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U.S. General Considered Nuclear Response in Vietnam War, Cables Show via The New York Times

WASHINGTON — In one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War, the top American military commander in Saigon activated a plan in 1968 to move nuclear weapons to South Vietnam until he was overruled by President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to recently declassified documents cited in a new history of wartime presidential decisions.

The documents reveal a long-secret set of preparations by the commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, to have nuclear weapons at hand should American forces find themselves on the brink of defeat at Khe Sanh, one of the fiercest battles of the war.

With the approval of the American commander in the Pacific, General Westmoreland had put together a secret operation, code-named Fracture Jaw, that included moving nuclear weapons into South Vietnam so that they could be used on short notice against North Vietnamese troops.

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Had the weapons been used, it would have added to the horrors of what was one of the most tumultuous and violent years in modern American history. Johnson announced weeks later that he would not run for re-election. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated shortly thereafter.

The story of how close the United States came to reaching for nuclear weapons in Vietnam, 23 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender, is contained in “Presidents of War,” a coming book by Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian.

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While publicly expressing confidence in the outcome of the battle at Khe Sanh, General Westmoreland was also privately organizing a group to meet in Okinawa to plan how to move nuclear weapons into the South — and how they might be used against the North Vietnamese forces.

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The incident has echoes for modern times. It was only 14 months ago that President Trump was threatening the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea — which, unlike North Vietnam at the time, possesses its own small nuclear arsenal.

There have been other moments when presidents had to consider, or bluff about, using atomic weapons. The most famous was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the closest that the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear conflict.

And before he was dismissed in 1951 by President Harry S. Truman, Gen. Douglas MacArthur explored with his superiors the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean War. Truman had feared that MacArthur’s aggressive strategy would set off a larger war with China, but at one point did move atomic warheads to bases in the Pacific, though not to Korea itself.

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Mr. Beschloss’s book, which will be published on Tuesday by Crown, examines challenges facing presidents from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush. It also reveals that at the same time the nuclear debate was underway, senators were outraged to discover that the president and his aides had misled them about progress in the Vietnam War.

Read more at U.S. General Considered Nuclear Response in Vietnam War, Cables Show

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