THE UNITED STATES NAVY AND THE VIETNAM CONFLICT Volume II: From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959-1965 By Edward J. Marolda and Oscar P. Fitzgerald Government Printing Office for The Naval Historical Center 591 pp. $22

THIS SECOND volume of the U.S. Navy's multivolume history of the Vietnam War is bound in the same familiar rich blue buckram that has styled official Navy histories since the Civil War and hence resembles its predecessors. However, unlike the good old days when -- as the wizened cynical Frenchmen put it, history was a lie agreed-on -- no longer can governments after the battle simply set down how it went and that is that.

Thus, this is an "official" history, not an official one because "the authors do not necessarily speak for the Department of Navy nor attempt to present a consensus." The disclaimer is required, if for no other reason than because of Chapter 15, "The American Response to the Gulf of Tonkin Attacks," about which more later.

Not all wars are made for navies, and the U.S. Navy had to insinuate itself into the Vietnam one and carve out a role. In the years covered here, the Navy was generally known throughout the U.S. Mission in Saigon for being in the housekeeping business, operating supply warehouses, and running the officer clubs, PXs and other amenities, an inevitable part of the American military's baggage. As such, its personnel in Vietnam were the envy of their Army counterparts in the bush since, as it was commonly put, sailors sleep between clean sheets at night (the grunts were also envious of the Air Force, where you fight sitting down).

Gradually, the Navy broadened its role from supply/logistics to aid/advisory -- training Vietnamese and developing the South Vietnamese navy's famed "brown water force," those riverine units operating in the country's matrix of rivers and canals and through the coastal network of islands and archipelagos. Vietnam is a very watery country.

The history stops with the U.S. Navy moving into full combat duty -- the naval and air interdictions in South and North Vietnam -- the subject of future volumes. Incidentally, the first volume, Setting the Stage: To 1959, contains one of the best brief summaries I've read of Vietnam history from the end of World War II through the 1954 Geneva Conference.

As is common with specialized histories -- what I call the "tunnels of Cu Chi" syndrome -- this book will tell most readers more about the U.S. Navy in Vietnam than they care to know. For the maritime war specialist, it is of course invaluable. The Vietnam War buff will find it fascinating for its wealth of detail carefully set down in understated prose (a welcome relief, I might add, from the hysterical tone that marks much Vietnam War writing).

What will be of interest to the general reader is the treatment of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

Interpretation by historians as to what exactly did and did not occur during those few days in early August 1964 remains so varied that the wonder is that authors Marolda and Fitzgerald were able themselves to settle on the text.

The historian here is obliged to deal with two basic considerations in offering up an accounting: the event itself -- that is, what actually happened there in the waters off North Vietnam in early August 1964; and the uses made of it by President Lyndon Johnson and his administration. This volume deals only with the former.

There was more or less general acceptance of the Navy's initial account -- there was an unprovoked attack on Aug. 2 by three North Vietnamese patrol boats on an American warship, the destroyer USS Maddox in international waters. This explanation held briefly, long enough for President Johnson -- admittedly not inclined to engage in what might be called oververification -- to rush the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress. It authorized the president to "prevent further aggression . . . including the use of armed force" to assist South Vietnam (the resolution passed the House 416 to 0, and the Senate 88 to 2; in January 1971 President Nixon signed legislation that included its "repeal"). Soon came a second more sinister interpretation -- that the incident was a conspiracy not only provoked by the Johnson administration but one in fact "scenarioed." Hanoi at the time denied all, leading to a third interpretation that remains alive today as what might be called the Stockdale thesis. (The recent NBC television movie In Love and War had Navy pilot James B. Stockdale flying over the scene at the time saying, "I see nothing"; now a retired vice admiral, Stockdale has reiterated the "phoney attack" charge in writings and public speaking.)

The Tonkin Gulf Incident in the past two decades has been treated by at least three full-scale studies, dealt with at length by Congressional committees and extensively referenced in general histories, presidential memoirs and textbooks on the U.S. legislative function.

There remains some disagreement among historians about the second (Aug. 4) incident, which involved the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy. A distinction is made in these pages between the Aug. 2 "naval engagement" and the somewhat more ambiguous Aug. 4 "naval action," although Marolda and Fitzgerald make it clear they accept that the Aug. 4 action left one and possibly two North Vietnamese torpedo-firing boats sunk or dead in the water.

The "nada notion" -- that nothing happened and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was the product of inexperienced sonarmen and the overworked imagination of young deck-watch officers -- can no longer be sustained. The electronic intercept traffic cited here is too voluminous to permit a conclusion that somehow everything was the figment of the collective imaginations on both sides.

AND THERE is the fact of Vietnam's position today. After the war, Hanoi officials not only acknowledged the event but deemed it important enough to designate its date, Aug. 2, as the Vietnamese Navy's Anniversary Day, "the day our heroic naval forces went out and chased away Maddox and Turner Joy." (Hanoi remains muzzy on the second incident, Aug. 4, presumably since clearly it took place in international waters, the Vietnamese claim of "defensive reaction" is a bit wobbly.)

The conspiracy theory has been dying for several years, and this work will probably be a stake through its heart. To have a Tonkin Gulf conspiracy means that the several hundred National Security Agency and naval communications cited have been doctored. In turn, that means a minimum of several hundred persons were party to a plot that has remained watertight in sieve-like Washington for two decades. And who is going to believe that?

This is not the place to establish the final truth on the Gulf of Tonkin matter and certainly I am not the person to render the ultimate judgment. Suffice to say here that the version as presented here by Marolda and Fitzgerald is highly credible and completely plausible, and I for one am persuaded of its correctness. :: Douglas Pike, director of the Indochina Studies Program at the University of California-Berkeley, is the author of the forthcoming "Vietnam and the U.S.S.R.: Anatomy of an Alliance."