FRACTURE JAW: The Plan to Nuke North Vietnam

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.