Taken and edited from: http://americanhistory.about.com/od/lyndonbjohnson/a/ff_lbj.htm Shortly after taking office following the death of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon became concerned about South Vietnam's ability to fend off the Communist Viet Cong guerillas that were operating in the country. Seeking to follow the established policy of containment, President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, began increasing military aid to South Vietnam. In an effort to increase pressure on North Vietnam, several Norwegian-built fast patrol boats (PTFs) were covertly purchased and transferred to South Vietnam.
These PTFs were manned with South Vietnamese crews and conducted a series of coastal attacks against targets in North Vietnam as part of an operation known as Operation 34A. Originally begun by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1961, 34A was a highly classified program of covert operations against North Vietnam. After several early failures, it was transferred to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group in 1964, at which time its focus shifted to maritime operations. In addition, the US Navy was instructed to conduct Desoto (intelligence operations with the purpose of gathering information on your enemy) patrols off North Vietnam.
A long-standing program, the Desoto patrols consisted of American warships cruising in international waters to conduct electronic surveillance operations. These types of patrols had previously been conducted off the coasts of the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. While 34A and the Desoto patrols were independent operations, the latter benefited from the increased signals traffic generated by the attacks of the former. As a result, the ships offshore were able to collect valuable information on North Vietnamese military capabilities.
The First Attack:
On July 31st, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox commenced a Desoto patrol off the coast of North Vietnam. Under the operational control of Captain John J. Herrick, it steamed through the Gulf of Tonkin collecting intelligence. Unable to catch the fast South Vietnamese PTFs, the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi elected to strike instead at USS Maddox. On the afternoon of August 2nd, three Soviet-built P-4 motor torpedo boats, operated by North Vietnamese military officials, were dispatched to attack the destroyer.
Cruising twenty-eight miles offshore in international waters, the Maddox was approached by the North Vietnamese. Alerted to the threat, Captain Herrick requested air support from the carrier USS Ticonderoga. This was granted, and four F-8 Crusader planes were sent towards Maddox's position. In addition, the USS TurnerJoy, another destroyer, began moving to support the Maddox. Not reported at the time, Captain Herrick instructed his gun crews to fire three warning shots if the North Vietnamese came within 10,000 yards of the ship. These warning shots were fired and the P-4s launched a torpedo attack.
Returning fire, the Maddox scored hits on the P-4s while being struck by a single 14.5-millimeter machine gun bullet. After fifteen minutes of maneuvering, the F-8s arrived and strafed the North Vietnamese boats, damaging two and leaving the third dead in the water. With the threat removed, the Maddox retired from the area to rejoin friendly forces. Surprised by the North Vietnamese response, President Johnson decided that the United States could not back away from the challenge and directed his commanders in the Pacific to continue with the Desoto missions.
The Second Attack:
Reinforced by the USS Turner Joy, Captain Herrick returned to the area on August 4th. That night and morning, while cruising in harsh weather, the ships received radar, radio, and sonar reports that signaled another North Vietnamese attack was incoming. Taking evasive action, they fired upon numerous radar targets. After the incident, Captain Herrick was unsure as to if his ships had been attacked at all, but reported that "freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar operators may have accounted for many” conflicting reports regarding a second attack on the Maddox.
After suggesting a "complete evaluation" of the affair before taking further action, he radioed requesting a "thorough reconnaissance in daylight by aircraft." American aircraft flying over the scene during the "attack" failed to spot any North Vietnamese boats.
While there was some doubt in Washington regarding the second attack, those aboard the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy were convinced that the second attack had occurred. This, along with flawed signals intelligence from the National Security Agency, led President Johnson to order retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnam. Launching on August 5, Operation Pierce Arrow saw aircraft from USS Ticonderoga and USS Constellation strike oil facilities at Vinh and attack approximately thirty North Vietnamese vessels.
Subsequent research and declassified documents has essentially shown that the second attack on the USS Maddox did not happen. This belief that a second attack did not take place was later reinforced by statements by retired Vietnamese Defense Minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, who admitted to the August 2nd attack, but denied ordering another two days later on August 4th.
Shortly after ordering the airstrikes, President Johnson went on television and addressed the nation regarding the incident. He then requested the passage of a resolution "expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in Southeast Asia." Arguing that he did not seek a "wider war" President Johnson stated the importance of approving his action was to show that the United States would "continue to protect its national interests."
Approved on August 10th, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson the power to use military force in the region without requiring a declaration of war from Congress. Over the next few years, President Johnson used the resolution to rapidly escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War.