GULF OF TONKIN INCIDENTS
From Downstairs at the White House
"Waiting in the wings in August 1964 were three events that would eventually lead to the replacement of advisors with a half-million U.S. combat troops.
The first occurred on August 2nd off the coast of North Vietnam. The USS Maddox, a Navy destroyer cruising in neutral waters near the Gulf of Tonkin, reported that it had been fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
The second event, also in the Tonkin Gulf, happened on August 4th. In this incident, the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy, sailing in extremely rough weather, reported that the North Vietnamese navy had attacked again. President Johnson immediately ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese targets.
The third event took place on August 7th when the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, legislation that essentially gave the President a blank check to wage war in Vietnam without a declaration of war by Congress.
It would take until 1971 when top-secret documents were published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers for Americans to learn that the Tonkin Gulf incidents largely consisted of half-truths and some very big, outright lies.
The story about the first attack was true, but only technically so. Although the North Vietnamese had fired on the Maddox on August 2nd, senior members of the Johnson Administration never mentioned that the Maddox had fired first with warning shots, leaving a question of whether the North Vietnamese actions were offensive or defensive.
The August 4th attack never even happened. Although the commander of the Maddox originally reported that they had been attacked, he amended his report to state that bad weather might have created false sonar and radar images that were mistaken for enemy vessels. Moreover, since there were no visual sightings of other ships, the commander thought that it was unlikely that either ship had been attacked. Despite this, the Navy insisted that the Maddox sank two North Vietnamese ships, although no corroborating evidence could be found. Moreover, President Johnson was not advised of the change in the Maddox’s report until well after the retaliatory strikes were completed.
The result of the events in the Tonkin Gulf and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a steep escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. After the Tonkin Gulf incidents, Johnson ordered the military draft doubled and began a covert bombing of the neighboring country of Laos. In 1965 the troop level increased to 185,000 and the U.S. began a continuous bombing campaign against North Vietnam that would last almost four years. By 1966, the number of U.S. military personnel rose to 390,000 and to 485,000 by 1967. By 1968, U.S. strength swelled to a peak of 540,000, or about as many people who live inside the city limits of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
On January 31, 1968, North Vietnam mobilized some 90,000 troops during a two-day ceasefire celebrating the Lunar New Year and launched large-scale surprise attacks across South Vietnam. Known as the Tet Offensive, the objective was to strike down the U.S. and South Vietnamese leadership in Saigon, end the war, and unify the country under a Communist government. Although the Communist forces were defeated, the attacks stunned the U.S. and South Vietnamese military. Even more shocked were the American people who had been told repeatedly by the White House that the North Vietnamese army was wearing down and that victory in Vietnam was in sight. Considering that the Communists had enough men, munitions, and supplies to carry out these assaults, the optimistic claims of the Johnson Administration looked misguided at best. As a result, it became much more difficult to convince the nation that its leaders were taking the right course of action.
In March, President Johnson’s advisors informed him that they did not believe America could prevail in Vietnam and that the U.S. should attempt to negotiate a peace agreement. On March 31, 1968, Johnson addressed the nation on television, saying, for all intents and purposes, that the U.S. would suspend its bombing of North Vietnam to induce the government in Hanoi to seek an armistice. Dejected over the course the war had taken and with his popularity plunging, Johnson also declined to run for another term as President, a real shocker if there ever was one.
The peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam began in Paris in May 1968. They would continue for nearly five years and produce nothing more than signed peace agreements that were never honored."
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