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99640th Anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

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  • Ram Lau
    Aug 21, 2005
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      Essay: 40th Anniversary of the
      Gulf of Tonkin Incident

      by John Prados

      Posted August 4, 2004

      On this 40th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf incident it is appropriate
      to recall an affair that has much history wound around it, a watershed
      in the U.S. move toward full-scale war in Vietnam. At the time, in
      August 1964, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson used
      the incident as a pretext to seek from Congress a joint resolution
      approving the use of force in Southeast Asia, which it then relied
      upon as legal justification for all-out war. The episode opened the
      way for an American military commitment that ultimately peaked in
      March 1969 with 548,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam plus additional
      supporting forces in Thailand. Some 59,000 Americans and several
      million Vietnamese died in the conflict.

      More recently, the Tonkin Gulf incident has regularly been invoked in
      connection with the lead-up to the war in Iraq, where the
      administration of President George W. Bush also cited threats to the
      United States to obtain congressional approval for the use of force.
      Those claims, too, proved to be based largely on seriously flawed
      intelligence and possibly, according to some critics, manipulated. The
      parallels to Tonkin make it all the more worthwhile to re-examine the
      events of 40 years ago on the basis of newly acquired evidence.


      The particulars of the incidents of early August 1964, as reported by
      the Johnson administration, were crucial to gaining the legislative
      authority President Johnson sought, which came in the form of the
      Tonkin Gulf Resolution. At the time and for some years afterward, the
      United States government took the position that it had done nothing to
      provoke a naval engagement in the Tonkin Gulf between North Vietnamese
      and U.S. warships. The Johnson administration also maintained that it
      had acted with restraint, refusing to respond to an initial North
      Vietnamese attack on August 2, 1964, and reacting only after North
      Vietnam made a second naval attack two nights later. Both of these
      assertions turned out to be misleading.

      In fact the United States at the time was carrying out a program of
      covert naval commando attacks against North Vietnam and had been
      engaged in this effort since its approval by Johnson in January 1964.
      (For documentation of this program, carried out under Operations Plan
      (OPLAN) 34-A, see the Tonkin Gulf subset of the National Security
      Archive's microfiche collection, U.S. Policy in the Vietnam War, I:
      1954-1968.) A fresh addition to the declassified record is the
      intelligence estimate included in this briefing book, Special National
      Intelligence Estimate 50-2-64. Published in May 1964, the estimate
      again demonstrates that the United States purposefully directed OPLAN
      34-A to pressure North Vietnam, to the extent of attempting to
      anticipate Hanoi's reaction. It wrongly concluded that North Vietnam,
      while taking precautionary measures, "might reduce the level of the
      insurrections for the moment." (Note 1) In fact Hanoi decided instead
      to commit its regular army forces to the fighting in South Vietnam.

      The Johnson administration's characterization of the specifics of the
      Tonkin Gulf incident has proven to be inaccurate. Administration
      officials contended that the U.S. warship simply happened to be
      cruising in the Gulf to exert a U.S. presence -- engaged in "innocent
      passage" under international law. The naval battle between the
      destroyer USS Maddox and several North Vietnamese torpedo boats
      occurred on August 2, 1964, in the immediate aftermath of a series of
      34-A maritime raids on North Vietnamese coastal targets. Among the
      targets were two offshore islands, Hon Me and Hon Ngu, which were
      closely approached by the Maddox prior to the August 2 engagement. The
      American destroyer was in international waters when the battle itself
      took place but the North Vietnamese made the logical connection that
      the 34-A raids and the destroyer's appearance were related. In fact
      the mission of the Maddox was specifically to record North Vietnamese
      radar and other electronic emissions which could be expected to spike
      after a 34-A raid.

      Senior administration officials were well aware of the connection
      between the 34-A raids and the destroyer's intelligence cruise, called
      a "DeSoto Patrol." Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, in his
      very first telephone conversation with President Johnson about the
      battle, at 10:30 a.m. Washington time on August 3, raised the issue.
      LBJ wanted McNamara to hold a private briefing for congressional
      leaders on Capitol Hill. McNamara replied, "I think I should also, or
      we should also at that time, Mr. President, explain this OPLAN 34-A.
      There's no question but what that had bearing on." (Note 2) McNamara
      went on to describe the 34-A mission, including mention of the two
      islands, the number of attack boats participating, their ammunition
      expenditures, and other details.

