“John Foster Dulles and the Fate of Taiwan” by James C.H. Wang, Yu Shan Publishers, Taipei, 2021, 268 pages, NT$450.00
I shall begin this book review with an allusion to that legendary “hunk of burning love” Elvis Presly whose seductive voice, terpsichorean undulation and virile pulchritude made him the world’s first “rock star” in 1957. American bobby-soxers all were a-swoon with him. All, that is, except for Carol Burnett. Ms. Burnett’s hit song, “I made a fool of myself for John Foster Dulles,” the ballad of a young woman “simply on fire with desire for John Foster Dulles,” was a paradoxical antidote to Presleymania. Fun Fact: that 45-rpm single record launched Ms. Burnett, now 89, into seven decades of international stardom and acclaim.
We now have an equally momentous, albeit infinitely more elegant, appreciation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s saturnine secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, by the eminent Taiwanese-American journalist/historian James C.H. Wang (王景弘). In such works as “1949, The Great Exile: Secrets from America’s Diplomatic Archives” (2011 - 1949 大流亡 – 美國外交檔案密錄) and “Taiwan and the Great Powers” (2008 – 強權政治與台灣) Mr. Wang has absorbingly chronicled Taiwan’s emergence from war-ravaged dictatorship to become the Indo-Pacific’s most successful democracy. James Wang’s “John Foster Dulles and the Fate of Taiwan” (2021 – 杜勒斯與台灣命運) begins with the question “why does a country that has major highways named after US President Roosevelt and General MacArthur not have a great landmark named for Secretary Dulles, who basically made Taiwan what it is today?”
The reason, we learn, is that Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) did not like John Foster Dulles. And perhaps the feeling was mutual. Dulles denied China its post-war sovereignty over Taiwan, and Dulles extracted from Chiang the pledge to “retake the Mainland” peacefully.
Surprisingly, Dulles and his forebears had significant historical connections with both China and Taiwan. Dulles’s grandfather, John Watson Foster, Secretary of State under US President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893), was retained by the Manchu Imperial Court in 1895 as legal advisor to Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) to negotiate peace terms in the First Sino-Japanese War. With Foster’s counsel, Li Hongzhang managed to preserve the Qing Dynasty’s homelands in Manchuria from being ceded to Japan — instead turning over Taiwan to the Japanese. In 1955, John Foster Dulles commented in closed Senate testimony, “The sovereignty of Taiwan was vested in Japan, I think in the year 1895. It happened that my grandfather went to Taipei and was one of those who turned over the title deeds to Japan in 1895.”
In 1907, the elder John Foster, again retained as counsel by the Manchu Emperor, was accredited to “The Hague Conference on International Peace” as a senior member of the Chinese delegation. Grandfather Foster hired his beloved grandson John Foster Dulles to serve China’s delegation as its French language interpreter for the summer before his senior year at Princeton.
At the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919, similar nepotism obtained when Dulles’s uncle (and President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state) Robert Lansing recruited his attorney nephew into the US delegation and put young Dulles to work drafting American positions on war reparations. At Versailles young John Foster Dulles witnessed the Anglo-French undoing of President Wilson’s draft articles seeking “self-determination” for territories liberated from the Ottoman Empire; defeated Turkey was forced to “renounce all right, title and claim” to Syria, Palestine and Jordan, yet the European powers withheld sovereignty from their peoples. Rather than establish independence for these nations, sovereignty was left “unsettled” while France and Britain peremptorily assumed governing “mandates” engineered by the League of Nations. (This legal subterfuge informed an older, wiser John Foster Dulles thirty years later as he wrestled with Japan’s “renunciation of all right, title and claim” to Taiwan in Article 2 of the Japanese Peace Treaty.)
His Versailles experience in the laws of war, post-war reparations and reconstruction of defeated states proved invaluable to John Foster Dulles, whose frequent travel to Europe, commercial brokering, and familiarity with banking and finance made him America’s preeminent international lawyer. During the 1920s, Dulles made a fortune guiding American direct investments in Europe and advising financial institutions in European currency and monetary policies.
James Wang’s narrative stresses that, while Dulles was a successful, wealthy and influential attorney, he was also one of the most respected religious laymen in America. His paternal lineage sprang from the Presbyterian ministry within which he volunteered his law services and organizational talents. He remained a devout and exceedingly generous philanthropist throughout his law career. In 1937, The Rockefeller Foundation unsuccessfully petitioned him to head a task force to appraise missionary work in China. Instead, in 1938, Dulles flew Pan American’s “China Clipper” across the Pacific on his own mission via Hong Kong into war-ravaged China, apparently meeting with Chiang Kai-shek in Hankou (漢口) shortly before the city fell to the Japanese in October. One Dulles biographer, John Robinson Beal, says “Dulles concluded that Chiang was a sincere Chinese patriot in the grip of forces beyond his control,” an impression that colored Dulles’s policies thereafter. Dulles wrote prolifically on international peace and justice well into the 1950s. While he sympathized with the benighted people of China, he was not sanguine about their future — even if Japan could be defeated in war. To his sorrow, the tragedy of China’s civil war validated his pessimism.
