North Korea

Trump's 'Fire and Fury' Wouldn't Be the First for North Korea

The Truman war council discussed using atomic bombs just two weeks after the Korean War started.


Royston Leonard / Mediadrumworld/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Leave it to Donald Trump to threaten to rain "fire and fury" on the North Korean people the same week the world observed the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. government's vindictive atomic bombings of Japanese civilians. In case anyone missed the message, Defense Secretary James "Mad Dog" Mattis warned that the Kim Jong-un regime's actions risk the "destruction of its people." He wasn't talking about Kim's cruel communism.

We know what Trump and Mattis mean, even if many conservatives twist themselves like pretzels to transform the threatened savagery into something more benign. Trump and Mattis were referring to America's nuclear arsenal.

Trump promised "fire and fury like the world has never seen." No one would expect him to know this, but the North Korean people have seen their share of fire and fury at the hands of the U.S military. It happened almost 70 years ago, when Harry Truman, another president who went ga-ga over generals, unleashed America's savage vengeance during the Korean War. It's called the "forgotten war," but even when it wasn't forgotten, few Americans realized how brutally the United States treated people that posed no threat whatever to Americans.

How many know that, quoting historian Bruce Cumings,

far more napalm was dropped on Korea [than on Vietnam] and with much more devastating effect, since the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) had many more populous cities and urban industrial installations than North Vietnam…. By late August [1950] B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons a day on the North. Much of it was pure napalm. From June to late October 1950, B-29s unloaded 866,914 gallons of napalm.

It was also known as "jellied gasoline." Regarding its effect on the human body, Cumings quotes the survivor of a "friendly fire" attack on Americans:

Men all around me were burned. They lay rolling in the snow. Men I knew, marched and fought with begged me to shoot them…. It was terrible. Where the napalm had burned the skin to a crisp, it would be peeled back from the face, arms, legs … like fried potato chips.

Cumings adds:

George Barrett of The New York Times had found "a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war" in a village near Anyang, in South Korea: "The inhabitants throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed and kept the exact postures they held when the napalm struck — a man about to get on his bicycle, 50 boys and girls playing in an orphanage, a housewife strangely unmarked, holding in her hand a page torn from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue crayoned at Mail Order No 3,811,294 for a $2.98 'bewitching bed jacket — coral'." US Secretary of State Dean Acheson wanted censorship authorities notified about this kind of "sensationalised reporting," so it could be stopped.

Thus the war that is also known as a "limited police action" was anything but. Cumings writes that "from November 1950, General Douglas MacArthur ordered that a wasteland be created between the fighting front and the Chinese border, destroying from the air every 'installation, factory, city, and village' over thousands of square miles of North Korean territory."

Gen. MacArthur presented his own impressions of the early results at a congressional hearing in May 1951 after Truman fired him:

The war in Korean has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have never seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at the wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited. If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind. [Quoted in Napalm: An American Biography by Robert M. Neer, 2013.]

Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, in an oral history quoted by Cumings, said that "over a period of three years or so … we burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea, too." (Quoted in Cumings's preface to the 1988 edition of I.F. Stone's The Hidden History of the Korean War:1950-1951.)

"To think," Cumings writes, "that the American Air Force could have dropped oceans of napalm and other incendiaries on cities and towns in North Korea, leaving a legacy of deep bitterness palpable four decades later, and that this was done in the name of a conflict now called 'the forgotten war'—as memory confronts amnesia, we ask, who are the sane of this world?"

Americans know nothing of this, but you can bet the people of North Korea know it. They may be ruled in the harshest dehumanizing way by Kim Jong-un, but they still have their humanity.

This devastation was wreaked by so-called conventional weapons. No nuclear weapons were used, as they had been only a few years earlier in nearby Japan. But this is not to say their use was not contemplated.

The Truman war council discussed using atomic bombs just two weeks after the war started, Cumings writes. "At this point, however, the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] rejected use of the bomb because targets large enough to require atomic weapons were lacking; because of concerns about world opinion five years after Hiroshima; and because the JCS expected the tide of battle to be reversed by conventional military means. But that calculation changed when large numbers of Chinese troops entered the war in October and November 1950."

Then Truman publicly threatened to use all weapons at America's disposal. "The threat was not the faux pas many assumed it to be," Cumings writes, "but was based on contingency planning to use the bomb. On that same day, Air Force General George Stratemeyer sent an order to General Hoyt Vandenberg that the Strategic Air Command should be put on warning, 'to be prepared to dispatch without delay medium bomb groups to the Far East…. [T]his augmentation should include atomic capabilities.'"

