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Book Review: Nixon’s Nuclear Specter

By (June 15, 2015) One Comment

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter:nixon's nuclear specter cover

The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War

by William Burr & Jeffrey P. Kimball

University Press of Kansas, 2015

The US’s massive buildup in military strikes against North Vietnam in 1969 forms the backdrop for Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, a grim but vital new book by William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball. In an effort to use ramped-up violence to bring the North Vietnamese to negotiations designed to end the war, US President Nixon and his chief henchman Henry Kissinger embarked on their “Madman Theory” of, as Kissinger put it, alarming the North Vietnamese and their Soviet backers into thinking that the United States was “out of patience and may get out of control” – and the terminology, as our authors explain, had specific connotations:

With out of control and out of hand, Kissinger was using phrases that both he and Nixon had voiced in the past and would again in the future in connection with their Vietnam strategy – phrases whose meaning in this context was consistent with their Madman Theory. Their aim was to alarm the Soviets, worrying them that US escalation against North Vietnam would not only expand the war but endanger North Vietnam’s survival as a nation, perhaps requiring the Soviets to step up their support of the North. At a minimum, US escalation could undermine hopes for detente. At a minimum, American escalation in the form of a mining operation, for example, could cause the destruction of a Soviet ship with loss of life, creating the risk of political if not military confrontation.

Winston Lord, a top aide to Kissinger, confirmed after the war that Nixon and Kissinger were “quite serious” about following through on Madman; as Burr and Kimball put it, they set about “communicating irrationality through the threat of massive military force”:

In Indochina, this meant such measures as resuming the bombing of the far northern part of North Vietnam; carpet bombing its villages and cities; destroying its dikes; blockading or mining its ports; and invading Cambodia, Laos, or North Vietnam. But Lord mistakenly maintained that contingency planning did not include consideration of the use of nuclear weapons …

“Threats did not end the Vietnam deadlock,” our authors write, “in part because Moscow had achieved nuclear parity with Washington, which meant it was becoming dangerously anachronistic to brandish nuclear weapons.” And yet, as the appalled reader turns page after page, it becomes more and more obvious that Nixon was not only intent on continuing to make such threats but meant them seriously – that he seriously considered “tactical” nuclear strikes despite the unofficial “taboo” that had been in place since President Truman obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This is a densely-researched volume (although a readable one), and in any such book, in any new historical account of this particular administration, there will always occur a moment when you realize that in any given meeting, at any given discussion, the black hole in the center of the room, by far the worst, most depraved, most evil person present is the President himself. It becomes a sickeningly predictable kind of punchline, and after a while, the spellbound reader simply waits for it – and it never fails to happen. Call it The Nixon Moment – when even the hardened, unscrupulous men surrounding the President are momentarily shocked almost speechless by his abrupt depravity.

In Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, The Nixon Moment happens during the planning of the intensification of bombing that was to happen in April of 1972:

When Kissinger listed the targets that were to be attacked, Nixon suggested that they should also “take the dikes out now.” Kissinger, who seemed to have favored such attacks in November 1969, now demurred, complaining, “That will drown about 200,000 people.” Nixon interjected, “Well, no, no, no, no, no, no, I’d rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?” Kissinger muttered, “Now that, I think, would be just, uh, too much, uh -”. Nixon interrupted, “A nuclear bomb, does that bother you?” Kissinger’s retort is barely understandable, but he seemed to say, “A nuclear bomb, you wouldn’t do it anyway.” Nixon gruffly ended the conversation on this topic, saying, “I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake!”

Madman indeed.