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The United States, under the leadership of President Harry Truman, made a series of political miscalculations over the Korean War that helped spark World War III.

The Korean War and the Road to World War III[]

In November 1950, Chinese troops intervened in the Korean War and thoroughly destroyed three divisions of American forces between the Chosin Reservoir and Hungnam, the worst defeat American forces had seen since the Battle of Bataan during World War II.[1]

Truman flew to Honolulu on December 18, 1950 to meet with General Douglas MacArthur, the overall commander in the Pacific. While MacArthur didn't quite admit he'd been wrong when he assured Truman that the Chinese would not intervene, he did acknowledge that they were attacking and would continue to mass along the Yalu River until China itself was attacked. When Truman pointed out that B-29s weren't doing as well during this was as they had during World War II, MacArthur suggested atomic weapons might make the difference if they were used on cities in Manchuria to disrupt the Chinese supply line.

Truman then wondered if Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union would retaliate against U.S. allies should the U.S. bomb Manchuria. MacArthur dismissed these concerns, arguing that the USSR did not have sufficient atomic weapons to do so. He also argued that U.S. atomic weapons could be used in the case of a Soviet invasion of West Germany. Despite his misgivings, Truman agreed to the use of atomic weapons. Truman admitted that if the three divisions in North Korea has been successfully evacuated from Hungnam, he would not have considered the atomic option.[2]

In January 1951, pits were delivered to Korea and installed in all weapons already present.[3] A few weeks later, Truman transferred the final decision making to MacArthur, authorizing the general to use them if, in MacArthur's view, their use was the only way to improve the situation. The situation had certainly worsened, as the Chinese had relentlessly marched south throughout December and into January, recapturing Seoul, the South Korean capital.[4] In the meantime, U.S. aerial reconnaissance showed that the Soviets were moving fighters and bombers onto airstrips in southeastern Siberia.[5]

Nuclear Exchange: 1951[]

The decision finally came a few weeks later. On January 23, 1951, several bombs were dropped on strategic points in Manchuria.[6] Within hours, Truman appeared before the country explaining the action and his reasons for approving it. He also emphasized that Soviet territory had not been attacked.[7] Despite his assurances that the US had no quarrel with the USSR, Joseph Stalin retaliated on behalf of his ally, China, and ordered six atomic attacks against U.S. allies staged from Pechenga[8]: Aberdeen and Norwich in the United Kingdom; Nancy and Rouen in France, and; Augsburg and Bremen in West Germany.[9] The Soviet army headed west as the bombs were landing in Europe, as did the armies of its various satellites.[10]

The attacks on Britain and France effectively triggered the NATO treaty. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and French President Vincent Auriol immediately demanded the U.S. respond. So did West Germany, but as that country wasn't in NATO, Truman felt comfortable ignoring them.[11] Truman consulted with Secretary of Defense George Marshall. While neither were enthusiastic about attacking the Soviets again, Truman decided that destroying Pechenga was the least terrible option, as it might mollify Britain and France, and was sufficiently isolated from more populous Soviet territory that Stalin might not feel compelled to respond. Ignoring the European attacks might end NATO altogether and send Europe into an alliance with Stalin. At Marshall's suggestion, Truman had the planes fly out of the UK and France. He also ordered Alaska put on alert, as it was similar to Pechenga, and would be a likely target if Stalin did retaliate.[12]

Pechenga was destroyed on February 4, 1951. Despite Truman's order for precautions, Elmendorf Air Force Base was destroyed by the Soviets on February 7.[13]

In response, on February 15, Truman authorized atomic attacks against Russia's satellites, destroying Zywiec in Poland, Szekesfehervar in Hungary, and Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia in an effort to disrupt several transportation hubs.[14] Two days later, the Soviet invasion of West Germany began, and World War III was now past the point of no return.[15]

World War III in Europe, a Vulnerable Homefront: February to June, 1951[]

The Soviets, using their numerical superiority, made substantial gains in West Germany, Austria and northeastern Italy, despite huge casualties inflicted on them by Allied forces.[16] In response, on February 24, U.S. launching bombing raids against various targets within the USSR and its allied countries, including Warsaw and Krakow in Poland, Prague and Bratislava in Czechoslovakia, and Budapest in Hungary, and the Soviet cities of Leningrad and Vladivostok, as well as Minsk in Byelorussian SSR and Rovno in the Ukranian SSR. Allegedly, the Leningrad attack (a night raid) killed several children playing in a park for which Stalin promised retribution.[17]

