The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

In August of 1964, an event occurred off the waters of North Vietnam that would have repercussions that would echo in US foreign policy for decades. 

Two alleged confrontations between US Navy vessels and North Vietnamese ships set off a chain of events that resulted in a dramatic escalation in the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and a subsequent backlash that would change military policy to the present day. 

Learn more about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the event that began the large-scale US military presence in Vietnam on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Vietnam War is a nuanced and complicated subject. The story really begins several centuries ago when France colonized parts of Southeast Asia, which they called Indochina. 

The fight for independence by the Vietnamese had been going on for decades but began in earnest after the end of WWII. 

Communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh managed to take over the northern part of the country in 1945, and in 1954, the North Vietnamese delivered a crushing blow to the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. 

The United States’ involvement in the region began small with the support of the creation of the nation of South Vietnam in 1955. 

The United States provided economic and military aid but was not yet a major regional player. 

Under President John F. Kennedy, the United States increased military support and sent a limited number of military advisors to South Vietnam. 

The US, via the Central Intelligence Agency, eventually was behind a military coup and the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. 

From 1960 to 1964, the number of US military advisors in Vietnam increased steadily. There were 900 advisors deployed in 1960, which had grown to 24,000 in 1964. That was a large increase, but it was nothing compared to what would happen over the next several years. 

The causes of the Vietnam War and the beginnings of American involvement will be addressed in future episodes of this podcast.

In this episode, I want to address the event that changed the United States’ role from advisors to active combatants: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. 

In hindsight, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident seems like a rather minor affair. There have been much bigger incidents between the United States and other countries that didn’t result in a full-scale war. 

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was really two separate incidents…..sort of. That “sort of” part turned into one of the biggest controversies in the history of US Foreign policy. 

The Gulf of Tonkin is the sea between North Vietnam and China’s Hainan Island. 

The US Navy had a presence in the Gulf of Tonkin, performing signal intelligence off the coast of North Vietnam. These intelligence missions were known as DESOTO patrols, an acronym that stood for DeHaven Special Operations off TsingtaO. The DeHaven was the ship that originally started the operations, and Tsingtao is in Northern China.

On August 2, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox was on a DESOTO mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, gathering signal intelligence from North Vietnam.

While on patrol, 28 miles off the shore in international waters, the Maddox encountered three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, each boat carrying two torpedoes with high explosive warheads. The torpedo boats began approaching the Maddox at high speeds.

The Maddox fired warning shots, and the North Vietnamese boats responded with machine gun fire.  The North Vietnamese boats maneuvered to get into position to fire their torpedoes. Two of the boats fired both of their torpedoes, but they were well outside their effective range of 1,000 yards. 

The Maddox called for assistance, and an aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga intercepted the North Vietnamese boats.

In the ensuing fight, all three of the North Vietnamese boats were damaged, and four sailors were killed. 

On the American side, no one was killed, and no one was injured. One aircraft was slightly damaged, and there was one bullet that hit the Maddox. 

The Maddox then withdrew and continued its patrol with another ship, the USS Turner Joy.

The events of August 2nd are fairly well agreed upon, and there isn’t much controversy surrounding what happened. There were plenty of witnesses and evidence on both sides. 

In the big scheme of things, this whole incident really wasn’t that big of a deal, at least on the American side. There were no casualties, and the damage was very minor. 

However, I mentioned before that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident actually involved two different incidents. 

The second incident, which caused most of the controversy, took place two days later, on August 4. 

The Maddox and the Turner Joy were once again on patrol, with the crews on very high alert following the events two days earlier. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the ships back on patrol in a show of American resolve.

That morning, US intelligence received reports that the North Vietnamese might conduct offensive operations in response to what happened on August 2nd and because of attacks by South Vietnam on August 3rd. 

August 4 saw poor weather with rough seas and storms. Waves were up to six feet or two meters high, with very little visibility.

In addition, the Maddox’s long-range air-search radar and the Turner Joy’s fire-control radar were both not working.

The Maddox and the Turner Joy were both ordered back further out to sea to give them more room to maneuver. In the evening, they were about 100 miles from the coast. 

Around 8:40 pm, the Maddox began getting strange signals. They reported sonar readings of multiple targets that were incoming, seemingly from all directions. Some of the targets had the signature of a torpedo but then would disappear. 

Both destroyers took evasive action and fired at the targets. Collectively, they fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells, and four or five depth charges. The Maddox and the Turner Joy both radioed that they were under attack.

