Gulf of Tonkin

Gulf of Tonkin

[ton-kin, tong-]
Tonkin, Gulf of, NW arm of the South China Sea, c.300 mi (480 km) long and 150 mi (240 km) wide, between Vietnam and China. The shallow gulf (less than 200 ft/60 m deep) receives the Red River. Haiphong, Vietnam, and Peihai (Pakhoi), China, are the chief ports. An alleged attack (Aug., 1964) by North Vietnamese gunboats against U.S. naval forces stationed in the gulf led to increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (see Tonkin Gulf Resolution).
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is the name given to two separate incidents involving naval forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. On 2 August, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) engaged three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats, resulting in damage to the three boats. Two days later the Maddox (having been joined by the destroyer C. Turner Joy (DD-951) reported a second engagement with North Vietnamese vessels. This second report was later concluded to be incorrect. Together, these two incidents prompted the first large-scale involvement of U.S. armed forces in Southeast Asia.

The outcome of the incidents was the passage by Congress of the Southeast Asia Resolution (better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by "communist aggression," including the commitment of U.S. forces without a declaration of war. The resolution served as Johnson's legal justification for escalating American involvement in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).

In 2005, an official NSA declassified report revealed that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese vessels present during the engagement of 4 August. The report stated


Although the United States attended the Geneva Conference (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 (1954). The Accords mandated, among other measures, a temporary ceasefire line, intended to separate nationalist Vietnamese and French forces, and elections to determine the future political fate of the Vietnamese within two years. The U.S. was concerned that, had elections been held within the stipulated time frame, the Vietnamese nationalists (Vietminh), who were dominated by the communist faction led by Ho Chi Minh, would have won the election in a landslide. It 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, Ngo Dinh Diem faced significant discontent amongst some quarters of the southern population, including some Buddhists who were opposed to the rule of Diem's Catholic supporters. After suppressing Vietminh political cadres who were legally campaigning during 1959 for the promised elections, Diem faced a growing communist-led uprising that intensified by 1961, headed by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. The U.S. had begun providing direct support to the South Vietnamese in the form of military and financial aid and military advisers, the number of which grew from 600 in 1961 to 16,000 by the end of John F. Kennedy's presidency in 1963.

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

According to the U.S. Naval Institute, a highly classified program of covert actions against North Vietnam known as Operation Plan 34-Alpha, 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 (SOG).

For the maritime portion of the covert operation, Tjeld-class fast patrol boats had been purchased quietly from Norway and sent to South Vietnam. Although the crews of the boats were South Vietnamese naval personnel, approval of the plan came directly from Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., CINCPAC in Honolulu. After the coastal attacks began, Hanoi 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 of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted to Congress that the U.S. ships had in fact been cooperating in the South Vietnamese attacks against North Vietnam. Maddox, although ostensibly aware of the operations, was not directly involved.

What was (and is) generally not considered by U.S. politicians at the time (and by later historians) were the other actions taken under Operations Plan 34-Alpha just prior to the incidents. The night before the launching of the actions against North Vietnamese facilities on Hon Me and Hon Ngu islands, 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 (unlike the American government, which had to give permission at the highest levels for the conduct of these missions) probably assumed that they were all a coordinated effort to escalate military actions against North Vietnam.

The incident

Daniel Ellsberg, who was on duty in the Pentagon that night receiving messages from the ship, reported that the ship was on a secret electronic warfare support measures mission (codenamed Desoto) near North Vietnamese territorial waters. On 31 July 1964, the Maddox had begun its intelligence collection mission in the gulf. Admiral George Stephen Morrison was in command of local American forces from his flagship USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31). The Maddox was under orders not to approach closer than eight miles (13 km) from the North's coast and four miles (6 km) from Hon Nieu island. When the SOG commando raid was being carried out against Hon Nieu, the ship was 120 miles (193 km) away from the attacked area.

First attack

On 2 August Maddox claimed it was attacked by three North Vietnamese P-4 patrol torpedo boats 28 miles (45 km) away from the North Vietnamese coast in international waters. Maddox claimed to have evaded a torpedo attack and opened fire with its five-inch (127 mm) guns, forcing the patrol craft away. U.S. aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga then attacked the retiring P-4s, claiming one as sunk and one heavily damaged (none was sunk - all three were destroyed the following year). Maddox, suffering very minor damage from a single 14.5-millimeter machine gun bullet, retired to South Vietnamese waters where she was joined by the destroyer C. Turner Joy. The North Vietnamese claimed that one of the American aircraft had been shot down (it crashed due to wing stress).

