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Gordon Haskell

Notes of the Quarter

Let the Formosans Decide

A Democratic Alternative to an Imperialist Dilemma

(Spring 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 2–3, Spring–Summer 1958, pp. 76–79.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE QUEMOY-MATSU CRISIS HAS been compared by one American journalist to an international game of Russian roulette. Each side is betting that the other will not dare pull the trigger. But one mistake, one miscalculation, one misinterpreted directive by a local commander, one act of excessive zeal in playing the game, and the results could easily be fatal for thousands and possibly many millions of human beings.

A major danger inherent in the situation is that one of the participants, Chiang Kai-shek, would like the hammer to fall on the loaded cylinder. Nothing else could serve his interests better, and he has done everything in his power to set the stage for a major blow-up in the Taiwan strait. The American newspapers headlined the “scoop” that Chiang was seeking to convince the U.S. government to launch an all-out attack on the Chinese mainland, or at least to permit his bombers to attack the gun emplacements from which Quemoy is being shelled. No reporters are needed on the spot to get a “scoop” like that. It is inherent in the logic of the situation, from Chiang’s point of view.

But that point of view is a limited one, to put it mildly. Chiang and a few dozen people around him may be willing to precipitate a world war as their only hope of regaining their power over China. There may be a few madmen in and out of high government and military positions in the United States who desire a preventive war now on the theory that for a limited time the American Strategic Air Command can deliver nuclear weapons over Russia more effectively than Russia’s ICBMs can deliver them over the United States – and who regard the occasion which triggers off the war of minor importance. There may also be a few madmen in the Chinese and Russian governments who think that, all things considered, the political advantage of a war started over Quemoy would be so great that it would hardly be possible to anticipate a more favorable circumstance in which to start an armed conflict which is probably inevitable in the long run anyway.

But aside from these tiny groups, the whole of humanity is horrified at the game being played out around Quemoy. This horror is dulled only by the feeling that the whole thing is utterly unreal, a ghastly bluff on both sides. It simply seems incredible that the United States would get embroiled in a major war over a handful of tiny islands some eight thousand miles from her coast, or even over Chiang’s sterile little clique on Formosa. Thus, even though a number of prominent politicians in this country have spoken out against the “Dulles doctrine,” and polls indicate that sentiment is running five to one against getting into war over these islands, the political atmosphere is not one of tension or crisis. The American people are taking the crisis like disinterested spectators who go about their business as usual, glancing up once in a while at a TV screen on which some ridiculous actors are putting on an overdone, old-fashioned thriller.

ALTHOUGH THE SITUATION ITSELF and Chiang’s direct interests make the danger of war very real, we do not think that either the United States government or the Stalinist government of China have any intention of going to war against each other now. Each is acting in the interest of what it deems to be its political objectives at this time. And in the situation which results, the United States continues to suffer one political defeat after another.

The arguments put forth by Dulles and Eisenhower for their policy in the Taiwan Strait are not only absurd on their face, they are utterly ineffective. Who can take seriously the charge that what is involved here is an attempt at “territorial aggrandizement” by the Stalinist government of China? Who can be convinced by the argument that if the Chinese government is permitted to “get away” with Quemoy and Matsu today, they will take South Vietnam and Burma tomorrow? No one in Asia believes this. Everyone knows that if the Chinese Communists decide to take over the whole of Indochina or Burma, the only context in which they could be expected to do this would be either in the course of a world war in which military considerations could outweigh political ones, or as part of a social revolution in these countries where military aid by China would appear to be, and would be in actuality, an adjunct to the civil war which had been generated by indigenous causes. In any event, there would and could be no analogy to the Quemoy-Matsu situation, and it could set no precedent for any such imperialist action by the Chinese.

For some weeks, fear of a military explosion involving the United States has been dampened by the prospect that some deal might be negotiated between the U.S. and Chinese governments in the ambassadorial “negotiations” in Warsaw. The public positions of the two major parties in this struggle are utterly contradictory and irreconcilable. Hope in a fruitful outcome of the negotiations is thus either hope for a miracle, or is based on the idea that the public positions of the two contestants are not their real positions.

The government of China says that Quemoy, Matsu and Formosa are Chinese territory, and that any means of getting them under the control of the government of China is legitimate, and purely an internal affair of the country. The United States government says that these territories belong to the government of the Republic of China (Chiang Kai-shek), and that the U.S. cannot dispose of all or any of them without the agreement of that government. Chiang says he has nothing to give, and makes only one demand: abdication of the government of China to him.

