Project 100,000: One-Way Ticket to Death

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(George Santayana)



Project 100,000 was the “brainchild” of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense for Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, one of the “best and brightest” Kennedy recruited for his administration. But that description quickly proved to be a misnomer. By 1966, McNamara was enmeshed in a catastrophe. What was supposed to be a little adventure to give the armed forces a chance to strut its stuff had turned into a quagmire. Monthly draft totals had jumped from 17,000 to 35,000, and General Hershey (Head of the Selective Service, US draft system) had warned that monthly quotas would increase to 40,000 a month in October, 1966.

By early 1966, McNamara knew the war was unwinnable, but that didn’t stop him. He had to come up with more cannon fodder to continue the carnage. President Johnson, already besieged by anti-war protestors and fearing a public relations disaster, had vetoed calling up the reserves or ending student deferments.

Project 100,000 was McNamara’s solution, cloaking it as a “Great Society” program to “uplift” America’s “subterranean poor” and cure them of “idleness, ignorance, and apathy.  The project itself aimed to recruit 100,000 men (original goal but eventually more than 350,000 men were dragooned into the armed forces) who had already been rejected for failing to meet the military’s physical and mental requirements. This was going to be a “second chance.” Recruiters went to urban ghettos and rural pockets of white poverty in the South and promised recruits successful military careers that would lead to their becoming productive members of society.

President Johnson, Robert McNamara

Surely President Johnson who had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act would reject this monstrous betrayal of hundreds of thousands of poor, black and white young men. Unlike his often-voiced concern for white middle class opinion, Johnson sanctioned the program with his silence.

President Johnson’s Moron Corps

Although the military would call these recruits “New Standards Men,” most of the soldiers knew them as the “Moron Corps.” Many of the recruits were horribly uneducated, a majority scoring at a 5th grade level on the army’s qualifying test. Others had serious physical impairments—too short or too tall, underweight or overweight. Many couldn’t speak English. As far as learning new skills and training, an outright lie. Instead “The program offered a one-way ticket to Vietnam, where these men fought and died in disproportionate numbers…the men of the ‘Moron Corps’ provided the necessary cannon fodder to help evade the political horror of dropping student deferments or calling up the reserves…” (Washington Monthly).

The statistics reveal the shocking truth about this social experiment: 45% of Project 100,000 recruits were trained for combat versus 25% for the military generally. These recruits were two and one-half times more likely to die in combat than other recruits. Forty percent of Project 100,000 recruits were African American and 65% of them were from the South.

As usual, Congress and the Executive Branch trailed along meekly in the wake of the military’s grand scheme. “…Expectations of what can be done in America are receding…Our best hope is…to use the armed forces as a socializing experiment for the poor.” (1966, Daniel Moynihan, Assistant Secretary of Labor for JFK and LBJ)

Use it they did. Adding to the overall carnage of Americans (58,000), Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians (3+ million) was a social experiment gone dreadfully wrong. Young men with mental and physical deficiencies were sent into the Vietnam jungles so the privileged sons of the middle and upper middle class didn’t have to. Included among that “illustrious” gaggle of non-combatants—George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and thousands of others mostly white with the common denominator of a rich daddy and the shared goal of sleeping safely in their beds while the “special” recruits of Project 100,000 fought and died for the sake of a country that considered them expendable.

Into this thicket of lies, misrepresentations, and utter depravity, add one more. McNamara’s promise to returning Project 100,000 recruits: “[their] overall achievement in society will be two or three times what it would have been had there been no such program.” Here’s the results of a 1971 report “[Project 100,000 men] either no better off or actually worse off than their civilian counterparts.” If more proof is needed, here it is from the horse’s mouth in a 1995 study by the Department of Defense: “In terms of employment status, educational achievement, and income, nonveterans appeared better off [than Projects 100,000 veterans who] were more likely to be unemployed. Income differences ranged from $5,000 to $7,000 in favor of nonveterans. [Project 100,000 veterans] were more likely to be divorced.”

 The rout was complete. The wages of racism and class bias on display 50 years ago and little changed since. Men who weren’t qualified to serve died in disproportionate numbers in a tragic war, the survivors came home to find the same discrimination in employment, education and income. Adding to the shame of it all, Project 100,000 was not the first “social experiment” to be perpetrated on poor, mostly black Americans. Same farce, another Democratic president, another war [World War II] where recruits who scored below the required mental aptitude were recruited and sent off to the killing fields in Europe and the Pacific and died at far higher rates than “regular” soldiers.

How quickly America’s elites forget the promises they make and how hollow their assurance of remaking the world. Instead it’s the same old cheese McNamara sold fifty years ago. Blatant racism masquerading as civil rights. Promises made and abandoned. In 2009, another president led us down the “trail of tears,” with another basketful of promises “to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

 Sound familiar? America made the same promises to the men of Project 100,000.


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