Harry S. Truman & mushroom cloud

Should Truman Have Stopped Worrying And Loved The Bomb?

Harry S. Truman & mushroom cloud

There was a time when the United States contemplated using the atomic bomb on the Korean peninsula; this was, and still is, the most controversial aspect of the war that raged there from June 25, 1950 to July 17, 1953.

Ironically, this threat came about despite the best intentions of American planners to wage a ‘limited war’. 

Originally, the north and south of Korea had been split at the 38th Parallel at the end of the Second World War.

There were two governments then, as there are now - a communist one in the north backed by China and Russia, and a capitalist one in the south backed by the US and her allies.

US soldiers on a rickshaw looking around the street of Namdaemun in September 1945 by USAG- Humphreys
US soldiers on a rickshaw look around at the streets in Seoul, South Korea, in September 1945 (image: USAG- Humphreys)

Neither regime recognised or respected the other and border clashes became common.

This continued for several years until it boiled over into a full-blown war on June 25, 1950, when the north invaded its southern neighbour.

United Nations forces, including Britain, and led by the US, landed in the south and pushed the northern soldiers back up beyond the 38th Parallel. 

The original intention had been to stop there, but General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of US Forces in the Pacific and of the United Nations Command (UNC), felt he should seize the initiative and keep going.  

He was the man of the hour, having staged a daring and spectacularly successful amphibious assault on the port city of Inchon which had cut the North Koreans in half and sent them scurrying off in desperate retreat. 

The hope expressed most ardently by South Korea’s President Syngman Rhee, had always been that one day the whole peninsula would be reunited under a single capitalist umbrella. 

The North had been the aggressors but now they were on the run – it seemed to many, Rhee and MacArthur in particular, that it would be foolish not to take advantage of the momentum to conquer the north while also liberating the south.

So, President Harry Truman permitted the UNC to continue north, but to only do so with extreme caution 

He was worried, rightly, about the possibility of China entering the war. Manchuria, a vital industrial region, lay just north of the Yalu River – the border it shared with DPRK - Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea. 

It would be vulnerable to quick and easy capture in any future war if a US ally were to become established adjacently. 

Nakdong River Battle reenactment
A re-enactment of the battle at Nakdong River, which took place early on in the war

As the UNC worked its way north, it looked as if MacArthur might have been right, but in late November, 1950, Truman’s fear was realised: Three-quarters-of-a-million Chinese troops stream rolled over the Yalu and down the peninsula, sweeping away any South Korean and UNC troops in their path. 

In fact, the Chinese forces had been held back at one point specifically to encourage their enemies to over-extend themselves. 

By pushing forward so quickly and aggressively, MacArthur had played right into their hands.

By now, the president was fearing that he might lose control of the situation entirely as his top general became even more belligerent, wishing to now carry the war into China itself. In ‘Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire’, Niall Ferguson says:

“MacArthur’s argument was, first, that ‘limited war’ was undermining the morale of the American forces in Korea; secondly, that the United States should escalate its operations against China, attacking the Chinese airfields in Manchuria and blockading the Chinese coast; thirdly, that the Chinese Nationalist forces in Formosa (now Taiwan) should be mobilized on the side of the United States; and finally, that up to fifty atomic bombs should be dropped on Chinese cities.” 

Inchon attack by PROSDASM Archives
The attack on Inchon in September 1950 was a huge success for MacArthur (image: PROSDASM) – the marine clambering over the embankment died moments later

What happened next was the most salient aspect of the conflict for people back home in America. 

A desperate tug-of-war ensued between Truman, who wanted to prevent an escalation into a wider (and possibly world) war, and MacArthur who aimed to achieve an outright American (and UNC) victory.

Eventually, MacArthur was relieved of his command after repeatedly overstepping his authority and a public enquiry led by Truman’s political opponents in Congress ensued. 

As much as the great general started out as the committee’s star witness, it was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley, another respected World War 2 hero, who stole the show. 

Calmly and matter-of-factly pointing out that MacArthur’s ideas were both unworkable - Taiwanese forces simply weren’t as reliable as American troops - and irresponsible - because they risked provoking a cataclysmic war with heavyweights China and the USSR - Bradley saw off Truman’s critics.

Crew of an M-24 tank along the Nakdong River front, August 1950
An M-24 tank crew in August 1950

The historical consensus has since been that Truman was correct to have fought a limited war, which saved a capitalist and eventually democratic South Korea without triggering a larger conflict with either Russia or China. 

