Tonkin Gulf Incident

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Tonkin Gulf Incident

The Tonkin Gulf Incident proves the case established when humans first became territorial: If a chief, king, or president wants to have a war, an incident can always be fabricated to provoke one.

On July 31, 1964, the U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox began a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, a body of water that lies on the east coast of North Vietnam and the west coast of Hainan Island, China. On August 2 the destroyer C. Turner Joy joined the Maddox, and the two warships set out on a “DESOTO patrol,” an intelligence/espionage mission, checking out the radar and coastal defenses of North Vietnam. When the Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo patrol boats, the U.S. destroyer returned fire and was joined in the fight by the C. Turner Joy. Warplanes sent by the Ticonderoga added to the firepower. They sank one torpedo boat and reported damaging others.

On August 4 the two destroyers were once again on reconnaissance in the Gulf of Tonkin when radar signals indicated that they were under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. For two hours the warships fired vigorously on radar targets and maneuvered to evade what they believed to be visual sightings of enemy boats. Once again, the Ticon-eroga launched Crusader jet warplanes. The two destroyers fired 249 five-inch shells, 123 three-inch shells, and four or five depth charges to repel their attackers.

That night, network television in the United States was interrupted at 11:36 P.M. EDT so that President Lyndon B. Johnson could inform the nation that U.S. warships of the Seventh Fleet on duty in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. LBJ then explained that in response to “open aggression on the open seas” against our ships, he had ordered air strikes on North Vietnam.

On August 7 the U.S. House and Senate passed the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” stipulating that the president could “take all necessary measures to repel armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” By July 1965 the U.S. had sent 80,000 troops to South Vietnam. By early 1969 there were 543,000 U.S. military personnel deployed to Vietnam, and 400 tons of bombs and ordnance per day were being dropped on the enemy. When the United States withdrew in 1975, at least one million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans had died in the conflict.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 4, 1964, was a significant factor in U.S. involvement in a war that sharply divided the nation along class and generational lines—and the attack probably never happened.

Two days earlier, North Vietnamese forces in Russian-made “swatow” gunboats had attacked the Maddox, but from the outset many doubted that anything had happened on August 4. Tapes released by the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin include fifty-one phone conversations from August 4 and 5. Even LBJ said that for all he knew, the ships could have been shooting at whales. A 1:59 P.M. EDT August 4 phone conversation with Lieutenant General David Burchinal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, contained such comments as “many of the reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful” and “probably overeager sonar men” and “freak weather effects on radar.”

Bob Richter, writing in the San Antonio Express-News, said, “The released tapes neither prove nor disprove what may have happened that night, but they do indicate jittery sailors in a tense area thought they were under attack.” James Stockdale, a navy aviator who responded to the alleged attacks on the Maddox and Turner Joy, has declared the Tonkin Gulf incident all “hogwash.” Stockdale was later shot down and spent eight years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. In 1992 he was Ross Perot’s running mate in the presidential election. In his 1984 book In Love and War, Stockdale writes, “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there. There was nothing but black water and American firepower.”

Even at the time of the incident, skeptics felt that many in the government were only looking for an excuse to initiate bombing in Vietnam, and the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” provided that excuse. However, scholars who have listened to the LBJ tapes seem to have formed a general consensus that the incident was not engineered, but was a mistake. David Crockett, a presidential scholar at Trinity University, has labeled the incident an accident but adds that the greater mistake was that Congress gave LBJ a “virtual blank check to make war.” The bitter irony, Crockett observed, is that LBJ had campaigned on the promise that he wouldn’t send American troops to die in Asian wars.