by Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suri
Nixon sought to convince Soviet and North Vietnamese leaders that he might do anything to end the war in Vietnam, in accordance with his “madman theory” of coercive diplomacy.
Why did the U.S. military go on a nuclear alert in October 1969? The alert was a loud but secret military signal ordered by President Richard Nixon. Nixon sought to convince Soviet and North Vietnamese leaders that he might do anything to end the war in Vietnam, in accordance with his “madman theory” of coercive diplomacy. The nuclear alert measures were therefore specically chosen to be loud enough to be picked up quickly by the Soviet Union´s intelligence agencies. The military operation was also, however, deliberately designed to remain secret from the American public and U.S. allies. In deed, the nuclear alert operation was so secretive that even the senior U.S. military ofcers implementing the orders—including the SAC commander himself—were not informed of its purpose. nuclear signals in theory and history
Cloaks of secrecy still shroud this mysterious event, but a sufcient number of government documents have now been declassied to permit a serious examination of the October 1969 nuclear alert. This article both explains why President Nixon ordered this secret nuclear operation and uses the history of the event to help illuminate the dynamics of nuclear weapons decisionmaking and diplomacy. The emerging information provides new insights both about the nuclear history of the Cold War and about broader political science theories concerning the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. Four common assumptions exist in the historical and political science literature about nuclear weapons diplomacy. First, scholars generally agree that rough Soviet-U.S. strategic parity in the 1960s, and a shared sense of nuclear danger after the Cuban missile crisis, led to a high degree of restraint in the use of nuclear threats. Under conditions of mutually assured destruction, leaders in Moscow and Washington avoided explicit threats, exerted tight central control over their nuclear forces, and used direct communications to defuse tensions that could escalate into a military confrontation neither side desired.
McGeorge Bundy, for example, argued that after 1962 there was “great caution on the part of all states possessing nuclear weapons, caution not only with respect to their use, but also with respect to any step that might lead to a conict in which someone else might be tempted to use them.”2 This conventional wisdom is challenged by evidence that, well into the period of strategic parity, U.S. leaders continued to make nuclear threats more often and for less purely “defensive” motives (i.e., to deter enemy attacks) than previously acknowledged. Read the full article here.
Scott D. Sagan is Professor of Political Science and Co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Jeremi Suri is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.