Conventional War in the Nuclear Age

                    Lessons From the Korean War (1950-53) and the Sino-Soviet (1969) Conflict

G.V. Vaidyanatha

Nuclear deterrence has become the catchword for security since the cold war era. Nuclear weapons are regarded as absolute weapons, which promise total security to a state. It is argued that they are not weapons of war, but primarily, instruments of deterring war. The fear of 'mutually assured destruction' contributes to the stability of deterrence. In essence, as nuclear weapons cannot be used to bring any reasonable military gains, but only to inflict maximum punishment, they cannot be rationally used in the event of a war. But, when a state is threatened with war, it will obviously use nuclear weapons if the alternative is total surrender.
The logic of nuclear deterrence to prevent nuclear war is relatively simple. But can nuclear weapons prevent conventional conflicts? Some strategic thinkers argue that, as there is always the threat of conventional conflicts escalating into a nuclear conflict, they will deter conventional wars as well. They argue that for deterrence to be established the threat need not be absolutely credible. Any war may develop into a full-scale war. What may be done is as effective as what would be done. But other strategists disagree. It is here that theory of nuclear deterrence can be questioned on rational grounds. What nuclear weapons guarantee is annihilation for both the parties. Hence rational states will be extremely reluctant to use nuclear weapons. But, for deterrence to work, the commitment to use nuclear weapons should not be doubted. As Henry Kissinger comments "deterrence is greatest when military strength is coupled with willingness to employ it." But in many cases, such a commitment is difficult even to promise.
This is because not all values a state wants to preserve are of equal importance. Every State is bothered about its own security and survival. It would not be willing to risk its survival to preserve 'lesser interests'. Peace established by nuclear deterrence can be 'thwarted by the impossibility of combining maximum destructiveness with limited risk". But at the same time these interests have also to be preserved. Especially during the cold war preservation of hegemonic interests became very important for both the superpowers to maintain the general balance of power. Thus, nuclear weapons could not deter conventional wars for the same reason they deterred nuclear wars- they were instruments of mutual annihilation and, therefore, could not be used.
The fear of being caught between " eaten piecemeal or nibbled to death" caused preparations for what is called 'limited wars'. For example, the US policy makers feared that the Soviet 'Salami tactics', though not individually provoking enough to justify 'massive retaliation', might collectively tilt the balance of power in Soviets favour over time. Therefore, every attack had to be met with the same level of response. This led to limited wars.
John Garnett identifies four types of Limited wars- wars limited in geography, objectives, means and targets. But regional wars though limited for the super powers can be unlimited for the regional powers. Further means and targets are only instruments of war and have to be understood only within the broader context of goals of war. Thus, it is the objectives, which really define the nature of limited wars. As Kissinger comments-'A limited war is fought for specific political objectives...(and) reflects an attempt to affect the opponents will, not to crush it. Of course it is true that wars are limited by definition in the nuclear age because of the means- the nuclear weapons. But, limited means have conditioned the goals of war as well. Thus, while in the conventional wars, victory is the goal in the nuclear world, defeating the enemy might be dangerous as there is the possibility of the loser escalating the war to a higher level. Thus the logic of limited wars can be easily understood. But, what happens in the case of asymmetric nuclear balance, that is, when a nuclear weapons state is facing a non-nuclear opponent? Can the nuclear weapons really deter the non-nuclear weapon states in all the cases? In fact, theoretically it can be easily argued that the non-nuclear weapons states faced with the threat of 'mutual annihilation' will easily succumb. But historical examples prove these theoretical assumptions a myth. The best illustration is the Korean War, where the United States clearly did not deter Chinese from entering the conflict. Though the nuclear weapons did play an important role in the ending of the conflict, it clearly did not prevent the war itself.
This paper attempts to analyse two important cases in this respect- the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the Sino-Soviet border clash of 1969. Both the cases are vastly dissimilar, but they definitely point to the fact that nuclear weapons do not automatically prevent violent conflicts. Nevertheless, the course of both the wars differed in fundamental ways. While the Korean stalemate dragged on bloodily for more than three years, the Sino-Soviet conflict ended with just two clashes. But importantly, when both the conflicts ended they stuck to the status quo. This paper attempts to explain the causes for the failure of deterrence, and the role of nuclear weapons and the threat of escalation in re-establishing peace.
The Korean War (1950-53)
The Korean War represents a turning point in the history of the nuclear world. It symbolised the transformation from the conventional age to the nuclear age. It was also the first of the many 'limited war' cases of the cold war period.
The war happened through many stages, each of which signified a step in escalation. First, North Korean communist forces, trained by the Soviet Union, attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950. Within three days, Seoul fell and there was a threat of North Korea overrunning South Korea. At first, the President of the United States, Harry Truman, pledged only air support and naval forces, but later, realising the relevance of preserving South Korea, sent in ground troops. That changed the course of the war- though only temporarily. Mac Arthur army not only vacated the North Korean army from the south, but crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the North, to finish the war, on 24 November. The fall of North Korea army and the continuing offensive of the United Nation forces towards the Yalu provoked the Chinese to enter the war. On 26 November, the Chinese forces started a major counter offensive and pushed back the United Nation forces behind the 38th parallel. The major battles of the war were over within the first year but the 'bloody war' dragged on for more than three years with both sides leading no major offensives but getting struck in a series of localised but costly conflicts. By the end of 1952 the US casualties alone read 21,000 killed over 91,000 wounded and 13,000 missing which made it fourth bloody conflict in the history of US. The war was terminated in 1953 with both the parties accepting the 38th parallel as the boundary.
A war, in a fundamental sense, represents a failure of deterrence. In the Korean War, there were three stages in which deterrence broke down. First, US failed to deter North Korea, secondly China failed to deter US from entering the war and finally, US failed to deter China from entering the war. As we are concerned about the role of nuclear weapons in conventional war (or avoiding them-deterrence) we will concentrate on the first and third instances of deterrence failure. Why, the US with its Nuclear weapons did not deter Nuclear Korea in the first place, and later, China?
The outbreak of the war (1950)
Most historians argue that US failed to prevent North Korea from attacking because US did not commit itself to the preservation of South Korea. In fact, South Korea fell out of the 'defence perimeter' in the Far east as articulated by Secretary of State- Dean Acheson in his January 12, 1950 speech. Thus, Alexander George and Richard Smoke argue that it was a case of 'failure to employ deterrence rather than deterrence failure'.
Historical facts suggest that this interpretation is correct. The US not only recalled most of its troops from South Korea as a result of massive demobilisation ordered after the second world war but also gave no indication that it will risk its military forces to defend the South Korea. In fact there was no major domestic debate about South Korea and even after the Acheson's speech there were no opposition voiced against the exclusion of South Korea from the defence perimeter while there was considerable resentment for having excluded Formosa (Taiwan) similarly. In fact, even the Joint Chief of Staffs opined that "from the stand point of military security, the US has little interest in maintaining the present troops and bases in Korea...". The argument was that in the event of another general war, South Korea would be only a liability because forces in Korea could not be maintained there without substantial reinforcement prior to the initiation of hostilities. Thus South Korea had no military or strategic importance for the United States. Therefore, even though there was strategic warning regarding the possibility of North Korean attack (but there was no tactical warning), the US did not take any steps to counter it. Thus, war could not be stopped because there was no 'commitment' to deter.
In this context the more important question is why did the US intervene at all? The answer gives a clue to the nature of war in the coming cold war period. It can be best explained in terms of the 'domino' theory. The US thought that if one of its satellites is given up easily, even without a war, it might provoke the enemy to cause more aggressions, thus, changing the status quo and, in the long run, affecting the balance of power. Thus, now wars have to be fought for strictly political reasons. War always had political goals- war is an act of force our enemy to do our will. But now wars had to be fought only political ends without expecting any military gains.
The lack of major military gains is a characteristic of most wars during the cold war. Here, role played by nuclear weapons in deterring an escalated war is fundamental. Nuclear weapons made war possible, but also limited them as well. Political goals were there but the means (nuclear weapons) 'limited' those goals.
Thus it can be argued that wars were fought in the cold war because there was 'less interest' at stake for the super power. But what was 'limited' for superpowers was definitely not so for the regional actors. Thus, for both North Korea and South Korea they were unlimited wars. Therefore, especially South Korea strongly resented the truce as US was comfortable with 'limited' political goals but its own vital interest was at stake-its survival. Eventually South Korea accepted the truce because of US pressure.