      Appearing before the legislators, Secretary McNamara did mention the
      34-A raids but asserted they were South Vietnamese naval missions and
      had nothing to do with the United States. In fact the 34-A missions
      were unilaterally controlled by the U.S., using boats procured and
      maintained by the U.S. Navy, attacking targets selected by the CIA, in
      an operation paid for by the United States. The only South Vietnamese
      aspect of 34-A was the administrative responsibility borne by that
      government's special forces for their nationals recruited as the
      commandos for the missions, commandos who were nevertheless led by
      Americans. Some accounts by Americans who participated in such
      missions actually maintain that Americans were present aboard the
      attack boats during the raids of August 2. (Note 3)

      Secretary McNamara not only advanced the fiction of 34-A as a South
      Vietnamese enterprise in a private meeting with congressmen, he
      repeated it at congressional hearings on the administration's
      requested use of force resolution. At an executive session hearing
      held on August 6, McNamara declared, "Our Navy played absolutely no
      part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South
      Vietnamese actions, if there were any." (Note 4) Controversy over
      Johnson administration claims regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident
      began not long after the events themselves and grew over time, leading
      to an unusual review of the events in a new set of hearings before the
      Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1968. Secretary
      McNamara again served as the administration's lead witness and claimed
      that the issue of provocation had been "fully explored" at the 1964
      hearings. Specifically, McNamara declared that Congress had
      investigated whether the attacks "were in any way provoked by or
      related to certain South Vietnamese naval activity." McNamara later
      reasserted that the 34-A missions were "countermeasures being taken by
      the South Vietnamese in response to North Vietnamese aggression."
      (Note 5) These administration assertions were highly misleading as the
      declassified documentary record of OPLAN 34-A makes abundantly clear.

      The leading edge of doubt which ultimately forced the February 1968
      review of the Gulf of Tonkin incident arose over whether a second
      attack on U.S. warships had occurred on the night of August 4.
      Following the initial naval battle of August 2, President Johnson
      ordered a second U.S. destroyer, the USS C. Turner Joy, to join the
      Maddox, after which both ships sailed back up the Gulf of Tonkin. On
      the night of August 4, both ships thought they had come under attack
      again and sent messages reporting enemy contacts, torpedoes in the
      water, and so on, while directing a good deal of fire at the supposed
      adversary. Following this supposed repeat challenge to "innocent
      passage," President Johnson ordered retaliatory bombing against North
      Vietnam and asked for the congressional resolution with which he
      prosecuted the Vietnam war.

      But the certainty of the "second attack" would never be so clear as
      the first. The initial battle took place in daylight. There were
      photographs of the North Vietnamese torpedo boats engaged in a
      fire-fight with the Maddox, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer retained a dud
      shell from one of the Vietnamese vessels as a souvenir, and numerous
      Maddox sailors confirmed sighting at least three torpedoes. However,
      there was no physical evidence at all for the August 4 attack claims.
      The supposed surface action took place at night and in poor weather.
      The skipper and four seamen aboard the C. Turner Joy variously claimed
      having seen a searchlight, boat cockpit lights, smoke at a location
      where they claimed their gunfire had hit a Vietnamese vessel in the
      water, and one, or perhaps two, torpedo wakes. The Navy further
      claimed their vessels had sunk two attacking torpedo boats. But there
      was no wreckage, nor bodies of dead sailors. No photographs or other
      physical evidence existed. Radar and sonar sightings provided an
      exceedingly confusing set of data at best. (Note 6)

      American pilots from the carrier USS Ticonderoga sent to help defend
      the destroyers from their supposed attackers told the same story.
      Commander James B. Stockdale, who led this flight of jets, spotted no
      enemy, and at one point saw the Turner Joy pointing her guns at the
      Maddox. As Stockdale, who retired an admiral after a distinguished
      career that included being shot down and imprisoned by the North
      Vietnamese, later wrote: "There was absolutely no gunfire except our
      own, no PT boat wakes, not a candle light let alone a burning ship.
      None could have been there and not have been seen on such a black
      night." (Note 7) In his memoir, Stockdale also remarked on the
      situation: "I had the best seat in the house from which to detect
      boats-if there were any. I didn't have to look through surface haze
      and spray like the destroyers did, and yet I could see the destroyers'
      every move vividly." (Note 8) These comments reinforce the dispatches
      from the Navy's on-scene commander, Captain John Herrick, who after
      filing various reports of attacks sent a cable that questioned them
      all. A Top Secret August 28, 1964 chronology prepared for President
      Johnson summarized Herrick's report, sent at 1:27 p.m. Washington time
      on August 4, as follows: "a review of the action makes many reported
      contacts and torpedoes fired 'appear doubtful'. 'Freak weather
      effects' on radar, and 'over-eager' sonarmen may have accounted for
      many reports. 'No visual sightings' have been reported by the Maddox,
      and the Commander suggests that a 'complete evaluation' be undertaken
      before any further action." But Washington had already decided to
      strike North Vietnam.