As February wound down, the U.S. was faced with what he termed as a catastrophe. He realized that the U.S. probably didn't have the manpower to stop the Russians, even with Britain and France contributing. Truman was already regretting the decision to bomb Manchuria, especially as the only solution he and Secretary of Defense Marshall could see to remedy the disparity in manpower was the use of more atom bombs.[18] However, as West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had wired Truman and begged him not to use atom bombs in West German territory, lest the U.S. lose West Germany as an ally, Truman ruled it out, despite Marshall's misgivings. Instead, Truman decided to use bombs in East Germany and in Russia's satellites with the goal of slowing down the Soviet supply line. He even hoped that the attacks might prompt the governments of the various satellites to reconsider their alliance with Russia, or to prompt the citizens of those states to rebel against their communist governments.[19] Truman further decided not to attack capital cities, but instead smaller towns that had important rail lines. Marshall prepared a list for Truman's approval.[20]

While the atomic attacks did disrupt Soviet supply lines and slow down the drive west, they did not cause any uprisings.[21] They also resulted in the most audacious attacks from the Soviets to date. On the night of March 1-2, Soviet Tu-4s, painted to look like the American B-29s they'd been reverse engineered from, dropped several atomic bombs on the American west, including the cities of Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Denver.[22] On the East Coast, Bangor in Maine and Newfoundland in Canada were also attacked.[23] On the plus side, bombers mean for Spokane and Las Vegas were successfully downed.[24]

In response, Truman ordered massive retaliation that destroyed a number of Soviet ports on March 4, including Vladivostok[25] (a successful if costly attack for the U.S.), as well as Kiev.[26] In the following weeks, the U.S. also dropped atomic bombs on Leningrad[27] and Moscow itself.[28] Stalin survived this attack, and took to the radio to rally the Soviet Union.[29]

In April, Truman finally took a tour of the West Coast. He gave a candid press conference in Los Angeles, where he'd come to see the damage. He allowed his administration had made several mistakes in its handling of the war, but that the country would press on.[30] In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, the National Guard was called out in the impacted states to maintain order,[31] and established refugee camps for the displaced.[32] Over the next couple of months, the National Guard set up border checkpoints in Washington, Oregon, and California.[33]

A few days after the West Coast trip, the Soviet Union attacked several airfields in the U.K. with conventional explosives, including USAF barracks at Sculthorpe. While the attacks killed several and did a fair amount of damage, compared with an atomic bomb, the attacks were more nuisances.[34] However, days later, the Soviets inflicted another atomic attack on the U.S. when it successfully placed an atom bomb in a Greek-listed freighter, and successfully detonated the bomb in the Panama Canal near the Caribbean end; if the canal were repairable at all, it would be years. The Soviets also destroyed the Suez Canal.[35]

In May, the U.S. was able to destroy Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk, two key Soviet cities on the Trans-Siberian railroad; the attacks were designed to hamper Soviet aid to its allies in Korea.[36] Nonetheless, Truman was subject to increasingly sharp criticism at home. His loudest critic was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed that Truman and Secretary Marshall were soft on Communism, and alleged the "Reds" uncovered in the State Department during Marshall's tenure there had shared the USA's weaknesses with the Soviets before they were caught.[37]

In June, the Soviets successfully bombed on Paris,[38] effectively wiping out the French government. Several surviving officials established a Committee of National Salvation, and asked Charles de Gaulle to become its head.[39] De Gaulle's first task was to contact Truman for aid, including medical supplies and experts in treating radiation sickness. While de Gaulle and Truman had shared a deep antipathy from the closing days of World War II, Truman realized that de Gaulle could forge a separate peace with the USSR, and so did everything he could to meet de Gaulle's requests.[40]

Counter-offensive in Europe, Discontent on the Homefront, July, 1951-May, 1952[]

By July 1951, the situation in Europe was critical: Soviet forces had crossed most of West Germany and were approaching the borders with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and held the Po Valley in Italy. Truman had little hope they'd keep fighting if the Russians continued their advances.[41] Thus, in order to halt the advance, and keep the Western Allies in the fight, Truman ordered the use of atom bombs on the Soviet forward positions in West Germany.[42]

