By Robert J. Donovan
Washington—The United States early today was bombing PT boat installations on the shores of North Vietnam with carrierbased planes and was reinforcing its forces in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.
These actions of potentially enormous—but hopefully limited—consequences were announced by President Johnson in a television speech Tuesday night in response to a second North Vietnamese PT attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
In addition to the military measures the President announced that:
1—The United States would “immediately and urgently” bring the North Vietnamese aggression before the U.N. Security Council.
2—He would submit to Congress immediately a proposed resolution “making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in the support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia.”
The action, permissive in nature on the part of Congress, will be similar to the Eisenhower Doctrine in the Middle East and the Formosa Resolution passed during the Eisenhower administration. Congress is expected to act swiftly.
Before making his statement over television from the White House, Mr. Johnson read it on the telephone to Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential nominee, who is vacationing at Newport Beach, Cal. The senator later issued a statement saying:
“I am sure that every American will subscribe to the action outlined in the President's statement. It is the only thing he can do under the circumstances. We cannot allow the American Flag to be shot at anywhere on earth if we are to retain our respect and prestige.”
U. S. Vessels Undamaged
The President's historic and highly dramatic television appearance came hours after North Vietnam PT boats had attacked the destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy, though without inflicting damage or casualties. The first attack occurred early Sunday when PT boats attacked the Maddox.
The second attack, the President said, “required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.
“Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States,” he continued, “must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply. That reply is given as I speak to you. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities of North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.”
Later at the Pentagon Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara supplied greater detail about the nature of the attacks and the addition of reinforcements.
Results are Uncertain
While it is the President's fervent hope and the continuing aim of U.S. policy to avert a major war, there can be no certainty where military measures of this sort will lead. The great danger is that North Vietnamese action and U.S. counter-action could start an upward spiral, or “escalation,” as the Pentagon calls it, that would end in a large war, possibly involving Communist China.
“It is a solemn responsibility to have to order even limited military action by forces whose over-all strength is as vast and as awesome as those of the United States of America,” Mr. Johnson said, “but it is my considered conviction, shared throughout your government, that firmness in the right is indispensable today for peace. That firmness will always be measured. The mission is peace.”
Even before the President's repeatedly delayed appearance the word was getting around Washington that an air strike against North Vietnam probably was in progress. After the news of the second attack it was obvious that the time was getting very late for mere words.
Indeed, words already had been hurled at North Vietnam over the first attack a few hours before the news of the second attack broke. At noon the State Department had released a warning note to the North Vietnamese government.
It admonished the Hanoi regime to labor “under no misapprehension as to the grave consequences which would result from any further unprovoked military action against U.S. forces.”
Then came the announcement from the Pentagon that “a second deliberate attack was made during the darkness by an undetermined number” of PT boats. In a counter-attack by the destroyers and by planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation, at least two PT boats were believed sunk and two others damaged.
The Maddox was the vessel attacked in the first PT raid last Sunday.
On Monday the President had ordered the destroyer Joy to join the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, which juts against North Vietnam, Red China and the Chinese island of Hainan.
Mr. Johnson also ordered American forces in the gulf to destroy any attacking force.
Knowing this, the North Vietnamese attacked, anyhow, and thus brought the Southeast Asia crisis to its gravest point.
The Pentagon's announcement on the second attack was as follows:
“A second deliberate attack was made during darkness by an undetermined number of North Vietnamese PT boats on the USS Maddox and the USS C. Turner Joy while the two destroyers were cruising in company on routine patrol in the Tonkin Gulf in international waters about 65 miles from the nearest land
“The attack came at 10:30 p.m. local time . . . Aug 4 (7:30 a.m. Aug. 4, Los Angeles time).
“The PT boats were taken under fire by the destroyers and, thereafter, by attack aircraft from the Ticonderega and Constellation.
No U.S. Casualties
“The attackers were driven off with no U.S. casualties, no hits and no damage to either destroyer.
“It is believed that at least two of the PT boats were sunk and two others damaged.”
Although details were sketchy, it was understood the high-speed motor torpedo boats fired a number of torpedoes, all of which missed the target. It was not disclosed how close the misses were.
The Defense Department said the action lasted about three hours. At the time of the assault, the weather was reported “very bad” with rough seas, thunderstorms and poor visibility.
The combination of darkness and bad weather hampered U.S. naval and air efforts to meet the attack.
The note to North Vietnam, released here at noon, was unusual because the United States maintains no diplomatic relations with Hanoi. Sent to Saigon, in South Vietnam, for forwarding to Hanoi, the note said:
“The U.S. government takes an extremely serious view of the unprovoked attack made by Communist North Vietnamese torpedo boats on an American naval vessel, the USS Maddox operating on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2.
“U.S. ships have traditionally, operated freely on the high seas in accordance with the rights guaranteed by international law to vessels of all nations. They will continue to do so and will take whatever measures are appropriate for their defense.
“The U.S. government expects that the authorities of the regime in North Vietnam will be under no misapprehension as to the grave consequences which would inevitably result from any further unprovoked offensive military action against U.S. forces.”
The aim of American policy is to avoid such a war, while still keeping the Communists from overrunning Southeast Asia.
Tuesday's battle was described as much fiercer than Sunday's exchange between the Maddox and four U.S. Crusader jets on the one hand and the three communist PT boats on the other.
Tuesday's engagement was understood to have lasted about three hours, where Sunday's encounter was over in half an hour.
Earlier Tuesday, the giant attack carrier Constellation and three other U.S. warships sailed from Hong Kong.
Destination of the ships was not announced, nor would a U.S. spokesman in Hong Kong say whether their movement was connected with last Sunday's torpedo boat attack on the U.S. destroyer Maddox.
Rear Adm. William P. Mack. Navy chief of information, commented in Washington that the Constellation “left a little early for operations at sea.” He declined to be more specific.
Source: Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1964