Since the presidential primary season began, I've been thinking back on the 1960 election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. I was 12 years old, and it made an impression on me.
For one thing, everyone was talking about how good-looking one of the candidates was, and I couldn't figure out which one they were talking about. I was just a little boy, and they both looked all right to me.
But what really stuck with me all these years was the campaign issue about Quemoy and Matsu. What are Quemoy and Matsu, you may ask? That's what makes them so important.
They are two little rocky islands between China and Taiwan. Back then, Taiwan was recognized by the United States, the United Nations and all other right-thinking entities around the world as the "real" China, even though it was a small island with a small population. The other China, meanwhile, with the big wall, all the mountains, rivers and the largest population on Earth, did not actually exist because it was communist. Of course, everyone knew it did exist, because China was the worst threat to all that was held dear.
During the campaign, Quemoy and Matsu, located only 8 miles from mainland China, became important because of the question of military protection. The United States had pledged to protect Taiwan from Chinese attack. Both candidates agreed to that. But Quemoy and Matsu were claimed by both Taiwan and China. If these two rocky islands in the channel were invaded by China, would the United States go to war to defend Taiwan's territorial claim?
Kennedy, whom I was eventually told was the good-looking candidate, said no. During the debate he repeatedly stated no American boy's life was worth losing over these two rocks in the ocean. Nixon, whom I was told sweated too much to be considered handsome, said we had to protect the world against communism at any cost. If the Reds took Quemoy and Matsu, what would they want next?
Well, Kennedy won the election, and everyone forgot about Quemoy and Matsu. The next thing in the news, however, was how the Chinese communists had to be stopped in a country called South Vietnam. I do not remember South Vietnam being mentioned in the campaign, but I was only 12 and I could have missed it.
The next thing we knew, President Kennedy, who would not waste a life on the rocks of Quemoy and Matsu, was sending military advisers to the swamps of South Vietnam. Eight years after his election loss to Kennedy, Richard Nixon was elected president and he fought the communists as he said he would.
However, while he was president, Nixon also went to China to open U.S. relations with Chairman Mao. By this time the world had decided that the big China was indeed the real China and Taiwan was, after all, just Taiwan.
What happened to Quemoy and Matsu? The last I heard Taiwan still had big guns on the shores aimed at China awaiting the invasion, while the Chinese were buying up the rest of the world at some really cheap prices.
My advice to everyone is when you are listening to debates, and candidates are trying to convince you to get scared and angry over specific issues, please remember two things.
Quemoy and Matsu.
Jerry Cowling is a Brooksville freelance writer and storyteller.