Douglas MacArthur, General of the US Army and Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, Governor of the Ryukyu Islands, Commander of the Far East Command and the first Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers after World War Two, was one of the most respected soldiers in US history. You youngest Major General in US history, his military career spanned six decades.
Serving with distinction in both world wars, his actions in the US Pacific theater during World War Two were decisive and instrumental in both bringing the fight to the Japanese, and ensuring they were pushed back to their homeland. In 1945 there were few military figures as respected as him.
But MacArthur was certainly not done with victory against the Japanese. East Asia would remain far from peaceful, and he would eventually find gainful employment in the Korean war, which kicked off in earnest in 1951.
The struggle for the Korean peninsula was the first true proxy war of the modern age, a fight between Communist China and the United States played out in miniature. And MacArthur had some slightly worrying ideas about how to prosecute the war.
34 Nuclear Bombs
The shifting fortunes of the Korean war are a fascinating topic in and of itself. The initial push by communist forces took most of Korea, before the US-led retaliation reclaimed the entire peninsula.
If the war had stopped there, then North Korea would likely never have come into being. However China also responded, some say because the US overreached and started eyeing up Chinese targets, and the war was fought to a standstill at the 38th parallel. Here the country remains divided to this day.
To be fair to MacArthur, he saw the Chinese retaliation coming. However, his solution was somewhat unorthodox, if not outright monstrous: the use of nuclear weapons, and lots of them.
Nuclear war was new to both MacArthur and the wider world at the time, and the true horrors of the destruction caused by the use of such weapons was still not fully engrained in the public consciousness. MacArthur had previously testified, for example, that the decision to use nuclear weapons should be made by the battlefield commander alone.
MacArthur’s appreciation for the damage nuclear weapons could cause notwithstanding, his suggestion in Korea was a bold one. His plan was to bomb the land corridor connecting Korea to China from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.
This would create an irradiated zone which Chinese armies would not be able to cross. Korea would be cut off from China for decades, if not longer, and a vast area of the landscape would become an uninhabitable wasteland.
Macarthur estimated that he would require 34 nuclear bombs to achieve this. However, his plan also contained targets inside China and called for the destruction of as many as fifty Chinese cities near the Korean border. He was proposing that America nuke China.
Was MacArthur a bloodthirsty maniac? Did he not understand these new and horrifying weapons? Well, it seems the answer is not as simple as all that.
Firstly, MacArthur was only responding to a request by his political masters as to how he would respond if there was a major increase in Soviet or Chinese military activity as a result of the ongoing Korean War. Second, he was only following the US approach which had led to the Japanese surrender a decade earlier, saving lives again by bringing the Korean War to a swift end.
Thirdly, and most alarmingly, MacArthur pointed out that this was not even his plan. In creating this strategy, he was only confirming that a list of targets drawn up by the Pentagon in the 1940s would still create an effective barrier to stop Chinese involvement in Korea.
An interview after the war, not published until after his death, gives an insight into the thinking of MacArthur regarding this strategy. It is chilling, and it bears quoting in full:
“It was my plan as our amphibious forces moved south to spread behind us, from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea, a belt of radioactive cobalt. It could have been spread from wagons, carts, trucks and planes. […] For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the north. The enemy could not have marched across that radiated belt.”
MacArthur may have understood how to win a war, but the war won his way was not worth winning.
Top Image: Macarthur’s plan involved destroying a large area of China. Source: Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, US Army / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.