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 Seven months later, the proposal was withdrawn.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.


Ashutosh said...

You must be aware of JASON's "Tactical Weapons in Southeast Asia" report.

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.

Anonymous said...

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