Michael KreponIke's Nuclear Legacy

I proudly bear the name of an uncle who died at Anzio. The military cemetery nearby at Netunno cradles almost as many GI’s as those buried in Normandy. As we remember D-Day and pay homage to those who fought on distant shores, let’s open the shoe box files to Dwight David Eisenhower.

Ike’s most unfortunate nuclear legacy was the Atoms for Peace program, which gave a leg up on the Indian, Israeli and Pakistani nuclear programs. On the other side of the ledger, there would be no tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons if President Eisenhower – or Harry S. Truman before him — decided to end the stalemate in Korea with mushroom clouds. Historians continue to debate the reasons why they did not do so, despite repeated threats to use the Bomb. Some historians have offered as explanations the absence of appropriate targets and likely reactions by Russia, China, and the international community.

Truman’s reluctance to authorize nuclear weapons’ use during the Korean War suggests, as least to me, that his declaration of a clear conscience after Hiroshima and Nagasaki might not be taken at face value. Ike batted away recommendations to use nuclear weapons to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu as well as in Korea, notwithstanding a revised national security strategy (NSC-162/2) affirming that, “the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be available for use as other munitions.”

If the use of the Bomb could have ended the Korean War promptly, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. So why did Ike resist temptation? All of the crises that prompted calls for nuclear weapons’ use on Ike’s watch were in Asia. In April 1954, after a high-level meeting in which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Radford, and Secretary of State Dulles strongly urged him to use nuclear weapons in Indochina, Eisenhower is recorded to have said:

“You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for a second time in less than ten years. My God.”

The most important fact about the Bomb, at least in my view, is that it hasn’t been used on a battlefield since 1945. For this, among other things, we owe Ike a large debt of gratitude.

T.V. Paul has written an outstanding book that covers this ground and much more: The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. I would highly recommend this book even if T.V. and I didn’t share the same publisher.

Comments

  1. Bill Burr (History)

    On the non-use question, also worth noting is Nina Tannenwald’s excellent “The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weabons Since 1945.” (Cambridge 2008).

  2. Azr@el (History)

    First happy D-day to everyone and yes it’s also Swedish Independence Day for those with relatives in Minnesota.

    The Great Patriotic war/ Second World War was waged not only the physical battlefield but also, and some might argue more importantly, on the field of propaganda i.e. “Hearts and Mind”. Deutschland and her Nazi clients in Far West Eurasia had a poor selling point,“join us and become second class citizens if not ashes”. The English had an aggressive propaganda campaign but no one was really buying it. Then you had the two barbarians who came to dinner, the Ruskis and us. We offered the world two diametrically opposed but tempting visions of a new world, a kinder world, an idealistic future, in other words; complete malarkey.

    But it worked, the Jerrys were unable to convert their conquest into client states. Treated as initially as liberators by many peoples, they failed in many strategic cases to transform this temporary enthusiasm into flesh for the ranks. Take for example Lithuania and Ukraine, German propaganda treated the Lith’s as mensch and Ukrainians as unter-mensch. Oddly enough the Lith’s took up the Nazi cause and the Ukrainians didn’t quite resonant with the message. On the other hand, the U.S. for the most part turned a blind eye to the German hobby of genocide of minorities; Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, etc. And also choose to close it’s door to fleeing Jews who were not all that popular in the states at the time. Yet, good propaganda convinced many Jewish and non-Jewish scientist fleeing Nazi persecution and occupation to choose the U.S. as refuge greatly contributing to the U.S. war efforts. And thus began the shift of the center of intellectual learning west that Europe has never quite halted.

    During the time in question, Korean Conflict and French bungling in Indochina, the U.S. was very much in the Cold War; a conflict , save for a few brushfires, fought almost completely on the field of propaganda. Wars were not fought for such a lowly thing as “national interest”; we and the Ruskis were in the liberation business. If we had to march on someone, it was to liberate them. Bush Jr’s resource wars would have been unimaginable in that era. Wars had to be sold to a domestic audience as well as ensure that it would not polarize the rest of the world in the Soviet camp. Ruskie propaganda was good, bloody good. Had we detonated an atomic in Korea, or god forbid in service of France’s colonial war in Indochina, we would have lost the Cold War. We would not have been able to justify the use of such a weapon in a war of “Liberation”. Trumann or Ike would have lost public support, our allies in South Korea would have been labelled traitors by their own people and communist flavored movements around the world would have a recruitment bump of biblical proportions. Not to mention, the technological war, many scientist juggled their patriotism and idealism with the harsh reality that they were working on weapons of mass destruction. Many pushed on convincing themselves these would only be used as deterrence to ward off Gutterdamerung. I don’t think retention of top talent in critical fields would have been possible had researchers to endure images of their handiwork flash etching human shadows on brickwork.