On what, then, can one base any hope of a negotiated settlement? If one is not given to wishful thinking any such hope must be based on the conclusion that neither side means what it says. Thus the idea arises that the government of China might accept recognition, admission to the United Nations, and evacuation of Quemoy-Matsu in exchange for a pledge not to seek to take Formosa by force. On the other hand, it is assumed that the United States really has no interest in Quemoy-Matsu, and realizes that recognition must be granted to the actual government of China sooner or later. As to Chiang’s heated objections – presumably they could be taken care of by sufficiently powerful behind-the-scenes pressure from an American government which is his sole means of political and military support.

At the moment of writing this, it appears that a deal along the lines indicated above is not in the making. The headlines announce a deadlock at Warsaw and air battles over Quemoy. It is not surprising. The Eisenhower administration’s policy is at least as rigid as was that of Truman- Acheson in their day. And the Chinese, no doubt, feel that they have such a tremendous political victory in the making that there is no reason to do anything at this time but increase the pressure.

BUT IF A DEAL CANNOT be made, what will be the end of it all? The Chinese could stop firing their artillery, pocket their political winnings, and wait for another day when things would lie favorably for a repetition of the whole game. In that event, nothing would have been solved. It would simply mean that a bomb which could touch off World War III would be lying there waiting for another day.

Further, any such “solution” of the problem leaves one major factor in the situation completely out of account. That is the wishes, interests and future of the people of Formosa itself. And here we are not talking of Chiang and the few hundred officials plus the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were shipped to the island when his rule on the mainland collapsed. We are talking of the Formosan people themselves, those who have lived on the island all their lives, and whose fathers and grandfathers lived there before them under the rule of various foreign powers.

And we do not raise the question of the desires of the Formosans only because we are for justice and for freedom everywhere, though that reason should suffice. We raise it also because in this case, in our opinion, the cause of justice and freedom is conjoined with the cause of peace. And we raise, it, further, because only by starting a campaign here in America and throughout the world for a solution which takes the Formosans into account can the initiative be taken out of the hands of the little cliques in Washington and Peiping and Taipei who are juggling with the peace of the world today.

The people of Formosa have the right to decide their future. If they want to be a part of Stalinist China, they have a right to make that decision for themselves, in a free election. If they want to be independent, that too should be their right. The government in Peiping has no more the right to establish its rule over them by force than Chiang has to maintain his rule over them by force. And the United States has no right to impose a solution which seems desirable to its government on the people of Formosa, either.

Thus, the only solution which to us seems to have a reasonable chance of working both to re-establish the democratic rights of the Formosan people, and to minimize the danger of war over the future of Formosa is this: There should be an international campaign for a free and democratic plebiscite to be organized under United Nations auspices and supervision in Formosa. The questions to be decided in such a vote would be, roughly: unity with the rest of China; independence under Chiang Kai-shek; or independence under a democratic form of government.

The United States government should agree in advance to abide by whatever decision the people of Formosa might make. The same demand should be made of the government of China and of Chiang Kai-shek. The refusal of any one of them to yield to such an obviously democratic, fair and peace-oriented solution would put the brand of the imperialist squarely on the guilty party. If the demand for such a program should become widely popular, on the other hand, it is clear that any one of the three governments which would espouse it and seek to put it into effect would by that very act win enormous political capital throughout the world.

What chance is there that any of the governments involved will actually take the initiative in proposing this kind of a solution to the conflict? It would be going too far to say that there is no chance at all, as the Stalinists might conceivably propose it with the firm conviction that their proposal would be rejected by Chiang and the United States. They could further enhance their political capital by doing so. But they are faced with one ticklish difficulty which inhibits them. If a free plebiscite supervised by the UN is good for Formosa today, why not for Hungary or West Germany or Tibet tomorrow? The idea of the common people having the right to determine freely their destiny goes against the grain of the Stalinist mentality at the very least as much as it does against the grain of the ideological woodwork of a man like Dulles.

But we do not count on governments accepting the advice of democratic socialists or of just plain democrats who see the danger and folly of the present course. That would be too radical an innovation in the ways of the world for anyone to take its prospects seriously. What we hope for, and count on, in the long run at least, is a growing awareness among the people, wherever they are free to express themselves and to think, that things are going in too dangerous a direction, and something has to be done about it.

The idea of a solution in the Far East based on a plebiscite in Formosa is not something dreamed up by clever but isolated socialists in the United States. Leaders of the British Labor Party have come out for it. Leading liberal publications in the United States have been gravitating increasingly toward it. Even from within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party mutterings, perhaps dim and quiet ones, have been heard along these lines.

But announcements from Britain or mutterings in the U.S. have not been enough to sway the policy of the State Department. What is needed is, first a campaign to convince decisive sections of the labor and liberal movements that only such a solution can remove the danger of war from that area, even for the time being; and then a campaign to convince the nation. If the present crisis in the Taiwan strait fails to erupt into full-scale war, such a movement will have time to come into existence and to assert itself. In a sense, one could say that given time enough, the rise of such a movement is inevitable. But it will not come without effort – and the time may not be unlimited.

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