At the U.N. recently, Donald Trump followed up on his bloodcurdling threat to unleash on North Korea "fire and fury like the world has never seen" (essentially a warning of nuclear terror) with an even grimmer threat: to "totally destroy" that country. In his histrionic bluntness, Trump was not alone in raising the nuclear issue. We know, for instance, that Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently discussed with his South Korean counterpart the reintroduction of American "tactical" nuclear weapons, which happen to be anything but tactical in the normal sense of the word, in the South. While it's true that no previous American president has spoken in the style of The Donald, he stands in something of a proud American tradition when it comes to threatening North Korea, one that goes all the way back to the Korean War era.
During that conflict, the U.S. Air Force dropped World War II levels of explosives on the Korean peninsula, leaving hardly a building standing in the northern and central parts of the country, and driving much of the population quite literally underground. The city of Wosun, for example, was bombarded from the sea for 41 days and nights in what Rear Admiral Allan Smith called "the longest sustained naval or air bombardment of a city in history."
Meanwhile, the use of nuclear weapons was both considered and threatened. Here, for instance, is a passage from my book The End of Victory Culture on the subject:
"At rear bases in Japan, atomic bombs were readied, the president [Truman] spoke publicly of their use, and the government seriously weighed various plans for their employment. According to historians Bruce Cumings and Jon Halliday, the nearest the United States came to using them was 'in early spring 1951. On 10 March, [General] MacArthur asked for something he called a "D" Day atomic capability... On 5 April the Joint Chiefs ordered immediate atomic retaliation against Manchurian bases if large numbers of new [Chinese] troops came into the fighting... and on 6 April Truman issued an order approving the Joint Chiefs' request and the transfer of a limited number of complete atomic weapons "to military custody."'
"China, as well as Korea, was publicly and privately threatened with atomic attack. Lone B-29s were even sent on Hiroshima-like bombing runs over the North to drop dummy bombs in simulations of the real thing. In January 1953, a new artillery piece, the 280mm atomic cannon, was given a noticeable place in Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural parade and subsequently a battery of the guns was sent to Korea..."
Yet North Korea did not surrender. A lesson somehow not yet absorbed in the United States 64 years of confrontation later.
If, however, we all live through this grim moment of nuclear and other threats without Asia going up in flames (and then, undoubtedly, a crippled world economy going down in flames), historian Alfred McCoy offers quite a different vision of what World War III in Asia might look like in 2030. It's a high-tech tale of the rise of China and the decline of Donald Trump's America (never quite made "great" again), adapted from his dazzling new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power. Tom
World War III With China
How It Might Actually Be Fought
By Alfred W. McCoy
[This piece has been adapted and expanded from Alfred W. McCoy's new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.]
For the past 50 years, American leaders have been supremely confident that they could suffer military setbacks in places like Cuba or Vietnam without having their system of global hegemony, backed by the world's wealthiest economy and finest military, affected. The country was, after all, the planet's "indispensible nation," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed in 1998 (and other presidents and politicians have insisted ever since). The U.S. enjoyed a greater "disparity of power" over its would-be rivals than any empire ever, Yale historian Paul Kennedy announced in 2002. Certainly, it would remain "the sole superpower for decades to come," Foreign Affairs magazine assured us just last year. During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump promised his supporters that "we're gonna win with military... we are gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning." In August, while announcing his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, Trump reassured the nation: "In every generation, we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed." In this fast-changing world, only one thing was certain: when it really counted, the United States could never lose.
The Trump White House may still be basking in the glow of America's global supremacy but, just across the Potomac, the Pentagon has formed a more realistic view of its fading military superiority. In June, the Defense Department issued a major report titled on Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World, finding that the U.S. military "no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors," and "it no longer can... automatically generate consistent and sustained local military superiority at range." This sober assessment led the Pentagon's top strategists to "the jarring realization that 'we can lose.'" Increasingly, Pentagon planners find, the "self-image of a matchless global leader" provides a "flawed foun dation for forward-looking defense strategy... under post-primacy conditions." This Pentagon report also warned that, like Russia, China is "engaged in a deliberate program to demonstrate the limits of U.S. authority"; hence, Beijing's bid for "Pacific primacy" and its "campaign to expand its control over the South China Sea."
Indeed, military tensions between the two countries have been rising in the western Pacific since the summer of 2010. Just as Washington once used its wartime alliance with Great Britain to appropriate much of that fading empire's global power after World War II, so Beijing began using profits from its export trade with the U.S. to fund a military challenge to its dominion over the waterways of Asia and the Pacific.
Some telltale numbers suggest the nature of the future great power competition between Washington and Beijing that could determine the course of the twenty-first century. In April 2015, for instance, the Department of Agriculture reported that the U.S. economy would grow by nearly 50% over the next 15 years, while China's would expand by 300%, equaling or surpassing America's around 2030.