The Taiwan Strait Crises of the 1950s and the evolution of Sino-US relations [Photo story]

What was behind the web of complicated relations between the US, the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing in the 1950s? What impacts do these complex relationships and interlinked issues have on the present? Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao gives a pictorial overview of the situation.
The Military Assistance Advisory Group training KMT troops to use automatic rifles provided by the US, 1951. After the Korean War broke out, the US government sent an advisory group to Taiwan to strengthen its military.
The Military Assistance Advisory Group training KMT troops to use automatic rifles provided by the US, 1951. After the Korean War broke out, the US government sent an advisory group to Taiwan to strengthen its military.

(All photographs courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

As an extension of the civil war in China between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the 1950s saw a decade of intense aerial and naval battles as well as tussles over islands in the Taiwan Strait near the coasts of Fujian province. This was also closely linked to the US's shifting strategy in the West Pacific, as well as core elements of China-US relations.

In August 1949, during the Chinese civil war, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was attacking southward and captured Shanghai and Nanjing, and was sweeping through southern and central China, while the Nationalist government was on the retreat. At this point, the US government released the China White Paper strongly criticising the Chiang Kai-shek government, noting that it was incompetent and had lost the support of the people, while its troops were at low morale. The paper said that the Nationalist government’s failures in the civil war had nothing to do with the US government, and the US would no longer provide any assistance.

US wanted to stay out of the fray

To prevent Taiwan from falling into the hands of the CCP, the US did hold internal discussions on how to get Taiwan to break away from China, but this was not accepted by the Department of State. On 1 October, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established. In November, the Nationalist government moved from Guangzhou to Taipei, and settled in Taiwan.

In January 1950, US President Harry Truman issued a statement that the US had no intention of “utilising its Armed Forces to interfere in the present situation” and that the US government “will not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China”. This meant that it would not stop CCP troops from crossing the sea and taking Taiwan. The US had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Nationalist government during World War II, as allies against Japan’s military imperialism. But when the Nationalist government failed, the US disclaimed responsibility for the failure of its policy towards China, showing the pragmatic side of US policy.

The Korean War changed everything

The PLA was beaten back while attacking Kinmen in Fujian in late October 1949, but it quickly regrouped. In the spring of 1950, the PLA gathered 500,000 troops along the coast of Fujian in preparation to cross the sea to take over Taiwan. However, in June 1950, the Korean War broke out, changing the course of history. To stop the spread of communist forces, the US government immediately announced the deployment of aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. On its part, the CCP also moved the PLA northwards, and Taiwan and the mainland henceforth entered a long standoff.

Apart from sending US naval vessels as an added defence for Taiwan, a US advisory group was also dispatched to Taiwan, while a steady stream of weapons, military supplies, and food was transported there. It must be said that while the Nationalist government only held Taiwan, Penghu, and some islands in the waters around Zhejiang and Fujian, the US still recognised the Republic of China (ROC) government as the only legitimate government representing China, and supported it retaining its seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and urged its allies to adopt a similar policy.

General MacArthur with KMT generals, 1 August 1950. When the Korean War broke out, the KMT government retreated to Taiwan and MacArthur made a trip there to discuss how to counter the CCP’s military expansion.
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The US Seventh Fleet enters the Taiwan Strait to prevent the CCP’s PLA from attacking Taiwan, 1950s.

The US resumed its support of the Nationalist government, and was a great help to the Chiang Kai-shek government. However, there was occasional friction between both sides. President Chiang not only wanted to protect Taiwan, but wanted to go one step further and launch a counterattack on the mainland, and occasionally initiated fierce naval and aerial fighting with the PLA along the Fujian coast.

At this time, the KMT army had the advantage in terms of its navy and air force, and could afford to take the offensive. To avoid getting embroiled in Chiang Kai-shek’s counterattacking plans, the US government’s response was sometimes vague and ambiguous. At the same time, many KMT troops overseas made their way to Taiwan, including about 30,000 former KMT soldiers and their families who made the journey in 1953 via Vietnam.

