fact that we need a strong military establishment if we hope to maintain the peace.  It was a difficult and novel thing to most people to realize that the will and ability to fight for vital things is really indispensable to maintenance of peace."[13]  Eisenhower fully shared that view.  "We must show no lack of firmness in a world where our political enemies exploit every sign of weakness," he told the NSC.  When Robert Cutler argued that U.S. policy might lead the world into war, the president cut off discussion with the curt remark, "in any case it was necessary to draw the line."  A firm, stable line—the new definition of peace—was an end in itself.[14]

Eisenhower relied on symbolic words to keep the line firm.  The most crucial words were commitments to Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers, believable enough to keep Formosa firmly embedded in the “island barrier” that held back communism.  Indeed, the entire eight-month controversy was, from the U.S. standpoint, a matter of symbolism.  It was just the opposite of the Indochina conflict.  In Indochina, symbolic words and gestures were mobilized to try to gain control of land.  In the offshore islands, the U.S. wanted to control the land only because it was perceived as a valuable symbolic gesture—valuable enough, in fact, to risk global war. 

We Would Use Atomic Weapons

The risk was inherent in Eisenhower's strategy and discursive structure.  Nuclear threats could easily force him to choose between hot war and revealing his threats to be hollow.  Either one would take him further from his goal.  Within his discursive framework, though, there seemed no way to avoid the choice.  “He fully realizes that this could lead to war,” James Hagerty wrote in late January.  Indeed on one occasion the president burst out to Hagerty, “Sometimes I think it would be best all around to go after them right now without letting them pick their time and the place of their own choosing.”  A war with the PRC, once started, would have to be fought through to the end, the president told the NSC.  "He was firmly opposed to any holding back like we did in Korea.…We would also have to say that we would oppose any Communist advances in the rest of the world.  He reiterated that the islands were only important psychologically."[15] 

For psychological and discursive reasons, then, he would globalize the conflict:  "When we talk of general war with Communist China, what we mean is general war with the USSR also."  Indeed, "if we are to have general war, he would prefer to have it with Russia, not China…he would 'want to go to the head of the snake.'  If we get our prestige involved anywhere then we can't get out."  He would fight, above all, to make the wall of containment invulnerable by persuading his allies and the whole world to take U.S. language seriously.[16] 

By March, Eisenhower and his top aides were discussing plans for war, although he did not expect the Soviets to be spoiling for a fight.  “They’re not ready for war and they know it,” he explained to Hagerty and Andrew Goodpaster.  “They also know if they go to war, they’re going to end up losing everything they have.”  The more influence the Soviet military had, he continued, the less likely an attack:  “If you’re in the military and you know about these terrible destructive weapons, it tends to make you more pacifistic than you normally have been.“[17] 

Despite his own long career of military service, though, the president was prepared to go to war to defend the islands, even if it would “require the use of atomic missiles.”  Indeed, according to Hagerty, he and his top advisors agreed on the importance of “deliberately impressing our enemies that these weapons were now conventional usage in our armed services.”  Eisenhower did this most famously at a press conference, when he announced that he would use his nuclear weapons “exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”  He may have been hoping that his words would force the Chinese to back off before matters reached such a head.  But he was announcing the actual policy he intended to follow if they did not back off.[18]

Eisenhower added an important qualification:  he would not use nuclear weapons as you would use a bullet unless he was sure that he was “operating against merely military targets.”  According to Dulles, the president wanted him to say publicly “that we would use atomic weapons as interchangeable with the conventional weapons.  This did not, of course, mean weapons of mass destruction.”  The two discussed “the importance of education with reference to the distinction between atomic missiles for tactical purposes and the big bomb with huge radioactive fall-outs.  The President mentioned that our own troops were maneuvering very close to areas where atomic missiles were used.”  From the context, it would seem that the president mentioned this as evidence that the effects of atomic weapons could be limited to a very small circle.  Dulles assured Walter George, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that this was so:  "The missiles we had in mind had practically no radioactive fall-out and were entirely local in effect."  This illusion (which they may very well have believed) made it easier for Eisenhower and Dulles to brandish both the threat and the actuality of nuclear use as symbolic gestures.[19] 

“In Dangerous Waters Without A Chart”

When the Chinese began shelling the islands, Eisenhower told Beetle Smith that, whatever his response, he would certainly allow "no possibility of driving a wedge between ourselves and our principal European allies, especially Britain."  In mid-March, 1955, he informed Robert Cutler that the U.S. might have to use atomic weapons against China, but “we would have to advise our allies first."  Once again, he agreed with Dulles that “we must get acceptance [by the allies] of the use of atomic missiles as ‘conventional.’”[20]

Therein lay a serious problem.  None of the major U.S. allies saw any wisdom in fighting for the offshore islands, and certainly not with nuclear weapons.  The distinction between strategic and tactical weapons was lost upon the allies.  Dulles pointed out the obvious to the NSC:  “We might wake up one day and discover that we were inhibited in the use of these weapons by a negative public opinion.  If this proved to be the fact, our entire military program would have to be drastically revised.…The President agreed that we could not use atomic weapons during this period without a bad impact on the European Treaties prospect."[21]  

Yet Eisenhower's whole approach was based on the premise that unless he promised to defend the islands, he would drive an even larger wedge between the U.S. and its western Pacific allies.  The challenge, as he told Gruenther, was to find words that would "retain the greatest possible confidence of our friends and at the same time put our enemies on notice that we are not going to stand idly by to see our vital interests jeopardized."[22]  Weapons would have to be used in the same way.  The dilemma was to find exactly the right balance.

Eisenhower never did find that perfect balance.  In fact he was never sure exactly where to look for it.  “We have got to do what we believe to be right," he told both Gruenther and Winston Churchill, "if we can figure out the right."  "The President said [to the NSC] that of course he was willing to go to any lengths to defend the vital interests of the United States.  But as soon as you attempted to define what these vital interests were, you got into an argument.”  At the outset of the crisis, "the President commented that he was damned if he knew what effect [military] action would have on Britain and our other allies."  Two months later he had a clearer idea:  in "this particular can of worms," as he called it, the only way he could see to pursue peace was to risk total war, but that risk would shatter the “free world” coalition on which his vision of peace depended.  By February, he acknowledged that it was “a terrible dilemma.…The President stated his belief that there was nothing more that we could do now except to watch the situation as it develops and act on a day-to-day basis."[23]

This was a serious blow to the administration's grand strategy, which rested on a hope of overarching control.  Eisenhower and Dulles tried to turn their lack of control into a virtue.  They hoped that what James Reston called "calculated imprecision" and ambiguity would mask their intentions from the enemy.  This, in turn, would give them enough leverage that they would never have to decide whether to use their nuclear weapons.  Robert Divine sums up the approving judgment of some historians:  “The beauty of Eisenhower’s policy is that to this day no one can be sure whether or not he would have responded militarily to an invasion of the offshore islands.”[24] 

By late January, however, Dulles had to admit that the policy of imprecision had “begun to backfire."[25]  Certainty was becoming as necessary as it was dangerous, for only a firm declaration of intentions would keep up morale on Formosa.  The goal to be attained through uncertainty required certainty—and vice versa. 

Soon enough the administration had to shift and contradict itself again, because its goals were so shifting and contradictory.  Eisenhower sent secret assurances to Chang Kai-Shek that the U.S. would defend the offshore islands, though only if the PRC appeared on the way to attacking Formosa (or the nearby Pescadore Islands).  By this promise, the administration actually reduced its flexibility and created a situation anathema to the New Look:  the enemy now largely controlled the flow of events.  By late March, it was not clear that anyone could control events.  Eisenhower and Dulles were certainly not in control.  Dulles himself confessed that the U.S. was  "drifting in dangerous waters without a chart,” and “Eisenhower was intensely disturbed."  Dulles would later describe it as “living over a volcano.”[26]

As European support evaporated, Eisenhower began looking for a graceful way to abandon the islands and his promise to Chiang Kai-Shek.  (At a meeting with legislative leaders he muttered, “Those damned little offshore islands.  Sometimes I wish they’d sink.”)[27]  He hoped to persuade Chiang to defend the islands only temporarily, in a heroic last stand.  Chiang refused.  The president would soon have to decide whether to let the intransigence of the Taiwanese leaders drive the world to war.

In the end, he was spared that ultimate test.  In late April, the PRC unexpectedly ceased its shelling and offered to negotiate a settlement.  This denouement freed Eisenhower from revealing his ultimate priorities, if indeed he knew what they were.  As H. W. Brands points out, throughout the debate on the U.S. response to the crisis “Eisenhower had ducked the fundamental question of American national-security policy—whether nuclear weapons were for use or simply for deterrence—and policy remained as muddled as ever.”[28] 

From Indochina To The Formosa Straits:  Summing Up

The whole affair did force the president to acknowledge a significant change in his vision of apocalypse management.  Throughout the Formosa crisis, Indochina was the paradigm.  "There already existed two Chinas, just as there were two Germanies, two Koreas, and two Viet-nams," Dulles told the Formosan ambassador to the U.S.[29]  Although North Vietnam had been “lost,” the other dominos had not fallen.  By urging Chiang eventually to let the offshore islands go, Eisenhower was implying that the fall of one domino need not topple the others.  His vision of peace and stability still demanded a boundary between the “free world” and the communist bloc, clearly defined by symbolic gestures of U.S. assurance to defend it.  But his policies in Indochina and the Formosa Straits showed that line could now be moved, even if it rolled back the “free world” at some points.  As long as U.S. words were widely believed, both by allies and by enemies, they would maintain a line and thus to avoid disaster, regardless of where the line was drawn. 