Despite all of the activity, there were no actual sightings of any ships or any torpedoes. 

Word of the attack was sent to Washington, and it was relayed to the President.

That evening, August 4, in Washington, on the other side of the world, President Johnson made a television address to the American people. He told the American people of the attack and requested authority from Congress to respond militarily. 

Congress acted quickly. On August 7, both houses of Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the President the ability to unilaterally use conventional military force in Southeast Asia without the deceleration of war or further approval of Congress. 

On August 10, it was enacted into law. 

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was perhaps the single biggest increase in the president’s power with regard to military matters since the ratification of the Constitution. 

With the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, US military involvement in Vietnam expanded rapidly. 

The 23,000 US troops in Vietnam in 1964 expanded to a high of over 536,000 by 1968. 

The events I’ve just described to you so far are what the American people and most members of Congress were told back in 1964. However, there is more to the story. Things that were known almost immediately on August 4, 1964, were never released to the public until years later. 

Basically, there was no attack on August 4. There was never any evidence that an attack took place and this error was known almost immediately. 

The Commander of the Maddox, Captain John Herrick, sent a notification soon after they thought they were under attack which said, “Entire action leaves many doubts except for apparent ambush at beginning. Suggest thorough reconnaissance in daylight by aircraft.”

It was eventually concluded that the sonar sounds that were heard were actually the sounds of the propeller when the ship turned suddenly. The radar signatures kept coming and going because they were picking up the tops of the waves.

A single aircraft was sent from the USS Ticonderoga to survey the site where the Maddox and Turner Joy.  The plane was flown by then-Commander James Stockdale.

Just as an aside, Stockdale later became the highest-ranking naval officer to be held as a prisoner of war, serving seven in a Vietnamese prison. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to vice admiral. He was also the Vice Presidential candidate on the ticket with Ross Perot in 1992. 

Stockdale later reported what he saw when he went to investigate. “[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 firepower.”

On the evening of August 4, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara received the reports that there may not have been an attack. 

Also, on the evening of August 4, one of the analysts on duty in the Pentagon who, ironically was there for his first day of work, received the communiques from the Maddox was Daniel Ellsberg. 

Daniel Ellsberg was the same person who leaked the confidential Pentagon Papers in 1971. The document that was leaked was actually titled The History of U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945–1968, which Ellsberg helped write while working for the RAND Corporation. 

The Pentagon Papers exposed the fact that the Johnson administration had manipulated the events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to justify increased military intervention in Vietnam. The papers showed that the second attack on August 4, 1964, likely did not occur, yet it was used to rally support for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Years after the war, in 1995, the former Secretary of Defense under Johnson, Robert McNamara, visited Vietnam at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. There, he met with the Defense Minister of North Vietnam at the time, Võ Nguyên Giáp. 

During their meeting, McNamara bluntly asked him what happened on August 4, 1965, and Giap responded……” Absolutely nothing”. 

In the 2003 documentary about Robert McNamara, the Fog of War, a movie I highly recommend, McNamera on camera admits that the entire August 4 attack never happened. 

Finally, in 2001 a report issued by Robert J. Hanyok, an historian for the National Security Agency, concluded that the NSA had distorted information about the Gulf of Tonkin. 

In his report, he said, As much as anything else, it was an awareness that Johnson would brook no uncertainty that could undermine his position. Faced with this attitude, (CIA Agent) 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 knew how volatile LBJ was. He did not like to deal with uncertainties.”

After the release of the Pentagon Papers and after knowledge about the truth of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin became widely known, it evoked a reaction by Congress. 

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act which took away many of the powers given to the president in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. 

The key stipulations of the War Powers Act are that the president must notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and that  U.S. forces cannot remain engaged in hostilities for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a congressional authorization for use of military force or a declaration of war.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, from a military standpoint, was not a major affair. Compared to what would come later in the war, it was one of the most insignificant actions of the war. 

However, it turned out to be an incredibly significant event and one of the most important of the Cold War, simply because of what it brought about. It was responsible for the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way for the widescale escalation of the Vietnam War. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Darth V8tr over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:


Great show ! I especially like the war operation and kidnapping episodes, and hope to see more of these episodes in the future.

Thank you, Darth V8tr!  It’s always nice to see some of the Sith Lords enjoying the show. If you like war operations and kidnapping episodes, I think I can read between the lines to figure out what you really want. An episode about Order 66. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.