Tue, May 22, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Book review: The China Threat: Memories, Myths and Realities in the 1950s

Nancy Bernkopf Tucker shines a new light into former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s soul to reveal a man more prone to pragmatism than previously thought

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

The China Threat: Memories, Myths and Realities in the 1950s, by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker

The China Threat is essentially a new look at former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his attitude to China during his time in office, from 1953 to 1961. It argues that his personal records show he was more of a pragmatist, and less of an intransigent Cold War warrior, than has previously been supposed.

The book opens with the story of Eisenhower telling John F. Kennedy before his inauguration that if he sought to change the US attitude to “Red China” — for instance, by recognizing it — then he, Eisenhower, would come out of retirement and make speeches on the folly of such a policy reversal. This conversation, the author asserts, can’t possibly have happened. The reason she thinks this is destined to become the book’s theme — that Eisenhower privately wanted to recognize Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and his revolutionary government, but was prevented from doing so both by his aides and by his own fear of Republican public opinion.

Eisenhower undoubtedly thought along these lines, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker writes, but it’s also important to understand that he didn’t take Asian affairs in general over-seriously. His experience as commander of US forces in Europe during the closing years of World War II made him see global politics from what was essentially a European perspective. What mattered to Eisenhower was the menace of Communism in Europe, and hence of Russia (then the USSR) and its nuclear threat. China, too, was to develop nuclear weapons, but, vast though that country was, it was also extremely poor, hadn’t put a man into space, and had anyway been successfully confronted already over the issue of Taiwan.

There is an important and detailed chapter on the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, which centered on the offshore islands of Kinmen and Mazu. Mao’s foreign policy goals, Tucker writes, didn’t include taking control of these islands, waging war with the US, or even endangering US forces. Instead, they were to test US resolve, waste US resources, and demonstrate to the world the extent of Taipei’s dependence on the US in general.

Publication notes

The China Threat: Memories, Myths and Realities in the 1950s

By Nancy Bernkopf Tucker

275 pages


Hardback: US


The issue of the islands divided US opinion, however, at least among those who actually knew where they were. Adlai Stevenson, who’d been the Democrat Party’s presidential candidate in both 1952 and 1956, insisted the islands were not part of Taiwan at all, while Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state but by this time in ostensible retirement from politics, declared Eisenhower hadn’t any international allies on the issue, and that the islands were not worth the sacrifice of one American life.

As for Eisenhower himself, he’s revealed as feeling that Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) was taking him for a ride by increasing troop numbers on the islands as if constantly challenging the US to increase its own commitment. The chapter is supported with very detailed footnotes giving the author’s sources — a characteristic, in fact, of the book as a whole.

But the US was in something of a cleft-stick over Taiwan anyway. It favored a “two Chinas” solution, but neither Beijing (then as now) nor Taipei (under monolithic Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) control) would hear of it. At the same time the US had to go on supporting Taiwan in its stance against the “Red menace” represented by the China, however exorbitant Chiang’s demands. Nevertheless, on the surface Eisenhower continued to the end as an intransigent Taipei supporter. On his visit to Taiwan in 1960 he assured the crowds that there had been “not the slightest lessening in our determination” to support them.

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