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