US has been on verge of using nukes many times


Richard Moore

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

Nuclear Weapons, the Vietnam War, and the "Nuclear Taboo"*
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 195
Edited by William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball
For more information contact:
William Burr - 202/994-7000
Jeffrey Kimball - 513/529-5121
Posted - July 31, 2006

Washington, DC - July 31, 2006 - During the past year, indications that the Bush
White House was seriously considering a "nuclear option" against Iranian nuclear
sites understandably alarmed many in the press and public as well as the U.S. 
high command. Some treated such alleged planning as saber-rattling bluff, while 
others saw it as an example of a related madman strategy. These scenarios are 
not without historical precedent. From time to time during the Cold War and 
after, American officials tried to find ways of making nuclear weapons usable, 
not only for deterrence against Soviet attack but as "tactical" weapons in local
conflicts or as a key element in a coercive strategy of threat-making by means 
of "atomic diplomacy."

Recently declassified documents reveal that during Richard M. Nixon's first year
as president, advisers on his White House staff were willing to revisit the 
question of whether to employ nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Senior officials and 
policy advisers in the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy,
and Lyndon B. Johnson had previously considered the possibility of using nuclear
weapons to deal with military crises, influence negotiations, or terminate 
conflicts, but their deliberations had come to naught because of a deeply 
ingrained "nuclear taboo." The taboo comprised several moral and practical 
considerations: decision-makers' understanding that the destructive effects of 
nuclear weapons were disproportionate to the limited ends they sought in 
regional conflicts such as Vietnam; their appreciation of the danger of causing 
a localized conflict to escalate into a global war with the Soviet Union; their 
need to weigh world, allied, congressional, and bureaucratic opinion; and their 
assessments of the strategic utility and logistic feasibility of nuclear weapons
in conditions other than those having to do with retaliation to an enemy nuclear
attack. (Note 1) The same considerations shaped the Nixon White House's thinking
on nuclear weapons regarding Vietnam and, it seems, the Bush White House's 
thinking about the "nuclear option" vis-à-vis Iran. (Note 2)

When Nixon assumed the presidency in January 1969, one of his top priorities was
to end the Vietnam War as quickly as possible on terms favorable to his 
administration. By mid-1969, Nixon and his national security adviser Henry 
Kissinger had come to favor a strategy that combined international diplomacy 
with threats and acts of force to induce the Democratic Republic of Vietnam 
(DRV) to bend to their will. In several venues during July and August, they and 
their surrogates issued dire warnings intended for leaders in Moscow and Hanoi 
that if by November 1 the North Vietnamese did not agree to compromise on 
American terms, Nixon would "take measures of great consequence and force." 
(Note 3) Should these threats fail to move Moscow to persuade Hanoi to 
compromise, then the second phase of the military escalation option would begin:
dramatic, sudden military pressure by means of a multifaceted campaign against 
the DRV, consisting mainly of heavy air attacks in the far-north of Vietnam, 
including mining operations on coastal ports.

Kissinger and his staff had begun by at least early July to develop contingency 
military plans under the codename "Duck Hook" (a term probably borrowed from 
golf parlance). To evaluate the secret plans prepared by members of the Joint 
Staff in Washington and military planners in Saigon, Kissinger set up a special 
NSC staff planning committee dubbed the "September Group" (aka "contingency 
group"). "I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam
does not have a breaking point," Kissinger confessed. "It shall be the 
assignment of this group to examine the option of a savage, decisive blow 
against North Vietnam. You start without any preconceptions at all." The 
president, he told them, wanted a "military plan designed for maximum impact on 
the enemy's military capability" in order to "force a rapid conclusion" to the 
war. (Note 4)

According to an early secondhand account of the planning process by 
investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, one staffer asked Kissinger whether 
nuclear weapons should be considered. Kissinger replied that it was "the policy 
of this administration not to use nuclear weapons." He did not exclude, however,
the use of "a nuclear device" to block a key railroad pass to the People's 
Republic of China (PRC) if that should prove the only way of doing it. Roger 
Morris, a member of September Group, later reported that he had been shown plans
that targeted at least two sites in North Vietnam for nuclear air bursts. 
Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson--who was not a member of the 
contingency group but who asked Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman in 1970 
about contingency planning in 1969--claimed that Haldeman said "Kissinger had 
lobbied for nuclear options in the spring and fall of 1969." One Kissinger aide,
Winston Lord, expressed incredulity to one of the present writers: "It's beyond 
my comprehension that they would even think of doing that." But he allowed for 
the possibility that the Vietnamese might worry about nuclear weapons and that, 
consistent with Nixon's "madman theory . . , we wouldn't go out of our way to 
allay their fears about that." (Note 5)

