When Lyndon Johnson became President after John Kennedy died, he realized that knew new plans and new strategy were urgently needed. The U.S. was getting mired in a war it did not need and Johnson did not want. But he felt he was stuck with it. He chose General Westmoreland to lead the American war effort in Vietnam. He had been a decorated military leader in Korea and Johnson chose him personally. He also replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as Ambassador with General Maxwell Taylor.
By the end of his first year as President, his cabinet and top military generals recommended that he increase the number of American military “advisors” in Vietnam from 16,000 to 23,400 by the end of 1964.
Johnson wanted to gradually increase military pressure on the North. Soon Johnson authorized American aircraft to bomb neighbouring Laos. He allowed American vessels to oversee shelling of coastal bases of the North. Of course, all of this was conducted in secret. “The American people were not to be told. It was an election year.” So the truth was withheld from them.
Misleading the public about critically important matters like war, is abhorrent. It makes one extremely wary of politicians. How can they possibly justify withholding the facts from the people who will have to pay the ultimate price for the decisions the politicians make? Or withholding the truth from parents who see their children volunteer to serve their county in war. No one has the right to withhold relevant information to them, least of all one’s elected officials.
Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the President that they were fighting on the North’s terms. They urged much more massive and dramatic action. They wanted air strikes on the north and the deployment of American forces in South Vietnam. They wanted boots on the ground. Johnson refused believing such aggressive action would pull China into the war just as such actions had pulled them into the Korean War in 1950.
Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the election blamed Johnson for holding back and doing nothing about Communist aggression. On July 30, 1964 South Vietnamese ships under the direction of the US military shelled two North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The tiny North Vietnamese navy was on high alert. As the television series said,
What followed was one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history. On the afternoon of August 2nd the destroyer USS Maddox was moving slowly through international waters in the Gulf on an intelligence gathering mission in support of further South Vietnamese action against the north. The Commander of a North Vietnamese torpedo boat squadron moved to attack the Maddox. The Americans opened fire and missed. North Vietnamese torpedoes also missed, but US planes from an American carrier in the bay damaged two of the North Vietnamese boats and left a third dead in the water. Ho Chi Minh was shocked to hear of his Navy’s attack and demanded to know who had ordered it. The officer on duty was officially reprimanded for impulsiveness. No one may ever know who gave the order to attack. To this day, even the Vietnamese cannot agree but some believe it was Le Duan.
Many like Huy Duc a North Vietnamese soldier believed that the North Vietnamese leader who was gradually taking over from Ho Chi Minh wanted to “elevate the war.” Some of the North Vietnamese soldiers, like Nguyen Ngoc, believed that had this not been done the North would have achieved victory in 1965. They already had much of the countryside and the government would likely have collapsed within a year if the Americans had not intervened with a large military force, as they did. However, as we know, these actions drew the Americans in and drew them in big time. Johnson ignored military advice and did not retaliate immediately. However he warned the North that any more unprovoked military attacks against Americans would bring them into the war. He failed to mention of course to the American people that the actions of the North were not unprovoked. They had been provoked by shelling of he South Vietnamese forces. “Both sides were playing a dangerous game.” And, of course, in war dangerous games often lead to violence. I hope the current American President appreciates this, but I seriously doubt it. Trump like so many American Presidents before him is filled with hubris about how easily it will be for the US with all its weaponry to win any war it chooses to engage in.
On August 4, 1964 the American radio operators mistranslated North Vietnamese radio traffic and concluded that a new military operation was imminent. It was not. They were actually getting ready for attacks from the South. Although no attack occurred, hyper alert Americans convinced themselves wrongly that an attack had occurred. Johnson was told an attack had “probably occurred” and decided it should not go unanswered.
Johnson, in announcing relation against this aggression by the North said it would be limited because “Americans know, though others seem to forget, the risks of widening war. We still seek no wider war,” he said. After that, for the first time, American pilots dropped bombs on North Vietnam.
2 months earlier, Johnson had asked McGeorge Bundy one of his military advisors to draft a resolution for Congress to authorize the President to use force in against the North Vietnamese. He now sent that to Congress. The Tonkin Bay incident was what he needed to ask Congress for authorization by way of that draft resolution to deal with aggression against the US by North Vietnam. As a result he got the famous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress which as Johnson said, was “like my Grandma’s nightshirt, it covers everything.”
