Historian William I. Hitchcock schools policymakers: Ike never threatened to use nukes in North Korea

Historians in the News
tags: nuclear weapons, North Korea, Korean War, nuclear war, Dwight D Eisenhower, Trump



William I. Hitchcock is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a faculty fellow at the Miller Center. His book, "The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s," will be published in March 2018.

Do nuclear threats work? President Trump seems to think so. His recent warning that the United States would rain down “fire and fury” upon North Korea may have been improvised, as some media reports suggest, but it may also be part of a strategy to intimidate the North Koreans and get them to restrain their nuclear program.

Some historians and policymakers have long looked to a specific case to claim that such nuclear threats against North Korea have worked in the past. In 1953, they assert, the newly elected Dwight D. Eisenhower, determined to redeem his campaign pledge to end the unpopular Korean War, passed along a secret message to the communist Chinese and the North Koreans: Agree to an armistice, or we will unleash our nuclear weapons on you. The result, so the story goes, was immediate: The communists agreed to an armistice, leading to an icy peace along the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel.

Naturally, presidents and war hawks like the simplicity of this tale. Bold president rattles nuclear saber; bad guys stand down. This may well have been in Trump’s mind when he spoke earlier this week.

The trouble is, it never happened. Ike’s nuclear bluff, and its supposed success at ending the hostilities, is a dangerous myth, one that gave later presidents false confidence in the effectiveness of nuclear intimidation….

It was not until late May, well after Chinese concessions had been made, that Eisenhower’s alleged threat is said to have materialized. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, on a trip to India, casually dropped a hint to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he hoped would be passed on to the Chinese: If the armistice talks failed, the United States would probably expand the war in Korea. He said nothing about using nuclear weapons. More significantly, Nehru never reported this conversation to the Chinese. No threat was made, and no threat was delivered.

In any case, by the time Dulles met Nehru the armistice negotiations were all but complete. What had driven the entire affair was not an American nuclear threat but a change in Soviet politics — triggered by the death of Stalin — and the subsequent decision of the communist bloc to engage in a more subtle and less risky Cold War strategy against the West.

The myth of Ike’s nuclear bluff was created by Dulles himself in 1956. Hoping to make his boss look decisive and bold, Dulles told a Life magazine reporter a fib about how the threat of nukes, passed through Nehru to the Chinese, led to immediate results at the armistice talks. Dulles wanted the world to believe that Eisenhower would not shirk from using the ultimate weapon to advance U.S. interests.

Unfortunately, the story of a daring Ike intimidating the North Koreans took root in the minds of a generation of nuclear strategists….






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