The 823 Kinmen Artillery Battle (823金門砲戰), in English named the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, led to high tensions between US and China, with Taiwan caught in the middle. While the issue was a continuation of the Chinese Civil War between Chiang Kai-shek-led Chinese Nationalist (KMT) army and Mao Ze-dong-led Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it had the potential to escalate into a global geopolitical issue. Most battles and tensions between 1947 and 1991 symbolized the fight between American capitalism and Russia-led communism.
After the KMT army retreated to Taiwan, Kinmen, and Matsu, two islands just off of China became contested grounds for the two parties. As the support for the KMT and ROC army, the US specified that they would help protect Taiwan and the Penghu Islands but explicitly left out Kinmen and Matsu. The US considered Kinmen and Matsu so far from Taiwan that Chiang Kai-shek should leave it to Mao’s CCP. Chiang Kai-shek was not a fan of this thinking and set up frontline troops on the two major island groups.
On August 23, 1958, at 5:30 pm, 600 cannons fired upon the four islands that make up Kinmen. Over 40,000 shells blanketed the islands for two hours, killing three Lieutenant Generals and injuring the visiting Defense Minister. Over 470,000 rounds of artillery battered the islands throughout one and a half months, averaging 3,100 rounds per square kilometer.
Two months later, on October 25, 1958, the Chinese government declared they would only fire cannons on odd-numbered days. This continued for 20 years until 1979 when China and US formed formal diplomatic relations. During these 20 years, more than cannon shells, propaganda leaflets, and speaker broadcasts were used to target citizens across the 20-kilometer gap between Kinmen and Amoy.
As artillery fired upon the soldiers on Kinmen, the Chinese Communist Party also attempted to set up a barricade to prevent ROC supplies from reaching Kinmen.
Seeing how this could get out of hand, Eisenhower ordered the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to ensure Kinmen was supplied. Military support was given to Chiang Kai-shek, and the fighting continued. This was named the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, the first one being three years prior.
Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Nathan F. Twining recommended that Eisenhower use tactical nuclear strikes to deter the Chinese attack.
An excerpt from a study concerning still-classified documents reads: “Twining made it clear that the United States would have to use nuclear weapons against Chinese air bases to prevent a successful air interdiction campaign by the Chinese Communists…At this point, the Chinese Communists hopefully would break off. But if they did not, the United States, Twining indicated, would have no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes deep into China as far north as Shanghai.” Twining said the likely consequence would be nuclear retaliation against Taiwan and possibly Okinawa.
Eisenhower decided against this decision but continued to supply military staff and weapons.
Impact and Influence
Analysts believe that Kinmen’s bombardment was all for show. It is believed that Mao had never wanted to take over Kinmen, as it would sever Chiang Kai-shek from China and eventually lead him to develop Taiwan as an independent nation, rather than part of the ROC. For the exact same reason, Chiang wanted to hold onto Kinmen as a sign that he had not given up hope of reclaiming the mainland. In the end, both leaders achieved their goals, but it has also left Kinmen with an identity distinct from both mainland Taiwan and China.
Today, the older generation in Kinmen still remembers the years of bombardment they endured and are mostly concerned with maintaining peace and stability.
Younger people who grew up in a democratic Taiwan cannot imagine life without freedom and democracy. These different worldviews mean that many on the island self-identify as Taiwanese, Chinese, and some simply as Kinmen-nese.
Today, Kinmen is free from cannon shelling and has become a top tourist location with its well-preserved traditional Minnan and European architecture, famed Kinmen liquor, and Kinmen knives made from cannon shells. But the story of the Kinmen islands lives in school textbooks as a fight to protect Taiwan and the Republic of China from the grips of the Chinese Communist Party.