Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War: A Precarious Beginning for the Tradition of Non-Use

Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War: A Precarious Beginning for the Tradition of Non-Use

Nathan A. Jennings

Abstract: Throughout the dramatic invasions and counter-invasions that defined the Korean War the United States retained a ready nuclear arsenal. Supreme and peerless in atomic might even when compared to the nascent Soviet capability, America enjoyed the singular capacity to destroy Chinese war-making capability on a strategic level, and to substantially degrade ground formations at the operational and tactical levels. Despite serious consideration, American decision makers chose to fight to a high-consumption and high-cost war through conventional means rather than employing the unparalleled power of nuclear technology. This choice of atomic non-use set the precedent for an enduring tradition of nuclear restraint that remains in effect today.

Six years after the United States decisively defeated the Empire of Japan with atomic weapons it engaged in another costly ground war in East Asia. From June of 1950 to July of 1953, in a bloody confrontation of competing geo-political ideologies and spheres of influence, America supported its ally, South Korea, against North Korea and its benefactor, China, in an effort to contain the encroaching threat of Soviet-sponsored Communism. Throughout this war of conventional maneuver, the United Nations expeditionary forces suffered two major reversals, lost over 36,000 soldiers, and faced the specter of strategic defeat by ‘Red’ armies without ever resorting to atomic intervention.[1] With the onset of stalemate and armistice in July of 1953, the American-led alliance never decisively won the conflict.

Throughout the dramatic invasions and counter-invasions that defined the contest for control of the Korean Peninsula the United States retained a ready nuclear arsenal. Supreme and peerless in atomic might even when compared to the nascent Soviet capability, America enjoyed the singular capacity to destroy Chinese war-making capability on a strategic level, and to substantially degrade ground formations at the operational and tactical levels. Despite serious consideration, American decision makers chose to fight to a high-consumption and high-cost war through conventional means rather than employing the unparalleled power of nuclear technology. This choice of atomic non-use set the precedent for an enduring tradition of nuclear restraint that remains in effect today.

Despite these considerations, the motivations that favored the employment of nuclear weapons to achieve decisive victory in the Korean Peninsula were more enticing and viable than most now appreciate. Likewise, the corresponding imperative to halt the advance of Communist power, through use of the same weapon that had decisively defeated the dominant empire in the Pacific in 1945, must have been extremely tempting. Historian Ninna Tannenwald summarized succinctly in her work, The Nuclear Taboo: “Given that nuclear weapons had become the centerpiece of US defensive strategy after 1948, there was every reason to expect that US leaders would use their new weapon to defend or advance American interests in any Cold War conflict. Indeed, numerous American military leaders fully expected that this would be the case.”[2] Given such reality, a largely neglected question remains: why did American national leaders elect not employ Atomic weaponry when they stood to gain at so much at ostensibly so small a cost?

Analysis of this seemingly contradictory question begins with examination of the various influencing dynamics from the perspective of a dominant America in 1950. In the wake of victory over Japan and Germany in World War II, America boasted clear and unrivaled nuclear superiority over the entire planet.[3]  At the outbreak of the Korean War, there existed only one other nuclear power, the Soviet Union. Yet there was no parity in capability: the Russians possessed a mere 25 weapons, while the United States possessed over 450.[4] As stated by noted author Joseph Gerson, “the US was far more powerful-militarily and economically-than the Soviet Union and impoverished China, and remained so throughout the Cold War.”[5] He also asserts that, “Soviet strategic forces were highly vulnerable to US first-strike attacks,” and emphasizes Strategic Air Commander General Curtis LeMay’s confidence in completely defeating the Soviet military “without losing a man to their defenses.”[6]

These statements underscore the nearly complete absence of the mutually assured destruction paradigm that would later define and suppress Cold War hostilities between nuclear powers. The disparity between relative destructive capabilities made the concept of deterrence irrelevant and consequently offered atomic intervention as a relatively low-cost, low-risk option.[7] Reconstructing this scenario requires a suspension of the foundational concepts of modern nuclear strategy as deterrence is now the primary inhibitor to modern employment of atomic weapons.

