Disorder and Decision 6

Though Johnson may have believed that his stern rhetoric would end the affair, his aides behaved differently. William Bundy was away on vacation, but Dean Rusk told his State Department staff to “pull together” Bundy’s draft resolution, just in case the president’s au¬thority to deal with Southeast Asia had to be broadened. Rusk also sounded an ominous chord in a chat with reporters, saying that “the other side got a sting out of this [and] if they do it again, they’ll get another sting.”
Meanwhile, the joint chiefs of staff and their far-flung commanders began to unveil plans to give the North Vietnamese more than a sting. They dispatched additional American fighter-bombers to South Viet¬nam and Thailand, and they placed U.S. combat troops on alert. On their maps of North Vietnam, they pinpointed such targets as harbor installations and oil depots while Admiral Sharp arranged for possible air strikes by ordering the carrier Constellation to the South China Sea to join the Ticonderoga. He also outlined a new mission for the Maddox and a second destroyer, the C. Turner Joy. The DeSoto electronic intelligence patrols were to be superseded by more vigorous maneu¬vers contrived to “assert the right of freedom of the seas.” The two destroyers would stage direct daylight runs to within eight miles of North Vietnam’s coast and four miles off its islands, as if defying the Communists to “play chicken.” Rear Admiral Robert B. Moore, head of the Ticonderoga task force, virtually preordained another clash. He radioed Captain Herrick and advised him that the North Vietnamese had “thrown down the gauntlet” and should be “treated as belligerents from first detection.”
So the Maddox and the Turner Joy were effectively being used to bait the Communists. And the bait was sweetened by the covert South Vietnamese commandos, who returned to the scene; the Swifts and Nasties again departed from Danang on the afternoon of August 3— just as the American ships were beginning their zigzags off the North Vietnamese coast. This time the South Vietnamese sped toward main¬land objectives at Cape Vinhson and at Cua Ron, about seventy-five miles above the seventeenth parallel. Herrick knew from monitoring the North Vietnamese radar and radio traffic that the Communists were aware of these clandestine movements, and that they connected his presence in the area to the commando forays, as they had the day before. Wanting no part of another incident in that unfriendly area, he proposed that the destroyers retreat to sea. But Admiral Sharp rejected the proposal, replying testily that to terminate the mission so soon “does not in my view adequately demonstrate United States resolve to assert our legitimate rights in these international waters.” He ordered Herrick to continue the patrols and suggested that the American vessels might serve as decoys to distract the Communists from the nearby South Vietnamese operations.
Commander Stockdale and his wingmen also flew back over the Maddox and Turner Joy following the first incident, just in case the North Vietnamese attempted to retaliate for the loss of their boat the day before. They saw nothing, and Stockdale returned to the Ticonderoga, figuring that the enemy had learned a lesson. Scanning the news reports over breakfast the next morning, he read that John¬son, apart from issuing a warning to Hanoi, had decided to do nothing. At the time, Stockdale recollected later, he considered it odd that Johnson had forgone a chance to rebut Goldwater’s “soft on Com¬munism” charges. But his was not to reason why.
The summer climate in the Tonkin Gulf is volatile, and thunder¬storms throughout the night buffeted the destroyers as their crews, blind in the inky darkness, sat glued to their instruments. Not only was the sonar aboard the Maddox still functioning erratically, but its skilled operator, who doubled as a gunner, had turned it over to an inexperienced sailor so that he could man one of the turrets. Atmos¬pheric conditions were also distorting the radio beams reaching both vessels, and their technicians, trying to track North Vietnamese move¬ments, could have been registering anything from rain and waves to the whir of their own propellers.
At about eight o’clock on the night of August 3, Herrick had in¬tercepted enemy radio messages that gave him the “impression” that the North Vietnamese were preparing another assault. He again ap-pealed to the Ticonderoga, and eight U.S. aircraft appeared shortly afterward, including two Crusaders led by Stockdale. As Stockdale hovered above the two destroyers, his earphones crackled with their radio traffic as they alerted each other to approaching Communist patrol boats. Soon, he wrote later, “the Joy was firing at ‘targets’ the Maddox couldn’t track on sonar, and the Maddox was dodging ‘tor¬pedoes’ the Joy couldn’t hear on its sonar.” Nevertheless, both ships continued until after midnight to shoot in all directions while maneu¬vering wildly to avoid what they believed to be their assailants. Herrick counted a total of twenty-two enemy torpedoes, none of which scored a hit, and reported sinking two or perhaps three Communist craft during the hectic engagement.
But, as he steamed away from the site, Herrick began to have second thoughts, which he promptly communicated to his superiors. “The entire action leaves many doubts,” he said, urging a “thorough re¬connaissance in daylight” from the air. He ordered officers on both ships to quiz the crews, and his skepticism rose. Not one sailor had seen or heard Communist gunfire. Those who claimed to have ob¬served anything, like the lights or shadows of enemy boats, were really not sure.
Herrick repeated his qualms in another report. Neither destroyer had made any “actual visual sightings” of enemy boats. The radar- scope blips had apparently been due to “freak weather,” and an “over- eager” young sonar technician was responsible for recording the torpedoes. Herrick again suggested a “complete evaluation” before further measures were pursued. His report went to Admiral Sharp, who relayed it to Washington.

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