December 23, 2002
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Nuclear Ploy: The Vietnam Negotiations and the Joint Chiefs
of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969
Washington, D.C. -- December 23, 2002 -- 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, that discloses for the first time one of
the Nixon administration's most secret military operations,
what became known to insiders as the "Joint Chiefs
of Staff Readiness Test."
Among the article's key findings:
- Determined to settle the Vietnam War--their "number
one problem", irritated by Soviet assistance to North
Vietnam, and frustrated by the stalemated Paris peace
talks, Nixon and Kissinger had pressed Moscow and threatened
North Vietham in order to make progress in the negotiations.
In early October 1969, Nixon decided to test the "madman
theory" by ratcheting up the readiness level of nuclear
forces. If his military moves jarred the Soviets sufficiently,
Nixon apparently believed, Moscow might use its leverage
to induce Hanoi to meet U.S. terms.
- Under Nixon's orders, in mid-October 1969, the Pentagon
undertook secretly a series of military measures designed
to put U.S. nuclear forces on a higher state of readiness.
The JCS Readiness Test was executed secretly so that the
public in the United States and allies would not notice
it, but Nixon wanted the measures to be detectable, but
not alarming, to the leadership of the Soviet Union and
its intelligence services
- The CINCs--the commanders-in-chief--did not know, and
could not find out why, "higher authority" had
ordered them to implement the secret readiness measures.
Nevertheless, between 13 and 30 October 1969, they put
U.S. nuclear bombers on higher alert, and raised the combat
readiness of U.S. tactical aircraft and air defense forces
and sent more nuclear missile submarines to sea. Moreover,
U.S. destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers engaged
in a variety of maneuvers in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean,
the Gulf of Aden, and the Sea of Japan. At the end of
October, the Strategic Air Command conducted a nuclear-armed
airborne alert exercise over eastern Alaska.
- The Pentagon searched for evidence that Moscow had noticed
the worldwide readiness measures but little declassified
evidence is available showing that the Soviets paid attention.
The Soviets may have seen Nixon's moves as a bluff; Moscow
made no change in its Vietnam policy.
"Nixon's Nuclear Ploy" will appear in the January-February
2003 print edition of The
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It 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
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