THNVietnam
New Light on Gulf of Tonkin

With fresh evidence now available, claims that the Tonkin Gulf incident was deliberately provoked gain new plausibility.

By Captain Ronnie E. Ford, U.S. Army

The Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964 may rank with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as events that Dr. David Kaiser of the U.S. Naval War College describes as "controversies in American political history that dwarf all others."

The claim that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson deliberately triggered the Vietnam War by orchestrating the Tonkin Gulf incident and duping Congress is not a new one. Two recent books--Sedgwick Tourison's Secret Army, Secret War (reviewed in the February 1997 Vietnam) and Dr. Edwin Moise's Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War--and other new revelations may indicate, however, that the claim is certainly more plausible than could once be proved. Thirty-three years after the fact, modern Tonkin Gulf researchers pointedly ask: Did the United States intentionally instigate the first attack on USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2, 1964? Did Hanoi actually order a second attack on Maddox on August 4, 1964? And, if the Communist Vietnamese did not launch this second attack, then did Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara knowingly and deliberately mislead the U.S. Congress to obtain support for what would become the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, to ensure President Johnson's re-election and ultimately lead the United States into war?

The story of former South Vietnamese special operation forces, part of an American covert intelligence effort known as Operation Plan 34A (or 34 Alpha), is finally coming to light. Details about the plan are now available, thanks to the release of once-classified documents and disclosures by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military intelligence officials.

When Hanoi officially switched its reunification strategy to one of armed conflict in 1960, the Communists, through infiltration, began to build an organized regular force that threatened the American-backed Saigon regime in South Vietnam. In 1961, hoping to undermine the Communist Vietnamese government in Hanoi, the CIA initiated a joint sea-land covert special operation with the South Vietnamese government to dissuade Hanoi from its infiltration activities.

The CIA­South Vietnamese covert force conducted airborne, maritime and overland agent-insertion operations. South Vietnamese covert operatives were to gather intelligence, recruit support, establish bases of resistance and carry out psychological operations behind enemy lines. The maritime operation began as an infiltration operation. But beginning in June 1962, with the loss of the vessel Nautelas II and four commandos, it evolved into hit-and-run attacks against North Vietnamese shore and island installations by South Vietnamese and foreign mercenary crews on high-speed patrol boats.

While some infiltration operations had some initial successes, such successes were few. The CIA suspected the North Vietnamese were capturing and attempting to turn the agents immediately upon their arrival. By the end of 1963, a National Security Council Special Group, the staff of the special assistant for counterinsurgency and special activities of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the CIA were all apparently aware that the covert attacks were unproductive. According to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, "It accomplished virtually nothing." But the operation was not discontinued. According to Tourison, by January 1964 McNamara had taken over the operation from the CIA, and it became known as 34 Alpha. Now in charge, the Pentagon assumed that the overwhelming majority of the airborne commando agents either had been killed or captured or were working for their captors, the Communist North Vietnamese.

Although it appeared that the program had been compromised, new agent teams continued to be recruited, trained and inserted into North Vietnam. By August 1968, approximately 500 of these men were presumed lost. In his book, Tourison poses an interesting question: Were these teams of commandos deliberately used initially to push Hanoi into war and later to test U.S. communications security, or were they simply victims of effective North Vietnamese counterintelligence operations? The answer lies in the story behind what were known as the U.S. Navy's DeSoto patrols.

DeSoto patrols were U.S. naval intelligence collection operations using specially equipped vessels to gather electronic signals intelligence from shore-and island-based noncommunications emitters in North Vietnam. By August 2, 1964, the Communist Vietnamese had determined that the DeSoto vessels were offshore support for a 34-Alpha operation that had struck their installations at Hon Me and Hon Ngu some 48 hours earlier. In retaliation, the North Vietnamese then conducted an "unprovoked attack" on Maddox, which was approximately 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. During the battle that ensued, one North Vietnamese patrol boat was severely damaged by Maddox, and two others were attacked and chased off by U.S. air support from the carrier USS Ticonderoga.

On August 4, 1964, Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy reported a second attack, this one occurring within 17 hours of 34-Alpha raids on North Vietnamese facilities at Cap Vinh Son and Cua Ron. On that day the National Security Agency (NSA) had warned that an attack on Maddox appeared imminent. An hour after the NSA's warning, Maddox claimed that she had established radar contact with three or four unidentified vessels approaching at high speed. Ticonderoga soon launched aircraft to assist Maddox and C. Turner Joy. Low clouds and thunderstorms reportedly made visibility very poor for the aircraft, and the pilots never confirmed the presence of any North Vietnamese attackers. During the next several hours, the ships reported more than 20 torpedo attacks, the visual sighting of torpedo wakes, searchlight illumination, automatic-weapons fire, and radar and sonar contact.

