Nixon's Nuclear Ploy: The Vietnam Negotiations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969

An online companion piece to an article appearing in the January/February 2003 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 81

Edited by

William Burr, National Security Archive
Jeffrey Kimball, Professor of History, Miami University

December 23, 2002

For more information contact:
William Burr (202) 994-7032

Today, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article, "Nixon's Nuclear Ploy,'' by National Security Archive senior analyst William Burr and Miami University historian Jeffrey Kimball,(1) that discloses for the first time one of the Nixon administration's most secret military operations. During October 1969, President Richard Nixon ordered the Pentagon to undertake secretly a series of military measures designed to put U.S. nuclear forces on a higher state of readiness. For nearly three weeks, U.S. nuclear bombers were on higher alert, while U.S. air defense forces, tactical aircraft, and nuclear missile submarines in the Pacific took measures to raise their combat readiness. Moreover, U.S. destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers were engaged in a variety of maneuvers in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, and the Sea of Japan. These measures were officially known as the "Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Readiness Test." Although they were executed secretly so that the public in the United States and allies would not notice them, they were supposed to be detectable, but not alarming, to the leadership of the Soviet Union and its intelligence services.

The U.S. commanders-in-chief (CINCs)--of the Strike, Strategic Air, and Continental Air Defense Commands, and of U.S. forces in Alaska, the Atlantic, in Europe, in the Pacific, and elsewhere--who presided over the alert and readiness measures did not know why Nixon had ordered them. Indeed, they could only guess about the purpose because Pentagon officials could not or would not give them any information. Indeed, the Pentagon demanded strict secrecy for the readiness test and enjoined public affairs officials throughout the military services to avoid any comment in the event of leaks. They could only say, "we do not comment on readiness tests." It was not until the early 1980s that any information on these events reached the mass media, when Seymour Hersh published The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (Summit Books, 1983).

Even after Hersh's book, the full scope of the readiness and the reasons behind it remained obscure and classified. Newly declassified documents confirm what Strategic Air Command officers suspected, that Vietnam War concerns were behind Nixon's decision. As White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman recorded in his diary on 17 October 1969, as the readiness test was underway, Kissinger had told him that "he has all sorts of signal-type activity going around the world to try to jar Soviets + NVN [North Vietnam]." [See Document 8] Irritated by Soviet military assistance to North Vietnam, Nixon was testing his "madman theory" by ratcheting up the readiness level of nuclear forces. If his military moves made Moscow concerned enough, Nixon apparently believed, the Soviets might use their leverage to induce Hanoi to be more cooperative in the Paris peace talks.

This compilation suggests the variety of material used to prepare these articles. Years before either of the authors understood the purpose of the JCS Readiness Test, the Air Force release was declassified documents that suggested that a significant military operation had taken place in October 1969. (For example, see Document 11). But it was difficult to describe the full scope of the readiness test without access to a file --entitled "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture"(2) -- in the records of JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler held at the National Archives in the records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (RG 218). The Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act request for this file in 1994, but it was not declassified until August 2002, eight years later.(3) With the availability of this file and documents from the Nixon papers at the National Archives, it finally became possible to interpret the White House decisions that led to the readiness test and the Pentagon's efforts to carry out presidential orders.

"Nixon's Nuclear Ploy" elucidates the intersection between Vietnam diplomacy, the "madman theory," and nuclear operations during October 1969. The article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists draws upon a longer, fully-sourced and footnoted essay, "Nixon's Secret Nuclear Alert: Vietnam War Diplomacy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969," that will appear in the January 2003 issue of Cold War History.

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Document 1: Memorandum of Conversation between President Richard Nixon and General Charles de Gaulle, Paris, 28 February 1969

Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Nixon Presidential Materials Project. National Security Council Files (NSCF), box 1023. Memcon - The President and General De Gaulle 2/28-3/2/69

Richard Nixon admired French president Charles de Gaulle and made a point of meeting with him privately, with only translators present, when he made his first presidential visit to Europe in late February-early March 1969. During three lengthy conversations, Nixon discussed the Vietnam negotiations and made it clear that he expected Soviet help on Vietnam if there was to be any progress in a detente with Moscow. Rightly or wrongly, Nixon believed that Moscow was in a position to help because, he told the General, the Soviets had "great influence on the North Vietnamese" and supplied them with "85 percent of their weapons." Serving as translator and notetaker was the linguistically skilled General Vernon Walters, the U.S. Defense Attaché in Paris, who would later help arrange Kissinger's secret meetings with Chinese and North Vietnamese diplomats.

