The USS Maddox, the American ship at the centre of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident involved the USS Maddox, one of several American naval vessels patrolling the sea near North Vietnam in mid-1964. The Maddox was an armed destroyer but was also outfitted to gather intelligence, specifically to monitor North Vietnamese radio transmissions, radar and other defence systems. This information was relayed to the Pentagon, which used it to organise covert attacks against North Vietnam. These attacks, codenamed Operation 34A, were coordinated by the CIA and carried out mostly by South Vietnamese commandos, using unmarked Norwegian boats. The last week of July 1964 saw a significant escalation in these attacks. A South Vietnamese brigade was parachuted into North Vietnam, probably to operate undercover, but was quickly captured. Planes provided by the CIA were used to bomb North Vietnamese border posts. And on July 31st, a joint operation involving South Vietnamese and US Special Forces attacked two islands off the coast of North Vietnam.
Hanoi decided to respond to this escalation in hostile attacks on its territory. At noon on August 2nd, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats approached and fired on the USS Maddox. All torpedoes missed their target. The attackers were then driven back by gunfire from the Maddox, which also called in air support from a nearby carrier. One of the torpedo boats was reportedly sunk, while the other two sustained damage and limped back to base. Two days later the Maddox and another American ship, the USS Turner Joy, claimed to have responded to another North Vietnamese torpedo attack. Two days later, president Lyndon Johnson informed the American public of these attacks, speaking with measured outrage and promising an immediate, though limited response:
This new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, brings home to all of us the importance of the struggle for peace and security in south-east Asia. Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America. The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Vietnam will be redoubled by this outrage. Yet our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting. We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war … It is a solemn responsibility to have to order even limited military action by forces whose overall strength is as vast and as awesome as [ours], but it is my considered conviction that firmness in the right is indispensable today for peace.
Congress backs Johnson
Johnson also promised to seek a resolution from Congress, which would authorise him to “take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in south-east Asia.” On August 5th, the day after addressing the nation, Johnson ordered a small but precise series of bombing runs. Code-named Operation Pierce Arrow, American planes flew 64 sorties and bombed major torpedo boat bases along the North Vietnam coastline. The same day, Johnson wrote to members of Congress asking them to endorse “all necessary action to protect our armed forces and to assist nations covered by the SEATO Treaty”. The Congress duly considered Johnson’s request for a resolution, a motion that encountered little dissent or opposition. On August 10th, a week after the attack on the USS Maddox, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (officially titled Asia Resolution 88-408), which read in part:
Naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace … These attacks are part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors … The Congress approves and supports the determination of 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. 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.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave Johnson a temporary respite from unpleasant choices in Vietnam… Having stood up to communist aggression, Johnson now sounded a moderate note. In speeches during the campaign, he emphasised giving Vietnam limited help: He would “not permit the independent nations of the East to be swallowed up by Communist conquest” – but it would not mean sending ‘American boys 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves’.”
Robert Dallek, historian
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had both legal and political implications. Under the US Constitution, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can deploy them as he sees fit. But the president does not have the power to declare war on another nation-state; this power is exclusively reserved for Congress. The wording of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had a clear purpose. It authorised Johnson to use military force in south-east Asia, with congressional backing, but it side-stepped a formal declaration of war. In the strictest of legal terms, the unfolding conflict in Vietnam was deemed to be a “police action”. Just as significantly for Johnson, Congress’ endorsement of the resolution was overwhelming. The House of Representatives had passed it 416-0, the Senate 48-2. This gave the hitherto cautious Johnson a confidence boost, and something of a congressional blank cheque, to proceed with military intervention in Vietnam.
Election first, war later
Despite this broad support for the resolution, Johnson took no decisive action until after the presidential election of November 1964. His opponent, the Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, was a staunch conservative and even more of a ‘hawk’ than Johnson. Goldwater criticised the incumbent president for being “soft on communism” and promised more aggressive tactics to deal with communism in Asia. This played into the hands of Johnson’s campaign team, who painted their candidate as a peace-seeking moderate, reluctant to commit American troops to war. Goldwater, they suggested, was a warmonger who might resort to using nuclear weapons. In response to Goldwater’s campaign slogan – “In your heart, you know he’s right” – Johnson’s team suggested “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”. Johnson was returned to office in one of the most decisive elections in US history, winning 61.1 per cent of the popular vote and 44 of the 50 states. The election also gave Johnson’s Democratic Party a majority in both houses of Congress. Johnson now had a legislative mandate for his ‘Great Society’ reforms – and a full four-year term to deal with the communists in south-east Asia.
After his inauguration in January 1965, Johnson’s attentions returned to military strategy in Vietnam. By early March, American troops were being landed at Da Nang. They were initially tasked in a defensive role, posted to South Vietnamese enclaves at risk of Viet Cong attack. The rules of engagement described their role as occupying and defending “critical terrain features”, and not engaging in “day to day activities against the Viet Cong”. Military commanders, however, were unsatisfied with this approach. They believed the only effective strategy was to go on the offensive and eliminate Viet Cong troops and bases. Over time these ground rules were loosened, allowing US troops to move outside their defined areas, to seek out the enemy. As American-held territory and positions grew, troop numbers were gradually but inevitably increased. There were an estimated 17,000 US ground troops in Vietnam in March 1965; by the end of the year this had blown out to more than 180,000.
1. On August 4th 1964 the USS Maddox reported that it had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
2. Two days later, president Johnson addressed the nation and said he would seek a congressional resolution.
3. The resolution, secured on August 10th, authorised Johnson to deploy US military forces in Asia.
4. Johnson took no major action until after the 1964 presidential election, which he won comprehensively.
5. US military numbers in Vietnam began to increase in March 1965, eventually reaching 184,000 by the end of that year.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Gulf of Tonkin incident”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/gulf-of-tonkin-incident/.