In Chiang Kai-shek’s darkest hour, he turned to a retired U.S. admiral. By Hsiao-ting Lin.
In early 1950, the Republic of China seemed doomed. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist regime had been driven off the mainland by victorious Communist forces, President Truman had rejected providing U.S. military aid to Taiwan, and the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, had dismissed Taiwan and South Korea as “not within the U.S. defense perimeter.” It seemed inevitable that Mao Zedong’s troops would invade Taiwan and absorb it into the People’s Republic of China.
But the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula in June, scholars agree, changed everything. Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to block an invasion of Taiwan, thereby giving Chiang and his regime a new lease on life. Soon, large-scale military and economic aid would flow to the Taiwan-based Nationalists. How that aid came about, however, is a story that has never been fully told. During those crucial months surrounding the outbreak of the Korean War, Chiang Kai-shek had begun to rely heavily on a small group of underground U.S. military personnel to form and implement policies to rescue his demoralized regime. This ad hoc group of unofficial foreign and military advisers, led by retired admiral Charles M. Cooke, former commander of the Seventh Fleet, launched covert military training and reform projects in the early 1950s that would play a crucial role in strengthening the tottering Nationalist government in Taiwan before the tide turned in Washington.
Cooke’s papers are among the Hoover Archives’ unique historical collections. They tell the story of how the retired admiral—who flew to Taiwan ostensibly to conduct “private business,” including selling fertilizer—coordinated unofficial U.S. foreign and military policy at a time when official Washington had turned its back on Chiang and Taiwan. Moreover, they show how an essentially privatized Nationalist military and security structure grew into a bilateral military alliance between the United States and Taiwan that would last until 1979.
In the precarious months before an official U.S. military assistance advisory group would be established in Taipei in spring 1951, marking a renewal of the U.S.-Taiwan military relationship, Cooke was the key American go-between. His Special Technician Program quietly fed weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and spare parts to Chiang’s military and trained his officers and troops. Cooke also advised Chiang on several strategic retreats, interceded for him with U.S. military leaders, and—inevitably in matters concerning China and Taiwan—plunged into stormy political waters.
UNDER THE RADAR
In December 1949, pressed by Chiang’s supporters on Capitol Hill and anxious about the Communists’ triumph in China, the Defense Department pushed for a more assertive approach to keep Taiwan out of Mao’s clutches. Pentagon chiefs recommended a “modest, well-directed, and closely supervised” program of military assistance for Taiwan, together with an immediate survey of its defense requirements. The State Department rejected this proposal, in a session chaired by President Truman. U.S. military action might postpone a Communist takeover, Acheson argued, but could not prevent it. The decision amounted to a virtual abandonment of Taiwan and Chiang.
But low-key operations to rescue the Nationalists continued. February 1950 saw Cooke, now accredited as a correspondent for the International News Service, arriving in Taipei. Clearly he had business other than reporting, or selling fertilizer. He quickly won Chiang’s confidence at a time when the generalissimo found it hard to trust many of his military and political subordinates. Chiang apparently hoped that renewed military aid from the United States or elsewhere would flow through the back channels associated with Cooke’s network.
Cooke proposed forming the Special Technician Program (STP) under the nominal supervision of the New York–based Commerce International China Inc. (CIC), a subsidiary of World Commerce Corporation then chaired by S. G. Fassoulis, a powerful figure in the China lobby. The World Commerce Corporation was backed by leading U.S. capitalists such as Nelson Rockefeller but was also covertly supported by former U.S. intelligence chiefs such as William Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services. The CIC’s complex pedigree thus imbued the STP with political intrigue from its birth.
Chiang embraced Cooke’s proposal without hesitation. He ordered new Offices of Technical Advisers established in the Nationalist army, navy, and air force headquarters. There, thirty-one American technicians, who began arriving in Taiwan in mid-March, set out to guide the troops’ training, reform, and related activities, including evaluating the capabilities of high-ranking Nationalist military officers and reporting back to Chiang.
Cooke and the CIC surreptitiously bought a considerable amount of munitions from the Philippines on behalf of the Nationalists in March. The items included $8 million worth of aircraft spare parts, 300 cases of radar equipment, and 100 tracked landing vehicles. Rumor had it that CIC agents in Manila were also purchasing 426 surplus tanks to ship to Taiwan. (The Nationalists’ acquisition of so many surplus tanks disturbed politicians at both the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office, who worried that these heavy weapons would eventually fall to the Chinese Communists when Taiwan was captured, thus posing a threat to the West.) Although the tanks never made it to Taiwan, Cooke and the CIC did purchase 300 armored cars and scout cars in Philadelphia and shipped them to Taiwan. In early April, Cooke helped Chiang obtain 23,000 artillery rounds from Yokosuka, the U.S. naval base in Japan. The Nationalists desperately needed ammunition to defend their precarious offshore bases that spring, and Cooke exercised his influence in both Washington and Tokyo to acquire the surplus ammunition at a good price.
