By 1964 the Diem government of South Vietnam was on the brink of overthrow, pressed hard by increasing insurgency underwritten by the Communist government of North Vietnam. Diem was backed by the United States, but that backing was limited to military and economic aid along with about 16,000 military personnel classified as advisors.
Photograph taken from USS Maddox (DD-731) during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, 2 August 1964. The image shows one of the boats speeding past the Maddox.
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Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 2 August 1964
To put more pressure on Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnamese government, during 1964, the U.S. implemented a naval escalation in the form of three covert operations against the north. These were:
OP-PLAN 3A: attacks on the N. Vietnamese coastline by S. Vietnamese Navy fast patrol boats with U.S. logistical support, including bombarding radar stations and landing South Vietnamese commandos to destroy bridges and other military targets;
DESOTO: U.S. destroyers sailed inside N. Vietnamese waters for electronic surveillance of coastal radar and defenses;
Laos: bombing was conducted in Laos to interdict supplies and reinforcements moving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
USS Turner Joy (DD-951) at sea, 25 August 1962, seen from USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31).
The North Vietnamese government wanted to show it would not bend under the pressure. They chose to attack a U.S. destroyer, rather than the faster S. Vietnamese patrol boats. On 2 August 1964 one of the DESOTO destroyers, the USS Maddox (DD-731), came under fire in the Gulf of Tonkin from three torpedo boats, even though outside North Vietnamese territorial waters. Torpedoes were launched against Maddox and machine gun fire raked the ship. Maddox responded with fire from its 5 inch guns, and was quickly supported by aircraft from USS Ticonderoga (CV 14), leaving one attacking boat dead in the water and damaging the other two. Maddox was not damaged and there were no American casualties.
The attack was taken very seriously by the United States and Pres. Johnson ordered another destroyer to the area, the USS Turner Joy (DD-951). Shortly after USS Turner Joy arrived on station, during the night of 4-5 August, both Maddox and Joy reported further attacks and the sinking of two North Vietnamese boats.
Long after the fact, analysis showed that the second attack did not actually occur. There was no visual contact and radar did not show the enemy boats. But at the time U.S. leaders in Washington were persuaded by interpretation of special intelligence and reports from the ships that North Vietnamese naval forces had attacked the two destroyers.
Result of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The actual attack of 2 August and the second suspected attack had far reaching ramifications. Immediately after the incident, President Johnson ordered Seventh Fleet carrier forces to launch retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. On 5 August, Operation Pierce Arrow sent aircraft from carriers USS Ticonderoga (CV 14) and USS Constellation (CVA 64) over N. Vietnam, an operation that destroyed an oil storage facility at Vinh and damaged or sank about 30 enemy naval vessels. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action.
Then, on 7 August the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed H.J. RES 1145, the joint House and Senate resolution commonly referred to as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Significantly, it authorized, "the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." It went on to say, "the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom." This open-ended Presidential war-making authority was the basis for the coming large scale U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
In the fall of 1964, Pres. Johnson was involved in his election campaign, a factor that limited escalation of the war. After Johnson was re-elected in November, there were sporadic U.S. air strikes and naval action, but the Viet Cong continued attacks on ARVN and U.S. forces and American casualties grew. Viet Cong raids became bolder as it appeared that the Saigon government was unstable and the U.S. was not increasing its involvement. On Christmas Eve 1964, a Viet Cong bomb blew up the Brink's Hotel in Saigon, which housed U.S. Army officers, killing two Americans and wounding over fifty. Four days later, two Vietcong regiments took over the village of Binh Gia near Saigon. When ARVN counterattacked, they suffered a devastating defeat, the first of a series of larger scale actions that ARVN lost.
The Communist Viet Cong were on the verge of victory and only a strong response from the U.S. could stop them. Until now, Johnson had hesitated while his advisors grew increasingly convinced that a full commitment to Vietnam was unavoidable. In the first months of 1965, President Johnson made that decision and ordered the deployment to South Vietnam of major U.S. ground, air, and naval forces, beginning the full-scale phase of the Vietnam War.
Recommended Books about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident