This week (Aug. 2) in 1964 a North Vietnamese torpedo boat attacked an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. Two days later, a second attack on the Maddux, and the USS C. Turner Joy, was reported, but it would turn out to be false—the result of “freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men,” as the captain of the Maddux later admitted.
False or not, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as it became known, led to passage by Congress of a joint resolution, the Southeast Asia Resolution, that gave then-President Lyndon Johnson the authority to order military operations against “communist aggression” anywhere in Southeast Asia—North Vietnam in particular—without having to ask for a formal declaration of war. Today, most people believe that Johnson deliberately used the Gulf of Tonkin incident, both the real and phantom versions, to escalate into an all-out war what had been merely a simmering conflict between America and North Vietnam over the fate of America’s ally, South Vietnam. Certainly the conflict did escalate into a war that lasted more than a decade and resulted in the deaths of more than 58,000 American servicemen.
That said, it is a stretch to say that President Johnson manipulated the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to intensify the conflict. In 1964, Johnson’s primary concern was his domestic agenda, labeled “The Great Society” program, in which he planned to use the federal government to wage what he considered a far more important war—the war on poverty. The last thing Johnson wanted was for public attention, let alone federal funds, to be directed anywhere else, especially the jungles of Vietnam.
True, Johnson was adamant that the Vietnam War not be lost on his watch, and over the next several years the war became his, and the nation’s, main focus. Slowly but surely America’s military presence in Vietnam increased to the point that Johnson found himself politically unable to extricate America from the war. Indeed, the war became such an albatross to Johnson that he chose not to run for re-election in 1968, even though—having come to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy—he was legally entitled to run for president a second time.
Even so, in my opinion, the real cause of the Vietnam War was the decision, made six years earlier in 1959 by North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, to open up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and send North Vietnamese soldiers and military equipment into South Vietnam to overthrow its government and unite the country under communist rule. Ho, not Johnson, wanted the war and brought on the war.