The events that escalated the Vietnam War – were they real?: Exploring the truth behind the Gulf Tonkin Incidents and their implications up to the present

The Gulf Tonkin Incidents were the pretext for President Johnson to create and ultimately pass the Gulf Tonkin Resolution, which ultimately allowed the US to escalate the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War) into a large-scale war. However, the initial incidents have stirred up great controversy given the varying accounts of the events from different perspectives and the general confusion that was generated as a result. In this post, we will look into the initial reports of the incidents, whether the events were actually true, and lastly, its implications nowadays.

What were the Gulf Tonkin Incidents?

The First Gulf Tonkin Incident occurred on August 2, 1964, in broad daylight (at 1440 or 2:40pm) involving the American destroyer, the USS Maddox being attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, while supporting the South Vietnamese in a secret coastline raid of North Vietnam. As reported by the US, it occurred in international waters, and thus, the North Vietnamese actions were interpreted as an act of aggression. Two days later, on the 4th of August, at night, another attack by similar North  Vietnamese naval units was claimed by the National Security Agency (NSA) on the same US destroyer in the same area – often referred to as the Second Gulf Tonkin Incident [1]

Were the Gulf Tonkin Incidents actually true?

tonkingunboats
A photograph taken from the Maddox of the three North Vietnamese torpedo boats approaching the destroyer on 2nd August, 1964, during the first reported incident in the Gulf of Tonkin (Source: Official U.S. Navy photo NH 95611 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

The initial Gulf Tonkin Incident on August 2nd involving the confrontation between North Vietnamese torpedo boats and the USS Maddox definitely did occur. From initial US accounts, the USS Maddox was pursued by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats during a patrol in international waters, which descended into a sea battle. While the US destroyer did engage the North Vietnamese naval units, it was a defensive measure due to the signals intelligence messages (SIGINT) intercepted by the Americans, signalling the intent of the North Vietnamese units to attack [2]. The North Vietnamese General, Vo Nguyen Giap revealed that the attack was intentional, all but confirming the reality of the first incident [3]. One important issue that was raised at the time was the regions of international waters, which the North Vietnamese claimed a 12 mile limit on territorial waters, but the US did not recognize this (they adhered to a 3 mile limit, which is the standard nowadays), with the USS Maddox being 9.2 miles off the North Vietnamese coast [4]. This disputed element at the time affects how this incident is perceived, especially as if the US destroyer was in North Vietnamese waters, their patrol would be seen as an act of aggression, rather than a defensive one. Though this certain aspect is slightly unclear, there is no doubt that this naval attack and confrontation was real.

The Second Gulf Tonkin Incident that was initially raised, on the other hand, was not true at all, but at the time, there was confusion surrounding it, and instead was often seen as a replica of the first incident by the US. Most notably, former US Secretary of Defense (Secretary at the time), Robert McNamara admitted decades following the event that there was never a naval attack on the USS Maddox by the North Vietnamese that occurred on the 4th August, 1964. Instead, extreme weather and inexperienced sonar men accounted for the false reports on what seemed to be torpedoes that were aimed towards the US ship [5]. The lack of any attack occurring on the date is further emphasised in a declassified article written by National Security Agency (NSA) historian, Robert Hanyok, which confirmed that the initial incident that was claimed to have happened on the 4th August never actually occurred – instead the evidence was manipulated by NSA personnel to develop the appearance of a similar attack to the first [6].

robert_mcnamara_official_portrait
US Secretary of Defense at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, Robert McNamara – it took him decades to admit that the Second Tonkin Gulf incident never happened (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

What are the implications of the Tonkin Gulf incidents nowadays?

These incidents, which formed the basis of US military escalation in the Vietnam War, show exactly how governments can use skewed intel (and even manipulate evidence) to achieve their aims, especially as President Johnson eagerly looked to heighten US military involvement and ultimately, engage in a full-scale war against the North Vietnamese after the prolonged period of tensions in Vietnam beforehand. This is especially as the phantom second incident, which, when paired with the first, was critical in highlighting the communist North Vietnamese threat in Vietnam on the US home front (as the incidents were generally accepted as reasons to escalate the war at the time).

To show how this is still significant, a more recent example that can be used is the controversy surrounding the claim of WMDs in Iraq in 2003, which the US used as the pretext for invading the nation. Like the Tonkin Gulf incidents, the excuse for military escalation was at least partially fabricated to allow the US to be presented in a more favourable light as the invading force, and to hide the true intentions of such action.

On a final note, the prevalence of such a historical trend places this issue as crucial both in the present and the future. It can be addressed by there being more transparency from governments and greater awareness from the people, though these are undoubtedly overarching and major challenges.


1. ^ Paterson, P. (2008). The Truth About Tonkin | U.S. Naval Institute. Usni.org. Retrieved 20  January 2017, from http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-02/truth-about-tonkin#footnotes
2. ^ Ibid.
3. ^ Schuster, C. (2014). Case Closed: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident | HistoryNet. HistoryNet. Retrieved 20 January 2017, from http://www.historynet.com/case-closed-the-gulf-of-tonkin-incident.htm
4. ^ LBJ Tapes on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. (2003). Nsarchive.gwu.edu. Retrieved 20 January 2017, from http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB132/tapes.htm
5. ^ The Fog of War. (2003). United States.
6. ^ Hanyok, R. (2001). Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, And The Flying Fish: The Gulf Of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964. Cryptologic Quaterly, 1-6.

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