A thesis for those who interested in whether US was capable of using an atomic weapons in Korean war or not and what role Curtis LeMay had played in the nuclear diplomacy of Truman.
When the situation on a Korean peninsula became dire and the Communists forces had overwhelmed UN soldiers General MacArthur have asked for sending more troops as a reinforcements so he could held up the southern tip of the peninsula from the ongoing assault.
First proposition to give General MacArthur the authority to use atomic weapons was made by a General Omar Bradley in JCS meeting on 8th or 9th July of 1950 (he in turn learned this from General Vandenberg and was less than enthusiastic about it until the JCS meeting).
JCS postponed the decision on sending more troops to Korea on MacArthur’s request and ruled out Bradley’s suggestion deeming that using of atomic weapons there to stop enemy invansion would be less likely decisive (JCS took into consideration doubts of Admiral Forrest Sherman that MacArthur was exaggerating the direness of the situation).
For devising a most feasible approach on matter of using of atomic weapons in Korea JCS dispatched Generals Joseph Lawton Collins and Air Force Chief of Intelligence Charles Cabell for evaluation of situation. Yet initial ground situation was stabilizing and MacArthur though previously discussing with his staff using of A-bombs, was in favor to delay of implementing such measures. This and overall optimistic mood in MacArthur and his staff reassured Collins and he announced that there’s no need to use atomic weapons in Korea.
Though the first SAC nuclear-configured bombers (i.e. capable of carrying atomic bomb) was deployed to Britain in the late June of 1950 the decision of such deployment in South-East Asia was made only three weeks later, almost at the end of July. It is worthy to note that this was only deployment of ships able to carry devices, not devices itself. Britain were against escalation with Soviet Union and China and reluctant to allow USA to put atomic weapons on the British soil.
For most of the year after initial deployment of nuclear-capable aircrafts Truman decided whether to arm them with the A-bombs or not. During that time he maneuvered between theater commander’s conflicting reports and pleas for strike into China mainland, moderate opposition and fiery proponents of immediate using it against Chinese and North Korean military (i.e. tactically at least).
When the war worsened in November of 1950 with Chinese forces began first phase of offensive in Korea Vandenberg put the SAC on full alert and had authorized two more nuclear-capable bomber groups into Pacific. JCS keeping up with its earlier recommendations, reaffirmed that the Korea not the place for major war and will not support atomic strikes per MacArthur’s requests.
In April of 1951 Truman faced another decision point whether to deploy nation’s nuclear weapons or withhold it. Chinese build-up and Intelligence reports of Soviet troops readying in Manchuria turned the scales and President finally decided his course of actions.
Let’s recall that all nuclear weapons and materials since 1946 was in possesion of Atomic Energy Commission, powerful organization which was brought to existence by Democratic Senator Brien McMahon. To frustration of leaders of the Air Force they were not allowed to store anything regarding the atomic weapons. It was, instead, kept in Fort Worth, Texas and delivered to Air Force either completed or by pieces to assembly only after President’s direct order.
The situation which befell Truman in April 1951 was not an easy one. He was besieged from all sides by his quarrelled advisors, an economic restraints and unpopularity of war in public which feared and resented the use of nuclear weapons, MacArthur with his flaymboyant and wild attitude, and allies who wouldn’t risk the war with China and Soviets, and his divided military leaders with pro- and contra opinions on use of A-bombs in Korea. There was also Dean Acheson, Secretary of State who tried to sit on both chairs – to be tough with Soviets, for which he required combat ready SAC armed with atomic bombs and on the other hand trying to have an alternative to escalation and to not worsen relations with Soviets if there’ll be a negotiations. Generally he was against using of A-bombs and escalation.
After conference with AEC Chairman Dean, Truman made the dreams of LeMay to have nuclear weapons at disposal of SAC came true – Dean talked with Vandenberg and transferred nine complete devices into Air Force posession. These devices were never made back into AEC inventory. On 7th April 1951 99th Medium Bomb Wing was directed to transfer atomic bombs to Guam. It is important to underline that these was the only bombs that were deployed into the Pacific during Korean war. All other SAC deployments only had nuclear-configured bombers without the payload.
