Disorder and Decision 5

On the afternoon of July 30, two days before, four Swifts filled with South Vietnamese commandos had left their base at Danang, going northward. Just after midnight, two of the boats tried to storm Hon Me, an island seven miles offshore, their aim to demolish a Communist radar installation there with satchel charges. But the re¬sistance was too strong for a landing, and the raiders instead raked the island from afar with machine-gun and cannon fire. At the same time, the two other boats bombarded Hon Ngu, an island about three miles from Vinh, one of North Vietnam’s busiest ports. The crackle of North Vietnamese radar signals and radio traffic triggered by the attacks was monitored aboard the Maddox and transmitted to a special American intelligence center in the Philippines, which in turn relayed the information to CIA headquarters outside Washington.
The North Vietnamese immediately sent a formal protest to the International Control Commission. But the Maddox, remaining in the vicinity, continued to monitor the coastal facilities through the next day and into the night. Before dawn on August 2, however, the destroyer encountered hundreds of North Vietnamese junks. Captain Herrick, fearing they might be armed, sounded a general quarters alarm and radioed to the Seventh Fleet that he expected “possible hostile action.” Soon afterward, as he steered the Maddox eastward to avert a clash, his technicians intercepted a North Vietnamese message indicating that the Communists were preparing for “military opera-tions.” They may have been planning strictly defensive measures, but Herrick read the message to mean attack. He now reported that his itinerary presented an “unacceptable risk” and recommended that it be abandoned. His superiors rejected the proposal, instructed him to resume the mission, and advised that he exercise prudence.
By eleven o’clock on the morning of August 2, the Maddox had come within ten miles of the Red River delta, the northernmost point of its circuit. The day was clear and calm, and the danger seemed to Herrick to have subsided—even though he spotted three Communist patrol boats emerge from the estuary and disappear behind Hon Me, one of the islands that had been raided by South Vietnamese com¬mandos two nights before. Confident that he was in international waters, Herrick doubted that they would strike. But his technicians now intercepted another message to the enemy boats, directing them to attack after they had refueled. “The next thing we knew,” Herrick subsequently said, “they came out at us.”
He turned the Maddox toward the sea as the Communist boats, going at nearly twice his speed of twenty knots, followed in pursuit. Tracking them on his radarscope, Herrick ordered his crew to com¬mence firing if the enemy came within ten thousand yards. He later contended that he meant the initial salvo to be a warning, but he recorded no such entry in his log. His deck officer also recalled that the Maddox was “shooting to kill” when, just after three in the after¬noon, it opened fire. Herrick radioed for air cover from the carrier Ticonderoga, whose needle-nosed supersonic Crusader jets had been flying secret bombing sorties against Laos from “Yankee Station,” as its location southeast of the Tonkin Gulf was called.
Undaunted, the Communist craft clung to their course. Two of them, closing in at a range of five thousand yards, each launched a torpedo—both missing the Maddox. The third, its weapons pumping away, sped directly at the destroyer to discharge its torpedo, which turned out to be a dud. Herrick’s gunners hit one of the enemy boats as four jets from the Ticonderoga arrived overhead, led by Commander James B. Stockdale, the senior pilot aboard the carrier. To a Maddox crew member, radarman James Stankevitz, firing at the fast Com¬munist craft was “like trying to swat mosquitoes with a big fly¬swatter.” The tenacity and discipline of the North Vietnamese impressed Herrick.
The skirmish, which lasted less than twenty minutes, ended in a clear American victory. Only a single North Vietnamese machine gun round had struck the Maddox, causing no casualties. By contrast, the jets off the Ticonderoga sank one of the Communist boats and crippled the others, which managed to regain port. A Hanoi Radio version of the event ten days later omitted any mention of North Vietnam’s losses, claiming instead that its vessels had downed one American airplane and damaged two others before “chasing away the U.S. pir¬ates … on the sea and in the air. ” One of the Crusaders had indeed been damaged by enemy antiaircraft fire and succeeded in limping back to the carrier. But the American and Communist accounts con¬curred on only one other point: an incident had occurred.
Washington is twelve hours behind Vietnam, and reports of the clash reached there on the morning of the same day, Sunday, August 2. Then focused on the presidential election campaign, Lyndon John¬son calibrated his reaction accordingly: he knew that the voters would not take kindly to a candidate who appeared to be heading toward war, but Goldwater was pressing for a tougher approach to Vietnam, and Johnson also wanted to look firm.
Since no Americans had been hurt, he told his staff, further action was unnecessary—and he specifically rejected reprisals against North Vietnam. He instructed his spokesmen to play down the matter, so that the initial Pentagon press release on the subject did not even identify the North Vietnamese as having been involved. And, in his first use of the “hot line” to Moscow, he sent a personal message to Prime Minister Khrushchev stating that he had no wish to widen the conflict but hoped that North Vietnam would not molest U.S. vessels in international waters. At the same time, however, Johnson directed the Maddox and another destroyer, as well as protective aircraft, to return to the Tonkin Gulf, their orders to “attack any force that attacks them.” He also approved the first U.S. diplomatic note ever sent to Hanoi, warning the Communist regime that “grave consequences would inevitably result from any further unprovoked offensive mil¬itary action” against American ships deployed “on the high seas” off North Vietnam.

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