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Would nukes have helped in Vietnam?

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 25th, 2014

That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish heads. We were going to club him to death with our meat; what could you say except, “Colonel, you’re insane”? ... Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ballbreakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, “right here in-country.” Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.1

So wrote Michael Herr in his masterful and classic book of Vietnam War journalism, Dispatches. I recently re-read Herr's book, and this passage stuck out to me today more than it did when I first read the book a decade ago. "There were always the Nukes..." is an attitude that one sometimes sees expressed in other contexts as well, the idea that if it came to it, the USA could, of course, "glassify" any enemy it so chose to. The bomb in this view is the ultimate guarantor of security and strength. But of course Vietnam, among other conflicts, showed very clearly that being a nuclear state didn't guarantee victory.2

A napalm attack in the Vietnam War. Source.</a

Napalm in Vietnam. Source.

Would nukes have helped with the Vietnam War? It is a somewhat ghastly idea, to add more slaughter to an already terrible, bloody war, but worth contemplating if only to consider in very tangible terms what nuclear weapons can and can't do, could and couldn't do. It was a question that was studied seriously at the time, too. In early 1967, a JASON committee consisting of Freeman Dyson, Robert Gomer, Steven Weinberg, and S. Courtney Wright wrote a 60 page report on "Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia," considering what could and couldn't be done with the bomb. The whole thing has been obtained (with redactions) under the Freedom of Information Act by the Nautilus Institute, who have put together a very nice website on the subject under the title "Essentially Annihilated."3

The motivation for the report, according to Ann Finkbeiner, came from a few of the JASON consultants hearing off-hand comments from military men about the appeal of using a nuke or two:

"We were scared about the possible use in Vietnam," said Robert Gomer, a chemist from the University of Chicago who was probably Jason's first nonphysicist. During the 1966 spring meeting Freeman Dyson was "at some Jason party," he said, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was also close to President Johnson "just remarked in an offhand way, 'Well, it might be a good idea to throw in a nuke once in a while just to keep the other side guessing.'"4

Gomer took initiative on the report, but it is Dyson's name that is most closely associated it, in part because he (alphabetically) is listed as the first author, in part because Dyson is much more famous. Finkbeiner, who interviewed the authors of the report, says that it was not a report that was specifically requested by the military or government, and that it hewed closely to analytical/tactical questions as opposed to ethical ones.

Which is to say, as you probably have figured out, they set out to show from the start that tactical nuclear weapons would not be a good thing to introduce into the Vietnam War. So they weren't exactly neutral on the question, but neutrality and objectivity are not the same thing.

1967 - Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia

The report is a fascinating read. It serves as a wonderful lens into how strategic thinking about tactical weapons worked at the time, because the authors, perhaps in an attempt to make sure it was taken seriously, couch all of their reasoning in the language of other, official studies on the issue. So it offers insights into the kinds of issues that were popping up in war-gaming scenarios, and assumptions that were apparently taken as valid about what a tactical nuclear weapon could and couldn't do. And by deliberately avoiding any discussions of politics and morality (and with that, strategic nuclear weapons use), it does allow them to get into the nitty gritty of the tactical questions without getting overwhelmed by larger and often more nebulous debates about the propriety of nuclear arms.

The basic conclusions are pretty simple. The main one is that even if the US did use tactical nuclear weapons, and such use was entirely unilateral, it wouldn't get very useful results. Tactical nuclear weapons were thought to be most useful against large massed troops or columns of armor, such as an invading Red Army moving into Western Europe. The problem is, that didn't describe the situation in Vietnam very well at all, where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army typically operated in smaller groups under forest cover. You could use nukes to destroy their bases, but you'd have to locate their bases first — and by the time you've done that, you could have just bombed them conventionally. In general, in a war like Vietnam, tactical nuclear weapons appeared to offer little advantage over conventional arms in most situations. The one special addition of the nukes — the fallout — was too difficult to predict and control, and fallout that would be a useful barrier to troops would necessarily become a problem for civilians as well.

There are some interesting numbers in the report. One is a citation of a conclusion from a RAND study that in a complex war environment, a tactical nuclear weapon is "on the average, equivalent to about 12 nonnuclear attack sorties." The JASON authors conclude that if you wanted to do something like the Rolling Thunder campaign using nuclear weapons, under this rubric it would require 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons per year. They also note another war-gaming conclusion, that even in the presumedly "Soviet" tactical nuclear weapons environment — large, massed troop and armor concentrations —  "the average number of enemy casualties per strike was about 100." This probably assumes that some strikes are outright misses while others are very effective, but that's an impressively low number. The JASON authors note that this would be considerably less in a Vietnam-style environment, because the ability to locate targets of interest would probably be much lower.

There are, they acknowledge, a few cases where specific uses of tactical nuclear weapons might be advantageous. Bridges, headquarters, and underground tunnel complexes could be more easily taken out with tactical nukes than conventional weapons. Such conclusions are somewhat underwhelming, and maybe that is the point: when you do figure out what good the weapons might do, it seems much less impressive than the fantasies.

Map of the Tet Offensive, 1968; the JASON authors would perhaps have us consider what this would have looked like if the North Vietnamese had been supplied tactical weapons from the Soviets or Chinese. Source.

Map of the Tet Offensive, 1968; the JASON authors would perhaps have us consider what this would have looked like if the North Vietnamese had been supplied tactical weapons from the Soviets or Chinese. Source.

The strongest argument they make against using the weapons, though, is not so much that they would be ineffective against the Vietnamese. Rather, it is that the weapons would be really effective against American troops in Vietnam:

If about 100 weapons of 10-KT yield each could be delivered from the base perimeters onto all 70 target areas in a coordinate strike, the U.S. fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated. In the more likely contingency that only a few weapons could be delivered intermittently, U.S. casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of U.S. capabilities would be considerable.

This is often the argument made today whenever the idea of using nuclear weapons — tactical or otherwise — re-raises its head. Since World War II, the US has the strongest interest in not breaking the "nuclear taboo" because once nukes start becoming normalized, the US usually stands to lose the most, or at least a lot. Massed troops, heavy armor, and fixed bases? That's how we prefer to fight wars. Massive urban cities conveniently located on coasts? Check. Economy highly reliant on communications, transportation, and other infrastructure? Yeah. Which is probably one of the deep reasons that the US, for all of its lack of willingness to commit to a no-first use policy, has always managed to find a way so far to avoid using the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons it produced in the years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The report convincingly concludes:

The use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would be highly damaging to the U.S. whether or not the use remains unilateral. The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse military effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply. The military advantages of unilateral use are not overwhelming enough to ensure termination of the war, and they are therefore heavily outweighed by the disadvantages of eventual bilateral use.

When I teach to students, I try to emphasize that there are some deep paradoxes at the core of nuclear weapons policies. Deterrence is a tricky-enough strategic issue, a mixture of  military logic and raw fear. Tactical nuclear weapons add complicated wrinkles. Were they merely a means of making deterrence more credible, by showing the Soviets (and whomever else) that we were not willing to let the threat of nuclear annihilation become paralyzing? Or were they really intended to be military weapons that could be usefully employed, regarded as a sort of scaling up of conventional capabilities? In terms of their doctrine and literature, it isn't clear: they are spoken of as both, in part because a stated willingness to use them is core to their deterrent value. (That is, if you are going to be convincing in your statements that you are willing to use them, you have to look like you are willing to use them, even if you don't want to use them.)

How much of tactical nuclear weapons was just swagger? Above, the Davy Crockett weapons system, in full-swagger mode.

How much of tactical nuclear weapons was just swagger? Above, the Davy Crockett weapons system, in full-swagger mode.

Thinking through, in a concrete way, what would happen if nuclear weapons are used, and what the long-term consequences would be (politically, tactically, environmentally, economically, etc.) is an important exercise, even if it is sometimes labeled as morbid. Too often, I think, we close our minds to the very possibility. But "thinking the unthinkable" is valuable — not because it will make us more willing to use them, but because it highlights the limitations of their use, and helps us come to grips with what the actual consequences would be.

So would nuke have been useful in the Vietnam War? I think the JASON authors do a good job of showing that the answer is, "almost certainly not very useful, and possibly completely disastrous." And knowing, as we do now and they did not in 1967, how much of a long-term blot Vietnam would be to US domestic and foreign policy in the years that followed, consider how much of a danger it would have posed if we had started letting little nukes fly on top of everything else.

Notes
  1. Michael Herr, Dispatches (Vintage, 1991 [1977]), 60-61. []
  2. Were they actually "right here in-country"? Apparently not, except on aircraft carriers nearby. Of course moving them into the war theatre would not have likely been very difficult. Still, it is an interesting wrinkle to Herr's account — the colonels bragging to the journalists, assuming it occurred, was in part just bravado. []
  3. F. Dyson, R. Gomer, S. Weinberg, S.C. Wright, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia," JASON Study S-266 (March 1967), originally posted online at Nautilus.org. []
  4. Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite (New York: Viking, 2006), 93. []

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18 Responses to “Would nukes have helped in Vietnam?”

  1. Dyson’s said in an interview that the general who was enthusiastic about nukes in Vietnam was Maxwell Taylor. Thought you’d like to know that. http://www.webofstories.com/play/freeman.dyson/128 — around minute 3

    And Sy Deitchman (rest his lovely soul) told me in an email that in spite of the Jason’s statement that the tac nukes report wasn’t requested by anyone, he remembered John McNaughton asking “for the issue to be looked at.”

