Sun, May 29, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Taiwan in Time: Taiwan’s last US ambassador

Leonard Unger, who died six years ago this week, only had a few hours to inform then-president Chiang Ching-kuo that the US was severing diplomatic ties

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The US cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize China in the middle of Leonard Unger’s term as US ambassador, making him the last of his position.

Photo courtesy of US National archives

Taiwan in Time: May 30 to June 5

After picking up US deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher from Songshan Airport in late December 1978, Leonard Unger found their limousine surrounded by an angry mob.

The truck ahead of them had stopped, and there was no way to escape. The protesters broke the car’s windows and began poking their sticks inside. Finally the truck started moving again, and Unger instructed the driver to take a backroad to his residence in Yangmingshan.

“We didn’t really know that anything serious had happened to us; we didn’t feel physically hurt at all,” Unger said in a 1989 interview with The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs. “But when my wife saw us, she gasped. Apparently, we were bleeding profusely without knowing it, but only from superficial cuts.”

“I inspected these cars in Taipei four months later,” late American Institute in Taiwan director David Dean wrote in his memoir. “They were total wrecks.”

This was probably not what Unger imagined when he arrived in Taiwan in late May 1974 as US ambassador to Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Republic of China government. After a long diplomatic career in Europe and Southeast Asia, Taiwan was to be his last stop before retirement.

Prior to the attack, on the evening of Dec. 15, Unger was pulled aside at an American Chamber of Commerce gala and given the unenviable task of informing president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) that the US had decided to severe ties with Taiwan and formally recognize the Beijing-based People’s Republic of China.

Unger had a matter of hours to find Chiang before US president Jimmy Carter made the formal announcement the next morning, finally tracking him down at his residence and convincing his aides to wake him up around 2am.

Unger read to Chiang a letter from Carter, which announced the end of formal relations but guaranteed that “substantive relations” would still continue. All treaties would remain in place except for the Mutual Defense Treaty, which would terminate in one year. The letter also stated that the US would continue to provide “carefully selected defensive arms” to Taiwan — although, per an agreement with China, no transactions were made during the year of 1979.

Historian Henry Tsai (蔡石山) explains why everything was so rushed in his book, Maritime Taiwan: “[National security advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski was concerned that if Taiwan had too much time to prepare … the KMT authorities might ask the powerful senator Jesse Helms to block Carter’s scheme.”

New York Law School professor Chen Lung-chu (陳隆志) writes in his book, The US-Taiwan-China Relationship in International Law and Policy, that even the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee was not informed by Carter until three hours before the announcement.

Unger knew this would happen at some point, as it was the direction which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been steering the country toward despite opposition from many Chiang supporters in the US government. But it still came as a surprise.

“I was not sure whether or not I was going to be the last ambassador, but recognized that there was a pretty good chance I would be,” he said a decade later. “In some fashion or other, we would be working out a new relationship with Beijing which would oblige us to reduce our representation in Taipei.”

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