U.S. once readied nukes in South Vietnam
Military commander OK’d plan to activate warheads in 1968, documents reveal
WASHINGTON — In one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War, the top U.S. military commander in Saigon activated a plan in 1968 to move nuclear weapons to South Vietnam until he was overruled by President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to recently declassified documents cited in a new history of wartime presidential decisions.
The documents reveal a longsecret set of preparations by the commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, to have nuclear weapons at hand should U.S. forces find themselves on the brink of defeat at Khe Sanh, one of the fiercest battles of the war.
With the approval of the U.S. commander in the Pacific, Westmoreland had put together a secret operation, code-named Fracture Jaw, that included moving nuclear weapons into South Vietnam so they could be used on short notice against North Vietnamese troops.
Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt W. Rostow, alerted the president in a memorandum on White House stationery.
The president rejected the plan and ordered a turnaround, according to Tom Johnson, then a young special assistant to the president and note-taker at the meetings on the issue, which were held in the family dining room on the second floor of the White House.
“When he learned that the planning had been set in motion, he was extraordinarily upset and forcefully sent word through Rostow, and I think directly to Westmoreland, to shut it down,” Johnson said in an interview.
He said the president’s fear was “a wider war” in which the Chinese would enter the fray, as they had in Korea in 1950.
“Johnson never fully trusted his generals,” said Tom Johnson, who is of no relation to the president. “He had great admiration for General Westmoreland, but he didn’t want his generals to run the war.”
Had the weapons been used, it would have added to the horrors of one of the most tumultuous and violent years in modern U.S. history. President Johnson announced weeks later that he would not run for re-election. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated shortly thereafter.
The story of how close the United States came to reaching for nuclear weapons in Vietnam, 23 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender, is contained in “Presidents of War,” a coming book by Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian.
“Johnson certainly made serious mistakes in waging the Vietnam War,” said Beschloss, who found the documents during his research for the book. “But we have to thank him for making sure that there was no chance in early 1968 of that tragic conflict going nuclear.”
The incident has echoes for modern times. It was only 14 months ago that President Donald Trump was threatening the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea — which, unlike North Vietnam at the time, possesses its own small nuclear arsenal.