Firsthand documentation on the highly secret Duck Hook planning finally surfaced
in mid-November 2005, when the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the U.S. 
National Archives made one of its annual declassification releases. Among the 
files on the Vietnam War were two documents that explicitly raise the question 
of nuclear weapons use in connection with military operations against North 

Rembrandt C. Robinson (1924-1972) - This photo was taken in June 1969, about the
time that then-Captain Robinson started the secret "Duck Hook" planning for the 
National Security Council. Prior to beginning an assignment with the JCS 
Chairman's Staff Group in early 1969, during 1964-1968, Robinson had served four
years as executive assistant and aide to the Commander-in-Chief Pacific 
(CINCPAC), where he was at a nerve center of Vietnam War military operations. 
During 1969-1972, Robinson also served as the NSC liaison to the JCS. Besides 
playing a key role on the NSC staff, beginning in 1970 Robinson initiated the 
JCS spying operation against Kissinger designed to keep JCS Chairman Moorer 
apprised of White House policy decisions affecting the military. Promoted to the
rank of rear admiral in 1970, Robinson was commanding a flotilla in the Gulf of 
Tonkin when he was killed in a helicopter crash in May 1972. This occurred 
during the Linebacker I operations against North Vietnam which Robinson's 
earlier Duck Hook plans had presaged. (Image courtesy of Photographic Section, 
Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.)

One is a September 29, 1969, memorandum from two of Kissinger's aides, Roger 
Morris and Anthony Lake, to Captain Rembrandt Robinson (see document 1), who 
simultaneously directed the Chairman's Staff Group of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 
at the Pentagon and the National Security Council's military liaison unit in the
White House. In these key positions, Robinson played a central role in preparing
the Duck Hook plans for attacks on North Vietnam. Through Robinson, moreover, 
the NSC could tap military planning advice without having to go through 
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, whom Kissinger considered an adversary on 
Vietnam policy. At the request of the White House, Robinson had prepared a long 
planning paper for the September Group, in which he had outlined Joint Chiefs of
Staff plans to attack North Vietnam. Although this document has not yet been 
discovered or declassified, it is evident that the planning paper dissatisfied 
Morris and Lake--and probably Kissinger himself. Their September 29 memo to 
Robinson requested that he rework the paper thoroughly so that it presented 
"clearly and fully all the implications of the [Duck Hook] action, should the 
President decide to do it."

Lake and Morris explained that Robinson's memorandum should "make it clear that"
the September Group believed "the President should be prepared to accept two 
operational concepts: Duck Hook "must be brutal and sustainable" and 
"self-contained." Regarding the latter requirement, the president would need to 
decide in advance "the fateful question of how far we will go. He cannot, for 
example, confront the issue of using tactical nuclear weapons in the midst of 
the exercise. He must be prepared to play out whatever string necessary in this 

The second recently declassified document bearing on the nuclear question is 
dated October 2, 1969, and consists of two cover memoranda from Kissinger to 
Nixon introducing a long report prepared by NSC staffers on the current state of
military planning for Duck Hook (see documents 2 - 2I). The report and its 
attachments explained that the basic objective of the prospective operation was 
to coerce Hanoi "to negotiate a compromise settlement through a series of 
military blows," which would walk a fine line between inflicting "unacceptable 
damage to their society" and bringing about "the total destruction of the 
country or the regime, which would invite major outside intervention [by the 
USSR or the PRC]."

The "concept of [Duck Hook] operations" was "markedly different from previous 
air and naval operations" against North Vietnam. Nixon, Kissinger, and their 
planners believed that President Johnson's prior bombing campaigns in the North 
had been "spasmodic" ones against limited targets associated with the war in 
South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam). The Duck Hook operations, by contrast, 
would direct a sequence of "intense" air and naval attacks of "short duration" 
against the DRV to achieve a "lasting military and economic effect" and 
"generate [a] strong psychological impact on Hanoi's leadership." Aerial mining 
would serve to "quarantine" North Vietnamese ports, while aerial bombing would 
strike strategic targets heretofore off-limits. Among these was "the levee 
system in the Red River Delta." The report raised the nuclear issue in an 
attachment entitled "Important Questions" (see document 2I), which includes this
question: "Should we be prepared to use nuclear weapons?"

