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A Historical Footnote Revisited

by Robert B. Norris

Now almost forgotten, the two islands where once a flashpoint in the Cold War and a subject of the 1960 presidential debates. —Ed.

Whatever happened to Quemoy and Matsu?  Fifty years ago – in October, 1960 – the destiny of these Chinese islands was hotly discussed during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates.

Quemoy, now known as Kinmen, is within a few miles of the China coast at the entrance to the important port of Xiamen.  Matsu is also located just a few miles off another major port of China.  Both islands are over a hundred miles from Taiwan.  When Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist army was defeated on the mainland by the Communists in 1949, he and about 600,000 of his troops fled to Taiwan, to where the government of the Republic of China was transferred.  During that retreat, the Nationalists fortified Quemoy and Matsu.  In October 1949, the Nationalists repelled a serious invasion attempt by the Communists to seize Quemoy.

Although shore batteries shelled both islands relentlessly during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has not mounted another invasion effort against either island.  The distinguished British historian, Margaret MacMillan, believes that Mao Tse-tung may have concluded that it was in the best interest of the PRC to leave Quemoy and Matsu in the hands of the Nationalists.  If the PRC were to seize the islands or the Nationalists were to abandon them, the distance between the mainland and Taiwan would lengthen from a few miles to over a hundred, and “perhaps in thought as well.”1  Moreover, the acquisition of these offshore islands by the PRC and their separation from Nationalist control would tend to validate acceptance of the “two Chinas” policy to which both Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek were vehemently opposed.

Early on in the presidential debates, Kennedy was asked if the United States defense line in the Far East should include Quemoy and Matsu.  Kennedy responded that these islands — just a few miles off the coast of China and more than a hundred miles from Taiwan — were strategically indefensible and were not essential to the defense of Taiwan.  The Massachusetts Senator also alluded to the unsuccessful efforts by the Eisenhower Administration to persuade Chiang Kai-shek to abandon the offshore islands in order to avoid the possibility of being dragged into a major confrontation with the PRC over these two islands.  Perhaps feeling the need to disagree with Kennedy, Vice President Nixon countered.  Since Quemoy and Matsu were in the “area of freedom,” Nixon contended that they should not be surrendered to the Communists as a matter of “principle.”  Theodore H. White was of the opinion that Kennedy’s initial answer to the question on Quemoy and Matsu was “probably one of the sharpest and clearest responses of any question of the debates.”2

Although the differences on Quemoy and Matsu between Kennedy and Nixon became somewhat blurred by the eve of the election, their disagreement as initially stated in the debates remained a campaign issue.  To millions of Americans watching the debates even the names of the offshore islands – Quemoy and Matsu – had a certain phonetic and unforgettable cachet.  Quemoy and Matsu dominated the debates like no other single issue with its peace or war ramifications.

Kennedy’s position came across as a more thoughtful and cautious approach to a troublesome matter.  In this connection, Arthur Schlesinger commented that Kennedy’s response to the Quemoy-Matsu issue illustrated his “dislike for rigid interpretations of the cold war.”  Kennedy “therefore favored a policy of reasoned firmness accompanied by a determination to explore all possibilities of reasonable accommodation.”3 Nixon, on the other hand, sounded reckless and bellicose on this issue by even suggesting the possibility of armed conflict between the United States and the PRC over “two little pieces of [unimportant] real estate” as he had described Quemoy and Matsu.  Moreover, Nixon’s position appeared to be out-of-step with the Eisenhower Administration.  Ironically, twelve years later, Nixon ushered in normalization of relations between the United States and the PRC.

Everyone agrees that the 1960 presidential debates made a difference in the election.  Before the debates, which took place within a month of the election, Kennedy was clearly the underdog.  Having emerged as Nixon’s equal as a result of the debates, Kennedy squeaked to victory.  While there is room for disagreement, an argument can be made that the issue of Quemoy and Matsu was an important factor in Kennedy’s ultimate election.

The Quemoy-Matsu issue was first raised in the second debate on October 7, 1960.  Disagreement between the candidates was instant.  Unlike any other single issue, Quemoy and Matsu continued to be a bone of contention well into the third and fourth debates on October 13 and 21, 1960.  Throughout the debates Kennedy reminded the American people that Nixon might actually risk military action to defend Quemoy and Matsu even in the absence of an all-out attack on Taiwan.  By pointing out that Nixon would commit the United States to defend the offshore islands as a matter of principle, Kennedy was able to paint Nixon as dangerously dogmatic and unyielding in a very uncertain situation; he also emphasized that Nixon’s position was inconsistent with the Eisenhower Administration in which he was then Vice President.

The American people, concerned about the potential for war, understood the divergent positions on Quemoy and Matsu offered by the candidates and this understanding contributed to their acceptance of Kennedy as a calm and thoughtful leader they could trust.

So, what did happen to Quemoy and Matsu?  Fifty years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, Quemoy and Matsu are still in the hands of the Republic of China on Taiwan.  Because of the relaxation of tensions between the PRC and Taiwan, the military presence on both Quemoy and Matsu has been reduced substantially.  Both islands have become destinations for tourists from both the mainland and Taiwan.  And, as a reminder of those turbulent times of the 1960 presidential debates, the extensive fortifications and tunnels constructed to defend the offshore islands are now major tourist attractions.  Quemoy and Matsu, flash points during the Kennedy-Nixon debates, never flared up.bluestar

1. MacMillan, Margaret, Nixon and Mao, Random House, N.Y., 2007, p. 253

2. White, Theodore H., The Making of the President 1960, Atheneum Publishers, 1961, p. 292

3. Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., A Thousand Days, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1965, p. 301

Robert B. Norris

Robert B. Norris is an attorney in Washington, DC.  He earned a BA degree from the University of Virginia, and a JD from George Washington University.  Between college and law school, he served as an officer in the Marine Corps.  Over the years, he has maintained a keen interest in political and historical events.

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