President Lyndon Johnson received different advice from his military advisors on how any possible war with the North Vietnamese might be fought. Some, like Curtis LeMay, believed that superior American air power could “blast (North Vietnam) back to the Stone Age”. Others wanted America to target important fuel and military bases as opposed to targeting civilians in an ad hoc manner. Johnson supported this view and ‘Operation Plan 34A’ was developed. This involved sending Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and kidnapping. They were also used to gather intelligence on important military bases.
To gain intelligence as to the naval strength of the North Vietnamese, American naval destroyers were sent into North Vietnamese waters. On August 2nd 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired on the ‘USS Maddox’ in the Gulf of Tonkin. ‘Maddox’ defended itself and fired back, hitting all three torpedo boats. One of them sank. The US destroyer then sailed back to international waters. On August 3rd, Captain Herrick, commander of the ‘Maddox’, was ordered back into the Gulf of Tonkin and he again radioed that his ship was under attack once it had sailed into North Vietnamese waters. However, a later message contradicted this and in the second radio message, Herrick claimed that his men had over-reacted and that freak weather action may have led his men to make mistakes. The final sentence in the second message was telling:
“Suggest complete evaluation before further action.”
Johnson and his advisors ignored this second message. The President ordered the bombing of four known North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil storage depot. What Johnson needed to do was to convince the US public (and the future voters in the November 1964 Presidential election) that this was a deliberate attack on US forces. In this task he was supported by major media concerns. The ‘New York Times’ carried the headline:
‘US planes attack North Vietnam bases: President orders limited retaliation after communist’s torpedo boats renew raids. Reds driven off.”
When Johnson spoke to the American people, he said:
“Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.”
Johnson’s decision to bomb military targets in North Vietnam received overwhelming backing from Congress in what was known as the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’. In the House, 416 supported the President with no dissenters. In the Senate, 88 supported Johnson and only 2 did not. The resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against North Vietnam.
Johnson believed that an overwhelming show of force by the American Air Force would persuade Ho Chi Minh to cut off all aid to the NLF (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam). He was wrong.