Lyndon B. Johnson in the Vietnam War

A Review of the Literature

Debates have been raging on for some years over the participation of the United States in the Vietnam War. This Research Paper tries to review the literature on the United State’s interest in Vietnam, Its concerns in the region, The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and the congressional resolution commonly known as “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.”

The United States Interest in Vietnam

President Lyndon B Johnson took up leadership at a time the United States of America faced a difficult fight against communism. According to a Joint Chief of Staff memo in 1964, it was noted that South Vietnam was a key measure of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The United States felt that the failure of its programs in South Vietnam would reduce its influence and judgments of Japan, the Republic of North Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Burma, and the Republic of Philippines. Furthermore, it would send corresponding signals to Latin America and Africa. Based on this thinking, President Johnson aimed to force a direct involvement in the Vietnam War rather than covert participation. Meanwhile, communism continued to gain more ground at the time Vietnam was a conflict (Goldman, 1969). This was of great concern to the United States. The United States had suffered some significant drawbacks in its efforts to fight communism before the Vietnam War. For instance, the country had registered defeats in Cuba, East Germany (Berlin Wall), and in Laos. This was a clear indication of the success of communism to expand the world over. The impression here was that the United States was losing the cold war and therefore had to do something to deter this development. In this respect, the U.S identified Vietnam as a frontier to launch its defense against the spread of communism (Goldman, 1969).

The United States Concerns in the Region

The Vietnam War pitted communist North Vietnam and capitalist South Vietnam. The United States considered that the victory for North Vietnam over South Vietnam to have greater ramifications in the entire region and throughout the world (Stanley, 1983). In this respect, the government of the United States decided to assist South Vietnam in a collaborative manner to win the war against North Vietnam and enhance its influence in the region and beyond. It had to do that in a way the world could not suspect her as an aggressor. The aim of the U.S was apparently to get a way of destroying the networks of communism. As tension between the two neighbors continued to escalate, the U.S realized that South Vietnam did not have the capacity and resources to register a victory against communist North Vietnam. This made the U.S Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, under President Lyndon B. Johnson to urge for plans to be put in place to enhance pressure on North Vietnam. According to him, the South Vietnamese government did not have the capacity to resist North Vietnamese aggression (Goldman, 1969). This prompted President Lyndon Johnson to see it vital to deploy more military advisors and supplies to South Vietnam with the sole purpose of protecting its wider interest of curbing the spread of communism (Goldman, 1969). The aim was also to make amends for the losses against communists encountered during President John Kennedy’s Administration (Goldman, 1969).

Consequently, President Johnson decided to address the people of the United States, stating to them that the government was helping South Vietnam to defend its freedom with military advisors, arms, and supplies. This, he said, was in accordance with the obligations under Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. He also made it clear to the American public that the U.S was not at war and had no intention to engage in one (Goldman, 1969). The real intention of the President was to ensure that the American citizens and the international community do not view the U.S as the aggressor of the looming conflict (Goldman, 1969). At this point, it became necessary for President Johnson to view any North Vietnamese real or imagined actions to his political advantage.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

There were two separate incidents that involved the U.S navy and North Vietnam in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. In the first incident, North Vietnamese torpedo boats engaged a U.S vessel, Maddox. This naval engagement between the USS Maddox and three torpedo boats of North Vietnam on August 2, 1964, happened after two maritime raids had been carried out on North Vietnam’s coastal targets. Two days later, on August 4, 1964, a second engagement with North Vietnams vessels was reported. The Maddox escorted by C Turner destroyer returned to the Tonkin Gulf region to continue with its covert activities. As the two ships were cruising in the middle of the night, the radar screens recorded unidentified ships cruising with high speed. Due to the proximity of the ships, the U.S crew concluded that they had ill intentions and fired upon them. This attack happened at night and in poor visibility.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

A review of the second incident would later reveal that there was no actual attack from North Vietnam. President Johnson and his cabinet took full advantage of this incident in order to get congressional approval that gave the President official mandate to escalate U.S involvement in Vietnam (Mann, 2001). The manner in which President Johnson reported the particulars of these incidents convinced congress to give him the full authority he had sought for. He received the right to start a war and fight against communism without revealing important facts and information to the house of congress and the American public. Public opinion on the United States policy in Southeast Asia was sharply divided, and therefore President Johnson required an affirmation of support. To obtain this affirmation, President Johnson presented the United States as an innocent party patrolling international waters (Goldman, 1969). This made him succeed in capturing the entire public opinion to meet his intended agenda.

At the time of the attacks, President Johnson had portrayed that the U.S would not entertain any unprovoked aggression on its military and would enforce actions necessary to deter future attacks (Mann, 2001). At that point, he requested congress to grand him full authority to engage in a war in Southeast Asia with the main aim of fighting communism. Congress was convinced and granted President Johnson the broad authority he had hoped for. This was the main goal President Johnson had hoped to achieve as it offered him total freedom to decide as to the level of military involvement the United States would aggressively pursue. The Resolution passed by Congress gave the President total control of the military operation against North Vietnam. It should be noted that congress had the mandate to declare war but rather granted the president the authority to engage in one. Throughout, Johnson Administration maintained the position that it had not provoked a naval confrontation with North Vietnam (Mann, 2001). In the Presidents submission to congress, it appeared that the Administration had shown tolerance and that America would only react under North Vietnamese provocation. What the American public did not know was that President Johnson’s intention was to attack North Vietnam directly (Mann, 2001).

According to President Johnson, the United States military and government had shown utmost restraint by refusing to be drawn into retaliating against the initial North Vietnams naval assault. The President rationalized that the airstrikes conducted by the U.S army were only ordered after the second naval assault against the USS Maddox on August 4, 1964. This scenario painted the United States of America as the victim rather than the instigator, thereby not allowing the American public to that the U.S was the aggressor in this incident. John McCrone, Director of Central Intelligence, later confirmed that the U.S was the true aggressor by saying that North Vietnamese were only reacting defensively against U.S attacks in their off-shore Islands. He further stated that they are reacting out of pride. President Johnson’s administration lied to the American public (Mann, 2004). The Administration’s assertions made the public believe that the U.S military did not provoke an attack on the U.S navy in the Tonkin Gulf. These assertions were meant to dupe the American public. What the American people did not know was that the Tonkin Incident happened immediately after the United States military had carried out two maritime attacks on North Vietnamese positions and on two off-shore Islands, Hon Me and Hon Ngu (Rice, 2004). The United States Secretary of defense, when asked about the attacks, stated that the raids were carried out by South Vietnamese naval forces and denied that the U.S had played any role in them. The true position was that these raids were directed by the U.S. It provided South Vietnam with all the logistics, including attack boats maintained by the U.S navy, and the targets raided were selected by the CIA. The entire operation was fully funded by the United States of America.

President Johnson’s Administration purposely stationed USS Maddox in the Tonkin with the clear intention of spying onshore communications of communist countries such as China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. Research reveals that the spying missions were labeled Desoto patrols (Goldman, 1969). The United States aimed at gathering military intelligence from radar installations it had deployed in various positions in the Tonkin Gulf. America deployed the Maddox in an area proximal to North Vietnam territory. Therefore when the 34A raids happened, it was logical for North Vietnam to suspect the Vessel to be part of the raids hence its assault on the Maddox (Rice, 2004). In a state briefing on the incident, the Administration spokesman McCloskey informed the public that the U.S was patrolling in the international waters and was not aware of any raids on North Vietnam’s military installations. The Johnson Administration was directly involved in these missions despite constant denials to the American people. More so, President Johnson was fully aware of the overall mission. To achieve the overall mission, the U.S deployment aimed at identifying North Vietnam’s military targets by conducting covert communication missions. The gathered intelligence was then relayed to South Vietnam to conduct the attacks on North Vietnam. The overall aim was to weaken North Vietnam and halt the spread of communism (Stanley, 1983).

In his statement at an August 5, 1964 staff meeting, McGeorge Bundy, Presidential security advisor, stated that the first incident that occurred on August 2, 1964, was clear, but the evidence for the second attack on August 4, 1964, was scanty. President Johnson had a predetermined agenda and therefore disregarded the advice and went ahead to sanction retaliatory airstrikes. There was no sufficient evidence to prove that the second incident happened. The president went ahead to meet his advisors and selected appropriate targets to assault in North Vietnam before he is receiving an official report that the U.S vessels were attacked on August 4, 1964. Through the National Security Archives press release of 2003, it is now revealed that on August 4, 1964, at 1.27p.m President Johnson received communication from Captain Herrick from the Maddox that showed clear doubt on the occurrence of the incident (Prados, 2003). He said: “Review of action makes many recorded contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No visual sightings by the Maddox” (Stanley, 1983). Despite having this report, officials in Washington D.C went ahead with their actions. In fact, President decided on a swift strike on North Vietnamese targets prior to the receipt of Captain Herrick’s message (Stanley, 1983). In addition, the President approved an official statement from the Pentagon regarding the attack at 5 p.m on the same day. The President resorted to this action despite knowing that the Secretary of Defense, McNamara had twenty minutes earlier met with the joint Chief of Staff but failed to find clear evidence that indicated the raids had occurred. During the meeting, at 5.15p.m McNamara approved the message requiring the U.S military to conduct retaliatory attacks on North Vietnamese targets. At 6.45p.m President Johnson met with congress and did not disclose to them the fact that circumstances surrounding the attack on the United States vessels were unclear. Instead, he went ahead and presented his draft of the resolution, “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution.” At 11.36p.m President Johnson addressed the American public just hours before the actual airstrikes hit North Vietnam targets. Looking at the time frame provided by the national security archives, President Johnson’s conversations with his advisors openly indicated to the American people that he manipulated several events for him to gain total control of the military activities in Vietnam (Prados, 2003).

A taped conversation revealed President Johnson’s Plans prior to the August incidents. A conversation between him and McNamara reveals that they discussed “retaliatory” strikes against North Vietnam even though the raids had not happened then. The President had stated to his Defense Secretary that “the U.S should pull one of these things you’ve… been doing… one of the bridges or something”(Prados, 2003). This provided a clear reference to the OPLAN-34A raids. At that point, President Johnson suggested a measure that would have provoked North Vietnam to war (Rice, 2004).

In conclusion, President Johnson drugged the U.S. in a trumped-up war. He was preoccupied with his own agenda other than the safety of the American air force when he announced retaliatory strikes on North Vietnam. The Presidents actions plunged the United States into a war that drugged on for years, causing thousands of additional deaths to Americans. It was a triumph to President Johnson as he managed to execute his agenda using the resolution as a legal basis for his military policy in Vietnam.


Goldman F. (1969). The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopt.

Mann R. (2001). A Grand Delusion: American Decent into Vietnam. New York: Basic Books.

Rice E. (2004). Point of No Return: Tonkin Gulf and the Vietnam War. North Carolina: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, Inc.

Stanley. K. (1983). Vietnam, A History: The First Account of Vietnam at War. New York: The Viking Press.

Prados J. (2003). LBJ Tapes on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident: The National Security Archives, Press Release. Web.