Sunday, April 01, 2007

Prelude to the Tonkin Gulf (part 2 of 2)

(Part 1 is here)

Two sorts of actions begun by Kennedy were critical. Since 1962 US ships in the Tonkin Gulf had been on DeSoto Patrol. The DeSoto missions gathered radar information and other intelligence off the coast of North Vietnam, but in international waters. They were also useful as a show of American force. In May 1963 the JCS and the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC) created a plan for a series of “hit-and-run” operations intermittently carried out against the North by South Vietnamese forces with covert US assistance. National Security Action Memo (NSAM) 273, approved November 26, 1963, affirmed Johnson’s commitment to Kennedy’s policies, and also codified plans for increasing these small operations.

The following January this revised plan, now known as OPLAN 34-A, was presented to Johnson. The catalog of 34-A operations included a list of broadly themed activities (harassment, diversion, political pressures, capture of prisoners, physical destruction, acquisition of intelligence) and 2,062 separate missions. The CINCPAC thought only air attacks and some selected “punitive or attritional” missions would be effective against the northern forces. Johnson directed that the “least risk” plans begin February 1. The plan was to terminate at the end of May.

Johnson pinned a number of hopes on the 34-A missions. Most immediately, he hoped they would produce some small triumphs for the South Vietnamese. If the morale of the military could be improved, and the desertion rate stemmed, it could help them get traction against the North. A South Vietnamese military that’s better organized and confidant, to say nothing of successful, would mitigate the need for American assistance. It would be the best possible outcomes for Johnson if the 34-A raids gave the South Vietnamese a leg up, while also reducing the need for an American presence. This outcome would burnish his tough-on-Communist credentials domestically, too, without resulting in a war.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara met with South Vietnamese Premier General Nguyen Khanh in May of that year. The two men agreed that the 34-A operations were not working. A CIA report that month also concluded “if the tide of deterioration has not been arrested by the end of the year, the anti-Communist position in South Vietnam is likely to become untenable.” With no other viable strategy, the 34-A operations were given a four-month extension. The “sole tangible result” of the 34-A raids, though, was to precipitate the Gulf of Tonkin incident and commence the larger war.

The DeSoto patrols were still going on, though they were not coordinated with the 34-A operations. With only one exception, the two types of missions happened weeks or months apart. In July 1964, though, they happened concurrently. The planning of 34-A operations was so compartmentalized that they never took into account the schedule of DeSoto patrols. Likewise, the DeSoto planners never knew when a 34-A mission was underfoot.

On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was attacked while on DeSoto patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. This was understood by the American administration to be an unprovoked attack, inscrutable aggression from the Hanoi regime. Robert McNamara and his co-authors reflect on this in their book Argument Without End. They observe that covert operations have a different appearance, depending on your vantage point. To the Americans, the 34-A raids were useless. In National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s words they were a “psychological salve for inaction.” To the North Vietnamese they looked much more sinister and aggressive. The Americans did not imagine that the DeSoto and 34-A missions could be confused, but they also did not imagine that each would occur in the same 72 hours. The Vietnamese did not see the distinction.

Even so, there were opportunities to avoid escalating the war. Just as the Vietnamese assumed the DeSoto and 34-A operations were related, the Americans presumed the retaliatory attack on the Maddox was directed by Hanoi. The decision to attack the Maddox, though, was made unilaterally by a local commander. He saw this as retaliation for a 34-A raid on July 31. This confusion, coupled with the mistaken conclusion that the North Vietnamese attacked an American DeSoto patrol again on August 4, is what started the Vietnam War in earnest.

Before announcing the US retaliation for the Tonkin Gulf incidents, Johnson telephoned Goldwater to advise him. Goldwater agreed with the plan, and backed Johnson’s position. To whatever extent this call represented a victory in some political calculus for Johnson it was a Pyrrhic one. He had asserted authority in foreign policy and blunted Goldwater’s criticisms. By this time, though, keeping South Vietnam from becoming Communist was likely a lost cause. Johnson was starting a war he never wanted, and one that nobody reasonably expected could be won.

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