The US's secret plan to nuke Vietnam, Laos
By Richard Ehrlich
BANGKOK - The US Air Force wanted to use nuclear weapons against Vietnam in
1959 and 1968, and Laos in 1961, to obliterate communist guerrillas, according
to newly declassified secret US Air Force documents.
In 1959, US Air Force chief of staff General Thomas D White chose several
targets in northern Vietnam, but other military officials blocked his demand to
nuke the Southeast Asian nation.
"White wanted to cripple the insurgents and their supply lines by attacking
selected targets in North Vietnam, either with
conventional or nuclear weapons," one declassified air force document said.
"Although White's paper called for giving the North Vietnamese a pre-attack
warning, the other chiefs tabled it, possibly due to the inclusion of nuclear
weapons. Seven months later, the proposal was withdrawn," it said. The 400-page
document, titled, "The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in
Northern Laos 1954-1973," was written in 1993 by the Center for Air Force
History in Washington and "classified by multiple sources".
It was made public - along with several other previously secret, war-era air
force documents - on April 9 by the National Security Archive in Washington,
after extensive Freedom of Information Act litigation. The Archive is an
independent, non-governmental research institute in George Washington
White "asked the joint chiefs of staff for the green light to send a squadron
of Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-47 jet bombers to Clark Air Base in the
Philippines" to prepare for an assault on nearby Vietnam, the declassified
report said. White's quest to unleash America's nuclear arsenal may have been
inspired by an air force study titled, "Atomic Weapons in Limited Wars in
Southeast Asia," it said.
That study "focused on the use of atomic weapons for 'situation control' in
jungles, valley supply routes, karst areas, and mountain defiles to block enemy
movement and to clear away cover", the declassified report said in a footnote
elaborating on White's strategy. Such terrain forms much of northern Vietnam
One year later, during December 1960 and January 1961, a Soviet airlift was
supplying "food, fuel and military hardware" to local pro-Moscow forces in
Laos, via Hanoi, the declassified air force document said. In March 1961, the
US joint chiefs "countered with a plan calling for up to 60,000 men, complete
with air cover and nuclear weapons".
"This inclusion of nuclear weapons by the military was a legacy of the Korean
War. To the chiefs, it was unthinkable for the United States to embark on
another conventional, strength-sapping war," the document said.
In 1968, just before their Tet Offensive, communist North Vietnamese troops and
their southern Viet Cong allies attacked American forces in the center of the
country, where the US kept Vietnam divided. In response, General William
Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, reached for the nuclear
"In late January, General Westmoreland had warned that if the situation near
the DMZ [demilitarized zone] and at Khe Sanh worsened drastically, nuclear or
chemical weapons might have to be used," said a separate 106-page declassified,
"top secret" report titled, "The Air Force in Southeast Asia: Toward a Bombing
Halt, 1968," written by the Office of Air Force History in 1970.
"This prompted [Air Force chief of staff] General [John P] McConnell to press,
although unsuccessfully, for JCS [joint chiefs of staff] authority to request
Pacific Command to prepare a plan for using low-yield nuclear weapons to
prevent a catastrophic loss of the [US] Marine base," it said.
Throughout much of America's failed war, the US relied on massive aerial
bombardments, plus napalm, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but did not drop any
nuclear bombs, despite the US Air Force's three attempts. After the US lost,
communists achieved power in 1975 in all three countries.
With hindsight, the authors of the 1993 declassified air force document said it
would not have been a good idea "to employ nuclear weapons to destroy
insurgents and their supply sources" in Vietnam or Laos.
"It is doubtful whether any suitable targets for such weapons existed in the
jungles of northern Laos or North Vietnam," it said. "More important, such an
attack would have given the communists a tremendous propaganda victory and
possibly spread the war to China and the western Pacific," it said.
Communist China supported the guerrillas in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia against
US assaults. The document's mention of the US spreading its would-be nuclear
war to "the western Pacific" apparently refers to involving the Philippines,
Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and nearby islands, where the US had military
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the
non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey!
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is