An American diplomat asked the U.S. to intervene to stop the bloody repression of protests in Taiwan in 1947. He was not heard. It is a story with a lesson for the Tai Ji Men case.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*Text of a video prepared for the 77th anniversary of the 228 Incident in Taiwan.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on February 12th, 2024.

George H. Kerr, 1911–1992 (credits), and the first edition of his book “Formosa Betrayed” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).
George H. Kerr, 1911–1992 (credits), and the first edition of his book “Formosa Betrayed” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

The 228 incident was the bloody repression of popular protests by the Taiwanese against the Kuomintang that started the period known as the White Terror in Taiwan. Although during the Martial Law period it was never discussed in public, the memory of 228 lived on among the Taiwanese.

However, 228 was almost totally unknown in the West—until 1965 when an American scholar and former diplomat, George Kerr, published an influential book called “Formosa Betrayed.” The story of Kerr is interesting, and I believe it is also relevant for the Tai Ji Men case.

Kerr first visited Japanese-occupied Taiwan in 1935. During World War II he joined the American Navy as an analyst specialized in Taiwanese affairs. He was sent back to Taiwan after the Japanese surrender in 1945, first as a naval attaché and then as vice-consul. He was thus there during 228. At that time Chiang Kai-Shek’s government was in Nanjing, where the American Embassy to the Republic of China also was. Consul Ralph Blake in Taipei reported to Ambassador John Leighton Stuart in Nanjing, and Kerr was Blake’s deputy.

Kerr was in the streets on 228 and with his specialized knowledge of Taiwan he immediately understood that a bloodbath was coming. The Embassy in Nanjing, however, believed that the priority for the United States was to shield the Kuomintang from Communist criticism and ordered the consulate in Taipei not to intervene. Kerr insisted that letting the Kuomintang troops slaughter the Taiwanese was against the values America stood for. He prevailed upon Consul Blake to send a telegram to the ambassador in Nanjing on March 3 arguing that “After gravest consideration Consulate concludes only practicable solution would be immediate American intervention in its own right or on behalf of UN to prevent disastrous slaughter by Government forces.”

An image of the 228 repression. From X.
An image of the 228 repression. From X.

The telegram was not taken seriously. Kerr, seen as its instigator, was removed from Taiwan and called to Nanjing. He was asked to write a report on 228, which American Ambassador Stewart gave to Chiang Kai-Shek in April 1947, urging restraint.

Chiang, however, had already decided that brutal repression was the only medicine capable of curing Taiwan’s problems. Kerr’s report was ignored, the repression went on, and the United States refused to intervene. In frustration, Kerr resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service in May 1947 and went back to the United States to pursue an academic career, first at the University of Washington and then at Stanford. Since he mentioned the 228 incident in his courses there, Chiang Kai-Shek personally complained with the U.S. government, which caused Kerr to lose his position at Stanford. He was however re-hired by the University of California at Berkeley, but only in 1965 did he feel safe enough to publish “Formosa Betrayed,” which caused a sensation in the U.S.

Before its publication, the prevailing perception of Taiwan was as a loyal American ally in the struggle against Chairman Mao and Communism. Kerr made American scholars and a part of the public opinion familiar with 228, the White Terror, the dark side of the Kuomintang government, and what he called the “betrayal” of Taiwan by the United States, which had ignored human rights issues for international political reasons.

As a leading scholar of Kerr, Richard Bush, wrote in 2007, “Taiwanese hoped and expected that Americans, particularly American diplomats, would save them” from the White Terror. This did not happen. As Kerr had warned, American non-intervention played in the hands of Communist China’s propaganda and damaged both the U.S. and Taiwan’s international image.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

At the end of last month of January, I attended in Washington DC the International Religious Freedom Summit. It was a wonderful event where many religious liberty issues were presented. Yet, I remained with the impression that there is an unwritten rule in these American gatherings that Taiwan’s domestic religious liberty problems should not be mentioned. The only (and understandable) concern is protecting Taiwan from Mainland China. This explains the problems in bringing the Tai Ji Men case to the attention of the worthy American agencies dealing with freedom of religion.

While the situation in today’s democratic Taiwan obviously cannot be compared to the White Terror or the Martial Law period, in a way Kerr’s American dilemma is still there. Should cases such as Tai Ji Men be ignored based on the principle that Taiwan’s government should never be criticized? My answer is no. History has vindicated Kerr’s position. Yet, there is a risk that the same mistakes will continue to be committed.