US elections and regional tensions
In 1964, the United States was getting more deeply involved in South Vietnam, although still mainly in an advisory capacity. The US-supported coup by South Vietnamese generals that overthrew President Ngô Dình Diêm had led to a deterioration in the fight against the Viet Cong as various military juntas took turns at attempting to run the government.
When President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) took over from the slain John F. Kennedy, he gave the go-signal — without congressional approval — for a covert harassment plan under the code name “34A.” The plan called for hit-and-run raids by South Vietnamese military personnel against North Vietnam targets. On July 31, South Vietnamese PT boats attacked two North Vietnam naval installations. At about the same time, the destroyer USS Maddox was in the vicinity conducting surveillance and spying missions when it was attacked by three North Vietnamese PT boats. One of the boats was sunk in the encounter. Soon after, planes from nearby aircraft carriers hit North Vietnamese PT bases, destroying or damaging 25 of the 30 boats in the bases along with an oil depot in Vinh. The confluence of these events became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Halberstam, in his book “The Best and the Brightest,” narrates a scene after the incident. In a relaxed mood, LBJ told a reporter, “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.”
The Tonkin Gulf incident would lead to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by the US Congress, giving the President the authority “to take all necessary measures to repel armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression ‘as well as to aid any American ally in Southeast Asia,’ requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”
The year 1964 was also an election year in the United States. LBJ’s opponent was Barry Goldwater of the Republican Party. In the July polls of that year, 58 percent of the nation had criticized LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam conflict. After the Tonkin incident, public opinion changed to 72 percent approval. People believed that the United States had been attacked by the North without provocation and wanted to take the war to the North. In November, just three months after the Tonkin Gulf incident, LBJ defeated Goldwater by a landslide, winning 61 percent of the popular vote, against 38.5 percent for his opponent. In the electoral college, LBJ won 486 votes against 52 for Goldwater. In any conflict, Americans would rally ‘round the flag.
Fast forward to the present.
This year 2020, is also an election year in the United States. President Donald Trump is running for re-election against Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Without the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump re-election bid appeared solid with a strong economy and unemployment figures at an all-time low. But the pandemic has altered the picture, with Americans disapproving of how he has handled the health crisis. As a result, 15 weeks before election time, most polls put Biden ahead with double-digit leads.
Trump needs a new campaign issue. He is losing on the domestic front — plunging economy, increasing unemployment, divisive rhetoric, rising COVID-19 cases and deaths, with apparently no national strategy to combat the situation. His kick-off campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was attended by a sparse crowd of followers in a half-empty arena. His campaign manager got fired over this disaster.
Trump is now focusing attention on the South China Sea dispute. He has gotten the Philippine government to suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement that was supposed to end in August, 180 days after notice of termination was given. Of course, our senator got back his US visa. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is carrying out drills with naval forces of Japan and Australia in Philippine waters, raising tensions in the region. US navy vessels are frequently sailing close to Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratlys, just as the USS Maddox did in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964. Any slight miscalculation can trigger a shooting incident that may lead to only God knows where.
Dr. Mary L. Trump, daughter of Trump’s oldest brother, recently came out with a book on her uncle “Too Much and Never Enough — How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” We live in dangerous times.
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