Key point: The State Department may have lost the battle to the Pentagon, but not without a fight.
The day was January 17, 1957, and Assistant Secretary of State Walter Robertson had a nagging worry that his boss, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, wouldn’t go toe-to-toe with the Pentagon on the subject of introducing nuclear weapons into South Korea. The State Department, Robertson wrote in a memo to Dulles, remained unequivocally opposed to deploying atomic weapons on the Korean Peninsula. “In my opinion the introduction of atomic weapons into Korea, whether accompanied by nuclear components or not, in this time of world tension would have serious adverse repercussions throughout the Far East...,” Robertson opined. The military benefit was simply not worth the political costs.
The next day, Secretary Dulles met with Defense Secretary Charles Wilson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford and delivered some of those same points. Dulles, no Cold War peacenik, told his colleagues that it would be very difficult to convince Washington’s allies that sending U.S. nuclear weapons into the South was an appropriate response to perceived North Korean violations of the Armistice Agreement. The Joint Chiefs didn’t buy the argument: Pyongyang, Radford claimed, was throwing the military balance off-kilter. The only way the United States could mitigate the situation was by flying in strategic weapons on the other side of the Armistice line.