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Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Gulf of Tonkin Incident



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The Gulf of Tonkin Incident began on August 2, 1964, when an American ship, the USS Maddox, was performing a radar sweep of the North Vietnamese coast. The destroyer was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo patrol boats* and the nearby USS Ticonderoga carrier quickly sent out aircraft to help defend the Maddox. Later that night, the ships detected swiftly approaching vessels and fired into the night sky.After President Lyndon B. Johnson was apprised of the incident, he brought together a special session of Congress, and on August 4, an air strike was approved. The first massive infusion of troops arrived in Vietnam in March of 1965 and the United States' involvement in Vietnam lasted until 1975.


*Some observers contend that the incident is not historically accurate.


U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War: the Gulf of Tonkin and Escalation, 1964

In early August 1964, two U.S. destroyers stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam radioed that they had been fired upon by North Vietnamese forces. In response to these reported incidents, President Lyndon B. Johnson requested permission from the U.S. Congress to increase the U.S. military presence in Indochina. On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. This resolution became the legal basis for the Johnson and Nixon Administrations prosecution of the Vietnam War.

After the end of the First Indochina War and the Viet Minh defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the countries meeting at the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into northern and southern halves, ruled by separate regimes, and scheduled elections to reunite the country under a unified government. The communists seemed likely to win those elections, thanks mostly to their superior organization and greater appeal in the countryside. The United States, however, was dedicated to containing the spread of communist regimes and, invoking the charter of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1954), supported the South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem , when he refused to hold the elections. Diem held control of the South Vietnamese Government, but he could not halt the communist infiltration of the South. By 1959, the Viet Cong, South Vietnamese communist guerillas, and the Viet Minh, began a large scale insurgency in the South that marked the opening of the Second Indochina War.


History Lesson #2: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

The Vietnam War (1955-1975) is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. A direct result of the Cold War, U.S. covert and overt involvement lasted over twenty years, starting with the Truman administration and ending with the Nixon administration. Almost 59,000 dead U.S. soldiers, over one million dead Vietnamese soldiers, and 600,000 to two million dead civilians weren’t enough sacrifices to stop the inevitable. On April 30th, 1975, the American-propped, American-invented artificial state of South Vietnam ended with the fall of its capital, Saigon. I know learning about this growing up, personally whenever I heard of the Vietnam War I instantly thought it was one of those rare losses for the U.S. Now, looking back on history with the Pentagon Papers and other declassified documents, I consider the Vietnam War to be predicated on a lie. The entire public argument for entering the war was without merit, and the private justification was nothing more than Cold War miscalculation. However, perhaps the greatest tragedy isn’t that this war was built on a lie, but that we didn’t learn from this costly mistake.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Gulf Of Tonkin Resolution (August 10 1964). This gave the President immense unchecked power to wreak havoc on Southeast Asia.

Late at night on August 4, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson gave an emergency speech to the American people. The US destroyer-class Maddox was fired upon that night while it was in international waters, just like two days before, in a clear provocation by the North Vietnamese. I trimmed Johnson’s speech to highlight the relevant parts:

“Hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin…Yet our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting. We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war…I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in southeast Asia…I was able to reach Senator Goldwater and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight…Its mission is peace.”

Every statement just listed is either an outright lie or contains political subterfuge. Then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, also “assured the Senate that there had been no connection between what the U.S. Navy was doing and any aggressive operations by the South Vietnamese”. Within six days, on August 10th, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that granted this alarming enlargement of presidential war powers.

“…determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression…as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia…This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions…”

In essence, the President of the United States could now, on his own accord, declare war on any Southeast Asian country, escalate it to any level he sees fit, and only end it whenever he feels like it. President Johnson himself mused that this resolution “was like Grandma’s nightshirt. It covers everything”. Indeed, this resolution was the inflection point that dragged America into a bloody and tragic war. The speech, the lies, the resolution, and the war could have all been prevented had the intelligence community accepted an alternative translation of a Vietnamese military intercept. Below, I will summarize an excellent, in-depth analysis of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that will highlight how all the small oversights led to big consequences.

I have to give credit due to Robert J. Hanyok, a senior historian working at the NSA. He published, in my opinion, one of the greatest analyses on a historical event. This now-declassified article appeared in the Cryptologic Quarterly NSA journal in 1998. It covers the lead-up, August 2nd attack, August 4th “attack”, and follow-up from the intelligence community’s (IC) perspective. Again, I will summarize the relevant and important parts, but if you have a long flight or a day off the article is definitely worth an entire read. Here’s a link to the article.

Tracking of the USS Maddox’s movements during the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

An abstract of the Gulf of Tonkin incident from IC’s perspective is as follows: The U.S. essentially created the state of South Vietnam (i.e. it would not have naturally existed without massive effort from the U.S.). During the Vietnamese civil war, between the Communist North and the Corrupt South, the U.S. became even more involved, primarily using covert actions to “convince” North Vietnam to cease its war against South Vietnam. Inserting commando teams behind enemy lines to disrupt (blow up) military installations became a common operation. As a result, the covert planners used the US Navy to provide SIGINT (signals intelligence) to ensure the North Vietnamese military didn’t detect the insertion teams. Publicly, the USS Maddox, a destroyer, was sailing in international waters (over fifty miles away from coastline) in the Gulf of Tonkin to guarantee right of free passage. In reality, the USS Maddox was providing SIGINT by spying on North Vietnamese coastline operations and sailing as close as four miles from the coastline. It had spied on coastal installations for over a month. On August 2, 1964 the Maddox was detected by the North Vietnamese. When the Maddox realized this they sailed away. During this “escape”, conflicting orders from Vietnamese local commanders resulted in some attack boats giving chase to the destroyer. The Maddox repelled the attack, but the Johnson Administration couldn’t use it as justification for war because it was obvious North Vietnamese high command didn’t give clear orders to attack. On August 4, 1964 the Maddox received (now known false) intel that they would be attacked that night. Indeed, between 9-11 PM that night the Maddox tracked several ships and aircraft on its radar. Even though at this time the Maddox was almost a hundred miles away from the coastline, the radar blips displayed bizarre and aggressive maneuvering. In a panic, the Maddox blindly shot in the general direction of the blips. Eventually the blips disappeared, but the follow-up created more confusion. Not a single person engaged in the “incident” confirmed a sighting, let alone a hit or kill. The air-radar was known to be malfunctioning and the “sonar returns of the supposed torpedo attacks were later determined to be a result of the high-speed maneuvering by both U.S. ships”. The Johnson Administration wanted a clear answer and they got it when IC intercepted an “after-action report” by the North Vietnamese about how they “sacrificed two ships and all the rest are okay”. This indicated that an attack did happen and gave the President the go-ahead to ask Congress for his early Christmas present. Only when Hanyok did a comprehensive review of the incident did we realize that going beneath the surface on any of these intercepts reveals significant flaws.

An secondary IC team translated the same intercept about Maddox being attacked and came up with a completely different message.

The after-action report is an apparent joining of two unrelated intercepts.

The after-action report was made before the attack on the Maddox even happened (i.e. it was misattributed to the Maddox attack).

90 percent of intercepts that day suggested there was no attack, yet the Johnson Administration only used the ambiguous 10 percent that could support their intentions.

Most concerning is that the original Vietnamese intercepts are missing from the NSA logs, even though the preceding and following chronological intercepts are in their intended locations in the files.

What we can learn from this incident is that we cannot solely rely on IC intel as justification for a war. There needs to be either international backing or a public incident that can demonstrably be attributed to a nation. Examples of good justifications for war are the Pearl Harbor attack by Imperial Japan, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Looking at the build-up and event itself from any angle can’t justify the war that happened. We were provoking the North Vietnamese using South Vietnam as a proxy. We were destroying their military installations and inserting commando teams in their territory. We were sailing as close as four miles off their coastline. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was predicated on the August 4 attack, which did not happen. Lives can’t be sacrificed on shaky ground.

The Critic report that sparked the entire crisis. The left is a Critic (highest priority) message warning the Navy that North Vietnamese plan to attack the Maddox that night. The right is the translation of the actual North Vietnamese intercept. The key phrase “carry out military operations” can alternatively be translated to “put into working shape” since it’s talking about towing damaged boats. In fact, a secondary team translating the same message didn’t see this as a threat to the Maddox and issued it as a second-from-lowest priority.

To build an even stronger case of what happened, I’ll list some of the specifics of the August 4 “attack” from the Hanyon report.

The morning IC warning to the Maddox about an attack that night was a mistranslation and misattribution. The picture above shows how drastic the difference is between the message given to the Maddox and the translated Vietnamese intercept. The intercept team’s message contained this critical sentence, “With regard to orders, the 333 will carry out military operations independently with 146”. “Military operations” does not mean attack. The original Vietnamese word “hanh quan”, “has an alternative meaning of ‘forced or long march or movement’”. Nothing else in the message indicates the Maddox was specifically being targeted. Yet, this message was marked Critic (highest priority). The secondary team that translated the same intercept came up with this message “Replenishment of DRV (North Vietnam) naval vessel” and translated the critical sentence as “T146 supply fuel for the 333 in order to give orders to put into operation with T146.” The secondary team marked the message as Priority (two levels below Critic). One bureaucratic oversight is that Critic messages arrive immediately whereas Priority messages lag. As a result, this alternative translation arrived two hours after the Maddox has stopped shooting blindly into the sea.

Around the time the Maddox started firing, nervous from the morning Critic and faulty radar blips, the stated attack boat, 333, was “being towed to either Haiphong or Port Wallut”. This is known from another intercept. A later intercept also had the warning that if the towing ship “met the Desoto mission (spying mission Maddox was part of), it was to avoid them”. A third intercept says “…it appears that T333 will not participate in any military operations”. As Hanyon states, “So, the boats originally reported being ready to attack the Desoot patrol, were incapable of even moving on their own!”

The NSA’s own situation report on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, late that night, confirms that they were wrong about the Critic indicating T333 and other boats would attack. Instead of suggesting the entire attack didn’t occur, the report covers its tracks by saying other naval vessels were involved, without divulging what those would be. The issue with this is that all torpedo boats were far northwest of the action. Remember that the Maddox indicated initial radar blips on the northeast.

OPLAN-34A, the U.S. covert operation of inserting commandos behind enemy lines, had a mission that very night on the North Vietnamese coastline. This specific mission was never mentioned. McNamara said the last mission prior to the Maddox attack was on the 3rd. As Hanyon states, “if the 34A mission of the night of 4-5 August were known at the time, it would have undercut Washington’s claim that nothing else was happening that night which might have provoked Hanoi”.

There are no indications of a typical North Vietnamese attack through any of the intercepts. The three elements of command ordering an attack are control, communications, and intelligence. None of the intercepts told the supposed boats (T333 in particular) the direction of the Maddox. Similarly, none of the intercepts commanded the boats to “attack the enemy” as the August 2nd intercept detailed. This is reiterated by Hanyon, “there were no DRV naval communications or radar emissions which were normally associated with a naval engagement”. They had a proper example of what a DRV naval attack did look like because a similar attack on the exact same boat happened two days before. And yet, there’s not a fragment of a pattern of any attack on the August 4th.

Logistically, it would’ve been close to impossible for DRV boats to spot the Maddox at night over a hundred miles away from the shore which reportedly six feet high swells and low cloud cover, let alone attack. Similarly, when the Maddox spotted a radar blip turning at 6000 yards, indicating a torpedo launch, it doesn’t fit the specifications of DRV torpedo launches, which occur at less than 1000 yards from target. Gerrel Moore, the officer-in-charge for one of the stations aboard the Maddox said “I can’t believe that somebody wouldn’t have picked up something”.

Intercept of an “after-action report” from August 4th. Later analyses would reveal some startling errors: it’s two unrelated messages spliced together, “sacrificed two ships” can also be translated to “sacrificed two comrades” (this would then be a reference to the August 2nd attack), and the report was sent out before the Maddox even fired.

The Johnson Administration’s “smoking gun” that convinced them of an attack was the after-action report that NSA intercepted from North Vietnamese soon after the attack, shown above. It mentions shooting down two planes, sacrificing two ships, “combat spirit” being very high, and that the Maddox might have been damaged as well. This after action report has quite a few errors, however.

The intercept “does not resemble an after-action report of the type which had been intercepted early on 3 August”. It doesn’t contain a chronology of when the aircraft were shot down. It doesn’t mention which boats were lost. It rambles and is incoherent. This is important because there were previous after-action reports that contained chronologies, specifically listed which units attacked, and lacked unnecessary morale boosting messages.

The critical sentence “We sacrificed two ships and all the rest are okay” is a mistranslation. A secondary team translating that intercept during the action translated, “We sacrificed two comrades but all are brave and recognize our obligation.” This distinction is important because the North Vietnamese lost two soldiers in the August 2nd. Even as late as the 4th, high command didn’t know the status of those attack boats. In essence, it was a coincidence that NSA intercepted an update about the August 2nd attack at the same time the Maddox was firing away, leading to a misattribution that the “two sacrifices” were related to that day’s events. Checking which translation is now impossible because the original Vietnamese intercept is missing from the NSA archives. Intercepts preceding and following this intercept are still in their intended place. Makes one wonder…

The after-action report intercept happened one hour after the Maddox opened fire on the first radar blips. Taking into account the message’s drafting, coordination, and encryption (on a manual system) it pushes back the time of the actual message composition close to the first attack. What pushes it to before the attack even started is when its realized that the intercept came from a shore station and that it would still need to originate that information from another source, complete with its own encryption and transmission. This means that the after-action report that the NSA intercepted occurred before the Maddox even started to attack. The label “after-action report” is a misattribution by NSA. They intercept radio messages and then annotate them.

The after-action report is actually two unrelated messages accidentally spliced together. The first half, about sacrificing two comrades, were just the patrol boats updating high command about what happened two days earlier. The latter half of the report, about seeing enemy planes sink and an enemy ship being damaged, is in an almost funny way about the Maddox blindly firing flares and munition across the sea. It doesn’t mention the Vietnamese shooting at them, which previous reports from earlier engagements had. As Hanyon explains, “The flashes from the destroyers’ guns and shells exploding observed from over the horizon must have suggested to the Vietnamese that one of the American ships had been hit”. Taking both messages together would suggest that there was an attack, however upon dissection it doesn’t hold up. NOTE: Points 3 and 4 seem to contradict each other since it’s suggested the report was made before the Maddox fired and yet the second message is about seeing the flares from the Maddox and North Vietnamese thinking the ship was hit. One way around this contradiction is that perhaps the first message is from before the attack but the second message about the flares was immediately intercepted and spliced onto the first one.

NSA interceptors recalled that because of the pressure to provide intelligence to Washington ASAP, especially after the August 2nd attack, they couldn’t tell how to attribute the intercepts. “As one linguist recalled, the problem came down to ‘Was this, or was this not’”. They decided the intercepts were related to the attack simply because the time of the intercept coincided with the Maddox opening fire.

The smoking gun is ultimately just smoke made from the Maddox’s own accident. The validity of the August 4th attack didn’t matter to the Johnson Administration. Two months before the attack, William Bundy, a member of the Cabinet, drafted a resolution to give the president far reaching military powers in Southeast Asia. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was just the excuse needed to pass this draft as the August 10th resolution. A few days after the incident Johnson himself said “Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish”. A year after the incident, when the Vietnam War was springing into high gear, McNamara began a comprehensive memo with this revealing statement,

“The February decision to bomb North Vietnam and the July approval of Phase I deployments make sense only if they are in support of a long-run U.S. policy to contain Communist China…decision to make great investments today in men, money and national honor in South Vietnam makes sense only [if we want to develop fronts to contain China].

Let’s take a look back on what President Johnson assured the American people only a few hours after the Maddox shot at literally nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin: We were attacked in international waters, we sunk at least two boats, our response will be limited, we seek no wider war, these measures are to support freedom in Southeast Asia, and its mission is peace. Knowing the tragedy that war wreaks, no one can permit such scant evidence to lead to disasters such as this one. No one should start a war over one or two raw intelligence documents. It’s simply not enough to justify the seismic events that usually follow war.

References

Almost all the information contained stems directly from Robert J. Hanyon’s article "Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964". Link

All photos are available in the public domain from the Johnson Presidential Library and from the article cited above.

The speech President Johnson gave on August 4, 1964 about the Gulf of Tonkin incident is from the Miller Center. Link.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Public Law 88-408) was derived from the Government Publishing Office. Link.

The McNamara memo at the end is from Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December 1965, 189. Link.


The First Attack In The Gulf Of Tonkin

U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command Three North Vietnamese torpedo boats approaching the USS Maddox.

At the end of July 1964, the USS Maddox was sent to patrol the waters off the North Vietnamese coastline in the Gulf of Tonkin. It had been ordered to “locate and identify all coastal radar transmitters, note all navigation aids along the DVR’s [Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s] coastline, and monitor the Vietnamese junk fleet for a possible connection to DRV/Viet Cong maritime supply and infiltration routes.”

At the same time it gathered this intelligence, the South Vietnamese navy conducted strikes on multiple North Vietnamese islands.

And while the Maddox remained in international waters, three North Vietnamese patrol boats began tracking the destroyer in early August.

Captain John Herrick intercepted communications from these North Vietnamese forces that suggested they were preparing for an attack, so he retreated from the area. Within 24 hours, though, the Maddox resumed its normal patrolling routine.

On August 2, Capt. Herrick sent a flash message to the U.S. saying he had “received info indicating possible hostile action.” He had spotted three North Vietnamese torpedo boats coming his way, and once again began to retreat.

U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command The North Vietnamese torpedo boats under fire, as photographed on board the USS Maddox.

The destroyer was ordered to fire warning shots if the enemy vessels closed within 10,000 yards. The torpedo boats sped up, and the warning shots were fired.

After these first shots, the North Vietnamese forces made their attack. Captain Herrick radioed that the USS Maddox was under attack, and U.S. officials ordered nearby aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga to fly in as backup. As the enemy vessels launched their torpedoes, U.S. forces attacked them from above and below, severely damaging the boats.

The USS Maddox evaded the torpedo attack, suffering only slight damage, and sailed off to safer waters.


Case Closed: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

An oil painting by Cmdr. E.J. Fitzgerald depicts the engagement between Maddox and three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats on 2 August 1964.

Naval History and Heritage Command

This article by Capt. Carl Otis Schuster, U.S. Navy (ret.) originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam magazine. A National Security Agency report released in 2007 reveals unequivocally that the alleged Aug. 4, 1964, attack by North Vietnam on U.S. destroyers never actually happened.

In the first few days of August 1964, a series of events off the coast of North Vietnam and decisions made in Washington, D.C., set the United States on a course that would largely define the next decade and weigh heavily on American foreign policy to this day. What did and didn’t happen in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2 and 4 has long been in dispute, but the decisions that the Johnson Administration and Congress made based on an interpretation of those events were undeniably monumental.

While many facts and details have emerged in the past 44 years to persuade most observers that some of the reported events in the Gulf never actually happened, key portions of the critical intelligence information remained classified until recently.

In late 2007, that information was finally made public when an official National ­Security Agency (NSA) history of signals intelligence (SIGINT) in Vietnam, written in 2002, was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. With that report, after nearly four decades, the NSA officially reversed its verdict on the events of August 4, 1964, that had led that night to President Lyndon Johnson’s televised message to the nation: “The initial attack on the destroyer Maddox, on August 2, was repeated today by a number of hostile vessels attacking two U.S. destroyers with torpedoes…. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.”

The next day, the president addressed Congress, seeking the power to “to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia.”

A joint resolution of Congress dated August 7, 1964, gave the president authority to increase U.S. involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam and served as the legal basis for escalations in the Johnson and Nixon administrations that likely dwarfed what most Americans could have imagined in August 1964.

Speculation about administration motives surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incident itself and the subsequent withholding of key information will probably never cease, but the factual intelligence record that drove those decisions is now clear. The string of intelligence mistakes, mistranslations, misinterpretations and faulty decision making that occurred in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 reveals how easily analysts and officials can jump to the wrong conclusions and lead a nation into war.

The basic story line of the Gulf of Tonkin incident is as follows: At approximately 1430 hours Vietnam time on August 2, 1964, USS Maddox (DD-731) detected three North Vietnamese torpedo boats approaching at high speed. Along with other American warships, Maddox was steaming in international waters some 28 nautical miles off North Vietnam’s coast, gathering information on that country’s coastal radars.

As the torpedo boats continued their high-speed approach, Maddox was ordered to fire warning shots if they closed inside 10,000 yards. When the boats reached that point, Maddox fired three warning shots, but the torpedo boats continued inbound at high speed.

In the subsequent exchange of fire, neither American nor North Vietnamese ships inflicted significant damage. However, planes from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga (CVA-14) crippled one of the boats and damaged the other two. Two days later, August 4, Maddox returned to the area, supported by the destroyer Turner Joy (DD-951). This time the U.S. ships detected electronic signals and acoustic indications of a likely second North Vietnamese naval attack, and they requested U.S. air support.


Taken from USS Maddox during the August 2nd engagement, this photo shows one of the three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. (U.S. Navy)

The 522-page NSA official history Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, triggered a new round of media reporting and renewed debate about what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. The report covers all aspects of the efforts of the various American SIGINT agencies from the early post–World War II years through the evacuation of Saigon. It reveals what commanders actually knew, what SIGINT analysts believed and the challenges the SIGINT community and its personnel faced in trying to understand and anticipate the aggressive actions of an imaginative, deeply committed and elusive enemy.

The report also identifies what SIGINT could—and could not—tell commanders about their enemies and their unreliable friends in the war. The report’s conclusions about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident are particularly relevant as they offer useful insights into the problems that SIGINT faces today in combating unconventional opponents and the potential consequences of relying too heavily on a single source of intelligence.

Media reporting on the NSA report’s assessments sparked a brief rehash of the old arguments about the Gulf of Tonkin. The most popular of these is that the incident was either a fabrication or deliberate American provocation. Such arguments are rooted in the information and documents released by Daniel Ellsberg and others, and were reinforced over the decades by “anniversary interviews” with some of the participants, including ships’ crewmen and officers. Most uncertainty has long centered on the alleged second attack of August 4.

Unfortunately, much of the media reporting combined or confused the events of August 2 and 4 into a single incident. Senate investigations in 1968 and 1975 did little to clarify the events or the evidence, lending further credence to the various conspiracy theories.

Although North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap admitted in a 1984 discussion with Robert S. McNamara that the first attack was deliberate, he denied that a second attack had ever taken place. McNamara insisted that the evidence clearly indicated there was an attack on August 4, and he continued to maintain so in his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons From Vietnam.

In 1996 Edward Moise’s book Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War presented the first publicly released concrete evidence that the SIGINT reporting confirmed the August 2 attack, but not the alleged second attack of August 4. Moise’s book, however, was based on only the few SIGINT reports he was able to obtain through the Freedom of Information Act.

The NSA report is revealing. By including the orders and operational guidance provided to the units involved, the study develops the previously missing context of the intelligence and after–action reports from the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

The study debunks two strongly held but opposing beliefs about what happened on both days—on the one hand that neither of the reported attacks ever took place at all, and on the other that there was in fact a second deliberate North Vietnamese attack on August 4. Although the total intelligence picture of North Vietnam’s actions and communications indicates that the North Vietnamese did in fact order the first attack, it remains unclear whether Maddox was the originally intended target.

The NSA report exposes translation and analytical errors made by the American SIGINT analysts—errors that convinced the naval task force and national authorities that the North had ordered a second attack on August 4, and thus led Maddox’s crew to interpret its radar contacts and other information as confirmation that the ship was again under attack. Subsequent SIGINT reporting and faulty analysis that day further reinforced earlier false impressions. The after-action reports from the participants in the Gulf arrived in Washington several hours after the report of the second incident. By then, early news accounts had already solidified some opinions, and the Johnson Administration had decided to launch retaliatory strikes.

The errors made in the initial analysis were due to a combination of inexperience, limited knowledge of North Vietnam’s operations and an operational imperative to ensure that the U.S. Navy ships would not be caught by surprise. Background intelligence on North Vietnam, its radar networks and command-and-control systems was limited. By late 1958 it was obvious that a major Communist buildup was underway in South Vietnam, but the American SIGINT community was ill-placed and ill-equipped to deal with it. The U.S. in-theater SIGINT assets were limited, as was the number of Vietnamese linguists.

The United States Military had three SIGINT stations in the Philippines, one for each of the services, but their combined coverage was less than half of all potential North Vietnamese communications. As Communist communications activity was rising rapidly, American senior leaders were increasing support to the South Vietnamese government. The intelligence community, including its SIGINT component, responded with a regional buildup to support the increase in U.S. operational forces.

One element of American assistance to South Vietnam included covert support for South Vietnamese commando raids against North Vietnam’s coastal transportation facilities and networks. Conducted under the nationally approved Operations Plan, OPLAN-34A, the program required the intelligence community to provide detailed intelligence about the commando targets, the North’s coastal defenses and related surveillance systems. Given the maritime nature of the commando raids, which were launched from Da Nang, the bulk of the intelligence collecting fell to the Navy. At the time, the Navy relied heavily on Naval Support Group Activity (NSGA), San Miguel, Philippines, for SIGINT support, augmented by seaborne SIGINT elements called Direct Support Units (DSUs).

The Navy’s seaborne SIGINT effort in support of OPLAN-34, called Desoto Missions, played a key role in the events that ultimately led to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In 1964 the Navy was attempting to determine the extent of North Vietnam’s maritime infiltration into the South and to identify the North’s coastal defenses so that Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) could better support South Vietnam’s commando operations against the North.

The secondary mission of the Gulf of Tonkin patrols was to assert American freedom of navigation in international waters. The U.S. ships were supposed to remain well outside North Vietnam’s claimed five nautical mile territorial limit. The maximum closure distance was originally established at 20 nautical miles, but the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet reduced it to 12 nautical miles. The commander also added the requirement of collecting photographic intelligence of ships and aircraft encountered, as well as weather and hydrographic information.

The first Desoto Mission was conducted by USS Craig (DD-885) in March 1964. The North Vietnamese did not react, probably because no South Vietnamese commando operations were underway at that time. In fact, an earlier Desoto patrol planned for February had been canceled because of concerns over potential interference with South Vietnamese commando missions scheduled for the same time. For some reason, however, the second Desoto Mission, to be conducted by Maddox, was not canceled, even though it was scheduled to start at the same time that a late July commando mission was being launched.


USS Maddox, Mar. 21, 1964, after being refitted with an SPS-40 search radar. (PH2 Antoine/Naval History and Heritage Command)

Consequently, while Maddox was in the patrol area, a South Vietnamese commando raid was underway southwest of its position. Operations Security (OPSEC) concerns and related communications restrictions prevented Maddox and its operational commanders up to the Seventh Fleet from knowing of the commando raid. More important, they did not know the North Vietnamese had begun to react more aggressively to the commando raids. Thus, the South Vietnamese raid on Hon Me Island, a major North Vietnamese infiltration staging point, became the tripwire that set off the August 2 confrontation in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Midday on August 1, NSGA San Miguel, the U.S. Marine Corps SIGINT detachment co-located with the U.S. Army at Phu Bai, and Maddox’s own DSU all detected the communications directing the North Vietnamese torpedo boats to depart from Haiphong on August 2. Both the Phu Bai station and Maddox’s DSU knew the boats had orders to attack an “enemy ship.”

Not knowing about the South Vietnamese commando raid, all assumed that Maddox was the target. Based on the intercepts, Captain John J. Herrick, the on-scene mission commander aboard nearby Turner Joy, decided to terminate Maddox’s Desoto patrol late on August 1, because he believed he had “indications the ship was about to be attacked.”

Herrick’s concerns grew as the SIGINT intercepts indicated that the North Vietnamese were concentrating torpedo boats off Hon Me Island, 25 nautical miles to his southwest. NSA analysts from shore-based stations shared Herrick’s belief and transmitted an immediate warning to all major Pacific Theater commands—except to Herrick and Maddox.

Shortly thereafter, the Phu Bai station intercepted the signal indicating the North Vietnamese intended to conduct a torpedo attack against “the enemy.” Phu Bai issued a “Critic Report”—short for critical message, meaning one that had priority over all other traffic in the communications system to ensure immediate delivery—to all commands, including Maddox.

The subsequent North Vietnamese reporting on the “enemy” matched the location, course and speed of Maddox. The SIGINT intercepts also detected that the North Vietnamese coastal radar stations were tracking Maddox and reporting its movements to the outbound torpedo boats. Then North Vietnam’s naval authorities either became confused or were seized by indecision. They issued a recall order from Haiphong to the port commander and communications relay boat two hours after the torpedo boat squadron command issued its attack order.

Both orders were repeated, but only the latter was relayed to the torpedo boats before the attack was launched. Haiphong again repeated the recall order after the attack. It still is not clear whether the order was intended to halt the attack or to delay it until after nightfall, when there was a much greater chance for success. In any event, the attack took place in broad daylight under conditions of clear visibility.

Maddox detected the torpedo boats on radar at a range of almost 20,000 yards and turned away at its top speed of 32 knots. The boats followed at their maximum speed of 44 knots, continuing the chase for more than 20 minutes. The captain of Maddox, Commander Herbert L. Ogier Jr., ordered his ship to battle stations shortly after 1500 hours. Efforts to communicate with the torpedo boats failed, probably because of language and communications equipment incompatibility.

