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Did the Gulf of Tonkin Incident provide a convenient excuse for United States military involvement
in Vietnam? Was the incident overstated in order to gain support for military involvement?
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After World War II, south of the
Seventeenth parallel, the government of South Vietnam relied on
increasing support from the United States. This semi-democratic
regime represented the opposition to a communist government in the
north. In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem organized the Republic of South
and appointed himself president. By 1960, Ho Chi Minh, the
communist leader of North Vietnam, had been able to successfully
mobilize nationalist sentiment among the citizens (peasants)
of South Vietnam. These South Vietnamese guerilla forces (the
launched attacks in opposition to Diem regime and reliance on Western
support. U.S. military advisors eventually arrived to further
assist the South Vietnamese in their attempts to neutralize the North
threat and Vietcong activity.
During the nights of 30 & 31 July 1964, two North Vietnamese islands
were shelled (Hon Me and Hon Ngu). On 31 July 1964, the U.S. Destroyer Maddox began a reconnaissance patrol off the coast of North
Vietnam. The mission included observing coastal defense
operations, which were going to be active, as covert operations were
being carried out. On 2 August 1964 the Maddox was not far from Hon
of the islands shelled two days earlier, when, shortly after 2:00 p.m.,
North Vietnamese torpedo boats came from the island, speeding toward
the Maddox. The Maddox fired three warning shots, but the torpedo boats continued to advance. The Maddox then opened
fire on the approaching boats with torpedoes being fired by both the
N. Vietnamese and the U.S. ships. The N. Vietnamese boats were damaged
and returned to shore; one shell had hit the Maddox.
of the United States was to send a stern message of warning to the
North Vietnamese, advising them that unprovoked attacks would not be
tolerated, but U.S.-sponsored military missions in the area continued.
On 4 August 1964 two U.S. destroyers were again in the middle of
the Gulf of Tonkin. Late that night, radar images on the C. Turner Joy indicated that they were
being approached by speeding vessels. Both the Maddoxand the C. Turner Joy fired repeatedly into the stormy night.
President Johnson, upon notification of the incident, decided that he needed
to act with the support of Congress. On 4 August EDT he had
lunch with the National Security Council to discuss the situation in
Vietnam. He was given approval for a proposed air strike, which was carried out the next day. The President
announced the action on television as strategic North Vietnamese targets
were destroyed including a petroleum storage unit in the town of Vinh.
The Senate had scheduled
a hearing on the incident in order to consider a resolution in support
of the President's actions, and on the afternoon of 7 August, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution
giving the president the authority to use any measure necessary to deal with aggression in Vietnam. Congress
passed the resolution with the understanding that it would be consulted if the war escalated and particularly if ground troops
were to be used in South Vietnam. President Johnson had repeatedly
said that he had no intention of sending troops into Vietnam, believing
that the South Vietnamese should fight their own war. Additionally, Congress
acted without knowledge of the bombing raids or that the Maddoxhad been less than twelve miles off the coast of North Vietnam. The
United States recognized a three mile limit--not the twelve-mile limit
claimed by the North Vietnamese.
The Johnson administration
had the authority it had sought to escalate military activity in Vietnam. Johnson then
subsequently used that authority without advising Congress as it has hoped. The first U.S troops
arrived in Vietnam in March of 1965, and U.S. involvement lasted until 1975. After the 1975
evacuation of Saigon by U.S. troops, it quickly fell to communist forces.
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1954, President Eisenhower pledged support to South Vietnam's government led
by Ngo Dinh Diem.
1955, With U.S. support, Ngo Dinh Diem organized the Republic of Vietnam as
an independent nation, appointing himself president.
July 1959, First U.S. Military death in Vietnam.
1960, Viet Cong founded in South Vietnam.
1961, U.S. military buildup in Vietnam began.
30-31 July 1964, U.S. backed bombing raids on the North Vietnamese Islands of Hon Me and Hon
Ngu. U.S. destroyer Maddox began a reconnaissance mission along the
coast of N. Vietnam.
2 August 1964, The Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Tonkin
Gulf. President Johnson sent a message warning N. Vietnam against any further
3 August 1964, The Maddox returned to the Gulf of Tonkin with a second destroyer,
the Turner Joy.
4 August 1964, Late night radar images indicated an attack by high speed images, so the Maddox and Turner Joy opened fire.
5 August 1964, Retaliatory air strikes carried out by aircraft from two US aircraft
carriers, the Ticonderoga and the Constellation.
5 August 1964, President Johnson asked Congress to pass a resolution regarding military
action against aggression.
7 August 1964, Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
10 August 10 1964, President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
7 February 1965, Vietcong mortar attack on an American military barracks and airfield at Pleiku,
killing 8 and wounding 108.
10 February 1965, U.S. retaliated with air strikes. Vietcong bombed U.S. barracks,
killing nineteen. U.S. ordered more retaliatory air strikes.
2 March 2 1965, First U.S. air strike,
not for retaliation but to neutralize targets supporting Vietcong activity.
8 March 8 1965, First U.S. troops arrived in Vietnam, 3,500 Marines sent to guard U.S.
air base at Danang.
May 1965, U.S. troop strength increased to 34,000. President
Johnson offered peace to Vietnam and funding for a Mekong River Development Project in exchange for the
end of N. Vietnamese aggression. No reply.
June 1965, Generals Ky and Thieu seized control of
the South Vietnamese government.
September 1965, General Thieu elected president of South Vietnam.
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WWW sites that detail the events in the Tonkin Gulf include:
General information on Vietnam to assist you:
- White papers written by state department officials
on the Aggression
in Vietnam (also, www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1965us-vietnamaggression1.html)
- The actual message from President Johnson to Congress on 5 August 1964 and the resulting resolution that passed.
- An article by Jeff Cohen and Norman Soloman entitled "The Tonkin Gulf Lie."
- NSA Historian, Robert J. Hanyok, "Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964," Cryptologic Quarterly (*.pdf file about the true happenings at the Tonkin Gulf). Scott Shane, "Vietnam War Intelligence 'Deliberately Skewed', Secret Study Says," 2 December 2005, New York Times examines that because of Hanyok’s story, many other documents were “forced” to be declassified. See the declassified documents from NSA
- Read a biography of Ngo
- Gulf of Tonkin bibliography of congressional publications and other published works.
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Detailed accounts of the Tonkin incident as
it unfolded in Washington, D.C. can be found in The President's War,
by Anthony Austin (New York Times Publishing Company, 1971). The book includes
information on the National Security Council meetings, Congressional hearings and persons involved. The Tonkin Affair
is also detailed in Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair--Illusion
and Reality by Joseph C. Goulden (1969). This work includes statements from N. Vietnam in
addition to the White House statements.
Some useful, general works about the Vietnam War include:
Marvin Gettlemen, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young, and H. B. Franklin, eds. Vietnam and America: The
Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War (1995). This text
includes excerpts from works by Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon, etc. and eyewitness accounts. Introductions
are included in every section.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (1994). This
book examines the history of conflict in Vietnam from the rise of nationalism in Vietnam in the 1930s to 1975.
General Bruce Palmer, Jr., The 25 Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (1984).
William Dudley and David Bender, The Vietnam War: Opposing Viewpoints (1984)
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Dien Bien Phu
Ho Chi Minh
Paris Peace Accords