When Johnson assumed the mantle of the Presidency, the military situation in Vietnam was deteriorating. Feeding on discontent spawned by the Diem regime's endemic corruption and misguided rural relocation programs, the Viet Cong were expanding their control in the countryside. The first months of the Johnson Presidency saw few major actions, but subtler portents suggested major problems ahead: newer, heavier and more effective weapons were turning up among materiel captured from the Viet Cong, including excellent Chinese-manufactured machine guns and AK-47 assault carbines. Intelligence indicated that North Vietnam's leaders had decided to expand the war, and in mid-March, Secretary of Defense McNamara issued a gloomy memorandum pointing to the seriousness of the situation. At the same time, South Vietnam was spiraling into political chaos as the generals whooverthrew Diem proved unable to govern effectively, or even to agree on who among them should try. On 20 January,
1964, "Big" Minh was ousted by Nguyen Van Khanh, initiating a series of political realignments. Confusion became endemic as political instability and military insecurity fed on one another. In mid-April, the Viet Cong overran the district capital of Kien Long in the Mekong Delta, killing 300 ARVN soldiers, and on 2 May communist frog men sank the helicopter transport carrier Cardat her berth in Saigon harbor. On 4 July-American Independence Day - a Viet Cong attack in regimental strength overran Nam Dong Special Forces Camp, killing fifty ARVN soldiers and two American advisors.
Plainly, Johnson had to act, but how? His options were circumscribed politically by the upcoming 1964 presidential election, for the Republicans, in a divisive convention, had nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona as their candidate. Darling of the party's right wing, Goldwater called for a tough military policy in Vietnam, promising to use everything short of nuclear weapons to win the war quickly and at minimum cost in American lives or to get out of Vietnam altogether. Concerned with selling himself to the electorate and conscious of his vulnerability on Vietnam, Johnson ran on a peace platform, promising to keep America out of war, at the same time successfully portraying Goldwater as a dangerously aggressive saber rattler. The Goldwater slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right!," was turned back on its originators as "In your guts, you know he's nuts!" Still, Johnson was between a rock and a hard place. Determined not to be the President who lost Vietnam, he had to forestall communist victory without appearing as the aggressor - at least until election day. His solution was to bolster the U.S. presence in Vietnam with a discreet increment of air power and an infusion of new leadership. In June, before the Republican convention, he appointed General William Westmoreland, a can-do paratrooper, commander of MACV and named Maxwell Taylor to replace Henry Cabot Lodge as Ambassador. At the same time, Johnson hoped for a cause celebrethat would rally the American people behind a more aggressive policy; he got it on the nights of 2 and 4 August when U.S. Navy destroyers sent into the Gulf of Tonkin to observe coastal shipping and monitor communist radar transmission scame under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incidents.
Later, when public support for Johnson's policies soured, the credibility of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents was challenged, with critics contending that the North Vietnamese attacks were "manufactured" and never happened. With full hindsight, it seems clear that the first attack at least was real, prompted perhaps by understandable confusion between the destroyers' essentially passive intelligence mission and covert OPLAN 34A commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast which were being mounted by other naval forces at the same time. Interestingly, the North Vietnamese were later to celebrate the date of the second incident as "Navy Day", suggesting that a second attack was atleast intended. In any case the incidents gave Lyndon Johnson what he had wanted, a point around which to rally public support for a more aggressive policy and bolster Congressional support for an expanded military role in Vietnam. He tested the former immediately, ordering retaliatory air raids on North Vietnamese naval Bases from Navy aircraft carriers on S August, 1964. The response was lukewarm,
but on 10 August Congress endorsed Johnson's actions by passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution endorsing "all necessary measures to repel any armed attack" on U.S. forces by an overwhelming margin of 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate. Senators Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon were the only dissenting votes.