Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law

Passage of a joint resolution affirmed U.S. presidential power to defend Taiwan from attack by communist China and demonstrated the willingness of the United States to wage an active Cold War.

Summary of Event

In 1949, as the Communists Communist Party, Chinese took over mainland China at the end of the Chinese civil war, Chiang Kai-shek, president of the Republic of China, or Nationalist China, withdrew with part of his government and army to the island of Formosa and the nearby Pescadores Islands. Formosa, a Portuguese name meaning “beautiful,” was still used in the 1950’s to describe the island in the West; as Asian nomenclature began to replace colonial-era names, the island’s Chinese name, Taiwan, was used exclusively and the name Formosa passed into history. Formosa and the Pescadores had been held by the Japanese from 1895 until their return to China in 1945, at the end of World War II. Chiang claimed that his was still the legitimate government of China and announced his intention to return to the mainland and to power. His troops also held other islands off the China coast, notably Quemoy, a short distance from the port of Amoy; Matsu, off Foochow; and the Tachens, located about 200 miles to the north of Matsu. Formosa Resolution (1955)
Cold War;mutual defense agreements
Taiwan, U.S. defense of
[kw]Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law (Jan. 29, 1955)
[kw]Resolution Is Signed into Law, Formosa (Jan. 29, 1955)
Formosa Resolution (1955)
Cold War;mutual defense agreements
Taiwan, U.S. defense of
[g]North America;Jan. 29, 1955: Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law[04770]
[g]United States;Jan. 29, 1955: Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law[04770]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 29, 1955: Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law[04770]
[c]Cold War;Jan. 29, 1955: Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law[04770]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 29, 1955: Formosa Resolution Is Signed into Law[04770]
Chiang Kai-shek
Dulles, John Foster
[p]Dulles, John Foster;Cold War pacts
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;Cold War
George, Walter F.
Knowland, William F.
Richards, James P.
Zhou Enlai

President Chiang Kai-shek inspects Nationalist Chinese troops on Taiwan in 1952.

(National Archives)

Both Chiang and the Chinese Communists China;and Taiwan[Taiwan] held that Formosa was a province of China, and Quemoy and Matsu were part of the mainland province of Fukien. Though Quemoy and Matsu were small, both sides saw them as stepping-stones. In Chiang’s view, they were strategic for a return to the mainland; to the Communists, they were a step toward the inclusion of Formosa in their regime. The islands were staging points for occasional raids on the mainland and came under air attack from the Communists.

The United States had supported Chiang in the civil war and recognized his regime as the legitimate government for all China. The Korean War (1950-1953) and the Chinese Communist role in it strengthened U.S. antipathy toward the Communists. Military and economic aid went to Formosa, and the Seventh Fleet patrolled the Formosa Strait to prevent invasion. Chiang increased the armament and garrisons on Quemoy and Matsu against the advice of many individuals in the U.S. military establishment. The mainland regime placed even larger forces on the shore facing the islands. In August and September, 1954, the Communists began a bombardment of the islands, killing two U.S. military advisers.

Throughout the autumn, debate over policy continued, both within the United States and between the United States and its allies. Some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some members of Congress (such as Senator William F. Knowland of California) were willing to encourage Chiang in a return to the mainland and to give U.S. support to his forces on Quemoy and Matsu. This policy was popularly known as “unleashing Chiang Kai-shek.” Others saw in such steps either continued defeat for Chiang or involvement in a major Asian war (World War III in some predictions), or both. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles viewed the question of Formosa and the offshore islands within the context of the Cold War, then at its height. To him, the maintenance of a strong Nationalist presence off the coast of mainland China would keep the Chinese Communist regime off balance, while offering some hope to those who wanted it overthrown.

As a result of these debates within the government, a somewhat more definite policy toward Nationalist China began to emerge. On December 2, 1954, the United States and Nationalist China concluded a mutual defense treaty. No specific mention was made in the treaty about offshore islands, however. Consequently, a month later, the Chinese Communists launched bombardment and air attacks on these islands. On January 24, 1955, as the attacks continued, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a special message to Congress in which he asked for authority to use the U.S. Armed Forces to protect Formosa, the Pescadores, and what he vaguely referred to as certain “closely related localities.” This authority, like the mutual defense treaty, would not commit the United States in advance to the defense of the offshore islands, nor would it limit U.S. action in advance.

Eisenhower pointed out that the measure was not a constitutional necessity; he already had the requisite authority both as commander in chief and under the terms of the mutual security treaty already signed but not as yet ratified by the Senate. He wanted a demonstration of the unity of the United States and its resolve, while making thoroughly clear the authority of the president. In Communist China, Premier Zhou Enlai called the message a war message.