Despite the recommendation of Captain John J. Herrick, the recently assigned senior officer on board Maddox, that the circumstances--including darkness, stormy seas and nervous, inexperienced crewmen--warranted a "thorough investigation," Secretary of Defense McNamara told Congress there was "unequivocal proof" of the second "unprovoked attack" on U.S. ships. Within hours of McNamara's revelations, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and the United States plunged into the only war it has ever lost.

McNamara's account, backed by the Johnson administration, did not go unchallenged. Before a joint executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee debating full congressional support for the resolution, Senator Wayne Morse (D-Ore.), who had already dubbed the conflict "McNamara's War," declared: "I am unalterably opposed to this course of action which, in my judgment, is an aggressive course of action on the part of the United States. I think you are kidding the world if you try to give the impression that when the South Vietnamese naval boats bombarded two islands a short distance off the coast of North Vietnam we were not implicated." Senator Morse also noted that the American vessels were "conveniently standing by" as support for 34-Alpha operations.

In response, McNamara denied any U.S. naval involvement in the South Vietnamese-run operations, asserting that the DeSoto operations were neither support nor cover for 34-Alpha raids. Tourison sets the record straight on this issue. "The MarOps [maritime operations] were not CIA-supported South Vietnamese operations that the United States had no control over as former Secretary of Defense McNamara claimed," writes Tourison. "These operations were under U.S. control, not South Vietnamese."

McNamara also claimed that the Maddox crew had no knowledge of the 34-Alpha raids. McNamara now acknowledges that this claim was untrue, although he maintains that he did not know it at the time. Captain Herrick and his crew did indeed know of the 34-Alpha operations. In fact, retired Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson, the former chief of intelligence for the U.S. Army Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), cites Captain Herrick's observation that Maddox personnel were extremely concerned that the 34-Alpha operations were putting their ship in harm's way. Davidson further endorses Herrick's assessment that this concern may have resulted in an overly nervous crew and unreliable reporting about the second attack in the gulf.

On August 7, 1964, the Senate passed support for Tonkin Gulf Resolution 88-2, with Senators Morse and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) voting nay. The House voted 416­0 in support. Prophetically, Senator Morse closed his argument by saying, "I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."

The events surrounding the resolution and its passage point to a tragic failure in the U.S. decision-making system of the time. At a crucial moment in history, U.S. intelligence-collection agencies directly fed raw intelligence data to U.S. policy-makers without submitting that data to thorough and proper analysis. The prevalence of this kind of unpolished intelligence support to government leaders helped open the door to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1972, Louis Tordella, the deputy director of the NSA, announced that the decoded message on which the NSA's August 4 warning to Maddox had been based actually referred to the original attack on August 2. And the "unequivocal proof" of the second attack consisted of decrypted North Vietnamese damage assessments of the first attack (August 2) that were presented to top-level U.S. decision-makers as the alleged second attack was being reported to the Pentagon. According to a U.S. News and World Report exposé, former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray S. Cline verified this series of mistakes in 1984. Given the extreme volitality and pressure of the situation, the fact that some decision-makers were confused by intercepts suggesting two attacks is understandable. That they acted so quickly on rash assumptions--removing the chance for necessary debate and analysis--added insult to injury in an already untenable decision climate.

In his book Vietnam at War, General Davidson points out that Herrick was a combat veteran who realized that the Maddox crew had never before been in combat. He claims that Captain Herrick's assessment that the "entire action leaves many doubts except for apparent attempt to ambush at the beginning " remains the most valid summation of the second attack.

Understandably, in the United States the Vietnam War as a whole and the Tonkin Gulf Incident in particular remain topics of widely ranging interpretation and debate. McNamara recently visited Hanoi, where he met with Communist Vietnamese Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap. McNamara also invited the Vietnamese to participate in a conference of top Vietnam War decision-makers to, according to press reports of the visit, "correct the historical record." During his visit, Giap told McNamara that "absolutely nothing" happened on August 4, 1964. McNamara later endorsed this statement by his former adversary.

