7. The Risk of Chinese Intervention Led to the Shelving of the Plan to Invade North Vietnam
The plan to invade the Haiphong-Hanoi area stood a high chance of success against the North Vietnamese. However, it was deemed too dangerous because there was no guarantee that the invaders would only have to deal with North Vietnamese forces: the odds that China would join the fray were high. At the time, only 15 years had gone by since the Korean War. In that war, US and allied forces had pursued the routed North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border, based on the mistaken belief that China would do nothing. That led to an unpleasant surprise when the Chinese jumped in and pushed American forces all the way back to South Korea.
If China directly joined the Vietnam War in response to a US invasion of North Vietnam, things could easily escalate from there into WWIII, and drag in the Soviets. Unlike the situation during the Korean conflict and in the early days of the Cold War, the US no longer held an overwhelming nuclear superiority. By the second half of the 1960s, the Soviets possessed thousands of nuclear warheads, as well as the means to deliver them to targets in the US. American interests in Vietnam were simply not worth the risk, and the so the planned invasion of Hanoi-Haiphong was never carried out.
6. A Fifth of US Military Personnel in Vietnam Got Hooked on Heroin
Until 1969, the only drug widely available to American troops in Vietnam was marijuana. But starting in 1969, heroin became widely available. It was cheap, and so pure that servicemen could get high smoking heroin mixed with tobacco. That made it more appealing to those who would have been reluctant to inject the drug in their veins with a needle and syringe. By 1971, almost half of US Army enlistees in Vietnam had tried heroin, and of those, about half exhibited signs of addiction. The addiction epidemic spread from Vietnam to other US military installations around the world, and the American garrison in West Germany was especially hard hit.
In response, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction, which revealed that 20% of American servicemen in Vietnam self-identified as heroin addicts. At the time, the US was drawing down its presence in Vietnam, and about 1000 troops were sent back home each day, where most were discharged soon thereafter. It meant that hundreds of active heroin addicts were being released into the US each week. The result was a toxic medley of social problems that rocked 1970s America.
Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, and fear often triggers the necessity to stop whatever had caused it. The Cold War was one of the most fear-inducing stretches of human history – as in pants-soiling scary at times, with two jittery superpowers glaring at each other while armed with enough nukes to wipe out humanity many times over. So the era saw its fair share – and more – of inventions to address, combat, and foil the causes of that fear.
Thing though is that fear sometimes drives the fearful to not just think outside the box, but to get carried away with their outside-the-box thinking. As in way, way, away in the “creative” ideas department. As with most ideas, some of them turn out to be brilliant brainstorms, but many more turn out to be brain farts. Of the latter, few ideas were crazier than that hatched up to foil Soviet nukes by stopping the Earth’s rotation.
Stopping the Earth’s rotation sounds crazy – and it was. However, there was actually a method to the madness and a kernel of logic involved. To launch an ICBM and get its warhead to accurately nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations, not least among them planetary rotation. If one could tinker with Earth’s rotation, one could screw up those intricate calculations, and cause ballistic missiles to miss their targets. Thus was born PROJECT RETRO, an early 1960s research effort into what it would take to pause the planet’s spinning.
The project was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War’s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, to hit something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a mobile target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. PROJECT RETRO hoped to ensure that the ICBMs’ targets would not be there when their warheads detonated.
To illustrate the logic of PROJECT RETRO, picture an ICBM that takes 30 minutes to fly from the Soviet Union to New York City. The Soviets would their missile not at where NYC is at the time of launch, but at where the Big Apple will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes. However, if a moving target ceases to move after a projectile such as a missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines to stop the Earth from moving.
Specifically, planners contemplated the use of a “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, the RAND Corporation with asked to evaluate whether giant stationary rocket engines might be used to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice was… problematic.
The US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate that a thousand rocket engines could pause the Earth’s rotation turned out to be too low. As Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation planner who crunched the numbers concluded, it required not a thousand Atlas rockets, but “one million billion” of them. The rocket fuel necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere”. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. And even if Pentagon could afford it, to pause the planet’s spin would have produced results far worse than if all the Soviet nukes had hit their targets.
Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from Russia to New York City, and a 20 minute warning. For the missile to miss by 10 miles, Earth’s rotation would have to be slowed by about 30 miles for 20 minutes. If that happened, every structure, grain of sand, drop of water, and living thing on the planet would experience that deceleration. The result would be shattering earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes – all beyond anything ever recorded in human history – wreaking havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.
1. An Extra-Terrestrial Attack Could Have Stopped the Cold War
President Ronald Reagan was the Happy Cold Warrior. A staunch conservative and anticommunist, he went about with a sunny disposition and demeanor that did little to mask his implacable detestation of communism and opposition of the Soviet Union. His single-minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the USSR into an arms buildup competition that its rickety economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. However, there was one field where he was more than happy to cooperate with the Soviets.
As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when the POTUS blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the Soviets would help us out against ET. That greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years. So turns out that extraterrestrials might have united humanity to stop the Cold War in order to face a common enemy.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading