Nixon's 'Madman' Plan to Scare Soviets During Vietnam May Have Backfired

December 25, 2002
Washington Post

President Richard M. Nixon ordered a worldwide secret nuclear alert in October 1969, calling his wartime tactic a "madman" strategy aimed at scaring the Soviets into forcing concessions from North Vietnam, declassified documents show.

It didn't work, as Moscow displayed no concern. The reason is unclear. The Soviets may not have cared, may not have been as influential as Nixon believed -- or, like the rest of the world, might not have noticed the alert.

The aim of the alert was kept secret from even the generals who put it into place.

The bluff was part of what Nixon described as a "madman" strategy to his new administration at the outset of 1969: ratcheting up military pressure on the North Vietnamese at unpredictable intervals to pressure them into concessions at peace talks in Paris.

Nixon believed this would force them into an agreement that would leave South Vietnam, a U.S. ally, in place.

Among declassified documents published this week by the independent National Security Archive is a memo to national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger from his assistant, Gen. Alexander M. Haig. It described plans to signal "U.S. intent to escalate military operations in Vietnam in the face of continued enemy intransigence in Paris."

Among the "signals" in Haig's March 2 outline: bombing enemy positions in Cambodia. On March 17, Nixon began a widespread secret bombing campaign against communist bases there.

Despite such pressures, the Paris talks remained deadlocked, and Nixon began to contemplate the nuclear alert in the summer of 1969.

A memo telegraphed in early October from Gen. Earle Wheeler, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, to all his commanders in chief ordered a "series of actions during the period 13 October - 25 October to test our military readiness in selected areas worldwide to respond to possible confrontation by the Soviet Union. These actions should be discernible to the Soviets, but not threatening in themselves."

He recommended grounding combat aircraft in selected areas for readiness checks, periods of radio silence and increased surveillance of Soviet ships -- all actions that suggested posturing for a nuclear conflict, and that the Americans believed the Soviets were sure to notice. A later "talking points" document showed Wheeler also ordered heightened combat readiness for ground troops.

But Nixon's plan may have backfired.

According to a report on the nuclear alert in the January 2003 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin betrayed no knowledge -- or concern -- of the nuclear alert in a meeting with a U.S. official a few days after the alert.

The Soviets resented attempts to use means unrelated to the Vietnam conflict to pressure them to rein in the North Vietnamese. Nixon brought Vietnam into arms reduction and Mideast talks as well. Although the Soviets were a major arms supplier to North Vietnam, Hanoi adeptly played the USSR against China, threatening a move to the other sphere of influence at the first sign of pressure.