Cumings notes:

The US came closest to using atomic weapons in April 1951, when Truman removed MacArthur. Although much related to this episode is still classified, it is now clear that Truman did not remove MacArthur simply because of his repeated insubordination, but because he wanted a reliable commander on the scene should Washington decide to use nuclear weapons.

Of course, what were then called "novel weapons" were not used in Korea. Yet, Cumings writes, "without even using such novel weapons—although napalm was very new—the air war levelled North Korea and killed millions of civilians. North Koreans tell you that for three years they faced a daily threat of being burned with napalm: 'You couldn't escape it,' one told me in 1981. By 1952 just about everything in northern and central Korea had been completely levelled. What was left of the population survived in caves.'"

Let's remember that the war never formally ended, and repeated calls by the North Korean government for a peace treaty and nonaggression pact have largely fallen on deaf American ears.

We don't know if victims would be able to tell if they'd been nuked or napalmed. What we do know is that Trump seems willing to commit the most monstrous crime in our names. Let's hope it's empty bluster.

This piece was originally published by The Libertarian Institute.

NEXT: Trump Launches a Suicidal War on His Own Party

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  1. “unleashed America’s savage vengeance during the Korean War”

    Well, damn, I thought it was in response to a United Nations resolution.

    1. No, it was definitely an American fight from the start. The UN resolution, IIRC, came about because Stalin was throwing a tantrum and boycotting the UN, and Truman saw a chance to slip the resolution through before the Soviets could get their act together and veto it. It was before Taiwan was replaced by Red China in the UN security council, so there was no veto threat there.

      Whether Truman would have pushed the war the same way without the UN resolution is another question.

      1. I must disagree; it seems that North Korea invaded South Korea without even asking Truman.
        Neither Taiwan nor The people’s Republic of China were on the security council at the time.
        Even Cuba voted in favor of the resolution. Only Yugoslavia voted against it. Egypt and India “did not participate”, even to abstain.
        The resolution was written, presented, and passed in two days, not really enough time for the US to be able to take the blame.
        Yes, once things got started, we contributed the most. (88% more or less)
        We jumped in because we had troops in Korea and Japan, and were the only ones able to respond immediately.

        1. How does that excuse burning millions of civilians.

          1. End the Korean war once and for all. Civilians die in war.

            North Korea started the war, not the USA.

            It is not in the USA’s best interests to let North Korea have nuclear weapons, threaten the USA, and get better ICBM capabilities every year.

          2. We are in an age of total war. It has been that way for sometime. It sucks but it is what it is. Civilians produce the junk that is used in war and so they are unfortunately a target. When the Korean War started the North was much more industrialized and advanced so their industrial capacity was targeted in the exact same way it was targeted in WWII in Japan, with firebombing. It was monstrous but it was also effective.

            1. I mention it below, but the fire bombings in Japan killed more people than the atomic bombs. LeMay was eradicating square miles of city by mixing incendiary and conventional bombs to create fire storms.

    2. Biggest mistake we’ve ever made. If it was the right thing to do, involving the UN was a huge mistake as it gave that kleptocracy a highly elevated sense of its worth.

  2. I disagree with the basic upfront premise here — that Trump and Mattis are threatening nuclear war.

    This kind of rhetoric has been used for ages, by elected politicians and on the campaign trail, by blowhards and generals and every variety of pundit.

    Anyone who takes it as a serious threat of literal nuclear war has lost me from the get-go.

    1. Absolutely. No one is talking Nukes but the peace loving Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.
      Oh, yeah, and the press. And everyone to the left of Ayn Rand. And everyone who hates Trump.

      At times I am convinced if Trump resurrected Mother Theresa and gave her a billion dollar grant the left would still come out against him. Probably for “establishing” religion by performing a miracle. Or because she is/was not black or gay.

    2. I haven’t seen/heard an actual quote of Trump saying nuclear war. “Fire and fury” is a dog whistle

      1. We can unleash a massive amount of destruction without resorting to our nuclear arsenal.

    3. The markets took it seriously. A trillion wiped out.

      1. Yes, so far the markets have crashed all the way back to where they were a month ago. Poof

        1. It’s overvalued bullshit anyway.

  3. I foresee a day (coming soon to a theater near you!) when Kim Ill Dung-Face will do an about-face, and try to make Himself look better, in the pubic eye, than The Donald is looking, right now, vis-?-vis the current hissy fits? Threats of violence will be superseded by threats of non-violence!

