The 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade – a tragic accident to the White House, a deliberate and barbaric act of aggression according to the Chinese Communist Party – caused the deaths of three Chinese journalists, and sparked outrage in China. Tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing and at various consulates across the country. How much these violent protests were an expression of genuine anger, and how much they were organized (or at least stoked) by the government remains unknown. But one thing is certain; they pail in comparison to the 1957 attack on the American embassy in Taipei in which the building was overrun and ransacked by rioters, and the American staff beaten and forced to flee for their lives. Taiwan had turned on its ally, generous benefactor and Cold War protector.

This historical episode, known as the Liu Ziran Incident, though largely forgotten, shook US-ROC (Republic of China) relations, and is the subject of Stephen Craft’s excellent American Justice in Taiwan: The 1957 Riots and Cold War Foreign Policy. It’s an eye-opening, detailed yet highly readable account of the tensions between the American military and their hosts in the 1950s. It explores issues of extraterritoriality and justice, both in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia. What could be a tinder-dry read on international law becomes an often gripping story because of the wonderful framing of the topic around the killing of an ROC citizen by American serviceman Sergeant Robert G. Reynolds and his subsequent trial by an American military court (it was his acquittal that sparked the riots.) The mysteries surrounding the killing and riots add complexity and interest.

On the night of March 20, 1957, forty-one-year-old Sergeant Reynolds confronted a local man who was watching his wife take a shower through the window of their house. The man allegedly attacked Reynolds. The American shot him with a .22 revolver, then asked his wife to call the Foreign Affairs Police. Returning to the injured man, Reynolds fired a second shot when the man stood up and began approaching him again. The victim, 33-year-old Mainland Chinese Liu Ziran, fled into a side street and soon after died from his wounds.

Reynolds, a career soldier who had enlisted in 1945, had served in Taiwan for just over two years as a member of MAAG (U.S. Military Advisory and Assistance Group), and was preparing to return to the United States with his wife and daughter.

The ROC authorities and the American military began investigations to determine what had happened; was it murder or justifiable self-defense? The case fell under U.S. jurisdiction. American military personnel and their families enjoyed diplomatic immunity, thanks to the 1951 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, which in effect treated U.S. military personnel as members of the embassy. An amendment extended that immunity to MAAG dependents. MAAG also permitted advisors to keep weapons in their homes if they were registered.

Author Stephen G. Craft, a professor of security studies and international affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, does a good job of placing American diplomatic immunity in context, how it compared to similar agreements elsewhere and historically. I hadn’t, for example, been aware of this practice in the United Kingdom during the Second World War:

Even in the United Kingdom, where GIs shared closer linguistic, judicial, and cultural ties, the U.S. military wanted exclusive jurisdiction because the American people opposed their boys, many drafted against their will, being tried in a foreign court.

Given the Chinese sensitivity to extraterritoriality – so painfully reminiscent of the “unequal treaties” and treaty port justice – why had the ROC agreed? Simply put, they were desperate for American military and financial aid. The ROC did, however, continue to push for a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), which would give them them more control in crimes where locals were the victims. (It was not until 1965 that the United States and the Republic of China finally signed a SOFA limiting American immunity to that allowed in agreements the United States had signed with its European allies.)

Craft himself believes the American ought to have been more flexible:

The United States should have worked to establish safeguards, due process, and justice if an American brought harm to any of them—not as colonial subjects, but as equals before the law. Until a SOFA was signed and as long as MAAG personnel enjoyed immunity, all the ROC could hope was that no U.S. soldier committed a major crime, such as murder.

The Reynolds killing of Liu was to stress test American justice in Taiwan. Things got off to a bad start with the ROC authorities being uncooperative with the investigation. Craft describes – and this will be all-too familiar to anyone who has dealt with passive-aggressive Chinese bureaucracy – how they stonewalled the Americans in sharing their results from both an autopsy and a ballistics test.

On several occasions the provost marshal attempted to meet with the director of the FAP, only to be told that the appointment had been cancelled because the director was “ill.” When documents were released to the Americans, they were always in Chinese and without English translations. The excuses for not providing translations became comical. On one occasion, an FAP official said that he had the translations in his desk, but the drawer was locked and he did not have a key.

