How the Atomic Bomb Myth Disarmed America

Lovesick Cyborg
By Jeremy Hsu
Aug 10, 2015 1:23 AMNov 19, 2019 9:33 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

A dense column of smoke rises more than 60,000 feet into the air over the Japanese port of Nagasaki, the result of an atomic bomb, the second ever used in warfare, dropped on the industrial center August 8, 1945, from a U.S. B-29 Superfortress. Credit: U.S. National Archives More than 70 years after the first atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, historians still debate whether or not the atomic bombs played a major role in convincing Imperial Japan to surrender in 1945. But what's clear is that U.S. faith in the atomic bomb as a super weapon nearly proved disastrous just five years after World War II ended. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, the U.S. discovered that its reliance on the atomic bomb had left it without strong conventional military forces. That belief in the power of nuclear weapons technology almost led to catastrophe when U.S. soldiers went into battle against Soviet-backed North Korean troops and tanks invading South Korea. The awesome U.S. military might that had helped the Allies win World War II had vanished by the time of the Korean War, according to David Halberstam, journalist and historian, in his book "The Coldest Winter." Instead of maintaining larger armed forces, the U.S. trusted its initial monopoly on nuclear power and Air Force bombers as a counterbalance to the large Soviet armies at the start of the Cold War. There were many reasons why President Truman's administration, Congress and the U.S. public all wanted to believe that the atomic bomb alone could provide national security without spending taxpayer dollars on a modernized military capable of fighting equally well on ground, sea and air. The atomic bomb myth meant the understrength, poorly-trained and badly-equipped U.S. Army units would pay a high price in blood during the early months of the Korean War. T.R. Fehrenbach, a U.S. Army officer who commanded at the platoon, company and battalion levels during the Korean War, described the problem in his book "This Kind of War" as follows:

There just hadn't been enough money for long-range bombers, nuclear bombs, aircraft carriers, and bazookas too. Now, painfully, at the cost of blood, the United States found that while long-range bombers and aircraft carriers are absolutely vital to its security, it had not understood in 1945 the shape of future warfare. To remain a great power, the United States had to provide the best in nuclear delivery systems. But to properly exercise that power with any effect in the world—short of blowing it up—the United States had also to provide the bread-and-butter weapons that would permit her ground troops to live in battle.

A powerful U.S. military force of 12 million men and women in uniform at the end of World War II had shrunk to just 1.5 million members by early 1947. The annual military budget stood at just $10.3 billion from a wartime high of $90.9 billion. Much of that military budget went to the U.S. Air Force with its fleet of strategic bombers designed to deliver the atomic bomb to enemy targets. Very little went to modernizing or even maintaining the U.S. Army's basic infantry weapons, tanks and artillery. The Army was forced to cut corners on military training because of ammunition shortages. Soldiers bought surplus military equipment with money out of their own pockets to obtain spare parts for vehicles. No Army division had its wartime requirement of weapons and equipment. When the Korean War began in 1950, the U.S.-trained South Korean military soon collapsed under the onslaught of the veteran, well-equipped North Korean army. The first U.S. troops to arrive in the Korean peninsula would fare no better. Because the U.S. had bet so heavily on the atomic bomb eliminating the need for traditional ground warfare, it faced a desperate struggle to stop the ground assault of a developing Asian country with a total population of nine million people.

Rush to Disaster

When the U.S. intervened, it began by deploying Army troops from the least-prepared division in occupied Japan because they happened to be closest to the Korean peninsula. The first Americans to face North Korean soldiers and tanks went into battle carrying World War II-era weapons that were often poorly maintained. Many of their heavy weapons such as machine guns and mortars didn't have enough ammunition. Some units didn't even have hand grenades. Their old World War II-era bazookas were no match for the North Korean T-34 tanks supplied by the Soviet Union.

Ground troops of the United States Army board a transport plane at a Japanese Air Base for shipment to Korea on July 1, 1950. Credit: Sgt. Ray Turnbull, United States Army | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Just as crucially, U.S. Army training had become a shadow of its former self. Army generals had bowed to the immense pressure from the U.S. public and Congress to ease up on military training that could injure the boys during peacetime. Relatively few World War II veterans remained; most of the troops were as unprepared for combat as any average civilian walking around in the cities and towns back home. "They were normal American youth, no better, no worse than the norm, who though they wore the uniform were mentally, morally, and physically unfit for combat, for orders to go out and die," Fehrenbach said. "They wore the uniform, but they were still civilians at heart." Colonel John (Mike) Michaelis, one of the most effective U.S. Army regimental commanders during the Korean War, was also dismayed by the state of his troops early on. In October 1950, he recalled the early days of the war during an interview with the Saturday Evening Post.

