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President Nixon Considered Using Nuclear Bomb On North Korea

July 8, 2010

More details emerge from the days of the Nixon White House.

U.S. President Richard Nixon mulled using nuclear weapons against North Korea after its fighters shot down a U.S. spy plane in 1969, documents indicate.

North Korean jets had shot down the U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance plane with 31 crew members aboard over international waters of the Sea of Japan, leaving Nixon trying to figure out what the appropriate response should be.

National Public Radio reported Tuesday newly disclosed documents show the president and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, considered a range of military responses, including the nuclear option.

NPR also reported former U.S. fighter pilot Bruce Charles says after the spy plane was shot down, he was put on alert in South Korea with a nuclear bomb loaded on his aircraft. After several hours, the order came to stand down, he said.

“The colonel said, ‘It looks like from the messages I’m getting, we will not do this today. I do not know about tomorrow,'” NPR quoted Charles as saying, noting his story could not be confirmed independently.

NPR said not long after the reconnaissance plane was shot down The New York Times, citing sources in the Nixon administration, had reported a nuclear attack against North Korea had been discussed.

NPR also points out that Nixon was praised at the time for using restraint.

Morton Halperin worked at that time in the National Security Council. He believes Nixon did decide to retaliate against North Korea.

But Halperin says he has no knowledge that a nuclear strike was considered.

“Nixon had made a decision that we would retaliate by bombing the air base from which we believed the planes had come to shoot down the EC-121. And he had ordered an aircraft carrier to move close enough to be able to carry out the bombing,” Halperin says.

Two days after the attack, though, Nixon held a press conference. And what he said led many in Congress to conclude he was not opting for retaliation. He was praised widely for this restraint, Halperin recalls, and then decided against a military response.

The documents posted by the National Security Archive suggest that for half a century, American presidents have had the same problem with North Korea, says Dan Sneider of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

“The danger of a wide war tends to trump whatever benefit you think might come from punishing your enemy here with a retaliatory strike,” Sneider says.

 

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