China enters the war
Wars can be controlled because they are limited political objectives for the major powers in the game, but wars do not start if there are only limited interests at stake. In fact one can turn the point and argue that conflicts happened because there was a vital interest at stake for the regional power-allies. And greater the stake greater is the possibilities of conflicts. This reason helps to explain both the North Korean attack and more importantly, the Chinese decision to enter the war overtly.
The Chinese decision to enter the war is important because it really signified the breakdown of deterrence. By that time not only was United States' commitment to defend South Korea was not in question but that could not doubt the 'credibility' of the commitment. US forces were already fighting in the Korean peninsula.
There are two major arguments for the failure of US to deter China. Firstly, the supporters of MacArthur argue that United States should have threatened with air strikes on Chinese mainland. Thus it was a failure to commit one's forces for escalation. Secondly, Truman's supporters argue that China entered the war because MacArthur's 'end of the war offensive' towards Yalu river threatened Manchuria and the security of China, forcing the latter's entry into war. They argue that United States forces should have left a buffer between themselves and the Yalu river. Thus it was a failure to provide reassurance.
It is important to note the difference between the two arguments. Strictly speaking, deterrence depends on the threat to inflict punishment only. Therefore even re-assurance which is a concession means the failure of deterrence. But the necessity of re-assurance gives a clue to the political dynamics of the way deterrence functions in practice. Mao's war cables conclusively prove that the decision to enter the war was made atleast by 2 October because '...if we (the Chinese) allow the United States to occupy all of Korea...the American invaders will run more rampant with negative effects for the entire Far East.' More importantly, China was conscious of the threat posed by the United States and thus Mao said, "We must be prepared (for the fact) that the United States may, at a minimum, use its Air Force to bomb many cities and industrial centres in China."
Therefore it can be seen that deterrence that is the threat of punishment,is not always effective. For China, the crossing of the 38th parallel by the UN forces meant that the security of the Chinese State is at stake. Manchuria would be threatened, the Northeast defence forces will be stressed, the south Manchurian elective power would be controlled by the enemy and also the presence of enemy so close to the border might be used by the reactionaries to stir up trouble at home. Thus, China was willing to take on the United States, which was a nuclear power. One can also argue that it had the backing of the Soviet Union, which had tested atomic bomb in 1949 but clearly Soviets did not have the capacity to deliver on American homeland. Of course, they could have started a war in Europe, and in fact, that fear is one of the reasons for the restraint of the United States in Korea. This does not mean that deterrence -threat to punish- has no role at all. In fact the ending of the Korean conflict can be ascribed to 'deterrence by punishment'. Eisenhower came to power with the objective of ending the Korean War. War perse- in terms of major battles has ended long time back but localised conflict-rarely involving over a battalion- had been continuing. There were no major gains to be made. China had preserved its borders and the United States had preserved South Korea. But war continued because nobody knew how to end it and Eisenhower saw only one way to end the war- the threat of escalation. Increasing ground forces would lead only to more war with no signs of victory. Therefore, war had to be expanded and to "keep the attack from becoming overtly costly we would have to use atomic weapons".
The threat of escalation worked and China accepted the same proposals, which it had rejected before, and it involved a major concession on the part of China, that is, giving up insistence on forced repatriation of soldiers.
The important question-why did the threat of escalation work in 1953 but did not deter in 1950? China, which consciously disregarded the possibility of nuclear escalation in 1950, was deterred by the same in 1953. In the former instance, the question of Chinese security was at stake, while in the latter only unification of Korea was at stake, and neither the United States nor the Chinese had much to bother about it. At best it was an ideological issue. Thus, even nuclear weapons may not deter war if state survival is at stake.
The Sino-Soviet conflict (1969)
The Sino-Soviet boundary clashes of 1969 are regarded as another instance of failure of deterrence. The clashes themselves were minor. There were only two major engagements- on 2 March, and 15 March. Though the dispute remained for many years afterwards, there were no armed clashes.
Most historians believe that China started the conflict on March second. So, the essential question is how did the Chinese not feel deterred by the superior power and nuclear power of the Soviet Union and secondly- why and how did the conflict conclude so early?
