August 2, 1964 -- The United States claims that North Vietnamese gunboats engaged in an unprovoked attack on the destroyer USS Maddox while in internatonal waters. President Lyndon B. Johnson asks Congress to approve a resolution giving him unlimited authority to assist any nation in attacking North Vietnam. Congress agrees, passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 10, 1964.... and initiating the Vietnam War.
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The 1954 Geneva Accords ostensibly ended the war between the French colonial government and the people of Vietnam. The accords established a northern zone, dominated by communist nationalists, and a southern zone, dominated by a Catholic dictatorship. Free elections were to be held at an unspecified future date. The North had been ruled by Hồ Chí Minh 's Viet Minh party since rigged elections in 1946. The South conducted a referendum in 1955 which established a republic under the new president, Ngô Đình Diệm. The United States agreed to protect the new Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam).
The North continued to press for unification of Vietnam, and established a guerrilla force, the Viet Cong, in the South. (The Viet Cong declared themselves to be a native [not foreign-sponsored] uprising against the Diệm government, but it was not.) In 1959, Diệm rigged elections and essentially seized power in the South, establishing a dictatorship.
Beginning in 1961, the United States began conducting highly classified covert actions against North Vietnam known as Operation Plan 34-Alpha. Initially run by the CIA, the program was transferred to the Department of Defense in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. A set of Norwegian-made fast-patrol boats (skippered by a Norwegian but crewed by South Vietnamese) began attacking the North Vietnamese coast under direct orders from Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., Commander in Chief of the U.S Pacific Fleet. The South Vietnamese also engaged in independent espionage attacks on North Vietnam, conducting commando raids, bombing shore facilities from fast-attack patrol boats, and inserting covert action teams.
This covert war escalated on July 31, 1964, when the CIA ordered fighter-bombers, based illegally in Laos and piloted by Thai mercenaries, to attack North Vietnamese towns on the North Vietnam-Laotian border. These attacks continued on August 1. That same day, a 34-Alpha long-term covert action team landed in North Vietnam, and was promptly captured. To the North Vietnamese, it seemed that the Americans were attempting to bring the war to them (rather than simply defend the South).
The United States was also engaged in electronic surveillance of North Vietnam (known as SIGNINT and ELINT) from international waters. They were initially conducted by the USS De Haven, and became known as De Haven Special Operations off TsingtaO -- or DESOTO patrols. In time, other U.S. Navy ships conducted these operations.
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On July 31, the Maddox began her DESOTO patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam's southernmost coast. Maddox was ordered not to approach closer than eight miles from the North Vietnamese coast. The following day, North Vietnamese patrol boats (with a top speed of 50 knots) began tracking the Maddox (which had a stop speed of 28 knots).
On July 2, three North Vietnamese P-4 patrol boats began approaching Maddox. These boats were armed with torpedoes, heavy machine guns, and mortars. At 3:05 PM local time, Maddox fired three warning shots at the patrol boats, which were just over five-and-a-half miles away. Thus, Maddox fired on boats inside North Vietnamese territorial waters. The patrol boats fired torpedoes at the Maddox. Maddox evaded all of them, but was hit by machine gun fire from one of the boats and very lightly damaged. Aircraft launched from the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (which was nearby) then sank one P-4 and heavily damaged another.
Was Maddox in international waters? North Vietnam claimed a 12-mile territorial limit (as the French colonial government had since 1930), but the U.S. refused to recognize this and said international law only permitted a 5.8-mile limit. (There was no international law on the subject until 1982.) However, the captain of the Maddox, John J. Herrick, had instructed his gunnery crews to fire any any North Vietnamese ship which came within 10,000 yards. That's 5.68 miles. If Maddox had been just inside U.S.-defined international waters, Maddox would have fired on boats just a half mile from the shore -- a clearly aggressive act. It's now known that Maddox was 9.2 miles off the North Vietnamese coast, and just 4.6 miles from the North Vietnamese island of Hòn Me. Maddox clearly fired on boats within North Vietnamese territorial waters, however defined. And Maddox itself was clearly violating North Vietnamese territorial waters around Hòn Me.
The Johnson administration covered up the fact that the Maddox fired first. It called the August 2 attack "unprovoked", denying both that the U.S. had been engaged in an undeclared war with North Vietnam and that the Maddox fired first.