MacArthur has been largely consigned to the dog house, viewed as anachronistic and wildly irresponsible – a dinosaur of past wars unable to recognise how reckless his actions were in the nuclear age. 

But that argument has been challenged, not least by Niall Ferguson. 

‘Limited War’, he argues, was precisely the reason the talks that started with the Chinese and North Koreans in 1951 dragged on for two years. 

Why agree to American terms when there was only a carrot and no stick?   

Lack of escalation, Ferguson says, meant lack of any fear that things could get worse, prompting the Chinese to fight on in an effort to improve the outcome:

“For precisely that reason, the strategy MacArthur had advocated ended up being seriously discussed again just months after his departure. In January 1952 Truman himself advocated issuing an ultimatum, informing the Soviet Union that the United States would blockade the Chinese coast and destroy Chinese bases in Manchuria if there were no change of policy within ten days. This would mean ‘all out war. It means that Moscow, St. Petersburg, Mukden, Vladivostock, Pekin[ g], Shanghai, Port Arthur, Dairen, Odessa, Stalingrad, and every manufacturing plant in China and the Soviet Union will be eliminated.’ Three months later the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) recommended the ‘tactical use of atomic weapons’.”

He continues:

“Truman’s successor, Eisenhower, also contemplated using atomic warheads ‘on a sufficiently large scale’ to bring the conflict to an end. This had been MacArthur’s position all along. It was also the public’s position. Asked if they favored ‘using atomic artillery shells against communist forces… if truce talks break down,’ 56 percent of those polled said yes. It may have been precisely this belated threat that persuaded the Chinese finally to back down… If so, then MacArthur was at least partly vindicated. Limited war had not succeeded in securing an end to the war; only the threat of an atomic escalation had. By overruling MacArthur, Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had unwittingly prolonged the war for more than two years.”

USS Rochester (CA-124) in 1956 She was the flagship of Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble off Incheon in 1950
The USS Rochester (CA-124), which was the flagship of Vice Admiral Arthur D Struble that floated off the coast of Inchon in 1950, when MacArthur’s attack was launched

A similar point is made by H W Brands in ‘The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War’:

“Finally, in the summer of 1953, the two sides consented to an armistice. No peace treaty followed, yet the cessation of shooting allowed all parties to begin to move on. A decade later Eisenhower asserted in his memoir that he had broken the deadlock in the peace negotiations by quietly threatening to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese. ‘We dropped the word, discreetly,’ he wrote. ‘We felt quite sure it would reach Soviet and Chinese Communist ears.’ Whether the threat was decisive was impossible to know. No one on the communist side said it was—not that they would…  All the same, if things did transpire as Eisenhower said in his memoir, MacArthur could have felt a certain vindication at the disclosure.”

The problem with this line of argument is that it seems to miss a subtle but crucially important distinction: Eisenhower and MacArthur weren’t talking about the same thing. 

Eisenhower, and Truman before him, deliberately employed the threat of escalation, possibly including the use of nukes, in some fashion, to facilitate the ending of the war.

There’s even a chance they were bluffing. Stueck’s book shows that Eisenhower had contingency planning ready, but that he also knew his forces wouldn’t really be ready for a major attack until early 1954.

Additionally, he’d been advised that tactical nukes would make little difference to the war’s outcome; he was also attuned to the public, which wanted the war over.

MacArthur, on the other hand, had advocated not a threat but an actual escalation of combat. 

North Korean refugees
North Korean refugees following UN and South Korean forces (image: USGA- Humphreys)

In the political brinkmanship of the Cold War, this hairline rhetorical difference translated into enormously disparate outcomes on the ground: Successfully defending an ally on the one hand, and an enormously costly regional war on the other - a regional war that could have then spawned a third world war, and/or gone nuclear. 

Still, the ‘mere’ threat of nuclear escalation shouldn’t be taken lightly either.

We now know just how close the world came to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis less than a decade later, and that it was the stalwart refusal of President Kennedy to invade Cuba, against the wishes of his Chiefs of Staff, that helped save the planet from catastrophe. 

Scarier still is the fact that the Cuban Missile Crisis was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In ‘The Fog of War’, Robert McNamara claims that during his seven-year tenure as Secretary of Defense, the US “came within a hair’s breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions”. 

