What Was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident?
On November 22, 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president later that day. A myriad of issues confronted the new president not the least of which was the ongoing crisis in Vietnam. Earlier in 1963 the US backed president of South Vietnam, Diem and his brother were assassinated as well. This led the North Vietnamese to increase their efforts in the south. 1964 promised to be a volatile year in an already charged arena.
Besides the situation in Vietnam, Johnson was very concerned with the upcoming election of 1964. All of his policy decisions, foreign and domestic, were considered through the prism of the November vote. As far as Vietnam was concerned, Johnson tried, and largely succeeded, balancing support for the US allies in the south but not committing too many resources, especially soldiers, to the fight in Asia. Johnson did not want to anger American voters by putting US servicemen in harm’s way, but he was conscience of the fact that if he did nothing he would be be labeled soft on Communism by his Republican opponents.
Westmoreland and MACV-SOG
Johnson, leaning heavily on the same team of advisors that Kennedy had appointed, did not approve of the troop build up that many were calling for, but kept the increase of American personnel relatively modest. Financial and material aid was increased. Next, “the best we have” as Robert McNamara deemed him, General William Westmoreland was appointed the commander of operations in Vietnam in April of 1964. He was a decorated war hero from World War II and the Korean War, with a great enough public presence to consider politics if he so chose after his military career. Almost immediately upon taking the helm in Vietnam, Westmoreland called for greater troop strength throughout South Vietnam. Especially during his tenure as commander, Westmoreland became the face of the United States in Vietnam.
Finally, as part of his strategy to aid South Vietnam without sending in high numbers of troops, Johnson approved more covert operations against North Vietnam. A top secret extension of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was created Studies and Observations Group or SOG. This group consisted of Army Special Forces, Navy Seals and CIA operatives, among other covert entities. There overall objective was to disrupt North Vietnamese infiltration and support of South Vietnamese Communists, namely the Viet Cong.
Gulf of Tonkin Incident
At the end of July, 1964, MACV-SOG assaulted North Vietnamese installations on the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. Though not manned by American sailors, four ships under the command of MACV-SOG attacked two islands in the Gulf, Hon Me and Hon Ngu. At the roughly the same time, the USS Maddox engaged in electronic surveillance also in the Gulf. On August 2, the North Vietnamese navy retaliated, sending 3 torpedo boats to engage the Maddox. The Maddox, with its superior firepower and better defenses easily thwarted the attack.
The following night, August 3 three more MACV-SOG vessels attacked targets on the mainland of North Vietnam. In the meantime, as a demonstration of presence and power, The Maddox was joined by the USS Turner Joy. On the night of August 4, both the Maddox and Turner Joy reported they were under attack. After this was reported to Washington, Robert McNamara urged President Johnson to retaliate. The president agreed and ordered Operation Pierce Arrow, an airstrike on North Vietnamese mainland targets. The order to retaliate was given less than thirty minutes after of the initial report.
The timing of the retaliation order is significant because shortly after the Maddox and Turner Joy reported the attack, there was significant doubt that any action was taken by North Vietnam at all. McNamara was informed of this doubt, but decided to remain quiet because Pierce Arrow was already in motion. Johnson was also about to go on national television to describe the attacks and request the authority to undertake a military response, even though the decision had already been made.
Operation Pierce Arrow
Pierce Arrow was a limited airstrike on North Vietnamese targets on August 5, 1964. It was the beginning of the United States air assault against North Vietnam that lasted until the end of the war. The targets were military or directly applicable to the North Vietnamese ability to wage war on South Vietnam. Torpedo boats and fuel storage facilities were destroyed. Despite this type of loss throughout the war, the North Vietnamese continued to fight. In addition, even though the losses from bombing could and usually were significant, the North Vietnamese often gained a morale boost when they would shoot an American bomber out of the sky.
This was true from this first air strike when two American aircraft were shot down during Pierce Arrow. One pilot was killed, Richard Sather and another was captured, Everett Alvarez, who was held in Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, for eight years. He was the second longest POW in American history, the longest also during the Vietnam conflict. Alvarez was finally released in 1973.
Presidential Address and Resolution
Even though Pierce Arrow was ordered shortly after the dubious reports of the second attack on the Maddox and Turner Joy, Johnson addressed the nation at 11:30PM eastern time about the confrontation in the Gulf of Tonkin. In his speech he outlined his intent to retaliate and would formally request from Congress the power to take such action. The Southeast Asia Resolution, or Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as it became better known, was proposed on August 6 and passed unanimously by the House of Representatives August 7 and 88-2 in the Senate. President Johnson signed it August 10, giving the executive far greater power to conduct military operations, without a declaration of war, than had ever been granted before.
The events between July 30 and August 10, 1964 are viewed as the tipping point of American involvement in Vietnam. Until then, the United States supported South Vietnam by every means at its disposal, short of fully engaging its military. With the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the United States committed its full strength to the conflict. The military build up that had been piecemeal would rise in earnest over the next four years and impact a generation for decades to come.
Anderson, David L., Editor. The Columbia History of the Vietnam War. New York, Columbia University Press, 2011.
Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise History. New York: Oxford Press, 2008.