Books and articles about the Vietnam War tend to focus on “the best and brightest,” whether to praise them for superior performance or to criticize them for failures in judgment and not measuring up to their promise. Author and Vietnam veteran Hamilton Gregory, however, examines servicemen at the opposite end of the ability and intelligence spectrum—the men inducted under the Pentagon’s “Project 100,000,” which began in October 1966.
The project extended eligibility for enlistment and the draft to previously ineligible low-IQ men—those in the bottom tiers of the Armed Forces Qualification Test—and to some men who earlier would have been deemed medically unfit. The continuing program was planned to bring in 100,000 men each year.
The brainchild of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, and thus inevitably called “McNamara’s 100,000,” the project was a way to meet the manpower demands of an escalating war. Unwilling to fill the ranks through politically risky policies such as drafting college students or deploying large numbers of National Guard and Reserve personnel to Vietnam, the Johnson administration turned to the pool of men the president privately termed “second-class fellows.”
The book also addresses a separate but related issue: lower standards that led to recruiting or drafting men with criminal records, medical defects, social maladjustments and psychiatric disorders.
By the time McNamara’s project ended in December 1971, 354,000 formerly ineligible men had been inducted into the Army (which had 71 percent of the total), Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. Overwhelmingly, they were sent to Vietnam.
Of course, terms like “substandard” or “mentally unfit” were never used by the Johnson administration to describe McNamara’s 100,000, officially referred to as “New Standards Men.” The program was part of the Great Society/War on Poverty initiatives to provide education, training and opportunity to a disadvantaged class of American society.
In fairness, as Gregory acknowledges, the idea for Project 100,000 was proposed as a social betterment program in 1964, two years before the war’s manpower crunch. But opposition by senior military leaders and Congress prevented implementation until that resistance was overcome by the growing need to fill the burgeoning ranks in 1966.
Gregory, instead of merely launching into a dry account propelled by a blizzard of numbers and statistics, uses the first 80 pages of the book to clearly demonstrate the profound unfitness for military service of many of McNamara’s 100,000 by describing his personal experience with some of them during Army basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1967.
Pressure from higher headquarters to ensure the New Standards Men graduated from basic training (making them qualified to serve in Vietnam) caused training company cadres to frequently manipulate and subvert the standards so that woefully unfit Project 100,000 men “passed” basic training.
But Gregory writes of the unfit men with compassion and understanding. He agrees with a claim that the worst abuses the policy inflicted on the least intelligent of these men constituted “a crime against the mentally disabled.”
Gregory reveals the disproportionate price paid by the New Standard Men for Johnson and McNamara’s disastrous policy: “A total of 5,478 low-IQ men died while in the service, most of them in combat. Their fatality rate was three times as high as that of other GIs. An estimated 20,270 were wounded, and some were permanently disabled (including an estimated 500 amputees).”
How many of their comrades the “McNamara’s Folly” men caused to be killed or wounded is not known.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s December 2016 issue.