A crazy idea?
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.
In 1950, as U.S. forces retreated from China’s onslaught across the Yalu River, General Douglas MacArthur called for strategic air attacks against China. Many believed that this would necessarily include the atomic bomb, America’s “asymmetric advantage” of the time.
America’s large arsenal of atomic weapons, and the fleet of strategic bombers necessary to deliver those weapons, was the central military advantage that the US enjoyed over the Soviet Union in 1950. The large, battle tested Red Army remained in Eastern Europe, capable of moving west on short notice. Many believed that only America’s ability to destroy the Soviet heartland with nuclear weapons held the Russians back. Many also believed that Moscow had orchestrated the war on the Korean Peninsula.
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So why didn’t the United States use the bomb in Korea? What if it had?