Nixon's Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War

  • Published
Nixon's Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball. University Press of Kansas, 2015, 472 pp.


William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball's Nixon's Nuclear Specter is a deep dive into events that led up to and surrounded a series of military operations and exercises officially known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness, referred to by the authors as the "Secret Alert of 1969." Utilizing recently declassified documents, they open a window on the policy, strategy, and planning that occurred in the spring and summer of 1969 which culminated in a failed attempt of coercion by threatening nuclear use in October of that year.

"The most extreme threats--nuclear threats--are unlikely to succeed when the side threatened possesses its own nuclear weapons" (p. 333). This conclusion, stated in the epilogue, has profound consequences for the utility of nuclear weapons. Given their high cost and massive destructive potential, it is worthwhile to consider the past, present, and future utility of these devices. No war between superpowers has occurred for over 70 years, and considerable historical analysis suggests that this status is due in no small part to the United States' credible deterrence. While reinforcing the value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, this book explores the risks and limits of using nuclear threats as an instrument of coercive foreign policy. Specifically, it considers the Nixon administration's development of nuclear options to coerce nonnuclear Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

Five US presidents had to deal with the protracted and ultimately unsuccessful Vietnam War. US involvement began in 1955 under the Eisenhower administration with the deployment of the Military Assistance Advisory Group to support South Vietnam forces. Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, combat operations intensified during the Johnson administration and peaked in 1968 with 536,000 US troops deployed in support of the conflict. When Nixon took office in January 1969, 300 service members were dying each week, antiwar protests had reached a fever pitch, and the US public wanted an exit strategy. Within this context, Nixon and Kissinger considered options that would force a rapid resolution to the conflict.

By the summer of 1969, despite aggressive military action in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, it became clear that the Government of North Vietnam was not interested in a peace that included a permanent partition of the country. Believing that North Vietnam and the Soviet Union would not risk escalation, the US military began developing options which would signal that Nixon, backed into a political corner, might irrationally escalate to total war. What followed was a deliberate plan to operationalize the "Madman Theory" by threatening the use of excessive force, including the mining of North Vietnamese ports, tactical nuclear interdiction, and a secret global alert of strategic nuclear forces.

Ultimately, the threat of excessive escalation (via the Secret Alert of 1969) was a poorly executed bluff. In retrospect, shortcomings were numerous: Nixon did not authorize any strikes in North Vietnam; attacks were restricted to North Vietnam facilities in Cambodia and Laos; the alert was not accompanied by a change in defense condition (DEFCON) military status; and Nixon had begun the rapid withdrawal of forces in July 1969.

These operations sought to send North Vietnam and its Soviet sponsors a message that Nixon was willing to escalate the conflict and use nuclear weapons to secure victory. The ambitious plans included conventional and nuclear interdiction options against North Vietnamese targets, but the approved and executed alternatives were just a series of shows of force. The heightened posture of US strategic forces and nuclear armed bombers flying in the international airspace surrounding the Soviet Union caught the attention of the Soviets, but the scenario was only interesting--not compelling. Given the conduct of the war thus far, these actions did little to change Hanoi's cost-benefit analysis of continuing the conflict.

The hope that the Soviet Union might attempt to compel a negotiated solution was plausible, but the belief that the North Vietnamese would easily capitulate was fraught with questionable assumptions. Despite Nixon and Kissinger's aggressive diplomatic wrangling and bellicose rhetoric, the US public was asking for peace, and US military operations were observably winding down. Words and deeds did not match.

Throughout the book, Burr and Kimball repeatedly cast aspersions on Nixon and Kissinger's strategy of coercion that are far from conclusive. In addition to questioning the strategy of 1969, they also suggest that Operations Pocket Money and Linebacker had little to do with compelling North Vietnam to the negotiating table in January 1973. This conclusion is debatable and not resolved by the authors' evidence. For Kissinger, the deficiencies of 1969 were a failure of execution--not of strategy. In response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Kissinger (now secretary of state) argued for a rapid and overwhelming response to Soviet threats (p. 331). The ensuing show of force included a nuclear alert that included issuing DEFCON III for all US forces and alerting the 82nd Airborne Division. The authors contend that this action was unnecessarily risky because Soviet general secretary Brezhnev never actually intended to send troops to Egypt. Kissinger's experience in 1969 had convinced him that caution and indecision were equally risky, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War ended with terms favorable to the United States and Israel.

Thoroughly researched, Nixon's Nuclear Specter is an interesting, though slightly revisionist, account of Nixon and Kissinger's handling of the war in Vietnam. Watching Nixon's ego, indecision, and management style undermine Kissinger's brilliance and a nation's reputation is a painful but instructive lesson on the importance of integrity. Too many competing values drowned out Nixon's "better angels." Instead of guiding principles that flowed from one grand strategy, Nixon allowed multiple strategies to emerge, compete, and interfere. Unfortunately, this book does not greatly expand readers' understanding of the utility of nuclear weapons in warfare. The evidence against coercive military action is inconclusive and leaves us wondering if the strategies discussed might have been effective if properly executed.

Maj Jonathan A. G. Sirard, USAF
Offutt AFB, Nebraska

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."