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 Vietnam War divided America more than anything seen today. Bad as things are now, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that they’re not as bad as they were then. Then, the country tore itself apart as flag draped coffins returned each year first in a trickle, then a strengthening stream of dozens, scores, hundreds, and finally a flood of thousands. Below are twenty five lesser known things about that tragic conflict.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Members of the 3rd Radio Research Unit in Vietnam, 1961. US Army

The First American Soldier Killed in Ground Combat in Vietnam

From 1945 to 1976, the US Army operated its signals intelligence through the Army Security Agency (ASA). The ASA, whose soldiers trained in communications, military intelligence, cryptography, and as linguists, primarily focused on signals intelligence (SIGINT). However, most ASA units also had human intelligence (HUMINT) personnel as well, such as counterintelligence specialists and interrogators. Although a US Army operation, the ASA was directly subordinated to the National Intelligence Agency (NSA), which had representatives at all major ASA stations.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Spc. 4 James Tom Davis. History Net

When the US got involved in Vietnam, ASA personnel from the 3rd Radio Research Unit – later expanded to become the 509th Radio Research Group – were among the first military personnel sent there. They helped the South Vietnamese forces gather information that was passed through intelligence channels within hours, and sometimes within as little as ten minutes. The first US soldier to die in ground combat in Vietnam was ASA Specialist 4 James T. Davis, of the 3rd Radio Research Unit, killed while tracking an enemy signal on December 22nd, 1961.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
How direction finders, DFs, intercept and triangulate the location of enemy radio transmitters. EC 47 History

The Vital but Little-Known Radio Direction Finders

US forces in Vietnam had such a decisive firepower and training advantage over their communist adversaries, that pitched battles inevitably ended in lopsided American victories. After a few hard lessons, the communists eventually learned that, and learned to avoid stand up fights with the US military. They hid in jungles, mountains, deltas, and other inaccessible terrain, and fought a guerrilla war of ambushes and hit and run attacks. Before American firepower could be brought down to annihilate them, they broke off contact, and faded back into their lairs and hideouts. Finding the enemy thus became the most important – and most frustrating – task faced by the US military in Vietnam.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Ground radio direction finding (GRDF) in Vietnam. US Army

The lion’s share of the ASA’s workload in Vietnam revolved around the interception of communist forces’ radio signals. If deciphered, the signal’s contents were passed on for further action, but even if a signal could not be deciphered, its very existence was still useful. ASA personnel used Ground Radio Direction Finding (GRDF) and Airborne Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) devices to identify and triangulate the location of communist forces’ radio transmitters. Such radio transmitters were often located close to enemy headquarters and hostile troop concentrations, so pinning down their location helped locate the often hard to find communist forces. Because of just how important – and difficult – finding the enemy in Vietnam was, ARDF units were described as: “the single most valuable intelligence resource available to American and allied forces during the war in Vietnam“.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Viet Minh on September 2nd, 1945. Wikimedia

The Prequel to America’s Involvement in Vietnam

America’s involvement in Vietnam was the second time that a Western country fought there after World War II. To us, our involvement there is “the” Vietnam War. To the Vietnamese, it was the second round of the country’s independence fight. The background for the earlier conflict began in WWII. After the French surrendered to the Germans, France – and her colonial empire overseas – were left in a weakened state. Japan took advantage of that, and seized Indochina from France in 1940. When the French returned to resume charge after Japan’s surrender and the end of WWII, things had changed.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Ho Chi Minh declaring Vietnam’s independence on September 2nd, 1945. Imgur

The colonial subjects were not eager to resubmit to foreign rule, and had already declared their independence. They organized themselves into the Viet Minh, a national front created by the Indochinese Communist Party. When the French tried to re-impose their rule, the result was the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954). As that conflict wore on, France’s grip on her Southeast Asian colonies was loosened by the increasingly assertive Viet Minh. On the plus side for the French, they had a significant firepower edge against the Vietnamese. On the negative side, as seen below, that was not enough.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Dien Bien Phu. Foreign Legion Info

The French Came Up With a Brilliant Plan…

The French might have had more firepower than the Viet Minh, but like the US a decade after the French left, they were unable to turn that advantage into a decisive victory. The lightly armed Viet Minh would not fight the kind of war that the French hoped their colonial subjects would fight. They simply refused to stay in place and offer the type of stand-up pitched battle in which superior firepower could overwhelm them. At wit’s end, French commanders hatched a plan to entice the guerrillas to mass for a pitched battle: offer them an irresistible lure.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
French paratroopers landing in Dien Bien Phu. Tes Educational

