By William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
National Security Archives May 29, 2015
Washington, D.C., May 29, 2015 – President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed they could compel “the other side” to back down during crises in the Middle East and Vietnam by “push[ing] so many chips into the pot” that Nixon would seem ‘crazy’ enough to “go much further,” according to newly declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.gwu.edu).
The documents include a 1972 Kissinger memorandum of conversation published today for the first time in which Kissinger explains to Defense Department official Gardner Tucker that Nixon’s strategy was to make “the other side … think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further” – Nixon’s Madman Theory notion of intimidating adversaries such as North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to bend them to Washington’s will in diplomatic negotiations
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s Madman strategy during the Vietnam War included veiled nuclear threats intended to intimidate Hanoi and its patrons in Moscow. The story is recounted in a new book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, co-authored by Jeffrey Kimball, Miami University professor emeritus, and William Burr, who directs the Archive’s Nuclear History Documentation Project. Research for the book, which uncovers the inside story of White House Vietnam policymaking during Nixon’s first year in office, drew on hundreds of formerly top secret and secret records obtained by the authors as well as interviews with former government officials.
With Madman diplomacy, Nixon and Kissinger strove to end the Vietnam War on the most favorable terms possible in the shortest period of time practicable, an effort that culminated in a secret global nuclear alert in October of that year. Nixon’s Nuclear Specter provides the most comprehensive account to date of the origins, inception, policy context, and execution of “JCS Readiness Test” – the equivalent of a worldwide nuclear alert that was intended to signal Washington’s anger at Moscow’s support of North Vietnam and to jar the Soviet leadership into using their leverage to induce Hanoi to make diplomatic concessions. Carried out between 13 and 30 October 1969, it involved military operations around the world, the continental United States, Western Europe, the Middle East, the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Sea of Japan. The operations included strategic bombers, tactical air, and a variety of naval operations, from movements of aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines to the shadowing of Soviet merchant ships heading toward Haiphong.
To unravel the intricate story of the October alert, the authors place it in the context of nuclear threat making and coercive diplomacy during the Cold War from 1945 to 1973, the culture of the Bomb, bureaucratic infighting, intra-governmental dissent, international diplomacy, domestic politics, the antiwar movement, the “nuclear taboo,” Vietnamese and Soviet actions and policies, and assessments of the war’s ending. The authors also recount secret military operations that were part of the lead-up to the global alert, including a top secret mining readiness test that took place during the spring and summer of 1969. This mining readiness test was a ruse intended to signal Hanoi that the US was preparing to mine Haiphong harbor and the coast of North Vietnam. It is revealed for the first time in this book.
Another revelation has to do with the fabled DUCK HOOK operation, a plan for which was initially drafted in July 1969 as a mining-only operation. It soon evolved into a mining-and-bombing, shock-and-awe plan scheduled to be launched in early November, but which Nixon aborted in October, substituting the global nuclear alert in its place. The failure of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s 1969 Madman diplomacy marked a turning point in their initial exit strategy of winning a favorable armistice agreement by the end of the year 1969. Subsequently, they would follow a so-called long-route strategy of withdrawing U.S. troops while attempting to strengthen South Vietnam’s armed forces, although not necessarily counting on Saigon’s long-term survival.
In researching Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, the authors filed mandatory and Freedom of Information requests with the Defense Department and other government agencies and examined documents in diverse U.S. government archives as well as international sources. Today’s posting highlights some of the U.S. documents, many published for the first time:
- A March 1969 memorandum from Nixon to Kissinger about the need to make the Soviets see risks in not helping Washington in the Vietnam negotiations: “we must worry the Soviets about the possibility that we are losing our patience and may get out of control.”
- The Navy’s plan in April 1969 for a mine readiness test designed to create a “state of indecision” among the North Vietnam leadership whether Washington intended to launch mining operations.
- Kissinger’s statement to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in May 1969 that Nixon was so flexible about the Vietnam War outcome that he was “was prepared to accept any political system in South Vietnam, provided there is a fairly reasonable interval between conclusion of an agreement and [the establishment of] such a system.”
