A plan to turn America into a nation of hippo meat eaters was seriously considered a century ago. It came about because of a widespread meat shortage, and it was not just some fringe crank scheme. The idea to ranch hippos in America in order to produce millions of tons of meat annually was supported by the day’s leading newspapers and many prominent politicians. Below are thirty things about that and other schemes that didn’t pan out or, better yet, were deservedly abandoned before they were executed.
30. The “Meat Question” That Plagued Early Twentieth Century America
In the early twentieth century, America faced a growing meat shortage. The price of beef had skyrocketed, as industry struggled to meet rising demand from a burgeoning population. Between natural increase and waves of new immigrants, America had many more mouths to feed, and many of those mouths wanted meat. Unfortunately, while that was going on, cattle ranges had been ruined by decades of overgrazing, herds shrank, and the number of cows in the country dropped by millions every year. What came to be known as the “Meat Question” was a serious issue back then, and what to do about it was never far from the minds of American consumers, pundits, and politicians. Things seemed so dire, that there was even serious of a potential famine unless a solution was found.
It was against that backdrop that somebody hit upon a seemingly brilliant plan: hippos. Why not import hippopotamuses from Africa, set them loose in the deltas and swamplands of the Gulf Coast, and raise them for food? Hippos were full of blubbery goodness, so why not turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers? To many, that seemed like a great answer to the Meat Question. A US Department of Agriculture researcher figured that the answer to the country’s meat shortage lay in the exploitation of unproductive lands to produce food. The swamps along the Gulf Coast were highly unproductive, but that could change if hippos were introduced there. Free range hippopotamuses set loose in the bayous, especially those of Louisiana, could easily yield a million tons of meat per year.
People realized that ranching hippos in America sounded crazy, but thought it was necessary. As a Washington Post editorial noted, eating crabs and raw oysters was no less weird than eating hippo meat, but people did it all the time. It went on to add: “Proposals which at first may look odd and chimerical to the mass of our readers will be seen to be matter-of-fact propositions when they become familiar“. The New York Times gushed about how fatty hippo meat could be cured into “lake cow bacon“. Another publication wrote in endorsement of the plan: “This animal, homely as a steam-roller, [is] the embodiment of salvation … Peace, plenty, and contentment lie before us; and a new life, with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigor, new romance, folded in that golden future when the meadows and the bayous of our Southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami“.
Many prominent Americans, including former president Teddy Roosevelt, endorsed the hippo ranching plan. In 1910, a Louisiana congressman introduced HR 23261, which came to be known as “The Hippo Bill”. Louisiana seemed particularly suitable. Its waterways were clogged by invasive hyacinths, and hippos would gorge on them. They would thus clear the waterways, and simultaneously furnish Americans with millions of tons of meat. Gulf Coast hippos would also end Chicago’s monopoly on meat packing, a desirable outcome for much of the rest of America. Unfortunately – or fortunately – the Hippo Bill languished in committee. Then World War I broke out a few years later, and it took attention away from the plan. The Meat Question was eventually answered in a less spectacular way than setting hippos loose in Louisiana’s and the Gulf Coast’s bayous. The Department of Agriculture simply expanded pastures, and cattle ranchers stocked them with boring cows.
The Cuban Revolution saw the rise of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967). He gained international fame thereafter as a guerrilla warfare innovator, author, and diplomat. His image became a romantic icon of anti-imperialism, and after his death, he became a martyr to many worldwide. Things had been going great for “el Che”, until he concocted an ambitious plan to spark a revolution in South America, that he hoped would turn all of Latin America communist. It backfired in spectacular fashion.
Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928, and was raised in a progressive environment. From early on, he developed an affinity for the poor and downtrodden. Although he suffered form asthma, he still managed to excel in athletics. After he graduated from high school, he studied medicine, and as a young man in the 1950s, he spent his holidays on motorcycle tours of South America. In his travels, he encountered conditions of dire poverty, inequality, and injustice, that radicalized and set him on the path to Marxism.
Che Guevara immersed himself in Marxism, and eventually decided to abandon his study of medicine. As he saw it, only revolution could help the downtrodden masses. In 1953, he moved to Guatemala, where the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz was in the midst of land reform and redistribution efforts. However, Arbenz’s policies – especially the part that involved redistribution of lands that belonged to the American United Fruits Company – faced fierce opposition. Eventually, his government was overthrown in a 1954 CIA-backed coup. That deepened Guevara’s radicalism, and added anti-imperialism to his agenda. It also laid the foundations for a theory he later proselytized, about the need for worldwide revolution in order to achieve socialism.
Guevara eventually ended up in Mexico, then a common refuge for leftists. There, he met and befriended a young Cuban lawyer and revolutionary, Fidel Castro, who wanted to overthrow the corrupt Batista regime in his home island. Guevara accompanied Castro and a small force to Cuba in 1956, to carry out an ambitious plan to spark a revolution. He became one of Castro’s chief advisors, commanded revolutionary forces in guerrilla warfare, and led them to final victory and seizure of the island in 1959.
26. A Revolutionary Plan that Proved too Lofty for Guevara
With victory secured, Fidel Castro appointed Che Guevara to a variety of security, economic, and diplomatic posts in the new revolutionary government. The Argentinian was instrumental in the transformation of Cuba into a communist state. He played a key role in defeating the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, and was a significant player throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He also travelled the world as a diplomat, and gave a notable speech before the UN in 1964, in which he condemned America’s foreign policy and South Africa’s apartheid. However, Guevara’s greatest passion was for revolutionary warfare, and in 1965 he left to fight in revolutions around the world.
He went first to the Congo, where he trained guerrillas. In 1966, he went to Bolivia, where he tried to spark a communist revolution that he hoped would sweep through South America. Things did not go well, and the plan to revolutionize the continent backfired. He was captured in 1967, and Bolivia’s president ordered Guevara’s execution. When the executioner entered the room where the prisoner was held, Guevara noticed that he appeared jittery and nervous. So he scornfully uttered his last words: “I know you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!”
25. The American Plan to Stop the Earth’s Rotation
The Cold War was one of the scarier 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. One of the things about scared people is that the fear sometimes drives them to come up with, let us say, “creative” ideas. 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 a plan to stop the Earth’s rotation in order to foil Soviet nukes. There was actually a method to the madness. To launch an ICBM in order to nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations that include planetary rotation. If you can tinker with Earth’s rotation, it would 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 spin.
24. A Bonkers Plan Straight Out of the Saturday Morning Cartoons
PROJECT RETRO was like a Wile E. Coyote plan 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 moving 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. E.g.; say it takes an ICBM 30 minutes to fly from the USSR to Washington, DC. The Soviets will aim it not at where Washington is at the time of launch, but at where Washington will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes.
However, if the target stops moving after an arrow or missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated a plan to use rocket engines – specifically “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” – to stop the Earth’s rotation. 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, it asked the RAND Corporation to evaluate the possibility of using giant stationary rocket engines to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, there was something to the theory, but to go from theory to practice was problematic.
The US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate that a thousand rocket engines would be needed to 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 propellant necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere“. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. Moreover, even if the Pentagon could afford it and even if the plan was feasible, it would be better to just let all the Soviet nukes hit their targets than to pause the planet’s spin.
Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from the USSR to Washington, DC, 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 Earth would experience that deceleration. The result would be catastrophic earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes that would wreak havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.
Michael Oliver, a Las Vegas real estate developer, was a far-right-anarcho-libertarian, anti-communist, anti-tax activist, and advocate of strict adherence to the gold standard. He was also an avid Ayn Rand fan. So avid that he created a shady radical libertarian group, the Phoenix Foundation, which attracted sleazy intelligence agents, laissez faire capitalist extremists, mobsters, and drug and sex traffickers. They supported multiple violent attempts to create independent libertarian countries. All on tropical islands on territory to be seized from brown people. The attempts were a mixture of the hilarious, cringe worthy, sinister, and sad. All of them backfired.
The first such plan was tried out in 1972, when Oliver and associates laid claim to an artificial island atop a submerged reef in the South Pacific. They declared it to be the Republic of Minerva, a libertarian paradise without “taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism“. Minerva had its own president and currency, and its founders hoped it would eventually attract up to 30,000 residents. However, Minerva was located in Tongan waters. When the king of Tonga sent a force to wave spears at the invaders, Oliver was forced to flee and take his dreams of a global capital flight center elsewhere.
21. That Time When Libertarians Hooked Up With White Supremacists to Try and Bring an Ayn Rand Fantasy to Life
The following year, Michael Oliver and his associates once again tried to realize their plan for a libertarian tropical island paradise, this time closer to home: in the Bahamas. In 1973, as the then-British colony neared its independence, some white Bahamians did not want to live in a majority black country ruled by blacks. So they decided to secede, laid claim to the Bahamas’ Abaco islands as the nucleus for a white majority country, and formed the Abaco Independence Movement. That attracted the libertarians as swiftly as garbage on a hot summer day attracts flies.
Oliver and pals passed the plate to buy weapons and explosives for the secessionists. In exchange, they were promised that the white-ruled island would be run on principles that would make Ayn Rand proud. However, the plan backfired when the libertarians’ chosen gunrunner double-crossed them. Rather than smuggle the machineguns they had paid for to the secessionists, he tried to sell them in Costa Rica. He was caught. In the resultant scandal and legal mess, Oliver got deported from the Bahamas, and the plan for a libertarian Caribbean country was abandoned.
20. The Birth of the Independent Republic of Vemerana, and Its Swift Demise
The Phoenix Foundation did not give up on its plan for a libertarian paradise. So it took another stab at the South Pacific, this time in Vanuatu, an archipelago controlled by France. There, as independence neared, French planters feared the threat to their land holdings by a native majority, and plotted secession. They were led by a cult leader named Jimmy Stevens, who dubbed himself “Moses”. He wore long robes and grew a long white beard, and had a harem of twenty-three wives. The Foundation bought and smuggled guns to Vanuatu, and made passports, flags, and coins that bore Stevens’ face. All in all, the Foundation spent about a quarter million dollars – serious money in a place as poor as Vanuatu, population 115,000 at the time.
Stevens led a rebellion in 1980, and declared the independent Republic of Vemerana. Vanuatu had no military to suppress the rebels, so it seemed that third time was the charm for Oliver’s libertarian dream. The scheme backfired, however, when Vanuatu sought aid from nearby Papua New Guinea, which did have an army. It sent a battalion, which swiftly crushed the rebellion. Oliver was deported and permanently banned from Vanuatu, and his libertarian coconspirators fled. Stevens was arrested, charged, convicted, and received a fourteen year sentence. Michael Oliver was a successful businessman, but as a libertarian nation builder, he was a three-time loser. The Phoenix Foundation did not rise from the ashes of its Vanuatu debacle, and finally faded away.
When Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams first heard of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor, he was mad as hell, like most Americans. Like many of his countrymen, he fantasized about payback. He began to think about what was then commonly known about Japanese cities: that most of their houses were flimsy wooden constructs. Wouldn’t it be grand, he reasoned, if somebody could take advantage of that? That idea in of itself was neither revolutionary nor original. It was common knowledge that the Japanese usually built their houses out of bamboo and paper. In 1923, fires swept through Tokyo after a massive earthquake, and hundreds of thousands perished and were wounded.
So the vulnerability of Japanese cities to flames was well known. What set Adams apart was the creative plan he thought up to ignite such fires: via bats. Adams had recently returned from a trip to New Mexico, where he was impressed by the clouds of migratory bats that visited the state each year, to roost by the million in Carlsbad Caverns. He was particularly impressed by the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats – a smaller but hardier species than common bats. So the dentist, who apparently had as much free time as he had initiative, returned to Carlsbad, and captured some bats to study.
18. The Idea of Bat Bombs Actually Wasn’t That Batty
Dr. Adams read, observed, and conducted experiments on bats. He grew convinced that his nebulous plan to weaponize bats might actually be feasible. Bats – particularly Mexican Free-Tailed Bats – were hardy, could travel long distances, and could survive in high altitudes. Best of all, they could fly with a load greater than their own body weight. Loads such as tiny, incendiary bombs. In theory, if bats with incendiary bombs were released over Japanese cities, they would naturally fly into and roost in the nooks and crannies of Japan’s mostly wooden buildings. Then the incendiaries would go off, and start numerous fires that would overwhelm firefighters, and cause widespread devastation.
Within weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adams had committed his idea to paper, and on January 12th, 1942, he wrote up a proposal and sent it to the White House. There, his plan would probably have been laughed off and dismissed out of hand, if not for the fact that he was a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife. With help from the First Lady, the proposal made it to the desk of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and thence to the country’s top military brass. FDR thought it was “a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into“. So he sent Adams to see William J. Donovan, Roosevelt’s chief intelligence advisor and eventual head of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, with a note that advised him: “This man is not a nut!”
17. This Weird Plan Actually Had Realistic Potential
Dr. Adams’ proposal eventually ended up with the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). A 1940s’ version of DARPA, it investigated and coordinated research into ideas that might help the war effort. The NDRC forwarded the proposal to a zoologist named Donald Griffin, who had conducted groundbreaking research into animal behavior, and who specialized in bats and their navigation methods. It was right up Griffin’s alley, and he became an enthusiastic supporter of the plan. “This proposal seems bizarre and visionary at first glance,” he wrote in April 1942, “but extensive experience with experimental biology convinces the writer that if executed competently it would have every chance of success“.
Griffin added that, properly executed, Bat Bombs were “likely to cause severe damage to [Japanese] property and morale“. Adams’ proposal thus went from a seemingly loony idea, to an official US government research project. A number of factors made the idea theoretically viable, and rendered it attractive to authorities. Bats fly at night, then seek dark and secluded places to roost in before dawn. Places such as attics, cubbyholes, and other nooks and crannies. Bats can also fly with loads greater than their own bodyweight – loads such as tiny bombs. Also, in wartime, when resources were scarce and had to be carefully husbanded, bats were plentiful in the US. Finally, bats can be induced to hibernate, and while hibernating, they do not need food, care, or much maintenance.
Dr. Adams gathered together a coterie of supportive scientists, and took a team of naturalists from the University of California on a bat-collecting expedition. Their studies and observations confirmed Adams’ hunch that the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat was the best candidate for the project. So Adams’ team netted hundreds of Free-tails, placed them in refrigerated trucks to induce hibernation, and sent them to Washington for further research. There, Adams conducted an experiment in front of military brass with some Free-tails and dummy bombs. The results impressed his audience, and convinced them that the plan, which was designated Project X-Ray, warranted serious research. The US Army Air Force was put in charge of the project, whose subject matter was described as a “Test of Methods of Scattering Incendiaries“.
Research and tests were ordered, so as to “[d]etermine the feasibility of using bats to carry small incendiary bombs into enemy targets“. Work on Project X-Ray picked up the pace in 1942. First, was confirmation that bats could actually carry the weight of small incendiary bombs. Female bats routinely carry their young, so load tests were conducted at Moffet Field Naval Air Station in Sunnyvale, California. They confirmed that the species can, indeed, carry its body weight or more in sustained flight. It was now time for the next step, so teams were sent to delve into caverns throughout the American southwest, to drum up bat recruits for large scale testing. The critters were captured by the thousands, and transported to research centers, where they were placed in specially constructed “bat houses”.
Once the test subjects/ recruits were in place, it was time to develop the tiny bombs that would transform bats into weapons of mass destruction. The job was given to Dr. Louis Fieser, an organic chemist best known as the inventor of militarily effective napalm. Fieser eventually settled upon a design for a light bomb made of a guncotton case, filled with kerosene. A capsule attached to the bomb contained a timed fuse and trigger assembly, which was connected to the bat by a wire. When the bat was released, the bomb would dangle from the critter by the wire, and its weight would activate the timed fuse, which would eventually trigger the incendiary.
The Bat Bombs came in two models. A 0.6 ounce incendiary, which produced a 10 inch flamed that burned for 4 minutes, and a 1 ounce model, which produced a 12 inch flame that burned for about 6 minutes. By then the critters, released over Japanese cities, would hopefully have roosted inside attics and other nooks and crannies. In theory, the bats would gnaw through the wire the connected them to their incendiaries before they went off, and thus survive their mission and go on to live happy bat lives. If not, they would have the gratitude of Uncle Sam and the thanks of a grateful nation for their sacrifice.
14. Unfortunately – or Fortunately – the Bat Bomb Plan Was Never Executed
To deliver Bat Bombs to their target area, the critters were induced into hibernation, then tiny incendiaries were attached to them. Next, they were placed in a special bomb casing that contained 26 stacked trays, each with 40 bats, for a total of 1040 bat incendiaries per bomb. The bombs would be dropped 5000 feet above Japanese cities, then deploy a parachute, break open at 1000 feet, and release the by-now-awakened bats to fly off and find roosting places. There were some testing mishaps. On March 15th, 1943, armed bats, accidentally released at Carlsbad Army Air Field, New Mexico, set the place ablaze. The silver lining was that it confirmed that weaponized bats can, indeed, start major fires. More controlled weapons tests at a specially designed “Japanese Village” confirmed that Bat Bombs were, pound for pound, between 11 to 21 times more effective than standard bombs.
As the project’s chief chemist noted: “the regular bombs would give probably 167 to 400 fires per bomb load where X-Ray would give 3,625 to 4,748 fires“. However, the authorities pulled the plug on Project X-Ray in mid-1944, when they were informed that it would not produce a deployable weapon until 1945. That was deemed too slow a pace. Since the Manhattan Project was on track to produce a war-winning bomb by then, X-Ray was cancelled after a 2 year life and a $2 million expenditure. For the rest of his life, Dr. Lytle Adams insisted that his Bat Bombs plan could have won the war, with fewer horrors than atomic bombs. As he put it: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped. Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life“.
13. This Plan to Introduce New Game Species to Virgin Territory Backfired Spectacularly
Few ideas were as harebrained as that time the British introduced hares and rabbits to Australia, and deliberately released them into the wild to breed like, well… rabbits and hares. In hindsight, and with what we now know about the harmful effects of messing with local environments and ecologies, it seems incredible that the British deliberately released rabbits into the Australian Outback. Equally or even more incredible is the train of logic that got them there. Rabbits were intended as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable, and as prey to hunt for fun, which was bonkers.
Australia was initially seen by the British as a convenient dumping ground for convicts. For generations, the American Colonies had served that role, but that ended when America gained its independence. Understandably, the new republic did not want to accept more shiploads of jailbirds. So the British began to transport their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, as a rapidly breeding food source. Eventually, some rich settlers released rabbits and hares into the wild so they could hunt them for sport. As seen below, the results were disastrous.
12. Before Anybody Knew It, the ‘Land Down Under’ Drowned Under a Tide of Rabbits
Rabbits are not native to Australia, and did not face as wide and lethal a variety of predators to keep their population in check Down Under as was the case in their native habitats. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, they morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated their new home. As early as the 1820s, settlers began to complain that rabbits had overrun the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons that allowed for year-round breeding, and natural selection that produced a hardier breed of wild rabbits, their population exploded.
By 1920, Australia had an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic, as Australia has the most vulnerable soil and the one most susceptible to erosion of all the continents, except for Antarctica. For over a century, Australians have struggled to control their rabbit population. They shot, poisoned, and infected them with epidemic diseases, but to no avail. The most conspicuous measure was fencing. That ranged from fences around individual farms and pastures, to massive fences that stretch for hundreds of miles, such as Western Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. The latter failed to live up to its name: rabbits jumped over and burrowed beneath it.
11. Following Up One Bad Plan With Yet Another Bad Plan
As early as the 1820s, it had become clear to all and sundry in Australia that the plan to release rabbits into the Outback had been a huge mistake. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place, that the release of non-native species into a new environment might produce unintended negative consequences, was not enough. As early as 1833, European Red Foxes were released into the Australian wild so they could breed. Why? To allow upper class settlers to engage in the traditional English “sport” of fox hunting.
Two decades after their introduction, fox populations had exploded, and they were declared pests. Throughout much of Australia – with the notable exception of Tasmania, where they were outcompeted by the native Tasmanian Devil – foxes became apex predators. They hunted numerous native species into extinction, and drove many more to the brink. Not even tree-dwelling animals are safe: researchers documented in 2016 that some Red Foxes in Australia had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other defenseless creatures.
10. The Plan to Systematically Take Nudes of America’s Best and Brightest
One day in the late 1970s, a Yale University employee unlocked a room on campus that had not been used in many years. Inside, there was a huge surprise: thousands of photos of nude young men, showing their fronts, sides, and rears. Stranger still, metal pins seemed to stick out of the naked men’s spines. What could it be? Was it the trove of some weirdo, with a niche fetish for BDSM voodoo porn? As it turned out, the answer was not so juicy, but it was still weird. From the 1940s to the 1970s, Yale and other Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Vassar, and Brown, had required freshmen to pose nude for a photo shoot.
The goal was to furnish material for a massive study into how rickets developed. That involved sticking pins to the backs of male and female subjects. Although the goal was laudable, the failure to consider and protect the students’ privacy backfired. Generations of elites who attended the Ivy Leagues had posed, and the archives included naked photos of well-known figures ranging from George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton to Diane Sawyer to Meryl Streep. The photos were burned after news leaked, and the study was denounced. However, it is possible that some might have escaped the flames, and are still circulating out there, to potentially end up on the internet someday.