Indeed, movement in the line could be turned to U.S. advantage.  The barrier against communism had to be portrayed as the brink of disaster.  Otherwise there would be no apocalypse to manage.  Every shift in the barrier—every expansion of the communist world—was presented as further evidence that it was a dynamic, hence precarious, line.  Thus every shift became another occasion for the administration to demonstrate that it was managing the apocalypse by a judicious combination of intransigence and prudent flexibility.  The administration's chosen route to stability required an indeterminate degree of instability.

The administration also had to be willing to go to war if instability ever portended a total loss of control. The president's military code dictated that he restrain not only the enemy, but also his own feelings, for the sake of performing his duty in service to his country.  The two forms of restraint naturally reinforced each other; in Eisenhower's discourse, there was no essential difference between them.  So whatever fears the “new weapons” may have aroused in him, they had no visible impact on the making of policy.  From early 1954 to the spring of 1955, he developed no new patterns of discourse or policy to fit the new empirical reality.  The peril was still the multifaceted apocalyptic threat of communist expansion, capitalist internal collapse, and global war.

By the spring of 1955, though, each of these had taken on a more specific form for administration policy planners.  Communist expansion now threatened specifically in Asia.  Internal collapse could come through the breakup of the “free world” alliance, inflationary military spending, or excessive public emotion, either fear or apathy.  Any of these dangers could be triggered by a long land war with China, which might follow if nuclear weapons were treated as taboo.  But if the U.S. used nuclear weapons, it ran the risk of a global war, which might begin with a paralyzing massive surprise attack.  These dangers were still interpreted as facets of a single, overarching danger:  the destruction of civilization.  So every facet carried an equally apocalyptic significance.  No one could stand out—not even the H-bomb. 

In one sense, the bomb was still unique:  it alone of all the varieties of threat could also be seen as a protection against threat.  Clinging to the bomb as a solution to the problems it simultaneously exacerbated, Eisenhower intensified the air of crisis that had spawned his grand strategy.  The moratorium controversy, the fallout controversy, the administration's internal conflicts, Indochina, and the Formosa Straits crisis all helped to press home the lesson of uncertain U.S. goals and limits to U.S. power.  And the limits, when analyzed, led back to the reliance on nuclear weapons.  The bomb was no longer a danger merely in presidential rhetoric.  It now posed a real danger, not so much to humanity—Eisenhower rarely commented on that in his private discourse—but to the New Look and the U.S. design for waging cold war.  The president had read Churchill’s warning:  “I feel that we have reached a serious crisis in which the whole policy of peace through strength may be involved.”  Yet he resisted that conclusion, for he had left himself no way even to consider alternative policy options.[30] 

It was becoming increasingly evident, however, that strength could not be exerted in one decisive thrust, nor through one smoothly coordinated strategic plan.  It would have to be deployed in disconnected and often mutually contradictory bursts, over an unpredictably long haul.  The conflicts in Indochina and the Formosa Straits showed that these small bursts might occasionally entail small expansions of the communist bloc.  If the ambiguous outcomes of these conflicts offered no clear evidence that the policy of apocalypse management would work, they offered no clear evidence that it would not work.  They gave Eisenhower no clear incentive to change or even question his fundamental discursive structure.  He would continue to interpret every crisis in an apocalyptic key. 

And the crises were sure to continue coming.  Once Eisenhower admitted that the line of containment was flexible, he was even more likely to see the communist threat as endless and apocalyptic.  Security, stability, peace, and victory were all now defined as a single process of plugging up leaks in the dike of containment.  The bomb, as reality and as symbol, was the plug Eisenhower would constantly attempt to insert.  Yet every plug only increased the pressure in another part of the dike.  As he himself stated:  “Every favorable point is balanced by something that doesn’t look too favorable.”[31]  Thus the administration condemned itself to being constantly on the defensive.  By the spring of 1955, the president and his advisors had accepted this instability as an intrinsic principle of their policy.  Restraint became an ongoing process. Yet restraint could be a meaningful goal only as long as the enemy was inherently dynamic and therefore increasingly dangerous.  Defining his problems in his familiar pattern of discourse, the only solution he could offer was a more clear and certain commitment to endless apocalypse management. 