    And for the sake of argument, let’s say we collectively took the kool-aid and decided to follow the bunny down the rabbit hole. What then? A nation state excels at conventional warfare, we can muster millions of troops, build and maintain fancy engines of war; ships, jets, tanks, etc.. And that granted us immense relative superiority to the light infantry centric rebels of that era. The wars we engaged in during the cold war were safe brushfire conflicts meant not to escalate into WW3. In such wars the opfor really doesn’t have many targets that warrant a 1000kg air strike let alone a slagging. But say some nutter decided to go atomic on some rebel base. The Ruskies would have slipped a nuke to said rebels and then all of our strengths, mechanized formations, aircraft bases, large depots, etc… would all be held at risk. Atomic munitions do not favour Goliath.

  3. Pat Flannery (History)

    Don’t forget the fallout problem with hypothetical use of nukes in Korea.
    The fallout could have ended up in China, Manchuria, South Korea or (God help us) Japan.
    The last one would have meant a real mess politically.

  4. David

    You are quite right that Truman did not have a clear conscience after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Truman first met Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer said to him that he felt guilty for his work on the atomic bomb. Truman was not impressed stating later to a friend that Oppenheimer’s guilt was nothing compared to the guilt he felt for authorizing their use.

  5. Carl Vehse (History)

    David wrote: “Truman was not impressed stating later to a friend that Oppenheimer’s guilt was nothing compared to the guilt he felt for authorizing their use.”

    Do you have a specific reference for the claim that Truman felt guilt for authorizing the atomic bombs?

    The nearest I could find was an indication of being disturbed, in an August 11, 1945, letter to Samuel McCrea Cavert, general secretary of the Federal Council of Churches, regarding a request a halt to the atomic bombing of Japan: “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.” (This quote was included in Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, p. 563).

    Of course, two days earlier, Truman had made the public statement,

    “Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.
    “We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us.” (Public Papers of the Presidents, Harry S. Truman, 1945, pg. 212).

    And, of course, there’s Truman’s statement to an aide following an October, 1945, meeting with Oppenheimer, after Oppenheimer said he had blood on his hands, “Don’t bring that crybaby in here again. After all, all he did was make the bomb. I’m the guy who fired it off.”

  6. Carl Vehse (History)

    “Truman’s reluctance to authorize nuclear weapons’ use during the Korean War suggests, as least to me, that his declaration of a clear conscience after Hiroshima and Nagasaki might not be taken at face value.”

    Such a conclusion seems to be a stretch. Truman’s refusal to use atomic weapons in North Korea more likely is related to the fact that the U.S. military involvement in the Korean Conflict was not under a full declaration of war by Congress, but rather under United Nations resolutions.

    And consider the following excerpt from Truman’s press conference in November, 1950 (see Dennis Wainstock, Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, p.103):

    _The question turned to other matters for a moment. Then Merriman Smith of the United Press asked, “Mr. President, did we understand you clearly that the use of the bomb is under active consideration?”
    “Always has been,” replied Truman. “It is one of our weapons.”
    “Mr. President,” added Smith, “does this mean that we wouldn’t use the atomic bomb except under United Nations authorization?”
    “No,” replied Truman, “the military commander in the field will have charge of the use of weapons, as he always has.”
    By law, however, only the president could authorize the use of the atomic bomb. To counteract newspaper bulletins carrying Truman’s statement, White House aides Charlie Ross and George Elsey informed reporters that they did not want “any misinterpretations” on the use of the atomic bomb. Consideration of its use, they said, was always implicit in its very possession, but by law, only the president could authorize its use, and he had not given “any such authorization.”
    Truman’s press statement on the use of the atomic bomb in Korea generated a storm of protest among America’s allies._

  7. Bill Burr (History)

    Whether Truman felt guilty or not, he was certainly troubled by the atomic bombings. Evidence that he was uneasy surfaced immediately after Nagasaki. According to Henry Wallace’s detailed notes of a cabinet meeting, on August 10, 1945, Truman said that he had ordered the end to the atomic bombing because “the thought of killing another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’” http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB162/65.pdf
    Also telling are comments that Truman made a few years later to Secretary of Defense Forrestal, quoted in Tannenwald at page 111: because the bomb is a “terrible thing” it “isn’t a military weapon … It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses.”

  8. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Carl Vehse said
    “Such a conclusion seems to be a stretch. Truman’s refusal to use atomic weapons in North Korea more likely is related to the fact that the U.S. military involvement in the Korean Conflict was not under a full declaration of war by Congress, but rather under United Nations resolutions.”

    Runaway war powers of the U.S. Presidency have been almost nothing but a string of problems since the President grabbed defacto war powers from the Congress after WWII.

    Perhaps the arms control community could spawn a new argument in arms control by returning ownership of the world military forces to the various legislatures only to be released upon declaration of war.

    It always amazes me how the press in the U.S. continually harps on the term Commander In Chief, almost as bad as various platitudes were pasted before Stalin’s name. Of course they ignore the rest of Article 2 section 2. 1: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;. People always leave out the ‘when called into the actual service …’. Part.