      Stockdale's commentaries came after America's Vietnam war had ended,
      but questions regarding the "second attack" were already strong enough
      by 1968 to force renewed congressional attention. Secretary McNamara
      pulled out a trump card during the 1968 hearings to silence doubters.
      The trump was a set of communications intercepts made by the Naval
      Security Group detachment on the destroyer Maddox, the very unit whose
      presence defined this cruise as a DeSoto Patrol. As McNamara described
      the intercepts in his testimony: "Intelligence reports from a highly
      classified and unimpeachable source reported that North Vietnam was
      making preparations to attack our destroyers with two Swatow [patrol]
      boats and one PT boat if the PT could be made ready in time. The same
      source reported, while the engagement was in progress on August 4,
      that the attack was underway. Immediately after the attack ended, the
      source reported that the North Vietnamese lost two ships in the
      engagement." (Note 9)

      Secretary McNamara played the intercepts very close to his chest.
      Describing them only in general terms, he refused to leave copies with
      the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Staff member J. Norvill Jones
      later recalled that McNamara cited the staff's lack of proper
      clearances as a reason, but also notes that McNamara's Pentagon had
      stalled the Committee's investigation of Tonkin Gulf since 1965, and
      had furnished some requested documents only after the intercession of
      Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the powerful chairman of the Armed
      Services Committee and a close friend of Lyndon Johnson's. Years
      later, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright was
      finally able to arrange with the Nixon administration for Jones and
      staff director Carl Marcy to actually view the intercepts. Jones'
      reaction is important to record:

      Of the several messages we were allowed to scan, only one was from
      August 4. The others clearly related to the incident on August 2.

      My reading of the Aug. 4 intercept was that it was a boastful
      summary of the attack on August 2. Even the NSA [National Security
      Agency] officials could not say that it definitely related to the Aug.
      4 action. In addition the time sequence of the intercept and the
      reported action from the U.S. destroyers did not jibe. Curiously, NSA
      could not find the original of the Aug. 4 intercept, although it did
      have originals of the others. (Note 10)

      A 1980s investigation of these events by reporters for U.S. News and
      World Report found intelligence officers who agreed with Jones'
      reading of the Tonkin Gulf intercepts. They quoted Ray S. Cline, who
      at the time headed the CIA's Intelligence Directorate and would later
      become chief of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and
      Research: "I began to see that the [intercepts] which were being
      received at the time of the second attack almost certainly could not
      have referred to the second attack because of the time differences
      involved. Things were being referred to which, although they might
      have been taking place at that time, could not have been reported back
      so quickly." (Note 11) Also suspect was the fact that intercepts from
      August 2 had been recorded widely by NSA stations as well as the
      Maddox while those of the 4th reportedly were recorded only by a
      listening post at Phu Bai in South Vietnam. Louis Tordella,
      long-serving deputy director of the National Security Agency, was
      among those intelligence officers who discount the validity of the
      August 4 intercepts.

      New Evidence

      Now, forty years later, Americans for the first time have the
      opportunity to make up their own minds on the Tonkin Gulf intercepts.
      After repeated requests using the Mandatory Declassification Review
      process, this analyst was able to get them declassified in March 2003.

      The cables included here are the relevant NSA intercepts. In the
      immediate aftermath of the "crisis," the White House asked for the
      intercepted radio traffic and it was sent over. A cover note for
      National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy on August 8 reads: "Last
      night the White House Situation Room relayed a request from Mr. Bundy
      for all intercepts which preceded and related to the second attack on
      the Maddox and Turner Joy. The attached messages were selected by CIA
      and NSA." (Note 12) The note covered a list that contained the exact
      items reproduced here, including the five (out of eight) which have
      been declassified as of this writing.

      A review of the documents will make clear that the cables were not raw
      intercepts of North Vietnamese radio traffic but rather reports from
      the intercepting units on the Maddox and elsewhere which summarize the
      contents of the raw intercepts. This point is important because it
      means that the infamous intercepts could not have been simultaneously
      passed along to the Hawaii headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief
      Pacific or to Washington. Radio intelligence units had to perform
      three activities before the information could be passed up the chain
      of command: the intercepts themselves had to be recorded, the North
      Vietnamese communications had to be decoded and translated, and a
      message had to be assembled using the new information. Of course,
      those messages themselves had then to be coded and encrypted in U.S.
      systems before being transmitted on American radio nets. All this is
      crucial to bear in mind because claims as to the unimpeachability of
      the intelligence advanced by the Johnson administration turn on
      comparisons of the time these messages were sent versus the times that
      Captain Herrick and his destroyers reported various actions supposedly
      taking place in the Tonkin Gulf.

