Written by Dave Page
By 1966, with the war in Vietnam showing no signs of ending any time soon and volunteer rates dropping considerably, the American armed forces were in desperate need of more troops. Several solutions to this problem were suggested, including the conscription of those in post-secondary education. However, then president, Lyndon B Johnson believed that this would prove to be very politically unpopular, so another solution was needed. The eventual solution to this problem was so poorly conceived, constructed and implemented that it would lead to its founder, then Secretary of defence Robert McNamara, being described by some in military high command as “the most hated man in America”.
So, just what was McNamara’s plan to provide the armed forces with the new recruits that they so desperately needed? Today we will find out as we take a look into the incredible military blunder that was project 100,000 or, as many people have labelled it since, McNamara’s Folly.
As previously mentioned, by 1966 public support for the war in Vietnam was in decline. Armed Forces recruitment centres were receiving less and less volunteers and more and more people were attempting to avoid being drafted.
To begin with, this was not particularly difficult to do.
There were quite a few ways in which draft exemption could be obtained. Sometimes it was as simple as asking your family doctor for a note stating that you had an underlying medical condition which made you unfit to join up. Unfortunately, money talks in this world and doctors are only human. As a result of this, there are several accounts of this system being abused. These include one story of the son of a congressman allegedly being able to avoid the draft because he had braces on his teeth. It is also alleged that several prominent figures such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former President Donald Trump allegedly took advantage of this system.
There are also reports of some people going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they would fail physical fitness tests if they were conscripted.
For example, one man from Michigan ate three large pizzas every night for six months to ensure that he would exceed the maximum weight limit to serve in the army.
There are also several accounts of men repeatedly injecting themselves with needles so that, during their physical exam, they would be mistaken for heroin addicts and therefore be rejected for service.
In spite of all this, there were many men who were excluded from the draft for legitimate reasons. These included things like genuine physical disabilities, poor eyesight or being deemed mentally incompetent and it was these people who suffered the most under project 100,000.
What was project 100,000?
As we mentioned in the introduction, project 100,000 was the brainchild of Robert McNamara, the then secretary of defence.
McNamara, who was a huge fan of technology, believed that it would be possible to train those men who were illiterate or whose IQs were lower than that necessary for entry into the military with the use of instructional video tapes. To that end he, with the backing of President Johnson, began an aggressive recruitment campaign. Billed as an extension of Johnson’s war on poverty, McNamara promised that the men inducted into this project would receive cutting edge training, vocational skills and when they left the military, they would not only be much better equipped to find work but would also receive extra benefits such as health insurance and housing assistance.
As the name of the project suggests, McNamara believed that, under this new scheme, 100,000 new recruits would be available to the military every year and, in this alone, the project was reasonably successful.
Between the years of 1966 and 1971, an estimated 354,000 men were accepted into the military under the new relaxed rules. This included both volunteers and conscripts (54% to 46%) respectively.
The Promised Training
Although the initial numbers looked encouraging, the project would immediately run into problems as soon as basic training started. Although these men had been promised ‘cutting edge training through the use of video tapes’ in reality, this very rarely happened and it often became incumbent upon fellow soldiers to assist these men with such basic tasks as filling in paperwork or, in at least one case that we were able to find, making beds and tying boot laces.
In his excellent book “McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War” former Vietnam soldier Hamilton Gregory talks about his first interaction with one of these unfortunate men, “The sergeant asked, is there anyone here who is a college graduate? I raised my hand and he motioned for me to follow him, and he led me down a hallway to where a young man was seated. He informed me that the young man was named Johnny Gupton and he was also being assigned to Fort Benning. and he told me, I want you to take charge of Gupton, go with him every step of the way. He explained that Gupton could neither read nor write and he said he is going to need help filling out paperwork when you get to Fort Benning. And then he said, make sure he does not get lost, he is one of McNamara’s morons. I had never heard the term and I was surprised that the sergeant would openly insult this man sitting in front of him.” Within a few weeks he would learn that the phrase was in common usage to describe the men of project 100,000.
He goes on to write that “Gupton and I travelled by plane and by bus to Georgia and along the way I tried to make small talk with him. I asked him what state he was from, he said he did not know.” Throughout the journey, Gregory would question him further and, with mounting alarm, he realised that Gupton really had no idea as to the situation. He had no idea where they were going, he had no idea as to what basic training might entail and, perhaps most concerning, he had no idea that America was at war.
Gregory would later find out that this was far from uncommon.
