The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The American commitment to the war against Vietnam,
which killed over 50,000 U.S. military personnel,
and probably over 2 million Vietnamese civilians,
was cemented by an incident that appears to
involve more fiction than fact.
In the Gulf of Tonkin incident, North Vietnamese torpedo boats
supposedly attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, off Vietnam,
in a pair of assaults on August 2 and 4 of 1964.
It was the basis for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution,
which committed major American forces to the war in Vietnam.
The resolution passed the House of Representatives unanimously,
and passed in the Senate with only two dissenting votes.
In retrospect it is clear that the alleged attack was little more
than a transparent pretext for war, delivered in a one-two punch.
First, media descriptions of the August 2nd attack as an "unprovoked attack"
against a U.S. destroyer on "routine patrol" hid the fact that
the Maddox was providing support for South Vietnamese military operations
against the North.
Second, the alleged August 4th attack appears to be a fabrication,
official accounts attributing the "error" to confusion.
s u m m a r y
On August 4, a new DESOTO patrol to North Vietnam coast was launched by Maddox
and the C. Turner Joy. The latter got radar signals that they believed to be
another attack by the North Vietnamese. For some two hours the ships fired on
radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of
torpedoes. It is highly unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were actually
in the area during this gunfight. Captain John J. Herrick even admitted that it
was nothing more than an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own
propeller beat." Also in 1995, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief
of North Vietnamese forces at the time, disavowed any involvement with the
August 4 incident, though he did confirm the August 2 attack.
National Security Agency Publishes Long-Secret Documents
On December 1, 2005, the National Security Agency released hundreds of
pages of previously-classified documents relating to the
1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The collection included a 2001 article by agency historian Robert J. Hanyok,
which examines numerous reports indicating that
the alleged attack never happened.
e x c e r p t
Vietnam War Intelligence 'Deliberately Skewed,' Secret Study Says
In his 2001 article, an elaborate piece of detective work, Mr. Hanyok wrote
that 90 percent of the intercepts of North Vietnamese communications relevant
to the supposed Aug. 4, 1964, attack were omitted from the major agency
documents going to policy makers.
"The overwhelming body of reports, if used, would have told the story that
no attack had happened," he wrote. "So a conscious effort ensued to demonstrate
that an attack occurred."
Edwin E. Mo´se, a historian at Clemson University who wrote a book on the
Gulf of Tonkin incident, said the agency did the right thing in making public
Mr. Hanyok's damning case. "A lot of people at the agency haven't been happy
that communications intelligence was used to support a wrong conclusion,"
page last modified: 2005-12-02