When Richard Nixon Threatened to Nuke Vietnam
The president aimed to sway peace negotiations with brinkmanship
This story originally appeared on June 1, 2015.
Washington now sees nuclear weapons as a last ditch resort … but it hasn’t always and the Pentagon has been more than happy come up with plans to lob the devastating bombs at America’s enemies.
Sometimes, Washington used those plans to exert political pressure. In 1969, Pres. Richard Nixon did just that.
Nixon had promised to end the war in Vietnam during his campaign, but peace talks had stalled in Paris. Thanks to newly declassified documents, we now know that he asked U.S. military commanders to figure out how to scare North Vietnam and its Soviet allies into peace on America’s terms.
Some of those threats were, of course, nuclear.
“Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel ‘the other side’ … by ‘push[ing] so many chips into the pot’ that Nixon would seem ‘crazy’ enough to ‘go much further,’” researchers William Burr and Jeffery Kimball explained.
Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and Kimball, professor emeritus at Miami University of Ohio, have just released a new book based on this now unclassified information.
The researchers obtained the documents — many of which are available online — through a combination of Freedom of Information Act requests and mandatory declassification reviews.
Based on the documents, it doesn’t look like Washington ever seriously considered dropping the bomb on North Vietnam, but Nixon did want Hanoi and the Kremlin to think he would.
The Pentagon had known for years that military victory in Vietnam was a difficult proposition, at best. Hanoi’s fighters were too entrenched, and stopping the flow of supplies to guerrillas in the south was all but impossible.
Political considerations such as Moscow’s support for Hanoi, Vietnam’s proximity to communist China and ostensible Lao and Cambodian neutrality made a military victory without massive geopolitical fallout a distant dream.
Knowing they couldn’t win on the ground, American commanders in the Pacific, intelligence agencies and their counterparts in Saigon hoped to break Hanoi’s will.
If the Pentagon could make Ho Chi Minh too scared to fight — say, by threatening to nuke North Vietnam — then the flow of supplies to the south might stop. After the supplies stopped, friendly forces would easily mop up the remaining Viet Cong and end the fighting.
Above—a B-52 bomber drops a string of conventional bombs on North Vietnam. At top—B-52s taking off. U.S. Air Force photos
“We should try to induce them to get out of the war without having their country destroyed and to realize that if they do not get out, their country will be destroyed,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara explained in a previously top-secret 1965 memo.
McNamara made these comments during a meeting with then-Pres. Lyndon Johnson and former Pres. Dwight Eisenhower. Johnson had invited Eisenhower to the White House to ask for advice on how to tackle the expanding conflict.
During the same meeting, Eisenhower admitted that he used atomic threats to push the Chinese and North Koreans to accept the Armistice Agreement during the Korean war. Signed more than a decade earlier, the deal had stopped the shooting on the Korean peninsula.
“There was a gentleman’s agreement between us and our allies after the very early days of the war … that we would not cross the Yalu or even strike the bridges on the Yalu, nor would we use nuclear weapons,” Eisenhower said, referring to the river that forms much of the Sino-Korean border.
But Eisenhower “had the word passed through three channels … telling the Chinese that they must agree to an armistice quickly, since he had decided to remove the restrictions of area and weapons if the war had continued.”
Eisenhower declined to mention that he had once vetoed plans for a nuclear strike in Vietnam. After years of American support for French colonies in Indochina, the French had asked Washington to help bail out their besieged garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
America’s joint chiefs of staff proposed a massive bombing run — dubbed Operation Vulture — on Vietnamese rebels in the area. The plan called for dozens of U.S. Air Force bombers to fly from the Philippines and drop three atomic weapons, plus tons of conventional bombs, on the Viet Minh positions.
Sensing that Paris’ policies were failing and that domestic French support for the war was waning, Eisenhower canned the mission. With the capture of Dien Bien Phu, Ho Chi Minh’s forces ended French rule in the region.
Johnson didn’t use Eisenhower’s plan to threaten to nuke North Vietnam. But after three years and a new president, Hanoi continued to support rebels in the south, and the Pentagon was ready to reexamine the old general’s plan.
A massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam and Laos failed to deter Ho Chi Minh. The Pentagon even tried a number of harebrained schemes such as trying to make artificial mud, turning forest fires into a weapon, sending massive floating bombs sailing down a river, dropping bombs full of tear gas to make remote regions uninhabitable and much, much more.