R.O.C Military Academy students at bayonet training, 1952. The academy nurtured KMT military talents.
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R.O.C Military Academy students at mortar training on Fengshan, Kaohsiung, 1952. Soldiers were divided into groups of five, with different roles assigned to each person.
KMT soldiers in full gear boarding a C-46 transport aircraft on Fengshan, Kaohsiung, for airborne training, 1952.
On 10 October 1952, the KMT government celebrated its anniversary, with army troops in full gear on military trucks, alongside a row of new cannons.
chiang kai shek
In 1953, US Vice President Richard Nixon visited Taiwan and presented a photo of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Chiang Kai-shek. Nixon was known to be a firm anti-communist. 20 years later, he was the US president who opened the doors of communist China.
US Vice President Richard Nixon speaking to Taiwanese on his visit to Taiwan in 1953.
On 30 March 1954, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (right) arrived in Taiwan, and was received by ROC Premier Yu Hung-chun.
In December 1954, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and KMT government Foreign Minister George Yeh Kung-chao signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, confirming the bilateral military alliance. However, the treaty did not include the Kinmen and Matsu islands off Fujian, signifying that the US would not get involved in Chiang Kai-shek’s plans to counterattack against the mainland.
US senior officials visiting Taiwan, 1950s. At the time, the US government still recognised the ROC as the legal government representing China, and so the flags of the US and ROC were hung up.

Many of the 10,000 or so Korean War PLA volunteer troops who came to Taiwan in 1954 were originally also from the Nationalist army. It was because they lost in the Chinese civil war that they joined the PLA, and were sent to fight against the US troops as volunteers in the Korean War. After they were captured, they chose to come to Taiwan, and in a twist of fate, rejoined the Nationalist troops. And in 1955, another group of about 30,000 Nationalist troops and civilians were evacuated from the Dachen islands off Zhejiang to Taiwan.

In a stark reminder of the suffering of the times, among the KMT soldiers and their familes who came to Taiwan in 1953 was a baby who had been born homeless and displaced.
In 1953, about 30,000 KMT soldiers and their families who had stayed behind in Vietnam came to Taiwan in batches. The photo shows them squatting to have their meal in their temporary lodgings on arrival in Taiwan.
A KMT amphibious underwater demolition team undergoing training in the West Pacific, 1954. The trainer is an officer of the Military Assistance Advisory Group.
A KMT soldier adjusts his position under the guidance of a US army instructor, 1954.
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An officer from the Military Assistance Advisory Group helping KMT troops to check the wireless system on an M18 Hellcat tank destroyer, 1954. The US sent a lot of weapons equipment to Taiwan and provided military training to strengthen Taiwan’s military capabilities.
R.O.C Military Academy students learning to use communications equipment under a US army instructor, 1954. This was the means of communication between the soldiers outside the tank and those within. Once the tank hatch is closed, it is difficult for those inside to get information from outside, and the equipment allows communication.
In February 1955, the KMT government decided to move over 20,000 residents on the remote — and hard-to-defend — Dachen islands off Zhejiang to Taiwan. The photo shows health officials using spray dispensers to decontaminate Dachen residents arriving at Keelung port.
A US soldier captures on camera the moment Dachen residents arrive at Keelung, February 1955. The little boy in the photo is nervous about this strange new place, and the soldier consoles him.
KMT troops standing at attention in full uniform as they arrive in Keelung from Dachen, February 1955. Health officials are using spray dispensers to decontaminate their clothes and bags.
When Dachen residents arrived in Taiwan in 1955, all they could bring with them were a few clothes and their identification documents.

 Diehard KMT guerillas in Myanmar and northern Thailand

Perhaps the most legendary was the story of the KMT guerillas operating in Myanmar and northern Thailand. They were Yunnan Nationalist troops led by General Li Mi. They refused to surrender and escaped into Myanmar, where they built a guerilla base. Initially, there were only 1,000 of them, but they grew in strength and started to carry out counterattacks against the mainland. This armed group alarmed Myanmar and Thailand, and after international mediation, some officers and their families were sent to Taiwan. However, many stayed in northern Thailand, where they remain today. The Thai government allowed them to stay as mercenaries, where they became a unique Chinese community with their own independent arms and cultural and educational system.

In 1954, the US and Taiwan signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), stating their relationship as military allies, while also expanding cooperation in areas of government, economy, and society. The treaty did not interpret the legal status of Taiwan and Penghu. After the treaty was signed, the US established military bases in Taiwan, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helping to train Taiwanese pilots to handle high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The Black Cat Squadron (the 35th squadron) and Black Bat Squadron (the 34th squadron) were formed, and carried out high altitude reconnaissance missions in the skies above mainland China.

