January 12, 2005


Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur?: The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer (Bruce Cumings, 1/10/05, History News Network)

On 9 July 1950 -- just two weeks into the war, it is worth remembering -- MacArthur sent Ridgway a hot message that prompted the joint chiefs of staff (JCS) "to consider whether or not A-bombs should be made available to MacArthur." The chief of operations, General Charles Bolte, was asked to talk to MacArthur about using atomic bombs "in direct support [of] ground combat." Bolte thought 10-20 such bombs could be spared for Korea without unduly jeopardising US global war capabilities.

Boite received from MacArthur an early suggestion for the tactical use of atomic weapons and an indication of MacArthur's extraordinary ambitions for the war, which included occupying the North and handling potential Chinese -- or Soviet -- intervention: "I would cut them off in North Korea . . . I visualise a cul-de-sac. 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 -- which would require a six months' repair job. Sweeten up my B-29 force."

At this point, however, the JCS rejected use of the bomb because targets large enough to require atomic weapons were lacking; because of concerns about world opinion five years after Hiroshima; and because the JCS expected the tide of battle to be reversed by conventional military means. But that calculation changed when large numbers of Chinese troops entered the war in October and November 1950.

At a famous news conference on 30 November President Harry Truman threatened use of the atomic bomb, saying the US might use any weapon in its arsenal. (10) The threat was not the faux pas many assumed it to be, but was based on contingency planning to use the bomb. On that same day, Air Force General George Stratemeyer sent an order to General Hoyt Vandenberg that the Strategic Air Command should be put on warning, "to be prepared to dispatch without delay medium bomb groups to the Far East . . . this augmentation should include atomic capabilities."

General Curtis LeMay remembered correctly that the JCS had earlier concluded that atomic weapons would probably not be useful in Korea, except as part of "an overall atomic campaign against Red China." But, if these orders were now being changed because of the entry of Chinese forces into the war, LeMay wanted the job; he told Stratemeyer that only his headquarters had the experience, technical training, and "intimate knowledge" of delivery methods. The man who had directed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 was again ready to proceed to the Far East to direct the attacks. (11) 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.

On 9 December MacArthur said that 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 to drop on the "invasion forces" and four more for "critical concentrations of enemy air power."

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 . . . it has an active life of between 60 and 120 years. 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."

What would be the point of using the Bomb if not on Beijing and Moscow? korea, after all, was just a sideshow.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 12, 2005 8:00 AM

Truman's refusal to use atomic weaponry in Korea was related to 'winning hearts and minds' in Europe. In 1950, we still were dealing with significant Communist electoral minorities in all of Western Europe which could have devastated our ability to defend it from a Soviet invasion.

Where was MacArthur getting a 500,000 man Nationalist Chinese Army, when they weren't anywhere to be seen 3 years earlier?

Posted by: Bart at January 12, 2005 11:09 AM

Well, if MacArthur had been able to drop radioactive waste along the Yalu, he would now be known as "Dump-It Doug". Not a very pleasant legacy.

The whole point of fighting in Korea was to avoid a general war in Europe. Tortured logic, but it was effective in 1950-53. Unfortunately, this calculus also meant that victory in Korea was undefined, and therefore a fantasy.

Perhaps we should have done more to damage the Chinese on their territory, but until Stalin died, that was not a risk we were going to take.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 12, 2005 11:39 AM

Perhaps it would have been helpful to win in Europe in the first place?

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2005 11:58 AM


Yet we lost their hearts and minds anyway.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2005 12:00 PM

We had them when it mattered in the 70s and especially the 80s. How else do you think the Soviet Union collapsed? Sure, there were a few clowns engaged in idiotic protests sponsored by the Soviet Union, but every single confrontation state backed us on everything that mattered, especially including Mitterand's France.

As for our current issues, things change.

Posted by: Bart at January 12, 2005 1:19 PM

how would the Soviet Union not have collapsed? Think Marxism was about to work?

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2005 1:24 PM

Had Reagan not been able to deploy the Pershings in Europe and had the Europeans not demonstrated that they were with us on the issue, and would likely be during an escalation of tensions, the Soviets would have not been forced to ratchet up the defense spending as rapidly as they did. While it is undoubtedly true that the Soviets would have eventually lost, the European cooperation during the Reagan years hastened the collapse probably by a couple of decades. And European support on the ground for Solidarity and Prague 77 was especially important.

Earlier Soviet administrations could depend upon DeGaulle to betray us, frustrate us and otherwise jerk us around. Under Mitterand, who happily blew up Greenpeace ships and sent Soviet moles back to Russia by the truckload, that wasn't happening. Whatever faults Mitterand had, and they were many and they were manifest, he was on the side of the angels during the Cold War.

Thatcher/MItterand/Schmitt/Kohl was a much stronger hand to play than Heath/DeGaulle/Brandt or certainly Blair/Chirac/Schroeder.

Posted by: Bart at January 12, 2005 2:20 PM

The Pope's support and ours for Solidarity was all that mattered.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2005 4:28 PM

Only one American general ever maneuvered his troops into a 'death march.'

MacArthur did it twice.

He was an incompetent gloryhound, a corrupt liar and the worst field commander this country ever produced, and I'm not excepting any of the militia generals in the Union Army.

He said he'd protect the Philippines with 100 B-17s. He got 'em.

And ran like a rabbit.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 13, 2005 12:10 AM

One Commander in Chief provoked a war when he couldn't defend his men.

Posted by: oj at January 13, 2005 12:13 AM


'Walking around money' supplied by both American, most notably the American Federation of Teachers, and European trade unions were a major factor.

The war was at all times Japan's choice. There was no 'provocation.'


MacArthur probably had the greatest standard deviation of performance of any American general. Island hopping and the logistics of Inchon were brilliant. The strategy behind Inchon wasn't a great stroke, it was really pretty obvious that the Reds were way over-extended.

He definitely did let his ego get in his way in the Philipines. He believed that the Filipinos would fight decently because he had trained them for years. Of course, he proved completely wrong. He then holed up his forces at Corregidor which was a total strategic clusterf*** not unlike the Brits at Singapore. When the manure hit the fan, he ran like a rabbit rather than surrendering with his men.

If MacArthur's plan in Korea is as described above, not only should he have been relieved of command, he should have been placed in a rubber room in a restraining jacket.

Posted by: Bart at January 13, 2005 7:46 AM


We went to war with Saddam when he threatened our oil supplies, no?

Posted by: oj at January 13, 2005 8:45 AM