How did the Korean War challenge assumptions about war in the nuclear age?

The Korean War, occurring in a nuclear age, clearly bore with it the constant specter of the potential usage of these same weapons, most especially in light of the fact that the last major world conflict of the Second World War itself ended with the usage of atomic weapons by the United States against Japan.

The fact that the nuclear age would drastically revise more “traditional” twentieth-century forms of warfare, however, was in a certain sense challenged by the Korean conflict. The absence of the usage of nuclear weapons in this conflict was not the result of potential mutual destruction of nuclear powers: For the forces aligned with Communist Korea, such as the Soviet Union, did not have nuclear counterstrike capability at the time of the conflict. This meant that the United States could have employed nuclear weapons without an equally devastating repercussion.

The sense that nuclear weapons acquired by both powers in a sense re-introduces pre-atomic weapon forms of war to the extent that mutual destruction is possible is refuted in the case of Korea: the decision to use nuclear weapons therefore does not hinge on the mutual possession of weapons, if we take Korea as a definitive case.

However, this notion of Korea as challenging assumptions on a grander scale in itself is problematic: MacArthur, for example, requested the potential use of nuclear weapons, but this was rejected for various reasons that remain ambiguous concerning historical evidence. In other words, in the event of a different set of contingent historical circumstances, perhaps MacArthur would have received authorization to use the requested bombs: in this case, Korea would not challenge any assumptions about nuclear weapons themselves.

Perhaps in this regard, one can take a certain different perspective to Korea and military theory in relation to nuclear weapons: the case further emphasizes the fact that military theory cannot use previous conflicts as exemplary of some type of eternal normativities on how war is conducted. This is the exact point Clausewitz made: war in theory is different from war in practice. Transferring war in theory to practice is essentially a category mistake in philosophical terms.

Hence, the purely theoretical position that atomic weapons changed the face of war in so far as total destruction now becomes possible, although challenged by the practical case of Korea, does not mean that the use – or rather non-use – of nuclear weapons will follow a particular pattern. Rather, it would seem that Korea does not undermine theories of atomic warfare: instead, it is the dimension of the political that continues to receive the utmost importance, in so far as the decision to use atomic weapons in strategy ultimately remains a political decision. Korea showed the underlying political nature of warfare and the latter’s inseparability from a greater social and ideological context that defines when and where war takes place, and furthermore, how war itself takes place. This is not to suggest that technologies do not influence war, but rather that the increase of technological capability does not eliminate this same political decision-making process in regards to strategy.