 Rhetorical Legitimations:  “Beset With Many Dangers”

As world events slipped out of control and policy shifts became more likely, the administration continued to worry about American public opinion.  NSC 5501 made emotion management an official policy:  "During a time of increasing Soviet atomic power, the determination of U.S. citizens to face the risks involved in carrying out such national strategy will be of increasing importance.  Continuing efforts should be made to inform the American people of the demands on their spiritual and material resources necessary to ensure U.S. security."  Presidential rhetoric was the hub of those efforts.  What Eisenhower said about nuclear weapons was equally true of his rhetoric.  He treated both as amoral parts of his overall arsenal, to be used in whatever ways would help him achieve his overarching goal.[32]

In early 1955, with the Congressional race over and the allies agreed on a formula for rearming West Germany, there was less need for assurances of peaceful intent.  Now the president was more interested in whipping up martial enthusiasm for a possible confrontation in the Formosa Straits.  He also had to counter growing charges that an inadequate military budget was endangering U.S. security.  So he turned back to the language of cold war and fear.  The communists "are winning great adherents in many areas of the world," he warned.  "The path we travel is narrow and long, beset with many dangers.  Each day we must ask that Almighty God will set and keep His protecting hand over us."  "In this poor and distressed world, the danger, the risk of war is always with us, and we have got to be vigilant.  We have got to be careful."  The threat of surprise nuclear attack meant that "for the first time in our history [we] have legitimate cause for alarm as to our own safety." [33] 

Eisenhower wanted the public to see peril in the Formosa Straits, too.  The Pacific island chain was “the geographical backbone” of the “free world” security structure, he explained, “the principal feature of our whole protective system in the region.”  The shelling of the offshore islands was "a serious danger…to the peace of the world."  Could it lead to war?  He would only say cryptically:  "We are living in a time when it would be foolish to say that it is characterized by normal serenity.…Consequently, there is greater vigilance required of us, greater concern."  The obscurity of these words was calculated.  Not knowing what his policy would be, he wanted to have public opinion with him whichever way he turned.[34] 

Most importantly, if war did come, Eisenhower was determined to have the freedom to use nuclear weapons.  And he linked this directly to the unpredictability of the situation:  “When you resort to force as the arbiter of human difficulty, you don't know where you are going; but generally speaking, if you get deeper and deeper, there is just no limit except what is imposed by the limitations of force itself.…You can draw no sharp line between tactical use of atomic weapons and strategic use."  After repeating that there was "no reason why a large explosion shouldn't be used as freely as a small explosion," he added:  "Every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, and in the way it is carried out."[35] 

Many historians have accepted Eisenhower's own explanation for announcing his intention to use weapons:  he was using these threats to control Chinese behavior, hoping to prevent both communist expansion and actual use of the bomb.  But his strategy of apocalypse management depended just as much on controlling domestic public opinion.  He was encouraging the public to accept the risk of global war; to trust their government to act always in their best interests; to live bravely, calmly, and faithfully on the brink. 

As they reported on the Formosa Straits crisis, the U.S. news media carried that message of faith—and along with it the administration’s whole discursive structure—to the public.  On March 21, the media announced that Harold Stassen would become “Secretary for Peace.”  A Christian Science Monitor editorial voiced a commonplace view:  “It should inspire new efforts on a broad front to reduce the psychological strains which have so far defeated the United Nations and world diplomacy in their quest for guarantees against mutual destruction.”  Just a few days later, though, hope turned to fear.  Chief of Naval Operations Robert Carney, recently returned from Taiwan, told a group of Washington reporters that the PRC would definitely attack Quemoy and the Matsus by April 15.  In that event, the New York Times reported, “the United States would not hesitate to use precision atomic weapons against purely military targets.”[36]

Fearing that any public commitment to a specific policy would limit its freedom of action, the White House quickly moved to dampen the war talk.  It was helped by a fortuitous coincidence.   The next day, the French Senate approved the rearming of West Germany, which made West Germany (as the Times wrote) “a virtually sovereign and armed state within the Atlantic alliance.”  This cleared the way for the U.S. to consider a summit meeting including the Soviets.  Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin may well have understood this, for he simultaneously announced his strong interest in a meeting to ease world tensions.  This news was widely welcomed in the U.S.  “Any political damage Ike may suffer from trouble in the Formosa area would be more than offset by a Big Four ‘meeting at the summit,’ Newsweek said. “What the country wants more than anything else is to keep clear of war in far places.”  If there were “any kind of agreement holding out a promise of prolonged peace—however tenuous—[Eisenhower's] popularity curve would go through the ceiling.”[37]

For a week or ten days, the question of war stirred passions, at least in the nation’s newsrooms, if not in its barrooms and living rooms.  As Time put it:  “Out of the strategy conferences in Washington and into the headlines across the U.S. boiled an urgent question:  Will the U.S. soon be at war again?”  A decisive moment seemed to be at hand.  The influential journalist Robert Donovan expressed a common view when he spoke of “a war whose dimensions cannot be foreseen.”  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch warned that war “could set burning the powder train that would lead to a nuclear bomb holocaust.”  A Midwest journalist found “constant reminders that war is possible and that this area could be bombed.…Air-raid sirens are tested frequently throughout this area.”  Most of these gloomy prophecies came from sources opposing war.[38]   

