Essentially Annihilated: Press Release

Essentially Annihilated: Press Release

US, Fearing ‘Catastrophic’ Response, Rejected Nuclear Option in Vietnam in 1966, Secret Pentagon Study Shows


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    * Officials cited possible counter-attack against US troops and global threats to US interests in rejecting nuclear attack on Ho Chi Minh trail
    * Declassified report underscores folly of first use of nuclear weapons against Iraq, North Korea or Al Qaeda
    * US troops extremely vulnerable, then and now, to retaliation by guerrilla forces and terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction

WASHINGTON – US officials rejected the use of tactical nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War because of the catastrophic effect such a strike would have had on US global interests and the possibility that US forces in Vietnam “would be essentially annihilated” in retaliatory raids by nuclear-armed guerrilla forces, according to participants in a secret Pentagon study released today by the Nautilus Institute, a California research group.

“This study of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War is equally applicable to the war on terrorism,” said Peter Hayes, Director of the Nautilus Institute. “It is a stark warning that using nuclear weapons against Iraq, North Korea or transnational terrorists – or threatening to do so – makes more likely the use of the only weapons that can really threaten the United States on the battlefield with untold consequences for innocent civilians here and abroad.” Hayes’ analysis will appear in the May/June, 2003 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The report was written by four leading US scientists and presented to senior US defense officials in August and September 1966. “The political effects of US first use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic,” they wrote. At the time, US officials were considering deploying nuclear weapons to shut down a key pass in the Ho Chi Minh trail, the artery used by North Vietnam to move troops and equipment to its allies in the south.

The four physicists who wrote the report said their findings still hold true today. “The main conclusion is that the United States offers to any likely adversary much better targets for nuclear weapons than these adversaries offer to the United States,” said Freeman Dyson, now a professor at Princeton University. “This is even more true in the fight against terrorism than it was in Vietnam.”

Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, added: “Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has grown up a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons for anything but deterrence. But there have been some signs recently of a weakening of this taboo in talk of the development of low-yield weapons for attacking underground facilities, and even in suggestions of a revival of interest in nuclear-armed anti-missile interceptors. Let’s hope that this will go no further than did the idea of using nuclear weapons in the war in Southeast Asia.”

Weinberg’s account of the Vietnam-era report and an analysis of the study by Nautilus Executive Director Peter Hayes will appear in the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Opinion section on March 9.

Overall, the scientists said, a nuclear attack on Vietnam would “offer the US no decisive military advantage” and could lead China or the Soviet Union to provide North Vietnam and South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front with their own tactical nuclear weapons which could be used with great effectiveness against US forces concentrated in 14 “highly vulnerable” US bases. In such an event, “insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNW for themselves.”

“The use of TNW in Southeast Asia is likely to result in greatly increased long-term risk of nuclear guerrilla operations in other parts of the world,” the scientists argued, 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 said.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, will enter excerpts from the report in the Congressional Record.

Hayes of Nautilus, who spent 20 years trying to get the report declassified, stated: “Four of the nation’s best scientists showed that in a real war such as in Vietnam, nuclear weapons would not give the United States decisive military advantage, would potentially make US forces and the United States vulnerable to nuclear counter-attack, and would increase the likelihood of nuclear guerrilla attack elsewhere in the world. We hope there are advisers in the current government with the wisdom and courage of these scientists, willing to stand up and speak the truth about nuclear weapons – that these devices are useless for fighting wars, including wars on terrorism.”

The report, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia,” was prepared by a team of scientists known as the Jason Division for the Pentagon’s Institute of Defense Analyses. It was declassified by the Department of Defense under a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 1984 by the Nautilus Institute’s Nuclear Policy Project.

It is being released at a time when US military planners, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, are examining potential nuclear targets in Iraq and considering various nuclear options, including the use of “bunker-busters” that could destroy deeply buried military targets in Iraq and possibly North Korea. On February 13, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the US Senate that the United States “will not foreclose the possible use of nuclear weapons” if attacked.

Seymour Deitchman, a national security consultant who served with the IDA for over 28 years, told Nautilus that the Jason report on TNWs was presented to senior defense officials in the fall of 1966. In a statement provided to Nautilus, Deitchman recalled that “there had been not infrequent talk” among war planners he had contact with “that ‘a few nukes’ dropped on strategic locations, such as the Mu Gia pass through the mountainous barrier along the North Vietnamese-Laotian border, would close that pass (and others) for good.” He added that, “to the extent of my personal knowledge, the talk of using nuclear weapons in that war stopped after the JASON report on the subject.”