At 1505, when the torpedo boats had closed within 10,000 yards, in accordance with Captain Herrick’s orders and as allowed under international law at that time, Maddox fired three warning shots. The ship’s gunners used the standard 5 mil offset to avoid hitting the boats. Nonetheless, the North Vietnamese boats continued to close in at the rate of 400 yards per minute. Ogier then opened fire at 1508 hours, when the boats were only six minutes from torpedo range. He also requested air support.

The three torpedo boats continued through the American barrage and launched their torpedoes at 1516. All missed, probably because the North Vietnamese had fired too soon. One 12.7mm machine bullet hit Maddox before the boats broke off and started to withdraw. Aircraft from Ticonderoga arrived on-scene at 1528 hours and fired on the boats. Both sides claimed successes in the exchange that they did not actually achieve.


Zuni rockets are loaded Into the tubes of an F-8E from VF-53, aboard the USS Ticonderoga during the Tonkin Gulf Incident. (U.S. Navy)

The Americans claimed they sank two torpedo boats and damaged a third, while the torpedo boats claimed to have shot down two American aircraft. In truth, two of the torpedo boats were damaged, of which one could not make it back to port, while a single American aircraft sustained some wing damage.

Each side’s initial after-action review was positive. U.S. SIGINT support had provided ample warning of North Vietnam’s intentions and actions, enabling the American ship to defend itself successfully. The North Vietnamese believed that, although they had lost one boat, they had deterred an attack on their coast. The Johnson Administration initially limited its response to a terse diplomatic note to Hanoi, the first-ever U.S. diplomatic note to that government. Simultaneously, U.S. SIGINT was placed on increased alert to monitor indications of future North Vietnamese threats to the Desoto Missions, and additional air and naval forces were deployed to the Western Pacific.

With a presidential election just three months away and Johnson positioning himself as the “peace candidate,” the administration spoke of American resolve not to react to provocation and to avoid escalation.

Both sides, however, spent August 3 reviewing their contingency plans and analyzing lessons learned from the incident. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) decided to resume Maddox’s Desoto patrol, but at a greater distance from the coast, accompanied by Turner Joy and supported by aircraft from Ticonderoga.

North Vietnam’s immediate concern was to determine the exact position and status of its torpedo boats and other forces. The North also protested the South Vietnamese commando raid on Hon Me Island and claimed that the Desoto Mission ships had been involved in that raid. Although Washington officials did not believe Hanoi would attack the Desoto ships again, tensions ran high on both sides, and this affected their respective analyses of the events to come.

The series of mistakes that led to the August 4 misreporting began on August 3 when the Phu Bai station interpreted Haiphong’s efforts to determine the status of its forces as an order to assemble for further offensive operations.

That initial error shaped all the subsequent assessments about North Vietnamese intentions, as U.S. SIGINT monitored and reported the North’s tracking of the two American destroyers. The North Vietnamese coastal radars also tracked and reported the positions of U.S. aircraft operating east of the ships, probably the combat air patrol the Seventh Fleet had ordered in support. A North Vietnamese patrol boat also trailed the American ships, reporting on their movements to Haiphong. American SIGINT analysts assessed the North Vietnamese reporting as probable preparations for further military operations against the Desoto patrol.

Meanwhile, by late August 3, the North Vietnamese had learned the condition of their torpedo boats and ordered a salvage tug to recover the damaged craft. The tug departed Haiphong at approximately 0100 hours on August 4, while the undamaged torpedo boat, T-146, was ordered to stay with the crippled boats and maintain an alert “for enemy forces.” At about 0600, the two U.S. destroyers resumed the Desoto patrol.

Neither ship’s crew knew about the North Vietnamese salvage operation. The departure of the North Vietnamese salvage tug en route to the damaged craft was reported to the American ships as a submarine chaser, not a serious threat but certainly more so than an unarmed seagoing tug.

Captain Herrick had been ordered to be clear of the patrol area by nightfall, so he turned due east at approximately 1600. Two hours later the Phu Bai SIGINT station transmitted a critic report warning of “possible [North Vietnamese] naval operations planned against the Desoto patrol.” Twenty-five minutes later, Phu Bai sent a second critic report that said, “…imminent plans of [North Vietnamese] naval action possibly against Desoto Mission.”

By then, the two American ships were approximately 80 nautical miles from the nearest North Vietnamese coastline and steaming southeast at 20 knots. The first critic report from Phu Bai reached Washington at about 0740 hours, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). Defense Secretary McNamara called the president about the second Phu Bai critic report at approximately 0940 that morning. Both men believed an attack on the American ships was imminent. The stage was set.

At 2000 hours local time, Maddox reported it had two surface and three aerial contacts on radar. The contacts were to the northeast of the ship, putting them about 100 nautical miles from North Vietnam but very close to China’s Hainan Island. Ticonderoga ordered four A-1H Skyraiders into the air to support the ships. They arrived on station overhead by 2100 hours. The original radar contacts dropped off the scope at 2134, but the crews of Maddox and Turner Joy believed they detected two high-speed contacts closing on their position at 44 knots.

When the contacts appeared to turn away at 6,000 yards, Maddox’s crew interpreted the move as a maneuver to mark a torpedo launch. The ship’s sonar operator reported a noise spike—not a torpedo—which the Combat Information Center (CIC) team mistook for report of an incoming torpedo.

Both U.S. ships opened fire on the radar contacts, but reported problems maintaining a lock on the tracking and fire control solution. The first reports of the encounter from the destroyers reached the White House at 1000 EDT. Two hours later, Captain Herrick reported the sinking of two enemy patrol boats.

With this information, back in Washington President Johnson and his advisers considered their options. By 1400 hours EDT, the president had approved retaliatory strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases for the next morning, August 5, at 0600 local time, which was 1900 EDT on August 4 in Washington. In the meantime, aboard Turner Joy, Captain Herrick ordered an immediate review of the night’s actions.

His assessment of the evidence now raised doubts in his mind about what really had happened. He reported those doubts in his after action report transmitted shortly after midnight his time on August 5, which was 1300 hours August 4 in Washington.

Herrick requested aerial reconnaissance for the next morning to search for the wreckage of the torpedo boats he thought he had sunk. Both of these messages reached Washington shortly after 1400 hours EDT. Neither Herrick’s doubts nor his reconnaissance request was well received, however. The Pentagon had already released details of the “attack,” and administration officials had already promised strong action. Then, everyone’s doubts were swept away when a SIGINT intercept from one of the North Vietnamese torpedo boats reported the claim that it had shot down two American planes in the battle area.


On Aug. 5, 1964, at a Pentagon news briefing, Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara indicates where aircraft struck back at North Vietnamese PT boats and their shore bases in retaliation for the two attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. (AP Photo)

McNamara and the JCS believed that this intercept decisively provided the “smoking gun” of the second attack, and so the president reported to the American people and Congress.

A subsequent review of the SIGINT reports revealed that this later intercept—McNamara’s “smoking gun”—was in fact a follow-on, more in-depth report of the August 2 action. Moreover, the subsequent review of the evidence exposed the translation and analysis errors that resulted in the reporting of the salvage operation as preparations for a second attack. In fact, the North Vietnamese were trying to avoid contact with U.S. forces on August 4, and they saw the departure of the Desoto patrol ships as a sign that they could proceed to recover their torpedo boats and tow them back to base.

They never intended to attack U.S. forces, and were not even within 100 nautical miles of the U.S. destroyers’ position at the time of the purported “second engagement.”

NSA officials handed the key August SIGINT reports over to the JCS investigating team that examined the incident in September 1964. Those same reports were shown to the select congressional and senate committees that also investigated the incident. The entirety of the original intercepts, however, were not examined and reanalyzed until after the war.

The 122 additional relevant SIGINT products confirmed that the Phu Bai station had misinterpreted or mistranslated many of the early August 3 SIGINT intercepts. With that false foundation in their minds, the on-scene naval analysts saw the evidence around them as confirmation of the attack they had been warned about.

Those early mistakes led U.S. destroyers to open fire on spurious radar contacts, misinterpret their own propeller noises as incoming torpedoes, and ultimately report an attack that never occurred.

Despite the on-scene commanders’ efforts to correct their errors in the initial after-action reports, administration officials focused instead on the first SIGINT reports to the exclusion of all other evidence. Based on this, they launched the political process that led to the war’s escalation.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident and many more recent experiences only reinforce the need for intelligence analysts and decision makers to avoid relying exclusively on any single intelligence source—even SIGINT—particularly if other intelligence sources are available and the resulting decisions might cost lives. Signals Intelligence is a valuable source but it is not perfect. It can be deceived and it is all too often incomplete. Like all intelligence, it must be analyzed and reported in context. People are human and make mistakes, particularly in the pressure of a crisis or physical threat to those they support. Perhaps that is the most enduring lesson from America’s use of SIGINT in the Vietnam War in general and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in particular.

Carl Schuster is a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer with 10 years of experience as a surface line officer. His first ship was USS Glennon (DD-840), a FRAM I destroyer, the same class as Maddox. For additional reading, see the recently declassified NSA study by Robert J. Hanyok, Spartans in the Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975 and Tonkin Gulf and The Escalation of the Vietnam War, by Edward Moise.

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The Truth About Tonkin

On 2 August 1964, North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox (DD-731) while the destroyer was in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. There is no doubting that fact. But what happened in the Gulf during the late hours of 4 August—and the consequential actions taken by U.S. officials in Washington—has been seemingly cloaked in confusion and mystery ever since that night.

Nearly 200 documents the National Security Agency (NSA) declassified and released in 2005 and 2006, however, have helped shed light on what transpired in the Gulf of Tonkin on 4 August. The papers, more than 140 of them classified top secret, include phone transcripts, oral-history interviews, signals intelligence (SIGINT) messages, and chronologies of the Tonkin events developed by Department of Defense and NSA officials. Combined with recently declassified tapes of phone calls from White House officials involved with the events and previously uncovered facts about Tonkin, these documents provide compelling evidence about the subsequent decisions that led to the full commitment of U.S. armed forces to the Vietnam War.

Raids and Patrols in the Tonkin Gulf

In early 1964, South Vietnam began conducting a covert series of U.S.-backed commando attacks and intelligence-gathering missions along the North Vietnamese coast. Codenamed Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34A, the activities were conceived and overseen by the Department of Defense, with the support of the Central Intelligence Agency, and carried out by the South Vietnamese Navy. Initial successes, however, were limited numerous South Vietnamese raiders were captured, and OPLAN 34A units suffered heavy casualties. In July 1964, Lieutenant General William C. Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, shifted the operation's tactics from commando attacks on land to shore bombardments using mortars, rockets, and recoilless rifles fired from South Vietnamese patrol boats. 1

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, had been conducting occasional reconnaissance and SIGINT-gathering missions farther offshore in the Tonkin Gulf. Destroyers carried out these so-called Desoto patrols. After missions in December 1962 and April of the next year, patrols were scheduled for 1964 in the vicinity of OPLAN 34A raids. In fact, one of the patrols' main missions was to gather information that would be useful to the raiders. 2 A top-secret document declassified in 2005 revealed the standing orders to the Desoto patrols: "[L]ocate and identify all coastal radar transmitters, note all navigation aids along the DVR's [Democratic Republic of Vietnam's] coastline, and monitor the Vietnamese junk fleet for a possible connection to DRV/Viet Cong maritime supply and infiltration routes." 3

The United States was playing a dangerous game. The South Vietnamese—conducted OPLAN 34A raids and the U.S. Navy's Desoto patrols could be perceived as collaborative efforts against North Vietnamese targets. In reality, there was no coordination between the forces conducting the operations.

Daylight Attack on a Destroyer

On 28 July, the Maddox sortied from Taiwan en route to her Desoto patrol station. Specially equipped with a communications intercept van and 17 SIGINT specialists, she was to patrol in international waters off the North Vietnamese coast, from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) north to the Chinese border. On the night of 30-31 July, the destroyer was on station in the Gulf of Tonkin when a 34A raid was launched against Hon Me Island. From two boats, South Vietnamese commandos fired machine guns and small cannon at the island's radar and military installations. At the same time, two other South Vietnamese commando boats carried out a similar attack against Hon Ngu Island, more than 25 miles to the south. 4

After observing North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats pursuing the vessels that had attacked Hon Me, the Maddox withdrew from the area. Nevertheless, when later queried by NSA headquarters, the destroyer indicated she had been unaware of the OPLAN raid on the island. 5 That ignorance set the stage for a showdown between North Vietnamese forces and the U.S. Navy eavesdropping platform.

By 1 August, the destroyer had returned to the area and was back on patrol. In the early hours of the next day, Maddox communication technicians intercepted SIGINT reports of North Vietnamese vessels getting under way, possibly intent on attacking the destroyer. On board the ship, Commander, Destroyer Division 192, Captain John J. Herrick ordered the vessel out to sea, hoping to avoid a confrontation. But at 1045, he reversed orders, turning the Maddox back toward the coast, this time to the north of Hon Me Island.

Weather conditions were clear, and seas were calm. At 1440, the destroyer detected three North Vietnamese patrol boats approaching her position from the west. Aware of North Vietnamese intent from the earlier SIGINT message, Captain Herrick ordered gun crews to open fire if the fast-approaching trio closed to within 10,000 yards of the destroyer, and at about 1505 three 5-inch shots were fired across the bow of the closest boat. In return, the lead vessel launched a torpedo and veered away. A second boat then launched two "fish" but was hit by gunfire from the destroyer. Re-engaging, the first PT boat launched a second torpedo and opened fire with her 14.5-mm guns, but Maddox shell fire heavily damaged the vessel. 6

Overhead, meanwhile, four F8 Crusaders that the Maddox had called in earlier from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) were rapidly approaching. One of the pilots, Navy Commander James Stockdale, commanding officer of VF-51, recalled that they passed over the unscathed Maddox at 1530, minutes after the 22-minute surface engagement had ended. All of the enemy boats were heading northwest at about 40 knots, two in front of the third by about a mile. The destroyer was retiring to the south.

Stockdale and the other pilots, with orders to "attack and destroy the PT boats," made multiple firing runs on the enemy vessels. The two lead boats maneuvered evasively but were nevertheless heavily damaged. The third was left dead in the water and burning. 7

Fighting Phantoms on 4 August

The next day, the Maddox resumed her Desoto patrol, and, to demonstrate American resolve and the right to navigate in international waters, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the USS Turner Joy (DD-951) to join the first destroyer on patrol off the North Vietnamese coast. That night, the South Vietnamese staged more OPLAN 34A raids. Three patrol craft attacked a security garrison at Cua Ron (the mouth of the Ron River) and a radar site at Vinh Son, firing 770 rounds of high-explosive munitions at the targets. 8 North Vietnamese installations had been attacked four separate times in five days.

On the morning of 4 August, U.S. intelligence intercepted a report indicating that the communists intended to conduct offensive maritime operations in the Gulf of Tonkin. In contrast to the clear conditions two days earlier, thunderstorms and rain squalls reduced visibility and increased wave heights to six feet. In addition to the difficult detection conditions, the Maddox's SPS-40 long-range air-search radar and the Turner Joy's SPG-53 fire-control radar were both inoperative. 9 That night, Herrick had the two ships move out to sea to give themselves maneuver space in case of attack.