Also exceptional, and underappreciated, is that the United States actively chose to deny its military the use of the most powerful weapon in its arsenal to reverse an undesirable outcome. In a time of national war, the American leadership effectively denied its forward commanders the ability to achieve decisive victory at a high cost in casualties and prestige. For many in 1950 America, the atomic bomb was not the symbol of humanities worst potential, but merely a newer, more effective weapon system with which to win just wars.[8] The concept of relegating innovative technology was akin to the idea of Hannibal the Great deciding not to employ elephants against Rome, the British suspending use of the HMS Dreadnaught during the Anglo-German naval arms race of the early 20th century, European powers forgoing use of the machine gun and tanks during the First World War, or the Americans electing to forgo the employment of strategic fire bombing in the Second World War.

Thus while nuclear weapons now stand in a singular class due to the scope of indiscriminate collateral destruction associated with them, that stigma was not widely or popularly held in 1950. As a potential weapon, there remained military applications for use in the Korean War that were seriously explored.[9] Additionally, the recent precedent of civilian industrial targeting that occurred in Germany and Japan just six years prior was important. This indiscriminate destruction was again applied in North Korea through conventional means with catastrophic results for North Korean civilians, yet nuclear devices with similar outcomes were withheld. This is perhaps the first time in military history that a nation has not employed its most effective weapon available to achieve an attainable victory, making it even more remarkable and historic. Fortunately for the tradition of atomic non-use, it can also be viewed as a major triumph of human ethics over humanities capacity for destruction.[10]

The question of non-use in 1950 must also be viewed from the perspective of an American public that viewed atomic weaponry not as a cultural and ethical taboo against human rights, but as a viable and proven weapons system. The vast majority of popular opinion approved of atomic use against Japan six years prior, and a majority supported use again in Korea in November of 1951.[11] Public support for the war itself was also very high at the commencement of hostilities, at least 78 percent.[12] These social-military considerations belie the common assumption that the tradition of non-use was inevitable. The president, defense officials, and senior military officers managing the Korean War were establishing and defining the enduring rules of nuclear engagement for the world through their wartime decisions. With a slight alteration of events, or different leadership in the American Presidency, a vastly different expectation of normalized atomic weapons employment to resolve conventional conflict could have been nurtured.[13]

Throughout this war of maneuver in 1950 and 1951 the United States suffered severe tactical and strategic reversals, most notably the North Korean advance in the summer of 1950, and the Chinese invasion in the fall of that year. The specter of Western retrograde in the face of Communist aggression made nuclear intervention a seriously considered option. But there is a key question that informs this scenario: what were the capabilities of the current American atomic arsenal, and what possible effects could have been attained in Southeast Asia? Korean War historian Bruce Comings states that “the US possessed at least 450 bombs” at the start of the war, more than enough to strike in Southeast Asia while deterring any Soviet atomic threat. At this time, more powerful thermonuclear bombs were yet available and the U.S. arsenal contained only MK4 fission bombs.[14]

This atomic model weighed about 11,000 lbs. and could be delivered by a range of strategic delivery platforms, including B-29s, B-47s, B-50s, AJ-1s, and B-36s. It offered yields of 20-40 kilotons, about twice the size of a Hiroshima-type device. About 550 MK4s were produced between 1949 and 1951. By mid-1953, this model was replaced by the lighter and more powerful MK6s. The primary delivery system for atomic weapons during the Korean War was the B-29, an adequate medium-range B-29 bomber that could easily strike anywhere in Korea or China from American bases in the Philippines or Japan.[15] Long-range missile delivery and long-range B-52 bombers were not yet operational at this time.[16]

Throughout this critical period in American security development, atomic weapons were central to the United States’ expansive general war strategy with expectations of relying on successive nuclear strikes to defeat Soviet mass.[17] However, because of the lack of deterrence or the need for a second-strike survivability or even preemptive postures, nuclear readiness was not maintained with immediate response systems. Additionally, the devices were deliberately controlled under the civilian Atomic Energy Commission by authority of the McMahon and Atomic Energy Acts of 1946.[18] This control mechanism delayed implementation and ensured graduated escalation of American atomic power while ensuring ultimate presidential release authority.