Johnson was waiting for the right time to send a message to North Vietnam that we are ready and serious to deal with North Vietnam by supporting South Vietnam. As James Willbanks, an American military commander said, “That message was sent; I think we misread the enemy, because they are just as serious as we are.”
I think Willbanks was wrong. The North Vietnamese were more serious. Much more serious. The Americans talked a great line. They spent a lot of money. They sacrificed a lot of lives, but eventually they cried ‘Uncle.’ The North Vietnamese never did. They defeated the greatest military power in the history of the world! They could only do that with more grit, more determination, and more intelligence. In all of these the Americans were second rate, no matter how loud their barrage of patriotic words.
On August 4, 1964 the Tonkin Resolution was passed by a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate and in the House it received unanimous approval. When it comes to aggressive military measures, the President of the United States usually gets his way. And he did again. Overnight Johnson’s approval rating for handling the war jumped from 42% to 72%. Even doves considered him measured and reasonable compared to Goldwater who seemed extreme. “The American public believed their President.” Even though he had not been entirely honest with them.
Of course North Vietnam did not believe Johnson. They were not convinced that he sought no wider war. They decided to escalate their efforts in the south before the American sent in their own combat troops. For the first time Hanoi started sending North Vietnamese troops into the south out of the paths they had hacked out of the Laotian jungle–the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war was ramping up.
It was really a small incident, but it was the first that had pitted North Vietnamese forces against US Forces. It is not without significance that this was just before a Presidential election that Lyndon Johnson wanted to win. Just like Kennedy had wanted to win and just like Nixon would want to win after him. Johnson wanted to show that the Vietnamese that America was strong. He wanted to show Americans that he was strong. He wanted to appear decisive.
The Tonkin Bay resolution is seen by many now as the crucial resolution that got America mired in the war in Vietnam. It was the basis–the legal basis–for all that happened from the American perspective.
Of the two dissenting votes one was given by an amazing American. This was Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon. He was interviewed by Dick Cavett. When I was in college we would watch the Dick Cavett show nearly every night. Cavett had intended to have a late night entertainment talk show but he and his viewers were attracted to controversial subjects. None was more controversial than the War in Vietnam. Morse was able to speak the truth to power, when almost no one else was able to do that. He was one of the only 2 Senators that failed to support the resolution. These are the powerful words he said on that show that day,
If the Johnson administration had told the American people 5% of the facts of the Tonkin Bay incident the resolution never would have passed. The second thing I want to express in my conversation with you is watch out for the development of government by secrecy and executive supremacy. You had it manifested in the Tonkin Bay resolution. You just were not told the facts about America’s aggression in Tonkin Bay…We are a very proud people and its good that we’re proud, but we can’t run away from the facts just because we have a false sense of pride. And the difficulty with our Vietnam policy is that we have been the outlaw in South East Asia. We have been the aggressor. We violated one section after another of the Charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.
Dick Cavett later described that show with obvious pride. Cavett said the audience fell dead silent when Morse spoke about why we were so mistaken about this war. Cavett believed that Senator Morse was a great man. “He would be almost the definition of one.” It is not easy to say ‘No” when all around you are clamoring for war. Morse could do that. What a pity that more political leaders were not able to hear him.
On November 1, 1964 the North Vietnamese forces shelled an American air base in the south. 5 Americans died, 30 were wounded, and 5 B-57 bombers were destroyed on the ground, and 15 more were damaged. The Joint Chiefs recommended the President authorize an immediate all out air attack on 94 targets in the north and to send in regular marine units, not as advisors but as combat forces. Johnson refused to this 2 days before the election. Johnson won the election by a landslide.
As soon as the election was over, Johnson approved what he called “a graduated response.” These included limited air attacks along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and tit for tat attacks on North Vietnamese targets. He did not want to launch sustained attacks on the North until the South got their own house in order. In private, Johnson doubted that air power alone would ever work. He believed that eventually he would have to send in ground troops. He did not say so publicly. Again, the President did not tell the whole truth. And young men and young women volunteered to risk their lives to support their government. But their decisions to volunteer were made without knowing the truth. That should be a war crime.