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.
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.
About the Author
Jeffrey Kimball is a professor at Miami University of Ohio and has taught courses on diplomacy, peace, war, imperialism, popular culture, the United States, American presidents, and Western civilization since 1968. His books include Nixon's Vietnam War (1998; winner of both the Ferrell Prize and the Ohio Academy of History Book Award) and The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (2004; winner of the Arthur S. Link/Warren F. Kuehl Prize). Kimball is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters on diplomacy, war, peace, and historiography, has served as President of the Peace History Society, and has been a Nobel Institute Senior Fellow and a Woodrow Wilson International Center Public Policy Scholar.
William M. Burr Jr. is a lifelong boater and the author of Sailing Tips: 1,000 New Ways to Solve Old Problems, a popular guide for boaters for over 10 years. He retired after 40 years in the chemical industry and then spent a year selling coatings and compounds in a marine store as part of his research for Boat Maintenance. He now lives aboard his 37-foot Jeanneau sailboat, facing and solving the problems addressed in his latest guide.