F-84 fighter jets of the KMT air force conducting exercises above Taipei, 1955. The F-84s were the mainstay of the ROC air force, gaining the upper hand in many air combat victories over the CCP.
A group of artillery soldiers working a 155-mm cannon, 1955. With each pull of the rope, cannonballs would fire and send the gravel flying over the battleground. Kinmen is located opposite Xiamen in the waters off Fujian, and became the first line of battle between Taiwan and the mainland.

Seeds of US-Taiwan discord sown

Tens of thousands of US army troops were stationed in Taiwan, where they brought in American-style leisure and entertainment culture. But although US-Taiwan military cooperation was at its peak, the overbearing attitude of the US also pricked the pride of Taiwan’s intellectuals, planting the seeds of future conflict.

Female members of the US Armed Forces Entertainment dressed in qipao, posing after performing in Taiwan, 1950s.
The US Armed Forces Entertainment performing in Taipei Zhongshan Hall, 1950s. Most of those in the audience were US army troops.
The US Armed Forces Entertainment performing for appreciative soldiers in Taiwan, 1950s.
A member of the US Armed Forces Entertainment visiting a Taiwanese local crafts shop after a performance, accompanied by a US officer, 1950s.

In 1957, Taiwanese academic researcher Liu Ziran was passing by US army residential quarters when he was shot and killed by US soldier Robert G. Reynolds. While the incident took place in Taiwan, the case came under the US military court, and Reynolds was acquitted and released. The incident immediately sparked anger among the Taiwanese, who surrounded the US embassy and even made it over the walls, overturning vehicles and damaging office facilities, and even ransacking drawers and cupboards to remove important documents. Although the Taiwanese government sent military police to restore order and arrest the culprits, most of them were released with light sentences. The incident led to some unhappiness in US-Taiwan relations, but in the general context of the US working with its allies to contain communist China, laws relating to US army jurisdiction were adjusted and the incident quickly blew over.

In 1957, anti-US actions broke out in Taipei, with people attacking the US embassy and entering inside and stealing documents.
An officer of the KMT’s 81st Division stationed on Kinmen arriving by boat at Xiamen and surrendering to the PLA, 1957.

Mainland China and Taiwan’s artillery brinkmanship in Kinmen

In August 1958, the PLA gathered in Fujian and set up multiple artillery bases — clouds of war threatened the Taiwan Strait. On 23 August, the artillery forces of the PLA in Fujian bombarded Kinmen. For about two hours, an estimated 27,000 missiles rained down unceasingly, transforming the sky and land, causing damage to military facilities and residences in Kinmen and human casualties, including the deaths of three of Kinmen’s senior generals.

The Nationalist troops in Kinmen soon fought back, with intense fighting between the air and sea forces on both sides. The heavy bombing immediately drew international attention, and the PLA did not send troops to land in Kinmen, but blocked off the place by bombing it, forcing Chiang Kai-shek to pull out troops from Kinmen.

Many residences were damaged and destroyed by the bombardment in Kinmen, 1958. The photo shows civilians whose homes have been bombed.

The US government immediately sent supplies to Kinmen, and lent support with new cannons to counterattack. On the other hand, it publicly declared that the US had no obligation to defend Kinmen, noting that the MDT did not include islands near Fujian such as Kinmen and Matsu. In fact, the US government suggested that Chiang Kai-shek give up Kinmen and Matsu, while the US Department of State referred to Taiwan’s “uncertain” status. However, all this was firmly rejected by Chiang Kai-shek.

chiang kai shek
Chiang Kai-shek visiting the US Seventh Fleet to observe sea and air exercises, 1958.
Jets taking off and landing from an aircraft carrier of the US Seventh Fleet, 1958. At the time, sea and air fights were frequent occurrences along the Fujian coast, and the Seventh Fleet added to the defence of the Taiwan Strait.
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Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, inspecting sea operations on a gunboat in Kinmen, 1959. At the time, Kinmen had just seen heavy bombardment, and the cross-strait issue was gaining global attention.
US troops carrying out landing exercises in Taiwan, 1960. At the time, the US and KMT government worked closely in military cooperation.
On 18 June 1960, Chiang Kai-shek and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower rode from Songshan Airport to Grand Hotel Taipei, with Eisenhower waving to the welcoming crowds lining the streets. Eisenhower gave a speech in front of the Presidential Office Building, reiterating the US’s firm support of anti-communism in Asia.
US President Eisenhower raises his arms in response to the crowd of 100,000 cheering him as he speaks in front of the Presidential Office Building.

