Statement of Senator Dianne Feinstein on 1967 Study that Analyzed the Advisability of Using Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Vietnam War


Howard Gantman, Scott Gerber
Tel. 202-224-9629;

Also published in the U.S State Department’s “Washington File” on March 11, 2003

Washington, DC The Department of Defense recently declassified a 1967 study that analyzed the potential effects of using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield during the Vietnam War. The following is a floor statement by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) submitted for the record on the declassification of the study:

Mr. President, in the mid-1960s during the height of the Vietnam War the Department of Defense commissioned a study to determine the feasibility and advisability of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in that conflict. A copy of that 1967 study, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, has just been declassified, and lays out in terrifying detail what might have happened if the United States had used tactical nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War.

The bottom line of the study is that the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam to block the Ho Chi Minh trail, kill large numbers of enemy soldiers, or destroy North Vietnamese air bases and seaports would have offered no decisive military advantages to the United States, but would have had grave repercussions for US soldiers in the field and US interests around the world.

The study was prepared by four physicists associated with the Jason Division of the Institute of Defense Analyses, a group of scientists who met frequently to provide classified advice to defense officials. The studys conclusions were presented to then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The political effects of US first use of TNW (tactical nuclear weapons) in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic, the scientists wrote. They warned that US first-use of tactical nuclear weapons could lead China or the Soviet Union to provide similar weapons to the Viet Cong and North Vietnam, raising the possibility that US forces in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated in retaliatory raids by nuclear-armed guerrilla forces.

If that happened, they wrote, insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNW for themselves. First-use of nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, the scientists warned, was likely to result in greatly increased long-term risk of nuclear guerrilla operations in other parts of the world, including attacks on the Panama Canal, oil pipelines and storage facilities in Venezuela and the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv.

US security would be gravely endangered if the use of TNW by guerrilla forces should become widespread, they concluded.

Thirty-six years later some American officials are, according to press reports, once again contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, and seeking to repeal US prohibitions on the developments of smaller nuclear weapons, including so-called low-yield bombs and deep-penetration bunker-busters.

Writing recently in the Los Angeles Times, military analyst William Arkin disclosed the US Strategic Command in Omaha and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are secretly drawing up nuclear target lists for Iraq. Target lists are being scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of preemption, Arkin reported.

There have also been reports that tactical nuclear weapons, particularly bunker busters, have been considered by Pentagon planners in the context of the escalating nuclear crisis with North Korea. Moreover, many US analysts believe there is a great danger that North Korea, if its survival was at stake, would be willing to sell its nuclear arsenal to the highest bidder.

North Korea itself apparently believes the United States may be planning nuclear strikes of its own, and on March 1 warned that a war on the Korean peninsula would quickly escalate into a nuclear war.

I sincerely believe that any first use of nuclear weapons by the United States can not and should not be sanctioned. As the Jason scientists argued in the 1960s, US nuclear planning could serve as a pretext for other countries and, worse, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, to build or acquire their own bombs. If we are not careful, our own nuclear posture could provoke the very nuclear-proliferation activities we are seeking to prevent.

This study, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, was released this past weekend by the Nautilus Institute of Berkeley, California, and I would urge those with an interest in reading it in full to contact them directly.

The conclusions of the Jason report are as valid, realistic and frightening today as they were in 1967. As we contemplate the future course of our nations national security policy, I believe that it is important to look at past events, to learn from them, and to benefit from the counsel of history.