Recent provocations concerning Iran and North Korea raise concerns about the U.S. fighting another war. The U.S. Navy’s history with challenging Iranian actions in the Strait of Hormuz and the perceived escalation of North Korean provocations via ballistic missile development conjure thoughts of a third world war. Yet history offers lessons on the U.S. responding to foreign aggression far away from America’s territorial borders.
The Cold War offers pertinent lessons for today’s U.S. military. The Gulf of Tonkin incident significantly changed American involvement in Southeast Asia, pushing the U.S. from a supporting to a leading role. The Vietnam War is mired in controversy, and it is no surprise that the escalation of conflict transpired under questionable circumstances. The very catalyst for U.S. entry into a Vietnamese conflict remains murky at best, with persisting disagreement over whether or not the U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. Turner Joy actually engaged North Vietnamese patrol boats in August 1964. Recently, The Atlantic ran an article on marine biology potentially as bearing some responsibility for The Gulf of Tonkin incident. Yet such emphasis on a single event largely ignores the tack already taken by the United States to act militarily, when necessary, to deter communism’s spread.
Often categorized as an event distorted to create direct, sustained conflict between the United States and North Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident itself did not cause the Vietnam War. The Gulf of Tonkin incident did not ensure war between Americans and North Vietnamese––rather the event marked one of a few key moments of escalation. Yet what made the incident significant was the carte blanche given to President Lyndon B. Johnson by Congress after passing their resolution. The actions of U.S. Navy warships resulted in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, granting President Lyndon B. Johnson a freehand to deal with South East Asia militarily. Even before the resolution, beginning in the 1950s, the United States gradually expanded its functions in the region. Seen as a battleground between communism and democracy, U.S. interests in Southeast Asia were ideologically and monetarily driven.
During the Cold War, the U.S. relied on the Truman Doctrine, a policy of containment designed to counter Moscow’s efforts to spread communism. Americans perceived communism as monolithic––with Moscow in charge of all activities regardless of direct Soviet involvement. Presidential administrations used a preponderance of U.S. military might to deny the USSR access to economic markets, Southeast Asia included. On account of America’s approach to challenging Soviet influence in the region, U.S. Navy ships patrolled the Gulf of Tonkin. North Vietnam’s status as a Soviet client-state meant that Americans would hold the Soviets responsible for any actions taken by the North Vietnamese––a case of gradual escalation. Rather than avoid a severe ratcheting-up of regional tension, gradual escalation predisposed the U.S. to ignore local agency––thereby keeping the U.S. largely ignorant of North Vietnam’s ability to act without the USSR’s blessing.
Since containment called for countering communism and preventing it from spreading, the U.S. military favored a forward presence in areas deemed financially significant. The United States backed France’s claims in Indochina to prevent communism’s expansion. In supporting the French with funds and equipment, the U.S. placed a stake in the region’s future. Following the end of French efforts to re-assert control over Indochina, the U.S. backed the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Political connections established by his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, as well as anti-communist views, his ability to speak English, and the lack of a more viable alternative––or at least one more in line with U.S. policies––made Ngo Dinh Diem the United States’ man in Saigon. With the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s successful coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, the Republic of Vietnam experienced a rash of incapable military governments––leaving the country dangerously vulnerable to combat the growing North Vietnamese-backed insurgency. None of this escaped American eyes. Planning continued which ultimately led to an increased U.S. military commitment and footprint in the region.
Thus by 1964, the year of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the United States had already placed itself on a course of escalation with North Vietnam. While the incident certainly created the conditions for further hostilities between Washington and Hanoi, the event did not make the Vietnam War inevitable. Arguably, the National Liberation Front’s raid at Pleiku on 7 February 1965––entailing the destruction of military equipment and the deaths of eight Americans at a U.S. military instillation––did more to thrust the U.S. into fully-blown warfare. The commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam dubbed the Pleiku attack a “Rubicon.” Indeed, after Pleiku, Westmoreland sought, obtained, and deployed substantial numbers of combat troops with the blessing of the Johnson Administration.
Another Cold War event, Operation Praying Mantis, reinforces the contention that constrained offensive actions do not result in full blown conflict. Following the mining of oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf by Iran, and the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts striking such a mine, the U.S. planned a restrained response. On 18 April 1988, U.S. forces conducted a controversial action––at least in the purview of the International Court of Justice––against Iranian surveillance posts on oil platforms in Iranian territorial waters. Throughout the day, the U.S. Navy and Marines destroyed two Iranian platforms and five vessels of various sizes. But the aftermath did not entail further escalation of hostilities, though peace and regional stability remained largely illusive.
Unlike the events of 1964, those of 1988 did not push the United States and Iran to the brink of war. Yet both the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Operation Praying Mantis offer us examples of constrained U.S. power projection through military means. Neither the Gulf of Tonkin incident nor Operation Praying Mantis should be understood as a Rubicon for a larger conflict. Instead, what transpired in these instances amounted to an increase in escalation perfectly in line with U.S. Cold War policy, regardless of its flaws. Moreover, even with the onset of the Vietnam War, containment and gradual escalation did not produce a direct military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Insofar as a historical precedent, the confrontation between American warships and those of North Vietnam suggests that no matter how intense regionally confined conflicts become, another world war is not inevitable. This is not to say, nor condone, reckless behavior on part of the U.S. or other nations. Rather, when the U.S. military finds itself firing on opponents without clear declarations from Washington, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Operation Praying Mantis serve as reminders that the nation and world are not inherently at the edge of the abyss.
Robert J. Thompson recently completed his PhD in U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi, and is a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge. His dissertation is titled "More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972."
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Header Image: An oil painting depicting the engagement between the U.S.S. Maddox and three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats on August 2, 1964 by Commander E.J. Fitzgerald (Naval History and Heritage Command via HistoryNet)
 For media coverage of these recent developments, see: Indrees Ali, “U.S. Navy ship fires warning shots near Iranian vessel,” Reuters, 25 July 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-military-idUSKBN1AA1P3?utm_campaign; Choe Sang-Hun, “U.S. Confirms North Korea Fired Intercontinental Ballistic Missile,” The New York Times, 4 July 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/world/asia/north-korea-missile-test-icbm.html.
 For further reading on the unfolding of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, see: John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009); Capt. Carl Otis Schuster, U.S. Navy (ret.), “Case Closed: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” http://www.historynet.com/case-closed-the-gulf-of-tonkin-incident.htm.
 Chris Reeves, “Did a Huge Glowing Sea Creature Help Push the U.S. Into the Vietnam War?,” The Atlantic, 11 July 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/giant-pyrosomes-vietnam-war/532893/.
 For a more detailed explanation of containment, see Robert J. Thompson, “The Road to War in Vietnam,” Thompsonwerk, 11 March 2010, http://www.thompsonwerk.com/2010/03/the-road-to-war-in-vietnam.
 Jessica Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Dinh, the United States, and 1950s South Vietnam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 73.
 Prados, 112.
 For the International Court of Justice’s position, see: Andrew Garwood-Gowers, “Case concerning Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America) - Did the ICJ Miss the Boat on the Law on the Use of Force,” Melbourne Journal of International Law, 2004. Available at: http://law.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1680431/Garwood-Gowers.pdf.
 Captain J.B. Perkins, “Operation Praying Mantis: The Surface View,” Proceedings Magazine, May 1989, Vol.115/5/1,035. Available at: https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1989-05/operation-praying-mantis-surface-view.