Nixon considered nuking North Korea, according to declassified documents

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- Four decades ago, in response to North Korean military provocations, the U.S. developed contingency plans that included selected use of tactical nuclear weapons against Pyongyang’s military facilities and the possibility of full-scale war, according to recently declassified documents. Astonishingly, casualty estimates ranged from a low of 100 or so civilian deaths, up to “several thousand.”

Newly-elected President Richard Nixon and his key advisors, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler, considered a menu of possible military actions against North Korea, from carefully targeted attacks on North Korean military facilities, to a plan codenamed FREEDOM DROP for limited nuclear strikes (with surprisingly limited casualty expectations), to all-out war using nuclear weapons. The Pentagon drew up these plans as the result of North Korea’s downing of a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan in April 1969 -- just one in a long set of military provocations by Pyongyang that continues to the present.

Yet, in another pattern that would be repeated in the years since then, Nixon and his advisors were forced to heed the Pentagon’s warnings that anything short of massive attacks on North Korea’s military power would risk igniting a wider conflagration on the peninsula, leaving diplomacy, with all its frustrations, as the remaining option, coupled with the deterrent posed by U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. These vexing issues confront the Obama administration today as it seeks to forge an effective response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship last March.

The National Security Archive obtained the documents posted today through multiple Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests to the U.S. government. They are part of a major new collection consisting of almost 1,700 documents, The United States and the Two Koreas, 1969-2000, which the Archive is publishing through ProQuest, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korea War on June 25th, 1950.

Key points illustrated by these documents include:

* The early recognition that military strikes against North Korea, regardless of the provocation, carried serious risks of inciting retaliation by Pyongyang and the threat of escalation.

* The growth in the list of available options from limited strikes on selected North Korean airfields to, by the fall of 1969, at least two dozen plans, which targeted the full spectrum of North Korea’s military forces, and covered a wide range of scenarios to provide flexibility to the president in confronting future North Korean provocations.

* The emphasis on the need to neutralize North Korea’s air power, in any response to a provocation greater than the downing of the U.S. reconnaissance plane, in order to minimize the risks of retaliation and escalation. To this end the JCS drew up a plan codenamed FRESH STORM to take out Pyongyang’s military air power, but warned that carrying it out would carry some risk of sparking a major war on the Korean peninsula.

* The development of a nuclear contingency plan, codenamed FREEDOM DROP that called for “pre-coordinated options for the selective use of tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea…” The available options included limited attacks on North Korean command centers, airfields, and naval bases with atomic weapons ranging from .2 to 10 kilotons, delivered by air or Honest John/Sergeant missiles, as well as at the upper end an attack with 10 to 70 kiloton weapons geared to take out North Korea’s air power and diminish the country’s overall military capability. Depending on the size of the attack, the estimated “friendly losses” would be “Less than 10 percent,” and civilian deaths would range from “approximately 100 to several thousand."

* Kissinger’s assessment that, given the range of options available and the uncertainties surrounding possible North Korean responses, Nixon would respond to a similar provocation by North Korea in the future by either doing nothing or selecting an option toward the “extreme end of possibilities.”

As these documents show, Kissinger repeatedly pressed the Pentagon to develop a range of effective and calibrated military strike options that the President could draw upon in the event of future such North Korean actions. Despite the impressive array of alternatives, Nixon and Kissinger came to realize that none of these limited options could provide acceptable assurance against North Korean counter-attacks and escalation of the conflict. The only viable political choices were non-military responses combined with diplomacy, or a military strike, possibly involving nuclear weapons, that would eliminate North Korea’s ability to launch air strikes -- in effect declaring war on Pyongyang....

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