Declassified Documents Say Nixon Administration Prepared Possible Nuclear Attack on North Korea

Jul 9, 2010


By Oliver Bloom


 A story that was only recently picked up by NPRand Britishnewspapers on President Nixon’s difficulties formulating a response to North Korea’s shootdown of an American reconnaissance plane and his consideration of the use of nuclear weapons bears many similarities to the difficulties the United States currently faces with regards to North Korea. Recently declassified documents posted by Robert Wampler at the National Security Archive at George Washington University detail how
Four decades ago, in response to North Korean military provocations, the U.S. developed contingency plans that included selected use of tactical nuclear weapons against Pyongyang’s military facilities and the possibility of full-scale war, according to recently declassified documents.
As National Public Radio explains,
On April 15, 1969, an American EC-121 reconnaissance plane carrying a full crew took off from a base in Japan and did what it had done dozens of times before — it flew over international waters gathering signals, radio communications and other intelligence.
This time, though, fighter jets from North Korea intercepted the American plane and shot it down, killing all 31 Americans on board.
In response, as told by Robert Wampler,
Newly-elected President Richard Nixon and his key advisors, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler, considered a menu of possible military actions against North Korea, from carefully targeted attacks on North Korean military facilities, to a plan codenamed FREEDOM DROP for limited nuclear strikes (with surprisingly limited casualty expectations), to all-out war using nuclear weapons.
Wampler goes on to summarize key points of the various plans, including:
The growth in the list of available options from limited strikes on selected North Korean airfields to, by the fall of 1969, at least two dozen plans, which targeted the full spectrum of North Korea’s military forces, and covered a wide range of scenarios to provide flexibility to the president in confronting future North Korean provocations.
The emphasis on the need to neutralize North Korea’s air power, in any response to a provocation greater than the downing of the U.S. reconnaissance plane, in order to minimize the risks of retaliation and escalation. To this end the JCS drew up a plan codenamed FRESH STORM to take out Pyongyang’s military air power, but warned that carrying it out would carry some risk of sparking a major war on the Korean peninsula.
The development of a nuclear contingency plan, codenamed FREEDOM DROP that called for “pre-coordinated options for the selective use of tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea…” The available options included limited attacks on North Korean command centers, airfields, and naval bases with atomic weapons ranging from .2 to 10 kilotons, delivered by air or Honest John/Sergeant missiles, as well as at the upper end an attack with 10 to 70 kiloton weapons geared to take out North Korea’s air power and diminish the country’s overall military capability. Depending on the size of the attack, the estimated “friendly losses” would be “Less than 10 percent,” and civilian deaths would range from “approximately 100 to several thousand."
National Public Radio interviewed a former U.S. fighter pilot who was stationed in South Korea at the time, who recalls being told to prepare his F-4 fighter and its B61 nuclear bomb for possible action. NPR explains how
            Early that afternoon, his commanding officer called him into his office, Charles says.
"When I got to see the colonel, it was very simple. He described the shooting down of the EC-121 about a hundred miles at sea. And that he had a message, which he showed me at that time, saying to prepare to strike my target," Charles says.
Charles then rechecked his F-4 fighter jet and the weapon it was carrying. He says it was a B61 nuclear bomb, with a yield of about 330 kilotons — not the biggest bomb in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but more than 20 times the size of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima.
Then there were several hours of waiting, Charles says, and the order came to stand down.
"The order to stand down was just about dusk, and it was not a certainty. The colonel said, 'It looks like from the messages I'm getting, we will not do this today. I do not know about tomorrow,' " Charles recalls.
Yet even as the military composed a list of possible military responses, Kissinger and Nixon were quick to realize
that military strikes against North Korea, regardless of the provocation, carried serious risks of inciting retaliation by Pyongyang and the threat of escalation.
As Wampler explains
Kissinger repeatedly pressed the Pentagon to develop a range of effective and calibrated military strike options that the President could draw upon in the event of future such North Korean actions. Despite the impressive array of alternatives, Nixon and Kissinger came to realize that none of these limited options could provide acceptable assurance against North Korean counter-attacks and escalation of the conflict. The only viable political choices were non-military responses combined with diplomacy, or a military strike, possibly involving nuclear weapons, that would eliminate North Korea’s ability to launch air strikes -- in effect declaring war on Pyongyang.
The provocative North Korean shootdown of the American reconnaissance plane has striking similarities to the widely-acknowledged North Korean sinking of a South Korean ship in March. Yet the conundrums on a response are the same. As Dan Sneider of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University told NPR,
The danger of a wide war tends to trump whatever benefit you think might come from punishing your enemy here with a retaliatory strike.
As Wempler notes
Nixon and his advisors were forced to heed the Pentagon’s warnings that anything short of massive attacks on North Korea’s military power would risk igniting a wider conflagration on the peninsula, leaving diplomacy, with all its frustrations, as the remaining option, coupled with the deterrent posed by U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. These vexing issues confront the Obama administration today as it seeks to forge an effective response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship last March.
While both the South Koreans and the United States agree that North Korea is responsible for the sinking, and both desire to respond, any response runs the risk of escalating the situation and plunging the peninsula into conflict. North Korea doesn’t enjoy the protection of the Soviet Union and China quite like it did back in the late 1960s, but the ability of North Korea to wreck havoc to U.S. interests and their ability to escalate the situation above a level that the United States is comfortable with remain the same.   
President Obama is in the company of his predecessors when he struggles to deal with North Korea’s provocations and their nuclear program, at the same time that his attention is focused on a host of pressing foreign and domestic issues.  Sadly, company is all he will get, because his predecessors, even through negotiations, proved unable to resolve the North Korean standoff.