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.
When Eisenhower took office, he did indeed wish to end the war in Korea. He traveled to the embattled peninsula in December 1952 to inspect the front and concluded that the war would go on forever unless he either agreed to an armistice or dramatically increased the American war effort.
As an experienced warrior, his first instinct lay in seeking outright victory. He mistrusted the North Koreans and Chinese to abide by an armistice, and in any case, the Truman administration had been laboring to secure a peace deal for two years. So Eisenhower started to plan with his advisers for a significant increase in the war effort, using conventional and nuclear weapons, to break the stalemate on the battlefield and push north to Pyongyang, and then impose a settlement on a defeated enemy. He told his colleagues that using nukes “would be worth the cost” and would lead to “a substantial victory.”
Yes, Eisenhower considered using nuclear weapons on North Korean and possibly Chinese targets. But this plan was being discussed only at the most secret levels of the U.S. government and was kept hidden from the enemy.
Fortunately, Ike never had to pull the nuclear trigger. On March 5, 1953, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died from a brain hemorrhage. Stalin had been an ardent backer of the North Korean war on South Korea, but his successors, an uneasy leadership team made up of Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin, Nikita Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov, felt uneasy about the war. It had been costly, had damaged the communist cause and promised no end in sight.
We know from once-secret documents, released after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., that this new Soviet leadership hatched a plan to ease world tensions in the wake of Stalin’s death. When Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai traveled to Moscow to attend Stalin’s funeral, the Soviet leaders told him it was urgent that China end the Korean War. Mao Zedong, who had long desired to ease the conflict, and North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung agreed that an armistice would be preferable to continued conflict. By early April 1953, the Chinese negotiators at the armistice discussions at Panmunjom began to make significant concessions on issues that had previously stymied progress.
By the start of May 1953, an armistice was in reach. The parties signed it at the end of July — and no nuclear threats had been made.
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. From John F. Kennedy’s reliance on the threat of nuclear retaliation in the Cuban missile crisis to Richard M. Nixon’s efforts to persuade the North Vietnamese that he was a “madman” with a finger on the nuclear button, presidents have been susceptible to the myth that nuclear bluffing works. Donald Trump seems to think so, too.
But they cannot look to Eisenhower for a model to follow. He made no threats in 1953. He was prepared for a wider war in Korea, but when the chance of a stalemated peace presented itself, he grasped the opportunity. Rather than expand the war, he compromised in order to end it. By contrast, Donald Trump has made a public threat and drawn his red line. It might work. But if it doesn’t, Trump will have to back down, or become the first president since Harry Truman to launch nuclear weapons.