One of the many frustrations was the ROC officials’ refusal to say who Liu Ziran was or what he did for a living. When Lieutenant Colonel Salonick from the military police headquarters asked the chief of the CID (Alien Criminal Investigation Division) “point-blank for the deadman’s name and whether he served in the military or had a police record, he received only silence for an answer.” Craft believes that “Claims that Liu Ziran was in fact a security or intelligence agent seemed plausible.”

The Reynolds case was widely reported in Taiwan’s newspapers. Coverage was very hostile and the press readily spread unfounded rumors, such as that Reynolds had been drunk and that both men had been engaged in black market activities.

The American investigation concluded that Reynolds had shot in self-defense and that he would not be prosecuted. However, after repeated requests from the ROC Foreign Ministry, the Americans decided to reexamine the case. The new investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ross R. Condit believed:

…that Reynolds fired the first shot in fear: one that Liu Ziran might have survived. However, Reynolds could have retreated before Liu made a second attempt. Condit recommended that Reynolds be tried, not for murder, but for voluntary manslaughter: “homicide caused by an act likely to result in death, intentionally committed in the heat of sudden passion brought about by provocation.” The charge carried a maximum punishment of a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all benefits, and ten years of hard labor.

The court-martial of Sergeant Reynolds was held on May 20, 1957, at the MAAG-Taiwan headquarters in Taipei, and was open to the public, with members of the local press and ROC Ministry of Justice attending. Twelve jurors were whittled done to eight: five colonels and three sergeants. (Craft explains: “Since the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to those in the military, a court-martial, unlike a criminal trial, does not require a full jury of twelve peers.”) The proceedings ended with a secret ballot, and the jury returning a “not guilty” verdict.

The Taiwanese public reaction was one of surprise and anger. Compared to the offense of peeping at a woman, the response, i.e. shooting the perpetrator dead, seemed ridiculously disproportionate. Cultural differences regarding justice also contributed to the outrage. According to Chinese thinking, killing a person – even in self-defense – is a crime that carries an element of blame. For most Americans, the lack of witnesses and the concept of “reasonable doubt” made it very hard for the jury to find Reynolds guilty. On top of this, the American ideas of the right to bear arms and the right to stand your ground were not ones enjoyed or understood by the locals. Another sore point was the lack of compensation for the widow and her children. In Chinese culture it was – and still is – a matter of expressing sympathy, but it was resisted by the Americans, thinking that it would look like an admission of guilt.

Craft believes that the court martial was not properly handled:

For a trial so closely watched and one that affected what was supposed to be a close ally, more could have been done to create the impression that the court operated at its fullest legal potential. Although not obligated to do so, the judge advocate general’s office could have made an effort to ensure that there were twelve jurors, not eight. If the U.S. military could fly a prosecutor and defense lawyer to Taiwan, surely it could have flown in an impartial (or less partial) jury from southern Taiwan, the Philippines, or somewhere else in the Pacific. Instead, the court limited itself to a jury composed of men who lived and worked in fairly close proximity to Reynolds, and probably were under considerable peer pressure to vote not guilty.

The day following the acquittal, hundreds of protestors surrounded the embassy, where that morning eight Americans and twenty-three Chinese employees were working inside. The crowd quickly grew to thousands and the mood became angrier. A prolonged barrage of stone-throwing shattered all the front windows. Some protestors tried to storm the gate but were held back, but soon the weight of numbers saw the mob force their way through.

Rioters rushed into the compound, overturning and smashing cars and ransacking the first floor while American and Chinese personnel gathered in an air-raid shelter on the second floor. …

Over the next two hours, nine waves of rioters forced their way into the embassy for durations of ten to fifteen minutes. … The crowd outside cheered as rioters hurled objects out the windows. A rioter cut down the U.S. flag, which was torn to shreds by the mob below. When an ROC flag took its place on the pole, “hysterical cheers” could be heard. Rioters hung a second ROC flag from the embassy balcony. One cried out, “Long live the Republic of China.”

