A History Lesson
Douglas MacCarthur was the son of Civil War hero Arthur MacArthur, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in battle and later commanded American troops during the Phillipine Insurrection. Arthur's son followed his father's footsteps and pursued a career as a professional soldier in the U.S. Army.
Douglas MacArthur rose through the ranks quickly, and in World War II, he commanded the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater. His "island hopping" strategy was quite effective, and added to his natural charisma, he quickly became an American hero for his efforts. After the war, he was made governor of Japan, leading their rebuilding efforts after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When the Republic of South Korea was created in 1947, MacArthur promised "if Korea should ever be attacked by the communists, I shall defend it as I would California" directly to President Syngman Rhee. In 1949, MacArthur said to a reporter, "Anyone who commits the American Army in the Asian mainland should have his head examined." This opinion was consistent with the overall strategic thinking in Washington D.C. at the time. At a press conference in January of 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson clearly stated, in no uncertain terms, that Korea laid outside the U.S. Defense Perimeter and consequently did not constitute a national interest. Five and a half months later, war broke out in Korea.
Given the fear of the Red Menace prevalent in the U.S. at the time, Douglas MacArthur was given control of the Pusan theatre of operations in Korea with orders to prevent the communist North Koreans from taking the South. He did this quite effectively, driving the North Koreans back to the 38th Parallel, under orders from the United Nations. Once there, MacArthur was again faced with heavy fire from North Korea and attempted invasions and penetrations southward by the Communists. He made a field decision to continue to drive northward, which was within his realm of authority. Communist China responded by sending masses of ground troops into North Korea, overwhelming MacArthur and driving him southward. MacArthur then openly declared this to be a "new war" and suggested, to keep U.S. ground troops out of further danger that mainland China should be assuaged with nuclear bombs. President Harry Truman refused. MacArthur then publicly decried being hamstringed by a civilian government. Truman responded by firing MacArthur and the Korean War was eventually settled with the modern borderlines between North Korea and South Korea.
Important Facts From The History Lesson
Why MacArthur Should Have Been Allowed To Drop The Bomb On China
The first reason is that the atomic bomb would have made as clear a statement as possible that aggression would not be tolerated. The later situations in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia demonstrate that the lesson that aggressive invasions with no provocation other than the conversion to Communism is intolerable was utterly lost on Communist forces in Asia. The atomic bomb would have made the message much more clearly. The entire Vietnam Conflict could have been avoided had we been bold enough to make such a statement. Many lives could have been saved and a philosophy that unprompted aggression isn't tolerated could have been stated with one simple act.
The second reason is that China, without provocation, attacked and killed Americans. The Korean War was a military operation to ensure the sovereignty of South Korea. It was not an operation to fight Communism or kill Communists. North Korea chose to attack and invade South Korea, even when warned not to and threatened with United Nations sanctions for attacking another nation. The United States chose to intervene on behalf of the sovereignty of a state. It was always North Korea and China that continued the fight; they would not accept South Korea's sovereignty.
The third and biggest reason, though, is that dropping the bomb would have hastened the end of the war. The war was becoming a stalemate, with both sides fighting back and forth across the 38th Parallel. At the time, no other nation could retaliate to the use of the atomic bomb; only the Soviet Union had the nuclear bomb outside of U.S. soil and they had no capacity to deliver the package. Many people believe that this action would have started a world nuclear war. That is simply not the case in the time frame. China would have been forced to withdraw troops, and with careful target selection (meaning strictly military targets), few civilian lives in China would have been lost. The net result would have been fewer lives lost as a whole.
Possible Ramifications For Dropping The Bomb On China
It is very hard to speculate as to what might have happened. What follows is a best case scenario and a worst case scenario, with the actual truth likely falling in the middle.
Best Case: A small number of nuclear bombs are dropped on mainland China in secluded, sparsely populated areas. The Chinese respond by pulling back their troops, and a fair border between North Korea and South Korea is established. The war ends with roughly 10,000 American casualties. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh witnesses the result of the Korean War, ending with nothing more than a lot of blood shed, decides not to invade South Vietnam, thus rendering the Vietnam Conflict moot.
Worst Case: The Chinese fight with additional vigor, creating a huge land war in Southeast Asia. The USSR develops missiles with nuclear payload capacity and sells or gives them to the Chinese, who then launch them at the mainland United States. Both sides agree to cease fire, with a similar border between North Korea and South Korea as we have today. The war ends with roughly 150,000 American casualties. It's hard to speculate what follows, but I suspect a much colder Cold War than the one we had.
Again, it's very difficult to pinpoint what would have actually happened.
Why MacArthur Should Not Have Been Allowed To Drop The Bomb On China
There are really two major reasons for not dropping the bomb. The first reason is that long term ramifications of such acts of war are often very hard to predict. This is the reason for many conservative wartime tactics and also the reason for the length of many wars that could have been much shorter. A lengthy military history discussion could follow, but there are abundant examples of this. Truman was betting on the safe side in Korea.
The second and much more vital reason is that the bomb itself is mightily dangerous. The physical and environmental impact of a nuclear bomb is utterly devastating, and it is something that demands immense respect.
Ramifications For Not Dropping The Bomb
The bomb was not dropped. The Korean War carried on until 1953, with 27,000 Americans killed. The later Vietnam Conflict, fought over nearly identical issues, ran until 1975, with 57,000 Americans killed. Countless Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian casualties were also met.
The Cold War between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union carried on until 1990, ending with the collapse of the communist regime in the USSR.
After the end of World War II, not one nuclear bomb has been dropped as an act of war.
It is very hard to determine, given the facts at hand, whether or not MacArthur would have been right in dropping the nuclear bomb on China. I will say this, though; the rose-colored glasses of the present often change the shading of situations in the past. When you consider the decisions of MacArthur and Truman, remember that they lived in a different time with different values and ideas.
And don't be afraid to make up your own mind.