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Would nukes have helped in Vietnam?

Friday, 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. []