A Little Background
In early August 1964, what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident hit the news. At the time, most Americans were aware that there was a growing conflict in Vietnam, but they’d been told that the US presence was limited to a small number of military advisers.
In the context of the Cold War, the public knew that the northern part of Vietnam — the part bordering China — was communist. The southern part of the country (supported by the US) was anti communist.
The American president, Lyndon B. Johnson, assumed that North Vietnam wanted to force the whole country into unification under communist rule.
An insurgent guerilla force, the National Liberation Front (NLF) or Vietcong, had arisen in South Vietnam. Fully supported by North Vietnam, they cast themselves as a populist front, established to throw off South Vietnam’s US backed military government.
In the US Congress, a bipartisan consensus anticipated that South Vietnam (and the world) needed American help in preventing the spread of communism.
August 4, 1964
On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on live prime time TV to announce what he called an unprovoked attack on two US ships off the coast of Vietnam. He said that the attacks, occurring in rapid succession “on the high seas,” had been mounted by North Vietnam. He assured the nation that he would treat any further unprovoked aggression by North Vietnam as a cause for military retaliation, but went on to say that he had no desire for war in Southeast Asia,
What was Johnson really up to?
Well, in the summer of 1964, Johnson was running for president — the office he had assumed after the Kennedy assassination. His Republican challenger Barry Goldwater was calling him “soft on communism.” Goldwater was also calling for increased US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Therefore, months before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Johnson administration had secretly drafted a congressional resolution for stepping up military action in Vietnam.
After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Johnson implemented a new policy to bring the communist government in Hanoi, North Vietnam’s capital, to the negotiating table by force.
Barry Goldwater faded into the background when LBJ won the 1964 election by the largest popular mandate to that point in American history.
In 1965, wielding that electoral mandate (along with high public approval ratings for his handling of the Gulf of Tonkin incident) Johnson sent the first American ground troops — 210,000 — to Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1967, that number grew to 485,000. By the summer of 1967, US casualties in Vietnam numbered 11,000.
Three years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in 1967, the United States was bogged down in a full scale war in Vietnam. However, disturbing facts had arisen about what really happened on the “high seas” in 1964.
- The incident had not occurred in international waters as Johnson stated in his address to the nation. The events really occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnamese mainland, in and around that nation’s territorial waters. US ships had been patrolling there in a way that might be interpreted as intending to provoke an attack.
- The ship that sparked the incident, the destroyer USS Maddox, was in the Gulf for the express purpose of carrying out electronic surveillance of North Vietnam, part of a covert program begun by President Kennedy. Its aim: to intercept North Vietnamese army intelligence and send it, via the Pentagon, to South Vietnamese army forces.
- The activities of the USS Maddox were coordinated with an even more aggressive covert activity, overseen by the CIA, to direct South Vietnamese and other commando troops in making night raids with high-speed boats on coastal North Vietnam. US air support for both operations was supplied by the carrier Ticonderoga, lying in international waters nearby.
- Thus, the United States was already waging war in Vietnam by August 1964. Moreover, the Gulf of Tonkin incident had not begun on August 2, but on the night of July 30 when the first shots were fired under US guidance. Two of the CIA directed speedboats attacked a North Vietnamese radar station on an island in the gulf.
- The destroyer Maddox entered the area the next day and,on August 2, three North Vietnamese patrol boats armed with torpedoes approached the Maddox. The American destroyer fired warning shots. In response, the patrol boats fired torpedoes but these failed to hit the destroyer. When the Maddox opened fire, the patrol boats retreated.
- Jets from the nearby Ticonderoga also attacked the patrol boats, damaging one and sinking another. There were no US casualties, but President Johnson and the Pentagon escalated. They chose to leave the Maddox in the gulf, and to send another destroyer there.
- On the night of August 3, with the two US destroyers positioned just outside territorial waters, the CIA directed speedboats again attacked the coast of North Vietnam.
- On August 4, the Pentagon received an urgent cable from the captain of the USS Maddox off North Vietnam. The dispatch stated that both of the American destroyers in the gulf were now under constant, intense torpedo attack by North Vietnamese PT boats. A series of cables from the captain followed, asserting that a major action was underway.
- In response to a second attack, US planes were said to leave the deck of the Ticonderoga, firing rockets at North Vietnamese targets. The engagement supposedly went on for two hours.
- Throughout the long battle Daniel Ellsberg, a special assistant to the assistant secretary of the navy, kept close track.
- A final dispatch arrived from the Maddox’s captain, rescinding all of his earlier dispatches. The entire naval battle had occurred only in the cables. There had been no real engagement. Instead, an error had occurred due to freak weather effects and jumpy officers.
- Still, despite the new information, President Johnson went on national TV and told the American people that two attacks on US ships had been launched — out of nowhere — by North Vietnam.
American support for the war soon eroded. Daniel Ellsberg began investigating. He discovered that without telling the American people or the Congress, United States presidents had been pursuing a wide range of covert military actions in Vietnam since the 1950s. He made the story public in 1971 when he leaked what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Much of the material in this post is drawn from Lawrence O’Donnell’s book on the 1968 elections, Playing With Fire.
Those of you who like to pick up some knowledge the easy way will enjoy the 2017 movie, The Post. The trailer is below.