      Since time is literally of the essence here, the reader should
      understand how to interpret the times printed on these messages. All
      United States military traffic is sent using "Zulu" time, or Greenwich
      Mean Time (GMT), and each message contains a "date/time group" that
      identifies the time of transmission. Messages are frequently referred
      to by their date/time groups in official commentaries and in
      references in subsequent message traffic. A date/time group is
      composed first of two numbers identifying a day, then of four numbers
      that show the hour and minute (using a twenty-four hour clock).
      Sometimes messages also list the month and the year, the latter
      indicated by two final numbers. Thus "03/1211Z Aug" refers to 12:11
      p.m. GMT on August 3, 1964. Local time in the Tonkin Gulf is seven
      hours ahead of GMT, and twelve hours ahead of Washington, DC. The
      date/time above therefore equates to 7:11 p.m. on August 3 in the
      Tonkin Gulf, and 7:11 a.m. on August 3 in Washington. Keep these time
      differences in mind when examining the message traffic below.

      Not mentioned thus far in regard to possible U.S. provocation is the
      fact that 34-A forces carried out another raid on North Vietnam during
      the night of August 3/4, when the U.S. destroyers were beginning their
      run back up the Tonkin Gulf. If Hanoi was responding to the first
      raid, a second one furnished an equivalent reason to act against the
      reinforced DeSoto Patrol. Yet, it appears Hanoi decided not to act.
      North Vietnamese officials, including Defense Minister General Vo
      Nguyen Giap, explained at a retrospective international conference in
      1997 that their August 2 response had been ordered by a local naval
      command, not the Hanoi leadership. (Note 13) The Vietnamese said they
      had mounted no naval sortie on the 4th. This is consistent. Concerned
      at the severity of the U.S. reaction to the August 2 engagement, the
      Hanoi leadership could very well have made sure not to mount a
      subsequent operation, even in the face of a second 34-A coastal raid.

      Congressional staffer Jones and others are quite right to observe that
      a number of the intercepts describe the naval action of August 2. In
      that battle there were shootouts between North Vietnamese torpedo
      boats and U.S. aircraft, and two of the North Vietnamese boats were
      sunk, as described in one of the messages. Another message describes a
      sighting of "two enemy assault vessels" east of the island of Hon Me.
      The time of day reported in the message, 8:28 p.m. local (message
      03/1328Z), actually corresponds very closely to the time, 9:35 p.m.,
      when the Maddox had been in this position on August 1, prior to the
      initial naval engagement. That time is recorded on track charts of the
      Maddox's position in the official U.S. Navy history for this period of
      the Vietnam war. (Note 14) The two destroyers traveling together were
      near Hon Me only in mid-afternoon of August 4. Hon Me had been one of
      the targets of the initial 34-A maritime operation, which had hit at
      half past midnight, July 31 -- a rather close connection. The North
      Vietnamese message had included orders to naval officers to shadow the

      The next message in the series (04/1140Z) reports a preparatory order
      to two North Vietnamese patrol boats to prepare for operations and
      informs them that a torpedo boat, the T-333, may join them if it can
      be made ready in time. Three minutes later there was a sighting report
      for a U.S. destroyer. This sounds like possible support for the
      hypothesis that the North Vietnamese fought Americans again on August
      4, but only until the American side is also examined. Captain
      Herrick's destroyers first reported radar sightings in a message with
      the date/time group 04/1240Z. The base for the North Vietnamese Swatow
      patrol vessels referenced in these messages was at Quang Khe, near
      Dong Hoi, roughly 110 nautical miles from Hon Me. Not even a
      well-maintained and fully fuelled Swatow able to sustain its maximum
      speed of over 40 knots could cover that distance from Quang Khe in the
      time interval between the intercepts and the U.S. message.

      Meanwhile, in Washington, at 9:43 a.m. on August 4, Secretary McNamara
      had another conversation with President Johnson. Their discussion
      reflects McNamara's knowledge of the intercepts where he says,
      referring to the U.S. destroyer (McNamara uses the singular), "this
      ship is allegedly, uh, to be attacked tonight." (Note 15) McNamara and
      the president went on to discuss what retaliation they could carry out
      for the attack (that had not happened), including bombing targets in
      North Vietnam or undertaking more 34-A maritime assaults. An hour
      later, when McNamara called in the first report that the alleged
      attack had begun, he was already prepared with a list of options.

