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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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