The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
Though doubt quickly surfaced about the realities of the Tonkin Gulf naval incident, Johnson called congressional leaders to the White House to ask for a resolution that would make him surrogate for the warmaking authority reserved for Congress by the Constitution.
In three days, both houses passed the resolution with near unanimity. It was a historic yielding of their prerogative to the White House.
What emerges from new evidence is a chronicle of confusion and bad judgments and duplicity in high places that guided the nation into a cruel and unpopular war that would cost 58,000 U.S. lives and immerse Americans in years of disillusionment as seldom, if ever, before. And there came, too, hard lessons on the wrenching difficulties of sharing warmaking power between the President and Congress in nuclear war difficulties that have been only too apparent in recent controversies over American military involvement in Lebanon, Central America and the Persian Gulf.
The Escalation Gambit
November, 1963: In Saigon and Washington, in the aftermath of presidential assassinations, a fresh chapter opened under new leadership in the long and frustrating involvement of America in South Vietnam.
In Saigon, a military junta that succeeded the slain Ngo Dinh Diem found itself mired in intrigue that would produce another regime in the next three months even as Communist guerrillas overran growing chunks of countryside with help from North Vietnam's Marxist rulers.
In Washington, the benumbing murder of John F. Kennedy brought into the Presidency and global policymaking JFK's Vice President, Lyndon Johnson.
Here was a powerful politician with a Texas-size drive that combined guile and ruthlessness, sentimentality and cold practicality; a man, moreover, who often disagreed with Kennedy's vacillations in handling the Vietnam issue and whose opinions were seldom sought.
Now, characteristically, he set out immediately to find new answers with the help of a few key advisers to the late President. His most important deputy: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, whose dazzling intelligence had earned admiration of both Kennedy and Johnson, though critics thought his passion for numbers often overlooked the intangibles of politics and war. "He really believed that 'men plus money plus materiel equals victory,"' a veteran observer of U.S. dealings with the Vietnamese recalled later.
Acting swiftly, Johnson told planners to develop a series of covert operations against North Vietnam to discourage its aggressive policies. They came up with OPLAN 34A, which included more than 2,000 separate operations ranging from clandestine intelligence collection to coastal commando raids. Both the military and the Central Intelligence Agency doubted the plan would succeed, but they conceded that it might help.
It didn't, and, as the situation in Vietnam worsened, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended "bolder action."
While McNamara opposed bombing North Vietnamese military and industrial targets, he did recommend that the U.S. "be in a position on 30 days' notice to initiate the program of 'graduated overt military pressure' against North Vietnam."
On May 25, 1964, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy drafted the proposal of Johnson's closest advisers: A program of "selected and carefully graduated military force against North Vietnam," designed "to hurt but not destroy." Their hope: That the threat of larger destruction would curb Hanoi's support of insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos.