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.
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.
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