Other sources stuck to the more familiar mode of cold war apocalypticism:  the line to be held was the geopolitical line protecting the “free world” against communism.  Both Time and Newsweek warned that a chain of events might be unfolding, which no U.S. decision could halt:  “The U.S.  didn’t want to fight, but it might have to fight.”  “Neither the President nor the Secretary of State made any effort to hide the fact that peace may be impossible.”  On the other hand, some media hawks agreed with Life that such dire warnings would make it harder to defend the “free world”:  “The way to defend the Islands is to defend them, not to anticipate Armageddon.  The prospect at Matsu is a scrap, not a war.”  If it refused to fight, the U.S. would “lose the world while fighting the elephantine inhibitions of our own musclebound might.”[39]

Beneath these differences, and between the lines, the ensemble of reporting communicated a more unified message of uncertainty, summed up in a New York Times headline:  “New Phase—Danger—and Hope.”  Would it be peace or war?  The answer remained undecidable.  Beneath a headline, “PRESIDENT CALMS HOUSE LEADERS OVER ‘WAR TALK’” the Times reported that Matsu “was feverish today with defense preparations.…They expect Red attack.”  “In the West, there were hazy signs that the Russians finally might talk sense about peace,” Newsweek explained, but “in the East, the outlook was more ominous than ever.”  Reason for fear and reasons for hope were not merely juxtaposed; they were often fused together.  Even the most hopeful sign, the proposed summit meeting, might hold unseen perils.[40]

This confusion left the proper course for U.S. policy undecidable too, as the media saw it.  Columnist Doris Fleeson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch captured this quandary succinctly:  “There is no one answer; there is only a choice of alternatives, all of which have their drawbacks.”  A Gallup poll found that a 3 to 2 margin favored “’all out’ support for Quemoy and Matsu.”  A week later, though, the Times saw “a very perceptible movement of press and public opinion against getting into a war.”  Irwin Canham suggested that this was another good reason to avoid war:  there was no clear public consensus supporting it.  Some reports found the public paying little attention.[41] 

“President Eisenhower Will Have A Free Hand”

The Formosa Straits crisis created the nation’s first open debate about a specific situation where nuclear weapons might be used.  It was hard to know if this crisis posed a great or a small risk, nor was it clear exactly how the decision for war and peace should best be made.  The brink on which the nation was poised portended not only war and communist expansion, but, perhaps most troubling, a plunge into irrevocable discursive confusion.  Yet two points seemed clear:  An absolute geopolitical line separated the “free world” from communism, and an absolute discursive line separated war from peace.  These two points of certainty, set against all the troubling uncertainties, created a third kind of line—between certainty and uncertainty, between clarity and confusion.  In public discourse, the three sets of dividing lines were superimposed upon each other.  The resulting multi-dimensional line was depicted as the brink of catastrophe.  Peace, as the media presented it, meant keeping war away from the U.S. while simultaneously avoiding any significant concessions to communism.  War would place all lines in jeopardy and in doubt.  Clarity was therefore just where the president always placed it, firmly on the side of peace and the “free world.” 

The press made the president the symbol of clarity, just as he was the symbol of peace and the freedom of the “free world.”  Ultimately, readers learned, he alone would safeguard these values.  As Newsweek explained:  “The final decision of what do and how to do it was up to Mr. Eisenhower himself.…President Eisenhower will have a free hand to do what he thinks best.”  Some may have agreed with the Christian Science Monitor that “the stakes are too vast for one man to decide alone.”  “It is a truly phenomenal fact,” Joseph C. Harsch wrote on the Monitor’s front page, “that the citizens of the American Republic find their government approaching this decision without ever having gone through the usual preliminary stage of a full-scale debate.”  Many others seemed to agree with Time that a full-scale debate would do more harm than good, because it would limit the president's flexibility.  The mood of the nation “was compounded of fatalism and faith,” according to Newsweek.  “The fatalism was tempered by faith in President Eisenhower's ability to reach a wise decision on how the United States should respond.”[42]

The way the press reported the whole affair surely enhanced the public’s faith.  A Times headline summed up the common wisdom:  “PRESIDENT CALMS HOUSE LEADERS OVER ‘WAR TALK’; NO DECISION ON QUEMOY; Eisenhower Indicates He Will Handle Any Future Crises.”  A cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle showed Admiral Carney wearing a terrifying mask labeled “War in April,” scaring an “average American,” with a smiling Eisenhower coming along saying, “Relax, I’ll take care of him!”  Set next to an editorial titled, “War Talk Serves None But Enemy,” it made the point quite graphically.[43]

“There is a cold war on here for the mind of the President,” Doris Fleeson reported from Washington.”  The Christian Science Monitor agreed:  “The pressures upon him from the two sides were mounting this week toward the act of decision and the climax.”[44]  The brink—the battle between war and peace, hence between good and evil—seemed to run right through Eisenhower's own mind.  Eisenhower became the pivotal figure, not only because he alone could make the policy decision but also because he alone could clarify the nation’s discourse.  The public could look forward to some certainty without shouldering any responsibility.  By the second week in April, the issue had virtually disappeared from public view, as quickly as it had appeared.  It was as if there were nothing meaningful or useful left to say.  The president was left alone, standing on the multi-dimensional brink. 