The Maddox nevertheless reported at 2040 that she was tracking unidentified vessels. Although the U.S. destroyers were operating more than 100 miles from the North Vietnamese coastline, the approaching vessels seemed to come at the ships from multiple directions, some from the northeast, others from the southwest. Still other targets appeared from the east, mimicking attacking profiles of torpedo boats. Targets would disappear, and then new targets would appear from the opposite compass direction.

Over the next three hours, the two ships repeatedly maneuvered at high speeds to evade perceived enemy boat attacks. The destroyers reported automatic-weapons fire more than 20 torpedo attacks sightings of torpedo wakes, enemy cockpit lights, and searchlight illumination and numerous radar and surface contacts. By the time the destroyers broke off their "counterattack," they had fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells, and four or five depth charges. 10

Commander Stockdale was again in the action, this time alone. When his wingman's aircraft developed trouble, Stockdale got permission to launch solo from the Ticonderoga. He arrived overhead at 2135. For more than 90 minutes, he made runs parallel to the ships' course and at low altitude (below 2,000 feet) looking for the enemy vessels. He reported later, "I had the best seat in the house to watch that event and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower." 11

Captain Herrick also began to have doubts about the attack. As the battle continued, he realized the "attacks" were actually the results of "overeager sonar operators" and poor equipment performance. The Turner Joy had not detected any torpedoes during the entire encounter, and Herrick determined that the Maddox's operators were probably hearing the ship's propellers reflecting off her rudder during sharp turns. 12 The destroyer's main gun director was never able to lock onto any targets because, as the operator surmised, the radar was detecting the stormy sea's wave tops.

By 0127 on 5 August, hours after the "attacks" had occurred, Herrick had queried his crew and reviewed the preceding hours' events. He sent a flash (highest priority) message to Honolulu, which was received in Washington at 1327 on 4 August, declaring his doubts: "Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken." 13

Confusion in Washington

Messages declassified in 2005 and recently released tapes from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library reveal confusion among the leadership in Washington. Calls between the Joint Chiefs of Staff the National Military Command Center headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Pacific and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were frequently exchanged during the phantom battle. Vietnam was 12 hours ahead of Washington time, so the "attacks" in the evening of 4 August in the Gulf of Tonkin were being monitored in Washington late that morning.

In Hawaii, Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp was receiving Captain Herrick's reports by flash message traffic, not voice reports. At 0248 in the Gulf, Herrick sent another report in which he changed his previous story:

Certain that original ambush was bonafide. Details of action following present a confusing picture. Have interviewed witnesses who made positive visual sightings of cockpit lights or similar passing near MADDOX. Several reported torpedoes were probably boats themselves which were observed to make several close passes on MADDOX. Own ship screw noises on rudders may have accounted for some. At present cannot even estimate number of boats involved. TURNER JOY reports two torpedoes passed near her. 14

McNamara phoned Sharp at 1608 Washington time to talk it over and asked, "Was there a possibility that there had been no attack?" Sharp admitted that there was a "slight possibility" because of freak radar echoes, inexperienced sonarmen, and no visual sightings of torpedo wakes. The admiral added that he was trying to get information and recommended holding any order for a retaliatory strike against North Vietnam until "we have a definite indication of what happened." 15

Other intelligence supported the belief that an attack had occurred. An intercepted SIGINT message, apparently from one of the patrol boats, reported: "Shot down two planes in the battle area. We sacrificed two comrades but all the rest are okay. The enemy ship could also have been damaged." 16 Amid all the other confusion and growing doubt about the attack, this battle report was a compelling piece of evidence. At 1723 in Washington, Air Force Lieutenant General David Burchinal, the director of the Joint Staff, was watching the events unfold from the National Military Command Center when he received a phone call from Sharp. He admitted that the new SIGINT intercept "pins it down better than anything so far." 17

McNamara considered the report, coupled with Admiral Sharp's belief the attack was authentic, as conclusive proof. At 2336, President Johnson appeared on national television and announced his intent to retaliate against North Vietnamese targets: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply. The reply is being given as I speak to you tonight." 18

Back on board the Ticonderoga, Commander Stockdale had been ordered to prepare to launch an air strike against the North Vietnamese targets for their "attacks" of the previous evening. Unlike Captain Herrick, Stockdale had no doubt about what had happened: "We were about to launch a war under false pretenses, in the face of the on-scene military commander's advice to the contrary." 19 Despite his reservations, Stockdale led a strike of 18 aircraft against an oil storage facility at Vinh, located just inland of where the alleged attacks on the Maddox and Turner Joy had occurred. Although the raid was successful (the oil depot was completely destroyed and 33 of 35 vessels were hit), two American aircraft were shot down one pilot was killed and the second captured. 20

On 7 August, Congress, with near unanimity, approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which President Johnson signed into law three days later. Requested by Johnson, the resolution authorized the chief executive to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." No approval or oversight of military force was required by Congress, essentially eliminating the system of checks and balances so fundamental to the U.S. Constitution. On hearing of the authorization's passage by both houses of Congress, the delighted President remarked that the resolution "was like Grandma's nightshirt. It covers everything." 21

Analysis of the Evidence

Historians have long suspected that the second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin never occurred and that the resolution was based on faulty evidence. But no declassified information had suggested that McNamara, Johnson, or anyone else in the decision-making process had intentionally misinterpreted the intelligence concerning the 4 August incident. More than 40 years after the events, that all changed with the release of the nearly 200 documents related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and transcripts from the Johnson Library.

These new documents and tapes reveal what historians could not prove: There was not a second attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf in early August 1964. Furthermore, the evidence suggests a disturbing and deliberate attempt by Secretary of Defense McNamara to distort the evidence and mislead Congress.

Among the most revealing documents is a study of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents by NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok. Titled "Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964," it had been published in the classified Cryptological Quarterly in early 2001. Hanyok conducted a comprehensive analysis of SIGINT records from the nights of the attacks and concluded that there was indeed an attack on 2 August but the attack on the 4th did not occur, despite claims to the contrary by President Johnson and Secretary McNamara. According to John Prados of the independent National Security Archive, Hanyok asserted that faulty signals intelligence became "vital evidence of a second attack and [Johnson and McNamara] used this claim to support retaliatory air strikes and to buttress the administration's request for a Congressional resolution that would give the White House freedom of action in Vietnam." 22

Almost 90 percent of the SIGINT intercepts that would have provided a conflicting account were kept out of the reports sent to the Pentagon and White House. Additionally, messages that were forwarded contained "severe analytic errors, unexplained translation changes, and the conjunction of two messages into one translation." Other vital intercepts mysteriously disappeared. Hanyok claimed that "The overwhelming body of reports, if used, would have told the story that no attack occurred." 23

The historian also concluded that some of the signals intercepted during the nights of 2 and 4 August were falsified to support the retaliatory attacks. Moreover, some intercepts were altered to show different receipt times, and other evidence was cherry picked to deliberately distort the truth. According to Hanyok, "SIGINT information was presented in such a manner as to preclude responsible decision makers in the Johnson Administration from having the complete and objective narrative of events of 04 August 1964." 24

And what about the North Vietnamese battle report that seemed to provide irrefutable confirmation of the attack? On further examination, it was found to be referring to the 2 August attacks against the Maddox but had been routinely transmitted in a follow-up report during the second "attack." The North Vietnamese were oblivious to the confusion it would generate.

What should have stood out to the U.S. leadership collecting all the data of these attacks was that, with the exception of the battle report, no other SIGINT "chatter" was detected during the attacks on 4 August. In contrast, during the 2 August attack NSA listening posts monitored VHF communications between North Vietnamese vessels, HF communications between higher headquarters in Hanoi and the boats, and communication relays to the regional naval station. None of these communications occurred on the night of 4 August.

The Defense Secretary's Role

Subsequently, Secretary McNamara intentionally misled Congress and the public about his knowledge of and the nature of the 34A operations, which surely would have been perceived as the actual cause for the 2 August attack on the Maddox and the apparent attack on the 4th. On 6 August, when called before a joint session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees to testify about the incident, McNamara eluded the questioning of Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) when he asked specifically whether the 34A operations may have provoked the North Vietnamese response. McNamara instead declared that "our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any." 25

Later that day, Secretary McNamara lied when he denied knowledge of the provocative 34A patrols at a Pentagon news conference. When asked by a reporter if he knew of any confrontations between the South and North Vietnamese navies, he responded: "No, none that I know of. . . . [T]hey operate on their own. They are part of the South Vietnamese Navy . . . operating in the coastal waters, inspecting suspicious incoming junks, seeking to deter and prevent the infiltration of both men and material." Another reporter pressed the issue, "Do these [patrol boats] go north, into North Vietnamese waters?" McNamara again eluded the question, "They have advanced closer and closer to the 17th parallel, and in some cases, I think they have moved beyond that in an effort to stop the infiltration closer to the point of origin." 26

In reality, McNamara knew full well that the 34A attacks had probably provoked the 2 August attacks on the Maddox. On an audio tape from the Johnson Library declassified in December 2005, he admitted to the President the morning after the attacks that the two events were almost certainly connected:

And I think I should also, or we should also at that time, Mr. President, explain this OPLAN 34-A, these covert operations. There's no question but what that had bearing on it. On Friday night, as you probably know, we had four TP [sic] boats from [South] Vietnam, manned by [South] Vietnamese or other nationals, attack two islands, and we expended, oh, 1,000 rounds of ammunition of one kind or another against them. We probably shot up a radar station and a few other miscellaneous buildings. And following 24 hours after that with this destroyer in the same area undoubtedly led them to connect the two events. . . ." 27

Intelligence officials realized the obvious. When President Johnson asked during a 4 August meeting of the National Security Council, "Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?" CIA Director John McCone answered matter-of-factly, "No, the North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their offshore islands . . . the attack is a signal to us that the North Vietnamese have the will and determination to continue the war." 28

Johnson himself apparently had his own doubts about what happened in the Gulf on 4 August. A few days after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed, he commented, "Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish." 29

Can the omission of evidence by McNamara be forgiven? Within time, the conflict in Vietnam would likely have occurred anyway, given the political and military events already in motion. However, the retaliatory attack of 5 August marked the United States' first overt military action against the North Vietnamese and the most serious escalation up to that date. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, essentially unchallenged by a Congress that believed it was an appropriate response to unprovoked, aggressive, and deliberate attacks on U.S. vessels on the high seas, would open the floodgates for direct American military involvement in Vietnam. McNamara's intentional distortion of events prevented Congress from providing the civilian oversight of military matters so fundamental to the congressional charter.

Some historians do not let the Johnson administration off so easily. Army Colonel H. R. McMaster, author of the highly acclaimed 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, accused Johnson and McNamara of outright deception:

To enhance his chances for election, [Johnson] and McNamara deceived the American people and Congress about events and the nature of the American commitment in Vietnam. They used a questionable report of a North Vietnamese attack on American naval vessels to justify the president's policy to the electorate and to defuse Republican senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's charges that Lyndon Johnson was irresolute and "soft" in the foreign policy arena. 30

For his part, McNamara never admitted his mistakes. In his award-winning 2003 video memoirs Fog of War, he remained unapologetic and even bragged of his ability to deceive: "I learned early on never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It's a very good rule." 31

We may never know the whole truth behind the Tonkin events and the motivations of those involved. However, it is important to put what we do know into context. The administration's zeal for aggressive action, motivated by President Johnson's election worries, created an atmosphere of recklessness and overenthusiasm in which it became easy to draw conclusions based on scanty evidence and to overlook normally prudent precautionary measures. Without the full picture, Congress could not offer the checks and balances it was designed to provide. Subsequently, the White House carried the nation into the longest and one of the most costly conflicts in our nation's history.


The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

The following article on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident is an excerpt from Barrett Tillman’s book On Wave and Wing: The 100 Year Quest to Perfect the Aircraft Carrier. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In early 1964, increasing American concern over events in Laos led to “Yankee Team” reconnaissance flights over communist-controlled areas. From May the Plaine des Jars and the nation’s panhandle were crisscrossed by naval and Air Force planes monitoring communist activities. Navy and Marine Corps photo-recon aircraft flew repeated sorties from carriers in the Tonkin Gulf, originally from Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), with others following. The Douglas RA-3Bs and Vought RF-8As launched from “Dixie Station” about 115 miles off South Vietnam, occasionally drawing gunfire. One Crusader was shot down on June 7, Lieutenant Charles Klussmann being captured by the Pathet Lao and surviving two months in captivity before escaping. Klussmann’s Crusader was the first naval fixed-wing aircraft lost in Southeast Asia. Nearly one thousand would follow.

Tensions heightened in the Tonkin Gulf. On the afternoon of August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats clashed with the American destroyer Maddox (DD-731) patrolling the coast. Gunfire and torpedoes were exchanged while F-8 fighters from USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) raced to the scene. Led by Commander James B. Stockdale, the four Crusaders strafed one of the boats, claiming it sunk, though in fact one was severely shot up and two damaged.

Two nights later the destroyer Turner Joy (DD-951) joined Maddox to enforce right of passage. Radar and sonar operators reported aggressive Vietnamese PT boats, leading to a four-hour live-fire exercise again involving Jim Stockdale. From his vantage in the dark sky he saw U.S. gunfire and ships’ wakes but no hostile vessels. Again the Americans claimed a sinking, but Hanoi denied that any action had occurred.

As it turned out, the communists were right. But the Johnson administration, only ninety days from a presidential election, chose to believe the confused, contradictory, uncertain accounts of the second Gulf of Tonkin incident. The next day Lyndon Johnson ordered “retaliatory” air strikes against North Vietnam. Sixty-four aircraft from Ticonderoga and Constellation (CVA-64) bombed naval and petroleum targets. Two planes were downed with one pilot killed and one captured. The polls showed a fourteen-point jump in public approval, and in November Johnson won a decisive victory.

However, the Washington politicians refused to be swayed by the Gulf of Tonkin incident and allow airpower to attempt a decision in Vietnam. Worried about encouraging Chinese or Soviet involvement—when in fact both were actively involved from before the beginning—the Johnson administration adopted halfway measures. During a tour of the gulf to investigate the Gulf of Tonkin incident Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara—previously a Ford Motor Company executive—told aircrews to expect “unlimited losses in pursuit of limited goals.”

Decades later Jim Stockdale reflected upon “Washington’s second thoughts, the guilt, the remorse, the tentativeness, the changes of heart, the backout. And a generation of young Americans would get left holding the bag.” He paid a bitter price himself: shot down in September 1965, he spent seven years in Hanoi’s extortionist torture chamber.