This account, however, has come into sharp dispute with an official 2005 NSA declassified report which stated on page 17:

Even before this was revealed, however, some had held that the actions of the Maddox (i.e., merely the presence of the vessel in particular places and times) were provocative to the North Vietnamese because they coincided with the covert South Vietnamese raids. Since the Desoto patrols were conducted in order to gather just the sort of electronic emissions that the SOG 34-Alpha raids would provoke, it was a reasonable assumption that the two were "piggybacked." The destroyer's presence also may have been mistaken by the North Vietnamese as a sign that it was also involved directly in the raids.

Others, such as Admiral Sharp, maintained that U.S. actions did not provoke the 2 August action. He claimed that North Vietnamese radar had tracked Maddox along the coast, and was 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. Sharp also noted that orders given to Maddox to stay eight miles (13 km) off the North Vietnamese coast put the ship in international waters, as North Vietnam claimed only a five-mile (8 km) nautical 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 USS John R. Craig had earlier conducted an intelligence-gathering mission in similar circumstances without incident.

Second alleged attack

On 4 August, another Desoto patrol off the North Vietnamese coast was launched by Maddox and the C. 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 more than 11 miles (18 km) from the coast of North Vietnam. 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 two hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of enemies.

At 0127 Washington time, Herrick sent a cable in which he admitted that the attack may never 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

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." In response to requests for confirmation, at around 1600 Washington time, Herrick cabled, "Details of action present a confusing picture although certain that the original ambush was bona fide."

At 1800 Washington time (0500 in the Gulf of Tonkin), Herrick cabled yet again, this time stating, "the first boat to close the Maddox probably fired 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 ship's own propeller beat" [sic].


President Johnson, who was up for election that year, launched retaliatory air strikes and went on national television on 4 August. Although Maddox had been involved in providing intelligence support for South Vietnamese attacks at Hon Me and Hon Ngu, Secretary McNamara 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.

As a result of his testimony, on 7 August, Congress passed a joint resolution (H.J. RES 1145), titled the Southeast Asia Resolution, which granted President Johnson the authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. The Resolution gave President 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."

Later statements about the incident

Just a few days after the incident, President Johnson commented privately: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

In 1981, Captain Herrick and journalist Robert Scheer re-examined Herrick's ship's log and determined that the first torpedo report from 4 August, which Herrick had maintained had occurred—the "apparent ambush"—was in fact unfounded.

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/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 crew stated that they were convinced that an attack had taken place. As a result, planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation were sent to hit North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and fuel facilities during Operation Pierce Arrow.

Squadron commander James Stockdale was one of the U.S. pilots flying overhead during the second alleged attack. Stockdale wrote 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 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.

In 1995, retired Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, meeting with former Secretary of Defense McNamara, categorically denied that Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American destroyers on 4 August, while admitting to the attack on 2 August. 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 President Johnson that the attack had even occurred.

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.

NSA report

In October, 2005 the New York Times reported that Robert J. Hanyok, a historian for the U.S. National Security Agency, had concluded that the NSA deliberately distorted the intelligence reports that it had passed on to policy-makers regarding the 4 August incident. He concluded that the motive was not political but was probably to cover up honest intelligence errors.

Hanyok's conclusions were initially published within the NSA in the Winter 2000/Spring 2001 Edition of Cryptologic Quarterly, about five years before they were revealed in the Times article. According to intelligence officials, the view of government historians that the report should become public was rebuffed by policymakers concerned that comparisons might be made to intelligence used to justify the Iraq War that commenced in 2003. Reviewing the NSA's archives, Mr. Hanyok concluded that the NSA had initially misinterpreted North Vietnamese intercepts, believing there was an attack on 4 August. Midlevel NSA officials almost immediately discovered the error, he concluded, but covered it up by altering documents, so as to make it appear the second attack had happened.

On 30 November 2005, the NSA released the first installment of previously classified information regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, including Mr. Hanyok's article, "Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2–4 August 1964" Cryptologic Quarterly, Winter 2000/Spring 2001 Edition, Vol. 19, No. 4 / Vol. 20, No. 1. The Hanyok article stated that intelligence information was presented to the Johnson administration "in such a manner as to preclude responsible decisionmakers 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."

With regards to why this happened, Hanyok wrote:

The full NSA report was released in January 2008 by the National Security Agency and published by the Federation of American Scientists, retelling the Vietnam War from the perspective of "signals intelligence".

Navy Anniversary Day

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam's Navy Anniversary Day is celebrated on 5 August, the anniversary of the second attack, Vietnamese time, where "one of our torpedo squadrons chased the U.S.S. Maddox from our coastal waters, our first victory over the U.S. Navy".

See also



  • Ellsberg, Daniel (2002). Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking.

External links

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