Today nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of the national-security policy of major powers, as defensive weapons under the guise of deterrence. In the past, nuclear weapons were used for offensive weapons, though “only” twice (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But among the other uses for which they were contemplated was one that was unusually novel.

The Korean War, wrote Paul Cummings for the History News Network in 2005, is “assumed to have been a limited war, but its prosecution bore a strong resemblance to the air war against Imperial Japan in the second world war, and was often directed by the same US military leaders.” For instance

The air force dropped 625 tons of bombs over North Korea on 12 August, a tonnage that would have required a fleet of 250 B-17s in the second world war. By late August B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons a day on the North. Much of it was pure napalm. From June to late October 1950, B-29s unloaded 866,914 gallons of napalm.

Early in the war, General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the United Nations command, anticipated Chinese intervention.

“I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb — to strike a blocking blow — which would require a six months’ repair job. Sweeten up my B-29 force.”

Nuclear weapons: not just a force multiplier, but a force sweetener. In any event, at the time, MacArthur’s suggestion was shelved. But when Chinese troops later entered North Korea, President Truman threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Then

… MacArthur said he had a plan that would have won the war in 10 days: “I would have dropped 30 or so atomic bombs . . . strung across the neck of Manchuria.” Then he would have … “spread behind us — from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea — a belt of radioactive cobalt . . . it has an active life of between 60 and 120 years. For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North.” He was certain that the Russians would have done nothing about this extreme strategy: “My plan was a cinch.”

MacArthur, wrote Cumings, “sounds like a warmongering lunatic”

… but he was not alone. Before the Sino-Korean offensive, a committee of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] had said that atomic bombs might be the decisive factor in cutting off a Chinese advance into Korea; initially they could be useful in “a cordon sanitaire.” … A few months later Congressman Albert Gore, Sr. … suggested “something cataclysmic” to end the war: a radiation belt dividing the Korean peninsula permanently into two.”

If readers are able to unearth another example of plans to use nuclear bombs to irradiate a strip of land to act as a defense or buffer, kindly inform us. For now, it stands as the silliest use devised for nuclear weapons. Except of course for nuclear deterrence: the idea that possession of nuclear weapons can prevent nuclear war even for the foreseeable future.

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