The message went to the new Congress, which had a Democratic majority in both houses. In response, the chairs of the respective committees, Democrats Walter F. George in the Senate and James P. Richards in the House, introduced the joint resolution that became known as the Formosa Resolution. The resolution took as its premise the vital interest of the United States in peace in the western Pacific and the danger to peace from Communist attacks in the area. It took note of the statement of mutual interest in the treaty submitted to the Senate.

There was strong bipartisan support among U.S. politicians for aggressive anticommunist positions. The House passed the resolution on January 25, 1955, by a vote of 410-3. In the Senate committee, an amendment to turn Formosa and the Pescadores over to the authority of the United Nations, and giving authorization to the president only until the United Nations acted, was defeated. Another amendment to limit the authority to Formosa and the Pescadores also lost. A similar amendment to draw a line back of Quemoy and Matsu, limiting the president’s authority to Formosa and the Pescadores, was introduced on the Senate floor by Senator Herbert Lehman Lehman, Herbert of New York. It was defeated 74-13. The Senate passed the resolution 85-3, on January 28, and Eisenhower signed it the next day.

The mutual security treaty with Nationalist China was ratified in February. Efforts to persuade Chiang Kai-shek to reduce his forces on Quemoy and Matsu and make them mere outposts failed. That same month, however, Chiang did evacuate the Tachens, which the Communists promptly occupied. Communist premier Zhou Enlai, in an attempt to strike a conciliatory note, told the Afro-Asian Conference meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, in April, that his country did not want war with the United States. He further expressed his willingness to negotiate on Far Eastern issues, including that of Formosa. As a result, by May, without formal statement or agreement, there was an effective cease-fire in the Formosa Straits.

In the wake of the passage of the Formosa Resolution and the ratification of the mutual defense treaty with Nationalist China, Eisenhower addressed a letter to British prime minister Winston Churchill on February 10, in which he set forth his ideas on the importance of defending Formosa and the offshore islands. The United States depended on an island (Formosa) and a peninsula (Korea) as its defense line in Southeast Asia. The loss of Formosa would be a serious break in that line. The weakening of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces could mean the loss of Formosa. The denial of their expectation to return to mainland China would be destructive of their morale. Therefore, it was important to the United States not only to aid in the defense of Formosa but also not to accept, or seem to accept, the loss of the offshore islands, which were of strategic importance in launching a return to the mainland. These ideas helped set the posture of U.S. policy in the Far East for some time to come.


Judgments of the Formosa Resolution at the time of its passage and in historical perspective must depend greatly on attitudes toward the larger question of policy toward China. The overwhelming vote in Congress in favor of the Formosa Resolution may be taken as clear evidence of opinion there, and presumably of opinion throughout the country, that communist expansion must be resisted, but that the United States ought not be involved in further war. From another, but related, perspective, the Formosa Resolution was a reflection of the Cold War mentality that saw no possibility for diplomatic recognition of the Communist regime on the Chinese mainland.

Even after this Cold War mentality had waned, the legacy of the Formosa Resolution ensured that the United States maintained residual ties with the Nationalist regime in Taiwan even after it afforded diplomatic recognition to mainland China in 1979. U.S.-China tensions began to increase in the mid-1990’s and into the early twenty-first century, as Taiwan, now ruled by democratically elected indigenous leaders (rather than remnants of the Chinese Nationalist Party), mulled over the possibility of declaring independence. The consensus among U.S. policy makers remained that something should be done if China were to invade Taiwan. Thus, the impact of the Formosa Resolution was not confined to its immediate aftermath. Formosa Resolution (1955)
Cold War;mutual defense agreements
Taiwan, U.S. defense of

Further Reading

  • Beeson, Mark. “U.S. Hegemony and Southeast Asia.” Critical Asian Studies 36, no. 3 (2004): 445-462. Details U.S.-Southeast Asia relations since the end of World War II, focusing on “how U.S. foreign policy has impacted the region in the economic, political, and security spheres.”
  • Bueler, William M. U.S. China Policy and the Problem of Taiwan. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1971. Covers the Formosa Resolution and its aftermath in detail.
  • Copper, John Franklin. China Diplomacy: The Washington-Taipei-Beijing Triangle. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. Examines how much actual communist threat there was to Taiwan in the 1950’s.
  • Eisenhower, Dwight D. Mandate for Change, 1953-1956. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963. This memoir by the U.S. president at the time the resolution was enacted is still a valuable source for the American view of the Formosa situation.
  • Hickey, Dennis Van Vranken. United States-Taiwan Security Ties: From Cold War to Beyond Containment. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994. Examines the complicated network of U.S. military guarantees to Taiwan through the years.
  • Hsieh, Chiao Chiao. Strategy for Survival: The Foreign Policy and External Relations of the Republic of China on Taiwan, 1949-1979. London: Sherwood Press, 1985. Illuminates the Taiwanese perspective.
  • McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia Since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Brief examination of U.S. relations with Southeast Asia since the time of World War II.

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