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US Seventh Fleet, Vietnam 1964-75: American Naval Power in Southeast Asia

19 Jan 24

80 pages

Prof Geoffrey Till

Osprey’s series of illustrated battle, campaign and war histories is usually pretty good, but this one stands out as especially so. Although at just 80 pages it is really quite short, it deserves to be taken seriously. The reason for this is its author. Osprey evidently managed to persuade the recently retired semi-official US naval historian of the Vietnam war, Edward Marolda, lately of the US Navy’s historical branch in Washington, to write a succinct summary of a war he devoted so much of his career to study and record. The result is a short, hard-hitting account that would be very hard indeed to improve. I am almost tempted to say it should be required reading at staff colleges.

This isn’t the only reason to buy or read it. Another one is the contemporary salience of so much of what he says to contemporary events. Two examples should suffice to demonstrate this. The first is his concise account of the infamous non-battle of the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 when the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) was allegedly engaged by North Vietnamese forces for a second time during the night of August 4th. This ‘battle’ inspired a full-scale carrier attack on North Vietnam and Congress’s ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’ which temporarily upended the US constitution by passing to the President the right effectively to declare and prepare for war. This rapidly led to the US getting irretrievably embroiled in the Vietnam war. Marolda shows that actually no such battle took place. This wasn’t some kind of White House conspiracy, as some later critics alleged. Instead, it was the result of a tired ship’s crew, already spooked by the previous encounter two days earlier, misreading what they were seeing on their screens.

This lesson is obvious. Uncritically relying on what your screens and your systems seem to be telling you can be very dangerous, when there is no agency, or time, to check and confirm the data. Although it will be some time before we see the result of the analysis the Israelis are conducting into their being caught flat-footed by the Hamas attack on October 7th, it already seems obvious that they had relied too much on static technological sources of information along the border and cut back too much on the system’s human staffing. The tendency to over-rely on the algorithms is especially hazardous when an intelligent adversary has an equivalent means to spoof them. In the Gulf of Tonkin, of course the North Vietnamese were not involved at all. The American managed to fool themselves, because of their uncritical reliance on technology.

The other putative lesson of the campaign is perhaps more controversial. Throughout the book, the author berates the White House (in particular, but the same applies to the whole US foreign and decision-making system) for continuously being disastrously risk-averse. Having plunged the country into war with North Vietnam by over-reacting to initial provocations, Washington then conducted it with excessive caution. Marolda shows that over and over again, the White House imposed restrictions and limitations on what the Navy could do which imperilled the lives of its carrier pilots and greatly reduced the strategic effect of what they were told to try to do. The inexorable logic of war however, eventually led to precisely the kind of escalations Washington initially feared but which in fact had the effect desired, even if years after it could have done. Marolda has in mind the gloves-off third stage of Operations ROLLING THUNDER, LINEBACKER II and the mining of Haiphong harbour.

Not everyone would agree with this assessment of course. On the contrary, some would see the judicious and careful ratcheting up of levels of the US attack as a kind of graduated deterrence designed to keep a lid on things whilst still exerting decisive coercion. The problem is, though, that this level of coercion did not prove decisive. It was arguably based on a persistent under-estimation of the resolve and capability of an adversary able to absorb the current level of attack and yet retained the strategic initiative, until the very end. Arguably, Hanoi never lost that initiative since only a little while after the US withdrawal the North resumed its campaign and took over the south. Whatever conclusions one comes to about this point, Marolda’s account of the US Navy’s involvement in a costly and ultimately humiliating war raises lots of very worrying issues about the White House’s current conduct of the Ukraine war.

To summarise, US Seventh Fleet, Vietnam 1964-75 is a concise, well organised and written, authoritative account of a major naval campaign in which the author raises key issues about the use of preponderant naval power, not just then, but now as well. As an essay on both history and prophesy it is very highly recommended indeed.