That lure was to be French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base, Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh, unable to resist the opportunity to destroy the isolated French, would flock to the area. The garrison, kept supplied by air, would resist. They would draw in more and more Viet Minh into a battle of attrition, in which they would be wrecked by superior French firepower. The paratroopers were dropped into Dien Bien Phu, whose main feature was an airstrip in a valley encircled by hills. As seen below, things did not go in accordance with the plan.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Victorious Viet Minh wave their banner over a capture Dien Bien Phu stronghold. Wikimedia

…That Turned Out Not to be So Brilliant

Things quickly turned sour for the French at Dien Bien Phu, and they discovered that many of their assumptions were mistaken. The French had assumed that the guerrillas lacked anti-aircraft capabilities, but the hills that ringed the airstrip were soon studded with flak guns. They formed a deadly gauntlet, through which aircraft had to fly when they took off from or landed at the airstrip. So many planes were shot down that the French were soon forced to rely on airdrops for supply. Many of the airdrops missed their targets and landed within enemy lines, instead. Another mistaken French assumption was that the Viet Minh would have no artillery. The Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line to ensure that his men would have plenty of guns and shells.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
French prisoners captured at Dien Bien Phu. Pinterest

With sheer manpower, the porters hauled disassembled howitzers over rough terrain to the hills that overlooked the French. There, they were ingenuously dug in to render them immune from counter-battery fire, and were kept adequately supplied with ammunition. The besieged French were bombarded nonstop, and began to run low and supplies and munitions. Relentless attacks reduced fortified positions one after another, and the defensive perimeter shrank steadily. Within two months, the French were forced to surrender. After they lost 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded, about 12,000 survivors were herded into Viet Minh captivity. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the French soon gave up, and exited Indochina.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Operation Popeye. Ripley’s Believe it or Not

The Plan to Make it Rain in Vietnam to Tamp Down Protests

By 1963, South Vietnamese president and US puppet ruler Ngo Dinh Diem was on the ropes. His regime, marked by nepotism, graft, and corruption, was hugely unpopular. Between that, a steadily intensifying Viet Cong insurgency, and economic hardships, South Vietnam seethed. Protests erupted throughout the country, and were brutally put down by Diem’s security forces. That only added fuel to the fire, and gave the South Vietnamese more cause for protest. However, bad as Diem might have been, he was still America’s Man in Saigon. So the US government did what it could to prop him up – before it finally abandoned Diem and backed a coup that overthrew him. Before it washed its hands of Diem, however, American officials thought up some batty ideas to support him.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Operation Popeye sought to flood communist supply routes in Vietnam. Imgur

One plan cooked up by the American military and the CIA was to seed clouds to make them literally rain on Diem protesters’ parades, to dampen turnout and disperse the crowds. That did not save Diem, but cloud seeding survived as a tactic. Codenamed Operation Sober Popeye, modified cargo plans overflew the Ho Chi Minh Trail starting in 1967, and relased silver and lead iodine flares. The goal was to heavily increase the monsoon period’s rainfall, and thus negatively impact the routes used to supply and reinforce communist forces in South Vietnam. Over 2600 missions were flown, and roughly 47,000 cloud seeding charges were dropped, by the time the operation was terminated in 1972. They had no impact on the Ho Chi Minh trail and communist supplies and reinforcements.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Anti Diem protesters. People’s World

Our Mandarin in Vietnam’s Self-Inflicted Problems

South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (1901 – 1963) came to power in 1955. With a heavily rigged referendum, he deposed Vietnam’s Emperor Bao Dai, and established the Republic of Vietnam with himself as president. A staunch Catholic, he pursued discriminatory policies that favored Catholics for public service and military positions. Catholics were favored when it came to land distribution, tax concessions, and business arrangements. Some Catholic priests even ran private armed militias, which they used to demolish Buddhist pagodas and force people to convert to Catholicism. Diem’s government turned a blind eye to such activities.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles greet Diem in Washington. Wikimedia

