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Jeremi Suri: Richard Nixon's Secret Plan to Bring Peace to Vietnam by Threatening to Use Nukes

Roundup: Talking About History




[Jeremi Suri (suri@wisc.edu), a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century.]

On the morning of October 27, 1969, a squadron of 18 B-52s — massive bombers with eight turbo engines and 185-foot wingspans — began racing from the western US toward the eastern border of the Soviet Union. The pilots flew for 18 hours without rest, hurtling toward their targets at more than 500 miles per hour. Each plane was loaded with nuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The B-52s, known as Stratofortresses, slowed only once, along the coast of Canada near the polar ice cap. Here, KC-135 planes — essentially 707s filled with jet fuel — carefully approached the bombers. They inched into place for a delicate in-flight connection, transferring thousands of gallons from aircraft to aircraft through a long, thin tube. One unfortunate shift in the wind, or twitch of the controls, and a plane filled with up to 150 tons of fuel could crash into a plane filled with nuclear ordnance.
The aircraft were pointed toward Moscow, but the real goal was to change the war in Vietnam. During his campaign for the presidency the year before, Richard Nixon had vowed to end that conflict. But more than 4,500 Americans had died there in the first six months of 1969, including 84 soldiers at the debacle of Hamburger Hill. Meanwhile, the peace negotiations in Paris, which many people hoped would end the conflict, had broken down. The Vietnamese had declared that they would just sit there, conceding nothing, "until the chairs rot." Frustrated, Nixon decided to try something new: threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its leaders think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out of control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North Vietnamese to start making concessions at the negotiating table or risk losing Soviet military support.

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon's plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it's clear that Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the "madman theory": Nixon's notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel....

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More than 35 years after Giant Lance, I asked Kissinger about it during a long lunch at the Four Seasons Grill in New York. Why, I asked, did they risk nuclear war back in October 1969? He paused over his salad, surprised that I knew so much about this episode, and measured his words carefully. "Something had to be done," he explained, to back up threats the US had made and to push the Soviets for help in Vietnam. Kissinger had suggested the nuclear maneuvers to give the president more leverage in negotiations. It was an articulation of the game theory he had studied before coming to power. "What were [the Soviets] going to do?" Kissinger said dismissively.

But what if things had gone terribly wrong — if the Soviets had overreacted, if a B-52 had crashed, if one of the hastily loaded warheads had exploded? Kissinger demurred. Denying that there was ever a madman theory in operation, he emphasized that Giant Lance was designed to be a warning, not a provocation to war. The operation was designed to be safe. And in any case, he said, firm resolve is essential to policymaking.
Read entire article at Wired.com

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