Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965

By Timothy J. Botti | Go to book overview
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21
STRATEGIC INCOMPETENCE

For it's 1, 2, 3 what are we fighting for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn; next stop is Vietnam. And its 5, 6, 7 open up the pearly gates. Ain't no time to wonder why; we're all a'gonna die!"

-- Vietnam war protest song

Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether Southeast Asia was vital to the U.S. and the longer-term repercussions of employing nuclear weapons a second time anywhere in the world, the question arises whether Eisenhower, with foreknowledge of the full course of American involvement in Vietnam over the next twenty years, would have changed his mind in spring 1954 and dropped atomic bombs on the Vietminh besieging the French at Dienbienphu. At first blush, such an action might seem a deus ex machina. The French position in Indochina would have been reinvigorated, the Vietminh leadership would have been dismayed to say the least, and Peking would have been intimidated from intervening for fear that the next target of Washington's wrath would be Chinese cities. Then the U.S. would never have had to pour hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid into the region to abate Communist insurgencies, Kennedy would never have had to deploy thousands of American military advisors to buck up a weak South Vietnamese government, and Johnson never would have taken the next logical step of opening a conventional bombing campaign against North Vietnam, supplemented by a landing of 8,000 Marines at Da Nang.

Even had atomic bombs had the desired military effect, they would not have solved Southeast Asia's political, economic, and social problems. An overthrow of French colonialism would have been delayed, not destroyed. However, American leaders might well have been tempted to overreach again and again until conflict with Moscow or Peking would have resulted. A situation might have developed wherein the Soviets would have used nuclear weapons in some

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