U.S. once read­ied nukes in South Viet­nam

Mil­i­tary com­man­der OK’d plan to ac­ti­vate war­heads in 1968, doc­u­ments re­veal

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By David E. Sanger

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.

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