The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War
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War in The Vietnam War

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of War

The Tonkin Gulf Encounter

The USS Maddox was a hulking battleship—2,200-tons, and armed with machine guns, torpedoes, and depth charge anti-submarine weapons. Cruising along the North Vietnamese coast in the summer of 1964, it cast an intimidating shadow in the Tonkin Gulf, one that distressed authorities in Hanoi. For nearly a decade, American support for the South Vietnamese government had been increasing; U.S. military advisors, American weaponry, and economic aid sustained Saigon and helped strengthen combat units in the South. For leaders in the North, the battleship served as an irksome—and potentially dangerous—reminder of the Saigon-Washington alliance.

On 2 August 1964, as the Maddox passed near two small islands that had been attacked by South Vietnamese gunboats, a fleet of North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats charged the ship, chasing it out to the middle of the Gulf. The U.S. naval officers opened fire on the PT boats, forcing them to veer from their target and return to shore. The Maddox escaped the attack without damage or human casualties, but leaders in Washington were unwilling to allow the "deliberate and unprovoked" assault on the battleship to go unpunished.

A Warning from Hanoi

But had the USS Maddox been on a peaceful tour in the Tonkin Gulf? Was it simply patrolling international waters with no knowledge of the South Vietnamese gunboats, and unaware of the Southern campaign to attack the North? Officials in Hanoi were certain that not only had the United States known about the raids, it had helped the South carry them out.

Just a few days before, North Vietnamese leaders had approached the International Control Commission, a mediating organization set up by the 1954 Geneva Accords. In July, the officials reported, South Vietnamese gunboats had fired upon fishing vessels—some containing families—near the northern coast of Tonkin Gulf and assaulted two North Vietnamese islands. The American naval destroyer, the USS Maddox, they claimed, had provided protection for the gunboats and, therefore, condoned the attacks. Though it had been patrolling international waters and hadn't fired shells, the Maddox had violated the Geneva peace agreement. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara denied that the Maddox helped the South Vietnamese gunners in any way, insisting, "our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any."67 But if that was the case, a captain of a North Vietnamese patrol boat argued, the Americans could have "just turned and run away." By retaliating with torpedo fire, the captain implied, the U.S. seemed to anticipate the chase and, therefore, incriminated itself.

By conducting the Tonkin Gulf raids on 2 August, Hanoi hoped to send a clear message to the United States: cease cooperating with South Vietnamese military operations, or prepare for war.

Soliciting a Show of Force

Rather than heed the warning from the North Vietnamese government, President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration invited the challenge. As top-secret Department of Defense documents would later reveal, the U.S. government had not only provided cover for the July raids but had also helped design the strikes against North Vietnam in order to provoke Hanoi. Johnson's administration expected that the North Vietnamese would respond exactly as it had to the attacks, that is, with acts of hostility against the United States. Such clear aggression by the North, Johnson hoped, would help him secure congressional approval for increased bombing in North Vietnam; aerial bombardment, the president concluded, would be the best and most effective method for eradicating Communist resistance in Vietnam, pressuring Hanoi to surrender, and ending the war quickly and decisively.

Immediately following the first encounter in the Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson ordered a second destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, to join the Maddox in the waters off the coast of North Vietnam. South Vietnamese gunboats followed, attacking fortifications along the Northern shore. What may have been a move by the U.S. government to provide protection for its own vessel appeared to Hanoi as an escalation of hostilities. And its military leaders may have chosen to offer the U.S. a "show of force" once again. That, however, remains unclear.

Phantom Torpedoes

On the night of 4 August 1964, sonar technicians aboard the Maddox and the Turner Joy detected evidence of enemy torpedoes zipping through the water. Neither ship reported a single hit and no one on board noted any other vessels or conspicuous movement beneath the surface of the water. Radar technicians, under a considerable amount of stress, may have made mistakes in assessing radar activity. The captain aboard the Maddox reported, "Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox."68 Army air force pilots flying above also observed no enemy vessels, only the two U.S. battleships, and relayed the information to officials below. Still, the Maddox and the Turner Joy each fired their guns for hours into the dark night. When it was all over, no one could be sure whether they had hit any enemy targets, or whether there had been any enemy targets at all.

Despite lingering doubt regarding the "enemy attack," Washington delivered orders for immediate retaliation against Hanoi. In an aerial raid called "Operation Pierce Arrow," U.S. fighter planes bombed several North Vietnamese oil tanks. For the first time since the United States had begun participating in the South Vietnamese campaign against the North, America dropped bombs in Vietnam.

War Without a Declaration of War

Initially President Johnson had been hesitant to approve the bombing of North Vietnam because it promised an expansion of warfare and, perhaps, the deployment of American ground troops—something he intended to avoid at all costs. However, with growing tension in the Tonkin Gulf, he and his advisors selected strategic North Vietnamese targets for American bomber jets. Intense pressure, he hoped, would force Hanoi to concede defeat and order an end to all resistance fighting in the South, thereby negating the need for U.S. troops, more equipment, and greater commitment to the conflict in Vietnam.

To carry out the plan and to intensify bombing raids in the North, Johnson needed congressional authorization, and fast. But how would he explain the reasoning behind these attacks without alarming Congress? How would he gain approval for such acts without proposing to Congress—and, ultimately, the American public—a new American war? It would be tricky.President Johnson and his men drafted a careful explanation of the events that took place in the Tonkin Gulf and the plan for retaliation. On 5 August, Johnson presented the resolution before Congress hoping for unanimous approval. The North Vietnamese assaults in the Gulf, he explained, "are part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom." He insisted that "the United States is assisting the peoples of Southeast Asia to protect their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace."69

Two days later, with U.S. bombing raids already under way in North Vietnam, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate and 416 to 0 in the House, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the power "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."70 It was, in essence, a blank check for military operations in Vietnam.

Careful What You Wish For

But the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not a declaration of war, for Johnson planned to bring Hanoi to its knees before full-scale warfare could develop. The assumptions underlying his scheme, however, were deeply flawed. Johnson's administration concluded that leaders in Hanoi controlled the rebel organizations in the South who sought to overthrow the Saigon government. North Vietnam, Washington believed, funded the National Liberation Front (NLF), armed the Viet Cong (VC), and delegated the rebel military campaigns carried out in South Vietnam. If leaders in Hanoi chose to surrender, it was presumed they would be able to halt all hostilities in the South; civil war in Vietnam would end. President Johnson and his military advisers discovered, however, that severe assaults on the North had little to no bearing on the strength and determination of Vietnamese guerrilla forces in the South.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was one of several major U.S. foreign policy decisions in Vietnam based on poor judgment and misinformation; and the bombing raids that followed marked one of many moments in which such policy decisions led not to an end in fighting, but to the escalation of warfare. Whether he had intended to or not, Johnson had bargained with Congress for war, and he got exactly that. A skirmish that the president had expected to win within the year became a full-scale, decade-long struggle—one that the U.S. ultimately lost.

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