The 823 artillery war and its historical significance
（Professor, History Department, National Chengchi University）
The artillery shells destroyed over 4,000 houses
The 823 cannon war, also called the “Second Taiwan Strait Crisis” began on the afternoon of August 23, 1958, and continued for 44 days, during which the PRC launched around 480,000 artillery shells. This battle took place 43 years ago, and was the definitive battle for the defense of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu, and an important page in the military history of the R.O.C. It was particularly different from the Battle of Kuningtou in that Taiwanese-born soldiers played a major role in this battle. However, apart from official propaganda, the 823 artillery war had a huge influence on the development of Taiwan’s history, the mutual relationships between Taiwan, the U.S. and China, and even on the PRC’s “liberate Taiwan” policies. On the eve of the 43rd anniversary of the 823 artillery war, Taiwan News’ “Window on Taiwan” has been written by Professor Hsueh Hua-yuen of National Chengchi University’s history department, who here looks into the entire story of this battle and its historical significance.
The entire story of the artillery war
What we call the 823 artillery war wasn’t over in a single day. It started at 5:30 p.m. on August 23, 1958, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the PRC shot several hundred large artillery shells at several islands of Kinmen, including Big Tan and Little Tan, in an intensive artillery attack. In 85 short minutes, they had fired more than 30,000 shells. The artillery battle continued until January 7, 1959. The total number of shells fired at Kinmen and the surrounding areas by the PLA exceeded 400,000, both in number and density a rare record in human history. Since the artillery battle started on August 23, it has been called the “823 artillery battle” [8 standing for August], and also the “Second Taiwan Strait Crisis”, since it was the second large-scale military confrontation to occur in the Taiwan Strait since 1949.
Up: The people of Kinmen engaging in armed self-defense.
Down: The opposite shore can be glimpsed from Kinmen’s Horse Hill
U.S. support stabilizes the situation
Following the outbreak of the artillery battle, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the next day that the 7th Fleet in the waters around Taiwan would enter into the battle situation in order to respond to the PRC’s violent attack. After this, in addition to helping the R.O.C.’s navy by deploying regiments to Kinmen, the 7th Fleet, along with the R.O.C. Air Force, Marine Corps and Army, held a series of air defense and amphibious joint battle exercises, and dispatched Lockheed F-104A Starfighters and Nike-Hercules missiles to Taiwan. At the same time, they also set up an operations command center in Taiwan. In order to suppress the continuous shelling from the PLA directly and effectively, the U.S. Forces supplied the new kind of giant artillery shells with greater firepower to Kinmen, and as expected, their efficacy was exploited to the full henceforward in the artillery battle between the two sides. Although the R.O.C. army suffered heavy losses from the shelling on August 23 itself, including the deaths of Kinmen Defense Unit Auxiliary Commanding Officer Lieutenant General Chi Hsing-wen and others, with the assistance provided by the U.S. Forces, it was ultimately able to contend with the PLA in terms of firepower, and then even suppress them. Even more importantly, if the PLA were to try to seize Kinmen, apart from the necessity of strong firepower cover, they would also have to win Kinmen’s airspace and air supremacy before they would be able to launch amphibious landing operations. But from September that year, with continued air combat in the Taiwan Strait and Kinmen, the Nationalist army persisted in holding on to command of the air, and shot down more than 20 MiG fighters, and the PRC was clearly unable to win air supremacy. Since the PRC was unable to capture Kinmen as originally planned, and the U.S. was pressing President Chiang Kai-shek to withdraw troops from Kinmen and Matsu, the PRC was forced to think up a way to resolve the Taiwan problem, and came up with a major change of plan, which affected all mutual interaction across the Taiwan Strait from this point on.
