August 1964: Gulf of Tonkin
Fifty years ago, American involvement in Vietnam hit a major trip wire, the Gulf of Tonkin incident. American involvement began before the end of the First Indochina War in 1954. The breakup of French Indochina created Laos, Cambodia, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).
By 1954, America was deep into the Cold War against communism. Since North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was labeled a communist, the United States backed the noncommunist, yet corrupt, leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Following Mao’s three levels of war strategy, Ho Chi Minh supported the efforts of the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam’s political and later guerrilla and regular army units in the south. America typically referred to the NLF as the Viet Cong.
As the French pulled out, American Air Force advisors began to help the South Vietnamese air force. When John Kennedy became president in 1961, he decided to increase military support including Air Force trainers and reconnaissance flights. Two years later, the Viet Cong won its first victory against South Vietnamese forces.
In November 1963, both Diem and Kennedy were assassinated. Diem fell in an American approved coup d’état. As the United States waited for a better South Vietnamese leader to emerge, aid continued. Unfortunately, despite his faults, Diem was the strongest political leader in South Vietnam.
In August 1964, reconnaissance efforts included the destroyer, USS Maddox, conducting intelligence signals in international waters in the Tonkin Gulf. The Gulf of Tonkin lies between Hainan Island, part of the People’s Republic of China, and North Vietnam.
On Aug. 2, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer. As the Maddox defended itself, the USS Ticonderoga helped with fighter aircraft. Accounts differ, but at least one torpedo boat was sunk and one was damaged.
Undamaged, two days later, the Maddox was back on mission with the destroyer USS C. Turner Joy. That evening torpedo boats approached. A confused melee followed that gave President Lyndon Johnson all he needed to act.
The next day, Clark Air Base, Philippines, deployed B-57s to Bien Hoa AB and F 100s to Da Nang AB, both in South Vietnam. The following day, Yokota AB, Japan, deployed F 105s to Korat Royal Tahi AFB, Thailand, and Tactical Air Command deployed three tactical fighter squadrons, two troop carrier squadrons, and six reconnaissance aircraft to Southeast Asia.
A joint session of Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on Aug. 7 authorizing the president to use conventional military force in Southeast Asia. An immediate buildup of airpower in the region began and soon American ground forces were in combat. Three years later, the 56th Air Commando Wing (later, 56th Fighter Wing) joined the fray.
Ten years after the first Viet Cong victory, the cease fire ended American combat in Vietnam. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, thus creating the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnamese casualties totaled in the millions. American losses were over 58,000 dead and 300,000 wounded.