Perhaps one of the most controversial and debated incidents in US history. Events started in early 1960 when the communist government in Vietnam began to organize forces which threatened to overtake the US backed South Vietnam. For several years the CIA conducted covert operations to monitor the activity of the communist government. This quickly escalated in to a series of rather non-covert skirmishes fought along the shores and islands surrounding North and South Vietnam.

In January 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara took over the project, which then became known as OP 34 Alpha. More covert agents were sent to Vietnam, most of whom ended up MIA (estimated over 500 men). McNamara also sent out several patrol vessels which were fitted with equipment to intercept communications from North Vietnam.

On August 2, 1964, all of this came out into the open with a North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox (Destroyer Class, DD-731) commanded by Captain John J. Herrick which was stationed about 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese believed this ship was in place for the support of an attack against military installations at Hon Me and Hon Ngu several days earlier. One Vietnamese patrol boat was destroyed and several more were damaged and driven off by US support aircraft. Records indicate that one machine gun round hit the Maddox, causing almost no damage. This first attack was designated as an un-provoked attack by US Military Officials.

On August 4, 1964, USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy returned to the area to resume patrols, a short 17 hours after raids of military installations at Cap Vinh Son and Cua Ron. Both ships reported a second attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Maddox reported radar contact with several high speed patrol boats, and later reported over 20 torpedo attacks and automatic weapons fire. The area was filled with low clouds and thunderstorms, leading to very poor visibility. Crew members reported conflicting stories about what they heard and saw, and both US ships received no damage.

An investigation was soon launched by Congress to determine if an actual event took place. McNamara reported that there was definite proof of a second, un-provoked attack. This led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which was the closest thing to a Declaration of War that would happen during the entire Vietnam War. McNamara also claimed that the ships standing by were not supporting the raids, and the crew had no knowledge of military actions in North Vietnam. He later admitted this was not true, and that the crew of the Maddox were fully aware of the raids and were concerned for their welfare in the event of a retaliation.

In 1972, Deputy Director of the NSA Louis Tordella revealed that McNamara's proof of a second attack was a decoded message which contained North Vietnamese assessments of the damage from the first attack, not the second attack. In his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara admits that the US may have provoked the second attack which ultimately began the war, though he claims it was due to an innocent mistake in reading the decoded message, and not an intentional plan to pull North Vietnam into a war. He claimed that he had never lied to Congress or the American people and that he acted in behalf of what he felt was right. During a later visit to Vietnam, McNamara confirmed that indeed, nothing had happened on the night of August 4 to his knowledge.

Later on at a conference in Washington DC, Daniel Ellsberg (former advisor to during the war) said:

"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 also revealed:

"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."

The exact occurrence of events and motivations will probably never be know, but the effect was clear. McNamara summed it up:

"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."




Resources:
http://www.thehistorynet.com/Vietnam/articles/1997/08972_text.htm
http://www.fair.org/media-beat/940727.html
http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/shwv/articles/tonk-faq.htm

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was significant because it led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a law passed by Congress which authorized the president to use military force to defend South Vietnam from North Vietnam. As the author above explains, there were actually two incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, one on August 2nd in which the North Vietnamese attacked a U.S. destroyer in international waters, and another on August 4th when a U.S. vessel thought it was under attack but probably actually wasn't. The subsequent horror of the Vietnam War, and the fact the August 4th attack probably didn't happen, has given the Gulf of Tonkin incident a notoriety that it doesn't entirely deserve.

The fact is that the Vietnam War would have happened without the Gulf of Tonkin incident or the resolution; the incident merely provided a good rallying cry, and the resolution useful political cover. That it wasn't legally necessary is clear from the fact that it was repealed in January 1971, and yet the war still continued - and that Congress felt the need to pass the War Powers Resolution in 1973 to attempt to alter the balance of warmaking power between the legislative and the executive.

To understand all this, you have to look at the incident in context. By August 1964, North Vietnam was nearly five years into a campaign of aiding Communist insurgents in South Vietnam to attempt to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, and violating the neutrality of its neighbours to smuggle men and equipment south in the process. By mid-1965, they would be well on their way to succeeding, which is what actually caused President Johnson to dispatch American combat forces there. The U.S., for its part, was nearly five years into a clandestine operation - much, much smaller and less successful than the North Vietnamese one - to infiltrate and harass North Vietnam.

In their efforts to infiltrate North Vietnam, the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had no grandiose goals. Having already rejected the idea of trying to actually overthrow the North Vietnamese regime - the Chinese would never have allowed it and might have started World War III in response, or so the U.S. thought - they were simply trying to distract them from their efforts south of the border, and maybe cause some minor disruption. Early attempts to parachute men in to conduct sabotage operations had been a dismal failure, and the Americans had plumped for training South Vietnamese commandos to attack various coastal installations on speedboats. They often didn't come back alive. The USS Maddox, the boat attacked by the North Vietnamese, was gathering intelligence in support of these efforts, albeit in international waters.

The North Vietnamese, meanwhile, had spent years infiltrating men and munitions into South Vietnam to take aim - quite literally - at American forces there, who at this time were just deployed in an "advisory" role, helping the South Vietnamese. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was only one in a series of notable attacks on American forces in the region around this time. In November 1964, the Viet Cong mortared the Bien Hoa Air Base, damaging or destroying dozens of aircraft and killing or wounding about as many men. In February 1965, the Viet Cong attacked Camp Holloway, a helicopter base at Pleiku in the mountains, with similar results. After this latter attack, when the administration was discussing whether to respond with a large-scale escalation in its military efforts, President Johnson's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy chimed in: "Pleikus are like streetcars".

And this was the salient point. These provocations were like streetcars - if you don't take this one, another one will come along soon enough. And so it was with the Gulf of Tonkin incident. An attack on a U.S. ship in international waters was undoubtedly fairly stupid on the part of North Vietnam, but it fit a general pattern of aggression on the part of the North against South Vietnam and those who had crossed the sea to protect it. There was an awful lot of noise and worry about the detailed chain of events - for instance, the U.S. had bombed North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which some people thought had then provoked the Bien Hoa and Pleiku attacks - but this was almost irrelevant; if the Gulf of Tonkin incident hadn't happened, then something very similar would have. It was inherent in the fact North Vietnam was determined to take over the South, and the U.S. was determined to stop them.

Finally, as I noted, the irrelevance of the resolution is proven by the fact it was repealed in 1971, and yet the war continued. American participation in the Vietnam War was winding down in 1971, for sure, but it was still very much active - and in 1972 a massive air and sea operation would crush an invading North Vietnamese army, buying South Vietnam three more years of survival. After the resolution was repealed, the Nixon administration resorted to the hoary old trick of most post-WW2 American administrations - it argued that it didn't need congressional approval to wage war, because the president could do it anyway. Or, as Tricky Dick said elsewhere, "if the president does it, that means it's not illegal". Congress would later pass the War Powers Resolution to try, without much success, to make it otherwise so.

Still, even if it had been legally irrelevant, it had been politically very salient - the resolution allowed President Johnson, when he sent the first combat troops in 1965, to do so under what looked like the cover of a bipartisan consensus, a nation of two parties at peace with each other on issues of national security and presenting a united front to the world, especially when it came to dealing with pesky Commies. Only two senators voted against the resolution. Very little of that comity would remain when the chain of events of which the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a part was finally done.

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