Since conciliatory words and actions from China defused the crisis in late April, before Eisenhower made any decision, no clarity was ever achieved.  No one could know for sure whether the nation would fight to keep the geopolitical line fixed between mainland China and the near offshore islands, or accept an eastward movement of the line into the Formosa Straits.  This continuing policy confusion created a parallel confusion in public discourse.  The uncertainty about U.S. policy remained.  Discursively as well as geopolitically, the nation was forced to remain just where apocalypse management would have it:  on the brink. 

“A Difficult And Novel Thing”

The Formosa Straits crisis forced the public to consider, for the first time, whether it really wanted to fight the final battle to defeat communism.  The answer, as mediated through the press, was:  “Probably not.”  So the nation learned to accept a new kind of war in which victory was not a singular event but a continuing process of fending off recurring dangers.  The media took the occasion to create an image of a whole nation reaffirming its collective commitment to this unending process.  It was virtually a ritual occasion, a celebration of an image and an ideology that were meant to be taken as unquestionable truth.

Most importantly, perhaps, it was another chance to affirm that this new kind of war, with its new kind of victory, was also the new way to pursue peace.  For a reader of U.S. news media, there could be no question that, as Newsweek proclaimed, “The U.S.  didn’t want to fight”; it would fight only if forced to.  The commitment to peace was symbolized by the man who stood alone on the brink of decision.  There was never a hint of a possibility that the professional warrior in the White House might be inclined to make war.  Time let its readers eavesdrop on Eisenhower’s private words to congressional leaders:  “If there is any way we can maintain peace honorably, I’m going to do it.”  Many sources described Eisenhower as a lone champion of peace.  The resulting message underscored the logic of apocalypse management:  The risk of war was inevitable and acceptable, because Eisenhower would go to war only if it helped bring the world closer to peace.  Thus the news media did the job that Dulles told the NSC was so necessary:  educating the public to “a difficult and novel thing…to realize that the will and ability to fight for vital things is really indispensable to maintenance of peace."[45]

The equation victory = peace = stability remained unquestioned.  The media never questioned the need for some line between the “free world” and the communist bloc, nor the need for absolutely firm resolve in maintaining that line.  But the Formosa Straits crisis made it legitimate, for the first time, to debate publicly the exact position of the line.  In public discourse, stability became a dynamic process of defending a shifting line—a fluid global situation requiring endless shifts in policy, yet always under the control of the president and the national security managers.  Peace, stability, and national security now meant an apocalypse always impending yet always under control.  Yet it was evident that perfect control was not possible. Since every attempt to solve a problem created new problems, the administration could never say in advance what its policy would be. 

Once this undecidable situation was made public, debate over cold war policy became inevitable and therefore legitimate.  Every option could be supported with reasonable arguments that rested upon the basic cold war axioms.  If geopolitical stability and stable policy commitments were no longer possible, then there could be no stable discourse either.  The dream of perfect clarity had to be given up along with perfect control.  There would be a greater longing for immutable stasis, more frustration over its impossibility, more blame placed on the dynamic, chaotic enemy, and thus greater fear of that enemy.  The line between the two superpower blocs would become more crucial than ever precisely because it had become so publicly movable. The awareness of constant flux gave the president and the national security managers more opportunities to demonstrate control.  The media encouraged the public to have faith in the president and in his administration.  Journalistic reports from the field, the relative lack of public alarm, and the quick demise of the crisis as a news story all indicate that the public did have that faith.  Thus the crisis effectively schooled the public in yet another vital premise of apocalypse management:  the government and its national security experts had to be trusted to keep every peril at bay.

The coverage of the Formosa Straits crisis yoked together confidence and anxiety; as in every apocalyptic situation, more of one bred more of the other.  But the anxiety took on positive meaning, for it was set in the larger context of hopeful faith in Eisenhower and his ability to bring the peace that would also be victory.  Thus the media served his aim of keeping up the nation’s anxiety without letting that anxiety paralyze the public or turn it against the cold war project.  The ultimate goal of Operation Candor had finally been achieved.  In retrospect, the Formosa Straits crisis could easily be seen as just another passing event in the news.  Once the story disappeared from the front pages, its very absence suggested that there was no urgency about this particular threat.  It would inevitably crop up again, in some other form, somewhere else.  By the spring of 1955, the public had learned to live with apocalypse management as an acceptable, taken-for-granted fact of life. 