And even beyond that, Eric Schlosser, author of ‘Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety’, has revealed that, despite official denials, there were over 1,000 nuclear weapons accidents within the US just between the years 1950 and 1968.

Naturally, any one of these incidents could have led to nuclear catastrophe. 

The other issue with the argument made by Niall Ferguson, and supported by H W Brands, is that it isn’t clear what exactly MacArthur meant.

Obviously, the most controversial aspect of his desired escalation was “that up to fifty atomic bombs should be dropped on Chinese cities.”

But the sources Ferguson references for this, ‘The Korean War in International History’ by William Stueck and ‘Years of Trial and Hope’ by former President Truman, don’t explicitly say MacArthur planned to drop nukes on cities or other civilian areas.

Korean civilians fleeing the invasion caught in the line of fire at Yongsan on August 25, 1950
Koreans who were caught in the line of fire at Yongsan on August 25, 1950

Truman states in his memoir: “The kind of victory MacArthur had in mind - victory by the bombing of Chinese cities, victory by expanding the conflict to all of China - would have been the wrong kind of victory.”

Did this mean nuking whole cities, as had been done with Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945?

Bombings that had been approved by Truman himself, incidentally.

Or did it mean conventional, more targeted bombing? One of MacArthur’s aims was to destroy the capacity of China to wage industrial war, and thus, factories were his target, not civilians.

According to Gar Alperovitz’s book ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth’, Richard Nixon said in 1985 that MacArthur had once told him:

“He thought it a tragedy that the (atomic) bomb was ever exploded (on Japan at the end of World War 2). MacArthur believed that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should always be limited damage to noncombatants… MacArthur, you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned him off, which I think speaks well of him.”

Nixon may have been correct – MacArthur was a complex character.

On the one hand, Brands reminds us that FDR, Truman’s predecessor, considered the general to be the second-most dangerous man in America. He reserved the top sport for the populist firebrand Huey Long.

The soon-to-be president had seen this dangerous side at the Battle of Anacostia Flats in 1932.

The incident erupted when First World War veterans and their families marched on the capital during the height of the Great Depression to demand proper payment for their prior military service.

MacArthur led a violent put down of the protest in which a baby was tear gassed to death and a boy bayonetted whilst trying to save his pet rabbit. 

But equally, there was another side to the man, which was on full display in the wake of the Japanese surrender to the US in 1945, where he “spoke not of conquest or domination but of peace and reconciliation”:

“MacArthur made clear from the beginning that he was a different kind of conqueror. When he discovered how meager were the food supplies in Japan, he ordered American troops to stick to their rations and not feed themselves at the expense of the Japanese. This astonished the Japanese; what conquering army had ever not lived off the land? He ordered that the quarter million Japanese troops on the Kanto Plain be disarmed not by American troops but by their own officers. This astonished the Japanese even more; what conqueror had ever trusted an enemy to disarm itself? How could this American so well understand the Asian concept of face, and be so magnanimous, as to spare the soldiers the humiliation of having to turn over their weapons to the enemy?”

Korean War
A tank landing ship shown near Inchon during the war

Of course, one could argue that part of what motivated his drive for speedy reconciliation with the Japanese was the need for allies in the fight against the new enemies in the region – Russia, and later communist China. 

Indeed, a letter written by MacArthur in response to the possibility that the US defence of Taiwan might be unpopular in Asia proves insightful:

“Those who speak thus do not understand the Orient. They do not grant that it is in the pattern of the Oriental psychology to respect and follow aggressive, resolute and dynamic leadership, to quickly turn from a leadership characterized by timidity or vacillation…. Nothing in the last five years has so inspired the Far East as the American determination to preserve the bulwarks of our Pacific Ocean’s strategic position from future encroachment.”

It’s also possible that, despite what Nixon said, MacArthur had changed his mind about the dropping of the atomic bomb along with many members of the American public, and sought to paint himself in a better light (or that Nixon was doing this for him, after his death).

Pew research shows that whereas 85 percent of Americans approved of the use of the atomic bomb in 1945, in 1991 this had dropped to 63 percent (and then to 56 percent by 2015).

Still a majority, but the trend for questioning Truman’s decision to drop the bombs has clearly begun to increase as the years have worn on. 

The reverse is also true, which is important to bear in mind.  