The attacks destroyed most of the Soviet forward positions, forcing the survivors to retreat back east.[43] Afterward, Truman gave a press conference, and once again offered Joseph Stalin the status quo ante bellum, with all communist forces in Europe and Korea pulling back to their pre-war borders. Stalin refused.[44]

On the home front, things began to stabilize, even in areas that had been attacked. Traces of normality returned in fits and starts to places like Glendale.[45] Places that had not been targeted also carried on as if there wasn't a war on at all.[46] And soon, McCarthy was not the only person seeking the Republican nomination: Senator Robert Taft, California Governor Earl Warren, and General Dwight Eisenhower had thrown their hats in the ring.[47] While the Allies were advancing for the first time since the beginning of the ground war, Stalin still had a sufficient atomic arsenal to respond. In short order, the Soviets attacked targets in South Korea in August,[48] and then destroyed the U.S. airbase in Sculthorpe, U.K. in September.[49] Worst of all was the attack on Antwerp, Belgium a few weeks later.[50]

Truman was forced to concede to the Prime Ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands the U.S. could not promise to protect them from Soviet attacks.[51] When Truman met with Secretary of Defense Marshall afterward, Marshall acknowledged that Truman had told the premiers the truth. He assured Truman that the Soviets could not reach the U.S. East Coast at this time.[52]

After several more weeks of weighing his chances for re-election, in October 1951, Truman announced that he would not be running again in 1952.[53] Predictably, Soviet propaganda declared Truman a coward.[54] Now the field for the Democratic Party was wide open, and several candidates announced their own bids, including Vice President Alben Barkley, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, Truman-aide W. Averell Harriman, and Senators Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.[55] While each man had his strengths and weaknesses, by spring of 1952, there wasn't a clear Democratic front-runner the way McCarthy had become for the GOP.

Government Crippled, May, 1952[]

In May 1952, even as the NATO drive continued east and the Soviet Union's resources were being drained, the Soviets launched an air raid on the East Coast of the U.S. After months of practice, Soviet Tu-4s were able to cross the Atlantic using mid-air refueling.[56] Washington DC, New York City, and Boston were all destroyed. President Truman was attending a fund-raiser in Buffalo, New York, and thus survived an attack that effectively wiped out the U.S. Federal government, his wife and daughter included.[57]

Philadelphia became the acting capital of the U.S.; it had also been targeted, but it was spared when the Tu-4 assigned to attack the city crashed in New Egypt, New Jersey.[58] Truman spoke to Chief Justice Fred Vinson--seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices had been in St. Louis. Vinson concluded that Truman would have broad emergency powers while the U.S. rebuilt its government. Truman also promised final vengeance on Stalin.[59] The immediate U.S. response was to destroy Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Odessa.[60]

While the attacks had killed most of the Congress, Truman still faced opposition from the remaining Republicans. Richard Nixon, a young Senator from California, picked up where McCarthy had left off. Truman once again worried about the possibility of Fascism gaining traction in the U.S.[61] Ironically, Truman himself had no choice but rule decree; with the House and the Senate both still being rebuilt, Truman selected a new cabinet without the advice and consent of the Senate, even as Senators were being replaced and special elections were taking place for the House of Representatives.[62]

Long Reach[]

In June, 1952, the U.S. military successfully tested the hydrogen bomb on Eniwetok in the South Pacific.[63] A week later, U.S. intelligence confirmed that Stalin was in Omsk. President Truman initiated Operation Long Reach, ordering the h-bomb be deployed against Omsk.The operation was successful on all counts, and Stalin was killed.[64]

Stalin's death did not bring an immediate end to the war: Lavrenty Beria seized the reins of power and pledged to fight on.[65] Similarly, Mao Tse-Tung promised that the forces of revolution would be victorious.[66] Nonetheless, Truman offered a return to the status quo ante bellum.[67] Within a few days, however, elements within the Soviet government, represented by Ivan Turginov, contacted Richard Cunningham Patterson Jr., the American ambassador to Switzerland, about Truman's offer for a return to the status quo antebellum. Patterson relayed this information to Truman, and also confirmed that Beria's position was unstable.[68]

Treaty of Versailles[]

With these overtures complete, Beria was removed a from power and replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov.[69] A general ceasefire began in Europe.[70] In July, 1952, Truman traveled to France for the final peace talks with Molotov at Versailles. He was joined by Charles de Gaulle and Clement Attlee.[71]

At the first meeting, Molotov confirmed that so long as the U.S. would stay out of Soviet affairs, the Soviets would no longer fight the U.S. Truman in turn demanded that the Soviets not deploy atomic weapons against these satellites, including the Baltic states. The western powers had not recognized their annexation, so De Gaulle and Attlee both backed Truman's position. Grudgingly, Molotov agreed.

