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Operation Giant Lance

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Operation "Giant Lance"
Part of the Cold War
DateOctober 10–30, 1969
Result Inconclusive
 United States  Soviet Union  North Vietnam
Commanders and leaders
United States Richard Nixon Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev

Operation Giant Lance was a secret U.S. nuclear alert operation by the United States that the Strategic Air Command carried out in late October 1969.[1] Giant Lance was one component of a multi-pronged military exercise, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test that the Joint Chiefs developed and carried out during October 1969 in response to White House orders. On October 10, 1969, on the advice of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon issued the order for the readiness test that led to Giant Lance.

Preparations were made to send a squadron of 18 B-52s, flying in sorties of 6 bombers at a time, of the 92nd Strategic Aerospace Wing loaded with nuclear weapons to fly over northern Alaska in the direction of the Soviet Union. It was hoped that this would convince the Soviets that Nixon was willing to resort to nuclear war in order to win the Vietnam War. The squadron took off on October 27 and flew towards the Soviet Union.[2][3] Actions were designed to be detectable by the Soviets.[4] Nixon cancelled the operation on October 30.[1]

The plan was part of Nixon's madman theory,[4] a concept based on game theory,[1] and its details remained unknown to the public until Freedom of Information Act requests in the 2000s revealed documents about the operation.[5]


State of the Vietnam War[edit]

Vietnam War tensions were high and were a major driver of Nixon's decision to initiate the operation.[6] The war was one of the primary challenges Nixon sought to address on becoming president, and led to him devising a plan to both end the war and gain international and domestic credibility for the United States as a result.[6] By launching Operation Giant Lance, Nixon aimed to increase war tensions by raising the United States' nuclear threat through a "show of force" alert.[2] These operations acted as a prequel to Nixon's eventual Operation Duck Hook, which was declassified in 2005.[6] The primary goal of these operations was to pressure the Soviets to get their North Vietnamese ally to agree to peace terms favorable to the United States.[4][2]


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler ordered the operation as a part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test[3] On 27 October 1969, eighteen B-52 bomber aircraft began the operation, accompanied by KC-135 tankers to refuel and support the extended patrol of the squadron. The bombers flew in sorties of 6 bombers at a time.[4][2] The U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was used to deploy the aircraft from air bases both in California and Washington State in secrecy.[2] The bombers were checked throughout the day, standing by for immediate deployment.[3]


The purpose of Operation Giant Lance and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test of which it was a component was to intimidate the foreign contenders in the Vietnam War, primarily the Soviets, through a world-wide alert of U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear forces. By using seemingly irrational actions as a part of Nixon's madman diplomacy, he aimed to push both the Soviet and the Vietnamese to end the war on favourable terms. The squadron of eighteen B-52 bomber aircraft was to patrol the Northern polar ice cap to survey the frozen terrain whilst armed with nuclear weaponry.[3][6][4] The patrols consisted of eighteen-hour long vigils, which were intended to appear as suspicious movements by the U.S.[3] These movements were kept secret from the public, whilst also remaining intentionally detectable to the Soviet Union's intelligence systems.[5][3]

The operation was also intended to be a precautionary measure, boasting operational readiness in case of military retaliation from either East Asia or Russia.[3][6][5] The operation's intended goal was also to directly support Operation Duck Hook as a part of the "show of force" alert. Nixon believed that this would coerce Moscow and Hanoi into a peace treaty through the Paris peace talks with the Soviets, on terms that were advantageous to the United States.[3] This outcome was also thought to possibly benefit the United States as well by promoting the credibility of the United States intervention in the Sino-Soviet conflict to its general public in the war.[7]

Madman theory[edit]

President Richard Nixon was infamous for radical measures as part of his diplomacy.[7] The radicality of sending eighteen armed bombers on patrol was designed to pressure foreign powers by displaying extreme military aggression.[6][2] Nixon told Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, that he was willing to use nuclear weapons in order to end the war.[6] Following so-called madman theory, Nixon would often take diplomatic options that seemed irrational even to the United States' own authorities.[6][4] The idea was to make it impossible for foreign powers to determine Nixon's motives or predict his actions, giving him a unique strategic advantage.[8] This diplomacy, coupled with Nixon's decision to raise the nuclear alert, served as an indirect threat as the Soviets would not be able to understand his actions.[6][3]

Nixon used this unpredictable diplomacy in a failed attempt to end the war in Vietnam, creating the impression he was willing to take desperate measures including using the United States' nuclear weapons.[3][2][8] These actions would also enhance Nixon's reputation as a tough and "mad" leader.[3] The intention was to cause the North Vietnamese and the Soviets to believe that he was an irrational leader, capable of escalating the nuclear threat.[3][6] The policy failed to produce the concessions desired by the United States.

