Nixon's Nuclear Specter
The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War
William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
Honorable Mention, Captain Richard Lukaszewicz Memorial Book Award
In their initial effort to end the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger attempted to lever concessions from Hanoi at the negotiating table with military force and coercive diplomacy. They were not seeking military victory, which they did not believe was feasible. Instead, they backed up their diplomacy toward North Vietnam and the Soviet Union with the Madman Theory of threatening excessive force, which included the specter of nuclear force. They began with verbal threats then bombed North Vietnamese and Viet Cong base areas in Cambodia, signaling that there was more to come. As the bombing expanded, they launched a previously unknown mining ruse against Haiphong, stepped-up their warnings to Hanoi and Moscow, and initiated planning for a massive shock-and-awe military operation referred to within the White House inner circle as DUCK HOOK.
“A solid, well-researched book, with clear prose that helps propel the narrative through the murkier aspects of the motives and reasonings of Cold War strategic decision making.”
“This book is an indispensable source for studying the international diplomacy of the Vietnam War. Its richness ensures that readers will emerge from its pages with differing judgments and assessments of Nixon’s coercive diplomacy.”
—Journal of American HistorySee all reviews...
“William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball deserve praise for their discerning and cogent reconstruction of the motives and actions of the Nixon Administration to its first year. Students interested in the Vietnam War or the Cold War more generally will learn a great deal from Nixon’s Nuclear Specter.”
—Michigan War Studies Review
“Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is a detailed and careful account of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fruitless efforts during 1969 to find an honorable way out of Vietnam. As events that year unfolded, these authors demonstrate, honor had little to do with it.”
—New York Review of Books
“What the authors reveal is the intense, behind-the-scenes plotting and planning that Nixon and Kissinger carried on in 1969 as they desperately tried to find a way to move the Vietnam War talks with Hanoi to fruition.”
“An important contribution to the [Cold War] literature.”
“Well written and thoroughly researched, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is a rich study of scholars of the era, and essential for those interested in Vietnam, the Nixon era, and the mindset of our 37th president. With the release of additional Nixon White House records and tapes we can only hope that the authors continue writing, jointly, or separately, for many more years.”
“There will be no better book-length case study on coercive nuclear diplomacy than the one just written by William burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball.”
—Arms Control Today
“Finally, a well-researched and well-written account of our leaders’ dangerous nuclear brinksmanship across the high years of the Cold War. There’s much here that’s new and much that’s troubling—for today as well as yesterday.”
—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb
“I didn’t know any of this as I was copying the top secret Pentagon Papers that fall, but if I had I would have given the Papers to the newspapers right away—rather than two years later, after waiting in vain for Congress to act on them—in desperate hopes of heading off massive escalation and possible nuclear war. A gripping and essential read!”
—Daniel Ellsberg, author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon PapersSee fewer reviews...
Beyond the mining of North Vietnamese ports and selective bombing in and around Hanoi, the initial DUCK HOOK concept included proposals for tactical nuclear strikes against logistics targets and U.S. and South Vietnamese ground incursions into the North. In early October 1969, however, Nixon aborted planning for the long-contemplated operation. He had been influenced by Hanoi's defiance in the face of his dire threats and concerned about U.S. public reaction, antiwar protests, and internal administration dissent.
In place of DUCK HOOK, Nixon and Kissinger launched a secret global nuclear alert in hopes that it would lend credibility to their prior warnings and perhaps even persuade Moscow to put pressure on Hanoi. It was to be a special reminder of how far President Nixon might go. The risky gambit failed to move the Soviets, but it marked a turning point in the administration's strategy for exiting Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger became increasingly resigned to a long-route policy of providing Saigon with a decent chance of survival for a decent interval after a negotiated settlement and U.S. forces left Indochina.
Burr and Kimball draw upon extensive research in participant interviews and declassified documents to unravel this intricate story of the October 1969 nuclear alert. They place it in the context of nuclear threat making and coercive diplomacy since 1945, the culture of the Bomb, intra-governmental dissent, domestic political pressures, the international nuclear taboo, and Vietnamese and Soviet actions and policies. It is a history that holds important lessons for the present and future about the risks and uncertainties of nuclear threat making.