John Lewis Gaddis: Literary Bomb Gets Readers' Attention

Historians in the News

In his brilliant overview, "The Cold War: A New History," Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis provides the following account of the escalation of the Korean War:

"On December 2nd [1950], acting under the authority Truman had delegated, MacArthur ordered the United States Air Force to drop five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Chinese columns advancing down the Korean peninsula. Although not as effective as they had been against Japanese cities at the end of World War II, the resulting blasts and firestorms did stop the offensive. Some 150,000 Chinese troops were killed in the attacks, along with an unknown number of American and South Korean prisoners-of-war."

When I first read the passage, my mind raced for a few moments. Was Gaddis revealing an operation long hidden from the public? How did the world miss this? I quickly realized Gaddis was describing a might-have-been scenario. He was driving home the point that, if world leaders had made different choices, they could have triggered World War III.

But because I had already read 47 pages of serious, trustworthy narrative, this unexpected foray into fiction caught me off-guard.

It reminded me of a writer's most powerful weapon - surprise. While few engage in a ploy as bold as Gaddis', this trick can still jolt the reader.
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