The brutality of total war normalised the destruction of enemy cities to the point that atomic weapons didn’t seem that out of the ordinary when they were used in 1945. Robert McNamara points out in the ‘Fog of War’ that the US had engaged in the large-scale bombing of more than 60 Japanese cities before the use of the two atom bombs, ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’. 

One such mission was the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, which killed 100,000 people – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, by contrast, is thought to have killed between 66,000 and 150,000.

In the film, McNamara retrospectively declares that:

“Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50 to 90 percent of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional… to the objectives we were trying to achieve”. 

Military personnel observing one of the tests in the Buster-Jangle Series in the fall of 1951
US nuclear tests in 1951

The former Secretary of Defense and US Army Air Force captain decides that his superiors, as well as himself, were guilty of war crimes and that they only weren’t prosecuted because they won the war.

Giving further insight into the period is Bruce A Elleman’s ‘High Seas Buffer: The Taiwan Patrol Force, 1950 – 1979’, which shows that, in the 1950s, the atomic bomb was thought of as merely a large-scale conventional bomb, and that its use was routinely considered, during Korea, the first Taiwan Strait crisis in 1954, and in Vietnam.

So again, could MacArthur have also seen its use as routine, and for this use to have included civilian targets? Niall Ferguson’s other source, Stueck’s ‘The Korean War in International History’ has this to say: 

“General MacArthur’s view was still more grandiose. In a meeting in Tokyo on 13 July with generals J. Lawton Collins and Hoyt Vandenberg, the U.S. army and air force chiefs of staff, respectively, the UN commander declared that North Korean forces must be destroyed, not just driven back beyond the 38th parallel. Once this was accomplished, the entire peninsula would be united. He suggested the use of atomic bombs to cut off supply routes into Korea from China and the Soviet Union. ‘We win here or we lose everywhere,’ he insisted. ‘If we win here, we improve the chances of winning everywhere’.”

Again, though, it isn’t clear if he meant to nuke Chinese cities. Sources on the Korean war mention repeatedly the fact that tactical nuclear weapons were considered for use against enemy forces, and it’s conceivable that this is what MacArthur was referring to.

A look back at nuclear weapons tests by CBS

What is certain is that MacArthur’s proposed escalation involved the laying of radioactive material across the very north of Korea to prevent Chinese forces traversing from Manchuria.

Of course, this is also utterly shocking by today’s standards, and one must wonder what the long-term effect on the local population would have been of radiation that ‘only’ lasted for 60 to 120 years. (This was the timeframe for the kind of nuclear material he proposed using – radioactive cobalt, or Cobalt 60).

Quite apart from that, there’s also the distinct possibility that MacArthur’s radioactive barrier plan may have been far more dangerous than even he realised.

In an article for History News Network entitled ‘Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer’, Korean historian Bruce Cumings digs deeper into the issue of Cobalt 60:

“In interviews published posthumously, MacArthur said he had a plan that would have won the war in 10 days: ‘I would have dropped 30 or so atomic bombs… strung across the neck of Manchuria.’ Then he would have introduced half a million Chinese Nationalist troops at the Yalu and then ‘spread behind us – from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea – a belt of radioactive cobalt… For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North.’ He was certain that the Russians would have done nothing about this extreme strategy: ‘My plan was a cinch’.”

Except that ‘cinch’ is not the way the ‘radiation belt’ is described a little further down:

“Cobalt 60 has 320 times the radioactivity of radium. One 400-ton cobalt H-bomb, historian Carroll Quigley has written, could wipe out all animal life on earth. MacArthur sounds like a warmongering lunatic.”

It isn’t clear exactly how much cobalt 60 would have been required to cover a strip of Korea from one coast to another, but presumably, it would have been an awful lot.

What’s also hard to pin down, quite apart from exactly how MacArthur, and possibly others, planned to use nukes, is whether they were aware of just how dangerous this technology was becoming.

Though, during his testimony to Congress about his firing, the general made no mention of nuclear weapons, something that makes the issue, at least to us, conspicuous by its absence.

This strongly suggests he at least knew how sensitive the issue might appear, even by the standards of the time. Stueck says:

“He reduced his strategy for winning the war—that is, unifying Korea—to four proposals: an intensified economic embargo of China; a naval blockade of the China coast; air reconnaissance over China; and an end to restrictions on Chinese Nationalist (troops from Taiwan) operations against the mainland, plus logistical support for such operations. These were far from unlimited means—he did not advocate the use of atomic bombs or, in this case, the bombing of Manchuria, and he denied that he had ever “given a thought” to using U.S. ground forces on mainland China.”