As proven by the statements of involved participants, the potential impact that atomic weapons could have had on the Korean War was and remains in dispute. However, these effects can be classified as either strategic or tactical in nature. Strategic bombing would have conceivably been utilized against Chinese mainland industrial targets to force favorable concessions. The twin attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the prime and enduring examples of strategic strikes that forced an opposing government to capitulate.[19]

Yet while the ability of a fission bomb to destroy a large area was not in doubt, the Chinese and Soviet reaction was much more uncertain.[20] A statement by Gordon Dean, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1950 to 1953, is instructive as to the nature of the developing situation:

What would be the effect upon the enemy of its use and the effect upon Western Europe and upon Asiatics generally who have felt that the “white man” picks only “yellow men” upon whom to drop bombs-this particular line having been exploited heavily by the Communists. If the commander in the field determines upon targets where the use would not be fully effective, such as for example in an area with hills on either side, what price would we pay in terms of prestige which we now have because of the popular notion that the atom bomb is an infinite weapon.[21]

Despite this recognition of the ethical implications of renewed American use of nuclear weapons by some, there were still strong arguments in favor of strategic effects. Counterfactual hypothesis, such as the highly plausible scenario of an unchecked Chinese advance to the southern extreme of the Korean peninsula, or the specter of capture of an entire American field army by the Chinese, could have forced atomic escalation and changed the precedent forever.

A more problematic intervention, yet more ethically acceptable, was the use of tactical nuclear strikes against purely military targets in support of conventional ground forces. Many documented contemporary views and most of the historiography on the Korean War agrees that such a utility would have been limited or ineffectual due to the Korean terrain.[22] Yet it cannot be forgotten that many military officers in 1950, especially combatant participants in the combat theater, believed that nuclear weapons would have proven effective. Many of these commanders were the same men who had overseen the atomic strikes against Japan, and well understood the effects, while many of the opponents were civilian analysts removed from the immediacy of the tactical setting.[23]

Throughout the Korean War the U.S. military considered the impact that tactical atomic could have inflicted upon their enemy. A retrospective Army study early in the war indicated that:

Air-burst nuclear weapons could have taken a terrible toll on the CPV troops at points when these troops had been openly massed in large numbers during their offensives of November through January. On 40-kiloton air-burst at Taechon in late November, it was estimated, could have destroyed some 15,000-20,000 troops; a combination of six 40-kiloton bursts in the Pyongyang-Chorwon-Kumhwa triangle in late December nearly 100,000 troops; six 30-kiloton bursts north of the Imjin River in late December some 30,000-40,000; and two 40-kiloton bursts opposite the Wonju salient in early January some 6,000-9,000.[24]

This study thus concludes that atomic use, at the tactical level, could have been beneficial. The elimination of 100,000 Chinese soldiers would have stymied the Sino advance and rapidly placed the United Nations forces in a position to resume offensive operations.

The preceding paragraphs have established the environment in which the ultimate decision to not employ atomic weapons in the Korean War occurred. It is clear that the war was a decisive and costly engagement, and that the tactical situation could have benefited from some measure of atomic intervention. While strategic and tactical assessment of the utility of the weapons will be forever an inconclusive debate, the potential to offset conventional limitations with atomic superiority caused a dichotomous rift amongst wartime American decision makers. With the nuclear success of victory in World War II as a back-drop, these leaders differed substantially over the proper course of action to be taken.[25]

While many, most notably a cadre of military officers and planners, believed the weapons to be logical and advantageous for victory even in a limited war, many others, including President Truman, State Department officials, and civilian advisors, were adamantly against such an escalation of indiscriminate force. This debate is most clearly represented in the divergent views of three high-level advocates that championed varying intensities of atomic intervention: President Harry Truman for complete non-use, General Douglass MacArthur for expanded use, and President Dwight Eisenhower for a moderation.[26]

The American participants that were adamantly opposed to atomic intervention in Korea largely populated the executive branch from 1950 to 1952. Reflecting historical irony, the single most influential person in the history of nuclear non-use is the man who also authorized the first use: Harry Truman. According to historian T.V. Paul, “Truman was president during the most critical formative years of the tradition of non-use.”[27] He also states that, “Despite the urgings of many in the military, Truman avoided a preventative nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, this helping to create a nascent tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons, even when the United States held a nuclear monopoly.”[28]

Truman himself summarized his view on nuclear weaponry in April of 1948 when he noted that “It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that…is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had.” The president then concluded that, “You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon…It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.”[29] He also believed that “Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men.”[30] These views illustrate an early realization of the singularly destructive nature of nuclear power and established such weapons as a component of warfare outside the bounds of conventional conduct.