Chiang’s deep reliance on Cooke led to changes in the Nationalists’ secret ammunition procurement program in the United States. In early June, Chiang’s military mission in Washington was trying to spend the $1.8 million remaining in the Chinese Military Aid Fund on 160,000 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition and 1 million rounds of .45-caliber ammunition. On hearing this, Cooke and his STP staff went to Chiang with this advice: instruct the mission to buy .30- and .50-caliber ammunition instead, as well as 3-inch shells for the Navy. Cooke believed these were more urgently required for the island’s defense. Chiang agreed, although his military staff in Washington initially refused to cooperate with the CIC. Before long, it became clear that the Nationalist military mission in Washington would be unable to get any munitions whatsoever without the CIC’s access.
ABANDONING VULNERABLE ISLAND BASES
Cooke’s defining role on Taiwan was the privatization of the Nationalist government’s foreign and military policies in the critical period around the outbreak of the Korean War. On April 27, Chiang brought Cooke with him to conduct a dangerous inspection on the Zhoushan Islands off Communist-occupied Zhejiang province. Chiang and most of his senior military advisers thought Zhoushan was strategically vital to Taiwan’s defense, not only threatening the Communists around Shanghai but keeping Mao’s army from moving southward by sea. Chiang’s loyal officers had spent considerable money and energy fortifying Zhoushan. At the time of the visit, about 130,000 troops were stationed on the islands and further reinforcements were being considered.
After inspecting Zhoushan, Cooke made a bold suggestion: withdraw the troops and abandon the islands. His rationale was straightforward: the latest intelligence report had indicated that the Communist airfields in the Shanghai-Hangzhou military region had been fitted out with radar and modern anti-aircraft batteries; Soviet jets, flown by Soviet pilots, were operating there. Facing this bolstered Communist air power were two Nationalist airfields on the Zhoushan Islands, inadequate radar equipment, and no antiaircraft batteries. It was clear to Cooke that the Communists had sea and air superiority in the area, so the islands could no longer project Nationalist air operations. Cooke advised an immediate withdrawal, regardless of how it might affect Nationalist morale.
Chiang’s advisers unanimously opposed the idea, arguing that the loss of the islands would damage Taiwan’s defense capability in the north and harm Nationalist prestige. The Nationalist military chiefs were so outraged by Cooke’s proposal that they frequently lost their tempers, turning hostile against Cooke in military meetings. Privately they also directed their fury at Chiang, saying he had been taken in by a foreigner and accusing him of cowardice for wanting to withdraw without a shot being fired. Despite such vehement opposition, Chiang was determined to take Cooke’s advice. On May 10, he ordered Nationalist forces to retreat. Within a week, 150,000 troops and civilians, along with a large quantity of munitions and materiel, had safely reached northern Taiwan without clashing with Communist forces.
Cooke played an equally crucial role in the retreat from Hainan Island. In this case, Chiang had long wished to abandon Hainan. Militarily, it was too close to the Communist-held Leizhou Peninsula in southern Guangdong and thus extremely vulnerable. Politically, the island had long been the turf of regional factions hostile to Chiang, who was fully aware that even if the island were held, his influence on its affairs would be tenuous and limited. In mid-April, shortly after a Communist landing on northern Hainan, Hainan Governor Chen Jitang hastily flew to Taipei to discuss the island’s last defense. Chiang made it plain that he would not use extra resources to strengthen the island’s forces, a decision that deeply irritated Hainan’s military leaders. On April 25, three days after the Communists had captured Haikou, the capital, an Associated Press story quoted local authorities as saying that Chiang refused to defend Hainan for fear that local military leaders would grow stronger and shake off his control. The news enraged Chiang, who feared the damage it could cause to the Nationalists’ public image.
Amid this tension between the Nationalist authorities on the two island refuges, Chiang sent Cooke to Hainan. He reached Haikou on April 20, only to witness its fall. According to Cooke, the Nationalist troops there were “thrown in piecemeal and defeated in piecemeal.” Immediately after returning to Taipei, Cooke reported to Chiang that the Communists had established strong batteries on the southern tip of Leizhou Peninsula before the invasion of Hainan. Moreover, these batteries appeared to be radar-controlled, manned by expert gunners, and fitted with shells with advanced fuses. Cooke posited that the Soviets were manufacturing these fuses and supplying them to the Chinese Communists. He concluded that Nationalist naval forces could not control the Hainan Strait much longer or ward off the Communists’ move southward. Cooke’s advice tipped the balance: Chiang ordered Hainan evacuated. By May 2, about 50,000 troops had safely retreated with their remaining ammunition and materiel to Taiwan, now the Nationalist government’s sole territorial base.
