written by Todd DePastino
Cold War history cycles through our collective memory like snapshots on a slidewheel: Berlin, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador.
Rarely included in the Cold War montage is Taiwan. Yet, 65 years ago this month, during what is called the “Second Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1958,” we came as close as we ever have to launching nuclear strikes against a Communist country.
The crisis centered not on the main island of Taiwan—formerly known as Formosa—but on Kinmen (also called Quemoy), a collection of tiny islands over 100 miles to the west, just off shore the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang), led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and relocated on the large island of Taiwan in the East Sea. Among the smaller islands controlled by the Republic of China (ROC)—as Chiang’s Nationalist government was known—was Kinmen, which the Mao’s PRC had failed to capture.
The PRC attacked Kinmen and other Nationalist-held islands on the PRC coast in 1954 (the First Taiwan Strait Crisis). The Eisenhower administration threatened the use of nuclear weapons, and the PRC backed down.
On August 23, 1958, Communist China attacked again with heavy artillery positioned across the Taiwan Strait from Kinmen. Tens of thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers waited in the wings for an amphibious landing, while the Chinese air force mobilized for the larger campaign to conquer Taiwan.
The artillery barrage on August 23 was ferocious. In the first two hours of the battle, over 25,000 artillery rounds rained down on Kinmen, followed by another 32,000 rounds. By the end of August 23, some 200 Nationalist defenders had been killed.
With 70 journalists from around the world covering the fighting, the outbreak of war in the Taiwan Strait drew international attention.
The U.S. Navy announced had already dispatched the Seventh Fleet to the area. President Eisenhower ordered ships from the Mediterranean and the USS Midway from Honolulu to reinforce it. “The United States is not going to desert its responsibility to the Republic of China,” he vowed.
The PLA attempted to land troops on the tiny bare-rock-of-an-islet of Tung-Ting (Dongding), but Taiwanese naval forces repelled it. In turn, the Chiang’s Nationalists tried to reinforce the defenses of Kinmen, only to be turned back by PLA PT boats and artillery fire.
The Eisenhower administration worried that the fall of Kinmen, in the absence of resupply and reinforcement, was only a matter of time. Ike and the Joint Chiefs resolved to use conventional forces and provide escorts to Chiang’s navy to keep the islands in Taiwanese hands.
If that failed, the US military leadership was prepared to unleash nuclear weapons on the PRC.
The Seventh Fleet escorts to Kinmen worked. Communist forces didn’t fire on the resupply convoys in fear of sparking war with the US. By mid-September, the crisis had cooled, even as the armed escorts and daily artillery fire continued.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev howled that that US was bringing the world to the brink of a Third World War and promised to defend the PRC just as the US had pledged to defend the ROC.
With the continued reinforcement of Kinmen and the transfer of 155mm howitzers and stationing of a Nike missile site on Taiwan, the war in the Strait settled into a stalemate.
The Soviet Union advised caution to their Chinese ally, while US navy forces took care not to venture too close to PRC territorial waters.
But instead of disengaging entirely, the fighting between the two sides continued in the most peculiar way imaginable.
The PRC and the ROC came to an informal agreement to shell each other daily on alternate days. The PRC fired artillery shells on Kinmen on odd days, while Kinmen forces returned fire on even days. Each side knew precisely where and when the shells would fall, taking to bunkers and predetermined times each day for protection.
This odd-even day phony war lasted for 21 years until 1979, when the US established diplomatic relations with the PLC.
Today, with tensions in the Taiwan Strait again high, to the point where some are calling it the “Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis,” we would do well to remember the long Cold War history that has made this 110-mile stretch of ocean one of the most dangerous places in the world.