Quemoy and Matsu

by Ed Sawicki - 2012 (updated 2020)

The United States has had its fair share of politicians who favored expensive military misadventures instead of diplomacy. Richard Nixon was one of them. During the 1960 race for president, Nixon didn't mind putting his political ambitions over his country's foreign policy. He may have lost the election because of it.

Given Nixon's hawkish stance, had he won the election, would the U.S. have had to fight a war with China in addition to the war in Vietnam? What would have been the outcome of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis?

John Kennedy Richard Nixon Dwight Eisenhower Chiang Kaishek

The cast of characters in this story are Senator John F. Kennedy, Vice-president Richard M. Nixon, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China.

The October 1960 presidential debates between Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice-president Richard M. Nixon put the tiny Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu at center stage. The islands are part of the Republic of China (ROC), the democratic country that occupies the island of Taiwan, then called Formosa. The Communist government of mainland China is the People's Republic of China (PRC). These islands are between 2 to 5 miles off the coast of mainland China and more than 100 miles from Taiwan.

At issue in the debates was the defense of these two tiny islands by ROC, a United States ally. The Formosa Resolution of 1955 gave the U.S. President the authority to defend Formosa and its outlying islands against an armed attack by Communist China.

Kennedy's position was that the islands were strategically indefensible, not essential to the defense of Formosa, and too costly to defend. He wanted ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek to abandon them to avoid the United States being drawn into a war with mainland China.

Map of Formosa and outlying islands
Formosa and outlying islands

Kennedy's position was the same as the Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon was Eisenhower's vice-president, but he disagreed with the president on Quemoy and Matsu. Nixon said that the islands should not be surrendered to the Communists as a matter of principle, even though he referred to them as “two little pieces of unimportant real estate.” Some historians claim that Nixon actually said “two little pieces of shit.”

Both islands account for 70 square miles, 0.5 percent of Formosa's landmass. Nixon wasn't concerned about the cost in American lives and dollars.

Eisenhower and Kennedy had the best interests of their country at heart. They were pragmatists. Both paid attention to the costs of the Korean War and learned a lot from not winning that war. In stark contrast, Nixon seemed willing to have the country pay any price for his belief that not a single acre of land should be lost. If Nixon had won the election, would there have been a Sino-American war fought concurrently with the Vietnam War? And all because of two tiny islands that Nixon thought were “two little pieces of shit?”

It was Nixon's campaign that brought up the issue of Quemoy and Matsu. Kennedy was responding to it. Kennedy wanted to minimize discussion about the islands during the campaign because he didn't want to undermine Eisenhower's foreign policy. Nixon didn't have the same concern. He said that he would keep the debate alive as long as Kennedy held his position.

During a press conference on August 24, 1960, Eisenhower was asked whether he could give an example of a major idea of Vice President Nixon's that the administration adopted. Eisenhower's reply, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”  The Kennedy campaign used that video in one of their TV ads. Perhaps this was Eisenhower's way of punishing Nixon.

Although Eisenhower agreed with Kennedy, the White House had to stick by its treaty obligations and policy, or else the PRC might get the idea that the campaign rhetoric was a signal that the U.S. would not defend the ROC.

Nixon lost the election to Kennedy. It was Kennedy who, two years later, negotiated an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. How would it have ended if Nixon had won?

To help answer that question, here's audio from Robert McNamara's appearance in the 2003 movie The Fog of War. He describes his meeting with Fidel Castro in January 1992.

It's now 60 years later. What happened to Quemoy and Matsu? Other than Quemoy being renamed to Kinmen, very little. The ROC still governs them. Both islands have become tourist attractions for people from ROC and the PRC. A popular attraction is the Zhaishan Tunnel.

1969 EC-121 shootdown incident

Nixon did succeed in becoming president in the 1968 election, beating Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. Less than three months later, a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a U.S. Navy EC‑121M Warning Star spy plane in the Sea of Japan, killing all 31 Americans on board. Nixon's response was to do nothing, revealing himself as a chickenhawk.


This video shows Kennedy trying to difuse the issue of Quemoy and Matsu during the 1960 campaign, but Nixon keeps it alive to prevent the campaigns from focusing on other issues.

Kennedy vs. Nixon debate

This video shows a debate between the candidates. The segment on Quemoy and Matsu begins at 4:58. Nixon doubles down on keeping the issue alive.

Kennedy vs. Nixon debate

This video clip from the documentary Fog of War reveals that Fidel Castro was willing to use nuclear weapons against an attacking U.S. force, which was far more likely to happen if Nixon was president.

Segment from the Fog of War

Kennedy vs. Nixon third debate


1927-1949Chinese Civil War
1945-Oct 25Japan surrenders
1950-March-MayBattle of Hainan Island
1951-Sep 8Treaty of San Francisco
1955-Feb 7-11ROC evacuates Tachen Islands
1960-OctKennedy-Nixon campaigns/debates


Wikipedia: Second Taiwan Strait Crisis

Wikipedia: Formosa Resolution of 1955

Wikipedia: Matsu Islands

American Diplomacy: Quemoy and Matsu

Wikipedia: Penghu

Wikipedia: Cuban Missile Crisis

Wikipedia: Zhaishan Tunnel

Youtube: Jhaishan or Zhaishan Tunnel (Kinmen, Taiwan)

Wikipedia: 1969 EC-121 shootdown incident