The U.S. government studied the feasibility of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) use during the Vietnam War and concluded that it “would offer the U.S. no military advantage commensurate with its political cost,” according to a recently declassified 1966 report that was released March 9.
JASON, a group of scientists that provides guidance to the U.S. government on military and arms control issues, conducted the study to assess the military and political consequences of unilateral U.S. TNW use in Southeast Asia, as well as the possible use of nuclear weapons against U.S. forces in the Vietnam conflict.
“Tactical Nuclear Weapons in South Asia” explored a variety of circumstances in which the weapons could be used against enemy forces, weighing the number of targets, the movement of enemy troops, and the impact of possible enemy support from China or the Soviet Union. It also assessed U.S. force vulnerability in the event of an enemy strike, concluding that U.S. military deployments would be severely compromised due to force density, troop location, and a lack of measures to protect bases.
The JASON study also warned of the possible proliferation consequences of TNW use in Southeast Asia, concluding, “Insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNWs for themselves.”
Touching on the political consequences of first use of TNWs in Vietnam, the study suggested that the United States would face a severe backlash of public opinion worldwide. The scientists acknowledged, “In sum, the political effects of U.S. first use of TNW in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic.”
The report emerged publicly as the Bush administration contemplates new nuclear weapons development. In November 2002, Congress authorized the administration’s request to conduct a three-year research project on a robust nuclear earth penetrating nuclear weapon, which could defeat hardened and deeply buried targets. (See ACT, December 2002.) Most recently, the Pentagon requested the repeal of 1993 legislation prohibiting research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. (See ACT, April 2003.)