Gulf of Tonkin

condensed version of Wikipedia entry

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is the name given to two separate incidents involving the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 2, 1964 two American destroyers engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, resulting in the sinking of one of the torpedo boats.

The outcome of the incident was the passage by Congress of 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”. The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for escalating American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that USS Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese on August 2, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese vessels present during the engagement of August 4. The report stated

[I]t is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night. […] In truth, Hanoi’s navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on August 2.

Background

Chart showing the US Navy’s explanation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident

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 US 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 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. 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 US denied any involvement. Four years later, US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted to Congress that the US ships had in fact been cooperating in the South Vietnamese attacks against North Vietnam. Maddox, although aware of the operations, was not directly involved.

What was (and is) generally not considered by US 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, the 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 US 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 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 North Vietnamese territorial waters. On July 31, 1964, USS Maddox (DD-731) 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 (190 km) away from the attacked area.

First attack

On August 2 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. US aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) then attacked the retiring P-4s, claiming one was sunk and one heavily damaged. 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 Maddox was hit by one torpedo, and one of the American aircraft had been shot down.

This account, however, has come into sharp dispute with an internal NSA historical study which stated on page 17:

Photograph taken from the USS Maddox August 2, 1964 and showing three North Vietnamese patrol boats under fire

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

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.”

Others, such as Admiral Sharp, maintained that U.S. actions did not provoke the August 2 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 (DD-885) had earlier conducted an intelligence-gathering mission in similar circumstances without incident.

Second alleged attack

On August 4, 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.[10] 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. Despite the Navy’s claim that two attacking torpedo boats had been sunk, there was no wreckage, bodies of dead Vietnamese sailors, or other physical evidence present at the scene of the alleged engagement.[12]

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”.[13]

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 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 ship’s own propeller beat” [sic].

United States Response

President Johnson’s Speech to the American People

President Johnson went on air at 11:34 described an attack by North Vietnamese vessels on two U.S. Navy warships the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy and requested authority to undertake a military response.

The first attack (2 August 1964) on the USS Maddox was launched by the North Vietnamese. The second attack (4 August 1964) was reported, then after air strikes were ordered by the President. The U.S. only attacked under retaliation resulting in the sinking of two Vietnamese boats. Johnson’s speech repeated the theme that “dramatized Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh as the aggressor and which put the U.S. into a more acceptable defensive posture.”

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.”

Reaction from Congress

While President Johnson’s final resolution was being drafted, Senator Wayne Morse attempted to lead a campaign to raise awareness about possible faulty records of the incident involving the USS Maddox. Morse supposedly received a call from an informant who has remained anonymous urging Morse to investigate official logbooks of the Maddox. These logs were not available before President Johnson’s resolution was presented to Congress.

After urging Congress that they should be wary of President 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. 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 of the constitution and were “acts of war rather than acts of defense.”

Morse’s efforts were not immediately met with support, largely due to the fact that he revealed no sources and was working with very limited information. 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.

Distortion of Event

Evidence was still being sought at 11:37 PM on August 4, as Johnson addressed the nation, as to whether any action had taken place earlier that day. Messages recorded that day indicate that neither President Johnson nor McNamara were certain of an attack.

Various news sources, including Time, Life and Newsweek, ran articles throughout August on the Tonkin Gulf incident. Time Magazine 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.” 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.

The use of the set of incidents as a pretext for escalation of U.S. involvement follows the issuance of public threats against North Vietnam, as well as calls from American politicians in favor of escalating the war. On May 4, 1964, William Bundy called for the U.S. to “drive the Communists out of South Vietnam,” even if that meant attacking both North Vietnam and China. 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 North Vietnam and the U.S.

Vietnamese General Giap suggested that the DeSoto patrol had been sent into the Gulf to provoke North Vietnam into giving an excuse for escalation of the war. Various government officials and men aboard the Maddox have suggested similar theories. American politicians and strategists had been planning provocative actions against North Vietnam for some time. George Ball told a British Journalist after the war that “at that time…many people…were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing”.

Provocative action against North Vietnam was considered after the August, 1964 indicents. 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. Strong evidence suggests that these strategic plans may have circulated before the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents took place.

Consequences

US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara failed to inform US President Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. naval task group commander in the Tonkin Gulf, Captain John J. Herrick, had changed his mind about the alleged North Vietnamese torpedo attack on U.S. warships he had reported earlier that day.

By early afternoon of 4 August, 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 was now saying, in a message sent at 1:27 pm Washington time, that no North Vietnamese patrol boats had actually been sighted. Herrick now proposed a “complete evaluation before any further action taken.”

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 now highly questionable. Had Johnson been accurately informed about the Herrick message, he might have demanded fuller information before proceeding with a broadening of the war. Johnson had fended off proposals from McNamara and other advisers for a policy of bombing the North on four separate occasions since becoming President.

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

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 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

In 1965, 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 August 4, 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 at one point recounts seeing Turner Joy pointing her guns at the Maddox. 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 August 4, while admitting to the attack on August 2. 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 August 4, 1964 incident. He concluded that the motive was not political but was probably to cover up honest intelligence errors.

On November 30, 2005, the NSA released the first installment of previously classified information regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, including a moderately sanitized version of 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 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.”

With regard to why this happened, Hanyok wrote:

As much as anything else, it was an awareness that President 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 know how volatile LBJ was. He did not like to deal with uncertainties.”

.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: