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