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Nixon’s Plan to Nuke His Way out of Vietnam

B52 Stratofortress Taking Off. Source: US Government

Remember that time Nixon gave orders to drop nukes on Moscow to end the war in Vietnam? No? Well neither did I until I came across this article written by University of Wisconsin History Professor, Jeremi Suri.

The article isn’t short – but well worth reading in its entirety - so here’s an overview.

The phrase, “Saner heads will prevail” depicts the antithesis of American tactics during the war in Vietnam. According to Suri, in 1969, Nixon had grown impatient in fruitless peace negotiations with Hanoi who had “…declared that they would just sit there, conceding nothing, "until the chairs rot."” As much of Hanoi’s military and material support flowed from Moscow’s coffers, Nixon and US Secretary of Defense, Henry Kissinger, went all Machiavellian on that ass and devised Operation Giant Lance based on “Madman Theory.”

The operation’s goal was to convince the USSR that Nixon was insane (maybe not such a far reach?) and that his obsession with Communism could lead him to authorize a first strike on Russia. Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, wrote in his diary:

"If the Vietnam thing is raised" in conversations with Moscow, Nixon advised, Kissinger should "shake his head and say, 'I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but [the president] is out of control." Nixon told Haldeman: "I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can't restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button' — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

With this mindset, Operation Giant Lance was authorized and on October 27, 1969, a squadron of 18 B52 bombers headed toward Soviet airspace.

For much of the 50s and 60s, Strategic Air Command kept dozens of B52s loaded with nuclear bombs in the air at all times. The rationale being that if the USSR destroyed the US’ nuclear arsenal in a surprise attack, the US would still have the capability to retaliate. But since these missions were suspended in 1968, when Giant Lance commenced, the Russians knew that all those blimps on their radar screens were not US patrols.

When the Russian Ambassador to the US met with Nixon in an emergency meeting to figure out what fresh hell was taking place, the US President played the bat-shit-crazy card. Apparently that worked out pretty well since the Ambassador, “warned Soviet leaders that "Nixon is unable to control himself even in a conversation with a foreign ambassador." He also commented on the president's "growing emotionalism" and "lack of balance."”

Thinking that the charade was working, Operation Giant Lance was suspended:

The sudden conclusion reinforced the madman pose. Nixon and Kissinger may have been trying to show the Soviets that they could initiate threatening actions without warning and then restore "normal" operations in similarly unpredictable ways. This would keep the Kremlin guessing about what was coming next, wondering whether the US would soon send both countries off the cliff.

But in reality, the plan was not only insanely dangerous, but a failure as well: "On the most obvious level, the mission failed. It may have scared the Soviets, but it did not compel them to end their support for Hanoi, and the North Vietnamese certainly didn't dash to Paris to beg for peace."

I’m just happy it didn’t end like this.

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