When they started out, they couldn’t shoot. They didn’t know their weapons. They had not had enough training in plain old-fashioned musketry. They’d spent a lot of time listening to lectures on the differences between communism and Americanism and not enough time crawling on their bellies on maneuvers with live ammunition singing over them. They’d been nursed and coddled, told to drive safely, to buy War Bonds, to give to the Red Cross, to avoid VD (venereal disease), to write home to mother—when someone ought to have been telling them how to clean a machine gun when it jams.

The first U.S. soldiers went into battle with poor equipment and poor training, but filled with the racism-tinged confidence of soldiers who had been living the easy life in occupied Japan and lording it over the local Asian population. The soldiers remained cocky as they landed in Korea and moved up to meet the onrushing North Koreans. "Just wait till the gooks see an American uniform—they'll turn around and run like hell!" they told each other.

Paying the Price in Blood

As it turned out, the Americans found themselves doing most of the running in the first weeks and months of the war. The early performance of U.S. soldiers can be summed up in the story of the first 540 U.S. soldiers who went into combat in Korea on July 5, 1950. Organized under the name Task Force Smith, they dug in on a ridge that overlooked the main highway running between the towns of Suwon and Osan and waited in the cold, rainy weather of the early morning. Fehrenbach's book "This Kind of War" describes their first baptism by fire in vivid detail.

Members of the 24th Infantry Division, first United States ground units to reach the front, go into action against North Korean forces at the village of Sojong-Ni, near Osan. At right is Private First Class Kenneth Shadrick, who was killed by enemy fire a few moments after this photo was made. July 5, 1950. Credit: Sgt. Charles R. Turnbull, United States Army | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Colonel Charles Bradford Smith, the U.S. commanding officer, soon spotted a group of more than 30 North Korean T-34 tanks. U.S. artillery showered the tanks with high explosive rounds, and soldiers fired recoilless rifles at the enemy armor. One U.S. lieutenant fired 22 bazooka rockets at a North Korean tank with no effect. The U.S. artillery fire managed to damage three North Korean tanks, but the rest rumbled onward seemingly without a care. One of the damaged tanks' crew members emerged from a tank hatch with a sub-machine gun and fired on a U.S. machine gun crew, killing an assistant gunner. The latter was possibly the first of many Americans to die in the war. Another group of North Korean tanks appeared ten minutes later. American artillerymen began walking or running away from their guns, leaving their cursing officers and noncoms behind. The North Korean tanks didn't even pause to fight with the U.S. artillery, but simply moved on like the first group. Still, the U.S. infantry had suffered 20 dead or wounded from the fire of the passing tanks. An hour later, Colonel Smith saw a six-mile column of North Korean troop trucks and infantry soldiers coming toward his positions with three more T-34 tanks in the lead. U.S. machine gun and mortar fire ripped through the column and scattered the North Korean soldiers in confusion. But the three tanks moved up and began firing with their cannons and machine guns, killing American soldiers dug in along the ridge. The pressure grew as enemy artillery rounds exploded amongst the American foxholes. North Korean infantry joined the assault with automatic weapons.

Two Russian Type T-34 tanks destroyed by American tanks near Yong San, Korea. Sept. 6, 1950. Credit: United States Army | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Colonel Smith finally ordered a retreat. The disorganized Americans first abandoned their heavy weapons such as machine guns and mortars. Then they threw aside rifles, helmets and even shoes as they ran across the Korean hills and slogged through rice paddies. The next morning, Colonel Smith could only account for 185 of his original 540 men. More scattered survivors continued to straggle in over the next several days. General Douglas MacArthur, overly confident like most Americans at the start of the Korean war, had dubbed Task Force Smith an "arrogant display of strength" intended to help to turn back the North Korean assault. In reality, Task Force Smith had delayed the North Korean advance for just seven hours. Other U.S. Army units committed during the early phase of the war also failed to stop the North Koreans and endured a similar mauling in battle. “You don’t fight two tank-equipped divisions with .30 caliber carbines," said an unnamed U.S. officer, described by the Associated Press as leading a "bitter, beaten little band of G.I.s." "I never saw such a useless damned war in all my life.” After a series of harrowing retreats, the U.S. and allied troops fighting under the official United Nations flag just barely managed to hold a defensive perimeter around the port city of Busan at the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula. The stage was set for a vicious three-year war that only became bloodier with China entering the war on the side of North Korea.