Use Sunshine_40th Division_in_Korea_Kumwha_Valley,_Republic_of_Korea_Spring_1952 CROP bottom edit
The ‘Sunshine’ 40 Division in the Kumwha Valley, Spring 1952

Still, even these more modest aims took the war in a direction President Truman was not prepared to go, as he made clear in his memoirs: 

“I have never been able to make myself believe that MacArthur, seasoned soldier that he was, did not realize that… the Chinese people would react to the bombing of their cities in exactly the same manner as the people of the United States reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor; or that, with his knowledge of the East, he could have overlooked the fact that after he had bombed the cities of China there would still be vast flows of materials from Russia so that, if he wanted to be consistent, his next step would have to be the bombardment of Vladivostok and the Trans-Siberian Railroad! But because I was sure that MacArthur could not possibly have overlooked these considerations, I was left with just one simple conclusion: General MacArthur was ready to risk general war. I was not.”

Truman, it must be remembered, had allied leaders to deal with. They were both horrified at the prospect of American using nuclear weapons as well as being afraid of how an escalation of the war in Korea might impact them, as outlined by Stueck: 

“In a third world war, the Soviet Union would occupy Europe to the English channel and, even without nuclear weapons, ‘would render the whole southern and south-western parts of Britain, including London, uninhabitable or at least ‘unworkable’.’ The Attlee (British) government had two choices: it could follow the United States into a war with China, thus risking a Soviet military offensive in the West, or it could ‘move independently in [the] UN organization and elsewhere.’ To (Secretary of State for War) Strachey, the only sane choice was the latter. Whatever its drawbacks, the alternative meant self-destruction.”

Though Stueck also tells us:

“The irony of international events of late 1950 is that, temporarily, allied pressure on the United States both discouraged Washington from expanding the war in Korea and encouraged Beijing and Moscow to pursue it below the 38th Parallel; the offensive into South Korea, in turn, intensified pressure in the United States to widen the conflict. During the first month of the new year, therefore, the world stood closer to Armageddon than at any moment since 1945.”

T-34 in Hungary
A Russian-made T-34, used by the communist forces during the war - this one shown in Hungary

It is, however, worth remembering that Russia, China and the DPRK (North Korea) were pushing south of the 38th Parallel for precisely the same reasons that South Korea and the US/UNC had pushed north of it: They had the enemy on the run and now was their chance to reunify the peninsula in their own image.

One could argue then that, rather than Truman’s decision to put the reins on MacArthur being the cause of years of unnecessary fighting, it was instead MacArthur’s decision to cross the 38th Parallel that needlessly prolonged the war. 

According to Stueck, those in government, though they may have initially approved MacArthur’s advance into North Korea, certainly weren’t prepared to let him go any further:

“U.S. officials in Washington did not trust MacArthur with broadened authority. They feared that he would use a new directive to justify action beyond Korea that was not really necessary, thus needlessly expanding the conflict.”

Having said that, it’s important to remember that he was not a lone voice in seeking to broaden the war.

Even on the political left, Al Gore Sr (father of the former vice president) agreed that some drastic measure, such as MacArthur’s radiation belt, needed to be employed to end the war and to put a stop to the rising American casualties.

About 37,000 US personnel would die in the conflict, a large number for a relatively short war.

Again, there is the impression, backed up by revelations in ‘Command and Control’, the documentary based on Schlosser’s book, that people simply didn’t understand just how dangerous nuclear weapons were.

There’s also a darker interpretation.

Stueck details the deliberations of US officials as the talks with the communists wore on:

“They knew that, if negotiations broke down (at one point)… the United States would receive no allied support for new military actions. The Joint Chiefs reported… that, to be successful, such action would require using atomic weapons in Manchuria. In retaliation… the Soviets would launch air attacks on a defenseless Japan… (or) Pusan and Inchon (in South Korea). In short, global war might result from an all-out U.S. offensive in Korea.”

And because such a war would have come about because of US actions not sanctioned by its allies, it could have led to the breakup of NATO. Furthermore, escalation might have led to “an all-out Soviet offensive (that could have inflicted) some nine million civilian casualties in the United States”.

