2 U.S. Presidents Considered Attacking North Korea with Nuclear Weapons

Dave Majumdar

Security, Asia

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2 U.S. Presidents Considered Attacking North Korea with Nuclear Weapons

While tensions with North Korea are especially high following Pyongyang’s repeated ballistic missile and nuclear tests, Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to consider launching a nuclear strike against the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon considered launching nuclear strikes against the Kim regime during earlier provocations during the Cold War.

President Johnson considered a nuclear strike—among several other options—in retaliation for North Korea’s seizure of USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968. The North Koreans seized the surveillance vessel—killing one sailor and capturing 83 others. The servicemen were held hostage for the better part of a year.

“Recently declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive describe tense U.S. internal reactions to the Pueblo seizure, and include previously withheld high-level political and military deliberations over how to respond to the episode in an atmosphere fraught with the dangers of a superpower conflict,” John Prados and Jack Cheevers at the George Washington University National Security Archives wrote in 2014. “Military contingency plans, which President Lyndon Johnson eventually rejected, included a naval blockade, major air strikes and even use of nuclear weapons against North Korea.”

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Indeed, documents gathered by the archives show that while the U.S. State Department was negotiating, the Pentagon was preparing for a preemptive strike—potentially with nuclear weapons.

“While the State Department conducted secret talks with the North Koreans aimed at settling the crisis peacefully, the Pentagon laid plans for dealing with contingencies that included a possible pre-emptive strike by the north against South Korea,” the two researchers wrote. “This partially redacted document outlines a plan by Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, in which American and South Korean warplanes would try to destroy the entire North Korean air force. Waves of American tactical fighters and B-52 bombers, joined by South Korean jets, would attack the ‘most lucrative’ communist bases around the clock until the skies were free enough of northern jets to permit allied ground combat operations.”

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