    I haz, as a pubic service, pre-written a response for The Donald?

    “Don’t be threatening ME with yer non-violence, dammit!!!!

    In more detail? WHY do I find your non-violence to be threatening?! Because you challenge my self-esteem! As one who relishes violence (conducted by others, who serve the State) on behalf of me and my selfish interests, your non-violence hurts my baby feelings. Bad things are bad. Bad feelings are bad. You cause my bad feelings, so therefor it is obvious that you are just plain BAD! And I who am hurt by your badness, must be wrapped in pure victimized goodness!”

    (See, moral superiority jujitsu is not all that hard).

  4. “What we do know is that Trump seems willing to commit the most monstrous crime in our names. Let’s hope it’s empty bluster.”
    Monstrous crime? So Japan bayoneting babies in their mothers womb, letting our POWs die of starvation and disease, trying to subjugate the World are reasons not monstrous enough to necessitate ending WWII early using nuclear weapons?

    That is the last time the USA used nuclear weapons and it was no monstrous use of the two weapons.

    North Korea has threatened to nuke the USA, successfully tested nukes, and successfully shot ICBMs in the USA’s direction but that is not a monstrous crime in the making?

    The monstrous crime would be letting North Korea attack the USA when we could have prevented it. As you said, the U.N. and the USA are still at war with North Korea since 1953.

    1. There were several mathematical justifications for the two bombs:

      Japan was still killing Chinese, 100K a month last time I looked into it. Two bombs == 2-3 months.

      Japanese civilians were dying of starvation and bomb raids.

      The casualty rates on Okinawa were very nearly 1:1 US:Japanese, but the Japanese were almost all deaths, and there were almost no survivors. Extrapolating that to an invasion of the home islands means at least several hundred thousands Japanese deaths, perhaps millions.

      Nuclear weapons were rather mysterious. No one really understood radiation, fallout, or the half-life of contaminated material, not in practical terms. The US army was sending American soldiers into the blast zone with little awareness of its danger. Blaming Truman or anyone for the two bombs based on today’s knowledge is pure ignorance and arrogance.

      1. This is a utilitarian argument that suggests it is ok to kill some innocents to protect a larger number of innocents. I don’t believe such arguments are ever ethical. Yes even when history shows that it supposedly worked out numerically as hoped.

        And yes civilians are innocents. Let’s not forget they lived under a military dictatorship. Even soldiers were supposedly executed en masse for desertion with joke trials or often none at all. This is how they achieved such low surrender numbers.

        1. Utilitarian arguments are the *only* arguments. If you cannot defend a position on utilitarian grounds- libertarian, statist, or apolitical- then you cannot defend it at all.

          Any worldview that is not based in utilitarianism, is nothing but an exercise in intellectual onanism.

          1. Wait are you serious? Utilitarian ethics are the most immature and dangerous, able to rationalize any evil. Perhaps your definition is quite different than mine. What are rights then? Examples of “intellectual onanism”? Think I’ll stick with them anyway.

            1. I define “utilitarian” as “doing what works”, in this case, to save the most lives and protect the most prosperity.

              “Rights” are an expression of utilitarianism: the utilitarian acknowledgment that the State usually makes things worse by violating the Non-Aggression Principle. This is backed up by the historical records of Protectionism, Prohibitionism, Socialism, Nationalism and, in *many but not all* instances, Militarism.

              And if the historical record *wasn’t* consistent on these things, then there would be no excuse for being a libertarian. Rights are a consequentialist construct.

              By that same token, the historical record shows that Pacifism is merely the reverse evil of Militarism, and that in order to defeat a near-peer nation-state during a period of total war, the would-be victorious nation must be willing to deprioritize, or even disregard, civilian casualties, lest the enemy defeat and conquer them, bringing the darkness of Marxism-Leninism, Fascism, or, in this instance, Juche down upon them.

              Because the addition to human suffering, from that theoretical conquest and subjugation, easily and consistently exceeds the harm done via saturation bombing, submarine blockade, or nuclear strikes. If you could persuade me that this is not true, I would reverse myself in an instant… But I do not anticipate this.

        2. Hey Bra, war is Hell. Not sure what else you would expect. Civilians are almost always killed in large numbers in any large scale conflict.

      2. Indeed. I’m told that around a million Purple Hearts were made in the anticipation that they would be needed for the invasion of Japan, and that they’re still working off that stock of them.