    Details. This is a wonderful post. As your posts always are.

    I’m still deeply admiring the amount of smart, careful, thorough work in that Essentially Annihilated website.

    • Thanks, Ann! Super interesting.

    • John Simpson says:

      That was an excellent insight. It completely makes sense when you consider it was Taylor who reorganized the Army around the ill-advised Pentomic division during his tenure as Chief of Staff. It’s also the time that a phrase still found in Army doctrinal publications was coined, “Nuclear and non-nuclear warfare”. This of course implied that tactical nuclear war was the default situation and everything else was lumped under non-nuclear.

  2. Don G. Boyer says:

    As a former weapons specialist, I can find nothing stupider than the types of officer’s we had running the ground war in Vietnam, with a few notable exceptions. On the stupidity scale, they were only exceeded (tenfold) by the politicians in Washington who were completely clueless, followed by the anti-war protesters and the news media. That aside, there was no use for nukes, tactical or otherwise in Vietnam. Nukes are deterrent weapons — to make sure the other guy doesn’t get too crazy. Other than that, they aren’t very useful in an internal revolution gone brushfire like Vietnam. The whole intent was never to use them. So far it’s worked. The only thing that would have worked in Vietnam was the same thing that works in any war you actually want to win, and the US hasn’t demonstrated since WWII the collective cojones to do it, even though it saves lives, time and money.

  3. M Tucker says:

    That war was a much more complex problem than could be solved by simply using nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise. Despite all the bombing of Hanoi still large areas of that city remained untouched. The US never targeted the agricultural center of N Viet Nam. The US resisted mining Haiphong harbor until very late in the war. Even though Haiphong also was bombed, large areas of that city remained untouched. Repeated massive bombing campaigns against the Ho Chi Minh trail never resulted in closing that avenue into the south. Military offensives could not cross the DMZ while the NVA launched repeated offensives in the south. The US wanted to win the hearts and minds of the S Vietnamese peasant farmers but the S Viet Nam government oppressed and persecuted those same people. It was a massive cluster f** that could have never been solved simply by military intervention and using nuclear weapons would not have contributed anything to the conflict. Taylor and others could only think in terms of military engagement. Once the US had committed so much to military action and once the farmers in the south had become universally oppressed by both the S Viet Nam government and the US military, the only course of action was to abandon all effort in S Viet Nam.

  4. Whitehall says:

    I remember no serious public talk at the time about the US using TNW in Vietnam – and I was paying attention. As M. Tucker noted, it was very late before we did anything about Hanoi and Haiphong.

    A better question is, would TNW have broken the stalemate in the last two years of the Korean War? T. R. Fehrenbach in his book on the subject suggests that the public demonstration of the “Atomic Annie” nuclear artillery made the North Koreans serious about ending the war.

    • What is Fehrenbach’s evidence? It seems like that would be a hard argument to make?

      • Whitehall says:

        Double-checking Fehrenbach’s book, he does not have foot notes but he does note in chapter 39 that the 280mm field cannon was shipped to the Korean front but that the nuclear munitions were stored close by. He also states that news of the weapon tests in Nevada were deliberately leaked to the Chinese.

        His basic argument is tactical – he served in Korea as an army officer so had direct experience. The Chinese would use mass attacks on UN positions, overwhelming them with numbers. By late 1952, war had settled into a seesaw war over rugged terrain around the present DMZ where each side tried to fortify their hills and force the other side off theirs. See Pork Chop Hill.

        TNW would be very effective against massed troops, acting on a larger scale like machine guns did in WWI, giving advantage to the defense. TNW would also be useful against field fortifications while on the attack. The latter explains the military interest in sending troops into ground zero in the Nevada tests.

        The Nevada nuclear test occurred on May 25th, 1953 and by June 4th, the Communists agree in effect to all UN truce proposals. A formal agreement was signed July 27th. Eisenhower had been president a few months already, adding to the uncertainty for the Communists of how ruthless the US would be for victory.

        • So he doesn’t have anything but a coincidence of dates — that doesn’t strike me as very firm.

          TNW might work well against massed troops assuming you identified the target quickly, successfully, and didn’t miss. This was one of the major concerns amongst the generals about using nukes in Korea. General MacCormack put it this way to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy: “…to send American airplanes with American bombs to support foreign troops, I am afraid, would lead you into a most horrible sort of disaster because of the tie-in and coordination between air and ground forces is difficult enough at best if you all came out of the same school. It is very tough indeed when you come from different schools and if you pull a boner with an atomic bomb, as has been pulled with ordinary ammunition in Korea, if you pull one with an atomic bomb, I feel you will put back atomic support for ground troops by years.”