Yet the president was not above subtly threatening the use of nuclear weapons and ordered movements of atomic equipment to achieve that effect. The most significant, if indirect, reference by Truman for attacking Korea with nuclear weapons was made at a press conference on November 30th, 1950. When asked by a reporter if there was “active consideration of the use of atomic bomb,” the president responded, “There has always been active consideration of its use.” When asked again to confirm “active consideration,” Truman confirmed that the weapons had always been under consideration as “one of our weapons.” He also stated that, “the military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.”[31]

While threats can be ambiguous, Truman’s actions concerning the American nuclear arsenal are more indicative of his stance. The president’s strategic orders concerning the forward positioning of nuclear weaponry components, and the fact that he allowed massive conventional bombing of North Korea, indicate he actually, to some degree, considered atomic strikes a legitimate option. In April of 1951, as events in Korea worsened, the president ordered nine Mark 4 nuclear bombs to be transferred from Atomic Energy Commission custody to military possession. The devices were transferred from the United States to forward Strategic Air Command bases in Guam and Okinawa. The only practical use of this secret transfer was to position these weapons for possible strikes on the Asian mainland. As this information was not published and not even MacArthur was informed, the movement must have been a preparatory placement for a potential, yet unlikely, strategic action.[32]

As contemplation of atomic use continued through the fall of 1951, the United States executed an experiment to test the viability of targeting in North Korea. Called Operation Hudson Harbor, the event tested U.S. ability to place payloads on troop formations in difficult terrain. According to Comings, “It appears to have been part of a larger project involving "overt exploitation in Korea by the Department of Defense and covert exploitation by the Central Intelligence Agency of the possible use of novel weapons" -- a euphemism for what are now called weapons of mass destruction.”[33] Such precision targeting was found to be extremely difficult, adding to the justification for tactical non-use.[34] This test was naturally utilized by opponents of atomic intervention to argue against nuclear escalation.

Another action by Truman that perhaps favored and prepared the use of atomic weapons during the Korean War was the dismissal of MacArthur in April of 1951.[35] Many historians consider that Truman was seriously contemplating atomic intervention, or at least posturing for strikes against significant Communist escalation outside of Korea, and that he required a theater commander he could trust. MacArthur was replaced by General Mathew Ridgway, another World War II veteran who doubtlessly appreciated the decisive effects of atomic weaponry. While the relief from command of MacArthur certainly resulted from tensions concerning civil-military authority and divergence of strategic objectives, it is entirely plausible that the commander in chief required “a reliable commander in case nuclear use was decided.”[36]

Throughout his final years as President, Truman’s decisions had a profound effect defining norms for the use of atomic weapons. Despite several statements and actions that clearly indicate that he maintained an inclination towards operational readiness, it is clear that he also was adamantly against another nuclear attack in Asia. Most historians believe that it was pragmatic fear of Soviet conventional retaliation in Europe, the reputation United States’s reputation amongst the international community, and the assumption of limited tactical utility of the weapons that stayed his order, instead of a sole moral objection to the devastation of an attack.[37]

This idea, that Truman objected primarily to the perception of nuclear weapons rather than indiscriminate destruction, is supported by the fact that he allowed massive conventional bombing with similar devastation. American aerial targeting, as summarized by historian Conrad Crane, “had wreaked terrible destruction all across North Korea. Bomb damage assessment at the armistice revealed that 18 of 22 major cities had been at least half obliterated." He assessed that the cities of Hamhung and Hungnam were 80-85 percent destroyed, Sariwon was 95 percent destroyed, Sinanju was 100 percent devastated, the port of Chinnampo was 80 percent destroyed, and Pyongyang 75 percent obliterated.[38] When considering the wide-spread destruction of civilian infrastructure, coupled with the estimate that 12-15 percent of the entire North Korean population was killed in the war, it is clear that that Truman readily accepted massive civilian devastation, but not the perceptions of the devices themselves.[39]

In addition to Truman’s opposition, influential members in his administration complimented his views. Dean Rusk, the Special Assistant for Far Eastern Affairs and future Secretary of State, was perhaps the most influential civilian voice in opposition to atomic intervention. As a principal advisor to the president on foreign policy, he counseled Truman that the war in Korea should be kept limited and that MacArthur should be ordered to retreat rather than resorting to nuclear weapons. In his recollections, he later wrote that “the use of nuclear weapons by us could lead to incalculable consequences. For the present, and unless the preservation of our troops required it, the balancing of the pros and cons of bombing Manchurian territory, including air and other bases, was against doing so.”[40]

The opposition of Truman and his civil officials clearly represent a comprehensive appreciation of the global strategic and political environment. Their arguments for non-use reveal a wartime perspective removed from the immediacy of the battlefields of Korea, in contrast to the military personnel charged with defeating the enemy. Their statements indicate prioritization of American image, legitimacy, and international relationships over more narrow military objectives. These views reflect an early understanding of the uniqueness of atomic weaponry in the American arsenal and in the history of warfare.

While a substantial quantity of the civilian leadership in the United States opposed atomic intervention during the maneuver stages of the war, the faction that favored use was led by the military. Foremost amongst the advocates was General MacArthur.[41] Though he was careful not to publicly force presidential policy on the subject, he constantly requested and discussed nuclear intervention. As a veteran theater commander from World War II, MacArthur well understood the strategic and tactical potency of nuclear weaponry. He was also apparently unconstrained by matters of collateral damage. During the fall of 1950, he ordered his air campaign “to destroy every means of communication and every installation, and factories and cities and villages.”[42]

Throughout his command tenure in the Korean War, MacArthur repeatedly requested the forward positioning and command delegation for the operational use of atomic weapons. In July of 1950, as the North Koreans were initially invading South Korea, MacArthur discussed possible use against the Communists. He generated an initial target list focused on the major cities of North Korea, and also envisioned a role for preventing Chinese or Soviet reinforcement from the mainland. In this view he stated, “I would cut them off in North Korea…The only passages leading from Manchuria and Vladivostok have many tunnels and bridges. I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb-to strike a blocking blow.”[43]

On December 9th of 1950, MacArthur officially attempted to gain access to atomic capabilities. According to Comings, “he wanted commander's discretion to use atomic weapons in the Korean theatre.” On 24 December he submitted "a list of retardation targets" for which he required 26 atomic bombs. He also wanted four devices to drop on "invasion forces" and four more for "critical concentrations of enemy air power.”[44] This strategy reflected a plan to utilize atomic bombs to destroy the Chinese capabilities in a devastating and comprehensive manner. However, the request was not approved, and MacArthur continued to believe that restrictions against his authority as the battlefield commander “would represent essentially a surrender.” This statement reveals the perspective of a general who had previously won against Japan through unlimited means and remained uncomfortable with limits on engagement in Korea.[45]

In March of 1951 MacArthur again sought atomic intervention for the war. In response to Chinese reinforcements massing along the northern border, and an increase in Soviet airpower in Manchuria, he requested "D-Day atomic capability" to deter or defeat any potential secondary invasions. This development occurred concurrent to rising tension between the commanding general and the commander-in-chief, and further destabilized the command relationship. According to historian John Spanier: “More recently developed evidence also suggests the possibility that MacArthur’s wish to expand the war in Korea to include nuclear attacks on China, even at the risk of provoking general war with the Soviet Union, and his loose talk to this effect, was a primary factor in Truman’s decision to relieve MacArthur.”[46]

Despite Truman’s disagreement with his top general over the necessity of atomic intervention, the commander-in-chief did react to the possible increase in the Communist posture in the Spring of 1951. In April the president ordered nine Mark 4 capsules to the 9th Bomb Group of the Air Force for forward positioning in Guam and Okinawa. Though Truman never publicly linked the concurrent relief of MacArthur and the deployment of atomic devices, many believe that the president required a more trustworthy commander as he escalated the American posture. The fact that MacArthur was never informed of the transfer by Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports this supposition. According to Bradley, he “deliberately withheld the message and all knowledge of its existence from him, fearing that he (MacArthur) might make a premature decision in carrying it out.”[47]

After MacArthur was relieved of command in April of 1951, General Matthew Ridgway assumed command of the Korean War. Though apparently not as aggressive in his views, Ridgway also requested forward deployment of atomic weapons for operational use. In May of 1951 he requested that 38 nuclear bombs be moved into the theater of operations. The request was denied. This second request by the second theater commander suggests a commonality about the perspectives of the general officers engaged in Korea.

Throughout the Korean War, MacArthur was not alone in seeking favorable conditions for atomic use. The national leaders of the four largest veteran organizations called for nuclear intervention to end “appeasement.” These included Bernard Baruch, a former representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, Senator Owen Brewster, Senator Stuart Symington, and Congressman Mendel Rivers.  Symington in particular called for atomic intervention in order to demonstrate the moral legitimacy of the weapons, while Rivers called for a strike on Pyongyang to bring a rapid close to the war. Another influential official, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, also favored use as long as the bombs could be employed “efficiently and profitably.”[48] Congressmen Lloyd Bentsen called for an ultimatum of threatened nuclear attacks to force withdraw by North Korea, and Congressman W. Sterling Cole argued that the decision of use should rest with military leaders.[49] During both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, Republicans carried the majority of support for nuclear attack in the war.

Throughout the Korean War the majority of the American public likewise approved of atomic intervention to achieve victory. A Gallop poll in November of 1950 demonstrated favorable support during the successful Chinese advance. In November of 1951 the American people were asked, “Do you think the United Nations forces should or should not use the atom bomb on enemy targets in Korea?” In the results of the survey, 41 percent answered “Should,” 10 percent answered “Qualified Should,” 37 percent answered “Should not,” and 12 percent answered “No Opinion.” Again in November of 1952, as the protracted stalemate frustrated the nation, the American public again approved of atomic intervention and the government was under “intense pressure” to attack with nuclear weapons.[50]  In the fall of 1951, as the United States speculated about employing nuclear weapons for tactical gain rather than strategic effects, even Dean Rusk noted that the American people would react favorably to limited use of nuclear weapons in Korea.[51] This willingness of the general public to support atomic intervention in Korea makes the decision by Truman remarkably enlightened, while placing MacArthur and other supporters firmly within the public majority.

While Truman and MacArthur generally reflected the contrasting views for initiating nuclear attacks in the Korean War, President Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs represented a more centrist and middle ground. While more inclined than Truman to employ atomic superiority for victory, Eisenhower was less aggressive and more nuanced than MacArthur. The former general assumed the presidency in January of 1953 and implemented a much more nuclear-centric national security policy and favored atomic intervention as a robust reactionary measure.[52]

Like MacArthur, Eisenhower was a veteran theater commander from World War II and fully appreciated the concept of “Total War” against enemy capacity. In June of 1950 as the Korean War was commencing, he first suggested nuclear intervention. Then serving as the president of Columbia University, he proposed “the use of one or two atomic bombs in the Korean area, if suitable targets could be found.”[53] When he became commander-in-chief, the war in Korea had devolved into a frustrating and protracted stalemate along the 38th parallel. Eisenhower resolved to end the confrontation through nuclear intimidation and brinksmanship, and deliberated over the use of tactical atomic strikes.[54] According to strategist and historian Marc Trachtenberg, “By early 1953, it was clear that the use of nuclear weapons had become an integral part of the policy of escalation.”[55]

In his memoirs Eisenhower recalled his deliberations over a resumption of offensive maneuvers:

To keep the attack from becoming overly costly, it was clear that we would have to use atomic weapons. This necessity was suggested to me by General MacArthur while I, as President-elect, was still living in New York. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were pessimistic about the feasibility of using tactical atomic weapons on front-line positions, in view of the extensive underground fortifications which the Chinese Communists had been able to construct; but such weapons would obviously be effective for strategic targets in North Korea, Manchuria, and on the Chinese coast.[56]

He also stated the following message as a measure to enforce the cessation of hostilities between North and South Korea:

Let the Communist authorities understand that, in the absence of satisfactory progress, we intend to move decisively without inhibition in our use of weapons, and would no longer be responsible for confining hostilities to the Korean peninsula. We would not be limited by any world-wide gentleman’s agreement.[57]

In May of 1953 the administration moved atomic weapons to Okinawa to reinforce its strategic posture. Secretary of State John Dulles stated for international effect that America “could not be held responsible for failing to use atomic weapons if a truce could not be arranged.”[58] The administration also warned the Chinese during negotiations that America would “remove the restrictions of area and weapons,” indicating a willingness to expand the war into China with atomic strikes. These threats were coupled with promises to employ atomic weapons in defense of Taiwan, already a point of American-Sino contention. According to Dulles, the “United States was prepared to use tactical atomic weapons in case of war in the Formosa Straits.”[59] Whether intended as intimidation or actual intended policy, there is no doubt that the entire world was now aware that American nuclear policy had shifted.[60]

Another change in the strategic equation that altered the likelihood for use was the massive increase in the American atomic arsenal, allowing much greater flexibility of options. By mid-1954 the United States possessed approximately 1,100 MK6s, resulting in a massive increase during the armistice stage of the Korean War.[61] Even the previously reticent Paul Nitze wrote in 1953, “We now have a stockpile of sufficient size to enable us to use these weapons locally where their use would be militarily effective and did not involve more than offsetting political disadvantages.”[62]

