12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations
12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations

12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations

Khalid Elhassan - August 29, 2017

12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations
Army positions in Europe, May, 1945. Wikimedia

Operation Unthinkable

In 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, Winston Churchill was exasperated by Soviet intransigence regarding Eastern Europe, which Stalin clearly aimed to turn into a Soviet empire. Britain had gone to war in order to defend Polish independence, but at the war’s end, Stalin was riding roughshod over the Poles, keeping the third of their country he had annexed in 1939 in cooperation with the Germans, reducing them to a Soviet client state, and extinguishing their freedom and independence.

Churchill saw it as a matter touching British honor, so he ordered his generals to draw up plans for an attack on the Soviets soon as Germany surrendered, with the nebulous aim of pushing them back to the USSR’s borders, or at least forcing them to treat Poland fairly.

They presented him with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicates what the generals thought of Churchill’s idea. Two versions were offered, an offensive and defensive one. The offensive envisaged a surprise attack on the soviets in July 1945, intended to force Stalin to give Poland a “fair deal”. The defensive envisaged a British defense of Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent. The Soviets had 10 million men available in the summer of 1945. They outnumbered the British and Americans in Europe 4:1 in men, and 2:1 in tanks – and superior tanks at that. The Allies had an advantage in the air, but even that was subject to challenge, as the Red Air Force by 1945 had formidable fighter and ground attack arms.

Moreover, the Soviet military by 1945 was not the hapless rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded, but had grown into a veteran and battle-hardened force that had won bigger campaigns against significantly greater opposition than the Allies had faced. In a nutshell, Churchill’s generals concluded that it would be ill-advised because far from being a pushover, the Red Army in 1945 was dangerous, vicious, and very big. If war broke out, it was more likely to end with the Red Army conquering all of continental Europe, rather than getting chased back to the USSR.

12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations
Soviets preparing to throw captured German banners at foot of Lenin Mausoleum, Moscow Victory Parade, 1945. Legend of History

More importantly, it was pointed out that Britain on her own stood no chance against the Soviets, and the US had no incentive to attack them – especially not over Poland and Eastern Europe. Standing up for Poland might have been a point of honor for Churchill, but few in the British government, and fewer still in that of the US, thought Poland or Eastern Europe were worth an even greater war against the Soviet Union than the one they had just concluded against Germany.

Unlike Britain, America had never guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, nor had it entered WWII in order to defend Polish sovereignty. Presented with the preceding, Churchill grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.

12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations
Douglas MacArthur at Inchon landings. Smithsonian Magazine

Atomic Bombing of China During Korean War

After his successful Inchon landings in September 1950, led to the collapse of the North Korean invasion during the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur vigorously pursued the routed enemy northward up the Korean Peninsula. Despite repeated warnings, MacArthur blithely dismissed mounting evidence that China would directly intervene in the war if his forces approached the Sino-Korean border, and insisted that the Chinese would do nothing.

MacArthur turned out to be wrong, and soon after his forces reached the Yalu River marking the border with China, the Chinese began pouring across in the hundreds of thousands, successfully evading detection. They struck in November 1950, surprising MacArthur and catching him completely off guard, and within weeks had defeated and pushed his demoralized forces out of North Korea and back across the border into South Korea.

His judgment and estimate of Chinese reaction having been proven catastrophically wrong, and his forces chased back down the Korean Peninsula by the Chinese even faster than they had raced up in pursuit of the North Koreans, a humiliated MacArthur reacted with histrionics and insisted that atomic bombs be dropped on China. His plan was to drop up to 50 atomic bombs in Manchuria on Chinese cities, military concentrations, and communication centers, and to seal off the Korean Peninsula from China by creating a radioactive belt across Manchuria, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.

President Truman, whom MacArthur had confidently assured only weeks earlier that China would do nothing if his forces marched up to the Chinese border, balked, and declined to trust MacArthur’s further confident assurances that the Soviets would do nothing if the US dropped dozens of atomic bombs on their Chinese ally. When MacArthur publicly contradicted Truman’s position, he was ordered to clear any further statements on the subject with the State Department first. MacArthur violated those orders, and again challenged Truman publicly on the use of atomic weapons in the Korean war, so Truman fired him.

12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations
Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. Defense Media Network

Oplans 316 and 312 – US Invasion of Cuba in 1962

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Pentagon urged President Kennedy to invade Cuba in order to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from the island, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale invasion was the only solution. They presented the Presidents with two versions: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out the missiles, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had a clear preference for Oplan 316, as they contended that there was no guarantee that airstrikes alone would take out all the missiles, or that one or more of the missiles would not be fired at the US.

Planners expected 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, assuming no nuclear explosions. However, unbeknownst to planners, the Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had preauthorized the Soviet commander in Cuba to use tactical nukes at his discretion if he deemed it necessary. As the crisis intensified, Khrushchev withdrew release authority and forbade their use without his express permission. However, whether the modified orders would have been followed, is debatable.

In practice, tactical nukes were dispersed throughout Cuba to various Soviet units, under the physical control of officers as low down the chain of command as captains. Soviet forces had drilled in the use of those weapons as part of their defensive plan, and in the heat of battle, the custodians of those weapons would have been under intense pressure as they were subjected to overwhelming US aerial strikes, naval bombardment, and ground attacks. It is not difficult to envision a desperate local commander in such a scenario, perhaps cut off from communications with higher authority, resorting to the tactical nukes at hand to save his command, or at least ensure that its demise did not come cheap: the Red Army, with victory in WWII only 17 years in its past, did not lack military pride or an ethos of defiance unto death.

If the Soviets used nukes in Cuba, the US intended an overwhelming nuclear response. Things could easily have escalated from there to a full-blown nuclear exchange that would have devastated both countries and Europe, irradiated the Northern Hemisphere, and set humanity back centuries. Luckily, President Kennedy resisted the pressure from his generals and admirals and relying on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, successfully diffused the crisis without triggering WWIII.

12 Momentous Cancelled Military Operations
North Vietnamese convoy on Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam. Thing Link

US Invasion of North Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, plans were drawn to end North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam and support the insurgency there by taking out North Vietnam with a direct invasion. The plan, as described in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Harry G. Summers, was reminiscent of the Normandy invasion. It called for landing an airborne division to the north and west of Hanoi to block off the approaches to the Hanoi-Haiphong region, accompanied by a seaborne invasion with three amphibious divisions landed on beaches in the Haiphong area.

The Haiphong force would then drive onto and Hanoi and linkup up with the airborne troops there. With the Hanoi-Haiphong area secured, outside support would be drastically curtailed as two major railroads from China would be severed, the country’s main seaport would be in American hands, and the lines of communications to the south would be interdicted. Starved of Chinese and Soviet arms, ammunition, and supplies, and cut off from a steady infusion of North Vietnamese manpower, planners expected that organized armed resistance in South Vietnam would soon wane and collapse.

While the plan stood a high chance of success against the North Vietnamese, it was deemed too dangerous because China would likely join the fray. At the time, only 15 years had gone by since the Korean War. In that war, US and allied forces had pursued the routed North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border, based on the mistaken belief that China would do nothing. That led to the unpleasant surprise of the Chinese jumping in and pushing American forces all the way back to South Korea.

If China directly joined the war in response to a US invasion of North Vietnam, things could easily escalate from there into WWIII, with the Soviets getting dragged in. And unlike the situation during the Korean War, the US no longer held an overwhelming nuclear superiority, as the Soviets by the second half of the 1960s possessed thousands of nuclear warheads and the means of delivering them to targets in the US. American interests in Vietnam were simply not worth the risk, and so the planned invasion of Hanoi-Haiphong was never carried out.