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When Washington almost went nuclear

Trigger-happy: General Douglas MacArthur. Getty

Insisting that a war must end with a victory used to be “deemed a mark of virility”, says Max Hastings in Bloomberg. In 146 BC, for example, Cato the Censor repeatedly told the Roman Senate Carthaginem esse delendam – “Carthage must be obliterated”. In the 21st century, anything even resembling conclusive victory has “become elusive”. Yet people still talk about Ukraine in exactly this context. For them, Kremlin esse delendam.

Realists appreciate that unless we want to risk nuclear war with Russia, we have to “contain the struggle”. To see how quickly things can escalate, think back to the Korean War. In 1950, North Korea invaded the South under the direction of the Soviet Union, but were quickly beaten back by an American-led coalition. When Chinese “supposed ‘volunteers’” swept into the country to shore up the North, America’s military leaders clamoured for the use of nuclear weapons. General Douglas MacArthur submitted a list of proposed “retaliation targets” in China and North Korea requiring 26 atomic bombs. Colonel Ellis Williamson later told me: “I favoured using one bomb in an unoccupied area. Pop it off. Say to the communists, ‘Come off of this stuff and get out.’”

Thankfully, the politicians in charge, including President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, were of a calibre that could resist such temptations. Britain, too, played its part: our “foremost politicians and soldiers” travelled to Washington in December 1950 and made a “passionate case that the Korean conflict should remain limited”. Sure enough, as the war progressed, the great powers began observing “unwritten restraints” to stop full-scale conflict between them developing. We must only hope that today’s leaders demonstrate similar caution.