Some rioters discovered the eight foreigners and pelted them with objects at hand:

The eight ran for blocks with the rioters on their heels, including one rioter who had already inflicted injury with a hammer. From time to time one of the Americans got in a good punch against a rioter, but they suffered more than they dished out from a mob that clubbed, kicked, spat upon, and stoned them.

A state of emergency was called in Taipei as two army divisions were deployed, and the chaos subsided. As well as damage to the embassy building and various other American buildings, the incident raised numerous questions:

Were the riots spontaneous events or planned well in advance, and if planned, who instigated them? Why had ROC authorities failed to respond faster to prevent protests from spawning mob actions? Were the riots an expression of anti-Americanism or did they reflect an internal political struggle within the ROC government?

You’ll have to read the book to see what Craft says, but the lack of hard evidence means we are left with various fascinating possibilities rather than concrete answers. Regardless of government involvement in the riots, there was undeniably real public anger, both at the Reynolds case specifically and also from pent-up resentment against the Americans’ relative wealth and privilege, and their contempt for the fighting qualities of the Nationalist leaders and troops, as well as cases of black market profiteering, womanizing, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and dangerous driving.

Although such an incident could have led to a diplomatic rupture between the countries, the tensions receded without serious long-term damage. Timing played a part in putting the incident quickly behind them; the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958, initiated by an intense Chinese artillery bombardment of the island of Kinmen, prompted greater US-ROC military co-operation. The Americans, for example, secretly supplied the ROC air force with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for their F-86 Sabres. (In a series of aerial engagements against MiG-15s and MiG-17s, this was the first taste of air-to-air combat for the Sidewinders.)

The Liu Ziran Incident’s greatest effect was felt in Japan, where there was a parallel case to Reynolds’ of an American charged with killing a local. President Eisenhower eventually decided to hand over the American to a Japanese court and in so doing did a great service to U.S-Japan relations.

* * * * *

Stephen Craft first came to Taiwan in 1986, living in Luodong, Ilan County, for a year teaching English and working at a children’s orphanage as part of a college internship. His time in Taiwan coincided with the last year of martial law and he recalls, “a strong military presence, with soldiers guarding bridges and manning pillboxes while military policemen roamed the streets in their black and white cars with flashing red lights.”

Craft returned to Taiwan, living in Taichung from 1993 until 1997, during which time he married a Taiwanese woman, worked on his dissertation, and taught history part-time at Tunghai University. He then spent a year teaching history at Wenzao University in Kaohsiung.

American Justice in Taiwan was a long-term project, involving trips to archives in various countries in the 2000s. Craft’s research was aided by the historic year 2000 election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which opened archives related to the case. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in East Asia during the Cold War. Craft has done a terrific job in producing a readable, rigorously researched account of a complicated subject, handling the material with balance and the right amount of caution. He neither engages in unfounded speculation, nor shies away from expressing an opinion.

As good as American Justice in Taiwan is, there are several areas in which I think it could have been better. Ideally, Craft could have supplemented his archival work with more shoe leather investigation in tracking down participants in the 1957 events for face-to-face interviews. Secondly and more importantly, although Craft gives examples of extra-territoriality agreements with other countries so that we can place the Taiwan situation in context, there is little comparison of American justice in Taiwan with ROC justice in Taiwan. Condemnation of American legal processes coming from the rulers and subjects of a ruthless, authoritarian government needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Likewise, the descriptions of resentment felt against the Americans could have been better placed in context by comparison with the resentment felt by Taiwanese against Mainlanders. Including dependents, there were about eleven thousand Americans in Taiwan in 1957. Contrast this with the nearly two million Mainlanders who had fled from China a decade earlier and effectively colonized the formerly Japanese-controlled island.

As well as unearthing a forgotten story from the 1950s and providing great background on the times, American Justice in Taiwan is still highly relevant. American troops remain stationed in South Korea and in Okinawa, Japan. In fact, while I was reading the book and writing this review, there were huge protests in Okinawa over the suspected murder of a local twenty-year-old woman by an American military contractor (and former Marine).

American Justice in Taiwan: The 1957 Riots and Cold War Foreign Policy is published by The University Press of Kentucky.

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