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On August 3, Maddox and another destroyer (the USS Turner Joy) engaged in another DESOTO patrol off North Vietnam, and never came closer than 11 miles to the North Vietnamese coast. The weather had turned rough, with high seas, heavy rain, and clouds. About 10:40 AM local time on August 4 (10:40 PM Eastern U.S. time on August 3), radar, sonar, and radio signals indicated that the Maddox was under attack again. Maddox and Turner Joy fired for four hours on radar targets. Both ships said they took automatic-weapons fire, suffered more than 20 torpedo attacks, sighted torpedo wakes, seen enemy ship lights, and been illuminated by searchlights. In turn, the Maddox and Turner Joy fired 249 five-inch shells, 123 three-inch shells, and dropped four or five depth charges.
Officials in the Gulf of Tonkin, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C., had monitored the reports of Maddox and Turner Joy during the attack. At about 4:15 AM Eastern U.S. time on August 4, roughly 30 minutes after the "attack" on the Maddox ended, President Johnson decided to retaliate with military force.
John J. Herrick, captain of two-destroyer task force, sent a "flash" (highest-priority) message to U.S. Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., at 1:27 AM local time on August 5 (1:27 PM Eastern U.S. time on August 4), declaring doubt that any attack had occurred. But at 2:48 AM local time on August 5 (2:48 PM Eastern U.S. time on August 4), Herrick sent another message, declaring that a "bona fide" ambush had occurred but that the rest of the battle had been an error. With DoD officials desperate for confirmation, at 5:00 AM local time on August 5 (5:00 PM Eastern U.S. time on August 4), Herrick reiterated his revised after-action report: The ambush was real (a torpedo attack, he now claimed); all other targets and attacks were phantoms.
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But was it real?
During the battle, the Navy scrambled fighters to observe and assist in the battle. Commander James Stockdale, flying low-altitude reconnaissance, could see no North Vietnamese ships. He saw no fire from any vessel except the Maddox and Turner Joy. When he reported his observations to his superiors, they told him to be quiet.
U.S. military signal and electronic surveillance of the August 4 battle area was also extensive. Almost 90 percent of these intercepts contradicted Herrick's claim that a battle had occurred. U.S. Navy and DoD military aides refused to include these in their analyses, purposefully slanting the evidence given to their civilian supervisors at the Pentagon and White House. Those messages that were forwarded contained severe analytic errors, unexplained translation changes, alterations in timestamps (to indicate they occurred during or after the battle, rather than before), and in one case collapsed two messages into one translation. Several vital SIGINT and ELINT intercepts which directly contradicted the attack account conveniently disappeared.
Still, civilian officials resisted Herricks account. What turned the tide was a critical piece of informatin received by the U.S. militay between 4:00 PM and 5:30 PM Eastern U.S. time on August 4. Military intelligence intercepted a North Vietnamese message claiming that two American aircraft had been shot down and an American naval vessel damaged, while two North Vietnamese sailors had lost their lives. But this message referred to the August 2 attacks against the Maddox. U.S. Navy officials, however, purposefully misinterpreted it to claim it referred to the August 4 "attack". And even though the message was clearly erroneous (and only mentioned on American ship -- not two), Navy officials brushed aside these concerns and purposefully misinterpreted the message as mere over-claiming of battale damage.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara knew that no attack had occurred on August 4, and deliberately lied about it. On August 3, in a meeting with the president which Johnson secretly recorded, McNamara that there was "no question" the 34-Alpha attacks had provoked the North Vietnamese attack on August 2. On August 6, McNamara lied when he told a joint Senate Foreign Relations/Armed Services committee hearing that 34-Alpha covert operations played no role in the August 2 attack on the Maddox. That same day, McNamara lied to the American people during a press conference, claiming that no 34-Alpha operations had led to military responses by the North Vietnamese and by claiming that no 34-Alpha operations had gone into North Vietnamese waters.
CIA Director John McCone also knew that the 34-Alpha attacks had provoked the North Vietnamese. During a meeting of the National Security Council early in the evening of August 4, McCone admitted that the "North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their offshore islands".
Even President Johnson himself knew that the August 4 attack was fictitious. About August 14, Johnson told an aide during an Oval Office meeting, "Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish."
None of this mattered.
At 11:23 PM Eastern U.S. time on August 4, President Johnson went live on nationwide television to announce the "unprovoked" attack on the Maddox and Turner Joy "on the high seas" (in international waters).
At 12:43 AM local time on August 5, U.S. Navy aircraft bombed four torpedo boat bases and an oil-storage facility in North Vietnam.
The Vietnam War was under way.