The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — Vietnam War

In 1964, Vietnam was deeply entrenched in a long-lasting internal strife, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution marked the commencement of the United States’ formal engagement in the Vietnam War. The primary objective was to halt the expansion of communism in that region. It garnered unanimous approval in the U.S. House of Representatives and encountered only two dissenting votes within the U.S. Senate.

This resolution was triggered by two distinct assaults on U.S. Navy destroyers—the U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. Turner Joy—reportedly occurring on August 2 and August 4, 1964, respectively.

Stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, a water expanse now recognized as the East Vietnam Sea, these destroyers supported South Vietnamese military actions against the then-North Vietnamese coastline.

As per the U.S. Navy’s account, both Maddox and Turner Joy claimed they were fired upon by North Vietnamese patrol boats. However, later uncertainties surfaced regarding the authenticity of the second attack on Turner Joy.

At President Lyndon B. Johnson’s urging, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution with the understanding that the president would seek their endorsement before launching an all-out war in Vietnam with U.S. military personnel. Regrettably, this commitment wasn’t upheld.

The Conflict Takes Shape

Following the Viet Minh’s victory over the French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Vietnam was divided into northern and southern sectors, each ruled by separate governments after the Geneva Conference. Elections were planned to reunify the nation under a single administration, with the communists of the North having an advantage due to their support in the rural South.

However, driven by the Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, the United States opposed the spread of communism. By the late 1950s, the U.S. supported South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in refusing to hold the scheduled elections.

The communist influence persisted in parts of South Vietnam, and by 1959, the Viet Cong and the Viet Minh initiated an insurgency against Diem’s regime, marking the inception of the Second Indochina War.

Diem’s popularity dwindled, worsened by his unpopular domestic policies. By 1963, he was overthrown and assassinated by his own generals, allegedly with the blessing of President John F. Kennedy’s administration. Kennedy’s subsequent assassination was followed by Johnson’s assumption of office, who believed that bolstering the U.S. military presence was necessary to stem South Vietnam’s losses.

Enter William Westmoreland

U.S. forces were already involved in bombing campaigns along the Vietnam-Laos border, aimed at disrupting North Vietnamese troop supply routes and supporting South Vietnamese endeavors against Viet Cong strongholds.

In the summer of 1964, backed by U.S. naval assistance, South Vietnam initiated coordinated commando raids along the North Vietnamese coast. Acting on advice from Lieutenant General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, these operations shifted from land-based raids to shoreline bombardments using mortars and rockets.

U.S. naval destroyers, including Maddox and Turner Joy, were present in the Gulf of Tonkin, engaged in reconnaissance and intelligence collection.

Maddox’s Encounter

In the early hours of August 2, 1964, Maddox received intelligence indicating that three North Vietnamese patrol boats were dispatched to attack it. The ship’s captain, John J. Herrick, initially ordered the vessel to move away from the area to evade confrontation. However, this decision was reversed, and Maddox returned to the Gulf.

By mid-morning, three North Vietnamese patrol boats were closing in on Maddox. The crew was instructed to prepare for potential engagement. Air support was also summoned from the U.S.S. Ticonderoga, stationed nearby.

Maddox and accompanying fighter jets successfully repelled the North Vietnamese attack. The attackers retreated, leaving one boat destroyed and two heavily damaged.

Gulf of Tonkin Episode

The following day, President Johnson ordered Turner Joy to join Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 4, both destroyers received intelligence hinting at another imminent North Vietnamese attack.

Due to poor visibility and approaching storms, Captain Herrick directed the ships to take evasive action by moving further into the sea.

Before 9 p.m. that evening, Maddox reported unidentified vessels in the vicinity. Over the next few hours, the destroyers maneuvered swiftly to avoid potential attacks, despite uncertainty about the presence of North Vietnamese ships.

Maddox reported multiple torpedo attacks and gunfire, with both destroyers returning fire. However, doubts about the authenticity of the incident were raised by Navy Commander James Stockdale and Captain Herrick himself.

The Road to Vietnam Engagement

Despite initial doubts, Captain Herrick’s initial reports suggested an attack did occur. U.S. intelligence sources in Southeast Asia appeared to confirm this. President Johnson, monitoring the situation from Washington, D.C., announced his intention to retaliate on the night of August 5th.

Congress swiftly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, signed into law by the president on August 10th. This marked the beginning of intensified U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

The repercussions materialized a few months later with Operation Rolling Thunder, a major bombing campaign targeting North Vietnamese sites, initiated on February 13, 1965. President Johnson also sanctioned the deployment of ground troops to combat the Viet Cong in Vietnam’s rural areas.

Was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident Fabricated?

Though declassified documents hint that the Gulf of Tonkin incident leading to U.S. intervention might have been partially fabricated, there’s no conclusive evidence that President Johnson or Defense Secretary Robert McNamara deliberately deceived Congress or the public.

Nonetheless, the war encountered substantial public opposition, leading to anti-war protests. Faced with the backlash, President Johnson chose not to seek reelection in 1968. His successor, Richard M. Nixon, vowed to end the war but confronted similar challenges.

When the war concluded in 1975 with North Vietnam’s takeover of the South, the toll was staggering: almost 60,000 U.S. servicemen, around 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, over a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, and more than two million civilians lost their lives.

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