The U.S. was still losing the war. Hanoi was in a position of relative strength, and early peace negotiations in Paris had stalled. Having made a huge issue out of ending the war during his election campaign, Nixon wanted to break the deadlock by any means necessary.
Nixon and Kissinger quickly began working with the Pentagon on “a program of potential military actions that might jar the North Vietnamese into being more forthcoming at the Paris talks,” Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird described in one January 1969 letter.
A B-52 refuels on the way to strike targets in North Vietnam. U.S. Air Force photo
Two months later, Laird and his staff sent five options to Kissinger. The first four involved conventional strikes and ground operations. According to a a secret notice, the fifth proposal was an “actual or feigned technical escalation of the war against North [nuclear].”
Alexander Haig, an Army general working as an aide to Kissinger at the time, suggested that the ideas were far stronger than even Nixon had expected.
In turn, Kissinger told Nixon that throwing more firepower into the fray might have more an effect on the Kremlin than Hanoi.
“If we do engage in more extensive escalation, I believe it should be aimed at the Soviet Union not Hanoi,” Kissinger wrote to his boss. “We must worry the Soviets about the possibility that we are losing our patience and may get out of control.”
Knowing that the Soviets were not looking for a fight, especially a nuclear one, Kissinger wanted to threaten a bigger war that would drag Moscow in and maybe even start World War III.
If everything went according to plan, the Kremlin would do everything in its power to nudge its allies toward a deal to prevent this catastrophe.
Nixon and Kissinger kept their enemies guessing. While the White House mulled over the nuclear option, American forces started leaving South Vietnam.
At the same time, the Air Force kicked off a massive, covert bombing campaign over Cambodia nicknamed Operation Menu. Massive, eight-engine B-52 bombers pummeled North Vietnamese bases — identified by code names such as “Lunch” and “Dinner” — in the officially neutral country.
On top of that, the Pentagon planned to blockade Haiphong, a major port east of Hanoi. The city was the entry point for 90 percent of the country’s seaborne imports.
Six months after Kissinger received the first set of options, the Pentagon continued to push for nuclear threats. According to another memo, American forces were ready to drop atomic bombs on the Ho Chi Minh trail or on railroads near the Chinese-Vietnamese border.
But even Nixon and Kissinger worried about what fresh Hell a nuclear attack might set off. Still unclear if Hanoi would get the right message, Washington moved away from an atomic attack — real or otherwise — in Southeast Asia.
Instead, the Pentagon implemented Kissinger’s original suggestion to try and rattle the Soviet Union. The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the Air Force to send out bombers around the world as part of so-called “readiness test.”
The Air Force called the flights near Southeast Asia a “show of force.” The mission was the first time the flying branch’s bombers had flown these type of “airborne alert” missions with live nuclear weapons in more than a year.
The Pentagon had halted the operations after a B-52 went down in Greenland with four B-28 hydrogen bombs on board. The conventional explosives in the bombs went off, spreading radioactive material miles from the crash site.
All that nuclear posturing got America nowhere. We still don’t know whether Washington’s scare tactics ever influenced Soviet decisions. “So far no evidence has shown up from the Soviet side … of awareness of the alert,” Burr and Kimball noted. “Certainly, the alert had no impact on Moscow’s Vietnam policy or on Hanoi’s position in the Paris negotiations.”
The talks in France — and secret meetings with Viet Cong representatives — dragged on. Still seeking to influence the proceedings, Nixon ordered a massive conventional bombing campaign three years later.
American jets pounded Vietnamese cities with iron bombs and dropped mines in Haiphong’s waterways. After a brief pause, the Pentagon unleashed another assault right before the talks wrapped up.
In January 1973, the Paris Peace Talks concluded and America’s war in Vietnam came to an abrupt end. After nearly a decade of fighting, the American public had grown weary of the war.
For all Nixon’s bluster, North Vietnam was never seriously deterred from invading the south and unifying the country. Two years after Washington pushed through its peace deal, Hanoi’s tanks rolled into Saigon. Political scandals in the Nixon administration overshadowed the collapse of America’s old friends in the region.
American jets — with conventional bombs or nuclear weapons — stayed out of South Vietnam’s last battle.