Government officials concluded that not winning outright in Korea was, therefore, the lesser of two evils, but this wasn’t a view shared by everyone. 

According to Cumings, General Curtis LeMay, McNamara’s commanding officer during the bombing of Japan (including the nuclear bombing) and later Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, “was again ready to proceed to the Far East to direct… attacks.

Washington was not worried that the Russians would respond with atomic weapons because the US possessed at least 450 bombs and the Soviets only 25”. 

Korean_War_Memorial,_Pyongyang,_North_Korea by Jack Upland
A memorial of the war in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang (image: Jack Upland)

It isn’t obvious who exactly ‘Washington’ refers to – clearly there were hardliners like LeMay and MacArthur pushing the war in one direction while others such as Truman were trying to limit the conflict.

Whoever ‘Washington’ was, the most important part of the above quote is the Soviets possessing ‘only’ 25 nuclear bombs.

Presumably, this accounts for the estimate that ‘only’ nine million US civilians would have been killed if the US and USSR had gone to war at that point. 

Again, McNamara helps us fill in the gaps in ‘The Fog of War’:

“LeMay believed that ultimately we’re going to confront these people in a conflict with nuclear weapons. And, by God, we better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future… It’s almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period.”

From the available evidence, it’s impossible to know for sure if MacArthur thought the way LeMay did.

The point though, is that, like many of those around him, MacArthur and his supporters seemed to be oblivious to just how dangerous a nuclear war would have been – or, they didn’t care.

But what of Eisenhower’s threat of nuclear escalation at least bringing an end to the war in Korea?

Well, it may have coincided with the communists agreeing to the armistice but that doesn’t mean it was the principle cause.

Stueck and Carter Malkasian, author of Osprey Publishing’s ‘The Korean War’, reveal that the death of Stalin and his replacement by more flexible leadership in Moscow was probably more pivotal.

He had approved of and underwritten the whole war, hoping, in part at least, that its escalation would draw in vast numbers of US military personnel, leaving Europe comparatively under-defended.

Stueck also posits that the Russians probably thought this was exactly what the Americans were trying to do to them, and thus were also wary of getting sucked into the Korean quagmire or a wider regional war.

Stalin’s support was necessary in Korea because China’s economy was in a terrible state.

The Chinese didn’t want a US-allied North Korea, but they didn’t want a long war either.

This was the fifth major conflict they’d been involved in in about 40 years, starting with the communist revolution in 1911, followed by a civil war, then World War 2, then another civil war, and now the Korean War.

The reason they fought on so doggedly is because they viewed the Americans and their allies in the exact same way the Americans viewed them: As barbarous imperialists. Stueck tells us:

“Just as Washington feared that a show of weakness or hesitation would embolden the enemy, the Soviet leader probably surmised, as did Mao, that Communist passivity would make the United States more rather than less aggressive. It is tragic that the United States and China lacked means of direct communication.”

panoramic display of the Battle of Taejon
A display that recreates the Battle of Taejon, which took place between US and North Korean forces in July, 1950

Indeed, part of the misunderstanding lay in the fallout from the communists taking power in China in 1949.

In the wake of this, the last diplomatic representative in Beijing, Consul General O Edmund Clubb, had left.

The US had also refused to recognise the PRC (People’s Republic of China) as the legitimate government there, dealing instead with the ROC (Republic of China) in Taiwan.

Throughout the Korean War, when the US and PRC did communicate, they did so through an intermediary (India).

This mutual suspicion and lack of communication simply spiralled out of control, with the Americans believing that they needed military pressure on the Chinese to make them come to the negotiating table, and the Chinese believing the exact same thing about the Americans. Again, Stueck is instructive:

“If U.S. designs were offensive rather than defensive, a possible voluntary North Korea retreat to the 38th parallel took on an entirely new significance. Such a move would ease the U.S. burden in mounting a campaign above the old boundary, and who could tell just where such a campaign might lead?”

Chinese radio broadcasts referred to the idea of an armistice line approvingly when it was proposed – again though, Malkasian reminds us that they also firmly believed that the US would not negotiate fairly without pressure. 

It was difficult for the communists, given their more authoritarian culture, to understand that MacArthur’s bellicosity was not officially sanctioned.

An equivalent military leader in China could never propose or say the kinds of things MacArthur had without them having been approved by the governing Politburo.  