Things would only get worse for these new recruits as basic training progressed. As many of these men had a mental age of five or six years old. Many of them were incapable of following basic instructions and struggled with things as basic as knowing left from right. Often, they would have no idea why they were there, much less what they were supposed to be doing. Not only was this incredibly distressing for them, but it could also place their fellow recruits in very real danger.
There are several accounts of instructors permanently banning project 100,000 soldiers from the rifle range and instead assigning them to permanent kitchen duties. Purely because, even in a training environment, these men were more likely to injure themselves or those around them than they were to hit any of the targets. Understandably, this began to spread fear and resentment amongst the other recruits. As one former soldier put it, “I think most of us felt sorry for them. Most of us tried to do our best to help when we could but when you have seen a man fail to throw a hand grenade more than 6 feet after five days of training it is concerning. We started to wonder, how safe are the rest of us going to be in combat with this man amongst us.”
It was not just the soldiers that were concerned, many company commanders fought desperately to have these men discharged, mostly on the grounds that, in a combat situation, they would pose a serious risk to themselves and those around them. Tragically, these pleas for sanity were largely ignored and, out of the approximately 354,000 men who were enrolled in the program, almost all of them were sent to Vietnam, with about half of them being assigned to combat units.
Once the soldiers arrived in Vietnam, the nightmare truly began. It is worth reiterating that many of the men had, until recently, no idea that America was even involved in a war, were incapable of following basic instructions and, for the most part, had failed basic competency tests for working with not only hand grenades but also their own rifles.
The death toll mounted rapidly. Project 100,000 members were three times more likely to be killed in combat than standard soldiers.
In addition to this, the previously held safety concerns would quickly come to be realized.
According to chief warrant officer William S Tuttle, “if you take somebody with an IQ of 40 and give him a rifle, he is more dangerous to you than he is to the enemy. I almost got shot twice and had one guy almost nail me with a light anti-armour weapon when he was startled by a sudden noise. If you put a low IQ man in an infantry patrol, you have to spend most of your time making sure that he does not kill a comrad by accident or does not get himself killed during contact because he is totally unaware of what is going on around him. Imagine sending a five-year-old child into combat. That is what project 100,000 was all about.”
Another tragic story from a Vietnam veteran tells of A soldier to whom he refers only as Jerry:
“One night, Jerry was out on the perimeter standing night guard. A very popular officer had been out setting his men in position and was returning to inside the wire. There is a challenge procedure, just like you see in the movies. You order the person to halt and then do whatever it takes to identify them as a friend or as a foe. Normally not a difficult task given the differences between the average Vietnamese and as Americans but, for some reason, Jerry saw the officer approaching and shouted out halt and then immediately opened fire. Killing him on the spot.”
Due to the officers aforementioned popularity, Jerry’s accident caused outrage amongst the men. The soldiers who had served directly under the officer let everybody know that Jerry was a dead man walking. Fortunately for him, somebody must’ve taken this threat seriously because the next morning, Jerry was gone.
Yet another source tells the story of a 24-year-old man who, due to his complete inability to understand the map he had been given or the hand signals being used by his team members, was lost in the jungle, and never heard from again.
Years later his mother would tell a local reporter that, “before he was drafted, he still slept with a teddy bear and certainly could not have told you who the president was.”
It is perhaps this quote, above all else, that provides the most insight into just how fundamentally flawed this project was.
So, you may well be thinking, “that’s all very sad but at least the survivors had excellent job prospects and promised benefits to come back to.” Well, as you may not be too surprised to discover, this was not the case.
5478 men were killed in combat and, out of the remaining survivors an estimated 20,000 were seriously wounded with 500 of those undergoing amputations. For those who returned with no physical injuries, there were the psychological effects to contend with. The war in Vietnam developed quite a reputation for psychologically traumatising soldiers who were mentally competent. We can only imagine what it must’ve been like for the members of project 100,000.
To make matters worse, hardly any of them had, in fact, acquired any marketable skills whilst in the army and as very few of them received the benefits to which they should have been entitled, it was depressingly common for these men to live out the rest of their lives in near poverty. As a further insult to these men, McNamara would never offer any form of apology. He would continue to argue until his dying day that the project had not been a failure and that some people had benefited from it. It appears that he was the only person who held this belief. The project was almost universally condemned with one high-ranking military officer saying that because of project 100,000 “Robert McNamara deserves to burn in hell!”
We can only hope that others have learnt from his mistakes and that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again.