      3. It’s also glossed over, but an invasion of mainland Japan was anticipated to make Okinawa look like a cake walk. We would have had to pull division from Europe to have the forces necessary for the next step of the Pacific campaign. America was relatively war weary by this point, and it’s important to remember that lean years from the depression were followed by war rationing.

        Using those two atomic weapons to force the end of the war probably led to countless lives being saved by both sides. The danger of atomic weapons is that a total war using them could quickly get out of hand.

  5. repeated calls by the North Korean government for a peace treaty and nonaggression pact have largely fallen on deaf American ears.

    Well perhaps that’s because the DPRK is being wholly disingenuous with their insistence on a peace treaty – not because they are irrevocably scarred by the war and desperate to start a chorus of Kumbaya.

    I mean I agree with the main gist of the article – the US basically committed war crimes against civilians and avoids thinking about such things because our shit always smells like roses to us. But that doesn’t mean the world is black-and-white and that peace treaties always lead to peace/flowers. ‘Libertarians’ always seem to assume foreign policy is nothing but a series of good/easy decisions v bad/evil decisions. It ain’t that fucking easy. Deluding oneself into thinking it is is why libertarians are so easily ignored in the real world.

    And what is this semi-worship of MacArthur as a general of conscience??? One of the half-dozen WORST generals in American history – with almost no redeeming features at all (except for apparently great publicists).

    1. The only clever thing MacArthur ever did was Inchon. Everything else, from marching against the bonus army to botching the defense of the Philippines to “I have returned” and all the time and resources he diverted, all of it, was disastrous and cost a lot of lives for nothing but personal glory.

    2. What’s wrong w war crimes? War’s where you need to act as a criminal, to make the law-abiding stop. It’s the point of using force, isn’t it? Like you were supposed to be bad, but not that bad? If you’re “allowed” to be “this bad”, then that’s not bad enough, or it wouldn’t be allowed.

      1. So then you are OK with 9/11 aren’t you. Or is it only nation-states that are exempt from any rules of war?

    3. This article is littered with bullshit, it has intentionally twisted history in a way to prove the outcome that the author wants. When I read the quote you allude to I thought the exact same thing, it is disingenuous and dishonest to imply that North Korea has ever had a good faith intention to sign a peace treaty.

      The best part of this article is that it does not propose anything in particular or any way the Korean War in the past could have been carried out, only that it was bad and we are bad now. Great policy guy!

      1. Sheldon always blames America and/or Israel for all the world’s ills. Always ignoring how truly evil the other side is. He’s mostly a fucking idiot, and a joke around here. Not sure why Nick publishes his garbage, except maybe for comic relief. Same with Chapman.

  6. Tillerson was explicitly telling NK to trust us we don’t want regime change and then Trump opens his mouth and undermines that assurance by threatening military action in Venezuela to change the regime. The lesson us don’t trust America and build nuclear weapons to ensure your survival.

    1. But you can’t trust America anyway because we change leadership every 4-8 years and have a record of overthrowing regimes. NK should just keep their head down and this will pass.

  7. OK, let’s admit, to start, that the North Korean situation is complicated by the degree to which the Dominant Social Narrative wants to avoid discussing the realities of Mainland China. That the Mainland Chinese government is part of an unbroken cycle of ‘nut emperor, corrupt bureaucracy, vicious warlords’. Mao was a ‘nut emperor’ phase. Gods alone know where we are now, but it doesn’t make a lick of difference with regards to Korea. North Korea has ALWAYS been a Chinese puppet state Kim Whateverthefuck doesn’t matter. The people we have to deal with are in Beijing, and dealing with them is made more complicated by the fact that we are supposed to pretend that they aren’t the ones we are negotiating with.

    It may well be that what Trump is actually saying is “Look, if Kim Whatshisface has come to the end of his usefulness and you want him whacked, but don’t want to do it yourselves, I’m willing to stand the nonsense. Just let me know, K?”

    1. The DPRK answers to Kim Jong-Un alone. That was why he executed his uncle (China’s main voice in the kingdom) a few years ago: to send a message to Jinping that whatever little control he had was gone.

      You may think that as the DPRK’s main trading partner, China has leverage over him- and indeed, they do. But though they can hurt him, they cannot destroy him without flooding themselves with refugees, and risking American bases on their Manchurian border. And Jong-Un knows this. China will never threaten him to the point of destruction, and Jong-Un will not surrender his weapons unless he knows his destruction is imminent.

      Which is why our choices are now twofold: destroy him, if we believe we can disable his nuclear arsenal; or, if we cannot (and we likely can’t), allow his armament, and kingdom, to stand.