The Atomic Bomb Myth

In 1950, the U.S. Army "could not fight its way out of a paper bag," according to General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior U.S. military commander at the start of the Korean War. The Army's terrible performance was hardly the fault of the individual U.S. soldiers who went into battle without proper equipment or training, but was instead the result of a small defense budget based on the idea that the atomic bomb could provide the main basis for national security in the Cold War. (The U.S. was just coming to grips with the fact that its "atomic monopoly" had ended before the Korean War when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1949.) The myth of the atomic bomb as the ultimate trump card capable of handling any military scenario had endured with support from both U.S. civilian and military leaders, according to Greg Herkin, former historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and author of the book "The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950." To counter the threat of a Soviet ground invasion, Air Force General Hoyt Vandenburg argued in favor of an "atomic blitz" strategy targeting Russian cities during Congressional hearings in 1949: "A prime objective of this country must be to find a counterbalance to the potential enemy’s masses of ground troops other than equal masses of American and Allied ground troops… No such balancing factor exists other than strategic bombing." General Bradley also contributed to the atomic bomb myth by suggesting that nuclear weapons eliminated the need for amphibious landings similar to the Normandy D-Day landings and other similar operations during World War II. "I am wondering whether we shall ever have another large-scale amphibious operation," Bradley said in 1949. "Frankly, the atomic bomb, properly delivered, about precludes such a possibility.” (Bradley would be proved wrong just one year later when U.S. Marines executed a crucial amphibious assault on the Korean city of Incheon, a risky but brilliant maneuver by General Douglas MacArthur that finally forced the North Koreans to begin a serious retreat.)

Amtrac Borne members of the 1st Marine Division head for "Blue Beach" on Wolmi Island, Inchon Harbor, as the first strike to secure, for United Nations forces, this vital Communist supply port. Credit: Sgt. Herbert F. Nutter, United States Army | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Louis Johnson, a U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration, took Bradley's conclusion a step farther in his zeal to cut the defense budget. (Johnson had political ambitions of eventually running for president based on the record of having held down defense spending.) He bluntly told a U.S. Navy admiral that the atomic bomb had effectively eliminated the need for several major military branches.

There's no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We'll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.

The atomic bomb myth endured despite the findings of the secret Harmon Report, a committee study led by General Hubert Harmon in 1949, that suggested the "atomic blitz" attacks on Russian cities would not prove militarily effective even if all the bombs precisely hit their targets.

Death of a Myth

But the atomic bomb myth finally met its match when it clashed with the harsh reality of the Korean War. The U.S. considered the use of atomic bombs several times during the Korean War, according to Nina Tannenwald, director of the International Relations Program at Brown University and author of the book "The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945." Some U.S. military leaders proposed targeting North Korean and Chinese troops or even cities. But the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff held back for several military reasons: the small U.S. stockpile of bombs might be wasted in Asia rather than Europe in case of Soviet invasion; few useful targets existed in Korea; and they feared the atomic bombs might not prove decisive and actually lose their value in deterring future Communist aggression. In fact, the threat of U.S. atomic bombs did not even deter China from entering the war on North Korea's side. When Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, convinced his colleagues in the Communist Party of China to intervene on behalf of North Korea, he shrugged off the potential threat of the U.S. using atomic bombs because of China's vast army and population. If the U.S. used its atomic bombs, he said, "I will respond with my hand grenade."

A grief stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background, a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags. Haktong-Ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Credit: S.F.C. Al Chang, United States Army | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. The Chinese chose to help North Korea and take on the U.S. military even though they took the possibility of the atomic bomb's use seriously. Nieh Yenrong, acting Chinese chief of staff, discussed his country's thinking with K.M. Panikkar, Indian ambassador to Beijing. When Panikkar suggested that U.S. bombing could set China back half a century, Nieh responded: "We have calculated all that. They may even drop atomic bombs on us. What then? They may kill a few million people." Most of the Chinese population still lived on farms at the time, Nieh added. What could the atomic bomb do against those rather than cities? President Truman and his civilian advisors also decided against using the atomic bomb during the Korean War for other reasons. Perhaps most crucial was the fear that the U.S. would lose its moral authority and support across the world, which would undermine the long-term ideological struggle against the Soviet Union. U.S. European allies were especially horrified by the thought of the U.S. deploying the atomic bomb once more. Neutral Asian countries such as India also warned against the U.S. using the atomic bomb in North Korea or China, given how it might confirm a trend of the U.S. only deploying the atomic bomb against Asians. The Korean War and the failing atomic bomb myth finally spurred the U.S. to boost its defense budget, avoid pinning its national defense primarily on one weapon and strengthen all its U.S. military branches. But the lesson had proved costly in terms of the price paid by U.S. troops and the country almost facing disaster in the early days of the war. Fehrenbach, drawing on his own Korean War experience, made the following observation:

Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.

Reading References:

Fehrenbach, T.R. (1963) This Kind of War Halberstam, D. (2008) The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. Herkin, G. (1988) The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950 Tannenwald, N. (2008)

The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945


1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.