The Gulf of Tonkin Delusion
Photograph taken from USS Maddox (DD-731) during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, 2 August 1964. The view shows all three of the boats speeding towards the Maddox (official U.S. Navy Photograph, Naval History & Heritage Command).
On this date, shortly after a clandestine raid on North Vietnamese facilities on Hon Me and Hon Nhieu Islands (off the North Vietnamese coast) by South Vietnamese gunboats under OPLAN-34A, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was fired on by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
OPLAN-34A was an operation approved by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 16 January 1964 that involved raids by South Vietnamese commandos operating under U.S. orders against North Vietnamese coastal and island installations. Although American forces were not directly involved in the actual raids, U.S. Navy ships were on station to conduct electronic surveillance and monitor North Vietnamese defense responses under another program called Operation Desoto.
The August 2 attack on the Maddox was not unexpected. U.S. crews had interpreted one North Vietnamese message as indicating that they were preparing “military operations,” which the Maddox‘s Captain John Herrick assumed meant some sort of retaliatory attack. His superiors had ordered him to remain in the area.
At 8:00 PM on August 4 in the same area, the destroyers U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. C. Turner Joy intercepted radio messages from the North Vietnamese that gave Captain Herrick the “impression” that Communist patrol boats were planning an attack against the American ships, prompting him to call for air support from the carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga.
Eight Crusader jets soon appeared overhead, but in the darkness, neither the pilots nor the ship crews saw any enemy craft. However, around 10:00 PM sonar operators reported torpedoes approaching. The U.S. destroyers maneuvered to avoid the torpedoes and began to fire at the North Vietnamese patrol boats. When the action ended about two hours later, U.S. officers reported sinking two, or possibly three North Vietnamese boats, but no American was sure of ever having seen any enemy boats nor any enemy gunfire. Captain Herrick immediately communicated his doubts to his superiors and urged a “thorough reconnaissance in daylight.” Shortly thereafter, he informed Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, commander of the Pacific Fleet, that the blips on the radar scope were apparently “freak weather effects” while the report of torpedoes in the water were probably due to “overeager” radar operators.
Because of the time difference, it was only 9:20 AM in Washington when the Pentagon received the initial report of the possible attack on the U.S. destroyers. When a more detailed report was received at 11:00 AM, there was still a lot of uncertainty as to just what had transpired.
In 2005, an internal National Security Agency (NSA) historical study was declassified ; it concluded that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there were no North Vietnamese Naval vessels present during the incident of August 4. The study stated regarding August 2:
At 1500G [3:00 PM Gulf of Tonkin time, 3:00 AM D.C. time], Captain Herrick 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.
Regarding August 4:
It 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 [emphasis in original].
Captain John J. Herrick, USN, Commander Destroyer Division 192 (at left) and Commander Herbert L. Ogier, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Maddox (DD-731), on board Maddox on 13 August 1964. They were in charge of the ship during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats on 2 August 1964 (official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center).
Historian Robert J. Hanyok, the author of the study, which was originally circulated in 2001, discovered that the NSA had initially misinterpreted North Vietnamese intercepts, believing there was an attack on August 4. Mid-level 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. “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 concluded that the motive was not political but was probably to cover up honest intelligence errors. He 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 [CIA's deputy director for intelligence at the time of the action] 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.”
Nevertheless, an August 4 National Security Council meeting which was held from 6:15-6:40 PM establishes that everyone present should have known that any North Vietnamese attacks were defensive in nature – that is how the CIA Director characterized them at the meeting . At the time of this meeting, there was still conflicting evidence for the second attack, so they were not totally disingenuous in assuming that it had occurred.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: The North Vietnamese PT boats have continued their attacks on the two U.S. destroyers in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin…
Secretary of State Dean Rusk: An immediate and direct reaction by us is necessary. The unprovoked attack on the high seas is an act of war for all practical purposes…
Secretary McNamara: We have agreed to air strikes on two bases in the north of North Vietnam and two base complexes in the south of North Vietnam…
President Johnson: Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?
CIA Director John McCone: No. The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their off-shore islands. They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations.
McCone’s observation did not stop the administration’s misrepresentation of the attack as unprovoked.
Johnson proceeded quickly to authorize retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. At 11:20 PM on August 4, Admiral Sharp telephoned Secretary McNamara to confirm that that the Ticonderoga “got her planes off at 0243”, or 10:43 PM Washington time and 10:43 AM Saigon time. Sharp indicated that it would take the aircraft almost 2 hours to reach their targets. After discussing the matter with General Wheeler, McNamara called President Johnson to inform him. At 11:36 PM, Johnson addressed the nation from the White House over radio and television, reporting the retaliatory attacks.  On August 5, he gathered congressional leaders and, without divulging the circumstances that might have helped provoke the torpedo attack, accused the North Vietnamese of “open aggression on the high seas.”
On 20 February 1968, Secretary McNamara testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee  that:
On August 2, one of our destroyers was attacked by North Vietnamese naval forces without provocation while on patrol on the high seas. Since the destroyer had suffered no damage and had repulsed and damaged her attackers, and since the possibility seemed to exist that the incident was an isolated act, no further military response was made. North Vietnam was warned the next day, however, of the “grave consequences which would inevitably follow” another such attack. Furthermore, the President announced that the patrol would continue and would consist of two destroyers. The next night, the two destroyers were also attacked without provocation on the high seas by North Vietnamese naval forces.
McNamara so testified even though incontrovertible evidence was then available to him that the second attack had not occurred.
George Ball, who at the time was an Undersecretary of State, later commented  in a 1977 BBC radio interview that:
Many of the people who were associated with the war were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing. The sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was primarily for provocation… There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into some trouble, that it would provide the provocation we needed.
Squadron commander James Stockdale was one of the U.S. pilots flying overhead during the second alleged attack. Stockdale wrote in his 1984 book In 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. 
Starting in 2002 Hanyok and other government historians argued that his study should be made public. But according to an intelligence official familiar with some internal discussions of the matter, their efforts were rebuffed by higher-level agency policymakers, who by the next year were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) that commenced in 2003 .
The justification for the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” — the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war against North Vietnam — was the incident that occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin on 4 August 1964. The simple fact is that there was no such incident.
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed on by pliant mass media. By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.  In the end, the operations in Vietnam would last for more than a decade and would bring about the deaths of over 50,000 U.S. soldiers and between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese citizens.
- Robert J. Hanyok, “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.
- ————-, “Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975″, Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 2002. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/spartans/index.html.
- “Summary Notes of the 538th Meeting of the National Security Council,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968: Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, Document 278. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v01/d278.
- “Editorial Note,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968: Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, Document 286. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v01/d286.
- Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Ninetieth Congress, Second Session, with the Honorable Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, on February 20, 1968, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: 1968. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/tonkinparti.htm.
- James Bamford, Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday, 2001) p. 301. William Bundy has taken issue with this judgment, arguing that escalating the war North “didn’t fit in with our plans at all” (Robert McNamara, “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” in Andrew Jon Rotter, Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Vietnam War Anthology [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991] p. 83). However, it no doubt fit in with some people’s plans.
- Jim Stockdale and Sybil Stockdale. In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years (1st ed.) (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1984).
- “Robert J. Hanyok: His NSC study on Tonkin Gulf Deception” New York Times (31 October 2005). Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/17620.html.
- Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon. “30-year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War”, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. Posted 27 July 1994. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://fair.org/media-beat-column/30-year-anniversary-tonkin-gulf-lie-launched-vietnam-war/.