“When They Drop the Atomic Bomb” | 1951
In 1951, the country western group Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers recorded and released a 78-rpm single on Mercury Records. The A side of the record featured the song “When They Drop the Atomic Bomb,” which speculated that if U.S. General Douglas MacArthur dropped the atomic bomb on the communist forces in North Korea, it would bring a swift end to the Korean War and halt the spread of communism. The song reflected some of the public criticism that President Harry S. Truman faced in pursuing a limited war in Korea, as well as the support that General MacArthur enjoyed for his bellicose stance on the war and the broader fight against communism.
After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union occupied Korea north of the dividing line, backing the communist leader Kim Il Sung, while the United States occupied South Korea, supporting the anti-communist leader Syngman Rhee. Eager to reunify the country under his leadership, Kim Il Sung launched a major invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. North Korean troops armed with Soviet tanks and artillery stormed across the 38th parallel, overwhelming South Korean forces.
U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his advisors moved swiftly to respond to the invasion. They secured a resolution from the United Nations Security Council condemning North Korea and sent U.S. troops to South Korea to help fight the North Koreans. Although the intervention initially went poorly, General Douglas MacArthur’s successful amphibious assault at Incheon helped push the North Korean forces back across the 38th parallel. MacArthur’s troops then drove northward to the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. In October and November 1950, several hundred thousand Chinese troops crossed the Yalu, halting MacArthur’s advance and forcing him back to the 38th parallel. By early 1951, the war had stalemated with both sides holding roughly the same territory they had held prior to the start of the conflict.
Frustrated with the stalemate, General MacArthur criticized President Truman for pursuing negotiations and diplomacy to end the war. MacArthur disdained the limited war and wanted to use nuclear weapons to decimate communist forces in the region. Truman’s military advisors recommended strongly against such tactics, concerned that they would invite direct Soviet intervention and possible world war. Eventually, the Joint Chiefs of Staff fired General MacArthur for his insubordination. Yet many Americans, including Jackie Doll and His Picked Peppers, supported MacArthur and agreed with his aggressive posture toward North Korea.
these lyrics reflect the belief that communist nations were inherently aggressive and expansionist, a viewpoint that U.S. policymakers advanced
The song lyrics reveal a number of interesting public perceptions about the nature of the Korean war and the broader Cold War, as well as about the leadership of President Truman and General MacArthur. In the first stanza, Jackie Doll suggests that the communist forces of North Korea, which he describes as both “hard-headed” and “atrocious,” would only stop their efforts to expand into South Korea if MacArthur used atomic weapons on them. He also blames the communists for “start[ing] this sad war.” Indeed, Jackie Doll sings “Old hard-headed Joe will be feelin’ mighty blue,” when MacArthur punishes “his aggression” with nuclear weapons. This reveals his sense that the Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin’s leadership, had orchestrated the invasion of South Korea. Taken together, these lyrics reflect the belief that communist nations were inherently aggressive and expansionist, a viewpoint that U.S. policymakers advanced in policy documents such as NSC-68. In light of this assessment, many policymakers argued that the United States should respond with “firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
Jackie Doll seems to embrace the idea that this containment should take the form of nuclear war. The chorus cheerily asserts that after the atomic bombs fall, “there’ll be fire dust and metal flying all around/And the radioactivity will burn them to the ground,” driving out “any commies” left standing. American citizens had witnessed the devastation of atomic warfare when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians during World War II, and they well knew its destructive, deadly power. In addition to the immediate blast, atomic bombs created raging fires and nuclear fallout that extended for miles around the impact site. Jackie Doll suggests that only this level of force would halt the communist advance, a belief he seems to have shared with General MacArthur. Indeed, the song praises MacArthur for his willingness to use nuclear weapons against the North Koreans and criticizes Truman for pursuing a more limited engagement instead. When Jackie Doll sings that “Ol’ MacArthur has the power to stop those murderin’” communists because the general “really has the nerve” to use nuclear weapons, the implied subtext is that President Truman did not have the necessary “nerve” to prevail in the war.
Although not all Americans shared Jackie Doll’s perspective on MacArthur, Truman, and the desirability of using nuclear weapons in Korea, many members of the public lionized MacArthur, staging parades in his honor after the Joint Chiefs fired him. Republicans critiqued Truman’s strategy of limited war, drawing on the public support for MacArthur and his more expansive war aims. Eventually though, most Americans came to share the view of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, who argued that MacArthur’s desire to expand the Korean conflict would enmesh the United States in the “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” The fact that the United States did not use nuclear weapons in the Korean War set the stage for future Cold War proxy fights, which tended to rely on conventional forces. Ultimately, the conflict codified the U.S. policy of containment and contributed to a considerable buildup of both conventional and nuclear weapons.
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Foot, Rosemary. The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Pearlman, Michael D. Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Stueck, William. Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Tribe, Ivan M. “Purple Hearts, Heartbreak Ridge, and Korean Mud: Pain, Patriotism, and Faith in the 1950-53 ‘Police Action.’” In Country Music Goes to War, edited by Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson, 126-42. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.