For General William Westmoreland, the overall US military commander in Vietnam since 1964, 1968 was a bad year. His repeated predictions that a corner was about to get turned, and that the war was on schedule for a successful conclusion, had long since worn thin. Then in early 1968, the communists launched the Tet Offensive, a massive surprise attack against cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. The resultant chaos made Westmoreland seem to many as overly optimistic, or even ludicrous.
To add to his woes, a separate North Vietnamese offensive had besieged a remote US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. Fourteen years earlier, the Vietnamese had besieged and forced the surrender of a remote French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. For a while, it was feared that the Marines at Khe Sanh might suffer the same fate. As documents quietly declassified in 2016 reveal, the mounting stress got to Westmoreland. He ended up seriously exploring a crazy plan, code named Operation FRACTURE JAW, for nuclear strikes against North Vietnam.
8. The Plan to Continuously Double Down Eventually Hit a Wall
William Westmoreland assumed command in South Vietnam in 1964. Back then, America’s military presence in that country amounted to roughly 16,000 men, mostly advisers to the South Vietnamese Army, and assorted support personnel. By the end of 1964, at Westmoreland’s recommendation, that figure had mushroomed to over 200,000 Americans, many of them combat troops. Rather than support the South Vietnamese in their fight against communist forces in their country, the US military mission had morphed into directly taking on communist forces in South Vietnam.
Over time, America sank ever deeper into a quagmire. As the war intensified and grew bloodier by the month, General Westmoreland continued to promise a successful conclusion to his political masters back in Washington, DC. All they had to do was give him more men and materiel. It amounted to repeatedly doubling down on a bad bet, but President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara obliged. America’s military presence in Vietnam rose steadily, until it reached a peak of 535,000 men in 1968.
7. Before Anybody Knew It, America Was Up to Its Neck In a Quagmire
It was not all General Westmoreland’s fault: his political masters had set him a seemingly insoluble task. The plan was to go on the tactical offensive, and wage an aggressive war in South Vietnam to defeat the communists there. Simultaneously, American forces had to stay on the strategic defensive, and stay their hands from a direct invasion of North Vietnam, the bastion of the communist forces in South Vietnam. An invasion of North Vietnam could draw that country’s northern neighbor, China, into the conflict. In the mid-1960s, memories of the Korean War were still fresh. Especially the part where General Douglas MacArthur’s advance to China’s border had triggered a direct Chinese intervention.
Nobody wanted another ground war against China, this time in Vietnam. So Westmoreland’s hand was stayed – an understandably frustrating state of affairs for him. No matter how hard Westmoreland’s men took the fight to the communists in South Vietnam, the foe seemed to be able to roll with punches and hang on. It mattered little how many casualties were inflicted upon the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese forces. There were always more ready to take their place, as replacements of men and materiel made their way down the Ho Chi Minh trail from North Vietnam to make up the losses. That could drive anybody crazy.
6. This General Was Dealt a Bad Hand, and Had to Do His Best With It
American fatalities in Vietnam mounted steadily, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. From 216 American lives lost in 1964, the year when Westmoreland took command, the figure jumped to 1,928 in 1965. A year later, American fatalities mushroomed to 6,350. Then another 11,363 Americans perished in 1967. Perhaps it was not so crazy that in 1968 – a year in which American fatalities reached a peak of almost 17,000 – Westmoreland became desperate enough to consider a plan to nuke North Vietnam.
As the US sank ever deeper in the Vietnamese quagmire, Westmoreland did what he could with the hand dealt him. He saluted, soldiered on, and sought to put the best spin on things. He framed the conflict as a war of attrition, and emphasized heavy communist casualties to support his claim that the US was bound to win. America just had to stay the course, and communist losses would eventually exceed their ability to replace them. That would force them to throw in the towel and negotiate an acceptable peace.
5. A Huge American Victory That Nonetheless Cost America a War
Westmoreland’s predictions of inevitable victory, variously described as a “light at the end of the tunnel” or a “turning of the corner“, helped sustain America’s willingness to continue the war. However, faith in such optimism was in decline as 1967 drew to a close. Simultaneously, voices that questioned the wisdom of America’s continued involvement in Vietnam grew increasingly louder. That year, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress, in which he confidently asserted that “we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor!” A few weeks later, events on the ground made the general’s confidence seem crazy.
