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John Lewis Gaddis on: The Role of the Atomic Bomb in the Korean War
John Gaddis Q: Since we're on the subject, let's jump ahead a little bit and use a concrete example. In the Korean War that breaks out in 1950, the United Nations alliance gets into some pretty tight spots militarily, and there are repeated efforts made in Washington to figure out: "Well, could we? Should we? How can we take advantage of having this very powerful weapon in our arsenal?"

JLG: Well, the role of the atomic bomb in the Korean War is quite fascinating. It's one of the biggest dogs that did not bark in the entire Cold War. The American monopoly, of course, officially has been terminated by this time, because the Soviets have tested their bomb. But in effect, the American monopoly continues because the Americans have so many more bombs, and because they have means of delivery that are not really available to the Russians yet. So you can argue that effectively the Korean War was fought under conditions of American monopoly.

The question therefore of why the bomb was not used, given the humiliating abject defeats that we suffered at certain points in the Korean War, is really very interesting. I think there's several answers to it. One is that there really was no clear strategy worked out ahead of time, first of all for fighting a limited war, and secondly for what the role of nuclear weapons in the limited war would be. They were simply feeling their way in the Korean War. Secondly, the atomic bomb is still thought of as a strategic weapon. It's being thought of as a weapon to be used against industrial concentrations, against transportation facilities, the way it was used in World War II. The Korean War really was not that kind of war. You're talking about a war, particularly after the Chinese intervene, with peasants coming down mountain trails carrying everything on their backs. And this was simply not what the atomic bomb had been built to be used for.

The question of public opinion and morality and particularly sensitivity to the racial issues involved, using a bomb again in this context against Asian peoples, this was very much on the minds of the President and his advisers, I think, and it was an inhibition.

And then finally, there is evidence in the documents that one of the big considerations -- Paul Nitze particularly on the Policy Planning Staff was thinking along this lines - what if you use the bomb and nothing happens? Then you have not only failed in the immediate context of the Korean War, but you've called into question the entire credibility of the bomb on a worldwide basis. So what Nitze was grasping toward when he was thinking along these lines in 1952 and 1953, is the paradox that the only way that you can make the atomic bomb credible is precisely by not using, by keeping it out there as a kind of mysterious, awesome force - that to use it would actually be to cheapen it somehow. So I think all of these things came together in various ways to deter the Americans from using it.

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