Catholics were a distinct minority, and about 90% of South Vietnamese were Buddhists. Diem’s pro-Catholic tilt thus infuriated most of his countrymen. By 1963, South Vietnam seethed with discontent, while an insurgency steadily intensified, fueled by widespread governmental corruption, nepotism, and the president’s pro-Catholic policies. Protests erupted in May, when Diem banned the flying of Buddhist flags. That was only days after he had encouraged Catholics to fly Vatican flags at a celebration of Diem’s elder brother, a Catholic archbishop. Government troops opened fire on Buddhist protesters, killed and wounded dozens, which triggered yet more protests.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Thich Quang Duc getting doused with gasoline, moments before he set himself on fire. Socratic

The Fiery Moment That Seared Vietnam Into America’s Consciousness

On June 10th, 1963, correspondents were tipped that “something important” would happen the next day near the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. On the 11th, Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne captured two Buddhist monks as they doused an elderly comrade seated lotus style with gasoline. The elderly monk, Thich Quang Duc, then struck a match and dropped it on himself, and maintained his serenity while flames engulfed him. Browne’s iconic photo of the event captivated the world. Vietnam entered America’s national conversation after the Burning Buddhist’s photo appeared on newspaper front pages across the US.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Major General Van Minh Duoung, one of the leaders of the coup that overthrew Diem, gives an interview after the event. Life Magazine

As president Kennedy put it: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one“. People questioned America’s support for Diem’s government, and Kennedy did not oppose a coup that overthrew it a few months later. On the night of November 1-2, South Vietnamese army units attacked the presidential palace, and captured it after a bloody siege. Diem and his advisor and younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, surrendered after they were promised a safe exile. They were placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier that was to take them to a military airbase. Instead, they were assassinated by South Vietnamese officers en route.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
US Marines in Hue during the Tet Offensive. Stripes

This Was a Particularly Bad Year For the US In Vietnam

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 course 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 stress got to Westmoreland: he seriously explored a plan, codenamed Operation FRACTURE JAW, to nuke North Vietnam.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
General William Westmoreland in Vietnam. History Network

A Steady Escalation

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 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 the communists, 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 in Washington, DC. All they had to do was give him more men and materiel. Essentially, Westmoreland repeatedly doubled 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 peaked at 535,000 men in 1968.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Chinese soldiers in the Korean War. China Daily

A Hamstrung War

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, US 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. So to Westmoreland’s frustration, his hand was stayed. No matter how hard his fought 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. As seen further down this list, it seems to have driven Westmoreland around the bend.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
The Ho Chi Minh Trail. Vietnam Commemoration

The American Plan to Invade North Vietnam

Plans were drawn to end North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam and support for the insurgency there via a direct invasion that would take out North Vietnam. The plan, as described in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Harry G. Summers, was reminiscent of the Normandy invasion. An airborne division would be airdropped to the north and west of Hanoi to block off the approaches to the Hanoi-Haiphong region. Simultaneously, a seaborne invasion with three amphibious divisions would land on beaches in the Haiphong area.

The Haiphong force would then march to Hanoi and linkup up with the airborne troops there. With the Hanoi-Haiphong area secured, outside support would be drastically curtailed. Two major railroads from China would be severed, the country’s main seaport would be in American hands, and the lines of communications to the south would be interdicted. Starved of Chinese and Soviet arms, munitions, and supplies, and cutoff from a steady infusion of North Vietnamese manpower, planners expected that armed resistance in South Vietnam would soon wane and collapse.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
A North Vietnamese convoy on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, en route to South Vietnam. Thing Link

It Is Probably a Good Thing That This Plan Was Never Carried Out

An amphibious attack directly against North Vietnam had its supporters not only in the military, but also on the civilian side back in Washington, DC. However, while the plan stood a high chance of success against the North Vietnamese, it was deemed too dangerous because China would likely join the fray. At the time, only fifteen years had passed since the Korean War. In that conflict, US and allied forces led by General Douglas MacArthur had pursued routed North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border, based on the mistaken belief that China would not act. Unfortunately, the Chinese acted: they jumped in, and pushed MacArthur and his men all the way back to South Korea.