MACARTHUR'S SUPPORT PROVES TO BE KEY
What followed was the darkest point for Nationalist rule in Taiwan. After the Zhoushan and Hainan withdrawals, U.S. diplomatic personnel in Taiwan no longer believed that Chiang could survive. They predicted that the Nationalist regime might soon be forced into exile, perhaps in Manila or Seoul. Privately, U.S. military attachés in Taipei estimated that the invasion of the island would occur sometime between June 15 and the end of July, and advised Washington to cut official staffing to the bone.
Chiang could depend on few people except Charles Cooke. To dispel prevailing rumors that the Nationalists had surrendered Hainan and Zhoushan without a struggle, Cooke wrote Defense Secretary Louis Johnson to clear up the story and secure continued support for Taiwan. He argued that the loss of the islands actually assisted the defense of Taiwan, as a heavy economic and military load had thereby been removed. Cooke was even ready to fight with his fellow Americans in Taiwan. In an informal meeting with several U.S. military attachés in Taipei, Cooke rejected their claims that the evacuations had disastrously left thousands of Nationalist troops and precious materiel to the Communists. He also embarrassed the attachés by revealing that an informant had told him that an unofficial poll among U.S. consular and military staff had pegged July 15 as the expected date of Taiwan’s fall. The officers admitted this.
While the world was speculating about Taiwan’s inevitable fall, Chiang entrusted Cooke to be a reliable bridge between his near-bankrupt regime and General Douglas MacArthur in Japan. Before his first visit to Tokyo as Chiang’s messenger in April, Cooke drafted a personal letter to MacArthur on behalf of Chiang, seeking MacArthur’s opinion about whether Nationalist air and naval power was strong enough to mount large-scale raids on the mainland in support of Nationalist guerrillas. Cooke advised Chiang to court MacArthur’s continued support regardless of changes in Washington’s Far Eastern policy.
In his second meeting with MacArthur, on May 24, Cooke gave a firsthand report on the Taiwan situation. He accused American diplomatic personnel in Taipei of providing Washington with inaccurate reports, and he tried to clear the air with the general’s senior officials. Relying largely on Cooke’s firsthand information about Taiwan and the two offshore islands, MacArthur on May 29 sent a memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Cooke’s third trip to Tokyo, in June, came at a critical moment. Chiang’s position was worsening. On May 3, Paul Nitze of the State Department had floated a bold “hypothetical” plan to remove Chiang. According to Nitze, a successful coup launched by the much-favored General Sun Liren, who had “confided” that he was ready to “assume full military control,” would eliminate from power “all prominent members of the Kuomintang” on the island. The United States would then throw its weight behind Sun and organize an effective defense of the island while fomenting resistance on the mainland. This draft plan later evolved into an official memorandum and was officially submitted by Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Dean Acheson on June 9. Its key point was that Chiang should be approached, probably by John Foster Dulles, Acheson’s new consultant on foreign affairs, in the course of his forthcoming trip to Japan around mid-June, and given this blunt message: in its current state, Formosa was bound to fall; the United States would do nothing to assist Chiang in preventing this; and the only course by which Chiang could prevent bloodshed was to request U.N. trusteeship.
Cooke’s third trip was undoubtedly related to the fomenting U.S. stance toward Chiang. Chiang urged Cooke to convey a secret, personal invitation to MacArthur to conduct an inspection tour of Taiwan, and then to assume command over the island’s military if the situation ultimately required it. Meanwhile, through Cooke, Chiang also petitioned Dulles, Louis Johnson, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Omar Bradley for American advisers, economic and military assistance, and a “positive declaration of policy” toward Chiang and his leadership. Despite Chiang’s humbly expressed intention to hand over political authority, MacArthur was determined to keep him in power and preserve Taiwan for future “military rollback.” Accordingly, a coup to remove Chiang was out of the question.
KOREAN CONFLICT CHANGES EVERYTHING
Then the Korean War broke out on June 24. There arose a serious debate, if not a power struggle, between the State and Defense Departments over whether U.S. military advisory aid to Taiwan should be funneled through an expanded attaché staff in Taiwan or a separate military assistance advisory group (MAAG) outside the embassy structure. The State Department wanted to put a MAAG under the authority of the chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission so that decision makers in Washington could understand and guide it. The military establishment argued for a direct chain of command in Taiwan through MacArthur’s headquarters to the Joint Chiefs. Both departments invoked Charles Cooke and his STP to back their arguments.