Document 2: Memorandum from Al Haig to Henry Kissinger, "Memorandum from Secretary Laird Enclosing Preliminary Draft of Potential Military Actions re Vietnam," 2 March 1969, enclosing a memorandum from Secretary of Defense Laird to Kissinger, 21 February 1969, and report [excerpts] from Joint Staff, Top Secret/Sensitive, with Kissinger's Memo Reply to Laird, 3 March 1969

Source: NSCF, box 1007, Haig Vietnam Files, Vol. 1 (Jan - March 1969)

During the first weeks of the new Republican administration, Nixon, national security assistant Kissinger, JCS chairman Wheeler, and defense secretary Melvin Laird discussed possible military actions to make gains in the Vietnam negotiations. Laird's memorandum to Kissinger notes that in late January, they had discussed "potential military actions which might jar the NorthVietnamese into being more forthcoming at the Paris talks." Laird sent Kissinger a Joint Staff paper that reviewed possible options, including "technical escalation," a plan for the feigned nuclear escalation against North Vietnam. In the reply to Laird, Kissinger asked for actions with a "lower profile" and less risk on the grounds that "actual or feigned military action" might produce "international and domestic turbulence."

Document 3: Memorandum of Conversation between Presidents Nicolae Ceaucescu and Richard Nixon, 3 August 1969, Bucharest, Romania, Top Secret/Sensitive/Nodis

Source: NSCF, box 1023, MemCons--The President and President Ceaucéscu, August 2-August 3, 1969

During the summer and early fall of 1969, Nixon and Kissinger tried to signal North Vietnam that if they did not cooperate at Paris, the United States would punish them with massive bombing raids. After a trip to Asia in late July and early August 1969, Nixon stopped in Romania, partly to "needle" the Soviets by showing them that he would deal with East European countries whether they liked it or not (and they did not).(4) Nixon also used the meetings to make carefully modulated threats to North Vietnam. During discussions with President Ceaucescu, Nixon said that "I don't make idle threats" and that the Vietnamese were "making a grave mistake if they think they can wait us out." Recognizing that Bucharest had its own channels to Hanoi, undoubtedly Nixon expected Ceaucescu to pass the message on to North Vietnam.

Document 4: Memorandum from Henry A. Kissinger for the President, "Conversation with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin," 1 October 1969, enclosing memorandum of conversation between Dobrynin and Kissinger, 27 September 1969, Top Secret Sensitive

Source: NSCF, box 489, Dobrynin/Kissinger 1969 (Part II)

Beginning in early 1969, Nixon and Kissinger established a confidential "back channel" to Moscow through ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. During their many conversations, Kissinger would push for more assistance from Moscow on Vietnam, while Dobrynin would consistently object to Kissinger's efforts to link Vietnam with progress in other areas such as arms control and the Middle East. During this meeting in late September, Kissinger took a prearranged phone call from Nixon, who wanted Dobrynin to know that the "train had just left the station and was heading down the tracks." In other words, without Soviet cooperation on Vietnam, a dangerously uncontrollable situation could arise.

Document 5: Cable from JCS Chairman Wheeler to General Holloway, CINCSAC et al., 10 October 1969, Top Secret/Sensitive/Eyes Only

Source: NARA, Record Group 218. Records of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler Papers, box 109, "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture (October 69)", released under FOIA

After Nixon ordered the Pentagon to take military readiness measures, Laird's military assistant, General Robert Pursley and the Joint Staff, developed specific plans that met White House criteria for actions that the Soviets would notice without alarming them. By 10 October 1969, a few days after Nixon's decision, the Pentagon had an action plan for implementation by the CINCs. To notify them about the ongoing planning, Wheeler informed the CINCs about a decision by "higher authority" to "test our military readiness.... to respond to possible confrontation by the Soviet Union." No one had a confrontation in mind, and references to "confrontation" were quickly dropped but the cable spelled out the main lines of action on which the CINCs could receive instructions, such as stand-downs, alert measures, and radio silence. Significantly, Wheeler asked the CINCs to suggest further actions that were compatible with the goals of the operation.

Document 6: Point Paper for the Chairman, JCS for a Meeting with the President, "Plan for US Military Readiness," circa 10 October 1969, Top Secret/Sensitive

Source: NARA, Record Group 218. Records of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler Papers, box 109, "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture (October 69)", released under FOIA

A briefing paper prepared for a meeting with President Nixon broadly outlined actions for implementation around the world by the specified and unified (geographic) military commands. Besides standing down training flights, commands would implement Emission Controls (EMCON, or communications silence) and "reinstate degraded alert sorties," military terminology for increasing forces on ground alert.

Document 7: Cable from CINCPAC to JCS, "Military Readiness," 12 October 1969, Top Secret/Eyes Only, excised copy

Source: NARA, Record Group 218. Records of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler Papers, box 109, "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture (October 69)", released under FOIA

Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, Admiral John McCain (father of the Arizona senator) responded to Chairman Wheeler's message with a number of suggested actions for testing U.S. military readiness. The Pacific Command and the Department of Energy excised nuclear-related suggestions (the deletions are under appeal), but various suggestions survived the review process, e.g., measures to increase the readiness posture of Pacific fleet units, intensify intelligence activities, prosecute submarine contacts, and increase the readiness of air defense units. McCain discussed the possibility of intensifying PARPRO (peacetime application of reconnaissance programs) activities against the Soviets, he advised against it partly because of the "increased risk to PARPRO aircraft." Pentagon planners had also discussed the possibility of increasing reconnaissance flights on the Soviet periphery but ruled against that option because of the risks of incidents.