The references to nuclear weapons in these documents are not substantive enough 
to settle the issue of whether Nixon or Kissinger specifically requested 
operations plans involving the use of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, but
they do reveal that in the first year of the Nixon administration some of 
Kissinger's top advisers believed that the matter of nuclear weapons use should 
be raised with military planners. This in turn suggests that Lake, Morris, and 
other September Group members understood that Nixon and Kissinger believed that 
nuclear weapons were potentially efficacious in the circumstances of late 1969, 
and that, therefore, their possible use should be given serious consideration in
military contingency planning for Duck Hook.

Despite verbal threats directed against Hanoi and NSC planning for Duck Hook, 
Nixon pulled the plug on the prospective operation sometime between October 2 
and October 6. His reasons were many. Secretary of Defense Laird and Secretary 
of State William Rogers opposed military escalation. Nixon began to doubt 
whether he could maintain public support for the three- to six-month period that
Duck Hook might require. Another concern was that the three major antiwar 
demonstrations previously scheduled for October 15 and November 13-15--dates 
coincidentally bracketing the launch of Duck Hook--might additionally erode 
public confidence in his leadership, expand into larger demonstrations, and 
blunt the psychological impact of the operation upon Hanoi. In any event, Nixon 
had recently come to the conclusion that the North Vietnamese had been unmoved 
in the face of the military threats he had directed against them since July. The
other side of this coin was that reduced enemy-initiated fighting in South 
Vietnam seemed to indicate that Vietnamization might be making progress--a good 
omen, if true, for it offered Nixon an alternative to Duck Hook. Furthermore, 
linkage diplomacy had thus far failed to leverage Soviet cooperation vis-à-vis 
North Vietnam, which had implications for Duck Hook's prospects for success.

After having cancelled Duck Hook, Nixon believed "it was important that the 
Communists not mistake as weakness the lack of dramatic action on my part in 
carrying out the ultimatum." In a bizarre move designed to compensate for the 
aborted Duck Hook operation, he set in motion the "Joint Chiefs of Staff 
Readiness Test," an elaborate and secret global military exercise carried out 
between October 13 and 30, 1969, that was tantamount to a nuclear alert. The 
origins of the idea for the alert may lie in an implicitly nuclear-related 
question posed in the "Important Questions" attachment to the October 2 report 
to Nixon on Duck Hook (see document 2I): "What military actions should we 
undertake concurrently, e.g., should we alert our strategic and/or the various 
theater forces?"

One of the largest secret military operations in American history, the exercise 
included a stand-down of training flights to raise operational readiness, 
Strategic Air Command ground alerts and "maintenance readiness" procedures, 
heightened readiness postures for overseas air units, stepped-up naval activity,
increased surveillance of Soviet ships en route to North Vietnam, and a 
nuclear-armed B-52 "show-of-force" over Alaska. The purpose of the alert was to 
"jar" the Soviets and North Vietnamese into making negotiating 
concessions-perhaps by indicating to them that it was the preparatory phase of 
Duck Hook and/or a readiness operation in anticipation of Soviet reaction to 
massive U.S. bombing. The nuclear alert failed to intimidate either the North 
Vietnamese or the Soviets before the November 1 deadline, but it did have an 
untended consequence: it caused the Chinese to go on alert-either in reaction to
the U.S. alert or to steps the Soviets might have taken in response to the U.S. 
alert. (Note 6)

The nuclear option was still on President Nixon's mind in 1972, when he agonized
about how to respond to the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. On April 25, 
while discussing "Linebacker," the forthcoming U.S. aerial counterattack against
the DRV, Nixon told Kissinger about his interest in using "a nuclear bomb" as an
alternative to bombing North Vietnam's dike system, which was also a step he 
strongly favored. A nuclear attack against another target, he assumed, would 
cause fewer civilian casualties yet make a powerful "psychological" impact on 
Hanoi and the Soviets. But Kissinger and other advisers and planners had 
reservations, and in the face of these misgivings, which he may have privately 
shared, Nixon backed off from the use of nuclear weapons and settled on "merely"
the implied threat of their possible use. (Note 7)

Leaders in Hanoi were continually aware of the possibility that the Nixon 
administration might drop nuclear bombs on North Vietnam, but they nonetheless 
expressed defiance. At a meeting in Paris on December 4, 1972, for example, 
Hanoi's chief negotiator, Le Duc Tho, told Kissinger that "we . . . sometimes 
think that you would also use atomic weapons because during the resistance 
against the French, Vice President Nixon proposed the use of atomic weapons. . .
. If we do not achieve . . . [our] goal in our lifetime our children will 
continue the struggle. . . . We have been subjected to tens of millions of bombs
and shells. The equal of . . . 600 atomic bombs. . . . The simple truth is that 
we will not submit and reconcile ourselves to being slaves. So your threats and 
broken promises, we say, that is not a really serious way to carry on 
negotiations." (Note 8)

As with previous presidential administrations, one or more nuclear-taboo 
considerations discouraged Nixon and Kissinger from using nuclear weapons in 
Vietnam. Their infatuation with the madman theory and their launching of a 
nuclear alert in 1969 suggest, however, that they may have been more serious 
than previous administrations in considering the use of nuclear weapons. Until 
more documents become available or former senior officials such as Henry 
Kissinger or Alexander Haig are willing to answer questions about these events, 
definitive answers remain elusive.