  8. Sure looks like what everyone was doing before wasn’t working, so maybe it’s time to do it a bit differently.

  9. I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam. The wounded grunts on the ward called napalm victims, “crispy critters.” I can still vividly recall the first time I saw a napalm victim when I got called off the ward to help a nurse in the ICU hooch caring for one. It was beyond belief. And I’ve had nightmares about being napalmed well into my early fifties.

    1. Thanks for your difficult service in Vietnam, George. I’m certain that what you did in the war was difficult and deserving of great praise, especially by the many servicemen you helped as a medical corpsman. I hope you have found a way to deal with nightmares and that you are now peaceful inside.

  10. The usual pacifist imbecility and half-truths from Mr. Richman.

    North Korea wants a “peace treaty and nonagression pact” for one reason, and one reason only: to excise our military from the Korean Peninsula. It desires this, in turn, for two reasons: to invade and absorb South Korea, if the opportunity ever arises (like say, if we withdraw before they can build their own warheads), and more importantly, to ensure the Kim dynasty another glorious 70 years of murdering their own people in the tens of thousands, and raping, brainwashing, robbing, beating and terrorizing them in the entirety of their tens of millions. More human suffering comes of a year of Kim dynasty rule than would come from a year of firebombing or half a dozen Hiroshimas; at least the dead may sleep without nightmares. Whereas the living slaves of the Dead Kingdom never can.

    And that leads us to the same question that these feel-don’t-think-pieces always must: WHAT WAS THE ALTERNATIVE?

    To allow ALL of Korea to fall to Juche? To allow the 20-million-odd men, women and children of the South to be offered to the Communists like a maiden to a serpent? To fail to use EVERY weapon- to strike EVERY target- to destroy EVERY factory, EVERY village, EVERY cave that we had to, to save that future, to save that 67 years of freedom for 20 million that we now take for granted, from the Leviathan that Richman would have us look upon with respect?

    No. We saved our present from their future. And we can do it again.

    1. This is truly the conundrum of war, isn’t it, Telcontar? Does ANYONE think we should not have subdued the Japanese in the most expeditious manner? Had we not, we’d have to deal with the same type of regime in Japan as we now face in N. Korea.

      1. Well, my comment was referring to North Korea, but yes, this all applies just as much to the decision to drop the bombs on Japan.

        As it happens, there are very much people who believe that we should not have nuked those cities, or even invaded or continued the blockade conventionally. I would guess that Mr. Richman is one of them. But they always forget the greater harm that those “crimes” prevented, and really, it is so easy to forget, isn’t it? After all, the greater harm, having been prevented, leaves no trace of itself: no bodies, no missing limbs, no tear-stained letters from far away. The total number of men who suffered injuries from Operation Downfall adds up to… Zero. Because it never happened. Just as those Japanese citizens never had to charge our tanks with sticks. Whereas the dead of Hiroshima, and North Korea’s villages, are there for all to see, and for Sheldon Richman to make a convenient rhetorical appeal out of.

        It is actually very similar to the problem of gun rights versus gun control: how many corpses can the Brady Campaign point to every year? 30,000, or more. Whereas how many corpses can be counted to the credit of the 2nd Amendment? Almost none. Because the few criminals killed are a blip, whereas the rapes, robberies and murders deterred without a shot being fired… They leave no trace. No story. No media scrum. And no convenient rhetorical device. It is easy to argue for Disarmament, here and abroad. But it is *right* to oppose it.

    2. True. People like the Kims don’t go away on their own. They have to be stopped. And Trump’s hand may be forced.

  11. I don’t know if we would have won the war without such drastic and awful tactics. War is terrible. However, the US is the only reason all of the Korean peninsula isn’t run by the Kim family. The 52 million South Koreans who live freely and prosper today are the direct result of our actions in that war. It may not have been our war, and we could have stayed out of it, but let’s not pretend that we weren’t clearly on the side of the good guys in that one.

  12. RE: Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Wouldn’t Be the First for North Korea

    I wouldn’t worry about the NK army or air force.
    Most of their equipment dates back half a century.
    Mr. Bad Haircut is just another narcissistic egomaniac who believes the many troubled voices in his empty head.

  13. To be fair LeMay engineered the fire bombing campaigns of WW2. This was his MO, and reflected the concept of total war. I’m not arguing the humanity of it, or whether or not it was justified, but this is how we waged war back then.

    It’s probably a stretch to equate firebombing, which was “normal” back then and that “fire & fury” means nuclear war.

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