What were LeMay thoughts about using of atomic weapons? He left a number of diary records, letters and memos regarding atomic weapons deployment in Korean war. When he was assigned SAC commander he despises that his mission to safeguard the nation and destroy the enemy was depended on civilian agency controlling the most powerfull weapon on the planet, preventing Air Force personnel to study of its proper employment and creating procedures.
Until April of 1951 he was consecutively opposed to using atomic weapons to achieve tactical goals. He see it as it will prevent SAC to be combat-ready to be deployed on strategic campaign against China or Soviet Union if there’ll be one.
LeMay’s opposition to use an A-bombs in Korea was clearly expressed in his messages exchange with General Vandenberg during the crisis of December, 1950 when the Chinese forces was on wide offensive along 38th parallel.
For the first deployment of SAC bombers in Pacific in late July of 1950 LeMay had picked two low priority bomb groups 22d and 92d (they belonged to 15th Air Force, which mission was conventional bombing, not nuclear, therefore it could be matter of discussion regarding an early statement of deployment of nuclear-configured ships). Not all of SAC bombers were nuclear capable. LeMay’s decision to deploy these two groups was supported by Vandenberg who felt that Korean war may divert many SAC resources which intended to serve as credible deterrent to Soviet Union (at this time AEC posessed for about 200 atomic bombs). Nevertheless Air Force and SAC reinforced Far East Air Force not only with bombers but also with commander of 15th Air Force Rosie O’Donnel, showing that they take Korean war serious as an every other challenge.
After April, 1951 Truman get tired of incompetence and growing political arrogance of MacArthur and relieved him of command, giving this assignment to General Ridgeway and situation became more relaxed without irresponsible statements provoking full-scale nuclear war.
Conclusion. As it seems, Truman was not desperate to use US nuclear arsenal to achieve lesser goals. Even when he ordered to transfer devices into Air Force posession he wasn’t going to give them a green light to use it unless situation will deteriorate strategically in favor of Communists. Using of atomic bombs was also not positively viewed by British and other allies fighting in Korea. British told openly to Dean Acheson and Truman that they wouldn’t fight large-scale war with China if the US escalates it. There were also diplomatic issues with South-East Asia – the risk to lose a face and respect of these leaders who decided to associate their countries with the Free World, of which Dean Acheson warned Truman. And there was a nation – American people, who wouldn’t approve using of atomic weapons because of it’s fear in the time and because Korean war was unpopular and unjust. JCS and other military leaders was equally opposed to atomic strikes because they wouldn’t want to satisfy MacArthur’s megalomania and incompetence, straining capability to effectively deter Soviets in Europe.
Atomic Diplomacy during the Korean War by Roger Dingman with references to LoC collection of LeMay Papers (in part. LeMay to Vandenberg, December 2, file B-8852/2 and LeMay memorandum for the record, December 6, 1950, file B-8706/1, Box B-196, LeMay papers).
Collection of essais Nuclear Diplomacy and Crisis Management: An International Security Reader by Sean M. Lynn-Jones, Steven E. Miller, Stephen Van Evera
The Ashgate Research Companion to the Korean War dited by Professor Donald W Boose Jr, Professor James I Matray
The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-Use by Nina TannenwaldSome references from Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes
The Age of Airpower by Martin Van Creveld
After Hiroshima: The United States, Race and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945–1965 by Matthew Jones
Plotting a True Course: Reflections on USAF Strategic Attack Theory and Doctrine, The Post World War II Experience by William P. Head (Editor), David R. Mets (Editor)
Strategic Air Warfare An Interview with Generals Curtis E. LeMay, Leon W. Johnson, David A. Burchinal, and Jack J. Catton
Edited with an Introduction by Richard H. Kohn and Joseph P. Harahan
Curtis E. LeMay Papers, A Finding Aid to the Collection in the Library of Congress by Library of Congress
The SAC Mentality: The Origins of Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-1962 by Melvin G. Deaile
Curtis LeMay and the Origins of NATO Atomic Targeting by Peter Roman, Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 16, no.1 (March 1993).