Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“Not A Ship, Nor The Outline Of A Ship . . .”: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe events leading up to the fateful Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Since the division of the country into North and South Vietnam in 1954, Americans had trained and dispatched Vietnamese agents across the border to assassinate communist officials, train anti-government guerillas, sabotage bridges and other infrastructure, recruit spies and so on. These efforts had proved spectacularly unsuccessful. Underpaid and demoralized South Vietnamese officials, operating in an atmosphere of rampant corruption, proved easy targets for North Vietnamese spies. In contrast, it proved hard to infiltrate the highly disciplined, dedicated government agencies in the North. Of the 80 espionage and sabotage teams sent to North Vietnam in 1963, nearly 100 percent of the agents had been killed or captured.

These efforts, however, heightened the suspicions of the North Vietnamese government, which nervously awaited an expected escalation of American forces in the South. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh anticipated that the Americans would try to inflict damage on the North and had convinced the Soviet Union and the Chinese government to provide sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries, radar, missiles and other defensive weapons. The American military conceived a plan in which South Vietnamese commandos would attack and activate North Vietnamese radar transmitters, allowing the signals to be intercepted by American intelligence ships, which could then pin down the location of these defense installations. American aircraft could then destroy communist radar sites and anti-aircraft guns, enabling American bombers to destroy larger targets within North Vietnam.

This would require the Americans and the South Vietnamese to patrol the waters near North Vietnam’s coastline, considered vulnerable to attack by the communist military command. “The Tonkin Gulf is one of the world’s scenic wonders,” journalist Stanley Karnow wrote. “Junks and sampans ply its blue waters, silhouetted against a horizon of sharp karsts rising strangely from the sea, their peaks shrouded in grey mists. But this placid picture . . . is deceptive. Invaders and marauders had struck at Vietnam through here for thousands of years. And now it seemed to Hanoi’s communist rulers, with their keen historical memory, that the same threatening pattern was being repeated by a fresh breed of aggressors, the Americans and their South Vietnamese henchmen.”

The naval destroyer "U.S.S. Maddox" became one of the first ships dispatched to conduct naval intelligence probes in late July 1964. Superiors instructed Captain John J. Herrick, the commander of the "Maddox," to sail no closer than eight miles from the North Vietnamese coast or four miles from its islands. North Vietnam had never declared the limits of its territorial waters. The French had set the limit at three miles from its coast, but Hanoi was likely to follow China’s lead and regard 12 miles as the line of demarcation. Sending the Maddox within the 12-mile limit represented an intentional provocation.

The afternoon of July 30, four swift boats manned by South Vietnamese commandoes attacked the North Vietnamese island of Hon Me, seven miles off the coast, then Hon Ngu, an island just three miles from the busy port of Vinh. The "Maddox" intercepted radar signals and transmitted the information to the CIA. The Maddox stayed in the area and, in the early morning of August 2, 1964, the crew faced off against hundreds of North Vietnamese junks. On high alert and anticipating an attack, Captain Herrick radioed to the Seventh Fleet Command that he expected an imminent attack.

A technician on board the "Maddox" informed Herrick that he had intercepted a North Vietnamese message suggesting the enemy vessels were preparing for “military operations.” Herrick requested permission to withdraw, but instead his superiors ordered him to remain, and the "Maddox" sailed within 10 miles of the Red River Delta. Technicians intercepted new orders from the North Vietnamese ships to attack the Maddox after refueling. Herrick told his crew to fire if enemy craft came within 10,000 yards. Soon the "Maddox" unleashed repeated salvos on the North Vietnamese junks.

After a twenty-minute battle, the "Maddox" barely suffered a scratch but seriously damaged two North Vietnamese vessels and sank a third. President Lyndon Johnson gave the Navy orders to send the "Maddox" back to the Gulf of Tonkin, this time accompanied by a second vessel, the Turner Joy. Naval commanders ordered the ships to buzz the North Vietnamese coast even more closely. Rear Admiral Robert B. Moore contacted Herrick, telling him to treat North Vietnamese vessels as “belligerents from first detection.”

As the "Maddox" approached its objective on August 4, thunderstorms played havoc with the ship’s sonar and radar equipment. Technicians signaled to the captain that North Vietnamese vessels had fired 22 torpedoes at the Maddox even though no enemy ships had been seen and none of the charges hit their supposed targets. The Maddox opened fire. Technicians then warned of more torpedoes on the way.

Captain Herrick dispatched pilots to find the attacking ships. Commander James Stockdale, who would later be shot down over North Vietnam and would spent 1965-1973 as a prisoner of war before being promoted to admiral, flew one of the planes. (Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot would tap Stockdale as his running mate in 1992.) Flying over the Gulf, Stockdale radioed back, “Not a ship, not the outline of a ship, not a wake, not a reflection, not the light of a single tracer bullet. Nothing.” The captain sent a report to naval command, cautioning that an error may have been made in reading the sonar.

McNamara later said that Johnson reacted to the Gulf of Tonkin “on the belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication that they not stop short of winning.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later claimed that both he and the president were trapped in the assumptions of the Cold War, the idea that Vietnam was a chess piece used by the Soviets as part of a larger game ending in communist world domination. In spite of the ambiguities of the incident, Johnson also knew the political advantages that could be realized from exaggerating events. As the Pentagon spoke of “a second deliberate attack,” the president addressed the nation on television, declaring that “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with defense, but with positive reply.”

That “positive reply” came in the form of the first major American bombing raid against North Vietnam. American aircraft bombed four North Vietnamese patrol bases and an important oil storage depot, destroying or damaging 25 North Vietnamese vessels. The North Vietnamese downed two American planes in the engagement, including one carrying Everett Alvarez, Jr., of San Jose, California, who would become the first American prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict and would remain in Communist custody for another nine years.

The guns on the deck of the "Maddox" had barely cooled when the war powers resolution was reintroduced to the Congress. Known popularly as “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” the document declared that, “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.” President Johnson would behave as if the resolution, passed on August 7 by a 416-0 vote in the House of Representatives and opposed only by Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening of Arkansas in the upper chamber, represented a virtual declaration of war.

Congress surrendered its constitutional prerogative to decide on matters of war and peace, and for nine years the House refused to shape war policy through its power of the purse for fear of being accused of not supporting the troops. Johnson won a monopoly on decision making while parceling out responsibility to congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. Meanwhile, Johnson’s approval rating jumped from 42 to 72 percent, according to a Lou Harris poll.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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