25. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, January 20, 1955, 6:30 p.m.1


  • The Secretary
  • Sir Roger Makins
  • Sir Robert Scott
  • Mr. Robertson
  • Mr. Merchant

Sir Roger who had called at his request opened the conversation by saying that he had now received a reply from London based on a Cabinet Meeting that morning. The British Government is disturbed by developments. They had thought it was our common objective to work to a situation under which the Chinese Communists accepted a separation of Formosa from the mainland and the Chinese Nationalists abandoned the off-shore islands. The Cabinet did not like the idea of a “provisional guarantee” of Quemoy believing that its lack of clarity would confuse all parties and that furthermore it would encourage the Nationalists to hang on to the coastal islands. The Cabinet had considered the Secretary’s provisos that the “provisional guarantee” should last only until the Communists had acquiesced to the terms of our treaty with Formosa or until the United Nations took some effective action. On the first point London felt that as long as the Nationalists held Quemoy the Communists could never be brought to accept the treaty. On the second point they felt that as long as the Nationalists continued to hold Quemoy the minimum Communist cooperation necessary to the success of Oracle could never be secured. Sir Roger went on to say that the British Government had always been in favor of United Nations intervention in the situation and accordingly they were ready to move at once on Oracle (subject to New Zealand concurrence) if the United States would withhold its proposed provisional guarantee of Quemoy. If the latter is impossible then the Cabinet felt that the fundamental basis for Oracle had changed and the entire matter would require reconsideration. British public opinion, it was felt, would find it difficult to accept the operation on the changed basis. Lastly, Sir Roger said, Sir Anthony Eden recalled the Secretary saying that Quemoy could not be defended except with the use of atomic weapons.2 [Page 87] Eden’s question was whether Quemoy was sufficiently vital to risk such wide-reaching developments.

The Secretary replied that the term “provisional guarantee” was more formalistic than intended. If he had used the expression himself it connoted a legalism which he had not intended. He went on to say that so long as the Communists continued to profess that their present actions are merely preliminary moves for the conquest of Formosa, then it was important that the U.S. promptly clarify its position in the area. If the Tachens are evacuated and no other move made or explanation given, the impression will be that of a collapse in position. The consequences he foresaw in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and very possibly throughout all of Southeast Asia would be extremely serious. The interpretation which would gain currency was that the U.S. was vague until its interests were attacked and then did nothing. The Communists were making it extremely hard for the U.S. to adopt and maintain a moderate position.

The Secretary said that he did not know if it would be possible to hold back publicly with respect to Quemoy while the evacuation of the Tachens and Oracle were going ahead. The Communists’ air was extremely active and moreover the Communists might well attribute the self-control which we were exercising in the matter of the Air Force prisoners as weakness on the part of the U.S. If we could get a temporary U.N. injunction that would be fine but the chances were probably against our ability to secure it.

The British Ambassador replied by asking that if Oracle was launched on Monday in the Security Council and one of the first actions were to be to invite the Chinese Communists to attend, would they actually come? He suggested that the fact of UN intervention might well hold the position on morale in the area, to which the Secretary had referred, for a time. If the UN action in fact produced no hope for a solution, then a new judgment would be required.

Mr. Robertson pointed out that it had been our conception from the first consideration of Oracle that the result would have been a standstill leaving the Nationalists in control of the off-shore islands. It had not been our view that a result of Oracle would be the giving up of these islands by the Nationalists.

Sir Roger agreed and said that he had referred to the ultimate result rather than the immediate one. He went on to say that the Embassy and the UK UN Delegation had gone over the Oracle papers and said they still appeared appropriate. He asked what the [Page 88] situation in recent hours had been in the Tachens and the British were told that there had been no significant change.

The Secretary pointed out, however, that the situation could become critical in a very few days, particularly since the Nationalists now assume (and the Communists presumably as well) that the U.S. will do nothing to assist the defense of the Tachens.

Sir Roger inquired as to our thoughts with respect to taking diplomatic action in Moscow and Peiping as an accompaniment to Oracle.

Mr. Robertson replied that it had been earlier agreed to notify the two Communist governments only a few hours before the institution of the Security Council action.

Sir Roger inquired if it would be possible to inform Moscow and Peiping privately through diplomatic channels of our intended support of Quemoy. Mr. Merchant pointed out that one difficulty of such a private warning was that if it were successful the public impression would be one of Communist restraint rather than resolution on the part of the U.S.

Sir Robert noted that a great deal in the whole operation depended on long-term purposes of the U.S.

The Secretary replied that we had no long-term purpose or interest beyond Formosa and the Pescadores but that if they were threatened with attack, we were heavily dependent upon the state of Nationalist morale. They have 350,000 troops on the island and our thinking has been that in any necessary defense of Formosa, our contribution would be sea and air. If the morale of the Nationalists is so low that their troops would not fight then we presumably would have to furnish them. The Secretary then referred to the necessity of the President securing Congressional authority.

Sir Roger inquired if it might not be possible to make our intended action with respect to Quemoy dependent upon the success or failure of action in the U.N. The Secretary replied that it might be possible to be less specific than now planned in our public statement but that it was necessary to make clear to the Nationalists our intentions regarding Quemoy. It would then also be necessary to tell the Communists so that they made no miscalculations. He would give the matter further thought.

Mr. Robertson pointed out that in this matter we were taking into account not only the question of the morale of the Nationalists but the morale throughout all of free Asia.

The Secretary noted that if in fact the action in the U.N. was successful, the U.S. decision with respect to the defense of Quemoy would never need to be implemented. He added that his reference to the use of atomic weapons in his conversation with Sir Anthony Eden related only to the most extreme hypothesis of the Communists [Page 89] attacking Quemoy in so heavy a human wave as to make it impossible to stop them with ordinary firing power. He felt that this was a remote possibility. (At this remark Sir Roger and Sir Robert exchanged a glance and Sir Robert made what was obviously a verbatim note.) Sir Roger then inquired whether we considered that an air attack on Formosa would bring our treaty into effect.

The Secretary replied that he had considered that that sort of battle would normally3 be between the Nationalists and the Communists and that the U.S. would stay out unless the attacks were so heavy as to threaten the defensibility of Formosa.4

The Secretary then concluded the conversation by saying that he would like to consider overnight whether or not we could shape our plans so as to take into account the British views on Oracle. He emphasized that our position was solid in maintaining the position necessary to thwart a Communist effort to seize Formosa. He mentioned that the NSC was meeting at 9:00 the next morning and asked that our views be communicated urgently to London.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 793.5/8–2958. Top Secret. Drafted by Assistant Secretary Merchant and revised by Dulles. Filed with a memorandum of August 29, 1958, from Fisher Howe, Director of the Executive Secretariat, to the Acting Secretary.
  2. The reference is apparently to a conversation between Eden and Dulles in London on September 17, 1954. According to Merchant’s notes of the conversation, the Secretary commented that an argument against U.S. defense of Quemoy was that “all out assault might carry Q[uemoy] unless A-bomb used tactically in last resort”; see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. xiv, Part 1, p. 650. Although Dulles and Eden discussed the offshore islands problem on subsequent occasions between September and December 1954, records of those conversations in the Department of State files do not indicate any similar comment by the Secretary.
  3. The word “normally” was inserted in Dulles’ handwriting in the source text.
  4. The phrase originally read: “to threaten the collapse of the forces of Formosa.” The revision appears in Dulles’ handwriting on the source text.