16. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, January 19, 1955, 12:45 p.m.1
- Situation of Off-shore Islands
- Dr. George Yeh, Chinese Foreign Minister
- Dr. Wellington Koo, Chinese Ambassador
- The Secretary
- Mr. Robertson, Assistant Secretary, Far Eastern Affairs
- Mr. McConaughy, Director, CA
Dr. Yeh said that he had an important message in regard to the Tachen Islands which he was instructed to deliver to the Secretary. From a strictly military standpoint none of the off-shore islands could be held by the Chinese forces unaided. The off-shore island positions were untenable if the Chinese Government had to depend exclusively on its own resources. However it was not purely a military problem. There were other important considerations in regard to which he wished to consult the Secretary.
The Chinese Government did not want the impression to get out that its forces were unwilling to defend their territory. His Government [Page 39] was fully aware of the bad effect which any such impression would have. It would encourage the enemies of Free China in the U.S. and elsewhere to make the old allegation all over again:—the Chinese Nationalists were afraid to fight and when challenged would throw away their arms and surrender. The Chinese Government had been trying to refute this charge by proving that they do have the will to fight. It has been pretty well refuted on Quemoy where 8,000 Communists have been killed and 7,000 taken prisoner in the course of the repulse of various Communist assaults since 1949. The Chinese troops on the Tachens, as elsewhere, are determined to fight. If any of them must be withdrawn, it would be necessary to plan carefully in advance, to minimize the adverse psychological effect.
The Chinese Government has always wanted to include the off-shore islands in security arrangements with the U.S. When the U.S. found it impossible to include the off-shore islands in the Treaty area, the Chinese Government had urged a demonstration of force by the 7th Fleet, or at least the inclusion of the off-shore islands area in the routine patrols of the 7th Fleet. Unfortunately for the last few days all units of the 7th Fleet have given the Tachen Islands a wide berth. They have stayed farther away than usual. This creates an impression of abandonment. He also expressed a hope that officials of the U.S. Government would refrain from making statements which implied the possibility of abandonment and minimized the lack of strategic importance of the islands. Such statements were encouraging to the Communists.
The Chinese Government believed that if the U.S. would indicate a positive interest in the retention of the off-shore islands by the Chinese Government, following up a public statement with “suggestive action”, a strong deterrent influence would be exercised on the Chinese Communists. The present situation is dangerous for the U.S. as well as for his Government. The Chinese forces cannot stand idly by and become sitting ducks. They have to hit back against the sources of the Communist attacks, which are on the Mainland. Already the Chinese Government forces have started air bombing of the Communist bases on the Mainland from which the attacks on the Tachens have been launched. If the reciprocal attacks and counter attacks of the two sides continue, the area of involvement almost certainly will become enlarged with growing danger for all concerned. The Communists will probably feel compelled to respond to the attacks on their Mainland bases with counter attacks on the Chinese Government air bases, which are on Formosa and the Pescadores. Communist bombing of Formosa and the Pescadores would probably involve the U.S. Hence the safest course from the U.S. standpoint would be for the off-shore islands to be included in the 7th Fleet patrol area. This might stabilize the situation. The Chinese [Page 40] Government knows that the U.S. Government has the capability of deterring the Communists and stabilizing the situation. The question is whether the U.S. is prepared to take such action.
The Secretary said the U.S. Government could not afford to bluff in this situation. We cannot indicate that we may intervene unless we are in fact prepared to do so. It would be disastrous if we made statements and then failed to follow through. We must not give any warning which might prove to be empty. Even if the U.S. were at war with Communist China, it probably would not be militarily sound to hold the Tachen Islands. They are too close to the Communist held Mainland and too far from our air bases. It would be necessary to provide air cover from a carrier. It would not make any military sense to tie up a major unit of our fleet and its protecting vessels in order to defend a rocky islet of no strategic importance. It would not be productive. The continuous provision of air cover would actually tie up two of our major carriers since they would have to be rotated. This would be half of the carriers available in the Far East. It is most unlikely that they could be spared. It may be necessary to consider the evacuation of the Tachens, to avoid the heavy drain on Chinese Government resources now taking place. It is understood that 2 LSTs were lost in the recent raid. It was a question how long that rate of attrition could be afforded.
The Secretary was inclined to think that a UN approach might be advisable. If it did not result in a cease-fire, it might at least place the Chinese Government in a stronger moral position. It was probably too late for UN action to save the Tachens. The Secretary asked if the Foreign Minister considered Quemoy the only other island of importance?
The Foreign Minister said he would also include Matsu.
The Secretary said he had the impression it was not very important.
The Foreign Minister said that Matsu was more or less a northern anchor for the Chinese Government position in the Formosa Strait. It was about as far from Keelung as was Quemoy from Kaoh-siung. He felt that the strategic importance of all the islands was more or less relative, depending on the situation and on other positions which were held. If the Tachens were lost, Matsu would become more important. He felt that some island position north of Quemoy was needed. The Tachens were extremely useful for radar tracking and for intelligence operations. The Chinese Government could communicate with its agents on the Mainland from the Tachens. It was possible to keep track of Communist shipping as far north as Shanghai from the Tachens. They were a very useful northern outpost. Otherwise the Chinese Government would not have expended so much effort and money in fortifying and maintaining [Page 41] them. In time of war it would be very valuable. In Communists hands it would assume a new importance and would represent an added threat to Chinese and U.S. positions.
The Secretary remarked that the disparity in distances made the Tachen position untenable. It was only 60 miles from airfields on the Mainland, against 220 miles from airfields on Formosa.
The Foreign Minister asked if the 7th Fleet could not be instructed to operate as usual in the vicinity of the Tachens. He said that for the past 11 days they had “avoided the area like poison”. He saw no point in this. It represented a conspicuous departure from previous practice. Naturally the Chinese Commanders on Tachen felt let down by the apparent American pullout. He felt there was no real danger in the 7th Fleet vessels adhering to their normal patrol routes. He was sure the Communists were too smart to attack American Naval vessels.
The Foreign Minister referred to one of the requests delivered by Ambassador Koo to Assistant Secretary Robertson on Jan. 12:2 namely, that a U.S. civilian or military official of high rank and wide authority be assigned to Formosa as a consultant and expediter. Someone who would have the power to make decisions on the spot, and who would have direct access to the key people in Washington was envisaged.
The Secretary remarked that we had General Chase in Taipei.
Both the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador said that General Chase lacked the rank and the authority which they considered necessary. They had in mind someone at a higher level who would fill a role of greater responsibility.
At this point the conversation was interrupted. It was agreed that the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador would return in the afternoon for a resumption of the conversation.
Source: Department of State, ROC Files: Lot 71 D 517, 1954–1955, Offshore Islands. Top Secret; Limited Distribution. Drafted by McConaughy and initialed by Robertson, indicating his approval. A memorandum of January 24 from Dulles to Robertson reads:
“You will recall that I had two meetings with George Yeh on Wednesday, January 19, the day I lunched with the President. I first saw him in the morning, and he spoke to me about possible help in evacuating forces in the Tachen Islands. Later in the day after lunching with the President, I outlined in the rough what we might be prepared to do.
“I am very anxious that the memorandum of the first conversation should show that it was he who first brought up the question of the evacuation of the Tachens and not I. This may be important later on if the Chinats should claim it was we who forced evacuation upon them. JFD” (Eisenhower Library, Dulles Papers, White House Memoranda)↩
- See Document 8.↩