This encounter with apocalypse management was, like the policy itself, above all a verbal process.  Words were deployed as symbols of the nation’s resolve to maintain stability, discursive as well as geopolitical.  Public discourse included, more overtly than ever before, words about using nuclear weapons.  However, the language suggested that the weapons themselves would be used in the same way as words:  as symbols of the nation’s resolve and as agents of stability.  The whole process was now openly admitted to be a symbolic one.  National security discourse would enhance stability only at the brink of war.  To stay on this route to security, the nation would have to accept the radical insecurity of the brink.   Nevertheless the public agreed, with little visible dissent, to play its part faithfully. 

Notes to Chapter 7

[1] NSC, 1/5/55, FRUS, 1955-1957, 19: 10-12.  When Dulles suggested that the official goal should be to “disrupt” rather than “neutralize” the communist apparatus, the president approved.  The conflict between the Pentagon and State Department is well summarized in Bowie and Immerman, Waging Peace, 169-175.

[2] NSC, 11/24/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 792; NSC, 12/21/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 832; Wampler, “Ambiguous Legacy,” 652. 

[3] NSC, 12/21/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 837. 

[4] Ibid., 838.  Eisenhower may well have been recalling the blame heaped on Dean Acheson for his January, 1950, speech, which seemed to set South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter. 

[5] Ibid., 841, 838. 

[6] Ibid., 843; NSC 5501, 1/7/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 31.

[7] NSC, 11/24/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 794.  Some of Eisenhower's decisions seemed specifically designed for political purposes, as when he ruled out of NSC 5501 a long sentence on U.S. commitment to avoid provoking war:  NSC, 1/5/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 16.

[8] NSC 5501, 1/7/55, 1/7/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 22, 31, 37.

[9] NSC, 12/21/54, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 843. 

[10] NSC, 9/12/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 616; Eisenhower to Gruenther, 2/1/55, PDDE, 16: 1536-1540; Eisenhower to Churchill, 12/14/54, PDDE, 15: 1444.  Eisenhower told Congressional leaders:  “We have enough naval and air strength in that territory to knock out any invasion of the Pescadores and Formosa…But what the British and our allies do not understand are the aspirations and hopes of the people on Formosa”:  Ferrell, The Diary of James C. Hagerty, 195.

[11] NSC, 1/20/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 82; Eisenhower to Gruenther, 2/1/55, PDDE, 16: 1537, 1538; NSC, 1/21/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 92.  For the Munich analogy see also, e.g., Eisenhower to Churchill, 3/29/55, PDDE, 16: 1639-1642.

[12] NSC, 1/21/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 93; NSC, 11/2/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 837; NSC, 9/12/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 621.

[13] NSC, 11/2/54, FRUS 1952-54, 14.1: 836.

[14] NSC, 1/20/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 79.

[15] Ferrell, The Diary of James C. Hagerty, 176, 186; NSC, 1/21/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 93.  It is not clear whether Eisenhower knew that U.S. nuclear weapons had already been shipped to Okinawa, and components for the weapons sent to Japan, in December; see Norris et al., “Where They Were,” nn. 13, 14.

[16] NSC, 11/2/54, FRUS, 1952-1954, 14.1: 831, 836. 

[17] Ferrell, The Diary of James C. Hagerty, 188.  As early as November, 1954, he implied to the NSC that he doubted the wisdom of his own policy of risking war:  “It was better to accept some loss of face in the world than to go to general war in the defense of these small islands":  NSC, 11/2/54, FRUS, 1952-1954, 14.1: 836.  See also Eisenhower to Acting Secretary of State, phone call, 9/6/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 573; Eisenhower to Gruenther, 2/1/55, PDDE 16: 1539; Memorandum of Conversation, 1/30/55, FRUS, 1955-1957, 2: 175.  As late as March 28, Eisenhower remarked publicly that the Chinese would not attack soon:  NYT, 3/29/55, 1. 

[18] Dulles, Memorandum of Conversation, 3/6/55, FRUS, 1955-1957, 2: 336; Ferrell, The Diary of James C. Hagerty, 211; Press Conference, 3/12/55, PPP, 1955, 332. See Immerman, John Foster Dulles, 131.

[19] Bundy, Danger and Survival, 255; Memorandum of Conversation, 3/6/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 336; Memorandum of Conversation with the President, Sunday, March 6, 1955, 3/7/55, John Foster Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 3, “Meetings with the President 1955 (6)”; Memorandum of Conversation, 3/7/55, FRUS 1952-1954, 2.1: 337.

[20] Eisenhower to Acting Secretary of State, 9/8/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 577; Cutler Memorandum, 3/11/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 359; Dulles Memorandum of Conversation with the President , 10:30 am, 3/7/55, John Foster Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda Series, Box 3, “Meetings with the President 1955 (7).”

