Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Tonkin Gulf Incidents and Resolution (August 1964)

On 2 August 1964, Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) torpedo boats attacked the U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox while it was on a desoto electronic intelligence–gathering patrol in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin some 28 miles off the North Vietnamese coast. This was probably the consequence of two Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) PT boat attacks on 31 July, a fact unknown to Captain John Herrick of the Maddox. The South Vietnamese PT boat raids were part of OPLAN (operations plan) 34A harassment activities run by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), against North Vietnam.

Captain Herrick sought approval from commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific Admiral Ulysses Grant Sharp to terminate his patrol. Sharp feared that this might call into question U.S. resolve or the right to steam in international waters, and he secured permission from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to strengthen the patrol by adding a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, to Herrick's command.

On 3 August another OPLAN 34A raid took place, and on the next night Herrick reported a possible torpedo boat attack on the two destroyers. Almost all of those on the two destroyers believed that an attack of up to two hours had occurred, but there were no visual sightings of North Vietnamese patrol craft in the area. Only hours after learning of the American claim of a second attack, the North Vietnamese government issued a public denial, a position that it has maintained ever since.

In February 1968, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in closed session and said that he had "unimpeachable" proof of a second attack. In November 1995, however, he met with General Vo Nguyen Giap, former North Vietnamese defense minister, in Hanoi. Giap confirmed the first attack, which he said was the work of "a local coast guard unit," but he denied that there had been any second attack. He also charged President Lyndon Johnson's administration with a deliberate plan to fabricate the attack in order to seek the approval of Congress for the war.

Undoubtedly, there was no attack on 4 August. The reports of it are probably attributable to stormy weather, evasive maneuvering, and inexperienced and fatigued radar and sonar operators. On the other hand, there is no evidence to support Giap's charge that the Johnson administration knowingly faked the incident to escalate the war. It was a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate deception.

In Washington, President Johnson and U.S. military leaders did not want the North Vietnamese leadership to equate lack of U.S. response with lack of resolve, especially as Johnson was then locked in an election campaign against Republican hawk and airpower advocate Senator Barry Goldwater. Secure in his belief of an attack, Johnson also wanted to be able to announce a U.S. military response on the evening television news. Despite a radio message from Herrick that "review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful" and a later message to Sharp that "details of action present a confusing picture," on 5 August Johnson ordered Operation pierce arrow, a retaliatory U.S. Navy strike against North Vietnamese coastal naval facilities.

As it turned out, Johnson's public announcement came before some of the U.S. aircraft from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation had reached their targets—oil storage tanks and torpedo boat bases at Thanh Hoa, Hoa Ngu, Vinh, and Quang Khe. U.S. aircraft flew sixty-four sorties. Two planes were shot down, with one pilot killed and the other captured.

Even before the incidents, Johnson had told congressional leaders of his intention to seek a resolution of support for his Southeast Asia policy. Such a request reached Congress on 5 August. Two days later, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by a vote of 416–0 in the House and 88–2 in the Senate.

The resolution styled North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. ships as "part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression . . . against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom." It authorized the president to take those steps necessary "to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression." It also held that the United States regarded the maintenance of peace and security in Southeast Asia as "vital to the national interest and to world peace" and was thus "prepared, as the president determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom."

In effect what became known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave Johnson blanket authority to wage war in Vietnam without a formal declaration of war. Contrary to later charges, the implications of the resolution were fully, albeit briefly, aired before the vote.

Following the public revelation of President Richard M. Nixon's clandestine bombing of Cambodia, Congress rescinded the resolution in June 1970. In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which quite specifically prescribed the president's power to wage war and the role of Congress in any such endeavor. Unlike the carte blanche wording of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the War Powers Act was very deliberate in its attempt to avoid another Vietnam.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Moïse, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
 

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