Open Warfare Against North Vietnam
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, also known as the USS Maddox Incident, is the name given to what were originally claimed to be two separate confrontations involving North Vietnam and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, while performing a signals intelligence patrol as part of DESOTO operations, reported being attacked by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats of the 135th Torpedo Squadron. It was originally claimed by the National Security Agency that a Second Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 4, 1964, as another sea battle, but instead evidence was found of "Tonkin ghosts" (false radar images) and not actual North Vietnamese torpedo boats.
The outcome of these two incidents 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 deploying US conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.
In 2005, an internal National Security Agency 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 report stated regarding the first incident on August 2 that "at 1500G, 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."
The USS Maddox fought the first battle of America's longest war. How it happened-and even if it happened-are still fiercely debated. Over the years legions of scholars and polemicists have assessed the USS Maddox with the scrutiny worthy of a medical examiner. There will always remain the question of whether the North Vietnamese actually attacked on August 4, 1964. Investigations have followed, investigations that wrenched and twisted the country for months, ruined political careers, and made others. Millions of words have flayed us, but when it was all over there was one question that remained. -& The answer -& who knows?
If the men who were there can't agree, it's foolhardy for anyone else to try to settle the question. There is the unpleasant suspicion that the Maddox was set up, that President Johnson needed to lose an American ship to rally the people to the cause. Some of the crew swear by this. Some flatly deny it. Many are unsure but quietly lean toward the first view. Or toward another: Phenomenal incompetence at the top levels of command put a U.S. warship in a place where the South Vietnamese had been shooting at the North Vietnamese only shortly before.
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.
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.
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