Document 8: Diary Entry, Friday, 17 October, H. R. Haldeman Diary

Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project. Special Files. Hand-written Journals and Diaries of Harry Robbins Haldeman

This entry was declassified in the mid-90s but too late for publication in the CD version of Haldeman's diaries.(5) Consequently, an important clue about Nixon and Kissinger's thinking about the readiness test (and well as Kissinger's optimism that Dobrynin's request for a meeting with Nixon signified a "big break" on Vietnam) languished in relative obscurity for a number of years. Until other material became available from the Nixon NSC files this past spring, this was the only document that disclosed Nixon's intent in ordering the readiness test.

Document 9: Cable from JCS to CINCPAC, "Increased Readiness Posture," 17 October 1969, Top Secret/Noforn, excised copy

Source: NARA, Record Group 218. Records of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Earle Wheeler Papers, box 109, "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture (October 69)", released under FOIA

The same day that Kissinger confided in Haldeman about the readiness test, Wheeler sent a series of cables to the CINCs instructing them on measures that they would take during the next phase of activity. Some drew directly on Admiral McCain's suggestions cited in document 7 such as increasing readiness of conventionally armed tactical and air defense aicraft" and increasing surveillance of Soviet ships en route to North Vietnam. One specifically nuclear-related measure survived the security reviewers: maintaining "maximum feasible SSBNs at sea", that is, deploying as many Polaris nuclear missile submarines at sea as possible.

Document 10: Memorandum to Secretary of Defense from JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler, "US Military Readiness Tests - Worldwide," 22 October 1969, Top Secret/Noforn/Sensitive

Source: NARA, Record Group 218. Records of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler Papers, box 109, "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture (October 69)", released under FOIA

Throughout the course of the readiness test, the Pentagon high command and the White House were interested in whether Soviet intelligence had detected any of the military measures. Unless Moscow noticed unusual patterns in U.S. military activity around the world, the readiness test would not make the Soviets think twice, which is what Nixon wanted them to do. During the readiness test, CINCSTRIKE (Commander-in-Chief, Strike Command)--an ancestor of today's Central Command--had sent MIDEASTFOR (Middle East Force) ships into the Gulf of Aden (part of the MEAFSA, or Middle East/Southern Asia and Africa South of the Sahara, region). As indicated in Wheeler's report the Soviet navy has noticed the movement of U.S. ships in the Gulf of Aden. In light of the Soviet reaction, and presumably to ensure that the Soviets kept on noticing, the Joint Chiefs recommended continuing the naval exercise.

Document 11: Cable from Strategic Air Command Headquarters to 12 Air Division et al., "Increased Readiness Posture," 23 October 1969, Top Secret

Source: Air Force 1995 FOIA Release

CINCSAC, General Bruce Holloway, also came up with suggestions to increase the readiness level of U.S. military forces in ways that presumably would be visible to Soviet observers. Typifying the technical and organizational complexity of military action, this message to SAC commanders in the field ordered them to prepare selected aircraft for "maintenance generation" and airborne alert. The former meant that aircraft would be on the "highest state of maintenance readiness": while not in "cocked" ground alert posture with crews on board, the bombers would have nuclear weapons on board and would be otherwise ready to fly. For the airborne alert mission, codenamed "Giant Lance," aircraft from the 92nd strategic aerospace wing would fly nuclear-armed airborne alerts in the "Eilson East SEAGA orbit" with "implementation hour" beginning late in the day on 26 October. In other words, they would be flying in an orbit over Eastern Alaska, not far from Eilson air base. The Eilson East orbit was one of a number of "orbits" (Northern Pacific, Western Alaska, Eastern Atlantic, etc.) in which alerted bomber and tanker aircraft could fly in the SEAGA--Selective Employment of Air and Ground Alert--program. SAC had established SEAGA in the late 1960s to give policymakers various nuclear alert options during a politico-military crisis.

Document 12: Cable from JCS to all Commanders of Unified and Specified Commands, "Increased Readiness Posture," 28 October 1969, Top Secret

Source: NARA, Record Group 218. Records of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler Papers, box 109, "381 World-Wide Increased Readiness Posture (October 69)", released under FOIA

With this message, the JCS ordered the CINCs to end the readiness test early in the morning of 30 October and to restore units to normal operating status. Thus, ended a military operation that would remain secret until the early 1980s.


1. Author of the prize-winning Nixon's Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), Kimball recently completed a book entitled Smoking Guns and Puzzle Pieces: Secret Files and Tapes About the Vietnam War and Triangular Diplomacy, 1969-1975, which will be published by the University Press of Kansas.

2. In the old War Department decimal filing system, 381 refers to military plans and planning.

3. Administrative problems explained part of the delay; unfortunately, the Archive's request was folded into a very large request for Wheeler files made by another individual.

4. See, for example, Raymond L. Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation: American Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1994), pp. 83-84.

5. Harry Robbins Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (Santa Monica, CA : Sony Imagesoft, 1994).