Creating a Cordon Sanitaire: U.S. Strategic Bombing and Civilians in Korea

Prof. Alexander B. Downes

This presentation was a part of Session one: Law, Violence, Legitimacy, From 10:00 am until 12:00 pm on Friday 11th November, 2011, Lower Ground 02, New Academic Building, Goldsmiths


In this paper, I will examine the escalation of the U.S. air war during the first year of the Korean conflict.

Initially restrained to close air support and strategic bombing of military targets by the Truman administration's wish to avoid overt Chinese or Soviet involvement in the war, and by MacArthur's personal opposition to bombing civilians, U.S. bombing strategy changed dramatically as the war unfolded.  In particular, in response to Chinese intervention in November 1950, MacArthur -- with the concurrence of the Joint Chiefs and President Truman -- ordered an all-out aerial offensive against North Korean cities to create a "desert incapable of supporting communist troops."

I argue that the reversal of U.S. military fortunes brought on by Chinese intervention overrode any morally-grounded opposition to area bombing among U.S. leaders.

The resulting incendiary campaign reduced most North Korean cities and towns to rubble in a rare case of civilian victimization aimed at denying enemy forces access to supplies rather than coercing civilian populations to stop supporting the war.