Published in the Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2003 (registration
By Robert Weinberg
In 1966, as a member of the
JASON group of defense consultants, I was one of the authors of a report titled
"Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia." Although the report was classified,
its title and authorship became public knowledge, a fact that caused me some
grief. From its title, it was natural - though wrong - to conclude that
the report offered a plan for the use of nuclear weapons in the region. In
fact, the group predicted terrible consequences if such weapons were employed,
and advised against their use. But because the report's title had circulated
in the Bay Area, someone scrawled the words "Steven Weinberg, war criminal"
in front of the house in Berkeley where I lived when the report was written.
I am pleased that the report has at last been declassified, so people can
see what was in it.
The JASON group was divided
in its reaction to the Vietnam War. Some members looked at it as a purely
military problem, to which our expertise might make a useful contribution.
Some thought of it as nasty business, which could best be ended by winning
the war. Others simply wanted nothing to do with it. I was in the last group.
In 1966, we heard rumors
that someone in the Pentagon or White House was pushing to use tactical nuclear
weapons in Vietnam or Laos. Some of us were appalled, believing this would
take the war to a new and horrifying level of destructiveness. It also, I
felt, would create a terrible precedent for the use of nuclear weapons for
something other than deterrence. In the end, I doubted it would help much
with the war, but it would open up the possibility of nuclear attacks on our
own bases in Vietnam. These immediate reactions, though, were not based on
any careful analysis. So we decided to do the analysis and write a report.
It was clear from the beginning
that the report should not go into ethical issues; for us to raise them would
cast doubt on the impartiality of our analysis. So the report concentrated
instead on purely military issues. As can now be read in the report, we concluded
that the Vietnam War did not offer plausible targets for nuclear weapons,
and that our forces were far more vulnerable to the use of nuclear weapons
than our adversaries were. The analysis was honestly done, but I have to admit
its conclusions were pretty much what we expected from the beginning, and
if I had not expected to reach these conclusions, then, for the ethical reasons
that we left out of the report, I would not have helped to write it.
I never learned whether our
report had any effect. I never learned, even, whether there had ever been
a serious idea of using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia. At least they
were not used and have not been used since.
Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
there has been a de facto taboo against using nuclear weapons for anything
other than deterrence. But there have been some signs recently of a weakening
of this taboo: in talk of developing low-yield weapons for attacking underground
facilities, and even in suggestions of reviving interest in nuclear-armed
anti-missile interceptors. Let's hope this will go no further than did the
idea of using nuclear weapons in the war in Southeast Asia.
Return to Top