While the generals and admirals in Washington feuded over turf wars in Vietnam, tactical aircrews found ways to support one another, much as Navy, Marine, and Army fliers had done at Guadalcanal. Because the Navy possessed SAM warning gear before the Air Force, some Tonkin Gulf A-4 squadrons sent single Skyhawks to F-105 wings in Thailand. The process had begun early, resulting in a notable mission during October 1965.

There was other fallout from the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Lieutenant Commander Trent Powers, executive officer of Oriskany’s VA-164, flew with the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli, leading eight F-105s against two SA-2 sites north of Hanoi. The Skyhawk-Thunderchief team covered strikes by two carrier air wings, which escaped unharmed. The SAMs all missed, and Powers pressed his attack to extreme low level in bombing one of the sites. Flak tore his Skyhawk apart and he ejected into captivity. At some point he died in prison, receiving a posthumous Navy Cross.

This post is part of our larger educational resource on the Vietnam war. For a complete history and overview of the Vietnam War, click here.

You can also buy the book by clicking on the buttons to the left.


Gulf of Tonkin Incident: Reappraisal 40 Years Later

Editor’s note: This article differs from those that MHQ normally publishes. We expect our historians to answer the questions who, what, where, and when — as well as to provide readers with how and why. For reasons that will become apparent, however, Edward Drea’s treatment of the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin incident is by necessity more of an incomplete chronology than a history. Many of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s detractors have long claimed he escalated American participation in the Vietnam War through fraud by insisting that U.S. naval forces had been attacked on the night of August 4 when, in fact, they had not been fired upon. This event has been cited by a number of observers as the beginning of an age when Americans began to distrust the federal government. On the fortieth anniversary of the incident, it is time to update what we know about the event’s who, what, and when.

In the last several years, more information has been revealed through the declassification of some documents involving sensitive U.S. radio intercepts of North Vietnamese communications. We asked Ed Drea to write an article that would give our readers the flavor of the confusion during some of the most tense hours in U.S. history, when a shooting situation that occurred in one time zone sparked rapid-fire questions, analyses, and decisions in three other time zones. Drea is a contract historian at the Pentagon, hence the need to publish what MHQ has never before printed, the stock Department of Defense disclaimer: ‘The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


U.S. Naval
Historical Center

Darkness was falling over the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964, when at 8:40 p.m. Saigon time (8:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time [EDT]) the destroyer USS Maddox, on patrol, issued a high-priority message, or critic report: Received information indicating attack by PGM/P-4 [North Vietnamese navy PT-boats, or Swatows]. Proceeding Southeast at best speed.

The source of the information was a U.S. field-site warning dispatched exactly one hour earlier, at 7:40 Saigon time, by flash precedence to Maddox, its fellow destroyer Turner Joy, and other addressees. Partially declassified in March 2003, the message reads: Haiphong informed Vessel T142 (Swatow Class) to make ready for military operations the night of 04 August. The sister ship, T-146 has also received similar orders. Message exchanges indicate that all efforts are being made to include MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) T333 in this operation, as soon as additional oil can be obtained for that vessel.

Just three minutes later the same unit transmitted another warning to Maddox: At 0910Z [Zulu, or Greenwich Mean, time], Haiphong informed Vessel T142 of DeSoto destroyers location: Time 1345 (Golf [Hanoi time]) 106-19-30E/19-36-23N. Haiphong’s tracking was accurate.

Aboard Maddox, Captain John J. Herrick, commander of the two-destroyer task group CTG 72.1, and the destroyer’s skipper, Commander Herbert L. Ogier, had cause for alarm. Swatows were Chinese-manufactured motor gunboats capable of making twenty-eight knots. The eighty-three-foot-long vessels carried a crew of thirty men armed with 37mm and 14.5mm guns, as well as surface search radar and depth charges. P-4s were Soviet-built motor torpedo boats that could exceed fifty knots. Though smaller and with an eleven-man crew, the P-4 carried two torpedoes with a range of forty-five hundred yards. The warning was all the more ominous because one of the North Vietnamese navy vessels identified in the message — T-333, assigned to Division 3 of PT Squadron 135 — had attacked Maddox thirty miles off the North Vietnamese coast two days earlier.

Just after 4 p.m. on August 2, the three P-4 PT-boats had closed on Maddox at speeds approaching fifty knots. The first boat launched a torpedo, then broke off as the two other vessels bore in on their target. One PT-boat fired two torpedoes at Maddox, but was hit by the destroyer’s return fire. Meanwhile the first boat reengaged the destroyer, maneuvering to within two thousand yards while launching a torpedo and firing its 14.5mm guns at the U.S. ship. Maddox‘s guns heavily damaged the boat and killed its commanding officer. Around 4:30 p.m. the North Vietnamese turned toward shore. Shortly afterward, U.S. Navy planes from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga attacked the withdrawing boats, leaving one dead in the water. During the fighting, T-333 suffered damage to an auxiliary engine that left it with a low lubrication oil pressure reading but otherwise fit for action. Only a single round of North Vietnamese fire hit the destroyer. Anti-aircraft fire from the P-4s, however, hit one U.S. Navy plane, forcing it to divert to Da Nang. There could be no doubt about an attack launched in broad daylight that had inflicted damage on both sides.

What happened in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, however, remains shrouded in controversy. Did North Vietnamese patrol boats attack Maddox and Turner Joy? Did a naval battle occur that night, or was it rather the case, as President Lyndon B. Johnson told Under Secretary of State George Ball a few days later, that those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish? The issue is more than one of historical curiosity, because on the basis of the second attack Johnson ordered retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnamese targets and secured from Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which he thereafter used to validate his decisions to escalate the American role in the war in Southeast Asia.

North Vietnamese authorities, including no less a figure than General Vo Nguyen Giap, vice premier for defense in 1964, have consistently denied an attack took place on August 4 an official North Vietnamese military history of the conflict labels the engagement a U.S. fabrication. Perhaps of greater importance, at the time of the incident several U.S. senators disputed the administration’s account, and hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in February 1968 aired serious doubts that a second attack had actually occurred. In 1972 Dr. Louis Tordella, then deputy director of the National Security Agency, concluded that certain of the intercepted North Vietnamese messages referred to events of August 2, not August 4, a view endorsed in 1984 by Ray S. Cline, the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence at the time of the action. Even former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, the chief architect of U.S. military escalation in Vietnam during 1965, appears to have changed his mind. As late as 1995 he believed that the attack seemed probable but not certain, but in 1999 McNamara wrote that there was no second attack. First-person accounts of what happened differ as well. Carrier pilots defending Maddox the night of August 4 strafed the waters where the enemy boats were reported, but most, including Medal of Honor recipient Commander James Stockdale, did not see any hostile craft. According to the debriefing report sent to Washington, another pilot, the commanding officer of the attack squadron, flying between seven hundred and fifteen hundred feet over the destroyers, spotted gun flashes and light anti-aircraft bursts at his altitude as well as a snakey high-speed wake 1 1/2 miles ahead of Maddox. The command pilot himself only recalled a short debriefing in which he had answered no when asked if he had observed enemy PT-boats. On the other hand, several crew members aboard the destroyers saw torpedo wakes, ships’ running lights, searchlights, and gunfire flashes.

Amid these allegations and counterclaims, exactly what happened on the night of August 4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin will likely remain unresolved until the United States and Vietnam completely open their archival material on the incident. There is little chance of that happening in the immediate future, but based on the incomplete but recently expanded record, a chronological review of participants’ actions — from the deck of Maddox to the Cabinet Room of the White House — will at least provide a better picture of what U.S. civilian and military leaders thought was happening.

Shortly after assuming the presidency in November 1963, Johnson instructed his senior policymakers to devise covert missions targeting North Vietnam in order to discourage the regime’s support of Viet Cong operations against the U.S.–backed Saigon government. Their answer was OPLAN (Operations Plan) 34-A, a series of commando raids beginning in January 1964 against selected targets in North Vietnam, including raids on coastal areas by high-speed patrol boats. Following an early March 1964 trip to South Vietnam, Secretary of Defense McNamara recommended stepped-up retaliatory measures against North Vietnam, which were adopted on March 17 as National Secu-rity Action Memorandum No. 288.

As U.S.–directed covert operations conducted by South Vietnamese boat crews and raiders intensified in the late spring and early summer of 1964, North Vietnam’s Politburo of the Party Central Committee instructed the country’s armed forces in June to destroy any enemy violating their territory. On July 6, the North Vietnamese navy went on wartime status, and to counter the OPLAN 34-A raids along the coast, naval headquarters established a forward headquarters under Nguyen Ba Phat, deputy commander of the navy, near Quang Khe, a PT base located between Vinh and Dong Hoi, the area hardest hit by South Vietnamese commandos. Naval units were placed on high alert, sailors and cadre were recalled from leave, and torpedo boats conducted familiarization and operational training. The general staff and navy headquarters ordered the 135th Torpedo Boat Squadron, stationed at Ben Thuy and Quang Khe, to attack any enemy vessel invading territorial waters.

Concerned that the North Vietnamese buildup would make future commando raids ashore prohibitively expensive, on July 24 McNamara asked his military advisers if offshore bombardment might serve the same purpose. In the early morning hours of July 31, four OPLAN 34-A vessels shelled Hon Me and Hon Nieu, islands north of Vinh. The two boats bombarding Hon Me were in turn attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats and pursued unsuccessfully by Swatow T-142.

Simultaneously, the U.S. Navy was running electronic intelligence collection sweeps, code-named Desoto, along North Vietnam’s coast. On July 15, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), requested a Desoto patrol. Washington approved it, and two days later Maddox received its mission orders. The destroyer entered the Gulf of Tonkin on July 31 and proceeded to its designated patrol track parallel to the North Vietnamese coastline. As McNamara has pointed out, the Desoto patrols sailed only in international waters conducting electronic reconnaissance and were substantially different from the OPLAN 34-A combat operations that routinely violated North Vietnamese territorial waters. While the missions of the two were unlike in nature, both involved enemy warships transiting the Gulf of Tonkin and approaching the North Vietnamese coast. Hanoi could understandably regard a U.S. destroyer’s presence, in some cases only eight nautical miles offshore, as a backup should the smaller OPLAN 34-A vessels find themselves in trouble. Thus, early on August 2, North Vietnamese naval headquarters reinforced Hon Me with three P-4s and ordered preparations for battle. That afternoon the P-4s attacked Maddox.


U.S. Naval
Historical Center
U.S. Naval
Historical Center

North Vietnamese authorities have since claimed that their local naval commanders acted on their own initiative during the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. But the presence of the deputy commander of the navy on scene, as well as intercepted messages that indicate a higher headquarters in Haiphong was routinely passing orders and maintaining a communications link with the forward PT-boat bases, suggests that control was more highly centralized than believed then or now. On August 2, 1964, for example, Lyndon Johnson also concluded that an overeager North Vietnamese boat commander or a local shore station, rather than a senior commander, might have miscalculated in ordering the attack and so decided against any retaliation. As LBJ reported to the American people the following day, however, he did double the strength of the Desoto patrol, provide it with air cover, and order the commanders of the two destroyers and combat aircraft not only to defend against patrol boat attacks but also to counter attack and destroy any force attempting to repeat the attacks.

On the night of August 3, two OPLAN 34-A PT-boats fired more than seven hundred rounds of 57mm and 40mm ammunition at a North Vietnamese radar site near Vinh Son while another boat shelled a security post at the mouth of the Ron River. North Vietnamese ashore returned fire on the single boat, and a North Vietnamese navy patrol boat pursued it in vain. The same night, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Roy L. Johnson, recommended to Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, commander in chief, Pacific Fleet, that the Desoto patrols be ended after the August 4 mission. Moorer disagreed, contending that terminating the patrol two days after the attack would indicate a lack of American resolve. The president, after all, had publicly announced that the ongoing patrol would continue, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had already cabled Admiral Sharp to continue the patrol, reinforced by Turner Joy, and avoid approaches to the North Vietnamese coast while OPLAN 34-A operations were underway.

On the morning of August 4, while preparing for the day’s mission, Herrick informed Admiral Johnson that various intelligence sources suggested the North Vietnamese directly linked the OPLAN raids and the Desoto patrols and would consequently treat the United States as an enemy. Nevertheless, higher headquarters and the White House seemed to accept the risk of another attack, and the patrol continued. Given these circumstances, Herrick took the field unit’s warning of impending North Vietnamese action very seriously.

The field site’s 7:40 p.m. Saigon time warning to Maddox of indications of an imminent attack reached the Defense Intelligence Agency Indications Center in the Pentagon by phone at 8:13 a.m. on August 4. While the watch officer was on the phone, the message itself arrived from a field unit stating there were imminent plans of DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] naval action possibly against DeSoto mission. Around 9 a.m., the Indications Center team chief briefed General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the JCS, and Secretary McNamara. Wheeler was to attend a meeting in New York City with the New York Times editorial board that morning, and he and McNamara agreed that he should keep the appointment because a sudden cancellation might result in speculation that a military crisis was brewing.

Twelve minutes later, McNamara phoned President Johnson to tell him that Maddox was again on alert, reporting the presence of hostile ships and based on U.S. intercepts of North Vietnamese communications…suspected that an attack seemed imminent. Meanwhile, at 8:36 p.m. Saigon time USS Ticonderoga had reported that Maddox, then sixty-five miles from the nearest land, had radar fixes on two unidentified surface vessels (skunks) and three unidentified aircraft (bogies). (This report took almost two hours to reach the National Military Command Center, arriving at 10:30 a.m. EDT.) In the dark, moonless night in the Gulf of Tonkin, low clouds and thunderstorms further restricted visibility, leaving Maddox dependent on its radar and sonar arrays for data throughout most of the action that followed.

After receiving the destroyer’s message about radar contacts, Ticonderoga had launched fighter aircraft to protect Maddox from possible attack. Thirty-two minutes later, at 10:08 Saigon time, a message relayed from Maddox reported that the bogies had dropped off the radar screen and the surface contacts were maintaining a twenty-seven-mile distance without attempting to close on the ship. At 10:34 Rear Adm. Robert B. Moore, commander of Carrier Task Force 77, aboard Ticonderoga, signaled: The two original Skunks opened to 40 miles. Three new Skunks contacted at 13 miles. Closed to 11 miles. Evaluated as hostile. CAP (Combat Air Patrol)/STRIKE/PHOTO [attack aircraft/reconnaissance aircraft] overhead under control of Maddox. Six minutes later Maddox flashed, Commenced fire on closing PT boats.

While these events were transpiring in the Gulf, McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus R. Vance, Lt. Gen. David A. Burchinal (director of the Joint Staff, JCS), and other military officers had been meeting at the Pentagon since 9:25 a.m. to discuss possible options should the North Vietnamese again attack a U.S. Navy ship in international waters. At 9:43 the president returned from his breakfast meeting with congressional leaders and phoned the secretary of defense for more details of events in the Gulf of Tonkin. McNamara informed him that Admiral Sharp had recommended that the task force commander move closer to shore and be authorized to pursue and destroy any attackers, including airstrikes against naval bases. McNamara thought that a bad idea because it forfeited Washington’s ability to control a measured response to North Vietnamese aggression.

