11th April, 1951 - Korean War Widens
World War III began when President Harry Truman authorized nuclear attacks on Manchuria and the Shantung Peninsula if the Chinese launched air-strikes originating from there against his forces. He had already dictated back in 1947 that the atomic bomb would only be used on his say-so. "No dashing Lieutenant-Colonel will decide when the proper time to drop one is."
Now that proper time had unmistakably arrived, and the orders were relayed to Douglas MacArthur, General of the Army and in overall command in Korea. Even worse than a dashing Lieutenant-Colonel, Truman had described him to his diary as:
"Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur. He's worse than the Cabots and the Lodges - they at least talked with one another before they told God what to do. Mac tells God right off. It is a very great pity we have stuffed shirts like that in key positions. ... Don't see how a country can produce men such as Robt. E, Lee, John J. Pershing, Elsenhower and Bradley and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons and Mac Arthurs."
As a reckless theatre commander, MacArthur had unnecessarily provoked the escalation by marching through the UN Partition Line across the 38th Parallel on the Yalu River. The characteristically "Brass Hat" had the nerve to request twenty-seven nuclear warheads, which represented roughly ten percent of the entire US arsenal. The devices lacked triggers or safety circuits, so the actual mechanism of authorisation was far more problematic than Truman could have foreseen in 1947. The Joint Chiefs (JCs) were not entirely comfortable giving them to MacArthur either, for fear that he might prematurely carry out his orders. Instead, they recommended that the nuclear strike force would report to the Strategic Air Command. This was justifiable because the atomic warhead stocks were still nominally under the control of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Truman did not want to authorize the strategic use of nuclear warheads for fear of a massive conventional response from the Soviets who had nuclear weapons but no strike capability. This political decision created a leadership crisis in Washington because JCs Chairman Omar Bradley's preferred solution was to dismiss MacArthur. In fact, Bradley himself was dangerously exposed to the risk of dismissal because he had failed to properly prepare the US Armed Forces for a Soviet conflict. For example, only two US Divisions were based in Germany.
To avoid a power struggle between two self-serving career generals, Truman devised a clever compromise that the nuclear warheads would only be used tactically "in theatre" to destroy bridges and the assembly areas in China. So when six divisions of the People's Liberation Army's began to march on Korea, MacArthur issued the fateful command to detonate the weapons, interrupting the flow of troops with irradiated soil. Because there was "No substitute for Victory" it was a necessary decision that Truman, Bradley and even God could live with.
This post is a re-dux of Jeff Provine's article Berlin Airlift Begins World War III.
Provine's Addendum: The escalation would be the first of many.