If China directly joined the war in response to a US invasion of North Vietnam, things could easily escalate from there into WWIII if the Soviets were dragged in. Worse, unlike Korean War days, America no longer held a decisive nuclear superiority: by the second half of the 1960s, the Soviets had thousands of nuclear warheads and 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.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
US troops in Vietnam, circa 1966. WESA

A Steady Rise in US Fatalities

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 deaths 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 America sank ever deeper in the Vietnamese quagmire, Westmoreland did what he could with the hand dealt him. He saluted, soldiered on, and tried 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.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
American troops during the Tet Offensive. CBS News

The End of Optimistic Predictions of Victory in Vietnam

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, and 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 made many question Westmoreland’s credibility. It was ironic, because militarily, Tet was 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 chaotic images on newspapers and nightly TV news of communist rampages throughout South Vietnam, was bad.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Young recruits during the Vietnam War, circa 1967. History Network

How to Satisfy the War’s Insatiable Appetite for Draftees?

When President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed office in 1963, America had 16,000 troops in Vietnam. Within a year, the figure grew slightly to 23,000. In 1965, however, in response to requests from American commanders in Vietnam for ever more troops, the figure mushroomed to 185,000. By 1966 America was sucked ever deeper into the quagmire, as the troop count more than doubled to 385,000. That insatiable demand for ever more American troops put the LBJ administration in a bind: where to get them, and not risk a public backlash in the process? The answer was to cut corners – drastically so – to send unfit draftees to Vietnam. The way the draft system was set up back then, college students got deferments. An end to student deferments would furnish enough bodies to meet the military’s manpower shortage – but there was a hiccup.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Arrival of the 1st US Cavalry Division in Vietnam. Pinterest

At the time, college students were predominately the kids of the middle and upper classes: the people whose opinion mattered most to Congress and the media. Without their support, or at least acquiescence, American involvement in Vietnam could not continue. Such support or acquiescence would not last if their kids’ student deferments were cancelled, and they were drafted and sent to fight and die in a far off country most Americans could not place on a map. Reservists could be mobilized to furnish enough bodies. However, that posed a similar dilemma: the reserves and National Guard were overwhelmingly filled with the children of the well off and connected. To send them to Vietnam would produce a fierce backlash. So the Pentagon brainstormed, and as seen below, came up with an awful solution.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Real life versions of Forrest Gump and Bubba were sent to fight in Vietnam. Pinterest

The Special Recruits Other Soldiers Called “McNamara’s Morons”

What would happen if soldiers like the fictional Forrest Gump and his friend Bubba were really sent to Vietnam? It actually happened in real life. To get bodies for the war without antagonizing middle and upper class Americans by sending their kids to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came up with a shameful brainchild: Project 100,000. It was touted as a Great Society program that would take impoverished and disadvantaged youth, and teach them valuable skills in the military in order to break the cycle of poverty. In reality, Project 100,000 simply lowered or abandoned minimal military recruitment standards, and signed up those who had previously been rejected by the draft as mentally or physically unfit. Recruiters swept through Southern backwaters and urban ghettoes to sign up almost anybody with a pulse. That included at least one kid with an IQ of 62. In all, 354,000 were recruited.

The General Public Did Not Know All Of These Details During The Vietnam War
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Medic in the Green Time

Of course, Project 100,000 recruits were not given any special skills or training. Once they signed on the dotted line, “McNamara’s Morons” or “the Moron Corps”, as they were derisively called by other soldiers, were rushed through training, then sent to Vietnam in disproportionate numbers. Once there, they were sent into combat in disproportionate numbers. In combat, the mental and physical limitations that had caused them to be rejected by the draft in the first place ensured that they were wounded and killed in disproportionate numbers. The toll fell particularly heavily on black youths: 41 percent of Project 100,000’s recruits were black, compared to 12 percent in the US military as a whole.

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

The Helicopter Pilot Who Saw a Massacre Unfold Beneath Him

American soldiers went on a bloody rampage near the Vietnamese village of Son My on March 16th, 1968. Over several hours, with only a short lunch break, they massacred about 500 unarmed civilians. Most victims were women, quite a few of whom were violated and mutilated before they were murdered, children, even infants. Horrible as the massacre was, it would have been worse if not for the heroic intervention of one man: Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene halfway through the slaughter.

As he described what he saw: “We kept flying back and forth, reconning in front and in the rear, and it didn’t take very long until we started noticing the large number of bodies everywhere. Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever“. At first, Thompson and his crew thought the casualties were accidental collateral damage from American artillery. They realized what was happening when they saw the soldiers’ commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, execute an unarmed, wounded woman. Thompson immediately swung into action.

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