President Johnson worried that allowing North Vietnam to shoot first made the United States appear reactive, and he thought we not only ought to shoot at them, but almost simultaneously pull one of these things that you’ve been doing — on one of their bridges, or something. McNamara quickly agreed, but still rejected Sharp’s wholesale approach. Johnson concurred, but added that he wished there were targets already picked out so planes could just hit three of them damn quick and go right after them. We will have that, McNamara assured the president. In fact he had just told Special Presidential Assistant McGeorge Bundy that they should have a retaliation move against North Vietnam ready for the president in the event this attack takes place within the next six to nine hours. Johnson and McNamara decided to discuss those options at a scheduled White House lunch that afternoon.

McNamara then huddled with JCS representatives and Vance at the Pentagon to examine incoming reports of the rapidly developing situation and discuss possible alternative methods of retaliation, such as air attacks against naval bases, airfields, bridges, and POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricant) installations, or the mining of one or more important North Vietnamese ports.

During the meeting, McNamara was repeatedly called away to the phone. At 9:55 he told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that he was inclined to do much more than go after the boats as Rusk had suggested, and that the president agreed with the tougher position. At 10:19 McNamara phoned Admiral Sharp in Honolulu (where it was 4:19 a.m.) about a possible attack on Maddox and was emphatic that the navy could use whatever force it needed to destroy the attacking craft. When Sharp said four aircraft were launched until an attack happens, McNamara interrupted, Oh, yes, surely, I understand that, but after the attack happens, you wouldn’t feel limited to 8 or 10 or anything like that.

At 10:33 McNamara signed JCS message 7700 to Sharp, which changed the rules of engagement by authorizing U.S. aircraft, previously restricted to operations during daylight hours seaward of the destroyers, to pursue any attackers to within three nautical miles of the North Vietnamese coastline. The same message confirmed earlier verbal orders to the carrier Constellation to join Ticonderoga in the Gulf.

Twenty minutes later, McNamara again phoned the president to update him based on Ticonderoga‘s 041236Z (8:36 p.m. Saigon time) message about Maddox detecting unidentified planes and ships on its radar and the carrier launching fighter aircraft to protect the destroyer from possible attack. He reassured Johnson that there were ample forces available in the Gulf to retaliate, and explained that for good measure only two hours earlier he had ordered Constellation to move down toward South Vietnam. McNamara also promised to give the president a list of targets when he arrived at the White House for their noon meeting. By this time the Pentagon conferees had narrowed potential targets to four options: airstrikes against PT-boats and their bases, against POL targets, against bridges, and against prestige targets, such as steel mills. General Burchinal also informed McNamara that retaliatory attacks could be made at first light in North Vietnam, or around 7 p.m. Washington time.

Meanwhile Burchinal had also been on the phone with CINCPAC headquarters, alerting Sharp to the changed rules of engagement and evaluating possible reprisal targets. Toward the end of their 10:59 conversation, Sharp said he just got a report saying that DESOTO Patrol is under continuous torpedo attack. Burchinal had not yet received that message, but promptly told McNamara, who notified the president two minutes later. The defense secretary asked the president’s permission to get Rusk and Bundy to the Pentagon to go over these retaliatory actions. With little other information available on the fighting in the Gulf, Johnson agreed. McNamara then phoned Rusk, informed him of developments, and asked him to come to the Pentagon.

McGeorge Bundy joined Rusk at the 11:40 meeting in the Secretary’s Dining Room in the Pentagon. McNamara briefed them on target options, discussed retaliatory measures, and with Bundy thrashed out the pros and cons of limited airstrikes and mining the North Vietnamese coast. McNamara also told General Curtis LeMay, sitting in for the absent Wheeler, that the JCS should prepare recommendations for immediate action as well as proposals for the next 2 1/2 days. Burchinal had again contacted Sharp at 11:18 and told him in circumlocutory language over an open phone line that contemplated actions involved something more severe than going right in and picking up secondaries. The two officers agreed strikes at first light were preferable.

Flash Precedence: A category of messages reserved for initial enemy contacts or matters of extreme urgency

NMCC: National Military Command Center (the Pentagon)

PACOM: Pacific Command (Hawaii)

Skunk: A visual or radar contact on the surface of the water that is assumed to be enemy

At 12:04 the meeting broke up. McNamara continued discussions with Vance, Bundy, and Rusk in his office while the JCS resumed deliberations in the Secretary’s Dining Room. The chiefs had narrowed alternatives to three: sharp air attacks against a variety of targets, continuing pressure by mining the coast, or a combination of both. At 12:20 McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy departed for the White House while Vance went to ask the chiefs whether it would make any difference if retaliatory strikes were conducted at first light. After learning from them that it would make no difference, Vance left for the White House at 12:25. The JCS continued meeting until 1:49 and directed Burchinal to call McNamara at the White House to recommend their option first.

At 12:22 Sharp had updated Burchinal by phone that the North Vietnamese had fired at least nine torpedoes and lost two boats in the attack and that Constellation had launched several aircraft, which were at the scene of the action. During their conversation, Sharp was handed another message confirming two enemy craft sunk, ten torpedoes fired, U.S. aircraft overhead, and no U.S. casualties. Based on the number of torpedoes, Sharp suspected that more than three boats were involved in the attack.

Eighteen minutes later, McNamara’s group arrived at the White House from the Pentagon and interrupted a National Security Council (NSC) meeting about the situation in Cyprus, where fighting had broken out between Greeks and Turks. McNamara briefed participants on what was known about developments in the Gulf of Tonkin, and Rusk informed them that he, McNamara, and the JCS were preparing alternatives for response, but these were not yet ready. Following the NSC meeting, at 1:04 Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, Vance, and Central Intelligence Agency Director John McCone joined President Johnson for lunch.

After another twenty minutes, McNamara phoned General Burchinal for an update on the unfolding situation. The general reported the chiefs’ unanimous recommendation that three PT bases south of the 20th parallel and POL facilities at Vinh and Phuc Loi be attacked. He then added that another intercept claimed an enemy boat wounded and an enemy plane falling from the sky. The decryption, recently declassified, read: At 041154Z Swatow Class PGM T-142 reported to My Duc (19-52-45N 105-57E) that an enemy aircraft was observed falling into the sea. Enemy vessel perhaps wounded.

Alarmed about the reported shootdown, McNamara told Burchinal to contact Sharp for an up-to-the-minute account of the engagement and call him back. He then informed the president of the latest intelligence.

During the general and admiral’s conversation, Sharp could add nothing for Burchinal except some indication that a U.S. aircraft might have been hit by enemy fire. He was aware of the intercept and promised to call back with further details. About half an hour later, Sharp phoned Burchinal only to say that he was unable to contact the task force by voice. The steady stream of flash precedence messages up and down the chain of command by this time had overloaded the military communications circuit, forcing Sharp to prohibit CINCPAC from sending further messages at flash precedence. Even so, communications throughout the day were consistently slower than McNamara and Sharp expected, with repeated delays caused by clarifying events, transmitting orders, and making decisions.

To further complicate the situation, Sharp also told Burchinal that the latest report from Herrick, commander of the destroyer task force, questioned the reported contacts and number of torpedoes fired because Maddox had no visual sightings of North Vietnamese patrol boats. The message, sent from Maddox at 1:27 p.m. EDT read: Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken. Burchinal said he would pass on Herrick’s doubts to McNamara.

At 2:08 p.m. EDT, Sharp again called Burchinal to relay Rear Adm. Moore’s latest situation report. Moore, then aboard Ticonderoga, claimed in a message sent thirty-six minutes earlier that three PT-boats had been sunk. Sharp acknowledged that excited sonarmen had probably overestimated the number of torpedoes fired at Maddox. Asked if he was pretty sure there was a torpedo attack, Sharp replied, No doubt about that, I think.

One more significant piece of intelligence reached McNamara at the White House early that afternoon. An intercepted message, again from PGM T-142, reported shooting at two enemy planes and damaging at least one. We sacrificed two comrades but all are brave and recognize our obligation, stated the message. According to Lyndon Johnson’s recollections, experts said this meant either two men or two boats in the attack group were lost. Certain from this evidence that the North Vietnamese were again attacking U.S. ships on the high seas, the president agreed on a sharp retaliatory strike against four PT-boat bases and the Vinh oil complex. He ruled out an attack on Haiphong and mining operations.

Asked by Johnson how long it would take to execute the strike, McNamara estimated from the information he had received that an attack could be launched in about four hours, at 7 p.m. EDT, which was first light at 7 a.m. August 5, Saigon time. The president suggested McNamara call the JCS to confirm the time, but the defense secretary indicated his preference to work out the details after his return to the Pentagon. At the close of the meeting, Johnson ordered the full NSC to convene at 6:15 to review his decision and a meeting of congressional leaders at 6:45 so he might inform them of his decision.

Upon his return to the Pentagon at 3, McNamara and Vance immediately joined the JCS, who were meeting in the Tank. McNamara told them that the President wants the strikes to take place at 7:00 PM Washington time, if possible, and identified the likely targets. They agreed with the objectives and the schedule. While the JCS drafted the execute message for transmission to CINCPAC, doubts about what had actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin continued to emerge.

With Herrick’s 1:27 message in hand and following Johnson’s instructions, McNamara phoned Sharp at 4:08 for clarification. Was there a possibility, he asked, that there had been no attack? Sharp, citing an updated summary of Herrick’s later 2:48 EDT situation report, acknowledged there was a slight possibility because of freak radar echoes, inexperienced sonarmen, and no visual sightings of torpedo wakes.

Herrick’s 2:48 message read:

Certain that original ambush was bonafide. Details of action following present a confusing picture. Have interviewed witnesses who made positive visual sightings of cockpit lights or similar passing near Maddox. Several reported torpedoes were probably boats themselves which were observed to make several close passes on Maddox. Own ship screw noises on rudders may have accounted for some. At present cannot even estimate number of boats involved. Turner Joy reports two torpedoes passed near her.

Sharp was at that moment trying to learn more from CINCPAC Fleet and expected an answer within an hour. That said, McNamara complicated Washington’s timing because, he said, We don’t want to release news of what happened without saying what we are going to do we don’t want to say what we are going to do before we do it. The reports had to be reconciled because We obviously don’t want to do it until we are damn sure what happened. Sharp then suggested holding the execute order until he confirmed the incident. With the strikes scheduled for 7, that gave him two hours, leaving one hour for notification to the carriers. Sharp still thought a 7 o’clock launch was possible, if tight, and told Burchinal at 4:40 p.m. EDT that a recent message indicated the North Vietnamese ambush was bonafide, although exact details were still confusing.

With this information in hand, McNamara, Vance, and the JCS met at 4:47 to determine whether an attack had actually taken place. They decided one had, based on five factors:

1. Turner Joy was illuminated when fired on by automatic weapons.

2. One of the destroyers observed cockpit lights.

3. PGM T-142 fired at two U.S. aircraft.

4. The North Vietnamese navy had announced that two of its boats were sacrificed.

5. Sharp’s determination that an attack had occurred.

Despite Lyndon Johnson’s effort to keep the lid on the latest incident, at 5:09 McNamara phoned the president to inform him that The Associated Press and United Press International were carrying reports of the latest PT-boat attack on their news tickers. He suggested, and Johnson approved, a noncommittal statement confirming the attacks but providing no further details.

At 5:23 Sharp again phoned Burchinal, asking if he had seen the intercept that described the sacrifice of two ships. The general had, but could not tell if it referred to the earlier action of August 2 or the August 4 incident. Sharp was certain it related to the recently concluded fighting and claimed the intercept pins it down better than anything so far. Burchinal assured Sharp that McNamara too was satisfied with the evidence. Six minutes later the JCS transmitted the execute order to CINCPAC directing that by 7 p.m. EDT the carriers launch a one-time maximum effort attack against the five PT bases (the northernmost was later canceled because of weather) and the Vinh oil installation.

During their 5:23 phone conversation, Sharp had informed Burchinal that the airstrikes could not be launched until 8 p.m. Washington time because the carriers operated in a different time zone, one hour behind Saigon. The admiral had also told the carriers to use the extra hour to complete preparations for their attacks.

Throughout the day, Admiral Sharp and General Burchinal had repeatedly assured McNamara that it would be a simple matter to launch an airstrike at first light in the Gulf of Tonkin. When this turned out not to be the case, General Wheeler, who had just returned to Washington, instructed Burchinal to tell McNamara that the carriers could not meet the 7 p.m. launch time as promised because they were operating in the different time zone. Since the president intended to address the nation on the airstrikes at 7, McNamara had a serious problem.

At 6:07 EDT Sharp called Burchinal to confirm that the execute message was agreeable to McNamara, which Burchinal assured him it was. The admiral also acknowledged aircraft would be off target by 9 p.m. EDT. When making his calculations, Sharp apparently discounted the toll Ticonderoga‘s extensive night operations in support of the two destroyers had taken on flight and deck crews, which now had to ready the carrier for a maximum effort.

Eight minutes later, McNamara, along with the president and his other senior civilian advisers and General Wheeler, attended the 538th meeting of the NSC. McNamara briefed the members on the North Vietnamese attacks and told them the administration had decided on airstrikes against five targets. He outlined a four-point program involving airstrikes, sending reinforcements to the region to demonstrate resolve, a presidential announcement of these actions, and a joint congressional resolution in support of these and, if necessary, further actions. United States Information Agency Director Carl Rowan asked exactly what had happened and whether it was certain that an attack had occurred. McNamara answered that only highly classified information nails down the incident, and more would be known from incoming reports and in the morning. A draft joint resolution on Southeast Asia was revised, and the president would make it public as soon as U.S. planes were over their targets, which McNamara assumed would be 9 p.m.

At 6:45 the president met with congressional leaders, and McNamara again summarized what was planned. After briefings by Rusk and McCone, Johnson and his advisers answered a series of questions. The president then summarized his case for congressional concurrence with his decisions and reminded his audience that We can tuck our tails and run, but if we do these countries will feel all they have to do to scare us is to shoot at the American flag. The question is how do we retaliate. With expressions of support from all present, the president prepared for his 9 p.m. address to the nation. As the minutes ticked by without further word from CINCPAC that the planes were airborne, McNamara grew increasingly impatient. At 8:39 he phoned Sharp, told him it was forty minutes past the ordered time for takeoff, and instructed him to radio the carriers and find out what was happening. After all, the president expected to make an address to the American people, and I am holding him back from making it, but we’re forty minutes past the time I told him we would launch. Asked how long it would take the planes to reach their targets after launch, Sharp answered a little over an hour. Minutes passed, and the 9 o’clock airtime came and went.