In early 1968, the communists launched a massive onslaught that they officially termed The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968. Better known as the Tet Offensive, it led many to question Westmoreland’s credibility. It was ironic, because Tet resulted in a huge American military victory, and a correspondingly huge communist defeat. However, the contrast between Westmoreland’s repeated assurances that the war was on the right track, and the images on newspapers and nightly TV news of communist rampages throughout South Vietnam, did much damage.
The Tet Offensive caught General Westmoreland with his attention focused elsewhere: the isolated US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. On January 21st, 1968, nine days before Tet, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese attacked, besieged and, for a time, threatened to overrun Khe Sanh. The plight of the surrounded Marines immediately brought to mind the fate of a similarly isolated French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, in the First Indochina War.
In that conflict, as France sought to hold on to its Vietnamese colony, the French had superior firepower and technology. However, they were unable to bring the lightly armed Viet Minh to a pitched battle in which such superiority could prove decisive. So the French reasoned that if they could not take their superior firepower to the Viet Minh, then they would bring the Viet Minh to superior French firepower. A plan was concocted to entice the Vietnamese and get them to mass for a pitched battle by offering them an irresistible lure. French paratroopers were to be airdropped into an isolated base in Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese would rush in to destroy them, only to get destroyed by superior French firepower. The plan backfired spectacularly.
3. A Bad French Plan That Had Them Begging America to Nuke France’s Colonial Subjects
Unfortunately for the French, things at Dien Bien Phu did not go in accordance with the plan. So many airplanes were shot down as they tried to resupply the paratroopers at the besieged garrison, that their situation became critical. The French had also assumed that the Vietnamese would have no artillery. They were mistaken. The Viet Minh organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line, and hauled disassembled guns over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French. Within two months, Dien Bien Phu’s garrison lost 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded. The survivors, about 12,000 men, surrendered.
Understandably, as the North Vietnamese besieged Khe Sanh in 1968, fears of another Dien Bien Phu preyed upon the minds of American military and civilian leaders. As the situation at Khe Sanh seemed to grow ever more critical, President Johnson sought repeated assurances from Westmoreland and Defense Secretary McNamara that it would not turn into an American Dien Bien Phu. It was against that backdrop that Westmoreland put together a seemingly crazy contingency plan, that the president knew nothing about. Nuclear weapons were to be used against North Vietnam, to avert disaster if things got desperate at Khe Sanh.
2. A Plan That Made the President Think His Top General Had Gone Crazy
The contingency plan to save the Marine garrison at Khe Sanh was codenamed Operation FRACTURE JAW. It called for the secret movement of nuclear weapons to South Vietnam, so they could be at hand to be used at short notice against North Vietnam if needed. On February 10th, 1968, Westmoreland sent a top secret message to Admiral Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, to inform him that “Oplan FRACTURE JAW has been approved by me“. Westmoreland also informed other military commanders, such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, and discussed with them how to execute FRACTURE JAW.
However, a key figure who was not informed of the plans to introduce nukes to the Vietnam War was President Johnson. Then Walter Rostow, the president’s National Security Adviser, found out and told his boss. LBJ was seriously ticked off at what seemed like his chief general in Vietnam having gone crazy. As a presidential aide who took notes at a White House meeting about the issue put it: “When [the president] learned that planning had been set in motion, he was extraordinarily upset and forcefully sent word through Rostow, and I think directly to Westmoreland, to shut it down“.
FRACTURE JAW never went beyond the planning stage. As things turned out, fears of an American Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh proved to be overblown. The French debacle in the earlier siege was caused by France’s inability to resupply its beleaguered garrison from the air. However, America had an ace in the hole that France did not: the US Air Force, whose capabilities were orders of magnitude greater than that of France. American aerial assets managed to sustain the US garrison at Khe Sanh with adequate resupplies of men and materiel. Simultaneously, American air power severely punished the North Vietnamese besiegers until they lifted the siege and withdrew in the summer of 1968.
As to General Westmoreland, after years of LBJ acceding to his requests for more and more troops, the president finally drew a line in 1968. That year, the American buildup in Vietnam reached a peak of 535,000 men. When Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more men, the president had enough. The general was already on thin ice because of his insatiable appetite for troops and materials. The attempt to keep secret from the White House a plan to nuke North Vietnam, and overall dissatisfaction with the war’s direction and prospects, soured LBJ on him even more. So Johnson decided to get a new commander. Westmoreland was sacked by promoting him upstairs to Army Chief of Staff. He was replaced with his deputy, Creighton Abrams, who began a steady troop draw down.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading