Gulf of Tonkin Crisis and Resolution: Events and Congressional Response

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  • 0:01 Context
  • 2:11 Events
  • 4:03 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Gulf of Tonkin Crisis brought the United States closer to war with North Vietnam. Learn about the event, the United States' response and its impact on broadening the Vietnam War in this lesson.

Context of the Gulf of Tonkin Crisis

The Gulf of Tonkin Crisis, in the waters just off the coast of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, was not an anomaly. Instead, the event that transpired in August 1964 was the climax of a series of actions conducted by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, since the fall of 1963.

The Gulf of Tonkin Crisis was an extremely significant event in the Vietnam War, especially for the United States. Its importance rested on the fact that the United States became more involved in the conflict, to the point where President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced American combat troops in 1965. This also marked the congressional acceptance of a heightened state of war in Southeast Asia to do what was necessary to protect American forces and interests.

In the fall of 1963, President John F. Kennedy approved the beginning of the DeSoto patrols off the coast of North Vietnam. Now, DeSoto missions had been in operation since 1962 when the United States began using the patrols off the coast of China. The main objective of DeSoto was to capture electronic intelligence. This was done by sending a naval destroyer from the United States Navy into enemy waters to acquire as much information as possible. Kennedy's, and eventually Johnson's, goal was to capture intelligence on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnamese personnel movements. North Vietnam viewed these missions as acts of aggression.

Simultaneously, Kennedy also approved of OPLAN-34A. This program had two expectations. The first goal was to collect additional intelligence on North Vietnam coastal bases, weapons and personnel, as well as information on the North Vietnamese Navy. The second objective was to engage in harassment and destruction missions. This called for patrol raids to target coastal defense systems, harass North Vietnam's radar detection and capture North Vietnamese soldiers associated with the navy.

The difference between DeSoto and OPLAN-34A was that the latter was the sole responsibility of South Vietnamese soldiers; although American advisors occasionally operated the patrol boats. Again, the North Vietnamese believed that these actions were cause for a declaration of war against the United States.

Events in the Gulf Of Tonkin

All the while, the United States and the South Vietnamese managed to operate their respective missions without crossing paths. However, on July 30 and 31, South Vietnamese patrol boats, which were targeting war-making plants in the North Vietnamese cities of Hon Me and Hon Ngu, wound up in the same general waters as the U.S.S. Maddox, which was conducting intelligence operations. This triggered a North Vietnamese response.

Several days later, on August 2, 1964, the U.S.S. Maddox returned to the Gulf of Tonkin to continue its DeSoto intelligence operations. After having installations attacked, and questioning the intelligence efforts by the United States, North Vietnam engaged the U.S.S. Maddox. Three North Vietnamese patrol boats used torpedoes and assault weapons to attack the Maddox.

Americans on the naval destroyer responded by firing at the patrol boats; American planes from the U.S.S. Ticonderoga also attacked. The United States minimized damage to its ships, while destroying one of the North Vietnamese patrol boats. While the incident was short lived, Johnson condemned the actions of North Vietnam.

The U.S.S. Maddox, with the accompaniment of the U.S.S. Turner Joy, returned the next day to the Gulf of Tonkin to continue its operations. On August 4, both of the naval destroyers reported an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The issue, however, was that there was a violent thunderstorm in the area during the alleged attack. Many American crewmen reported seeing patrol boats on radar, but the evidence was circumstantial at best.

Even after information surfaced that there was not an attack on August 4, individuals such as Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief of the Pacific, and Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, urged Johnson to respond with force. On August 5, Johnson launched Operation Pierce Arrow, which was an airstrike designed to target specific North Vietnamese oil and naval services.

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