The US Air Force sought to attack China with nuclear weapons early on during the Chinese military blockade of Kinmen and Matsu in 1958, but then-US president Dwight D. Eisenhower vetoed the idea, newly declassified Air Force histories released on Wednesday show.
But while Eisenhower rejected the use of the nuclear weapons as a first response to the Chinese actions, he and his top officials did not rule out their use if the crisis went on for an extended period. In that case, “nuclear strikes apparently would follow,” the documents reveal.
Air Force officials advocated hitting targets in the area of Xiamen and other cities, including Shanghai, if the crisis escalated, the documents, released by the National Security Archives, an anti-secrecy research institute located at George Washington University in Washington showed.
As the crisis grew, members of Eisenhower’s Cabinet and military leaders “accepted the idea that the United States would have to resort to nuclear weapons to prevent the Communists from using ships and aircraft to isolate the Nationalist-held islands,” one document said.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan Twining, advocated dropping 10 kiloton to 15 kiloton nuclear bombs near what was then known as Amoy, and possibly on “airfields as far distant as Shanghai,” the document says.
While admitting that such acts “might bring down nuclear vengeance” on Taiwan, he “considered this is a risk that would have to be taken if the offshore islands were to be defended,” it says.
Pacific Air Force commander, General Laurence Kuter, was the main proponent of the immediate nuclear option, and was astounded when he found out that Eisenhower rejected it, the history says. Based on his assumption, in mid-August of 1958, five Strategic Air Command B-47s on Guam went on alert “to conduct nuclear raids against mainland airfields,” the document says.
On Aug. 25, at a White House meeting, Eisenhower “rejected the idea of using atomic weapons immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities. Instead, he insisted that the first strikes be made with high explosives, although nuclear weapons would be available if needed for subsequent attacks,” the history shows.
By October, the crisis subsided as China apparently concluded that the massive US response in defense of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (將介石) and his government rendered an all-out attack on the offshore islands not worth the effort, the history suggests.
The 10 formerly secret and top-secret histories of the US Air Force, which contain the history of the 1958 Taiwan crisis, were obtained by the archives under a Freedom of Information Act request initially filed in the 1990s and released only after a recent court action.
An analysis accompanying the Quemoy-Matsu crisis history suggests that the incident had a wider implication for US military strategy, and especially its thoughts on nuclear warfare.
“The assumption that the United States would meet Communist aggression by immediate nuclear retaliation did not survive the Taiwan crisis of 1958,” the document says. “The caution [Eisenhower] displayed at the time ... forced US military planners to review their attitudes concerning nuclear wars.”