Richard Nixon planned nuclear strike on North Korea

The United States drew up plans for a tactical nuclear strike against North Korea in 1969, but quickly stepped back from the brink fearing it would trigger an all-out war, newly declassified documents in Washington have shown.

By Peter Foster in Beijing
Published: 7:09AM BST 08 Jul 2010

US bomber pilots were put on high alert following the North's shooting down of a US spy plane Photo: AP

The planned strike saw US bomber pilots being put on high alert following the North's shooting down of a US spy plane over the Sea of Japan in April 1969, killing all 31 Americans on board.

Documents released by the National Security Archive in Washington detail plans for Operation Freedom Drop which included conventional war and a nuclear attack using bombs 20 times the size of that dropped on Hiroshima.

A memo dated June 1969 to Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, listed "pre-co-ordinated options for the selective use of tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea" to knock out 12 key command centres, airfields and naval bases.

The memo also outlined a more drastic option that would have completely nullified Pyongyang's capacity to retaliate against the US strike.

"An attack with nuclear weapons with a yield of 70 kt [kilotons] each to neutralise the North Korean air order of battle in response to a North Korean air attack on South Korea," the memo said.

"All 16 major North Korean airfields can be struck under this option." The levels of tension at the time of the North Korean downing of the US spy plane were extremely high, according to a former US bomber pilot, Bruce Charles, who told National Public Radio in Washington that he was ordered to make preparations for a nuclear strike.

Hours after the North Korean attack, Mr Charles said he was summoned by his commanding officer. "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," Mr Charles told NPR.

However after several hours of waiting, the order was given 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,'" Mr Charles recalled.

Despite the memos showing that Washington considered using extreme force against North Korea, historians say that it was actually quickly apparent that Nixon and Kissinger had backed away from the military option.

Two days after the US plane was shot down President Nixon held a press conference in which appeared to be moving away from military retaliation, drawing widespread acclaim for his show of restraint.

Robert Wampler, a historian who works for the National Security Archive and posted 16 of the key documents online, said that it was clear from reading the file of more than 1,700 papers that the US military high command were unconvinced of the wisdom of going to war.

"The military produced the options, ratcheting up the level of military force all the way to all-out war and to using nuclear weapons," he told NPR, "But constantly you find the military saying, 'But the risks probably still outweigh the potential gains,'."