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The Hazards of Operations Involving Nuclear Weapons during the Cold War

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This article was inspired by a book published in 2015 by William Burr and Jeffrey A. Kimball looking at the effort in 1969 by Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to use negotiations with the Soviet Union as a means of convincing the North Vietnamese that Nixon’s unpredictable behavior might spur him to use nuclear weapons to force a settlement of the Vietnam War. Nixon and Kissinger failed in their attempt at “nuclear diplomacy”—an attempt that was only one of many failed initiatives during the years of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. As an instance of nuclear “use” and nuclear risk-taking and confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, it ranks very low. Dozens of events after 1945 ran far greater risk of nuclear use. In particular, the Johnson administration looked in detail at possible options for nuclear attacks during the Vietnam War that were far more serious than the Nixon-Kissinger venture. These options were ultimately rejected, but they would have involved far more than just coercive diplomacy.

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