Mao thought wiser move was to leave Kinmen and Matsu in Chiang Kai-shek’s hands

Historians have examined archival documents from both sides of the Taiwan Strait as well as the US government and come to a similar conclusion. Mao Zedong realised that if the KMT troops pulled out of Kinmen and Matsu and other islands off Fujian, and Taiwan came under the US army, given the huge disparity between the sea and air forces of China and the US, Taiwan might be forced to break away from China one day, and it might be better to let Kinmen and Matsu remain in Chiang Kai-shek’s hands, and present the cross-Strait issue as an extension of China’s civil war.

Kinmen facing Xiamen’s coast, 1960. Soldiers resting after an exercise, overlooking a minefield and a beach full of anti-landing spikes against the CCP army. The withered tree adds to the desolation.

On 5 October, the PLA significantly reduced its bombardment — after that, there was just token fire between Kinmen and Xiamen, to show the world the nature of China’s civil war. This was a consensus between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek to show the international community “One China”, and to resist US interference in China’s sovereign affairs and preserve China’s territorial integrity. This was the complicated tussle between Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, and the US government, that is, the nexus between Chinese nationalism standing on a common front despite ideological opposition, and the international power struggle between major countries.

Fujian PLA navy vessels conducting military exercises, 1960s. At this time, PLA navy vessels were old and were in a disadvantaged position, while the KMT troops had the upper hand. Generally, maritime control lay with the KMT navy.
Fujian PLA navy vessels conducting military exercises, 1960s. Gunboats were the mainstay as the KMT mainly launched quick attacks with fast boats.
PLA navy vessels patrolling the waters around Fujian, 1960s. At the time, PLA boats were of light tonnage and could only carry out defensive activities along the coast.

In June 1960, on his tour of the Far East, US President Dwight Eisenhower made a three-day visit to Taiwan, where 500,000 people lined the streets of Taipei to welcome him. In his speech, Eisenhower said: “Free China had an opportunity as well as a responsibility, to demonstrate to less-developed nations the way to economic growth in freedom. The ROC on Taiwan was in a position to show how a nation can achieve substantive strength and advance the well-being of its people without sacrificing its most valued traditions.” His visit represented the peak of US-Taiwan relations.

At the time, Taiwan society was stable, and its economy was starting to grow rapidly. Chiang Kai-shek was firm on the one-China principle, and cross-strait relations entered a long period of peaceful development. In particular, after Chiang’s plan to send commando troops into Guangdong, Fujian, and Shandong was gradually thwarted, he gave up his plan of a counterattack on the mainland.

Civilian troops in Xiamen, Fujian, patrolling the coastline, 1960s. The words on the rocks read “We will liberate Taiwan”; cross-strait relations were at their most tense in the mid-1960s.
In 1961, the US provided Taiwan with Nike missiles — ground-to-air missiles that were effective defences against air attacks.
During the KMT’s anniversary on 10 October 1960, students of the Political Warfare Cadres Academy — also known as Fu Hsing Kang College — line up in neat rows at the Presidential Office Building.
lyndon johnson
In 1961, US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Taiwan. The previous year, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy was elected US President, and Johnson reiterated support for the KMT government. The photo shows Johnson raising his arms while being cheered as he makes the round of Taiwan.

PRC and the US find common cause

In the late 1960s, as the Cultural Revolution swept through China, it had a major influence on left-wing forces in Third World countries. Conflicts also broke out between China and the Soviet Union due to their different approaches to communism as well as competition for international power. It began with mutual criticism, which developed into armed border clashes. At the time, the US and Soviet Union were caught in the Cold War, complete with its nuclear threat, while the US was also mired in the Vietnam War. The standoff between China and the Soviet Union provided new room to come together in the larger context of global strategy.

forbidden city
In 1966, CCP leader Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution, and China entered a period of extreme left-wing ideology which led to friction with Soviet revisionism in terms of direction and authority. China and the US were polar opposites in thinking, but having the Soviet Union as the common enemy led to common ground for strategic cooperation.

