The immediate consequence of America’s dithering, half-hearted acquiescence to the demise of the Diem government was increased instability throughout South Vietnam. Over the next few years (1963 to 1965), there were nine different governments. Plotting and executing coups seemed to be the primary activity of the South Vietnamese officer corps. Well intentioned, justified by circumstances, or sheer power grab (and most coups managed to be all of the above), the atmosphere in Saigon was uncertain and anything but conducive to the successful prosecution of a war which had been going on since 1954, long before the Americans began sending military advisors. Not only did this allow the Communists to regain ground they had lost to Diem, but it created a vacuum in overall leadership and guidance of the war. That vacuum would be filled not by a South Vietnamese president, but by a figure more commanding and secure: General William C. Westmoreland of the United States Army. In June 1964 he became supreme military commander in South Vietnam. Although the massive deployment of American
soldiers would not take place for another year, the U.S. had over 15,000 military advisors in country and were beginning to “take charge” of the operations against the Communist forces.
Even before “Westy” took command, the United States military was helping South Vietnam take action against the Communist North (and hoping to raise South Vietnamese morale in the process). Together they created OPLAN 34A, a series of clandestine actions to be taken against North Vietnam, including commando raids and sabotage. They were to be carried out exclusively by South Vietnamese personnel, mostly against military installations along the southern coast of North Vietnam. Concurrently, the U.S. Navy began sea patrols in the Tonkin Gulf.
Some believed this show of determination, as slight as it was, would convince the North Vietnamese that the United States was serious about defending South Vietnam. They were obviously wrong about that. Also wrong are those who argue that the United States intended to provoke North Vietnam into an attack that would justify bringing in direct American firepower. America certainly did escalate its commitment to Saigon, after a minor incident in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964, (which became one of the most celebrated “enemy engagements” of the coming war), but there was no “intent” about it; it just happened.
On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the American destroyer USS Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later, August 4, another attack was initially reported, though it is now clear that the USS Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy misread their sonar data, believed they were under torpedo attack when in fact they weren’t, and responded with a barrage that hit nothing but water. In response to the first and suspected second attacks, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief of the Pacific, requested that he be allowed to retaliate against North Vietnam. President Johnson agreed, ordering retaliatory strikes by the 7th Fleet naval forces. On August 5, 1964, aircraft from the carriers USS Ticonderoga and USS Constellation destroyed an oil storage facility at Vinh and damaged or sank about thirty North Vietnamese patrol boats in port or along the coast.
Of greater significance than the retaliatory strikes was the United States Congress’s overwhelming passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7, which authorized President Johnson to employ military force as he saw fit against the Vietnamese Communists. Congress did not pass the resolution in a burst of passion. The bill actually reflected the bipartisan foreign policy consensus—true since the time of President Harry Truman—that Communist aggression had to be contained; and Congress was well aware that Vietnam was the flashpoint of Southeast Asia. Senator William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in answer to a question during the floor debate, agreed that such a resolution would authorize the president to “use such force as could lead to 1 If one wants to date the Vietnam War from the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, it has to be said that the Congress knew exactly what it was doing.
Any claim that the United States would not have entered into the Vietnam War if President Johnson or the military had not “fabricated” the second North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox is spurious. North Vietnam’s aggression was plain, and so was our desire to defend an independent South Vietnam. For almost ten years the Communists had been systematically attacking South Vietnamese cities and assassinating village officials. In 1959, Hanoi openly admitted they were supporting the fighting in the South and were sending troops to conquer South Vietnam. Communist actions were exactly why SEATO came into being. The Tonkin Resolution did not begin an American commitment to South Vietnam, it only expanded the commitment that President Kennedy (and before him, President Eisenhower) had made. Nor did the United States go to war against North Vietnam because of the attack in the Tonkin Gulf. The United States went to war because North Vietnam was waging war against South Vietnam.
Editor’s Note: Phillip Jennings is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War available now on Amazon. Check it out!