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A-Bomb and Korea

This is one file from HISTORY, the discussion list originally based in Finland at FINHUTC but eventually peered at a number of institutions. The comments made by Allan Needell are worth reading.

From Mon Sep 23 22:39:00 1991
Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1991 23:34:20 EDT
From: Allan Needell

Subject: A-Bomb and Korea

To: Multiple recipients of list HISTORY

In-Reply-To: note of 09/23/91 14:44

From: Allan Needell

Christopher and Lynn,

Here is a summary derived from the accounts given by Rosemary Foot and Roger Dingman (in the articles cited by Richard Jensen and myself in earlier notes). The Dingman article is credited by Bruce Cummings as the best on the subject, although it was published too late for inclusion in his book. Unfortunately, I suspect that once Christopher becomes familiar with [t]he history of the use and threat of use of weapons of mass destruction in Korea, he will find it is hardly more pleasant a story than even the fragging episodes of Vietnam. The greatest myth is the one referred to earlier in our discussion: that is that nuclear threats were introduced by Eisenhower and it is their introduction that broke the stalemate and led to the armistice. What follows is an account of the Truman years. Perhaps Richard or Christopher would like to continue with an account of the Eisenhower period.

As soon as Truman met with his advisors at Blair House following the June 25, 1950, invasion he determined that should the Soviet's enter the fighting atomic bombs would be required to "take out" the bases they controlled in the region. He authorized their use in that eventuality. In Washington, as the seriousness of the military situation became apparent, the war took on the character of a now desperate defensive struggle and no reasonable tactical use of atomic weapons was apparent. Rather using them as a diplomatic tool was what was considered. MacArthur in Japan was an exception. As early as July 9, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) postponed a decision on MacArthur's request that atomic bombs be made available to him for use in Korea as an alternative to diverting from essential positions elsewhere the numbers of American troops that would be required to counter the North Koreans. Discussion centered on the approximately 20 bombs it was felt could be spared without interfering with the existing general war plan (for possible use against the Soviet Union). Although it became clear in the process to the Joint Chiefs that MacArthur had very grandiose plans even then for carrying the fighting to the Chinese, it was determined that in the then authorized defensive "containment war" against the North there were not any technically suitable targets.

Later that summer in a show of force as much for domestic as international effect, Truman arranged to send a number of nuclear capable B29s to bases in England and Guam. They took no part in the massive and increasingly desperate bombing of North Korea which was carried out as UN forces retreated toward Pusan. Eventually, following the Inchon amphibious invasion and the rapid crumbling of the North's advances into the South, and following the fateful decision by UN forces to push past the 38th parallel to the Yalu, the Chinese forces entered the war. Truman told reporters in November that he would take "whatever steps are necessary" and hinted that the use of atomic bombs were always under active consideration. That announcement upset the British and led to high level meetings and verbal assurances by the US President. MacArthur pressed for authority to pursue his plans to expand the war into China proper (including US support for an invasion by Nationalist Chinese into southern China, a blockade of the China coast and bombing of the Manchurian airfields). This would have been but prelude to a larger offensive designed to overthrow Mao and his regime. There is considerable evidence that MacArthur sought discretionary use of atomic weapons as part of this plan.

On 23 January 1951 the JCS agreed to prepare to execute at least the outlines of MacArthur's plan (short of atomic warfare). They actually authorized the Manchurian bombings should China attack American forces outside of Korea (e.g. in Japan). They also apparently drew up atomic contingency plans at that time. The closest the US actually came to using atomic bombs was in April of 1951 (at the time of MacArthur's firing by Truman). Apparently complete weapons were actually sent (if not assembled) to Okinawa. On April 5 the atomic bombing of Manchurian bases was authorized if new Chinese forces entered the fighting in large numbers or if air strikes were launched against American forces from Manchuria. (American war materials were stockpiled in Pusan and extremely vulnerable to air attack). Truman even gave a specific order to the same effect on April 6. The initial targets apparently were Shanghai city center and several other industrial cities in China as well as four cities in North Korea. Apparently these decisions were closely tied up with Truman's decision to relieve MacArthur of his post and the resultant need to placate the JCS and his political opponents at home. (Cumings p. 476-8; Dingman 73-74). The situation was apparently touch and go until the military situation stabilized that summer. That is the last time Truman authorized transfer of nuclear weapons overseas.

Some final comments. The only real nuclear targets identified were cities and airfields (primarily in China). During the course of the war, as Lynn has noted, advanced incendiaries (i.e. Napalm) proved quite effective for destroying the cities and population of the North. Late in the war the bombing of dams and catastrophic flooding of agricultural territory was accomplished with conventional high explosives. It was the fear that the Soviet Union would retaliate with all out war to bombing of its airfields that served as the prime deterrent to that planned use by the US.

There is, of course, much more in Lynn's interesting and perceptive recollections that have recently received attention from scholars. The use made of the UN, Soviet/Chinese relations, the changing goals of the US in the fighting, and especially the Chinese perspective on the stakes.

Allan Needell
National Air & Space Museum
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560 (BITNET: NASSH100@SIVM)

Lynn may be Lynn Nelson, Professor Emeritus, University of Kansas. Christopher may be Christopher Currie, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.