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 HISTORY@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu 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
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.
National Air & Space Museum
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.