After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his deputy, Lyndon B. Johnson became the new president of the United States. Johnson was a strong supporter of the Domino Theory and believed that the prevention of an National Liberation Front victory in South Vietnam was vital to the defence of the United States: "If we quit Vietnam, tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we'll have to fight in San Francisco."
Johnson, like Kennedy before him, came under pressure from his military advisers to take more 'forceful' action against North Vietnam and the NLF. The Joint Chiefs of Staff advised Johnson to send United States combat troops to South Vietnam. The overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem had not resulted in preventing the growth of the NLF. The new leader of South Vietnam, General Khanh, was doubtful that his own army was strong enough to prevent a communist victory.
Johnson told his Joint Chiefs of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to prevent the NLF winning in South Vietnam but was unwilling to take unpopular measures like sending troops to tight in a foreign war, until after the 1964 Presidential Elections. Just let me get elected," he told his military advisers, "and then you can have your war."
As the election was not due for another eleven months, the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared that this was too long to wait. They therefore suggested another strategy that would be less unpopular with the American public as it would result in fewer of the men being killed.
For sometime, military intelligence officers working in Vietnam had believed that without the support of the Hanoi government, the NLF would not survive. They therefore advocated the bombing of Hanoi in an attempt to persuade North Vietnam to cut off supplies to the NLF.
Curtis LeMay, the commander of the US air force, argued that by using the latest technology, North Vietnam could be blasted "back to the Stone Age." Others pointed out that "terror" raids on civilian populations during the Second World War had not proved successful and claimed that a better strategy would be to bomb selected targets such as military bases and fuel depots.
Lyndon B. Johnson preferred the latter proposal but was aware he would have difficulty convincing the American public and the rest of the world that such action was justified. He therefore gave permission for a plan to be put into operation that he surmised would eventually enable him to carry out the bombing raids on North Vietnam.
Operation Plan 34A involved the sending of Asian mercenaries into North Vietnam to carry out acts of sabotage and the kidnapping or killing of communist officials. As part of this plan, it was decided to send US destroyers into North Vietnamese waters to obtain information on their naval defences. On August 2, 1964, the US destroyer, "Maddox" was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, "Maddox" fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The "Maddox" then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to return to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Soon after entering North Vietnamese waters, Captain Herrick reported that he was under attack. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about this: "Review of action makes reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual sightings by "Maddox". Suggest complete evaluation before further action."
Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for and ignored Captain Herrick's second message. He ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese torpedo-boat bases and an oil-storage depot that had been planned three months previously. President Johnson then went on television and told the American people that: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight." Johnson asked Congress to approve his decision to bomb North Vietnam.
Ernest Gruening of Alaska advised Johnson to "disengage immediately, to relieve all our military of combat assignments and bring them home at once." Gruening made a speech where he argued: "I consider the life of one American boy worth more than this putrid mess. I consider every additional life that is sacrificed in this forlorn venture a tragedy. Someday.... if this sacrificing is continued it will be denounced as a crime." Along with Wayne Morse of Oregon, he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized an expansion of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Gruening pointed out in Many Battles (1973): "I detailed my objections to the resolution on the second day of the debate, and again on the third. But the resolution was adopted by eighty-eight yeas to two nays, that of Senator Morse and mine... What none of the senators and representatives knew, however, was that they had been misled about the Tonkin Gulf incident. The facts would not be fully revealed until four years later when, on February 20, 1968, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reopened an investigation into what actually had or had not happened in the Tonkin Gulf. But even before these subsequent disclosures, Senator Fulbright publicly and repeatedly expressed regret for his sponsorship and support of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. He said he had been deceived. The Congress had been bamboozled into giving the President the unlimited power he sought to wage war in Southeast Asia. Had the Congress not been misinformed by the executive branch, the resolution would never have been adopted."
The House of Representatives passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by 416 to 0. This resolution authorised the President to take all necessary measures against Vietnam and the National Liberation Front. President Johnson's belief that the bombing raid on North Vietnam in August, 1964, would persuade Ho Chi Minh to cut off all aid to the NLF was unfounded. In the run-up to the November election, the NLF carried out a series of attacks and only two days before the election, the US air base near Saigon was mortared and four Americans were killed.
Barry Goldwater, the right-wing Republican candidate for the presidency, called for an escalation of the war against the North Vietnamese. In comparison to Goldwater, Lyndon B. Johnson was seen as the 'peace' candidate. People feared that Goldwater would send troops to fight in Vietnam. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that he was not willing: "to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."
In the election of November, 1964, the voters decided to reject Goldwater's aggressive policies against communism and Johnson won a landslide victory. What the American public did not know was that President Johnson was waiting until the election was over before carrying out the policies that had been advocated by his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.