Book Review: The Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in the Vietnam War


by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Oxford and New York: Osprey / Bloomsbury, 2021. Pp. 400+. Illus., maps, gloss., biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1472845951

Dual Review: Air War in Southeast Asia

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver established himself as an historian of aerial warfare with books on World War II and the conflict in Korea. Until these two books from Osprey he had not touched Vietnam. That was both boon and bane—a boon because researching classic aerial campaigns furnished an excellent foundation for looking into the Southeast Asian air war, a bane because the changed nature of aerial warfare in Vietnam multiplies the range of relevant subjects, complicating the extent of the project. Given the challenges Cleaver has done well, although the two volumes reviewed here exhibit both strengths and weaknesses.

The Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club and Going Downtown both reprise titles used in the past but make no mistake. These are neither data collections on carrier operations or personal accounts of flying against North Vietnam. And the author has put some thought into how he could use the brace of books to present a comprehensive account of the air war in Vietnam. Yacht Club, as the title suggests, focuses on the naval air aspect. Perhaps because the conflict was managed by an admiral theater commander (the Commander-in-Chief Pacific was a naval officer throughout the war), the primary coverage of air war strategy, bombing planning for the “Rolling Thunder” campaign, and Washington-theater relations exists in this book. Going Downtown, whose title suggests a focus on “Rolling Thunder,” is more a play-by-play of aerial encounters. Cleaver paid careful attention to the debate that endured in Washington throughout “Rolling Thunder” on the effectiveness of the bombing, and he returns repeatedly to cover the periodic series of studies in which the CIA, or CIA with DIA, estimated the value of North Vietnamese targets destroyed by bombing compared to the cost of the bombing campaign plus that of aircraft lost along the way. Some subjects are slighted. Close air support for ground troops – surely a key element of the Vietnam air war – air transport (another), and (to a lesser extent) air rescue operations, are underreported. This is despite the fact that Going Downtown includes “Vietnam” and “Laos” in its subtitle.

The author shows a healthy interest in technical developments. In both volumes – and for both sides – Cleaver takes the space to explain notable developments in aircraft engines, avionics, and ordnance. He shows how these were incorporated in new or modified aircraft and other weapons and deployed in the field. As new tactics evolve he makes an effort to show their use in the field.

Another strength, in the Going Downtown volume specifically, is the interest Cleaver invests in “Farmgate,” the “covert” air unit the United States committed to South Vietnam very early in the war. As an example of how the author's complementary interests can furnish insights, Cleaver shows that the obsolescence of the Farmgate aircraft created dangers for the air crews and became a factor in the demise of this covert unit, leading to substitution of A-1-type “Spads” in its successor formation, the 1st Air Commando Squadron.

A welcome contribution in both works here is the author's consistent attention to the North Vietnamese air force. Cleaver comments on Hanoi's aircraft technology and tactical developments in its planes and air defense networks. He quotes North Vietnamese pilots' accounts of their aerial battles just as he does American ones. There is less detail on air defenses, and little on the Soviet contingent of pilots and surface-to-air missile crews sent to North Vietnam, but considering the existing vacuum of knowledge on this subject anything more is an advance.

When Tom Cleaver wrote on Korea the bookshelf on that air war was practically empty. There is probably a full bookcase on Vietnam. The competition here is much sharper. That The Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club and Going Downtown manage to stand out among this crowd is a token of their quality.


Dr. Prados, a specialist in World War II, the Vietnam War, and current international relations, was a Senior Fellow with the National Security Archive, where he led its Intelligence Documentation Project and its Vietnam Project. He is the author of numerous books, including Combined Fleet Decoded, Normandy Crucible, and Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, and designed a number of excellent war games, most notably Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Year of the Rat. He has previously reviewed Atomic Salvation.

Dr. Prados died on November 29, 2022, see “John Prados, Master of Uncovering Government Secrets, Dies at 71



Note: The Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club is also available in audio- and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: John Prados   

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