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For Release:
December 23, 2002

For more information contact:
William Burr (202) 994-7032

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Nixon's Nuclear Ploy: The Vietnam Negotiations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969

Washington, D.C. -- December 23, 2002 -- Today, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article, "Nixon's Nuclear Ploy,'' by National Security Archive senior analyst William Burr and Miami University historian Jeffrey Kimball, that discloses for the first time one of the Nixon administration's most secret military operations, what became known to insiders as the "Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test."

Among the article's key findings:

  • Determined to settle the Vietnam War--their "number one problem", irritated by Soviet assistance to North Vietnam, and frustrated by the stalemated Paris peace talks, Nixon and Kissinger had pressed Moscow and threatened North Vietham in order to make progress in the negotiations. In early October 1969, Nixon decided to test the "madman theory" by ratcheting up the readiness level of nuclear forces. If his military moves jarred the Soviets sufficiently, Nixon apparently believed, Moscow might use its leverage to induce Hanoi to meet U.S. terms.
  • Under Nixon's orders, in mid-October 1969, the Pentagon undertook secretly a series of military measures designed to put U.S. nuclear forces on a higher state of readiness. The JCS Readiness Test was executed secretly so that the public in the United States and allies would not notice it, but Nixon wanted the measures to be detectable, but not alarming, to the leadership of the Soviet Union and its intelligence services
  • The CINCs--the commanders-in-chief--did not know, and could not find out why, "higher authority" had ordered them to implement the secret readiness measures. Nevertheless, between 13 and 30 October 1969, they put U.S. nuclear bombers on higher alert, and raised the combat readiness of U.S. tactical aircraft and air defense forces and sent more nuclear missile submarines to sea. Moreover, U.S. destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers engaged in a variety of maneuvers in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Sea of Japan. At the end of October, the Strategic Air Command conducted a nuclear-armed airborne alert exercise over eastern Alaska.
  • The Pentagon searched for evidence that Moscow had noticed the worldwide readiness measures but little declassified evidence is available showing that the Soviets paid attention. The Soviets may have seen Nixon's moves as a bluff; Moscow made no change in its Vietnam policy.

"Nixon's Nuclear Ploy" will appear in the January-February 2003 print edition of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It draws upon a longer, fully-sourced and footnoted essay, "Nixon's Secret Nuclear Alert: Vietnam War Diplomacy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969," that will appear in the January 2003 issue of Cold War History.

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