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How Eisenhower Saved Taiwan

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How Eisenhower Saved Taiwan

Nearly 60 years after his presidency ended, Taiwan still likes Ike. Here’s why.

How Eisenhower Saved Taiwan

President Eisenhower with President Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in 1960.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ USAID Photographer

The quest to fund a new memorial for U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower has received a boost from an unexpected source. Taiwan pledged to donate $1 million toward the memorial, which will be located in the new Eisenhower Square park, to the west of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Organizers aim to raise $20 million in private funds, which they hope will help encourage Congress to appropriate funds for the memorial.

Though Eisenhower is highly regarded by presidential historians (in a 2014 survey by the Washington Post, he ranked seventh on the list of top-rated presidents), he cuts a far smaller figure in the public imagination. The fact that the Eisenhower Memorial is still struggling to find donations is a case in point. As Ross Douthat put it in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, “It’s not that Americans don’t like Eisenhower or think fondly of his service to their country… But he is not nearly as beloved as many of his mid-century contemporaries.”

So why, then, is Taiwan donating $1 million to the memorial of a president Americans seem underwhelmed by?

The key lies in Eisenhower’s unique role in U.S.-Taiwan relations. When Eisenhower took office in January 1953, the Korean War was drawing to a close. That meant new uncertainty for Taiwan. Originally, then-President Harry Truman had declared a military nonintervention policy for Taiwan, effectively signaling that should the newly-formed People’s Republic of China launch a full-scale invasion, the United States would not interfere. That policy changed with the advent of the Korean War, which brought the U.S. and the PRC into conflict. Truman deployed the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits to signal new U.S. opposition to a PRC military strike against the island.

But with the Korean War ending, there was some uncertainty over what would become of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. Eisenhower lifted the U.S. naval blockade of the straits in 1953. Both the Nationalists and the PRC took advantage of the opportunity to restart hostilities. In particular, the PRC began to bomb the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu, where Nationalist troops were massing, sparking what came to be known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis.

In response, the U.S. under Eisenhower made clear for the first time that the United States was formally committed to defending Taiwan from armed attack. The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China was signed on December 2, 1954, with both sides pledging to aid each other in the case of a military attack. A month later, in January 1955, the U.S. House and Senate passed the “Formosa Resolution,” granting Eisenhower the authority to use military force to defend Taiwan “as he deems necessary.” In case that wasn’t enough to deter the PRC, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, also publicly revealed that Washington was considering the option of a nuclear strike against the Chinese mainland.

These guarantees formed the backbone of U.S. policy toward Taiwan and mainland China throughout the Cold War and beyond. The mutual defense treaty would remain in force until the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979 – but the ghost of this security commitment still remains today, in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act. The Republic of China probably owes its continued existence to U.S. foreign policy and security decisions made under Eisenhower.

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), chair of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, at a July 28 reception honoring Taiwan’s donation, said that Eisenhower “fought in partnership with General and President Chiang Kai-shek for global peace before and after World War II.”

While Eisenhower was not alone in shaping U.S. policy during that time, he is remembered by many Taiwanese as having taken a personal interest in the fate of the ROC. Eisenhower even visited Taipei in June 1960, making him the first and only sitting U.S. president to do so. That cemented his legacy in Taiwan’s historical memory.

Over half a million Taiwanese were reported to have stood in the square outside Taiwan’s Presidential Palace, listening to Eisenhower’s speech. “The very fact that he was standing there was a symbol of American reassurance, of American defense of Taiwan,” Dr. Lyushun Shen, representative at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. (TECRO), said at the July 28 reception.

“Eisenhower was the only U.S. president to visit Taiwan. People in Taiwan always remembered that,” Chi Wang, president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and a history professor at Georgetown University, told The Diplomat. “He’s one of the presidents they respect most.”

Shen expanded on those sentiments in remarks at the reception celebrating Taiwan’s gift, saying the donation was just a “humble contribution” compared to what Eisenhower had done for Taiwan. Shen was frank about Eisenhower’s role in Taiwan’s history: Through the security commitments made under Eisenhower, he “stemmed the Communist invasion against Taiwan.” Without Eisenhower’s policies, Shen said, “Taiwan probably would have been taken over by the Communist Chinese.”

In addition, Shen noted that during Eisenhower’s presidency, the U.S. provided $1 billion in economic aid to Taiwan, which “laid out Taiwan’s foundation for today’s economic development.”

Members of the memorial commission are hopeful that Taiwan’s donation will inspire other nations to chip in. Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel, USAF (Ret.), executive director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission noted that “for the Republic of China (Taiwan) to step forward with the first contribution from abroad is a mark of insightful leadership.” Shen himself said that Taiwan hopes to inspire others to do more for the memorial.

Susan Banes Harris, commissioner for the Memorial Commission, told The Diplomat that “several other countries are interested [in donating] and are talking to the commission… [Taiwan’s] being the first is very exciting.” She noted that the use of international donations in such a memorial is “fairly unique… Ike was such an international presence, both as a general and as a peacekeeper.”

In the New York Times, Douthat argues that “ultimately Eisenhower is underrated because his White House leadership didn’t fit the template of ‘greatness’ that too many Americans pine for from their presidents. He was not a man for grand projects, bold crusades or world-historical gambles.” Taiwanese would disagree. When it comes to Taiwan, Eisenhower did, in fact, adopt a “bold crusade” – the defense of a tiny U.S. ally against its closest neighbor and bitterest enemy. The ramifications of Eisenhower’s approach to Taiwan reverberate in today’s cross-strait relationship, as well as in the China-U.S.-Taiwan triangle.

No wonder Taiwan still likes Ike.