Thursday, April 17, 2008

1959 USAF Proposal to Use Nuclear Weapons in North Vietnam

One of the reasons that I decided to become a historian of the Cold War is because declassified documents are always providing new revelations about the conflict. For instance, I never would have guessed that the Air Force seriously proposed a nuclear strike on North Vietnam- in 1959!
Back in Washington, General White questioned whether any of the current military proposals would solve the Laotian dilemma. On September 8, the day the fact-finding committee for Laos was approved by the United Nations Security Council, he asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a green light to send a squadron of Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-47 jet bombers to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. White wanted to cripple the insurgents and their supply lines by attacking selected targets in North Vietnam, either with conventional or nuclear weapons. Although White's paper called for giving the North Vietnamese a preattack warning, the other chiefs tabled it, possibly due to the inclusion of nuclear weapons. Seven months later, the proposal was withdrawn. Still, the Air Force considered it a valid reflection of the long-standing USAF belief that Asian communists would be less likely to cause trouble if they knew U.S. counteraction would not be confined to Laos or conventional weapons.
This is from page 25 of a history prepared by the USAF in 1993, The War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973. The National Security Archive recently secured the release of this document through the Freedom of Information Act.

4 comments:

Ashutosh said...

You must be aware of JASON's "Tactical Weapons in Southeast Asia" report.
http://www.nautilus.org/archives/VietnamFOIA/report/dyson67.pdf

Sovietologist said...

Yes. If you've been reading Sharon Ghamari–Tabrizi and her account of wargaming at RAND in the 50s, I was wondering if you noted the authors' dismissal of RAND's studies on tactical nuclear weapons in southeast Asia. Interesting, isn't it?

DV8 2XL said...

There is a particularly telling quote from the JASON report that ashutosh mentioned:

"If about 100 weapons of 10-KT yield each could be delivered from base parameters onto all 70 [US] target areas in a coordinated strike, the U.S. fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated. In the more likely contingency that only a few weapons could be delivered intermittently, U.S. casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of U.S. capabilities would be considerable."

What is significant about this passage is that it shows that strategists were well aware of the fact that even relatively well entrenched conventional forces were exquisitely vulnerable to small tactical nuclear weapons. This goes to show that in the scheme of things, tactical nuclear weapons are of much greater military importance than strategic ones.

Lankester said...

I am selling a first edition ''On Thermonuclear War'' (UK Hardcover, 1960 RARE), by Herman Kahn. There is writing on the inside front cover and on the inside back cover; indicating that the book belonged to famed author: "H.J.N. Horsburgh, 1961.'' On Thermonuclear War is a book by Herman Kahn, a military strategist at the Rand Corporation. It is a controversial treatise on the nature and theory of war in the thermonuclear age. In it, Kahn calmly discusses the strategic doctrines of nuclear war and its effect on the international balance of power. Widely read by both sides of the cold war, it is noteworthy for its views on the lack of credibility of a purely thermonuclear deterrent and how a country could "win" a nuclear war. Kahn also covers other weapons of mass destruction. The book helped popularize the term megadeath, which Kahn coined in 1953. Kahn's stated purpose in writing the book was "avoiding disaster and buying time, without specifying the use of this time." The title of the book is inspired by the classic volume On War, by Carl von Clausewitz. Published First Edition in 1960 by the Princeton University Press (ISBN 0-313-20060-2). If you are interested please contact frmerrin@gmail.com, 09/07/08