On August 2, 1964, gunboats of North Vietnam allegedly fired on ships of the United States Navy stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. They had been sailing 10 miles off the coast of North Vietnam in support of the South Vietnamese navy.
Congress empowered President Johnson to take all necessary measures to repel North Vietnamese aggression. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave the President a “blank check” to wage the war in Vietnam as he saw fit. Johnson chose to escalate the conflict.
Operation Rolling Thunder
The United States began a long program of sustained bombing of North Vietnamese targets known as Operation Rolling Thunder. At first only military targets were hit, but as months turned into years, civilian targets were bombed as well.
The United States also bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply line of 30,000 miles of tunnel networks used by the North Vietnamese to aid the Vietcong. More bombs rained down on Vietnam than the Allies used on the Axis powers during the whole of World War II.
The United States also used defoliating agents such as Agent Orange and napalm to remove the jungle cover utilized by the Vietcong. The intense bombardment did little to deter the communists.
The American military commander, General William Westmoreland, realized that combat troops would be necessary to root out the enemy. Beginning in March 1965, the first American combat troops began "search and destroy" missions.
A major problem facing by U.S. soldiers was identifying the enemy. The same Vietnamese peasant who waved hello in the daytime might be a VC guerrilla fighter by night. The United States could not afford to indiscriminately kill South Vietnamese peasants.
Search and destroy missions were conducted by moving into a village and inspecting for any signs of Vietcong support. If any evidence was found, the troops would torch the village to the ground and confiscate discovered munitions. The VC proved skilled at covering their tracks.
Unlike World War II, there few major ground battles. Most Vietnamese attacks were by ambush or night skirmishes. Many Americans died by stepping on landmines or by triggering booby traps.
By the end of 1965, there were 189,000 American troops stationed in Vietnam. By the end of 1967, there were nearly 500,000. Approximately 100 American soldiers were killed every week through 1967.
Source: Years of Escalation: 1965–1968
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