The American position and the political considerations of the PRC’s top echelons
In fact, during the 1950s, even though Taiwan and the U.S. signed the Sino-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, the U.S. never explicitly defined whether or not the treaty covered Kinmen, Matsu and other offshore islands, and also suggested that the R.O.C. withdraw troops from Kinmen and Matsu, so as to construct a neutral zone between the Nationalist government and the Beijing regime, and have a framework for the territory governed by either side and international position for both sides. But after the 823 artillery war, although the U.S. adopted a series of actions to help the R.O.C., the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles hoped that the battle would force the R.O.C. armed forces to decide to withdraw, and finally on September 30, 1958, he openly suggested it. This suggestion was obviously not going to be accepted by President Chiang Kai-shek, and on October 1, Chiang formally expressed his opposition to withdrawing from the offshore islands. On the contrary, the upper echelons of the PRC leadership, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and others, began to do some serious thinking. If they persisted with their original strategy, then following attack and occupation of Hainan Island, the Zhoushan Islands and the Dachen Islands, they could go on to take Kinmen and Matsu. Because if the PLA could, by these military operations, smoothly seize all the islands along the mainland coast that were garrisoned by the Nationalist army, the only remaining territory governed by the R.O.C. would be the island of Taiwan itself, which has absolutely no geographical relationship with mainland China. In this way, once the U.S. plan of Nationalist and Communist governments each ruling one side of the Strait emerged, it might lead to a situation of Taiwanese independence. Consequently, the leaders of the PRC announced that, based on the above-mentioned political considerations, they were changing their original policies and had decided that if they didn’t attack Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu all together, then they wouldn’t take Kinmen and Matsu separately. Henceforward, the PLA declared that they were adopting a strategy of attacking Kinmen on odd-numbered days, and resting on even-numbered days, but actually, they were simply displaying the fact that it was tactically impossible for the PLA to bring their full abilities into play, and it became a habitual military annoyance.
Up: Artillery shells being transported on a beach in Kinmen.
Down: Disembarking from ships bringing supplies to Kinmen.
Obviously, the appearance of the aforementioned phenomenon, may in one aspect have been due to the higher echelon leaders of the PRC deliberating the changes in the international situation and coming up with what they called the “no longer take Kinmen and Matsu” policy. But contemporary papers show that the PLA may already have been lacking the strength to occupy Kinmen. So the PRC’s official line seemingly deliberately overlooked the problem of insufficient military strength. Actually, with the support of the U.S. government, the Nationalist army had air supremacy and was also in control of the artillery battle, and so the R.O.C. government was already able to prevent the PLA from using its abilities to the full.
R.O.C. and PRC move from military battleground to the international political stage
At any rate, after the 823 artillery battle, the PRC abandoned the plan of attacking and occupying the coastal islands one by one, and as a result, the situation in the Taiwan Strait began to stabilize for the cold war military face-off. It was basically already an impossibility to want to use hostilities to wipe out the enemy. Consequently, even if there had been armed conflict, it would have been only a random incident, and the important battlefield on which they competed had already moved to the international political stage. This of course was not what the upper echelons of the PRC had expected after the 823 artillery battle. On the other hand, on October 23 that year, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and President Chiang Kai-shek released a joint communique, and although it mentioned the defense issues of Kinmen, Matsu and other offshore islands, it also formally brought up opposition to the possibility of an unprovoked armed counterattack on the mainland, and this influenced the development of Taiwan’s domestic political situation. Since they it was impossible in terms of space and of logic to launch an armed counterattack on the mainland, people in Taiwan demanded that the government do more to implement the democracy and law and order that was needed. Among those making these demands was the legislator Chi Shih-ying, who raised a request to use the crack troops policy, and also a member of the Provincial Assembly, Lee Wan-chu, who during the Assembly’s general question time requested wholesale re-election of all the legislators; all of these things were connected to this historical development. As regards the magazine of the freedom faction of those days, “Free China,” not only did it argue its case even more unequivocally than before: the possibility for the government under the KMT administration to continue the policy of an armed counterattack on the mainland was already receding. Consequently, with the premise of counterattack almost impossible, demands from the people of Taiwan to step up freedom and democracy were stepped up, and this too turned out to be an unexpected legacy of the 823 artillery war on Taiwan’s politics.
Edited by Tina Lee/ translated by Elizabeth Hoile