Disorder and Decision 4

The program prescribed larger South Vietnamese intrusions into the north as well as a bigger propaganda effort, such as leaflet drops contrived to stimulate a sense of fear and foreboding among the pop¬ulace. It also included maritime activities designed to intercept Com¬munist ships delivering materiel to the Vietcong in the south and to kidnap fishermen for interrogation. But the most important^aspect of the marine operation was related to the plans then being refined by Pentagon experts for eventual strategic air and naval attacks against North Vietnam. Among these plans was a blueprint for an amphibious invasion by U.S. and South Vietnamese ground troops—an idea par¬ticularly favored in subsequent years by Rostow and the more vig¬orous members of the American military establishment.
The Communist leaders in North Vietnam, anticipating an esca¬lation of the war into their territory, had recently persuaded the Soviet Union to bolster their defenses, and the Russians had begun to install modern antiaircraft missiles and radar stations around North Viet¬nam’s main cities and along its ragged coastline of bays and islands on the Tonkin Gulf. The United States needed precise information on this protective network for its contingency plans to bomb, blockade or invade the north. The inland sites could be detected by sophisticated high-altitude espionage airplanes like the U-2, but another approach was developed to profile the shore facilities. Covert South Vietnamese commandos would harass the enemy radar transmitters, thereby ac¬tivating them so that American electronic intelligence vessels cruising in the gulf could learn their locations and measure their frequencies. In addition, the American ships could chart and photograph the coastal region and monitor its traffic. Similar operations, code-named DeSoto missions, had been going on for years off the coasts of China, North Korea and the Soviet Union, and a few had been briefly carried out in North Vietnam. Whatever else it achieved, the program offered the U.S. navy its first chance to get involved in Vietnam.
The maritime project had to be organized from scratch. American purchasing agents acquired a small fleet of Norwegian-built patrol boats—aluminum craft dubbed Swifts and Nasties, armed with au¬tomatic weapons and light cannon, and capable of speeds exceeding fifty knots. Their South Vietnamese crews were trained at Danang by covert U. S. naval teams known as Seals. The principal adviser engaged in the operation was a tough CIA soldier of fortune, Tucker Gou- gelmann. A former marine officer, severely wounded in the Pacific campaign during World War II, he had conducted undercover missions in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Korea before moving to Vietnam. There he adopted the children of his Vietnamese mistress, and his attachment to them was to cost him his life. In the spring of 1975, shortly after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, he secretly went back into Vietnam from Bangkok in an attempt to rescue the family. The Communists arrested him, and he died in captivity. His remains, returned to the United States two years later, were buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Tonkin Gulf is one of the world’s scenic wonders. Junks and sampans ply its blue waters, silhouetted against a horizon of sharp karsts rising strangely from the sea, their peaks shrouded in gray mist. But this placid picture, depicted in soft brushstrokes by painters over the centuries, is deceptive. Invaders and marauders had struck at Viet¬nam through here for thousands of years. And now it seemed to Hanoi’s Communist rulers, with their keen historical memory, that the same threatening pattern was being repeated by a fresh breed of aggressors, the Americans and their South Vietnamese henchmen.
The first DeSoto mission under the new U.S. plan, to be undertaken in March 1964 by the destroyer Craig, was quickly canceled because of bad weather. Covert South Vietnamese raids were also delayed while the commandos trained and tested their boats. But soon Pres¬ident Johnson extended the program’s four-month experimental phase by a year, and the combined operations resumed in July on instructions from the joint chiefs of staff. Admiral Ulysses Grant Sharp, Jr., now American commander for the Pacific, sent out the order from his Honolulu headquarters to the Seventh Fleet to assign the destroyer Maddox, then in Japan, to the area to revive the DeSoto electronic eavesdropping activities. Lyndon Johnson would have been delighted by the choice of the vessel, named as it was for Captain William Maddox, a marine hero of the Mexican war. Its chief officer, Captain John J. Herrick, was an Annapolis graduate and a veteran of World War II and Korea.
Admiral Sharp cautioned Captain Herrick to get no closer than eight miles from North Vietnam’s coast and four miles from its islands— the assumption being that the Communists, who had never officially defined their territorial waters, still adhered to the three-mile limit set by the French during the colonial period. Yet it could have been equally assumed that they had switched to a twelve-mile limit such as China observed. Indeed, the U.S. director of naval intelligence had antici¬pated in a memorandum more than a year earlier that “there is a good possibility” that North Vietnam “will subscribe to the twelve-mile limit claimed by other Communist nations if the issue were raised.” On July 10, as Herrick headed the Maddox toward Vietnam, he was also authorized to maintain contact with the U.S. military command in Saigon for information on the South Vietnamese commando move¬ments, so that they could avoid “mutual interference” and arrange “such communications … as may be desired.” Thus the destroyer was conceivably violating North Vietnam’s sovereignty in connection with a clandestine South Vietnamese operation.
Herrick stopped the Maddox at the Taiwan port of Keelung, where he picked up a huge van outfitted with electronic gear and seventeen specialists to operate the equipment. His vessel’s sonar was faulty, and several of his crew were green. But he was under orders to move quickly. He steamed south toward the Tonkin Gulf to start scanning the North Vietnamese littoral. By the afternoon of August 1, the ship was cruising a zigzag course, seven to nine miles from the coast and four to six miles from the islands. The climate was unbearably hot and humid, and Herrick and his men felt nervous in the alien waters. On his way into the zone, Herrick had sighted patrol boats in the distance, which he identified in a radio message to the Seventh Fleet as Soviet-made craft, presumably manned by North Vietnamese. A reassuring message came back. They were Swifts, returning from an undercover South Vietnamese mission.

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