The shift in atomic policy to a more aggressive posture under Eisenhower reflected new developments in tactical nuclear weapons. While previous tactical options had been constrained to the use of full-sized warheads, the new generation of smaller yield devices allowed more versatile employment. As stated by then Vice President Richard Nixon, “tactical atomic explosives are now conventional and will be used against the targets of any aggressive force.” According to Eisenhower, “in any combat where these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly for military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would a bullet or anything else.”[63]

These statements suggest that Eisenhower and his officials ascribed to the view that atomic weapons were not exceptionally unethical and prohibitively costly to American image, but just an improved weapon system.[64] He also believed that that atomic intervention was a far more cost effective way of defeating the Chinese in the event of renewed large-scale hostilities.[65] According to this methodology, it is reasonable to assume that had Eisenhower been president earlier, tactical nuclear weapons would have been employed during the reversals of the fall of 1950 had they been available. It is also telling that the new president met with MacArthur to discuss strategy just prior to taking office, allowing for a possible influencing of his attitude towards Korea. Another factor that would have facilitated atomic intervention in the event of renewed hostilities in 1953 was the fact that Eisenhower enjoyed unquestioned respect and trust from the American public in conducting, and ending, the war.[66]

Additional impetus for atomic intervention was provided to Eisenhower in National Security Council Decision Paper 147, which proposed to abolish restrictions on atomic warfare in Korea. The paper’s provisions included recommendations to “Continue Aggressive Air and Naval Action While Increasing the Tempo of Ground Operations in Korea,” and to “Extend and Intensify Military Operations against Communist China and Manchuria; and if Required, Increase the Tempo and Scale of Military Operations in Korea.” The paper did present the familiar potential drawbacks for atomic intervention, yet it is notable that this council reflected a markedly different tone than the previous cadre of advisors under Truman.[67]

In March of 1953, as Eisenhower was pursuing a more aggressive atomic policy, the Joint Chiefs offered the following report on the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear use:

The efficacy of atomic weapons in achieving greater results at less cost of effort in furtherance of U.S. objectives in connection with Korea points to the desirability of re-evaluating the policy which now restricts the use of atomic weapons in the Far East. In view of the extensive implications of developing and effective conventional capability in the Far East, the timely use of atomic weapons should be considered against military targets affecting operations in Korea, an operationally planned as an adjunct to any possible military course of action involving direct action against Communist China and Manchuria.[68]

This recommendation reflects a distinct shift toward higher preparedness consistent with Eisenhower’s nuclear-centric defense policy, yet refrains from promoting excessive use. According to Trachtenberg, “It was the same JCS that had been so cautious at the end of 1950 and in early 1951 that now advocated a nuclear escalation.”[69] It must also be understood in the context of an unstable peace along the 38th parallel, and the corresponding desire to prevent the re-commencement of large-scale maneuver operations.

In May of 1953, Eisenhower requested an operational strategy in case of a violation of the emerging armistice agreement. The Joint Chiefs provided a report that outlined the use of relatively massive nuclear retaliation of Chinese positions to ensure victory by limited conventional forces, while underscoring the danger of Soviet retaliation. Eisenhower tentatively agreed to the plan, which incidentally set precedence for similar strategic equations in Europe.[70] In March of 1954 the Joint Chiefs advised, “The major deterrent to a renewed aggression in Korea should be Chinese Communist and North Korean fear of atomic retaliation, coupled with the announced intention to resist aggression.”[71]

As the preceding pages have demonstrated, the Korean War evoked a variety of opposing responses to the question of employing atomic weapons to achieve victory. While the simplest reason for non-use is that presidents Truman and Eisenhower eschewed atomic strikes, the situation was far more complicated. While Truman’s rhetoric generally opposed atomic intervention and favored limited war, he did establish the conditions for use by replacing MacArthur and forward deploying atomic devices. Conversely, MacArthur, a large delegation of congressmen, and a majority of the American people were in favor of utilizing the weapons. After offensive maneuvers had ceased, Eisenhower also appeared to possess the will to order at least tactical strikes, but never faced the necessity. This paradox of conflicting views on nuclear weapons and wartime priorities, unfolding across two presidencies and several theater commanders, reflected an unstable situation in which non-use was not inevitable.

In the final analysis, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction came closer to employment in the Korean War than is commonly appreciated. This reasoned speculation is based upon the fact that combatant commanders repeatedly requested atomic capability, the majority of the American people supported nuclear use in Korea, and that the American government determined to halt Communism at the 38th parallel. In retrospect, the tradition of non-use begun during the Korean War was not inevitable, was not predictable, and was based only upon a fortuitous combination of enlightened civilian leadership opposed to atomic warfare. It was also facilitated, in large measure, by American ability to conventionally stabilize the military crisis on the peninsula. Largely unknown and underappreciated in the 21st century, it should not be forgotten how close America came to deploying atomic weapons in Korea. With a slight alteration of historical events, the tradition of nuclear non-use would have been destroyed in its infancy.

End Notes

[1] William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 351, 357; Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007), 116.

[2] Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 115.

[3] Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), 5; Joseph Gerson, Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press), 77.

[4] “Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer,” History News Network,

[5] Gerson, Empire, 77.

[6] Gerson, Empire, 77.

[7] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,; Gary Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 105; T.V. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 62-63; Gerson, Empire, 77.

[8] Phil Williams, Donald Goldstein, and Henry Andrews, editors, Security in Korea: War, Stalemate, and Negotiation (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 106-107.

[9] Williams, Security, 106-107.

[10] Paul, Tradition, 62-63.

[11] “Majority Supports Use of Atomic Bomb on Japan in WWII,” Gallop,;  Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 129-130; Mark Ryan, Chinese Attitudes Toward Nuclear Weapons: China and the United States During the Korean War (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 1989), 53.

[12] “The Gallup Brain: Americans and the Korean War,” Gallup,

[13] Paul, Tradition, 49.

[14] “Complete List of All U.S. Nuclear Weapons,” U.S. Nuclear Weapons and History,

[15] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 137-138.

[16] Gerson, Empire, 77.

[17] Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 119-120.

[18] Wills, Bomb Power, 31, 45-46.

[19] Ibid., 70-71.

[20] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 50-51, 73-74.

[21] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 51.

[22] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 52; Williams, Security, 110.

[23] “Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer,” History News Network,

[24] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 50.

[25] Ibid., 130-131.

[26] Ibid., 118-119, 126. Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 34-39.

[27] Paul, Tradition, 39.

[28] Ibid., 45.

[29] Paul, Tradition, 38.

[30] Bundy, Danger and Survival, 235.

[31] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1950. Korea (1950),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collections,; Dennis Wainstock, Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999), 102-103.

[32] Paul, Tradition, 47-48;

[33] “Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer,” History News Network,

[34] Ibid., 48.

[35] Wainstock, Truman, 125-128.

[36] Paul, Tradition, 47-48.

[37] Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 140; Paul, Tradition, 48-49.

[38] Bruce Comings, The Korean War: A History (New York: The Modern Library, 2010), 159-161.

[39] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 187-188.

[40] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My years in the State Department (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1969), 472; Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 124.

[41] Ibid., 131.

[42] “Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer,” History News Network,

[43] Ibid., 26.

[44] Williams, Security, 87; “Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer,” History News Network,

[45] Williams, Security, 87.

[46] Williams, Security, 87; “Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur? The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer,” History News Network,

[47] Kim Baum and James Matray, editors, Korea and the Cold War: Division, Destruction and Disarmament (Claremont: Regina Books, 1993), 190-191.

[48] Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 130-131.

[49] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 26, 65.

[50] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collection,

[51] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 26, 36, 222, 144.

[52] Williams, Security, 102.

[53] Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 143.

[54] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collection,

Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 127, 129.

[55] Ibid., 129.

[56] Paul, Tradition, 50.

[57] Ibid., 51.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 54.

[60] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954), University of Wisconsin Digital Collection,; Trachtenberg, History, 102, 127-130.

[61] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 138.

[62] Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 141.

[63] Ibid.

[64] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collection,

[65] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collection,

[66] Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 102.

[67] Ibid., 109-110.

[68] Ibid., 60-61.

[69] Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 130.

[70] Bundy, Danger and Survival, 242; Tannenwald, Nuclear Taboo, 145-147; Ryan, Chinese Attitudes, 63-64.

[71] “United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States, 1952-1954. Korea (in two parts)

(1952-1954),” University of Wisconsin Digital Collection,


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