Nixon White House Considered Nuclear Options Against North Vietnam, Declassified Documents Reveal

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The Bush White House's reported interest in using nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear energy complex is but the most recent example of how American officials since the administration of Harry S. Truman have given serious thought to employing such weapons in crisis situations. Details about one of these episodes were revealed today in a set of formerly top secret documents published by the National Security Archive that appear to confirm rumors and secondhand reports that President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, discussed the option of using tactical nuclear weapons against North Vietnam as part of preparations for operation "Duck Hook," which was scheduled to be launched against North Vietnam in early November 1969.

According to a memorandum from Kissinger aides Anthony Lake and Roger Morris to Pentagon military planner Captain Rembrandt Robinson, the president would need to decide in advance how far he would be willing to go; that is, whether the president would be willing to use tactical nuclear weapons. This issue, staffers pointed out, could not be decided "in the midst of the exercise." Among the "Important Questions" mentioned in another planning document Kissinger probably forwarded to or discussed with Nixon was this one: "Should we be prepared to use nuclear weapons?"

Nixon ultimately decided against going ahead with the Duck Hook attack plans in 1969 and thus, as his predecessors had in prior situations, tacitly ruled out using nuclear weapons in Vietnam--although the issue would resurface in 1972. In the end, he decided that the costs of using nuclear weapons were higher than any conceivable political or military benefit.

Released late last year by the U.S. National Archives, these documents raise significant questions about White House military planning against North Vietnam. Why did Lake and Morris bring up the question of using tactical nuclear weapons? To what extent were they responding to instructions by Kissinger to raise the matter? Did Kissinger and Nixon believe that nuclear weapons were potentially efficacious for use against North Vietnam in the circumstances of 1969? To what extent did Nixon or Kissinger push for military plans to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam? What considerations led Nixon and Kissinger to abandon the concept of nuclear weapons use from their Vietnam planning?

These documents, along with an essay by Archive senior analyst Dr. William Burr and Dr. Jeffrey Kimball of Miami University, were published today on the Archive's Web site.


Read entire article at National Security Archive

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