In his recent book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara admits that the United States "may have provoked a North Vietnamese response in the Tonkin Gulf," albeit innocently. He maintains, however, that "charges of a cloak of deception surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incident are unfounded. The idea that the Johnson administration deliberately deceived Congress is fake." Many disagree. Coincidentally, on the very day McNamara was in Hanoi, American veterans, historians and scholars met in Washington, D.C., for a conference sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Institute. One of the conference's many prominent guest speakers was Daniel Ellsberg, the former Johnson administration member who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press. In his presentation, Ellsberg addressed the question of whether the Johnson administration deliberately misled Congress: "Did McNamara lie to Congress in 1964? I can answer that question. Yes, he did lie, and I knew it at the time. I was working for John McNaughton....I was his special assistant. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He knew McNamara had lied. McNamara knew he had lied. He is still lying. [Former Secretary of State Dean] Rusk and McNamara testified to Congress...prior to their vote....Congress was being lied into...what was to be used as a formal declaration of war. I knew that....I don't look back on that situation with pride."

Ellsberg is not the only former government official of the era to expose this alleged conspiracy. In 1977, former Under Secretary of State George Ball claimed in an interview televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation: "Many of the people associated with the war...were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing. The DeSoto Patrols were primarily for provocation....There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into trouble, that would provide the provocation needed."

Was this provocation needed to initiate bombing, or to assist the Johnson administration during an election year? Either goal certainly seems plausible.

Interestingly, a resolution stating, "Upon request of South Vietnam or the Laotian government to use all measures including the commitment of U.S. Armed Forces in their Defense"--the very resolution that became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution--had been prepared in May 1964, three months before the "unprovoked attacks" ever occurred. At the time, Johnson was running his presidential campaign on a peace ticket. Johnson's main opponent for the presidency, Senator Barry Goldwater, was pushing for an even tougher U.S. stance in Southeast Asia. An "unprovoked attack" by North Vietnam would give Johnson the opportunity to respond with limited force and improve his image with the American people without appearing to agree with his main political opponent, a man the Johnson administration was busy painting as a candidate who would potentially lead the country into a nuclear war.

If this line of thinking was part of Johnson's plan, it was well-calculated. In response to the Tonkin Gulf attacks, the president launched a limited airstrike and warned Hanoi against further aggression. Thus, four months prior to the November election, he appeared firm but not a warmonger. His approval rating with the American people soared from 42 percent to 72 percent, and within three months he overwhelmingly won his campaign for the presidency.

Tourison claims that the 34-Alpha raids and the DeSoto operations were carefully orchestrated to solicit a North Vietnamese response in the Gulf of Tonkin, a claim that appears at least plausible: "These facts argue that if U.S. communications intelligence resources were able to intercept these messages, Washington also would have known that Hanoi had placed all its forces [on a] total war footing. Intercepted passages would have revealed how closely Hanoi was monitoring the raids undertaken by MACSOG's [MACV's Studies and Observations Group] forces. Further, Washington would have known that Hanoi was closely watching the obvious high correlation between other Seventh Fleet electronic and communications intelligence activities in support of Plan 34A and the full range of covert maritime, airborne, agent, and psychological operations being conducted by MACSOG and the CIA. Information about these actions, in spite of increased questions about the widening war, was closely guarded by a select few in the executive branch who had a need to know."

McNamara explains it differently: "Although some individuals knew of both DeSoto and 34A operations and patrols, the approval process was compartmentalized; few, if any, senior officials either planned or followed in detail the operational schedules of both. We should have."

Tourison's position suggests quite the opposite, and testimony from Daniel Ellsberg seems to back him up: "One of my first jobs in the Defense Department was to carry around...the 30 day schedule, regularly, of those operations starting in August [1964].... I carried those plans to Alex Chowpin in the U.S. State Department...to McGeorge Bundy...and they would initial it. They followed every aspect of it. This is what then both Rusk and McNamara testified to Congress about prior to their vote on a Tonkin Gulf Resolution that was to be used as a declaration of war."

The result of whatever actually did or did not happen in the Tonkin Gulf was that, by overwhelmingly approving the resolution, the U.S. Congress ceded to the president the power that America's Founding Fathers endowed only Congress--the power to declare war. According to McNamara, herein lies the significance of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution: "The fundamental issue of Tonkin Gulf involves not deception, but rather, misuse of power bestowed by the resolution. The language of the resolution plainly granted the powers the President subsequently used and Congress understood the breadth of those powers....But no doubt exists that Congress did not intend to authorize, without further, full consultation, the expansion of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 16,000 to 550,000 men, initiating large scale combat operations with the risk of an expanded war with China and the Soviet Union, and extending U.S. involvement in Vietnam for many years to come."