- The top secret warning to the North Vietnamese leadership that Nixon sent through an intermediary Jean Sainteny: If a diplomatic solution to the war is not reached by 1 November, Nixon would “regretfully find himself obliged to have recourse to measures of great consequence and force. . . . He will resort to any means necessary.”
- The Navy’s plan for mining Haiphong Harbor, code-named DUCK HOOK, prepared secretly for Nixon and Kissinger in July 1969.
- A telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Manila reporting on the discovery of the mining readiness test by two Senate investigators, including former (and future) Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus. After learning about aircraft carrier mining drills in Subic Bay (the Philippines), the investigators worried about a possible escalation recalling that Nixon had made such threats during the 1968 campaign.
- A report from September 1969 on prospective military operations against North Vietnam (referred to unofficially within the White House as DUCK HOOK) included two options to use tactical nuclear weapons: one for “the clean nuclear interdiction of three NVN-Laos passes”-the use of small yield, low fall-out weapons to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The other was for the “nuclear interdiction of two NVN-CPR [Chinese People’s Republic] railroads”-presumably using nuclear weapons to destroy railroad tracks linking North Vietnam and China.
- A Kissinger telephone conversation transcript, in which Nixon worried that with the 1 November deadline approaching and major anti-Vietnam war demonstrations scheduled for 15 October and 15 November, escalating the war might produce “horrible results” by the buildup of “a massive adverse reaction” among demonstrators.
- As part of the White House plan for special military measures to get Moscow’s attention, an October 1969 memorandum from the Joint Staff based on a request from Kissinger for an “integrated plan of military actions to demonstrate convincingly to the Soviet Union that the United States is getting ready for any eventuality on or about 1 November 1969.” .
- A Department of Defense plan for readiness actions that included measures to “enhance SIOP [Single Integrated Operational Plan] Naval Forces” in the Pacific and for the Strategic Air Command to fly nuclear-armed airborne alert flights over the Arctic Circle.
- Navy messages on the 7th Fleet’s secret shadowing of Soviet merchant ships heading toward Haiphong Harbor
The thematic focus of Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is Madman Theory threat making, which culminated in the secret, global nuclear alert. But as the Kissinger statement to Dobrynin cited above suggested, a core element in Nixon’s and Kissinger’s overall Vietnam War strategy and diplomacy was the concept of a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam and the possible collapse or defeat of the Saigon regime. In private conversations Kissinger routinely used phrases such as “decent interval,” “healthy interval,” “reasonable interval,” and “suitable interval” as code for a war-exiting scenario by which the period of time would be sufficiently long that when the fall of Saigon came-if it came-it would serve to mask the role that U.S. policy had played in South Vietnam’s collapse.
In 1969, the Nixon’s administrations long-term goal was to provide President Nguyen Van Thieus government in Saigon with a decent chance of surviving for a reasonable interval of two to five years following the sought-after mutual exit of US and North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam. They would have preferred that President Thieu and South Vietnam survive indefinitely, and they would do what they could to maintain South Vietnam as a separate political entity. But they were realistic enough to appreciate that such a goal was unlikely and beyond their power to achieve by a military victory on the ground or from the air in Vietnam.
Giving Thieu a decent chance to survive, even for just a decent interval, however, rested primarily on persuading Hanoi to withdraw its troops from the South or, if that failed, prolonging the war in order to give time for Vietnamization to take hold in order to enable Thieu to fight the war on his own for a reasonable period of time after the US exited Indochina. In 1969, Nixon and Kissinger hoped that their Madman threat strategy, coupled with linkage diplomacy, could persuade Hanoi to agree to mutual withdrawal at the negotiating table or lever Moscows cooperation in persuading Hanoi to do so. In this respect, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is an attempt to contribute to better understanding of Nixon and Kissinger’s Vietnam diplomacy as a whole.
William is Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive, where he directs the Archives nuclear history documentation project. See the Archives Nuclear Vault resources page;
Jeffrey is professor emeritus, Miami University, and author of Nixon’s Vietnam War and The Vietnam War Files.