I remember the sinking feeling in November 1968, a dark foreboding. Richard Nixon had just been elected president. On the campaign trail Nixon, who as vice president had advocated the use of U.S. nuclear weapons at Dienbienphu in 1954, had dropped hints about a secret Vietnam peace plan. I feared what Nixon might do in Vietnam as president.
In fact, Nixon did have a secret Vietnam plan. And it turns out there was good reason for my “paranoia.”
Nixon’s secret plan is the subject of a new book by William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (University of Kansas Press). Burr and Kimball recreate the narrative of the November Option, a scenario, developed by Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, for a decisive U.S. military/diplomatic offensive against North Vietnam to be launched in November 1969.
Kissinger expressed his strategic frustration to his aides. “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point,” Kissinger blustered. “It shall be the assignment of this group to examine the option of a savage, decisive blow against North Vietnam.”
Both Nixon and Kissinger had concluded that the Vietnam War could not be won militarily. That’s where “madman diplomacy” came in. According to the November Option scenario, the United States would launch a “savage” attack on North Vietnam – massive air strikes and mining of Haiphong harbor, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s main port.
Then Kissinger would play the madman card. He would seek a meeting with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin of the Soviet Union to warn that Nixon was on the verge of getting “out of control.” He would hint that Nixon might take even more extreme military measures in Vietnam. He would urge the Soviet Union, in order to avert a possible military catastrophe, to lean hard on its North Vietnamese ally to accept the U.S. terms for ending the war in Vietnam.
Nixon outlined Kissinger’s talking points for a meeting with Dobrynin. “The P wants K to shake his head and say, `I am sorry Mr. Ambassador, but he is out of control. Mr. Ambassador, as you know I am very close to the president, but you don’t know this man – he’s been through more [Cold War crises] than any of the rest of us put together. He’s made up his mind and unless there’s some movement,’ just shake your head and walk out.”
Nixon also discussed madman diplomacy with White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. “They’ll believe any threat of force that Nixon makes,” he explained. “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that `for God’s sake, you know he is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ . . . Ho Chi Minh will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” [Emphasis in original]
By July, however, Nixon began to have second thoughts about the November Option. There were sharp differences between Nixon and Kissinger, on the one hand, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other, over the conception of the November Option.
Burr and Kimball write, “They [Nixon and Kissinger] wanted a concept plan that emphasized psychological and political aims. Its purpose would not necessarily be to destroy North Vietnam or its war-making capacity but instead to produce shock and awe: sudden and dramatic military pressure on Hanoi to yield in the negotiations.” Their plan included the use of nuclear weapons in several iterations.
General Earle Wheeler, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed an alternative plan based on hard-hitting gradually escalating, air strikes against an expanded list of targets in North Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger opposed the Joint Chiefs’ plan. It was more Rolling Thunder on steroids than shock and awe. They believed that Operation Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration’s gradually escalating air war in North Vietnam (1965-1968), had been militarily ineffective.
Burr and Kimball point out there were doubts about the military effectiveness of both November Option plans inside the Nixon administration. Kissinger’s aides and Pentagon officials were skeptical that either plan would produce the decisive diplomatic results that Nixon and Kissinger sought.
As summer turned to fall, Nixon began to vacillate about whether to go ahead with the November Option or to cancel it. He and Kissinger assessed the possible impact of the November Option on the two major national demonstrations in Washington for October and November. Nixon worried that the November Option would spark a “massive new antiwar tide.” Would the antiwar protests “undercut the credibility of the ultimatum,” he asked. Years later he would write, “It would be very hard to hold the country together while pursuing a military solution.”
In October, Nixon pulled the plug on the November Option. Instead, he ordered a covert readiness test of U.S. nuclear forces around the globe. He said the readiness test should be “discernable to the Soviets but . . . not threatening.” He hoped that the nuclear alert would send a message of U.S. resolve and unpredictability on Vietnam.
The nuclear alert test, which ran from October 13 to October 30, did not go unnoticed in the Soviet Union, but it did not have the effect Nixon intended. When Dobrynin met with Nixon in the Oval Office on October 20, the ambassador did not even mention the U.S. nuclear muscle flexing.
Burr and Kimball write, “The strategy they [Nixon and Kissinger] had pursued through most of the year 1969 – and which they had optimistically expected to coax Hanoi to yield – had ended with a whimper.”
Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is an authoritative analysis of Nixon’s madman diplomacy, based on a trove of declassified documents, by two experienced and respected Cold War historians. Burr is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, George Washington University. Kimball is professor of history emeritus at Miami University of Ohio.
For anti-Vietnam war activists, with memories of the dark shadow cast by President Nixon in 1969, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter will be compelling reading.
Jack Colhoun, an antiwar Army deserter, was an editor of AMEX-Canada, the magazine of U.S. war resisters exiled in Canada in 1971-1977. He was Washington correspondent for the (New York) Guardian newsweekly in 1978-1992. He is author of Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba, and the Mafia, 1933-1966 (N.Y.: OR Books, 2013).