The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War

Khalid Elhassan - February 7, 2023

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
A Hiller OH-23 Raven, similar to the one flown by Hugh Thompson. Wikimedia

A Good Man and a Bad Situation

Hugh Clowers Thompson, Jr. (1943 – 2006) was part Cherokee, descended from Trail of Tears survivors. Raised in Georgia, Thompson was a Boy Scout from a religious family whose children were taught discipline and integrity. In their corner of the segregated South, the Thompsons stood out for their opposition to racism: they stood up for and helped people of color. In his youth, Thompson, Jr., plowed fields and worked in a funeral home to help his family make ends meet. He joined the US Navy in 1961, and was honorably discharged in 1964. He returned to Georgia, studied to become a licensed funeral home director, and settled in to raise a family.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Women and children at My Lai, seconds before they were murdered – the woman to the right is adjusting her clothes after she was violated. Library of Congress

When the Vietnam War heated up, Thompson felt obligated to serve his country, and enlisted in the US Army in 1966. He was trained as a helicopter pilot, and was sent to Vietnam. On March 16th, 1968, Thompson flew a Hiller OH-23 Raven observation helicopter in support of a search-and-destroy operation near Son My when he realized that a massacre was underway below. He landed and tried to get some soldiers to help wounded civilians. They offered to finish them off, instead. Their commanding officer, a Lieutenant William Calley, brushed Thompson off. So he took off in his helicopter, frantically radioed the chain about the massacre, and tried to save as many people as he could.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Hugh Thompson, Jr. The Advocate

Villains Were Lionized, While a Hero Was Ostracized

Hugh Thompson saw American soldiers chasing a group of civilians. So he landed his helicopter between them, directed the civilians to safety, and ordered his crewmen to shoot any soldiers who tried to harm the civilians. Thompson flew around My Son for the next hour, and intervened to save civilians until his helicopter ran low on fuel. He returned to base and heatedly demanded that his superiors act, until they finally radioed Captain Medina to halt operations. Higher ups tried a cover up, but word of what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre eventually got out. The brass tried to bribe Thompsons with a medal for rescuing a child from what they described as “an intense crossfire“. Thompson threw it away in disgust.

Eventually, 14 officers were court-martialed. Many lionized them as unjustly harassed victims, rather than the war criminals they were. Thompson testified, but only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. He served three years under house arrest. As to Thompson, instead of accolades, he was condemned. As he put it: “After it broke, I was not a good guy”. Instead, he was seen as a traitor, a communist, a communist sympathizer, and became invisible. “Congress came after me real hard. A very senior congressman made a public statement that if anybody goes to jail in this My Lai stuff, it will be the helicopter pilot“. The heroic actions of Thompson and his crewmen were not recognized until the 1990s, after the release of the award-winning documentary Four Hours in My Lai.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
US forces in Khe Sanh. Veteran News

The Plan to Nuke North Vietnam

As seen in an earlier entry, things had gone disastrously wrong for the French when they were besieged at Dien Bien Phu. So many airplanes were shot down as they tried to resupply the paratroopers in the surrounded 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.

Fears of another Dien Bien Phu were thus understandable when the North Vietnamese besieged an isolated garrison at Khe Sanh in 1968. As the situation at Khe Sanh seemed to grow ever more critical, President Johnson sought repeated assurances from General William Westmoreland, his commander in Vietnam, 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 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.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
General Westmoreland and President Johnson in Vietnam on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1967. The Atlantic

A Nutty Proposed Operation

Westmoreland’s contingency plan to save the Marines at Khe Sanh was codenamed Operation FRACTURE JAW. It called for the secret movement of nuclear weapons to South Vietnam, so they would 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 lost his marbles. 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“.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
General Westmoreland informing CINCPAC of Operation Fracture Jaw. New York Times

When the President Finally Lost Confidence in His top General in Vietnam

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 the French air force. American aerial assets managed to sustain the US garrison at Khe Sanh with adequate resupplies of men and materiel. Simultaneously, American air power severely pounded the North Vietnamese besiegers until they gave up and retreated in the summer of 1968.

As to General Westmoreland, after years of LBJ acquiescence 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 with a promotion 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

All That is Interesting – Newly Declassified Documents Reveal That a Top US General Planned For Nuclear Attack During the Vietnam War

Angers, Trent – The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story, Revised Edition (2014)

Beschloss, Michael – Presidents of War (2018)

Big Think – Project 100,000: The Vietnam War’s Cruel Experiment on American Soldiers

Davidson, Phillip – Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975 (1988)

Dickinson College, History 118 – Best Kept Secrets of the Vietnam War

Encyclopedia Britannica – My Lai Massacre

Encyclopedia dot Com – Vietnam: Drug Use In

Fall, Bernard B. – Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967)

History Collection – Here is the Intense Training Soldiers Went Through During the Vietnam War

History Net – He Was the First US Soldier Killed in Ground Combat in Vietnam

Jacobs, Seth – Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (2006)

Kamienski, Lucasz – Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War (2016)

Le Gro, William E. – Vietnam From Cease-Fire to Capitulation (2006)

Nalty, Bernard – The Vietnam War (1998)

Naval History Magazine, Volume 34, Number 5, October 2020 – Invading North Vietnam

Naval War College Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Spring 1991 – Strategic Reassessment in Vietnam: The Westmoreland “Alternate Strategy” of 1967-1968

New York Times, July 3rd, 1972 – Rainmaking is Used as Weapon by US: Cloud Seeding in Indochina is Said to be Aimed at Hindering Troop Movements and Suppressing Antiaircraft Fire

New York Times, October 6th, 2018 – US General Considered Nuclear Response in Vietnam, Cables Show

NPR, January 2nd, 2012 – What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits

Salon – McNamara’s “Moron Corps”

Seattle Times, October 6th, 2018 – Cables Show US Was Close to Adding Nuclear Weapons to Vietnam War

Summers, Harry G. – On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1995)

Time Magazine – Malcolm Browne: The Story Behind the Burning Monk

Tucker, Spencer T., Ed. The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, & Military History (2000)

War History Online – Crazy: General Westmoreland Initiated Plan to Use Nukes in Vietnam

Warrant Officer History – The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story