The US's secret plan to nuke Vietnam, Laos
By Richard Ehrlich
BANGKOK - The US Air Force wanted to use nuclear weapons against Vietnam in 1959 and 1968, and Laos in 1961, to obliterate communist guerrillas, according to newly declassified secret US Air Force documents.
In 1959, US Air Force chief of staff General Thomas D White chose several targets in northern Vietnam, but other military officials blocked his demand to nuke the Southeast Asian nation.
"White wanted to cripple the insurgents and their supply lines by attacking selected targets in North Vietnam, either with
conventional or nuclear weapons," one declassified air force document said.
"Although White's paper called for giving the North Vietnamese a pre-attack warning, the other chiefs tabled it, possibly due to the inclusion of nuclear weapons. Seven months later, the proposal was withdrawn," it said. The 400-page document, titled, "The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in Northern Laos 1954-1973," was written in 1993 by the Center for Air Force History in Washington and "classified by multiple sources".
It was made public - along with several other previously secret, war-era air force documents - on April 9 by the National Security Archive in Washington, after extensive Freedom of Information Act litigation. The Archive is an independent, non-governmental research institute in George Washington University.
White "asked the joint chiefs of staff for the green light to send a squadron of Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-47 jet bombers to Clark Air Base in the Philippines" to prepare for an assault on nearby Vietnam, the declassified report said. White's quest to unleash America's nuclear arsenal may have been inspired by an air force study titled, "Atomic Weapons in Limited Wars in Southeast Asia," it said.
That study "focused on the use of atomic weapons for 'situation control' in jungles, valley supply routes, karst areas, and mountain defiles to block enemy movement and to clear away cover", the declassified report said in a footnote elaborating on White's strategy. Such terrain forms much of northern Vietnam and Laos.
One year later, during December 1960 and January 1961, a Soviet airlift was supplying "food, fuel and military hardware" to local pro-Moscow forces in Laos, via Hanoi, the declassified air force document said. In March 1961, the US joint chiefs "countered with a plan calling for up to 60,000 men, complete with air cover and nuclear weapons".
"This inclusion of nuclear weapons by the military was a legacy of the Korean War. To the chiefs, it was unthinkable for the United States to embark on another conventional, strength-sapping war," the document said.
In 1968, just before their Tet Offensive, communist North Vietnamese troops and their southern Viet Cong allies attacked American forces in the center of the country, where the US kept Vietnam divided. In response, General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, reached for the nuclear button.
"In late January, General Westmoreland had warned that if the situation near the DMZ [demilitarized zone] and at Khe Sanh worsened drastically, nuclear or chemical weapons might have to be used," said a separate 106-page declassified, "top secret" report titled, "The Air Force in Southeast Asia: Toward a Bombing Halt, 1968," written by the Office of Air Force History in 1970.
"This prompted [Air Force chief of staff] General [John P] McConnell to press, although unsuccessfully, for JCS [joint chiefs of staff] authority to request Pacific Command to prepare a plan for using low-yield nuclear weapons to prevent a catastrophic loss of the [US] Marine base," it said.
Throughout much of America's failed war, the US relied on massive aerial bombardments, plus napalm, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but did not drop any nuclear bombs, despite the US Air Force's three attempts. After the US lost, communists achieved power in 1975 in all three countries.
With hindsight, the authors of the 1993 declassified air force document said it would not have been a good idea "to employ nuclear weapons to destroy insurgents and their supply sources" in Vietnam or Laos.
"It is doubtful whether any suitable targets for such weapons existed in the jungles of northern Laos or North Vietnam," it said. "More important, such an attack would have given the communists a tremendous propaganda victory and possibly spread the war to China and the western Pacific," it said.
Communist China supported the guerrillas in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia against US assaults. The document's mention of the US spreading its would-be nuclear war to "the western Pacific" apparently refers to involving the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and nearby islands, where the US had military facilities.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent.
(Copyright 2008 Richard S Ehrlich.)
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