The border dispute between China and the Soviet Union was there since a long time though Chinese raised the issue publicly only in 1963. While China before 1949 was too weak to raise the issue, the Communist China kept its silence on the issue in the 1950s due to its dependence on Soviet for economic and technological assistance. The growing rift between the Soviet Union and china in the late 50s brought into open the subsumed dispute.
But to face the superior Soviet Union was not an easy task. Mao's strategy between 1959-66 was one of provoking the Soviet Union by sending unarmed groups to the Soviet side of the border. These 'aggressions' did not involve a change in the status quo in terms of possession of territories. Thus they were intended to test Soviet response. The Soviet responded accordingly-intercepted these groups and sent them back. Since 1966, coinciding with the great proletariat cultural revolution, Mao adopted a more aggressive stand though it did not involve a major clash. That was to come only in 1969 with the surprise attack on Chen Piao (Damonasky) island. Major Soviet counter attack came on 15 March, with considerable casualties on the Chinese side. The Soviet had clearly 'escalated' the conflict and even threatened the use of nuclear weapons. The clashes ended there.
There are many reasons for the clashes of 1969. The Chinese had an interest at stake- repossession of territories. How important was these to them could only be a conjecture but definitely it was not as important as to involve the question of State survival. Thus they were willing to take risks but not wage a war. They were comfortable with the status quo if the alternative was an escalated war.
The above analysis faces the risk of over simplification. Mao in fact believed that even the `Soviet Union fears China.' China's strength was in numbers- the infantry. Soviet's had superior arms and therefore any land battle would have been an infantry armour battle. Even though it would be difficult to predict the outcome of such a war, China clearly fancied its chances. This explains the initial Chinese attack on 2 March. Even here Chinese chose a limited conflict and did not extend the area of conflict. Thus the purpose was to test the Soviet reaction.
Soviets responded strongly. While on 2 March, there was only a 'skirmish' involving about 100 soldiers on either side and 31 dead on the Soviet side, 15 March witnessed a nine hour regular battle, involving at least one regiment-about 1500 soldiers- on either side. The Chinese casualties were estimated to be about 800. It was considerably higher than the Soviet casualties on March second.
Concurrently, Soviet leaders sent out threats of further escalation. Thus, Soviet leaders consistently emphasised that Soviet Union has a superior force with rockets and nuclear weapons which will be used if the occasion demands. Thus, on 15 March, a radio peace and progress broadcast to China (in Mandarin) warned that 'the main striking force of the Soviet forces is their rocket units capable of carrying nuclear warheads (which were) many times stronger than all the explosives used in the past wars put together...(Also) atomic powered submarines can be launched directly from beneath the Sea (and) the Chinese have no such weapon". The radio repeated the warning on March17.
The Chinese response to the Soviet nuclear blackmail is interesting. The Hsinhua domestic news service characterised Soviet Union as a 'nuclear tyrant' and that, 'the Soviet nuclear ballistic missile units stationed at Lower lake Baikal and along the Sino-Mongolian border have 'made good preparations' and are 'ready at any time' to launch "all out destructive nuclear counter attacks against China". But then the argument shifted to political rhetoric. " The 700 million Chinese people, armed with Mao's thought will (not) be intimidated by their nuclear blackmail." There was not even a threat of counter attack. While the Soviet threat (radio broadcast) was directed against China, Chinese reply was directed at domestic audience and it was more an attempt to assuage fears rather than any counter measure to meet the Soviet blackmail.
The two case studies unambiguously point to the fact that though nuclear weapons deter, it is not automatic, and it also depends on the context. George and Smoke argue that deterrence cannot be an effective substitute for a sensible foreign policy or be utilised to cover up gross foreign policy errors. For deterrence to work there has to be an unambiguous 'commitment' as well as capability to make that 'credible'.
But deterrence even nuclear deterrence cannot deter all wars. What nuclear deterrence fundamentally attempts to do is to maintain the status quo. It is a situation in which both the parties agree to coexist not peacefully but without wars. The status quo can be favourable to one party than the other. Parties cannot allow the 'change in status quo' because once it is changed then the victor will have more incentives to commit more aggressions.
