The Time William F. Buckley Wanted to Nuke Vietnam

A jarring column from 1968 on one of many subjects the National Review founder debated with Gore Vidal.

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While reading the various remembrances of the just-deceased Gore Vidal, a writer whose body of work I've barely touched, I began reading about his famous feud with William F. Buckley. I have no comment on it, except that it led me to an old Buckley piece that simply must be seen to be believed.

Buckley wrote his share of good columns. This Vietnam-era doozy wasn't one of them:

The pity is that we are saving our tactical nuclear weapons for melodramatic use, for use, presumably, at the apocalypse towards which we may very well be headed in the long term. Take, for instance, the discussion of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the defense of Khesanh. By this time, so much attention has been given to the plight of Khesanh that to use these weapons, for the first time in military history, in the defense of Khesanh, suggests a mood of total desperation, perhaps even of panic. That interpretation feeds on itself, even as a bear market is said to justify itself.

The time to introduce the use of tactical nuclear arms was a long time ago, in a perfectly routine way, then there was not a suspicion of immediate crisis, of panic. In 1964, Senator Goldwater was burned in oil not even for advocating the use of low-yield atomic bombs for defoliation, but for reporting that the plan was under consideration by the Pentagon. Everyone got so worked up at the idea, that nobody thought to ask the question: Why not? The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism's sake...

For some reason, what popped into my head after reading that is the tangential thought that I'd rather be governed by the first 400 names in the D.C. phone book than the foreign policy scholars at AEI. The mental jump is perhaps unfair to AEI. As far as I know, neither John Yoo nor Marc Thiessen nor John Bolton is agitating for anything as cartoonishly imprudent as intentionally introducing tactical nuclear weapons into an Asian land war (in "a perfectly routine way"!).

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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