[21] NSC, 3/10/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 347.  See Cutler Memorandum, 3/11/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 358.

[22] Eisenhower to Gruenther, 2/1/55, PDDE, 16: 1539.

[23] Eisenhower to Gruenther, 2/1/55, PDDE, 16: 1539; Eisenhower to Churchill, 2/10/55, PDDE, 16: 1564; NSC, 9/12/54, FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 618; NSC, 11/2/54,  FRUS 1952-1954, 14.1: 836; NSC, 2/17/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 283.

[24] Chang, Friends and Enemies, 124; Bundy, Danger and Survival, 283; Divine, Eisenhower and the Cold War, 65. 

[25] NSC, 1/20/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 2: 71.

[26] Pruessen, “John Foster Dulles and the Predicaments of Power,” 37;  Stolper, China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands, 110, n. 44; Pruessen, “Beyond the Cold War,” 62.  See also Chang, Friends and Enemies, 116, 125, 139.

[27] Ferrell, The Diary of James C. Hagerty, 197.

[28] Brands, “The Age of Vulnerability,” 984.

[29] Dulles to Wellington Koo, 2/10/55, quoted in Kusnitz, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, 72. See also Eisenhower to Dulles, 4/5/55, FRUS 1955-1957,  2: 449; Foot, The Prestige of Power, 91.

[30] Churchill to Eisenhower, 6/10/54, in Boyle, The Churchill – Eisenhower Correspondence, 144.    

[31] Press Conference, 4/27/55, PPP, 1955, 431.

[32] NSC 5501, 1/7/55, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 37; Medhurst, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 91. 

[33] Remarks to the Advertising Council, 3/22/55, PPP, 1955, 345, 346; Remarks for "Back-to-God" Program of the American Legion, 2/20/55, PPP, 1955, 274; Press Conference, 1/12/55, PPP, 1955, 59.

[34] Special Message on Defense of Formosa, 1/24/55, PPP, 1955, 207, 208; Press Conference, 2/2/55, PPP, 1955, 235; Press Conference, 3/16/55, PPP, 1955, 338

[35] Press Conference, 1/12/54, PPP, 1955, 57, 59; Press Conference, 3/23/55, PPP, 1955, 357, 358.

[36] Christian Science Monitor, 3/22/55, 20; NYT, 3/26/55, 1.

[37] NYT, 3/29/55, 1; Newsweek, 4/5/55, 21.  In a diary entry, Eisenhower noted the publicity given the alarmist remarks of some of his aides:  “I believe hostilities are not so imminent.  I have so often been through these periods of strain that I have become accustomed to the fact that most of the calamities that we anticipate really never occur.”  This often-quoted sentence was quite atypical.  It is hard to know just what it meant, because it was an incomplete thought.  As Ann Whitman added at the entry’s end, “President had not a chance to finish this”:  diary, 3/26/55, PDDE, 16: 1636.

[38] Time, 4/5/55, 13; San Francisco Chronicle, 3/26/55, 1; SLPD, 3/29/55, 2C; NYT, 3/27/55, 4: 10.  A James Reston column was headlined:  “The Darkness is Coming On in the Far East; The Drift Toward Atomic War”:  NYT, 4/5/55, 4: 5. See also Newsweek, 4/5/55, 17, 23.

[39] Time, 4/11/55, 22; Newsweek, 4/5/55, 44; Life, 4/5/55, 40.  Life told its readers that Pentagon and State Department authorities were “united in the conclusion that the U.S. has to fight to hold Quemoy and the Matsus or suffer a fatal setback in the Far East.”

[40] NYT, 3/27/55, IV: 1; NYT, 3/31/55, 1; Newsweek, 4/5/55, 23.

[41] SLPD, 3/31/55, 1C ; NYT, 4/3/55, IV: 1; Christian Science Monitor, 3/30/55, 20.  A series of editorial cartoons from around the country, gathered on one page in the Times’ “News of the Week in Review,” all shared a common theme:  the administration was in a difficult spot, confused and unsure of its next move:  NYT, 4/3/55, IV: 5. On public concern, compare the stories in NYT, 4/1/55, 26 and NYT, 4/5/55, IV: 5.

[42] Newsweek, 4/5/55, 23, 21; Christian Science Monitor, 4/2/55, 1; Christian Science Monitor, 3/30/55, 1; Time, 4/11/55, 21; Newsweek, 4/11/55, 32.

[43] NYT, 3/31/55, 1; San Francisco Chronicle, 3/31/55, 24.

[44] SLPD, 3/31/55, 1C; Christian Science Monitor, 3/26/55, 1.

[45] Newsweek, 4/5/55, 23; Time, 4/11/55, 22; NSC, 11/2/54, FRUS 1952-54, 14.1: 836.