State portrayed Cooke’s organization, which had Nationalist defense officials cooperating at many levels with retired U.S. general and flag officers, as a perfect model for its proposed MAAG in Taiwan. The military establishment retorted that the established connection between MacArthur’s headquarters in Japan and the STP in Taiwan, which was then operating outside the U.S. embassy in Taipei, was a more solid foundation. Cooke stood out as the likeliest candidate to head any official MAAG, the next step beyond what had been a personal advisory group.
His role in Nationalist policy making had become, if anything, more active since the outbreak of the Korean War. In early July, Chiang was seriously considering withdrawing from Quemoy and other tiny coastal possessions off Southeast China to bolster Taiwan’s defense and free up 33,000 combat troops for the Korean theater. Even though Cooke fully supported the Nationalist government’s probable participation in the Korean War, he vehemently opposed the evacuation from Quemoy. Cooke was convinced that it would not only look weak to the Chinese Communists but damage morale in Taiwan and the entire free world. Although not wholly convinced, Chiang eventually backed down. (Had the proposed withdrawal from Quemoy ever come to pass, it would have removed the focal point of U.S.-Chinese military crises in 1954 and again in 1958. Instead, Quemoy remains today under Taiwan’s control.) Cooke’s advice to pull out of Zhousan had hinged partly on the lack of an early-warning radar system. So when Nationalist authorities proposed in early July to buy new radar equipment through the CIC to strengthen Taiwan’s air defense, Cooke offered his help. This episode, however, would lead to Cooke’s estrangement from the partnership he had helped establish.
Chiang and his military chiefs relied solely on Cooke, as they understood that only the CIC and its contacts in political and military circles could get export licenses from the Munitions Division of the State Department. Chiang’s military men in Washington, however, bitterly resented his decision to procure Taiwan’s urgently needed munitions through Cooke, since they were eager to profit personally from arms purchases. Around mid-September, General Mao Bangchu, chief of the aviation procurement mission in Washington, instructed his aide to meet CIC personnel in New York and express his anxiety about the radar procurement in progress. Mao was upset that Taipei had circumvented him and given the CIC a green light to purchase the equipment on Taiwan’s behalf. Believing that Bendix, the radar export dealer, was passing a commission to the CIC, Mao warned that the CIC should halt the deal and transfer the whole business to the Taiwan aviation mission.
The CIC instead forged ahead. Infuriated, Mao decided to act against it and secure his position as the sole procurement agency of the Nationalist government. On January 3, 1951, Mao sent his aide to the FBI and to the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, accusing the CIC of illegally procuring ammunition on behalf of the Nationalists. He also accused a few State Department officials of having inappropriate relations with the CIC and unfairly helping it to get export licenses. The FBI and the Air Force launched investigations of the CIC. Pending their conclusion, Taiwan received neither radar nor aircraft licenses, nor clearance for new radar technicians.
Chiang, extremely angry, recalled Mao and took steps to replace him with men who would collaborate with the CIC. Fearing for their political careers, Mao and his aide retaliated against their own government, publicly accusing the military establishment of corruption and misappropriating public funds. Taipei responded by suspending its “incapable and disloyal” military subordinates from all official posts and instituted legal proceedings in the United States for “inappropriate behavior” that had seriously undermined the prestige of Nationalist China.
Yet the damage to Cooke, the CIC, and the STP had been done. MacArthur was dismissed in April 1951, so the CIC lost its patron. General William Chase was appointed the first chief of the American MAAG in Taipei, and the days of the Special Technician Program were numbered. After transferring most advisory and training activities to Chase’s new group, the STP was abolished.
TOWARD A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
The story of Charles Cooke is extraordinary in several ways. It illuminates a dangerous, transitional moment when Chiang Kai-shek placed his full trust and confidence not in his subordinates but in a retired U.S. admiral. Cooke then steered key decisions about how to deploy and arm the Nationalist forces while sustaining relations with the U.S. military that would, in time, openly embrace Chiang again.
Cooke’s story also offers new details about the inconsistency and mal-coordination of U.S. strategy toward the Taiwan-centered Nationalist government. Even as the State Department abided by a policy of letting the dust settle, other interests including the Navy, the intelligence community, and MacArthur’s headquarters resolved not to let Taiwan fall into Communist hands. Relations between the United States and Nationalist China in the critical period of 1949–51 need to be re-examined, not within the conventional analytical framework of the Truman administration or the State Department, but from the fresh perspective of informal U.S. actors and their unofficial activities in Taiwan and elsewhere in East Asia during an extremely precarious time.
Hsiao-ting Lin is curator of the East Asia Collection and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Lin’s academic interests include ethnopolitics and minority issues in greater China, border strategies and defenses in modern China, political institutions and the bureaucratic system of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), and US-Taiwan military and political relations during the early Cold War. He has published extensively on modern Chinese politics, history, and ethnic minorities.
Special to the Hoover Digest.