      Much of the supposed action of August 4 occurred between the U.S.
      message just mentioned and another from Captain Herrick at 04/1602Z,
      in which the destroyers reported having evaded torpedoes and to having
      "sunk" at least one attacking surface craft. It was during this time
      that the wild melee of radar and sonar observations and heavy gunfire
      occurred, and that Commander Stockdale's aircraft saw nothing. The
      next of the NSA intercepts is recorded at 04/1630Z. It summarized the
      North Vietnamese reporting about having shot at aircraft and observing
      one fall into the sea, with "an enemy vessel perhaps wounded." An
      amplification message followed at 04/1644Z admitting "we sacrificed
      two comrades," and specifying they had fired at two aircraft. That
      matched the events of August 2, when there had been exchanges between
      the Vietnamese torpedo boats and U.S. planes, and when the Maddox had
      been hit by at least some small-caliber cannon shells from the North
      Vietnamese torpedo boats. The reports did not match the facts of
      August 4, when no boats had passed beneath the U.S. planes to shoot at
      them. The history of U.S. destroyers carried on the Navy's official
      website no longer contains any reference to a naval engagement having
      occurred on August 4.

      The last two messages in this set (05/0438Z, 05/0627Z) show the North
      Vietnamese Swatow boats to have regrouped at Hon Me island with a
      couple of torpedo boats and to have received orders for some action to
      be carried out in the northern Gulf of Tonkin in the afternoon of
      August 5. By that time Captain Herrick's DeSoto Patrol had cleared the
      Gulf and was no longer a factor.

      An equally plausible construction of the events pictured in these
      intercepts is that the North Vietnamese, in the face of the 34-A
      maritime raids and sudden appearance of a heavy U.S. warship, ordered
      their Swatow patrol boats to rendezvous at Hon Me with surviving
      torpedo boats in preparation for defensive action against the U.S.
      destroyers, by then gone. It is not probable that the North
      Vietnamese, who knew from official U.S. statements that Captain
      Herrick had been reinforced, would have sent their Swatow boats, with
      no armament capable of sinking a destroyer (machineguns and light
      cannon only, no torpedoes), against the strengthened U.S. destroyer
      force. The intercepts themselves confirm that the torpedo boat T-333,
      the only survivor of the August 2 battle, was not ready to sail at the
      critical moment on August 4, when Hanoi could have set up a battle for
      that day.


      Among the most prophetic and disturbing statements in the declassified
      record are those by national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, at the
      White House staff meeting at 8 a.m. on August 5, 1964. Bundy told the
      staff, according to the memorandum for the record drafted by military
      aide William Y. Smith: "On the first attack, the evidence would be
      pretty good. On the second one the amount of evidence we have today is
      less than we had yesterday. This resulted primarily from correlating
      bits and pieces of information eliminating double counting and
      mistaken signals. This much seemed certain: There was an attack. How
      many PT boats were involved, how many torpedoes were fired, etc. - all
      this was still somewhat uncertain. This matter may be of some
      importance since Hanoi has denied making the second attack." We now
      know this denial was accurate and Washington's claims were not, and
      that senior officials knew of the "double counting and mistaken
      signals." But when new staffer Douglass Cater - attending his first
      morning meeting on August 5, 1964 - questioned the need for a
      Congressional resolution, "Bundy, in reply, jokingly told him perhaps
      the matter should not be thought through too far. For his own part, he
      welcomed the recent events as justification for a resolution the
      Administration had wanted for some time."

      Change a few of the words in these quotes - perhaps substitute
      "weapons of mass destruction" for "PT boats" and "torpedoes," and
      "Baghdad" for "Hanoi" - and the parallels with today become all too apt.

      This new evidence permits us to view more accurately the internal
      deliberations of the Johnson administration. Especially in combination
      with LBJ's telephone conversations with McNamara, recently made
      available to the public with transcriptions, the material clearly
      shows Washington rushing to a judgment on events in the Tonkin Gulf,
      which it seized upon as evidence in support of its predetermined
      intention to escalate the conflict in Vietnam. Those who questioned
      the veracity of the Johnson administration's description of the Gulf
      of Tonkin incident at the time were right to do so. The manipulation
      of this international situation for the administration's political
      purpose of obtaining a congressional authorization for the use of
      force bears considerable similarity to the manner in which the Bush
      administration manipulated intelligence regarding the possibility that
      Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction to gain its own legislative
      approval for war against that country. (Note 16) In both cases, truth
      became the first casualty. In both cases, the consequences far
      outweighed anything anticipated by the presidents involved.
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