Despite passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, the question of presidential versus congressional authority over U.S. military operations remains a topic of serious contention. In 1990, McNamara testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that no president should be able to send American troops to war without congressional approval. He further testified that he believed President George Bush would seek congressional support before sending American troops to conduct combat operations against Iraq. Bush did, and McNamara added, "President Bush was right. President Johnson and those of us who served with him were wrong."

For the Tonkin Gulf incident itself, McNamara endorses the hypothesis of former Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs William Bundy: "Miscalculation by both the U.S. and North Vietnam is, in the end, at root of the best hindsight hypothesis on Hanoi's behavior. In simple terms, it was a mistake for our administration, resolved to keep the risks low, to have 34 Alpha operations and the destroyer patrol take place even in the same time period. Rational minds could not readily foresee that Hanoi might confuse them...but rational minds' calculations should have taken into account the irrational....Washington did not want an incident, and it seems that Hanoi hadn't either. Yet, each misread the other, and the incidents happened."

Daniel Ellsberg, at the November 1995 Vietnam Veterans Institute Conference, was far more critical of those who served in the executive branch and notably more apologetic: "What I did not reveal in the Summer of 64...was a conspiracy to manipulate the public into a war and to win an election through fraud...which had the exact horrible consequences the founders of this country envisioned when they ruled out, they thought as best they could, that an Executive Branch could secretly decide the decisions of war and peace, without public debate or vote of Congress....Senator Morse, one of the two people who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution told me in 1971, '...had you given us all that information...seven years earlier, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of Committee. And, if it had, it would never have passed....' But there was a time in my life later...knowing the consequences of all these policies...when I did say to myself that I'm never going to lie again with the justification that someone has told me I have to....I've never been sorry I've stopped doing that."

Now that time has passed and some of the individuals involved have re-examined what happened, the shroud of controversy surrounding the events of August 4, 1964, has begun to lift. As mentioned earlier, the former secretary of defense endorses a joint effort with the Communist Vietnamese to discuss and clear up some of the contentious areas of the Vietnamese conflict. This effort may prove difficult and ultimately fruitless unless the Vietnamese decide to be more candid.

Care must be taken with Communist Vietnamese versions of history. As a typical totalitarian regime, Hanoi is acutely aware of how it is perceived from abroad. The Communists monitor and often censor what is said or written about them by their own citizens. This sort of information-control policy helps to ensure that their "official" accounts of history are accepted by their populace and go unchallenged. They are quick to accept praise, warranted or not. And they are even quicker to deny fault, deserved or not.

In one of their more current official histories, the Communist Vietnamese claim responsibility for the initial attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, but say that the second was an American fabrication to justify airstrikes on August 5. In an older history, they not only claim the second attack on August 4-5, 1964, but declare that date as their navy's anniversary or "tradition day," proclaiming it the day "when one of our torpedo squadrons chased the destroyer Maddox from our coastal waters, our first victory over the U.S. Navy."

About this assertion, Douglas Pike, the foremost U.S. authority on the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), notes, "If the Gulf of Tonkin Incident is a myth created by the Pentagon, as some revisionist historians claim, the PAVN navy is now part of the conspiracy." In this same history, the Communist Vietnamese claim that their navy sank 353 American naval vessels. It is rational to believe that the number of U.S. Navy vessels lost to a fleet of Communist patrol boats, with a total arsenal of 60 torpedoes, was somewhat less.

These and other indicators reveal that, to the Communist Vietnamese, truth is simply a weapon. Given Hanoi's fondness for duplicity, we begin to understand the task faced by intelligence professionals of the Vietnam era--and by modern researchers, historians and former government officials who, with as much as 30 years of hindsight, are trying even today to unravel the events of that conflict. *


A U.S. Army military intelligence officer, Captain Ronnie Ford is the author of Tet 68: Understanding the Surprise. Suggestions for further reading: Secret Army, Secret War, by Sedgwick Tourison (Naval Institute Press); Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, by Dr. Edwin Moise (University of North Carolina Press); and Vietnam at War: The History 1946­1975, by Phillip B. Davidson (Oxford University Press).
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