The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eisenhower’s explosive Taiwan visit hints at what Pelosi’s could bring

President Dwight D. Eisenhower waves as he rides through the crowded streets of Taipei, Taiwan, in an open car with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in June 1960. (AP)

When Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in Taipei on June 18, 1960, to begin the only visit to Taiwan by a sitting U.S. president, he was met with an enormous show of support. An estimated 500,000 people came to the streets to welcome him, according to Taiwanese news sources. Some carried giant cutouts with likenesses of Eisenhower’s head; others had “I like Ike” signs spelled out in Chinese and English or waved U.S. flags. During his visit, Eisenhower greeted the crowds from an open car, attended church with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and addressed a giant crowd in front of the presidential palace in downtown Taipei.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the reaction was equally passionate. As Eisenhower’s helicopter touched down, the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army shelled the Kinmen Islands, a small archipelago governed by Taiwan that’s only a few miles off the Chinese coast.

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Today, tensions are again running high across the Taiwan Strait with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit that commenced late Tuesday. In a show of force, the People’s Liberation Army announced that military exercises would take place in six spots close to Taiwan during her visit. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned that China would be “resolutely safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” adding: “Those who play with fire will perish by it.” On Tuesday, Chinese fighter jets crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, in a move Taipei deemed “provocative.”

For Taiwan’s 23 million residents, the threat of war has been normalized for more than seven decades, with the strife between the United States and China over the island extending all the way from Eisenhower’s visit to Pelosi’s.

The stage for the conflict was set in the late 1940s, when the U.S.-allied Chinese Nationalist forces were defeated in China and fled en masse to Taiwan. Neither the Nationalists, now headquartered in Taipei, nor the Chinese Communist Party, based in Beijing, relinquished their claims to be the rightful rulers of all of China.

“Taiwan was at the forefront of the Cold War proxy wars in Asia,” said Miles Yu, a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. For Eisenhower, Taiwan’s fate was key to American grand strategy. “Eisenhower firmly believed in the domino theory. He visited Taiwan to show America’s resolve to defend Taiwan.”

“Eisenhower’s world tour and his visit to Taiwan, whatever the rhetoric at the time, was, like most foreign travel, driven primarily by domestic political considerations,” said Michael Szonyi, a Harvard professor of Chinese history.

Though Eisenhower was a lame-duck president when he visited, Taiwan featured in the presidential election looming that November. Whether the United States should defend outlying Taiwanese-governed islands near the mainland became an important point of contention between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in their 1960 televised debates, as they both vied to appear tough on communism.

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The Soviet leadership also feared that Taiwan would become a flash point for a third world war. In a heated 1959 exchange, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev confronted Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong over what he saw as Mao’s recklessness in shelling Taiwan’s outlying islands from 1954 to 1955 and again in 1958. In response to the shellings, Eisenhower had called in U.S. naval power to help with operations such as escorting convoys that were resupplying garrisons on the islands — a move that could have quickly escalated had an American ship been hit. During the crises, Eisenhower contemplated the use of nuclear weapons to deter China, while Mao complained about Khrushchev’s unwillingness to do the same, prompting Mao to pursue China’s own bomb.

“The Eisenhower presidency is important in Taiwan’s modern history,” said Dafydd Fell, director of the Center of Taiwan Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “The U.S. security guarantee was formalized [by Eisenhower] in the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty, something that allowed Taiwan to gradually shift from survival towards its economic growth model.” Eisenhower also established that the United States wouldn’t back Taiwan’s government in its aspirations to take control of the Chinese mainland.

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On the Kinmen Islands, the results were more immediate. To welcome Eisenhower, China fired 30,000 shells in advance of his arrival, paused for his day-long visit, then launched another bombardment the next day as a send-off. Seven soldiers and six civilians died as a result of the blasts. Additionally, 59 soldiers were injured, as were 15 civilians. The damaged buildings included five schools, a hospital and 200 homes.

“The history of [Kinmen] reveals the extraordinary extent to which the ordinary life of those living in political flash points is affected by decisions made without their consideration — their family life, how they made a living, what they thought about their community and so on, even their religious beliefs,” Szonyi said. “In the case of Eisenhower’s 1960 visit, people lost their lives because of Mao’s desire to send a message to the U.S.”

The repercussions of Eisenhower’s visit continue to loom large in Taiwan, in both psychological and much more concrete ways. Kinmen is now known for the production of meat cleavers carved out of strewn artillery shells. For the people of Taiwan, this week’s visit by Pelosi — along with Beijing’s response — is yet another chapter in a seven-decade drama at the center of a geopolitical dispute that will continue to make its mark.

Michael Haack is a freelance writer who lives in Washington. He previously studied Chinese at National Taiwan University and worked as a teacher in China.