February 19, 2017

1968. America's "Nuclear Option" in Southeast Asia

Washington's Nuclear Option
"USS Henry Clay (SSBN-625) launches a Polaris A-2 missile from the surface off Cape Kennedy, Florida," April 20, 1964 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 12, 1968

The past few weeks of bad news from Korea and Vietnam has produced a flurry of worry and speculation here that the United States might be contemplating the use of tactical nuclear weapons to bring the Southeast Asian crisis under control.

Some reports were played up out of all proportion by so-called "revelations" that the US was stockpiling a nuclear arsenal in that part of the world.

The fact is that every American attack carrier on duty everywhere in the world has its store of nuclear armament, including those carriers now in the Gulf of Tonkin and the Sea of Japan.

The B-52 bombers who fly from Guam could just as well drop nuclear bombs on Vietnam as the conventional ones they now carry. Both strategic and tactical nuclear bombs are reported to be on US bases in Thailand, Okinawa, South Korea, and the Philippines.

And, of course, there are Polaris submarines which range the Pacific's international waters everywhere, from off Vladivostok to the Sea of Japan, and southward through the Gulf of Korea, the Formosa Strait, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the Gulf of Siam.

The point of all this is that it should be a surprise to no one that the United States for years has maintained a nuclear capability in the Western Pacific as part of the nation's normal security planning.

President Johnson has consistently refused to say that nuclear weapons will not be used in Southeast Asia—to do so would seriously limit his military options there and around the world.

Right now there are two powerful considerations which argue against the employment of even tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

First, the worldwide political repercussions would be tremendous, and would affect American prestige and possibly her global system of mutual defense alliances.

And secondly, there is the lack of so-called "nuclear targets" in Vietnam. For even the smallest tactical nuclear weapons in the US arsenal is designed for use against massed armies—or town-sized targets or fortifications.

And there just aren't any of those around the Marine base camp at Khe Sanh or the Demilitarized Zone.

This is Bill Downs in Washington for Information Reports.