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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Threats - Korea / Eisenhower - 1953

The new Republican administration which came to power in January 1953 was equally, if not more, cautious than the previous one. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was growing and there remained a lack of forward-deployed atomic weapons. Neither Eisenhower nor Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had turned general ideas into a plan for ending the war in Korea. Although they met with the deposed MacArthur, they would not endorse his strategy of escalation. When he visited Korea, the President did not discuss nuclear war plans: The danger of a split in the Republican Party and the fragility of alliances necessitated caution.

The ‘crisis’ began with attempts to force an armistice in Korea. Although the NSC discussed plans for nuclear war to force the enemy’s hand, Stalin’s death in March revived hopes of relaxation and negotiated settlement. On 30th March, Beijing signalled qualified acceptance of proposals for the voluntary repatriation of prisoners of war, until then the main sticking point in negotiations. At home, Eisenhower’s ‘honeymoon period’ gave him room for manoeuvre. The bureaucratic climate had also changed: When General Clark requested redeployment of atomic weapons across the Pacific, the JCS had refused.

Within the Pentagon itself, controversy raged, making difficult the development of concrete nuclear strategy. While the navy and air force thought nuclear bombing could force China’s hand in negotiations, the army remained confident of victory through conventional means. The JCS were happy to drag their feet, feeling that a political decision on the use of atomic weapons should precede a military one. When an NSC policy document on the matter emerged, the Army Chief of Staff loaded it with so many preconditions as to make tactical use of nuclear weapons practically impossible. At the State Department, Dulles held back from nuclear deployment out of deference to British allies, who were retreating from the idea of escalation. When on 28th April he was presented with documents on the transferral of atomic bombs to army custody, Eisenhower withheld his approval and returned the issue for further study.

In discussions, the president remarked that Washington “desperately” needed its European allies and rejected Nixon’s suggestion that a quick strike might be preferable to waiting for Soviet stockpile to swell. When on 20th May the NSC gave final consideration to nuclear contingency plans for Korea, he repeated Truman’s concern of a Soviet counter-strike against Japan, saying only that “if circumstances arose which would force the United States to an expanded effort in Korea,” the JCS plan, which required a year of preparation, was “most likely to achieve the objective we sought.” Non-nuclear diplomacy to end the war continued and no ultimatum was issued.

On 21st May Dulles met with Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi. Expecting his words to reach Beijing, he indicated that Washington would probably make a “stronger rather than a lesser military response if talks failed” but at the same time emphasised the American desire to end the fighting through negotiation. Approaches by Ambassador Bohlen to Molotov a day later were similarly conciliatory.

It was not until the eve of the armistice agreement that Eisenhower approved the transfer of nuclear weapons abroad. He received the proposal on 20th June, just as the release of prisoners in Korea had endangered the agreement. The request came less than twenty four hours after the NSC had considered how to respond to a build up of enemy forces and a possible last minute Chinese ground offensive. But although the President called for immediate marine reinforcements to Japan, the JCS no longer sought authority for use of the weapons and no hints were dropped about the move, which was as much the beginning of a longer-term strategy for nuclear deployment as a short-term measure: In the event, an armistice was agreed without recourse to nuclear coercion.

The Korean War ended as it began, with not a single American nuclear weapon deployed within usable distance of the fighting. But while Washington never came close to tactical use of atomic weapons, statesmen of both administrations used them as a negotiating tool. The Berlin crisis had provided a model for action: public hints of varying menace and the deployment abroad of nuclear bombers in various states of readiness. Policy was constrained by pressures at home, enemy escalation in the spring of 1951, reluctant allies, fear, a feeling that the nuclear advantage ought to be useful and a host of other factors.

The events of early 1951 were a genuine crisis. In comparison, the events of 1953 were mild. The nuclear threat always hovered in the background during negotiations. Deployments may have strengthened deterrence but never supported coercive diplomacy. Except in times of extreme danger, it was almost impossible to achieve consensus within the US administration on the use of nuclear weapons. Atomic bombs were cumbersome, both literally and figuratively, and were not the simple lever Dulles claimed them to be.

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Page last modified: 23-07-2019 17:50:26 ZULU