1968 was a bad year for the American war effort in Vietnam, and for general William Westmoreland, the overall US military commander in that conflict since 1964. His repeated predictions that a corner was about to get turned, and that the war was on schedule for a successful conclusion, had been wearing thin for some time. When the communist forces launched the Tet Offensive in early 1968 – a massive surprise attack against cities and towns throughout South Vietnam – Westmoreland’s prognostications came to be seen by many as overly optimistic, or even ludicrous.
Adding to the pressure was a separate North Vietnamese offensive that besieged a remote US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. 14 years earlier, the Vietnamese had successfully besieged and forced the surrender of a remote French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, and 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 led Westmoreland to order up plans for nuclear strikes against North Vietnam, codenamed Operation FRACTURE JAW, to prevent disaster at Khe Sanh.
General William Westmoreland, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and President Lyndon B. Johnson. All Poster
The Mounting Pressure on William Westmoreland
In 1964, when William Westmoreland first assumed command in South Vietnam, the US 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, including combat troops. From supporting the South Vietnamese in their fight against the communist forces, the US military mission had morphed into directly taking on the Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese forces.
Over time, America kept sinking ever deeper in what became a quagmire of a conflict. As the war intensified and grew bloodier by the month, Westmoreland kept promising his political masters a successful conclusion, if he could only be given more men and materiel. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara obliged, and the US military presence in Vietnam rose steadily, until it reached a peak of 535,000 men in 1968.
Not that Westmoreland was entirely to blame, as his political masters had set him a seemingly insoluble task. In a nutshell, he had to go on the tactical offensive, and wage an aggressive war in South Vietnam in order 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, lest doing so draw that country’s northern neighbor, China, into the conflict. In the mid 1960s, memories of the Korean War were still fresh, particularly the part where general Douglas MacArthur’s advance to China’s border triggered a direct Chinese intervention in that conflict.
US troops on patrol in Vietnam. ThoughtCo
Few wanted to risk a repeat of that experience, and another ground war against the Chinese, 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. No matter how high the casualties 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 to make up the losses.
In the meantime, American fatalities kept steadily mounting, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. From 216 American deaths in 1964, the year when Westmoreland took command, the figure increased to 1,928 in 1965. The following year, 1966, American fatalities took another jump, with 6,350 dying in the conflict. 1967 proved even deadlier, with 11,363 Americans perishing that year. It was therefore perhaps understandable that in 1968 – a year in which American deaths in Vietnam would reach a wartime peak of almost 17,000 – Westmoreland became desperate enough to contemplate the drastic measure of using nuclear weapons.
President Lyndon Johnson and William Westmoreland in Vietnam. The Atlantic
Fears of An American Dien Bien Phu
As America sank ever deeper in the Vietnamese quagmire, Westmoreland did the best he knew with the hand dealt him: he saluted, soldiered on, and sought to put the best spin on things. Framing the conflict as a war of attrition, Westmoreland emphasized the heavy casualties sustained by the communists to sustain his contention that America was bound to prevail. So long as America stayed the course, went the argument, a tipping point would eventually be reached when communist losses exceeded their ability to replace them, forcing the foe to throw in the towel and negotiate an acceptable peace.
Variously described as a “light at the end of the tunnel” or a “turning of the corner”, Westmoreland’s optimistic predictions of inevitable victory played a key role in sustaining the American public’s will to continue the war. However, faith in Westmoreland’s optimism was starting to wear thin as 1967 drew to a close, and the voices questioning the wisdom of the conflict grew increasingly louder. That year, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress, and assured it and America that “we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor!” The massive communist Tet Offensive in early 1968 led many to question Westmoreland’s credibility. It was ironic, considering that Tet ended being a massive American military victory, and a correspondingly massive communist defeat. However, the jarring contrast between Westmoreland’s repeated prognoses that the war was going well, and the images on newspapers and nightly TV news of communists rampaging throughout South Vietnam, proved highly damaging.
When Tet began, it caught 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 the Tet Offensive, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese launched an attack that besieged and, for a time, threatened to overrun Khe Sanh. The plight of the isolated American garrison immediately brought to mind the fate of a similarly isolated French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, during the First Indochina War.
US forces in Khe Sanh. Vietnam Veteran News
In that conflict, as France sought to hold on to its Vietnamese colony, the French had superior firepower and technology, but 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 into massing for a pitched battle by offering them an irresistible lure: French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base in Dien Bien Phu.
Unfortunately for the French, so many airplanes were shot down while trying to resupply the paratroopers, that their situation became critical. The French had also assumed the Vietnamese would have no artillery, but they organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line that hauled disassembled guns over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French. Within two months, the Dien Bien Phu garrison had lost 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded. The survivors, numbering nearly 12,000, were forced to surrender. Understandable, as the North Vietnamese besieged Khe Sanh in 1968, fears of another Dien Bien Phu preyed upon American military and civilian commanders.
Westmoreland informing CinC-PAC of FRACTURE JAW. New York Times
Operation FRACTURE JAW
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 contingency plan – one that Johnson knew nothing about – for the use of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, in a last bid to avert disaster if things got desperate at Khe Sanh.
Codenamed FRACTURE JAW, Westmoreland’s plan called for the secret movement of nuclear weapons to South Vietnam, so they could be at hand to be used at short notice against the North Vietnamese if the need arose. On February 10th, 1968, Westmoreland sent a top secret message to Admiral Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, informing 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 the details of how to go about carrying out FRACTURE JAW.
Memorandum from National Security Adviser Walter Rostow to the president, re FRACTURE JAW. New York Times
However, a key figure who was not informed of the plans to introduce nukes to the Vietnam War was president Johnson. When Walter Rostow, the president’s National Security Adviser, found out and told his boss, LBJ was seriously ticked off. According to a presidential aide who took notes during a White House meeting discussing the issue: “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”.
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 strength and airlift capacity was orders of magnitude greater than that of the French. American aerial assets managed to sustain the US garrison at Khe Sanh with adequate resupplies of men and materiel, while punishing the besieging North Vietnamese, until they lifted the siege and withdrew in the summer of 1968.
The end of FRACTURE JAW. New York Times
As to Westmoreland, after years of Johnson acceding to his requests for ever more troops, the president finally drew a line in 1968. That year, the American buildup in Vietnam reached a peak of 535,000 men, but when Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more men, LBJ decided to get a new commander. Westmoreland was taken out of Vietnam by promoting him upstairs to Army Chief of Staff, and replaced with his deputy, Creighton Abrams, who began implementing 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
Beschloss, Michael – Presidents of War (2018)
New York Times, October 6th, 2018 – US General Considered Nuclear Response in Vietnam, Cables Show
Seattle Times, October 6th, 2018 – Cables Show US Was Close to Adding Nuclear Weapons to Vietnam War
War History Online – Crazy: General Westmoreland Initiated Plan to Use Nukes in Vietnam