In 1950, after Chiang Kai-shek’s massive defeats in China and his regime’s exodus to Taiwan, America erupted in a series of foreign policy controversies revolving around Taiwan (President Harry S. Truman’s first declaration of 1950 was “United States Policy Toward Formosa”). Americans debated “who lost China” and who was about to lose Taiwan. In an effort to accommodate Republican opposition, Truman appointed their most prominent internationalist, John Foster Dulles, as “consultant” to the State Department in negotiating a multilateral peace treaty with defeated Japan. But Dulles soon realized his first order of business was to sort out the warfare between the departments of state and defense over Japan’s former colony of Taiwan: Would Taiwan be abandoned to Mao’s communists or should the US intervene? In June, Dulles flew to Tokyo where he got his answer directly from General Douglas MacArthur himself on the very day North Korea invaded the South. MacArthur was adamant — Taiwan must not be abandoned. Overnight, the once-unsympathetic Truman Administration sided with MacArthur.
As the Korean War reached a full boil in September 1950, President Truman conferred plenipotentiary powers upon Ambassador Dulles to produce a Japan peace treaty. James Wang describes Dulles’s diplomacy with Great Britain and forty-five other powers as they disinvited both “Chinas” from treaty deliberations. The Nationalist Chinese, the British argued, clearly did not govern China’s mainland; the Communist Chinese, Dulles insisted, locked in bloody war against the United Nations in Korea, clearly lacked the requisite peace-loving credentials.
Under Dulles’s hidden hand, the final treaty text “provide[d] for Japan to renounce sovereignty over Formosa and the Pescadores Islands. The treaty [did] not determine the future of these islands.” Dulles also reached a secret understanding with the Japanese prime minister that Japan, having renounced sovereignty over Taiwan, would have no legal right in the matter thereafter. Dulles then graciously allowed that Japan could decide post-treaty which of the two “Chinas” it would deal with, Taipei or Peking.
In the event, Japan chose Taipei. But the choice was not without its complexities.
Tokyo signed a separate peace “Treaty of Taipei” on April 28, 1952 — seventy years ago last week — but Japan declined to recognize the “Republic of China” as the government of China and pleaded that it had no standing to recognize ROC sovereignty over Taiwan. Although Japan’s demurrals incensed Chiang Kai-shek, he nevertheless bowed to Dulles’s machinations.
Dulles became secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. There, he would quietly but firmly assert that the US recognized the ROC’s legitimate “administration” of Taiwan, but not its sovereignty. In one confidential Senate hearing, he explained that as the Treaty of Taipei “was being debated before the Legislative Yuan, Mr. George Yeh, the present foreign minister, described the situation in these words: ‘These islands are territories of the Republic of China, although we do not own them.’” Dulles added, “Now, you can draw your own conclusions from that.”
In January 1955, as Dulles shepherded the “US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty” through its closed ratification hearings before the senate’s committee on foreign relations, Dulles seemed quite happy with Taiwan’s unsettled sovereignty. Senator Hubert Humphrey asked about America’s interest in Taiwan. Secretary Dulles responded, “We say that the island of Formosa and the Pescadores is an area which is vital to the interests of the United States, and that we are going to do what we can to see that it remains in friendly hands . . . these legal things that the two Chinese regimes argue about become quite unimportant because the essential thing for us is that these areas should be in friendly hands.”
Senator Kefauver challenged him, “It would seem to me that we have been fooling around an awful long time in trying to decide to whom this island belongs . . . What have you done about it?” Dulles replied, “We have done nothing. The present status is entirely satisfactory from our standpoint.”
In “Dulles and the Fate of Taiwan” James Wang faithfully portrays the brilliance of the most experienced, creative and intensely principled practitioner of international law ever to have served as America’s secretary of state as he shaped America’s policies toward Taiwan. Those policies endure to this day in the “Taiwan Relations Act” and the “Six Assurances.” James Wang’s readers in Taiwan may not “be on fire with desire” for the late secretary, but they will certainly come away with a grateful appreciation of Dulles’s contributions to Taiwan’s survival and success in the 21st century.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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