WASHINGTON -- Concerns about a retalitory strike by the Soviet Union led to the government's decision not to use nuclear weapons against North Korea in 1953, even though President Eisenhower thought a nuclear assault would be cheaper than conventional warfare.
Top secret documents from the spring of 1953 -- made public when the State Department declassified them Thursday -- show that use of nuclear weapons was discussed as an option when the Eisenhower administration decided that an indefinite military stalemate in the Korean War was not tolerable.
The two large volumes of papers also show that the U.S. military command in Korea was ordered to prepare a plan -- 'Operation Everready' - to abduct and deport South Korean President Syngman Rhee, and take the country over, if Rhee, as suspected, went ahead with his plan to try to unify North and South Korea by force.
The memos, some from State Department archives and some from the Truman and Eisenhower presidential libraries, indicate that policymakers at the time did not share the present-day horror of nuclear weapons and that the weapons were discussed primarily in terms of military and cost advantages.
Paul Nitze, now the chief U.S. negotiator at the medium-range missile talks in Geneva, represented the State Department at a 1953 meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
'There was no unshakeable policy barrier to use of atomic weapons, but the real question was whether the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages,' he as quoted as saying.
Gen. J. Lawton Collins, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was skeptical of using nuclear weapons because Chinese forces allied with the North Koreans were so well dug in, a memo describing the meeting showed.
Eisenhower, according to another memo, worried about Soviet nuclear attacks against crowded Japanese cities, saying that concern was 'always in the back of my mind.'
The question was postponed, according to the memo, mainly because Collins thought U.S. Naval forces in Pusan Harbor would be a perfect target if the Soviets decided to retaliate with their nuclear weapons.
A memo of a National Security Council meeting in May 1953 shows that military commanders by then had decided that atomic bombs would not be the most effective weapon in Korea, but Eisenhower was not convinced.
'The president nevertheless thought it might be cheaper, dollar-wise, to use atomic weapons in Korea than to continue to use conventional weapons against the dugouts, which honeycombed the hills along which the enemy forces were presently deployed,' a memo said.
'This, the president felt, was particularly true if one took into account the logistic costs of getting conventional ammunition from this country to the front lines.'
Rhee, an authoritarian and difficult ally, according to the papers, was recognized by the American planners as a danger if he took his troops north, bringing the U.S. forces into a full-scale invasion without their consent and without adequate preparation, including full mobilization in the United States.
The danger of such a South Korean move, according to the memos would have been met by taking Rhee into custody by U.S. forces and putting into place a 'provisional Korean government.'