Nuke China: How America Could Have Won the Korean War (Or Started World War III)?
What if the United States had instead concentrated on using nuclear weapons in a tactical manner? First things first, U.S. nuclear strategy did not envision using the nation’s relatively small nuclear arsenal against merely “tactical” targets; the United States had few enough weapons (and few enough delivery systems) to waste them on the deployed enemy forces. We had extraordinarily little information on the actual tactical and operational effect of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Certainly, Chinese and North Korean command centers, logistical centers, and troop concentrations would have fared poorly under nuclear assault. But then the United States enjoyed major advantages in the airspace above Korea in any case, and regularly subjected Communist forces to air attack. Atomic weapons surely would have helped, although potentially at the cost of permanently delegitimizing the Seoul government (which would have invited the nuclear destruction of its own homeland).
Recent work on the Korean War has revealed other reasons why the United States resisted using the atomic bomb. While some believed that the United States exercised unilateral restraint in the war, in fact both sides carefully husbanded their strength, and took care moving up the escalatory ladder.
American military authorities feared that an escalation of the war would make the situation on the peninsula untenable. Far from exhausting its strength, the People’s Republic of China maintained a substantial reserve of ground and air forces that it could throw into the fight if the United States decided to step up the war. Perhaps more importantly, the Soviet Union could exert a vastly greater influence on the conflict, either through a stepped up transfer of equipment to China and the DPRK, or through the direct deployment of Soviet ground, air and naval forces. If the US decided to go all out, the Red Army had more than enough strength to clear continental East Asia of U.S. forces, and perhaps to cut U.S. lines of retreat from Korea.
The Final Salvo:
Nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula would have gone terribly for everyone involved. The United States would have caused dreadful pain to uncertain strategic advantage, potentially pushing the Communist powers to escalate. The physical and human terrain of Korea would have endured awful suffering. And perhaps most importantly, the world would have lost the nascent nuclear taboo, a sense among policymakers that atomic weapons differed in some meaningful sense from other kinds of explosives, and that their practical use portended something momentous.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
This first appeared in 2016.