A Missed Opportunity
Following Premier Zhou En-lai’s (Chou En-lai) dramatic offer at the Bandung conference in April 1955, the US government agreed to enter talks with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to defuse the tensions that had arisen over the Chinese Communists’ attempts to recapture the offshore islands of Jinmen (Quemoy) and Matzu (Matsu), and settle other unresolved issues between the two countries. The negotiations took place in Geneva and lasted two years and proved to be inconclusive. The inflexibility of the US and its refusal to relax the total trade embargo implemented in 1951 and allow free travel and cultural exchange with Beijing (Peiping) were the main reasons for the lack of progress.
Scholars have explained the Eisenhower administration’s hard line policy toward Communist China in two ways. Historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and political scientist Leonard A. Kusnitz have argued that while both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles privately realized the need to be more flexible toward the PRC and to accept the reality of “two Chinas,” they would not risk their relationship with the right wing in Congress to openly pursue such a possibility. Others such as Gordon H. Chang and David A. Mayers have claimed that the administration’s strategy of driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing required a policy of isolating Communist China so that Mao would learn quickly the drawbacks of its alliance with the Soviet Union. More recently, historian Rosemary Foot has put forward a third explanation. As a result of the Korean War and because of the new Soviet leadership’s willingness to put its relationship with Beijing on a more equal basis, the PRC had begun to enjoy increased status within the Communist bloc. Those developments, in conjunction with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, helped to convince the Eisenhower administration that conciliatory gestures from Washington could empower Beijing with fatal consequences for US interests in Asia.
The purpose of this chapter is to understand the often-underestimated role of American public opinion in influencing the ambassadorial talks. Contrary to traditional scholarly literature which dismisses American public opinion rigidly against any improvement of Sino-US relations, an accurate analysis of popular feelings during those two years clearly shows that the American people were far more inclined than was the Eisenhower administration toward establishing some sort of contacts with Communist China. How then did the administration sell its hard line policy? Did it succeed in making the public accept its hostile stance? And what consequences did its domestic public rhetoric ultimately have on Sino-US relations?
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