However, Truman could not secure a peace on the Korean front. Molotov did agree to stop supplying Mao, but only if the U.S. stopped dropping a-bombs on China and North Korea. Truman accepted.[72]

Domestic Uncertainty[]

Upon his return home, Truman announced that he was suspending the presidential election scheduled for November.[73] In short order, he sat down with Dwight Eisenhower, the now de facto Republican nominee, and almost certain inevitable winner. Truman expressed his appreciation that Eisenhower hadn't fought him, and as a concession to Eisenhower's continued cooperation, Truman agreed that Congressional elections would take place and that he'd hold to his promise not to run again. After that, they discussed the political situation Eisenhower was likely to inherit, including the ongoing threat of Red China. The USSR, however, was far more broken.[74]

As expected, the Republican Party won a majority in Congress. The country entered 1953, facing an uncertain future.[75]


  1. Bombs Away, pg. 5, ebook.
  2. Ibid., pgs. 5-9.
  3. Ibid., pg. 25.
  4. Ibid., pg. 38.
  5. Ibid., pgs. 40-41.
  6. Ibid., pgs. 55-61.
  7. Ibid., pgs. 58-61.
  8. Ibid., pg. 86.
  9. Ibid., pgs. 64-65, 70.
  10. Ibid, pg. 67.
  11. Ibid., pg. 86.
  12. Ibid., pgs. 87-90.
  13. Ibid., pg. 93.
  14. Ibid., pg. 104.
  15. Ibid., pgs. 110-118.
  16. Ibid., pg. 134.
  17. Ibid., pgs. 120-121.
  18. Ibid., pgs. 133-134.
  19. Ibid., pgs. 135-137.
  20. Ibid., pg. 138.
  21. Ibid., pg. 138-140.
  22. Ibid. pgs. 141-150.
  23. Ibid., pg. 159.
  24. Ibid. pg. 165.
  25. Ibid., pg. 165.
  26. Ibid., pg. 162.
  27. Ibid. pg. 183.
  28. Ibid. pg. 178.
  29. Ibid. pgs. 178-179.
  30. Ibid., pgs. 270-273.
  31. Ibid., pgs. 153-155, ebook.
  32. 147-150.
  33. Fallout, loc. 3254, ebook.
  34. Bombs Away, pgs. 278-280.
  35. Ibid., pgs. 291-294.
  36. Ibid., pgs. 372-376.
  37. Ibid., pg. 385-386.
  38. Ibid., 309-311.
  39. Fallout, pg. 5, HC.
  40. Ibid., pgs. 6-7.
  41. Ibid., loc. 1611-1641, e-book
  42. Ibid., loc. 1641-1688.
  43. Ibid. loc. 1751-1886.
  44. Ibid, loc. 1917.
  45. Ibid., loc. 662, e-book.
  46. Ibid., loc. 3292-3304, ebook.
  47. Ibid., loc. 4199.
  48. Ibid., loc. 2152-2213.
  49. Ibid., loc. 2428-2487.
  50. Ibid., loc. 3094-3167.
  51. Ibid., loc. 3167-3179.
  52. Ibid, loc. 3179-3204.
  53. Ibid., loc. 3945-3987.
  54. Ibid. loc. 3987.
  55. Ibid., pg. 246, HC.
  56. Ibid., loc. 6541-6615.
  57. Ibid. 6620-6692.
  58. Ibid., loc. 6810.
  59. Ibid. loc. 6797.
  60. Ibid., loc. 6953.
  61. Ibid., pg. 5.
  62. Ibid., pg. 69.
  63. Ibid., pg. 69-71.
  64. Ibid., pgs. 72-78, ebook.
  65. Ibid., pgs. 79-80.
  66. Ibid., pg. 86.
  67. Ibid., pg. 91.
  68. Ibid., pgs. 101-102.
  69. Ibid., pg. 118-119.
  70. Ibid.pgs. 123-124.
  71. Ibid., pg. 153.
  72. Ibid., pgs. 155-157.
  73. Ibid. pg 158.
  74. Ibid., pgs. 219-223, loc. 3494-3559.
  75. Ibid., pgs. 375-378.