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.

buckley column.png

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"!).

Presented by

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.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Politics

Just In