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US bombers as they attack North Vietnam in Operation Rolling Thunder.

The Gulf Of Tonkin

Johnson’s War
By Nick Shepley

Following the death of John F Kennedy, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson decided that his predecessor’s limited troop withdrawals needed to be reversed. Kennedy had begun to believe that the Diem government could never win the war because of incompetence and corruption and a draw down of US forces was the only answer. The coup that overthrew Diem came a month before Kennedy’s assassination, and JFK’s involvement in it was unclear. Johnson was convinced that Vietnam was now an issue of Soviet expansionism and he began to commit large numbers of ground troops from early 1964. In August that year, two US ships conducting an intelligence gathering operation in North Vietnamese waters at

the Gulf Of Tonkin were fired upon by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Johnson, following the skirmish, ordered the ships to sail again into North Vietnamese waters to test Ho Chi Minh’s resolve. A second confrontation appears to have taken place but the commander of one of the US vessels, the USS Maddox was unclear with she had been fired upon at all. He said: “The first boat to close the Maddox probably launched a torpedo at the Maddox which was heard but not seen. All subsequent Maddox torpedo reports are doubtful in that it is suspected that sonarman was hearing the ship's own propeller beat" Johnson disregarded the commander’s skepticism and used the ‘incident’ to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He assured the USSR that he would

not launch a broader war in Vietnam but insisted on retaliation, which was a conduit into the conflict that Johnson had really been looking for. In an address to the nation he said: "The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Vietnam will be redoubled by this outrage." The commander of the Maddox began to backtrack on his story, but US Secretary Of Defence Robert MacNamara neglected to pass on these details to the president. This was perhaps because Johnson had made up his mind about taking action and was determined to escalate the situation irrespective of the facts.


Rolling Thunder and Tet. The unwinnable war.
By Nick Shepley

Johnson later admitted that the Gulf Of Tonkin resolution that gave him executive power to wage war in Vietnam was based on false information, but within three months of it being passed by Congress, troop numbers had jumped by a further 7,000 to 23,000. By March 1965 regular ground troops were beginning to be deployed in their hundreds of thousands and by 1968 there were 550,000 US servicemen in Vietnam. Throughout most of the mid 1960s a majority of Americans supported his position in Vietnam, with less than a quarter of the public opposed. If anything, a downturn in the economy from the mid 60’s onwards and a growing concern from conservative minded Americans that small but vocal counterculture in the USA was destroying the moral fibre of the nation were more causes of unpopularity for Johnson than the war. Most Americans before 1968 paid little attention to Vietnam and fewer still had any clearly articulated ideas about the issues that were at stake in the South East Asian nation. At a national level both parties were becoming aware how futile the efforts to defeat the Viet Minh were and there were hawkish and dove-ish factions in both Republican and Democrat parties. Both Johnson and later Nixon, his successor, were acutely conscious of the growing criticism in the press of their policies. Johnson believed, as Nixon would too, that only by escalation could the war be won. Johnson and the Chiefs of Staff put their faith in air power to win the war, but the use of strategic bombing was based on the assumption that the North Vietnamese would not wish to risk
"Crack the Sky, Shake the Earth" — Message to communist forces who were informed that they were "about to inaugurate the greatest battle in the history of our country" Right: US Marines attempt to recapture Hue.

their fragile infrastracture and industry, so bombing would act as a deterrent to future attacks on the South. As with most other assumptions made during the war, this one proved to be erroneous. The North was not deterred by the bombing campaign that began in 1965, code named Rolling Thunder. The campaign was in fact much smaller in scope than had originally been planned as Johnson feared a massive attack would draw the Soviets in and provoke a world war. The bombing caused mass civilian deaths and casualties and also created a deadlock, the North Vietnamese demanded that the bombing stop before they came to the negotiating table, whereas Johnson and MacNamara had both hoped the campaign would force the North to come to seek peace terms. The ineffectiveness of the bombing was dwarfed by the final crisis of Johnson’s presidency in 1968, the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese invaded the South in three lightning raids between January and September. Whilst they were defeated after several bloody battles, particularly at the holy city of Hue, the north scored an immense propaganda victory. The offensives were televised by US TV stations and broadcast to the homes of millions of ordinary Americans. In nightly broadcasts a remote and irrelevant conflict against a seemingly inferior enemy was transformed in the American public consciousness into an intractable battle against a seemingly unstoppable foe. Public pressure for a withdrawal grew dramatically after 1968. This pressure only mounted the following year as the draft lotteries were introduced.


In the next part of this series I will explore the long term interests of the USA in South East Asia from the start of the 20th Century onwards. If you found this handout useful you can find more free materials at:

Red Sun At War Part Three Fighting Back From The Coral Sea to the Kokoda Trail
The speed with which European empires and American influence in South East Asia were swept aside in 1941 and 1942 was historically unprecedented and in the first few months of 1942 it seemed as if Japan’s advance towards Australia was unstoppable. However, the early months of 1942 would prove to be the apex of Japanese successes and the remainder of the year would see her ambitions to become Asia’s hegemonic power dashed. In a six month period her advance was halted, never to be resumed, in a series of naval battles and land campaigns that left her fighting a long and ultimately futile defence over the next two years. Facing Japan was a US Navy under Admiral Chester Nimitz, eager to avenge Pearl Harbour and the Army, led by General Douglas MacArthur, the vain and ego-driven warlord of Manila, concerned equally to retake the Philippines that he had been ejected from and to present himself in a positive light in the US papers for a possible post war presidential race. Beneath these men and their Australian counterparts were countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and civilians who drew a bloody line across the South Pacific, finally stopping the enemy at Milne Bay, Buna and Guadalcanal. This is the third of six Explaining History ebooks that chronicle the entire Pacific War from Pearl Harbour to the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ebooks are short accessible guides to the main themes and events of the 20th Century, written for newcomers to modern history and seasoned enthusiasts who want concise but in depth writing that gets to the underlying causes of war, revolution and the massive changes of the past 100 years. Red Sun At War Part Three will be available on January 1st 2014 for Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iBooks and in PDF format, you can access it at: