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
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
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 the 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
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 case."
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
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
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 unintended 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
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 , 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.
The following documents are in PDF format.
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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
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)
2 through 2I:
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. Counter-Courses"
Document 2E: Attachment
D: "Soviet Reactions and U.S. Courses of Action"
Document 2F: Attachment
E: "Assessment of Chinese Communist Actions and U.S. Counter-Courses"
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 Archives.
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 page.)
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 www.thebulletin.org;
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,
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. 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.