  9. V.S. (History)

    Question: Is there anyone out there who believes that North Koreans feel anykind of “Taboo” regarding the potential use of nuclear weapons?

  10. bradley laing (History)

    To: V.S.

    The Korean War destroyed every buidling in North Korea and sent the population to live underground.

    How do we take that violent experience and work into the question of a “nuclear taboo”?

  11. Carl Vehse (History)

    The paraphrase and single quoted phrase, “all those kids,” which were recorded in Secretary of Commerce (and former VP) Wallace’s diary, should be tempered with other information provided in the diary entries (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB162/66.pdf) of another attendee at the August 10th afternoon Cabinet meeting, Secretary of War, Henry Stimson.

    According to his entries, Stimson had met in the morning with the President, Sec. of State Byrnes, Navy Secretary Forrestal, and Truman’s Chief of Staff, Adm William Leahy (who didn’t think the “fool thing” would work, and when the atomic bomb did work, was opposed using it) to discuss the yet unofficial Japanese offer of surrender, which included preserving the Japanese Emperor. Stimson suggested to the President an armistice while such details were being settled and that “it would be a humane thing … if we stopped the bombing during that time – stopped it immediately” That suggestion was rejected because the President had not received the official Japanese offer of surrender, and Stimson records, “so far as we were concerned the war was still going on.”

    However, when the President and Byrnes finally came to the Cabinet meeting that afternoon 25 minutes late, Truman announced that he had received the official notice from Japan, and that a reply had been prepared to submit to “Great Britain, China, and perhaps Russia” for concurrence.

    Thus Wallace’s comment about “orders to stop atomic bombing” and Wallace’s paraphrasing of what Truman said at the cabinet meeting (which were not noted by Stimson) should not be taken as substantiating evidence of Truman’s being “uneasy” about the bomb, unless one is comparing his feeling after receiving the official Japanese surrender offer with his feeling a few hours earlier, before he received it.

  12. Bill Burr (History)

    That Henry Stimson did not write down the comment about “all those kids” is not proof that Truman didn’t say it. The most recent study of Stimson and the bomb, Sean Malloy’s first-rate Atomic Tragedy, treats the Wallace diary entry as important evidence about Truman’s feelings.
    As for Truman’s decision to halt the atomic bombings, he indeed discussed this with his advisers on the afternoon of 10 August. Not only did Wallace record it, but so did James Forrestal. Before 10 August, the military had orders to drop atomic bombs on Japan as they became available, but Truman had General Marshall countermand those instructions. The next day, Abe Fortas told Harold Ickes that Truman was halting the atomic bombings until Japan “had a reasonable time to surrender.” That Truman ordered the resumption of conventional bombing on 14 August suggests that, however uneasy he may have been about atomic bombings, there was a limit to his concern about civilian casualties. Barton J. Bernstein’s 1977 article on “The Perils and Politics of Surrender” (Pacific Historical Review) has the relevant details and archival citations.

  13. Carl Vehse (History)

    “That Henry Stimson did not write down the comment about ‘all those kids’ is not proof that Truman didn’t say it.”

    No one had claimed it was proof.

    “That Truman ordered the resumption of conventional bombing on 14 August suggests that, however uneasy he may have been about atomic bombings, there was a limit to his concern about civilian casualties. Barton J. Bernstein’s 1977 article on ‘The Perils and Politics of Surrender’ (Pacific Historical Review) has the relevant details and archival citations.”

    Yes, on the 14th Truman had ordered Spaatz to resume Strategic Air Force bombing attacks after Spaatz had originally stopped them on the 11th due to bad weather. Bernstein also notes on the 11th “Truman had allowed the Twentieth Air Force and the naval air force to continue their attacks on military industry targets and cities, including Tokyo.”

    In the first few pages Bernstein also agrees with what I had previously noted. For example, on p. 8:

    “At the morning meeting on the 10th, Stimson had urged that the United States immediately stop all bombing of Japan. Truman rejected this proposal because the Japanese offer of surrender had not yet arrived in official form and therefore the war was still going on.”

    A good argument that the use of the atomic bomb had not left Truman without a “clear conscience,” or with “guilt” (found that reference yet, David?), being “troubled,” or “uneasy” significant enough to never use the atomic bomb again is the almost five pages spent in trying to answer whether Truman would have been willing or free to drop a third atomic bomb (pp. 10-14). And with all that Bernstein can only admit there is no “comfortable reply.” But Bernstein does quote Truman telling Senator Richard Russell on Aug. 9, “For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation and … I am not going to do it unless it is absolutely necessary.”

    Even if Truman were to have thought it was “absolutely necessary”, a third atomic bomb would not have been ready until at least August 21. Osaka (3.2 million) and Nagoya (1.3 million) were among six proposed target cities.

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