Escaping from Mao Tse-tung, who had finally emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek and his older son Chiang Ching-Kuo arrived in Taiwan on December 7th, 1949. Although they both never returned to the mainland, after their strategic retreat they had the firm intention of liberating it from what they called “Communist bandits”.
For that noble purpose they would need the Americans, who contributed decisively to defeat the Japanese in World War II. Even more, during the first stage in exile any support to just hold Formosa, suddenly called ”Free China”, against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was a challenge. Hainan, the other large island not that far away, would be lost to the PLA on May 1st, 1950.
At the beginning, it didn’t look good at all for the Nationalists. In a statement on January 5th, 1950 US President Harry S. Truman announced that Washington wouldn’t provide any form of military support for or consultation to Chiang’s forces in Taiwan. When on March 1st the Generalissimo officially resumed his presidential duties, US reaction was rather cool. In early 1950, American officials seemed to be willing to allow Red China to defeat Chiang and take over Taiwan.
Nevertheless, after the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25th, the situation changed dramatically. On June 27th, Truman sent the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to prevent the conflict from spreading south. Responding to a call from the United Nations for assistance in Korea, Chiang on his part offered to send 33,000 troops and 20 air transports to help, but his proposal was declined by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on June 30th in order to limit the hostilities to the Korean Peninsula.
On the other hand, the Chinese transferred their troops poised for an invasion of Taiwan to the Korean front. Military conflict between both sides of the Strait was delayed until early September 1954, which prompted the signing of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty on December 2nd, 1954 and led to the stationing of around 30,000 US soldiers on the island.
The invasion of South Korea by North Korean leader Kim Il-sung spared Chiang Kai-shek from a terrible fate. First it compelled the US to offer direct protection through a de facto blockade of the Taiwan Strait, which was lifted by Truman’s successor, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on February 2nd, 1953.
Later the military aid granted to Taiwan strengthened its capability of self-defense against the threat from the north for the next 25 years. At the time it ensured the protection of American security interests in the Pacific by preventing, at least temporarily until defeat in the Vietnam War, a further spread of Communism in the region.
In a way, Chiang had to thank Kim for his timely attack, because he gained unprecedented importance. Mao’s involvement in the Korean War since October 1950 further worked in his favor. His ambitious plans to reconquer lost territory were unrealistic from the beginning, though at least he would stay in power until peacefully passing away in a Taipei hospital in April 1975.