In 1971, the PRC government took over from the ROC government in representing China at the UN. In February 1972, US President Richard Nixon visited China and signed the Shanghai Communique, which said both countries would move towards normalisation of relations. In September that year, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing and normalised relations with China, while cutting relations with Taipei.

US President Nixon met and spoke with Mao Zedong when visiting China in 1972. Both reached a basic consensus on the common interests for both countries, and the US government committed to normalising relations with China as soon as possible.
In 1972, US President Nixon met Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, after which they signed the Shanghai Communique. This was the prelude to diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC, and changed the global strategic situation. Second from left is US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In 1977, Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping met George H.W. Bush, then the US' chief diplomatic envoy in China, before there was an official US embassy in China. Deng had become a key person in China’s reform and opening up. Bush was subsequently the director of the CIA when he returned to the US, and later also became the vice president and president of the US.

And in December 1978, the Carter administration in the US announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing while ending relations with Taipei. The Sino-American MDT was also repealed and US troops were pulled out from Taiwan. The US also accepted the interpretation of both sides of the Taiwan Strait being “one China”, and Congress passed a bill to continue selling defence equipment to Taiwan. In January 1979, the PLA in Xiamen stopped its bombardment of Kinmen, and in 1981, the Chinese government announced its “peaceful unification, one country two systems” policy on Taiwan.

In 1980, US vice-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush visited mainland China and spoke to the media. As the first unofficial envoy to China, Bush was familiar with China’s workings, and his appointment as US vice president would affect US policy towards China.
deng xiaoping
In February 1979, Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping visited the US on an invitation, receiving a warm welcome from US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. China and the US had just announced the establishment of diplomatic relations and were opening up new strategic cooperation, which had a major impact on the international situation.
deng xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping and his wife with US President Jimmy Carter and wife waving to the crowd on the balcony of the White House, February 1979. This was a symbol of a new chapter in China-US relations.

Looking back at the fierce fighting in the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s, it was an extension of the fighting between the KMT and CCP, and also a political and military strategy by the US to contain the expansion of communism in the West Pacific. The issues involved include the clash of national interests and also cooperation between China and the US, Taiwan's legal status, China's sovereignty, and the international political environment. All these remain key factors in China-US relations and the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

In the 1950s, mainland China dropped leaflets into Taiwan featuring Zhang Baoxiang, the niece of Zhang Xingyuan, vice-commander of Kinmen Defence Command at the time. This was a classic example of how mainland China engaged in psychological warfare by using non-military family members to launch appeals.
A leaflet dropped by mainland China in Taiwan in the 1950s, featuring a strong warning to the KMT army, is a sharp contrast to the other appeals to family ties. This leaflet bluntly says that the military officers’ lives are drawing to a close.
The mainland also used the "people’s commune" in its leaflets as part of psychological warfare against Taiwan in the 1960s. This is especially ironic today because the people’s commune was an important part of the Great Leap Forward. At the time, there were claims of abundance everywhere, but now the truth is out that it was the worst famine in China during the 20th century, with an estimated 60 million people who starved to death in mainland China — even today, the exact number is not known.
In 1960, one type of soft propaganda used by mainland China on Taiwan was a small, elegantly printed card with traditional greetings and wordings portraying an amicable relationship between opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait.
In 1961, CCP pilots Shao Xiyan and Gao Youzong flew a plane to Seoul and then Taiwan, causing a stir in South Korea and Taiwan. As South Korea and the KMT government were considered anti-communist allies, these two pilots were also made honorary citizens of Seoul. This leaflet records this key incident.
In the 1960s, Taiwan dropped leaflets with images showing Taiwan youths living happily under the Three Principles of the People (三民主义). This leaflet shows the happy faces of Taiwan University students at their graduation ceremony.
CCP air force pilot Fan Yuan-yen caused a stir when he defected to Taiwan in his plane. He won hearts with his heartfelt comments at a press conference about why he defected.
The propaganda leaflets of the 1960s were direct in their strong criticism of CCP rule. This leaflet reflects the general anger among mainland Chinese towards the people’s commune.
In the 1980s, Taiwan turned photos of popular singer Teresa Teng into 3D images as propaganda leaflets for mainland China. Following the reform and opening up of mainland China, Teng’s songs became popular and she was featured on the leaflets.

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