Robert F Dorr’s ‘Korean War Aces’ shows that the misunderstandings were present at lower levels too.

While the US engaged in mass bombing in North Korea to stem the enormous tide of Chinese reinforcements, those flying Russian MiG-15s saw this as akin to the Dresden (or Cologne, Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki)  bombings in World War 2.

The Americans were using napalm, after all, which was truly awful to those caught under it.

Likewise, the bombing of Hydro-Electric Power stations meant to cripple electricity and industry was seen as an attack on the population’s water supply. 

Images of the North Korean capital Pyongyang: A monument to the Founding of the Workers Party (top left; image: Joseph Ferris III); subway trains (top right and bottom left; images: Roman Bansen and David Stanley); A city street (bottom right; image: Kounosu)
Images of North Korean capital Pyongyang: A monument to the Founding of the Workers Party (top left; image: Joseph Ferris III); subway trains (top right & bottom left; images: Roman Bansen and David Stanley); A city street (bottom right; image: Kounosu)

Not only that, but the final communist offensive in July 1953 was almost certainly motivated not by naked aggression by South Korean President Syngman Rhee’s unilateral decision to free communist POWs.

The fact that many of them wished to defect to the west was a source of considerable embarrassment to China, Russia and North Korea and their final attack seems to have been motived by pride as much as anything else.

It had been previously agreed that they’d be released into a neutral country for ‘processing’ – a face saving middle ground that lay somewhere between letting them go in American-allied South Korea, and coercing them into returning home.

So, if the real lesson of the Korean War is not that nuclear escalation was required to win it, but rather that we needed a better understanding of how the enemy perceived us, then how can this lesson be applied today?

As noted, Kim Jong-un is now the principal trouble maker in the region, so understanding his intentions would seem to be essential to de-escalation in modern times.

Forces News contacted Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, New York University political science professor, and co-author of ‘The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics’.

He advised the following regarding any future crisis with North Korea:

“A solution is feasible if we agree that stopping the nuclear program is of paramount concern and that we are willing to live with the current regime if we can eliminate the nuclear threat. From Kim Jong-un's perspective (and his father before him, and whoever succeeds him in the future as well) the primary concern is to remain in power and maximize discretionary control over revenue. There are two significant potential threats to his survival in power: external adversaries (the USA and ROK in particular) and internal threats of coup from within his winning coalition. He has been dealing with the latter problem by executing senior officials, especially those, like his uncle, who were perceived to be loyal to his father's coalition and who were seen as potential rivals for Kim Jong-un's hold on power. But internal threats are always present and so are external threats. Hence, his need to run a kleptocratic regime and to have a nuclear deterrent against the US/ROK.”

Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (left; image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen) and a western view of Pyongyang (right; image: John Pavelka)

De Mesquita admits that his solution is not ideal, but that it is far better than more violent alternatives:

“First, Kim Jong-un should agree to the round-the-clock presence of IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors who will be authorized to disable, but not dismantle, his nuclear program (take control of existing nuclear or atom weapons) by shutting down his centrifuges while leaving them in a state where they could be started up quickly if the US reneges on its end of the deal… In exchange, the US should publicly declare its commitment to non-aggression against the DPRK as long as they remain in compliance with the agreement. Additionally, the US and its friends with shared concerns (ROK, Japan, maybe China) should guarantee sufficient payments (we could call it foreign aid) to the regime so that Kim Jong-un is assured that he can continue to purchase the loyalty of his coalition of essential backers and he can buy off any credible domestic rivals.”

This, he says, should keep the North Korean nuclear threat at bay indefinitely:

“(Kim) can manage without a deterrent given the public declaration of non-aggression which is politically costly to violate. As long as we remain a reliable donor and maintain our non-aggression stance, he has every reason to leave the IAEA inspectors to do their jobs thoroughly and effectively so as to prevent his starting up a second, rogue nuclear program. This proposal is, I believe, a stable equilibrium as long as our leadership remains committed to eliminating the nuclear threat without seeking regime change.”

Naturally, the free world would like to see communism finally disappear in North Korea, but until the right circumstances come about for that, de Mesquita’s proposal seems like a good way to avoid nuclear war.

Combo Seoul
Views of Seoul, capital of South Korea, as it is today (images by Johannes Barre, Philippe Teuwen and Doug Sun Beams)

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