At 9:09 McNamara again phoned Sharp, who told him the carriers would launch their planes in fifty minutes. Oh, my God, gasped McNamara. Sharp then said the planes would be over target at 11 p.m. EDT. The conversation became more and more confused as McNamara tried to pin Sharp down. Was it two hours to the closest target? Sharp assumed that this meant the last TOT (time over target). With a 10 p.m. EDT launch, what was the first TOT? Sharp had no idea. Could the president say at 10, the time of launch, that the air action was in progress against gunboats and their supporting facilities? That, said Sharp, was not a good idea because it would alert the North Vietnamese.

McNamara then phoned President Johnson with news of the delay and suggested that he postpone his address until 10 and leave out the passage about air action now in progress. What, Johnson wanted to know, had delayed the attack? Briefing crews on the mission and loading designated ordnance, McNamara replied. The last aircraft would be off target at about midnight, Washington time. Johnson worried that a premature announcement would leave him vulnerable to charges that he tipped off the enemy to the impending actions, and he would sure as hell hate to have some mother say, ‘You announced it and my boy got killed.’ McNamara assured him there was little danger that would happen, and asked how late Johnson would be willing to hold off his statement. The president replied the 11 o’clock news, but wondered if he even had to make a statement. McNamara was emphatic that something needed to be said. The president walked a tightrope over the timing of his address. He had to avoid alerting the North Vietnamese to the air attacks but at the same time precede any announcement by Hanoi of the raids.

With still no word of any launch, McNamara contacted Sharp at 9:22 urging him to get the aircraft off their carriers, but to no avail. Again at 10:06 McNamara called, and Sharp told him that although he had received no word, he was sure that one outfit went up at 10. But, he said, Constellation was not going to launch its propeller aircraft until 1 a.m. EDT August 5 and its jet fighters at 2:30 a.m. The launches were delayed because the carrier could not get into position. You got that, sir? Yes. My God, snapped McNamara, who told Sharp to get in touch with Ticonderoga and make damn sure she got off. Forty minutes later McNamara tried again, with the same result. Sharp still had no word on any launch. Could not Sharp ask in the clear if the 10 o’clock thing had happened? The president wanted to go on the air at 11:15, and he shouldn’t go on unless he has a confirmation of a launch. Sharp said he was needling them like mad but the circuit is a little jammed up or something.

Only ten minutes before the president was to go on national television, Sharp phoned McNamara to report that Ticonderoga had gotten its planes off fifty minutes earlier, at 10:30 EDT. They would be over target in one hour and fifty minutes. McNamara was confused. How could it take so long — 2 1/2 hours — to reach their targets? Sharp explained that the planes launched in two waves, slower ones first, and then formed up to make a coordinated attack. Still, the time interval between takeoff and attack surprised both Sharp and McNamara, who had assumed the time from first launch to actual strike would be about forty minutes to one hour. When McNamara phoned the White House at 11:25, the president was unable to take the call, so McNamara told McGeorge Bundy that the planes were airborne. Bundy replied that Johnson would speak in about ten minutes.

Sharp, however, had misunderstood the launch information. Only four propeller-driven A-1 Skyraiders had taken off, and they orbited the carrier until 11:15 before departing for their targets. Ticonderoga launched its jet aircraft between 12:16 and 12:23 August 5 — that is, after the president addressed the nation and while McNamara was telling reporters at the Pentagon that naval aircraft from both carriers have already conducted airstrikes against the North Vietnamese bases from which these PT-boats have operated. Constellation, as Sharp had told McNamara, launched its first aircraft at 1 a.m. on August 5, followed ninety minutes later by a second wave.

Ticonderoga‘s aircraft struck southern ports first, and three hours later Constellation‘s pilots attacked northern targets. During the later raids, North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners shot down two U.S. aircraft, an A-1 Skyraider over the Loc Chau PT-boat base and an A-4 Skyhawk at Hon Gay, northeast of Haiphong. The Skyraider airman was killed, while the A-4 pilot, Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez Jr., parachuted from his damaged aircraft and spent the next 8 1/2 years in captivity in Hanoi.

Johnson had second thoughts about the two lost aircraft, but Bundy assured him there was no evidence that his public announcement had adversely affected the operations in any way. According to Bundy, North Vietnamese radar operators had picked up the carrier planes before Johnson spoke on national radio and television. Post-strike assessments, Bundy told Johnson, revealed there was no significant alert at the ports struck by the first attack from Ticonderoga. The loss of two planes occurred during Constellation‘s attacks, which were hours later, long after the North Vietnamese went to full alert following the first attack.

On August 4, 1964, amid confusion, uncertainty, misinformation, and painfully slow communications, senior administration officials had to make a critical decision. One might speculate on why they made the one they did. After the August 2 attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, from the decks of Maddox to the halls of the Pentagon, everyone was on edge about the possibility of another North Vietnamese attack. Official Washington was predisposed to strike back given any future provocation. With those preconceptions, it became less important to question the accuracy of events on the night of August 4 than to ready a retaliatory strike. In brief, most attention and energy went into responding to, not assessing, what had happened.

Time constraints placed further pressure on decision makers. Any retaliation, they believed, had to be carried out right away to demonstrate U.S. resolve to North Vietnam and had to be clearly linked to the provocation to justify the response. Waiting several days to sort out the last detail of the August 4 action would blur any linkage and raise questions about the propriety of attacking well after the fact instead of at the time of the provocation. Once U.S. wire services began reporting the new attacks of August 4, there seemed even more reason for Johnson to act quickly.

Neither Washington nor Hanoi had been willing to blink. The administration stepped up OPLAN 34-A operations, Hanoi reacted by reinforcing its coastal naval units in the southern panhandle, the United States ordered a Desoto patrol, OPLAN 34-A raids continued, and North Vietnamese PT-boats attacked Maddox on August 2. Several intercepted North Vietnamese messages were ambiguous. The one McNamara cited as proof positive that an attack occurred may be a recap of the August 2 action intercepted during retransmission to another recipient. But the intercept that got Herrick’s attention ordered North Vietnamese PT-boats and Swatows to make ready for military operations on the night of August 4. One may question whether military operations meant attack, but the August 4 reference left prudent commanders like Herrick and Ogier little choice but to expect trouble in the Gulf that night.

Tandem events, one after the other in rapid sequence, produced a cumulative effect that made any single one of the interrelated and often confusing episodes less consequential than the aggregate picture, which in Washington was one of clear-cut North Vietnamese aggression. That of course is hindsight, a commodity that the civilians and military leaders making decisions on the afternoon and evening of August 4, 1964, could not possess.


Despite numerous ceasefires and the creation of autonomous self-administered zones in 2008, many groups continue to call for independence, increased autonomy, or the federalisation of the country. The conflict is also the world’s longest ongoing civil war, having spanned more than seven decades.

After eight months of analysing whether the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine State satisfied the criteria for genocide, the study found that the Burmese government, with the help of extremist Buddhist monks, was responsible for ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Rohingya.


Contents

Although the United States attended the Geneva Conference in 1954, which was intended to end hostilities between France and the Vietnamese at the end of the First Indochina War, it refused to sign the Geneva Accords. The accords mandated a temporary ceasefire line, intended to separate Vietnamese and French forces, and elections to determine the future political fate of the Vietnamese within two years. The accords also forbade the political interference of other countries in the area, the creation of new governments without the stipulated elections, and foreign military presence. By 1961, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem faced significant discontent among some quarters of the southern population, including some Buddhists who were opposed to the rule of Diem's Catholic supporters. After suppressing Viet Minh political cadres who were legally campaigning for the promised elections between 1955 and 1959, Diem faced a growing communist-led uprising that intensified by 1961, headed by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or Viet Cong). [13]

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred during the first year of the Johnson administration. While U.S. President John F. Kennedy had originally supported the policy of sending military advisers to Diem, he had begun to alter his thinking [ dubious – discuss ] because of what he perceived to be the ineptitude of the Saigon government and its inability and unwillingness to make needed reforms (which led to a U.S.-supported coup which resulted in the death of Diem). Shortly before Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, he had begun a limited recall of U.S. forces. [ citation needed ] Johnson's views were likewise complex, but he had supported military escalation as a means of challenging what was perceived to be the Soviet Union's expansionist policies. The Cold War policy of containment was to be applied to prevent the fall of Southeast Asia to communism under the precepts of the domino theory. After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson ordered in more U.S. forces to support the Saigon government, beginning a protracted United States presence in Southeast Asia. [14]

A highly classified program of covert actions against North Vietnam, known as Operation Plan 34-Alpha, in conjunction with the DESOTO operations, had begun under the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1961. In 1964, the program was transferred to the Defense Department and conducted by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). [15] For the maritime portion of the covert operation, a set of fast patrol boats had been purchased quietly from Norway and sent to South Vietnam. In 1963, three young Norwegian skippers traveled on a mission in South Vietnam. They were recruited for the job by the Norwegian intelligence officer Alf Martens Meyer. Martens Meyer, who was head of department at the military intelligence staff, operated on behalf of U.S. intelligence. The three skippers did not know who Meyer really was when they agreed to a job that involved them in sabotage missions against North Vietnam. [16]

Although the boats were crewed by South Vietnamese naval personnel, approval for each mission conducted under the plan came directly from Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Jr., CINCPAC in Honolulu, who received his orders from the White House. [17] After the coastal attacks began, Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, lodged a complaint with the International Control Commission (ICC), which had been established in 1954 to oversee the terms of the Geneva Accords, but the U.S. denied any involvement. Four years later, Secretary McNamara admitted to Congress that the U.S. ships had in fact been cooperating in the South Vietnamese attacks against North Vietnam. Maddox, although aware of the operations, was not directly involved. [ citation needed ]

The night before the launching of the actions against North Vietnamese facilities on Hòn Mê and Hòn Ngư islands, the MACV-SOG had launched a covert long-term agent team into North Vietnam, which was promptly captured. That night (for the second evening in a row), two flights of CIA-sponsored Laotian fighter-bombers (piloted by Thai mercenaries) attacked border outposts well within southwestern North Vietnam. The Hanoi government (which, unlike the U.S. government, had to give permission at the highest levels for the conduct of such missions) probably assumed that they were all a coordinated effort to escalate military actions against North Vietnam. [18]

Daniel Ellsberg, who was on duty in the Pentagon the night of August 4, receiving messages from the ship, reported that the ship was on a secret electronic warfare support measures mission (codenamed "DESOTO") near Northern Vietnamese territorial waters. [19] On July 31, 1964, USS Maddox had begun her intelligence collection mission in the Gulf of Tonkin. Captain George Stephen Morrison was in command of local American forces from his flagship USS Bon Homme Richard. Maddox was under orders not to approach closer than eight miles (13 km) from North Vietnam's coast and four miles (6 km) from Hon Nieu island. [20] When the commando raid was being carried out against Hon Nieu, the ship was 120 miles (190 km) away from the attacked area. [20]

First attack Edit

In July 1964, "the situation along North Vietnam's territorial waters had reached a near boil", because of South Vietnamese commando raids and airborne operations that inserted intelligence teams into North Vietnam, as well as North Vietnam's military response to these operations. [5] On the night of July 30, 1964, South Vietnamese commandos attacked a North Vietnamese radar station on Hòn Mê island. [5] According to Hanyok, "it would be attacks on these islands, especially Hòn Mê, by South Vietnamese commandos, along with the proximity of the Maddox, that would set off the confrontation", although the Maddox did not participate in the commando attacks. [5] In this context, on July 31, Maddox began patrols of the North Vietnamese coast to collect intelligence, coming within a few miles of Hòn Mê island. [5] A U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Ticonderoga, was also stationed nearby. [5]

By August 1, North Vietnamese patrol boats were tracking Maddox, and several intercepted communications indicated that they were preparing to attack. [5] Maddox retreated, but the next day, August 2, Maddox, which had a top speed of 28 knots, resumed her routine patrol, and three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats with a top speed of 50 knots began to follow Maddox. [5] Intercepted communications indicated that the vessels intended to attack Maddox. [5] As the ships approached from the southwest, Maddox changed course from northeasterly to southeasterly and increased speed to 25 knots. [5]

As the torpedo boats neared, Maddox fired three warning shots. [5] The North Vietnamese boats then attacked, [5] and Maddox radioed she was under attack from the three boats, closing to within 10 nautical miles (19 km 12 mi), while located 28 nautical miles (52 km 32 mi) away from the North Vietnamese coast in international waters. [21] Maddox stated she had evaded a torpedo attack and opened fire with its five-inch (127 mm) guns, forcing the torpedo boats away. Two of the torpedo boats had come as close as 5 nautical miles (9.3 km 5.8 mi) and released one torpedo each, but neither one was effective, coming no closer than about 100 yards (91 m) after Maddox evaded them. [21] Another P-4 received a direct hit from a five-inch shell from Maddox its torpedo malfunctioned at launch. [21] Four USN F-8 Crusader jets launched from Ticonderoga and 15 minutes after Maddox had fired her initial warning shots, attacked the retiring P-4s, [5] claiming one was sunk and one heavily damaged. Maddox suffered only minor damage from a single 14.5 mm bullet from a P-4's KPV heavy machine gun into her superstructure. Retiring to South Vietnamese waters, Maddox was joined by the destroyer USS Turner Joy.

The original account from the Pentagon Papers has been revised in light of a 2005 internal NSA historical study, [5] which stated on page 17:

At 1500G, Captain Herrick (commander of Maddox) ordered Ogier's gun crews to open fire if the boats approached within ten thousand yards. At about 1505G, Maddox fired three rounds to warn off the communist [North Vietnamese] boats. This initial action was never reported by the Johnson administration, which insisted that the Vietnamese boats fired first. [5]

Maddox, when confronted, was approaching Hòn Mê Island, three to four nautical miles (nmi) (6 to 7 km) inside the 12 nautical miles (22 km 14 mi) limit claimed by North Vietnam. This territorial limit was unrecognized by the United States. After the skirmish, Johnson ordered Maddox and Turner Joy to stage daylight runs into North Vietnamese waters, testing the 12 nautical miles (22 km 14 mi) limit and North Vietnamese resolve. These runs into North Vietnamese territorial waters coincided with South Vietnamese coastal raids and were interpreted as coordinated operations by the North, which officially acknowledged the engagements of August 2, 1964. [22]

Others, such as Admiral Sharp, maintained that U.S. actions did not provoke the August 2 incident. He claimed that the North Vietnamese had tracked Maddox along the coast by radar and were thus aware that the destroyer had not actually attacked North Vietnam and that Hanoi (or the local commander) had ordered its craft to engage Maddox anyway. North Vietnamese general Phùng Thế Tài later claimed that Maddox had been tracked since July 31 and that she had attacked fishing boats on August 2 forcing the North Vietnamese Navy to "fight back". [23]

Sharp also noted that orders given to Maddox to stay 8 nautical miles (15 km 9.2 mi) off the North Vietnamese coast put the ship in international waters, as North Vietnam claimed only a 5 nautical miles (9.3 km 5.8 mi) limit as its territory (or off of its off-shore islands). In addition, many nations had previously carried out similar missions all over the world, and the destroyer USS John R. Craig had earlier conducted an intelligence-gathering mission in similar circumstances without incident. [24]

Sharp's claims, however, included some factually incorrect statements. North Vietnam did not adhere to an 8-kilometer (5 mi) limit for its territorial waters instead it adhered to a 20-kilometer (12 mi) limit claimed by French Indochina in 1936. [25] Moreover it officially claimed a 12 nmi limit, which is practically identical to the old 20 km French claim, after the incidents of August, in September 1964. [25] [26] The North Vietnamese stance is that they always considered a 12 nautical mile limit, consistent with the positions regarding the law of the sea of both the Soviet Union and China, their main allies. [25]

Second alleged attack Edit

On August 4, another DESOTO patrol off the North Vietnamese coast was launched by Maddox and Turner Joy, in order to "show the flag" after the first incident. This time their orders indicated that the ships were to close to no less than 11 miles (18 km) from the coast of North Vietnam. [20] During an evening and early morning of rough weather and heavy seas, the destroyers received radar, sonar, and radio signals that they believed signaled another attack by the North Vietnamese navy. For some four hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of enemies. Despite the Navy's claim that two attacking torpedo boats had been sunk, there was no wreckage, bodies of dead North Vietnamese sailors, or other physical evidence present at the scene of the alleged engagement. [27]

At 01:27, Washington time, Herrick sent a cable in which he acknowledged that the second attack may not have happened and that there may actually have been no Vietnamese craft in the area: "Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken." [28]

One hour later, Herrick sent another cable, stating, "Entire action leaves many doubts except for apparent ambush at beginning. Suggest thorough reconnaissance in daylight by aircraft." [29] In response to requests for confirmation, at around 16:00 Washington time, Herrick cabled, "Details of action present a confusing picture although certain that the original ambush was bona fide." [29] It is likely that McNamara did not inform either the president or Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp Jr. about Herrick's misgivings or Herrick's recommendation for further investigation. [30] At 18:00 Washington time (05:00 in the Gulf of Tonkin), Herrick cabled yet again, this time stating, "the first boat to close the Maddox probably launched a torpedo at the Maddox which was heard but not seen. All subsequent Maddox torpedo reports are doubtful in that it is suspected that sonarman was hearing the ship's own propeller beat" [sic]. [29]

Johnson's speech to the American people Edit

Shortly before midnight, on August 4, Johnson interrupted national television to make an announcement in which he described an attack by North Vietnamese vessels on two U.S. Navy warships, Maddox and Turner Joy, and requested authority to undertake a military response. [31] [32] Johnson's speech repeated the theme that "dramatized Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh as the aggressor and which put the United States into a more acceptable defensive posture." [31] Johnson also referred to the attacks as having taken place "on the high seas", suggesting that they had occurred in international waters. [33]

He emphasized commitment to both the American people, and the South Vietnamese government. He also reminded Americans that there was no desire for war. "A close scrutiny of Johnson's public statements . reveals no mention of preparations for overt warfare and no indication of the nature and extent of covert land and air measures that already were operational." Johnson's statements were short to "minimize the U.S. role in the conflict a clear inconsistency existed between Johnson's actions and his public discourse." [34] [35]

Within thirty minutes of the August 4 incident, Johnson had decided on retaliatory attacks (dubbed "Operation Pierce Arrow"). [36] That same day he used the "hot line" to Moscow, and assured the Soviets he had no intent in opening a broader war in Vietnam. Early on August 5, Johnson publicly ordered retaliatory measures stating, "The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Vietnam will be redoubled by this outrage." One hour and forty minutes after his speech, aircraft launched from U.S. carriers reached North Vietnamese targets. On August 5, at 10:40, these planes bombed four torpedo boat bases and an oil-storage facility in Vinh. [37]

Reaction from Congress Edit

While Johnson's final resolution was being drafted, U.S. Senator Wayne Morse attempted to hold a fundraiser to raise awareness about possible faulty records of the incident involving Maddox. Morse supposedly received a call from an informant who has remained anonymous urging Morse to investigate official logbooks of Maddox. [38] These logs were not available before Johnson's resolution was presented to Congress. [38] After urging Congress that they should be wary of Johnson's coming attempt to convince Congress of his resolution, Morse failed to gain enough cooperation and support from his colleagues to mount any sort of movement to stop it. [38] Immediately after the resolution was read and presented to Congress, Morse began to fight it. He contended in speeches to Congress that the actions taken by the United States were actions outside the constitution and were "acts of war rather than acts of defense." [38] Morse's efforts were not immediately met with support, largely because he revealed no sources and was working with very limited information. [38] It was not until after the United States became more involved in the war that his claim began to gain support throughout the United States government.

The U.S. government was still seeking evidence on the night of August 4 when Johnson gave his address to the American public on the incident messages recorded that day indicate that neither Johnson nor McNamara was certain of an attack. [39] Various news sources, including Time, Life and Newsweek, published articles throughout August on the Tonkin Gulf incident. [40] Time reported: "Through the darkness, from the West and south . intruders boldly sped . at least six of them . they opened fire on the destroyers with automatic weapons, this time from as close as 2,000 yards." [41] Time stated that there was "no doubt in Sharp's mind that the U.S. would now have to answer this attack", and that there was no debate or confusion within the administration regarding the incident. [41]

The use of the set of incidents as a pretext for escalation of U.S. involvement followed the issuance of public threats against North Vietnam, as well as calls from American politicians in favor of escalating the war. [42] On May 4, 1964, William Bundy had called for the U.S. to "drive the communists out of South Vietnam", even if that meant attacking both North Vietnam and communist China. [42] Even so, the Johnson administration in the second half of 1964 focused on convincing the American public that there was no chance of war between the United States and North Vietnam. [42]

North Vietnam's General Giap suggested that the DESOTO patrol had been sent into the gulf to provoke North Vietnam into giving the U.S. an excuse for escalation of the war. [42] Various government officials and men aboard Maddox have suggested similar theories. [42] U.S. Undersecretary of State George Ball told a British journalist after the war that "at that time . many people . were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing". [42] George Ball stated that the mission of the destroyer warship involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident "was primarily for provocation." [43]

According to Ray McGovern, CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990, the CIA, "not to mention President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy all knew full well that the evidence of any armed attack on the evening of Aug. 4, 1964, the so-called 'second' Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious. . During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to widen the war in Vietnam. They stepped up sabotage and hit-and-run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam." Maddox, carrying electronic spying gear, was to collect signals intelligence from the North Vietnamese coast, and the coastal attacks were seen as a helpful way to get the North Vietnamese to turn on their coastal radars. For this purpose, it was authorized to approach the coast as close as 13 kilometers (8 mi) and the offshore islands as close as four the latter had already been subjected to shelling from the sea. [44]

In his book, Body of Secrets, James Bamford, who spent three years in the United States Navy as an intelligence analyst, writes that the primary purpose of the Maddox "was to act as a seagoing provocateur—to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its five-inch cannons up the nose of the communist navy. . The Maddox ' mission was made even more provocative by being timed to coincide with commando raids, creating the impression that the Maddox was directing those missions . " Thus, the North Vietnamese had every reason to believe that Maddox was involved in these actions. [45]

John McNaughton suggested in September 1964 that the U.S. prepare to take actions to provoke a North Vietnamese military reaction, including plans to use DESOTO patrols North. William Bundy's paper dated September 8, 1964, suggested more DESOTO patrols as well. [42]

By early afternoon of August 4, Washington time, Herrick had reported to the Commander in Chief Pacific in Honolulu that "freak weather effects" on the ship's radar had made such an attack questionable. In fact, Herrick stated in a message sent at 1:27 pm Washington time that no North Vietnamese patrol boats had actually been sighted. Herrick proposed a "complete evaluation before any further action taken." [28]

McNamara later testified that he had read the message after his return to the Pentagon that afternoon. But he did not immediately call Johnson to tell him that the whole premise of his decision at lunch to approve McNamara's recommendation for retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam was highly questionable. Johnson had fended off proposals from McNamara and other advisers for a policy of bombing North Vietnam on four occasions since becoming president. [46]

Although Maddox had been involved in providing intelligence support for South Vietnamese attacks at Hòn Mê and Hòn Ngư, Johnson denied, in his testimony before Congress, that the U.S. Navy had supported South Vietnamese military operations in the Gulf. He thus characterized the attack as "unprovoked" since the ship had been in international waters. [47] As a result of his testimony, on August 7, Congress passed a joint resolution (H.J. RES 1145), titled the Southeast Asia Resolution, which granted Johnson the authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. The resolution gave Johnson approval "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom." [48]

Johnson commented privately: "For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there." [49]

In 1967, former naval officer John White wrote a letter to the editor of the New Haven (CT) Register. He asserts "I maintain that President Johnson, Secretary McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave false information to Congress in their report about US destroyers being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin." [50] White continued his whistleblowing activities in the 1968 documentary In the Year of the Pig.

In 1981, Captain Herrick and journalist Robert Scheer re-examined Herrick's ship's log and determined that the first torpedo report from August 4, which Herrick had maintained had occurred—the "apparent ambush"—was in fact unfounded. [51] Although information obtained well after the fact supported Captain Herrick's statements about the inaccuracy of the later torpedo reports as well as the 1981 Herrick and Scheer conclusion about the inaccuracy of the first, indicating that there was no North Vietnamese attack that night, at the time U.S. authorities and all of the Maddox ' s crew stated that they were convinced that an attack had taken place. As a result, planes from the aircraft carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation were sent to hit North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and fuel facilities during Operation Pierce Arrow. [52]

Squadron Commander James Stockdale was one of the U.S. pilots flying overhead during the second alleged attack. Stockdale writes in his 1984 book Love and War: "[I] had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . There was nothing there but black water and American fire power." Stockdale at one point recounts seeing Turner Joy pointing her guns at Maddox. [53] Stockdale said his superiors ordered him to keep quiet about this. After he was captured, this knowledge became a heavy burden. He later said he was concerned that his captors would eventually force him to reveal what he knew about the second incident. [53]

In 1995, retired Vietnamese Defense Minister, Võ Nguyên Giáp, meeting with former Secretary McNamara, denied that Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American destroyers on August 4, while admitting to the attack on August 2. [6] [7] A taped conversation of a meeting several weeks after passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was released in 2001, revealing that McNamara expressed doubts to Johnson that the attack had even occurred. [54]

In the fall of 1999, retired Senior CIA Engineering Executive S. Eugene Poteat wrote that he was asked in early August 1964 to determine if the radar operator's report showed a real torpedo boat attack or an imagined one. He asked for further details on time, weather and surface conditions. No further details were forthcoming. In the end he concluded that there were no torpedo boats on the night in question, and that the White House was interested only in confirmation of an attack, not that there was no such attack. [55]

In October 2012, retired Rear Admiral Lloyd "Joe" Vasey was interviewed by David Day on Asia Review and gave a detailed account of the August 4 incident. According to Admiral Vasey, who was aboard USS Oklahoma City, a Galveston-class guided missile cruiser, in the Gulf of Tonkin and serving as chief of staff to Commander Seventh Fleet, Turner Joy intercepted an NVA radio transmission ordering a torpedo boat attack on Turner Joy and Maddox. Shortly thereafter, radar contact of "several high speed contacts closing in on them" was acquired by the USS Turner Joy, which locked on to one of the contacts, fired and struck the torpedo boat. There were 18 witnesses, both enlisted and officers, who reported various aspects of the attack smoke from the stricken torpedo boat, torpedo wakes (reported by four individuals on each destroyer), sightings of the torpedo boats moving through the water and searchlights. All 18 of the witnesses testified at a hearing in Olongapo, Philippines, and their testimony is a matter of public record. [56]

In 2014, as the incident's 50th anniversary approached, John White wrote The Gulf of Tonkin Events—Fifty Years Later: A Footnote to the History of the Vietnam War. In the foreword, he notes "Among the many books written on the Vietnamese war, half a dozen note a 1967 letter to the editor of a Connecticut newspaper which was instrumental in pressuring the Johnson administration to tell the truth about how the war started. The letter was mine." [57] The story discusses Lt. White reading Admiral Stockdale's In Love and War [53] in the mid 1980s, then contacting Stockdale who connected White with Joseph Schaperjahn, chief sonarman on Turner Joy. Schaperjahn confirmed White's assertions that Maddox ' s sonar reports were faulty and the Johnson administration knew it prior to going to Congress to request support for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. White's book explains the difference between lies of commission and lies of omission. Johnson was guilty of willful lies of omission. White was featured in the August 2014 issue of Connecticut Magazine. [58]

In October 2005, The New York Times reported that Robert J. Hanyok, a historian for the NSA, concluded that the NSA distorted intelligence reports passed to policy makers regarding the August 4, 1964, incident. The NSA historian agency said staff "deliberately skewed" the evidence to make it appear that an attack had occurred. [12]

Hanyok's conclusions were initially published in the Winter 2000/Spring 2001 Edition of Cryptologic Quarterly [59] about five years before the Times article. According to intelligence officials, the view of government historians that the report should become public was rebuffed by policy makers concerned that comparisons might be made to intelligence used to justify the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) which commenced in 2003. [60] Reviewing the NSA's archives, Hanyok concluded that the incident began at Phu Bai Combat Base, where intelligence analysts mistakenly believed the destroyers would soon be attacked. This would have been communicated back to the NSA along with evidence supporting such a conclusion, but in fact the evidence did not do that. Hanyok attributed this to the deference that the NSA would have likely given to the analysts who were closer to the event. As the evening progressed, further signals intelligence (SIGINT) did not support any such ambush, but the NSA personnel were apparently so convinced of an attack that they ignored the 90% of SIGINT that did not support that conclusion, and that was also excluded from any reports they produced for the consumption by the president. There was no political motive to their action. [59] : 48–49

On November 30, 2005, the NSA released a first installment of previously classified information regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, including a moderately sanitized version of Hanyok's article. [5] The Hanyok article states that intelligence information was presented to the Johnson administration "in such a manner as to preclude responsible decision makers in the Johnson administration from having the complete and objective narrative of events." Instead, "only information that supported the claim that the communists had attacked the two destroyers was given to Johnson administration officials." [61]

With regard to why this happened, Hanyok writes:

As much as anything else, it was an awareness that Johnson would brook no uncertainty that could undermine his position. Faced with this attitude, Ray Cline was quoted as saying ". we knew it was bum dope that we were getting from Seventh Fleet, but we were told only to give facts with no elaboration on the nature of the evidence. Everyone knew how volatile LBJ was. He did not like to deal with uncertainties." [62]

Hanyok included his study of Tonkin Gulf as one chapter in an overall history of NSA involvement and American SIGINT, in the Indochina Wars. A moderately sanitized version of the overall history [63] was released in January 2008 by the National Security Agency and published by the Federation of American Scientists. [64]


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