On August 2, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam’s coast, allegedly fired upon and damaged several Viet Cong torpedo boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin.
A second attack two days later led to retaliatory air strikes, and prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson.
The Tonkin Resolution also gave the president unilateral power to launch and conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war.
During the following public outcry, President Johnson pledged that he was not “… committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land.”
However, immediately after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed, President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese Navy bases in retaliation for the reported attacks on U.S. Navy warships in early August of 1964.
By the 1964 United States Presidential Election, the Viet Cong’s ranks had grown to about 100,000 while the North Vietnam’s Army’s strength rose to nearly a million men.
Escalation of the Vietnam War officially started on the morning of January 31, 1965 when orders were cut and issued to mobilize the 18th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Okinawa to Da Nang Air Base.
A red alert alarm to “scramble” F-105s was sounded at Kadena Air Base at 3:00 am, pilots and support were deployed from Okinawa and landed in Vietnam that afternoon to join up with other smaller units who had already arrived weeks earlier.
Attack on Camp Holloway
During the early hours on February 7, 1965, a U.S. Army helicopter base near Pleiku named Camp Holloway was attacked.
Later that morning the Viet Cong claimed victory, having caused the death of eight U.S. soldiers, and another 126 wounded. In addition, ten aircraft were destroyed and 15 more were damaged.
When news of the attack on Camp Holloway reached Saigon on the morning of February 7, 1965, General William Westmoreland, McGeorge Bundy and Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, flew out to Pleiku to survey the damage.
Bundy then called President Johnson to put forward the MACV’s request for retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam.
In response to Bundy’s request, President Johnson hastily convened a session of the National Security Council, which involved the speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate majority leader, to discuss the need for reprisal against the Communists in Vietnam.
Just 12 hours after the attack, President Johnson ordered a retaliatory mission against North Vietnamese targets.
Operation Flaming Dart
Accordingly, 49 U.S. fighter-bombers took off from the USS Coral Sea and the USS Hancock to attack North Vietnamese barracks in Dong Hoi, just north of the 17th Parallel in Operation Flaming Dart.
The Viet Cong, however, were not deterred by these air strikes, as they launched another attack on a U.S. installation in Quy Nhon on February 10, 1965, which caused the death of a further 23 U.S. military personnel.
In response, a combined force of about 160 U.S. and South Vietnamese fighter-bombers launched a larger attack against the North Vietnamese, targeting Chap Le and Chanh Hoa, also located just north of the 17th Parallel.
The U.S. bombing of North Vietnam in February of 1965, however, did have a decisive impact on the Soviet Union’s strategy in Vietnam.
The newly appointed Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had traveled to Hanoi to rebuild ties with North Vietnam.
During Kosygin’s stay in Hanoi, North Vietnam was subjected to these U.S. air strikes which infuriated the Soviet leader.
Consequently, on February 10, 1965, Kosygin and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, issued a joint communique which highlighted the Soviet resolve to strengthen North Vietnam’s defensive potential by giving it all “necessary aid and support”.
American reaction to Communist escalation was not restricted to the bombing of North Vietnam. President Johnson also authorized the use of U.S. jet attack aircraft to engage targets in the south.
On February 19, 1965, U.S. Air Force B-57s conducted the first jet strikes flown by Americans in support of South Vietnamese ground units.
On February 24, 1965, Air Force jets struck again, this time breaking up a Communist ambush in the Central Highlands with a massive series of tactical air sorties.
The Operation Flaming Dart raids were followed by Operation Rolling Thunder, which began a 44-month campaign on March 2, 1965.
Operation Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder was the title of a gradual and sustained US 2nd Air Division (later Seventh Air Force), US Navy, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) aerial bombardment campaign conducted against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) launched on March 2, 1965.
Then on March 8, 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. They came ashore at Da Nang, ostensibly to defend the southern airfields committed to Operation Rolling Thunder.
This marked the beginning of the American ground war.
U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported the deployment at that time.
In April of 1965, the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Le Duan signed a missile agreement with the Soviet Union, which gave the North Vietnamese military what they needed to resist Operation Rolling Thunder.
The four objectives of the U.S. operation (which evolved over time) were to boost the sagging morale of the Saigon regime in the Republic of Vietnam, to persuade North Vietnam to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam without actually taking any ground forces into communist North Vietnam, to destroy North Vietnam’s transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses, and to cease the flow of men and materiel into South Vietnam. Attainment of these objectives was made difficult by both the restraints imposed upon the U.S and its allies by Cold War exigencies and by the military aid and assistance received by North Vietnam from its communist allies, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The operation became the most intense air/ground battle waged during the Cold War period; indeed, it was the most difficult such campaign fought by the U.S. Air Force since the aerial bombardment of Germany during World War II. Supported by communist allies, North Vietnam fielded a potent mixture of sophisticated air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons that created one of the most effective air defenses ever faced by American military aviators.
Between March 1965 and November 1968, “Rolling Thunder” deluged North Vietnam with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs, all in response to the attack on Camp Holloway.
Attack on Camp Holloway never happened
Ironically, an undated NSA publication declassified in 2005, revealed that there was no attack on Camp Holloway.
Of course it had already been called into question long before this.
The “Gulf of Tonkin incident”, wrote Louise Gerdes, “is an oft-cited example of the way in which President Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam.”
George C. Herring argued, however, that McNamara and the Pentagon “did not knowingly lie about the alleged attacks, but they were obviously in a mood to retaliate and they seem to have selected from the evidence available to them those parts that confirmed what they wanted to believe.”
Now WE know em