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Prelude to Escalation


The close of 1964 marked the end of a full decade of American political, economic, and military advice and assistance to South Vietnam. That 10-year period saw a fragile state born and begin its struggle for survival only to have its existence threatened by a new brand of Communist aggression-the 'war of national liberation.' It also saw the U.S. commitment to Vietnam's defense deepen in almost direct proportion to the increasing threat. Despite growing amounts of American aid and advice, there was little doubt that South Vietnam stood near the brink of destruction at the hands of the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies as 1964 ended. In many respects, the disaster which befell the Vietnamese Marines and ARVN Rangers at Binh Gia on the final day of 1964 marked a critical turning point in the war being waged in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland feared that the battle heralded 'the beginning of the classic and final 'mobile' phase of the war.' 'To the South Vietnamese government,' he reported, 'it meant the beginning of an intensive military challenge which the Vietnamese government could not meet within its own resources.' ' Brigadier General Carl Youngdalc, Westmoreland's assistant chief of staff for intelligence and the ranking Marine assigned to Vietnam, assessed the meaning of the battle in equally distressing terms. 'Binh Gia,' he explained, 'was just part of the whole thing. All the reserve-the strategic reserve- was fixed: the airborne and the four Marine battalions had all been committed. There was absolutely no strategic reserve left.' 2 So, as 1964 ended, hope was fading rapidly among American military officials in Saigon that the ground war for South Vietnam could continue for long without more vigorous participation of the United States.

Pressures other than those produced by military events in the South were also working to move the United States toward direct military intervention against the Communists in Indochina. Although sustained open warfare had not occurred as a result of the Tonkin Gulf crisis of early August, tensions continued to mount between North Vietnam and the United States throughout the autumn. On 1 November, just after the cessation of the U.S. air strikes which followed the Tonkin Gulf incidents, Vict Cong mortar squads attacked American facilities at the Bien Hoa airbase near Saigon. Four American servicemen were killed, five B-57 medium bombers destroyed, and eight others heavily damaged in the raid.

President Johnson's reaction to the Bien Hoa attack was to initiate a month-long review of U.S. policy regarding North Vietnam. In early December that review culminated in the adoption of a two-phased plan to discourage further North Vietnamese support of the Viet Cong by expanding the air war. Phase I, approved for implementation in December, called for stepped-up air operations against the vital Communist infiltration routes in Laos, and for the intensification of covert operations against North Vietnam. Approved 'in principle,' Phase II involved 'a continuous program of progressively more serious air strikes' against North Vietnam. The implementation of Phase II, it was agreed, would depend on future enemy actions.3 As if to indicate that Communist policy makers had settled on a parallel course of escalation, Viet Cong terrorists bombed a U.S. officers' quarters in Saigon on Christmas Eve, killing two Americans and wounding over 50 others.*

The new year, 1965, would open against this portentous combination of intensified U.S. air activites over Laos, a worsening military situation on South Vietnam's battlefields, and the existence of the Phase II contingency plans. It was this situation which would spawn a new series of events as the first months of 1965 unfolded-events which would determine the direction of American

*Among the wounded was Major Damm, the Assistant Senior Marine Advisor.



Page 166(Prelude to Escalation )