Nixon's "madman" diplomacy was in effect briefly during the Vietnam War, amplified by the numerous "show of force" operations.[2][8] Although this diplomacy could have been seen by opposing states as a bluff, the risk of uncertainty to them was much larger than the risk to the United States.[8][6] Ultimately, Nixon possessed an advantage as the US could gauge the effectiveness of its threats based on the reactions of the Soviets and the Vietnamese.[8]


Effects of the operation[edit]

The operation did not directly cause any obvious, significant change due to its cancellation; the impact it may have had on the Soviets or the Vietnamese cannot be accurately measured.[3] The operation was terminated on October 30 suddenly without any known reason.[3][4] The abrupt halt to the operation may have been due to the fact that the Soviets did not show any significant changes in their actions, which may mean that the Soviets suspected Nixon of bluffing.[8][3] However, some historians have argued that the sudden withdrawal of the SAC's squadron was an intentional effort to display the maneuverability and freedom the US possessed when it came to nuclear warfare.[1]

Operation Giant Lance was intended to jar foreign forces into favourable diplomatic agreements to end the war, to avoid Nixon ordering Operation Duck Hook.[2][3] Despite the operation ending as a bluff tactic, the operation served to add credibility both to Nixon's madman threats and the proactiveness of the U.S.[3] However this may not have been successful due to the large anti-war movement at the time, which tended to discourage nuclear operations.[9][2] Seymour Hersh believed that the operation also served as an adjunct to Operation Duck Hook, a proposed mining and bombing operation against North Vietnam.[3]

The Soviets showed no clear reaction in response to the Giant Lance patrols.[3] Whilst there may not have been a direct response to the operation, there was a reaction from Soviet intelligence: a sudden heightened nuclear alert.[2] This was the goal of the operation: to make the operation visible to Soviet intelligence whilst hiding it from the American public.[5][3] The Soviets may have seen Nixon's move simply as a bluff.[3] In October 1973, a Soviet official exclaimed that "Mr. Nixon used to exaggerate his intentions regularly. He used alerts and leaks to do this", which may have caused the U.S. operational threat to be ignored.[3]

Perception of U.S. nuclear threat[edit]

Although both Moscow and Hanoi did not show any reaction to Operation Giant Lance and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, the uncertainty of Nixon's nuclear power posed a significant threat.[3][8] Nixon's continuous nuclear threat towards Hanoi was undermined by the anti-war sentiment on U.S. home soil.[9] This implied to Hanoi that the U.S. did not wish for further war, or to risk nuclear warfare.[9] The heightened fear of nuclear warfare caused a shared parity of nuclear avoidance across all participants in the war.[2] Neither side wanted a military confrontation that would escalate to that level.[2]

There also existed the danger that excessive reliance on the nuclear threat in times of war would cause other governments to begin to accept this as the norm.[10][2] Nuclear fear might bring the possibility of increased nuclear use.[9][2] Continual development of nuclear technology and reliance thereon would inevitably lead to increasing paranoia.[2] Military escalation could lead to “the threat that leaves something to chance”.[10][2]


  1. ^ a b c d Suri, Jeremi (2008-02-25). "The Nukes of October: Richard Nixon's Secret Plan to Bring Peace to Vietnam". Wired Magazine. Retrieved 2012-01-28.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Sagan, Scott; Suri, Jeremi (2003). "The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969". International Security. 27 (4): 150–183. doi:10.1162/016228803321951126. JSTOR 4137607. S2CID 57564244.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Burr, William; Kimball, Jeffrey (2003). "Nixon's Nuclear Ploy". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 59 (1): 28–73. doi:10.2968/059001011 – via Taylor & Francis Online.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Jesse Ventura (4 April 2011). 63 Documents The Government Doesn't Want You To Read. Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. p. 170. ISBN 978-1-61608-226-0.
  5. ^ a b c d Burr, William; Kimball, Jeffry (December 23, 2002). "Nixon's Nuclear Ploy: The Vietnam Negotiations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test". The National Security Archive.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Delpech, Therese (2012). Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation. ISBN 9780833059307. JSTOR 10.7249/mg1103rc.
  7. ^ a b Cressman, Dale (July 28, 2015). "The Great Silent Majority: Nixon's 1969 Speech on Vietnamization". Presidential Studies Quarterly. 45 (3): 144. doi:10.1111/psq.12214.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g McManus, Roseanne (September 13, 2019). "Revisiting the Madman Theory: Evaluating the Impact of Different Forms of Perceived Madness in Coercive Bargaining". Security Studies. 28 (5): 976–1009. doi:10.1080/09636412.2019.1662482. S2CID 203470748.
  9. ^ a b c d Stone, Oliver; Kuznick, Peter (2012). The untold history of the United States. New York: Gallery Books. p. 364.
  10. ^ a b Schelling, Thomas (May 15, 1981). The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 187–203. ISBN 9780674840317.