It appears that the taboo may also have taken hold in the case of the Bush 
administration's policy toward Iran. According to Seymour Hersh, "in late April 
[2006], the military leadership . . . achieved a major victory when the White 
House dropped its insistence that the plan for a bombing campaign include the 
possible use of a nuclear device to destroy Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at 
Natanz." Led by General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 
military and foreign policy advisers pointed to serious gaps in intelligence on 
Iran's nuclear program and warned of dire political, military, international, 
and economic repercussions should the administration choose the nuclear option. 
(Note 9) Whether, as with Vietnam, elements of the historic nuclear taboo 
prevent the Bush administration from using nuclear weapons in a "preemptive" 
attack on a presumptive adversary remains to be seen.

Note: The following documents are in PDF format.

You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 1: Memorandum from Tony Lake and Roger Morris, NSC Staff, to Captain 
[Rembrandt] Robinson, Subject: Draft Memorandum to the President on Contingency 
Study, 29 September 1969, Top Secret/Sensitive.

Source: folder 4: VIETNAM: (General Files), Sep 69-Nov 69, box 74, National 
Security Council Files: Subject Files, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, 
National Archives.

This memo is Lake and Morris's response to Robinson's draft memo to Nixon on 
military contingency planning for Duck Hook. The relevant references to tactical
nuclear weapons can be found in the last paragraph.

When asked about this September 29 memo and the October 2 documents below, Tony 
Lake said that he had "no memory of planning for nuclear weapons" but that "he 
must have heard something" for him and Morris to have mentioned such weapons in 
the memo. (The authors were unable to reach Morris for comment; Rembrandt 
Robinson died in a helicopter crash in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1972.) Former 
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird replied that he had never seen the September 
29 memo and that he had never believed nuclear weapons were relevant in the 
Vietnam situation. In fact, he thought it a "laughable thing" for planners to 
bring up the matter of nuclear use. But for Kissinger, Laird recalled, "nothing 
was out of consideration" with respect to Vietnam; the nuclear threat was 
"always . . . there as an option." That was "not my approach," and he said that 
he had told Kissinger at the time, "just forget it." (Note 10)

Documents 2 through 2I:

Document 2: Memorandum for the President from Henry A. Kissinger, Subject: 
Contingency Military Operations Against North Vietnam, 2 October 1969, Top 
Secret-Sensitive Eyes Only

Document 2A: Memorandum for the President from Henry A. Kissinger, Subject: 
Contingency Military Operations Against North Vietnam, 2 October 1969, Top 
Secret-Sensitive Eyes Only

Document 2B: Attachment A: "Conceptual Plan of Military Operations"
Document 2C: Attachment B: "Preliminary Assessment"

Document 2D: Attachment C: "Assessment of North Vietnam's Actions and U.S. 

Document 2E: Attachment D: "Soviet Reactions and U.S. Courses of Action"

Document 2F: Attachment E: "Assessment of Chinese Communist Actions and U.S. 

Document 2G: Attachment F: "Integrated Diplomatic and Military Scenario"

Document 2H: Attachment G: "Draft of a Presidential Speech"
Document 2I: Attachment H: "Important Questions"

Source: Folder 2: Top Secret/Sensitive Vietnam Contingency Planning, HAK, 
October 2, 1969 [2 of 2], box 89, [except for 2E and 2F, which are in folder 6, 
box 122], NSC Files: Subject Files, Nixon Presidential Materials, National 

Probably prepared by Lake, Morris, Robinson, and other NSC staffers, these 
documents may never have reached Nixon, although Kissinger most likely briefed 
him on the state of planning. The first cover memorandum to Nixon, which 
Kissinger and Lake co-authored [see document 2], argues that if the president 
decided to go ahead with the bombing campaign, the decision "must be based on a 
firm resolve to do whatever is necessary to achieve success." The longer cover 
memorandum [see document 2A] summarized the objectives of the operation, the 
conceptual plan of military actions, likely North Vietnamese, Soviet, and 
Chinese reactions, and U.S. counteractions. (Note 11) (The copy of this longer 
memo in Kissinger's papers has the words "Duck Hook" handwritten on the first 

Even though the conceptual plan of military operations [see document 2B] did not
mention nuclear weapons use, the last attachment to Kissinger's memo, entitled 
"Important Questions" [see document 2I], includes nuclear references, implying 
that the matter was still up in the air or on the table.


* The editors thank John Prados for comments on an earlier version of this 
briefing book.

1. For the "nuclear taboo," see Peter Hayes and Nina Tannenwald, "Nixing Nukes 
in Vietnam," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59 (May-June 2003): 52-59, 
also available at; and Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: 
The United States and the Non-use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (forthcoming, 
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). On the "madman theory," see Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon's 
Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998). chap. 4.

2. See Seymour Hersh, "Last Stand," The New Yorker, July 10, 2006.

3. Note, Jean Sainteny to Nixon, July 16, 1969, folder: Mister "S," Vol. 1 (1 of
2), box 106, Country Files-Far East-Vietnam Negotiations, Henry A. Kissinger 
Office File, Nixon Presidential Materials, National Archives.

4. On planning for Duck Hook, see Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War, 158-176; and 
Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the secret History of Nixon-Era 
Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), pp. 11-24 and chap. 3.

5. Quoted in Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White 
House (New York: Summit Books, 1983), 126-127; see also, Tad Szulc, The Illusion
of Peace: Foreign Policy in the Nixon Years (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 
150-151. Lord, interview by Jeffrey Kimball, December 5, 1994, Washington, D.C.

6. For the cancellation of Duck Hook and Nixon's 1969 nuclear alert, see William
Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, "Nixon's Secret Nuclear Alert: Vietnam War Diplomacy 
and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969," Cold War History 3 
(January 2003): 113-156; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59, 1 
(January/February 2003): 28-37, 72-73; and "New Evidence on the Secret Nuclear 
Alert of October 1969: The Henry A. Kissinger Telcons," Passport 36, 1 (April 
2005): 12-14.

When asked by Kimball on March 11, 2006, during a John F. Kennedy Presidential 
Library conference on the Vietnam War about the October 1969 secret nuclear 
alert, Kissinger mistakenly stated that President Nixon had not proceeded with 
the operation and that it had not gone beyond the NSC planning stage. But in his
response he had apparently confused the JCS readiness test with Duck Hook. At 
the same time, he did not affirm or reject the notion that NSC planners had 
discussed nuclear options. Toward the end of the brief exchange about these 
events, Alexander Haig recalled that there had indeed been "readiness measures,"
but he chose not to elaborate, except to say later that it happened after 
Kissinger's meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on September 27, 
1969, the negative results of which had angered Nixon.

7. Executive Office Building Conversation no. 332-35, Nixon and Kissinger, April
25, 1972, White House Tapes, NPMP; Memcon, National Security Council Meeting, 
May 8, 1972, box 998, Haig Memcons [Jan-Dec 1972], Alexander M. Haig 
Chronological Files, NSC Files, NPM. For these documents and more discussion of 
them, see Kimball, The Vietnam War Files, 214-217.

8. Memcon, Kissinger and Tho, December 4, 1972, folder: Sensitive Camp 
David-Vol. XXII Minutes of Meetings, Paris Dec. 4-Dec. 13, box 859, For the 
President's Files (Winston Lord)--China Trip/Vietnam, 1972, NSCF, NPM.

9. Hersh, "Last Stand," The New Yorker, July 10, 2006.

10. Lake, telephone interview by J. Kimball, December 14, 2005; Laird, telephone
interview by W. Burr, December 1, 2005.

11. The two cover memoranda may have been alternative draft versions, one of 
which Kissinger planned to send to Nixon. The recently published Foreign 
Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Vol. VI, Vietnam, January 1969-July 
1970 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 2006), 418-420, reproduced 
the second and longer cover memorandum, as found in the Kissinger papers at the 
Library of Congress. FRUS editors noted, however, that it had not been forwarded
to Nixon. Therefore, it may be that either none of these papers were sent to 
Nixon or that the first cover memo, which is filed as a carbon copy, and even 
the report itself were sent to the president.


Jeffrey Kimball, Emeritus Professor, History Department, Miami University, wrote
the prize-winning books, Nixon's Vietnam War (1998), and The Vietnam War Files: 
Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy(2004). With National 
Security Archive analyst William Burr, he wrote, ³"Nixon's Secret Nuclear Alert:
Vietnam War Diplomacy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 
1969," Cold War History (January 2003). A shorter version of that article 
appeared as ³Nixon¹s Nuclear Ploy: The Vietnam Negotiations and the Joint Chiefs
of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969,² The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 
(January-February 2003).

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