In Korea the status quo was the 38th parallel. In fact when UN committed its forces to cross the parallel, the explicit purpose was only to repel the North Korean aggression. It was only because of MacArthur's adventurism that the policy was changed later. On 7 October, the UN General Assembly met again to authorise the extension of war thus trying to unify Korea by force. In fact one can even argue that if China had not intervened, Soviet Union might have intervened there for the domino theory applied to them as well.
Again when Mao decided to enter the war, it was to "combat the enemy who dares to advance and attack north of the 38th parallel". Of course, like MacArthur, he would have liked to inflict a full defeat on the enemy and 'destroy the American forces within Korea itself, and effectively resolve the Korean problem. But that was only a long term goal-more political than military in nature. Anyway, it did not involve a vital security interest in the way, which could threaten the Chinese State. Thus it was not a vital interest for which China could risk a United States nuclear attack. Further, even the United States agreed not to cross the 38th parallel. Thus, China agreed to have the 38th parallel as the ceasefire line
On the other hand the Sino-Soviet conflict, China was probing the commitment of the Soviet Union to the nature of the battle. If the battle was to be a continuous land battle China had fancied its chances. Even this proved to be difficult as the Soviet counter attack on March 15 exposed weaknesses in the Chinese army. Nevertheless it was the threat of escalation to the use of air power and nuclear weapons which decided the course because China had no capability either to defend or retaliate. Even though China had conducted a nuclear blast in 1964 it had no capability to deliver them on the Russian mainland. Only by 1971, China had developed a modest number of medium range ballistic missiles (e.g., DF-3A missiles). By 1973 it had developed a partial nuclear deterrent against a Soviet attack. Thus faced with a threat of escalation Chinese withdrew.
In fact Chinese versions of the border clashes, quite predictably accuse the Soviets as having committed aggression. Nevertheless it has to be remembered that it is the Chinese State which was the revisionist power. It was China, which was dissatisfied with the border. Thus, even if one concludes that Soviets committed aggression the essential question for deterrence remains- why did China not escalate the conflict? Especially if it is true, as they claim, that they had repulsed the Soviet attack of March 15? The answer unless one can argue about the 'inherently peaceful nature of the Chinese' is that the costs of war was not worth taking the risk. Status quo was preferable to assured destruction.
Status quo is important in another fundamental sense. Both the cases we have referred to above are asymmetric cases, that is, where only one of the parties was a nuclear power. We analysed why even a stronger power with nuclear weapons may fail to deter the weaker power. But what happens if even the other power acquires nuclear weapons?
The cold peace of the cold war has led many analusts to argue that nuclear weapons deter even conventional wars. But that is the case only with the United States and the Soviet Union. Of course there has been no third world war. But it is also important to realise that they did not have any vital interest at stake. Therefore even their conflict was 'ideological', or rather political and homogenous. But hegemony has to be preserved. It was regarded as an essential national interest but by no means can be regarded as having involved with the question of threat to territorial security as in the case of China in 1950 and to a limited extent to the Soviet Union in 1969.
But, faced with the threat of nuclear weapons, states are willing to sacrifice of some national interests provided it did not involve threat of the state's survival. Thus, China realising even after having a deterrent capability against United States is not willing to wage a war to annex Taiwan. Soviet Union during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1957-58 refused to support China. Clearly, Soviet Union did not want to risk the alteration of status quo, as it did not contribute any of its vital security interests. For China, Taiwan is part of unfinished history but trying to rectify it might even risk its present. This is also the reason why Sino-Soviet border remained quite for twenty years after the 1969 clashes.
Thus, the presence of nuclear weapons definitely deters nuclear wars but the same may not be true of 'limited wars'. The logic of nuclear weapons is different from the logic of conventional world. Nuclear weapons have only 'deterrence by punishment', that is, the threat and capacity to inflict nuclear punishment. In the conventional world it is deterrence by denial, "the capability to deny territorial gains", which are more important.
In general, 'deterrence by punishment' should deter all wars. But when a vital interest of a state is involved the alternative might also involve similar costs. Thus, a conventional conflict may start when a change in status quo involves vital interests. But the threat of escalation almost always works to end the war, provided status quo is restored. Thus, even while nuclear weapons helps to reserve status quo, nuclear deterrence is also a condition of the same status quo.
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