          • Whitehall says:

            Indeed, no citations but seems plausible if not supported or proven.

            As to General MacCormack’s point, herein lies the tactical advantage of atomic artillery with its 20 mile range. His thinking reflected sound military judgment and may have stimulated the development of Atomic Annie and Davy Crockett.

            Plus I’m sure inter-service rivalries had something to do with the Army’s developments.

          • I am not sure I would think it plausible without something more concrete. A lot of things were going on in the war at the time, and to assume that the North Koreans put a lot of things together and came up with a conclusion that the US was about to use tactical nuclear weapons… I think it’s just too big of a leap without real evidence. Coincidences of timing are the most misleading sorts of historical arguments, and they lead down lots of incorrect paths.

  5. Peter says:

    If tactical nuclear weapons would have been useful at any time, it would have been at the very end of the war in 1974, which of course was long after the U.S. had left. North Vietnam’s conquest of the south was pretty much a large massed attack like a hypothetical Warsaw Pact invasion of western Europe. Invasion forces were in large columns and vulnerable to battlefield nuclear weapons.

  6. The only time any military gives up a shiny new toy is when they discover it doesn’t work but is eating up money that could go to ever newer toys that might work.

    This is why NATO gave up on tactical nukes.

    Nukes of any size only work ‘better’ than conventional weapons when used to threaten to destroy entire civilian metro areas – they are no different than the non-use of gas and germs to threaten the same.

  7. Jens Aggergren says:

    I guess I always thought that the main reason nuclear weapons (tactical or otherwise) were newer used in any of the cold-war-era conflicts, was that it would have lead to world war three. Wouldn’t the US deploying tactical nukes doubtless have prompted the Soviet Union to supply the North Vietnamese with nukes as well? And wouldn’t full scale (theater wide at least) nuclear exchange have followed?

  8. Bill says:

    Excellent post. Also fascinating on the Jason’s report is an essay by Nina Tannenwald and Peter Hayes, “Nixing Nukes in Vietnam,” that appeared in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists back in 2003.

    On NATO and tactical nukes– there are still 200 U.S. ‘tactical’ nuclear bombs at bases in Italy, Netherlands, etc. It looks like some NATO members, especially in Eastern Europe, haven’t quite given up on them, even if we wish that they would agree to moving the nukes out of Europe.

  9. Jason says:

    Fascinating. Even more fascinating to me (as ever) are what the redacted bits of the report contain.

    • My guess is that most of the blank spots refer to specific weapons effects, capabilities, and yields. None of them seem to have much length to them, and in context one can generally say, for example, “oh, I think this must be them saying something about the feasibility of the Soviets manufacturing something on par with the Davy Crockett.”

      Some of the larger ones are interesting, like the description of OREGON TRAIL on 21-22, which would be interesting to know more about. I find it very curious that on page 30 there is a table where the heading of a column is classified but most of the contents are not. (It seems likely that the heading is something like, “Number of weapons of X yield necessary to destroy” or something like that.)

  10. Robin Smith says:

    Thank you very much for this piece. I’ve been divided on this topic from day one. Your historic observations have helped me to see more clearly. Assume I am a student for the purposes of this reply.

    And for your students in general may I be so bold as to suggest a supplemental idea for the teacher:

    “There is no such thing as a paradox”

    or…

    “A paradox is perfect evidence for a convenient fantasy”

    What appears to be a paradox, is actually that either one or both sides(of a good or bad thing), of a created duality, separation, or Secret, are in a state of denial about what we’ve always known is real, but have shunted into the unconscious for expedience.

    This is the nature of ‘The Secret’ motif. Or, that is, the division of a prior sustainable unity, into a duality. In psychological terms, collective denial.

    And the primary reason for creating a secret, is so that the point of certainty quickly reached by even a small child in the original question, can be ignored or buried by the grown adult, and dealt with later… maybe… we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. And then when reaching the bridge, realise the expedience of the secret has come at greater cost already.

    The problem with secrets or dualities is eventually what has been hidden will inevitably ‘erupt atomically’ and unaccountably somewhere else, the effects of which who can say? With high probability “I” or my class or my nation will not suffer them, a decent gamble?

    Certainly the effects will seem to reinforce the paradox unless one has recognised, a priori, that all paradoxes are mass denial for the purposes of expedience, for which The Secret is the expedient medicine. So that we do not have to think or worry ourselves with the profound and can expect the eventual higher costs to be ‘socialised’.

    May I be frank:

    “Thinking the unthinkable is valuable not because it helps us come to terms with what the actual consequences might be” of the superficial. But because it helps us comes to terms with what the actual consequences might be, of the profound.

    The Secret helps us to make something superficial, such as the atom or mass starvation despite enormous wealth, appear to be profound. Creating a paradox, which is really a fantasy.