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US, Fearing 'Catastrophic' Response, Rejected Nuclear Option in Vietnam in 1966, Secret Pentagon Study Shows


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  • Officials cited possible counter-attack against US troops and global threats to US interests in rejecting nuclear attack on Ho Chi Minh trail
  • Declassified report underscores folly of first use of nuclear weapons against Iraq, North Korea or Al Qaeda
  • US troops extremely vulnerable, then and now, to retaliation by guerrilla forces and terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction

WASHINGTON - US officials rejected the use of tactical nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War because of the catastrophic effect such a strike would have had on US global interests and the possibility that US forces in Vietnam "would be essentially annihilated" in retaliatory raids by nuclear-armed guerrilla forces, according to participants in a secret Pentagon study released today by the Nautilus Institute, a California research group.

"This study of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War is equally applicable to the war on terrorism," said Peter Hayes, Director of the Nautilus Institute. "It is a stark warning that using nuclear weapons against Iraq, North Korea or transnational terrorists - or threatening to do so - makes more likely the use of the only weapons that can really threaten the United States on the battlefield with untold consequences for innocent civilians here and abroad." Hayes' analysis will appear in the May/June, 2003 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The report was written by four leading US scientists and presented to senior US defense officials in August and September 1966. "The political effects of US first use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic," they wrote. At the time, US officials were considering deploying nuclear weapons to shut down a key pass in the Ho Chi Minh trail, the artery used by North Vietnam to move troops and equipment to its allies in the south.

To download the report or read key excerpts.

The four physicists who wrote the report said their findings still hold true today. "The main conclusion is that the United States offers to any likely adversary much better targets for nuclear weapons than these adversaries offer to the United States," said Freeman Dyson, now a professor at Princeton University. "This is even more true in the fight against terrorism than it was in Vietnam."

Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, added: "Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has grown up a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons for anything but deterrence. But there have been some signs recently of a weakening of this taboo in talk of the development of low-yield weapons for attacking underground facilities, and even in suggestions of a revival of interest in nuclear-armed anti-missile interceptors. Let's hope that this will go no further than did the idea of using nuclear weapons in the war in Southeast Asia."

Weinberg's account of the Vietnam-era report and an analysis of the study by Nautilus Executive Director Peter Hayes will appear in the Los Angeles Times' Sunday Opinion section on March 9.

Overall, the scientists said, a nuclear attack on Vietnam would "offer the US no decisive military advantage" and could lead China or the Soviet Union to provide North Vietnam and South Vietnam's National Liberation Front with their own tactical nuclear weapons which could be used with great effectiveness against US forces concentrated in 14 "highly vulnerable" US bases. In such an event, "insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNW for themselves."

"The use of TNW in Southeast Asia is likely to result in greatly increased long-term risk of nuclear guerrilla operations in other parts of the world," the scientists argued, including attacks on the Panama Canal, oil pipelines and storage facilities in Venezuela and the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv. "US security would be gravely endangered if the use of TNW by guerrilla forces should become widespread," they said.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, will enter excerpts from the report in the Congressional Record.

Hayes of Nautilus, who spent 20 years trying to get the report declassified, stated: "Four of the nation's best scientists showed that in a real war such as in Vietnam, nuclear weapons would not give the United States decisive military advantage, would potentially make US forces and the United States vulnerable to nuclear counter-attack, and would increase the likelihood of nuclear guerrilla attack elsewhere in the world. We hope there are advisers in the current government with the wisdom and courage of these scientists, willing to stand up and speak the truth about nuclear weapons - that these devices are useless for fighting wars, including wars on terrorism."

The report, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia," was prepared by a team of scientists known as the Jason Division for the Pentagon's Institute of Defense Analyses. It was declassified by the Department of Defense under a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 1984 by the Nautilus Institute's Nuclear Policy Project.

It is being released at a time when US military planners, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, are examining potential nuclear targets in Iraq and considering various nuclear options, including the use of "bunker-busters" that could destroy deeply buried military targets in Iraq and possibly North Korea. On February 13, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the US Senate that the United States "will not foreclose the possible use of nuclear weapons" if attacked.

Seymour Deitchman, a national security consultant who served with the IDA for over 28 years, told Nautilus that the Jason report on TNWs was presented to senior defense officials in the fall of 1966. In a statement provided to Nautilus, Deitchman recalled that "there had been not infrequent talk" among war planners he had contact with "that 'a few nukes' dropped on strategic locations, such as the Mu Gia pass through the mountainous barrier along the North Vietnamese-Laotian border, would close that pass (and others) for good." He added that, "to the extent of my personal knowledge, the talk of using nuclear weapons in that war stopped after the JASON report on the subject."

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  • US offers 'much better targets' than adversaries
  • Authors include Nobel laureate for physics
  • Vulnerability of US bases in Vietnam, Middle East compared


The four scientists who wrote the 1966 report on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam were Freeman Dyson, Robert Gomer, S. Courtenay Wright and Stephen Weinberg, the 1979 Nobel Prize winner for physics. In interviews with the Nautilus Institute, they said they requested funds to conduct their study after overhearing discussions at the Pentagon about the possible use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Professor Dyson, now at Princeton University, said in a written statement that he was alarmed to hear one aide say: "It might be a good idea to toss in a nuke from time to time, just to keep them guessing."

Weinberg, who teaches at the University of Texas, said that he "felt that the use of nuclear weapons would make the war even more destructive than it had already become. It would create a terrible precedent for the use of nuclear weapons for something other than deterrence; it wouldn't help much with the war; and it would open up the possibility of nuclear attacks on our own bases in Vietnam."

"Since nuclear weapons are excellent for obliterating cities and their occupants, they would have undoubted appeal to terrorist organizations whose restraint (if such existed) would certainly be quashed if the US made use of such devices," said Wright, a retired physicist from the University of Chicago. "And our heralded missile defense system, even if it worked, which it will not, will not stop a terrorist delivered bomb. That would not come on-board a missile. It would arrive in a suitcase, by train, car, truck or motorboat."

Three of the four Jason scientists are available today for telephone interviews. Their statements, along with contact numbers and brief biographies, are enclosed in this packet.


The Mu Gia pass on the Ho Chi Minh trail connected North Vietnam to Laos and was bombed extensively by the US Air Force during the war. Some 43 US airmen were killed or listed as missing in bombing missions over the pass.

To effectively interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Jason scientists calculated that US Air Force bombers would need a "huge number of weapons." Quoting from a still-classified targeting study conducted by the RAND Corporation, they estimated that a "completely nuclear ROLLING THUNDER (bombing) campaign would require about 3,000 TNW per year."


The Jason report concluded that tactical nuclear weapons would be effective in Vietnam "only in stopping the enemy from moving large masses of men in concentrated formations." It also noted a few other potential targets, including bridges, airfields and missile sites," and argued that nuclear devices might be "used very effectively" to block roads and trails in forested areas used by North Vietnamese and NLF soldiers.

But the scientists added: "fallout from groundburst weapons cannot by itself provide a long-lasting barrier to the movement of men and supplies without endangering civilian populations at up to a distance of 200 miles."

From the perspective of the US military, one of the most chilling sections of the Jason report laid out the vulnerability of US forces in Vietnam to a nuclear attack with portable weapons supplied by either China or the Soviet Union. The scientists noted that US forces were concentrated in 14 bases, containing a total of about 70 target areas, "each packed with men, stores, equipment, or vehicles."

NLF guerrillas, the report said, were capable of transporting small nuclear weapons in small boats or trucks and could even deploy them in a mortar or recoilless rifle.

"If about 100 weapons of 10-KT (kiloton) yield each could be delivered from the base perimeters onto all 70 target areas in a coordinated strike, the US fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated," they concluded. Even with a small number of weapons, "US casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of US capabilities would be considerable."

The "most attractive single target," the report said, would have been the Saigon Airport, where a "single well-placed explosion" could destroy the US intelligence center and kill thousands of American soldiers. Other key targets included the troop concentrations at US bases in Pleiku, Da Nang and An Khe. "In addition to the physical effect on US forces, the news of a successful nuclear attack on a US base would have enormous propaganda value for the Communists, not only in Vietnam, but in all of Asia and Africa," the scientists concluded.


A similar logic applies today. As the events of 9-11 and other recent attacks have shown, the United States and US forces overseas remain highly vulnerable to attacks from weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, al Qaeda has been trying for years to acquire nuclear weapons and may have succeeded if it had remained in Afghanistan, according to a report by David Albright, a Washington analyst who worked as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq.

In recent weeks, about 150,000 US forces from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines have been deployed in countries surrounding Iraq in preparation for a possible invasion this spring, Many of these forces are concentrated in large US bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Quatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, all of which are located near the waters of the Persian Gulf and easily accessible by small boats and vehicles.

In addition to dozens of US Navy warships carrying thousands of sailors, these forces, according to the Associated Press and BBC, include:

  • The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force of 15,000 Marines, already in Kuwait
  • The 15th and 24th Marine Expeditionary Units, with 4,400 Marines, now en route to the region
  • Nearly 18,000 Air Force personnel, including 1,725 Air National Guardsmen, with 3,500 US personnel based at the al-Udeid air base in Quatar
  • The Army's 3rd Infantry Division. 4th Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division, each with about 20,000 soldiers, possibly headed to Kuwait
  • The Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment with 6,000 soldiers and support staff, en route, possibly to Kuwait.
  • Nearly a thousand civilian mariners working on US Military Sealift Command ships stationed at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Note: For the latest information on US deployments in the Middle East, please consult the Center for Defense Information.

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