Revised edition forthcoming: Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. xviii, 304 pp. ISBN 0-8078-2300-7.
On the night of August 4, 1964, the U.S. Navy destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy reported that they were being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Within hours, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the first U.S. airstrikes against North Vietnam. On August 7, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the President authority to take "all necessary measures" to prevent further aggression. Johnson later cited this as authorizing the massive escalation of the war that he began in 1965.
Almost everyone on the two destroyers believed, during the incident, that they were under attack. Some still believe so, while others have since decided that what had appeared on radar screens as torpedo boats had actually been false images generated by weather conditions, birds, or American planes overhead. Consideration of all of the evidence--the testimony of U.S. personnel from the two destroyers and of pilots who were overhead, declassified U.S. records, communications intercepts, interrogation of North Vietnamese torpedo boat personnel captured later in the war, etc.--leads to a clear conclusion: there was no attack. But the original report of an attack was not a lie concocted to provide an excuse for escalation; it was a genuine mistake.
Previous studies of the Tonkin Gulf Incidents had been based either on extensive interviewing of participants, or on the use of U.S. government records; this is the first study to combine both these sorts of evidence. It is also the first to make significant use of Vietnamese sources. These tell little about August 4, since no Vietnamese were anywhere near the two destroyers during the supposed incident that night, but they do much to illuminate events before and after August 4, including the genuine battle between the destroyer Maddox and three torpedo boats on August 2, which helped set the stage for the imagined attack of August 4 by leaving U.S. sailors with an expectation that North Vietnamese torpedo boats were likely to attack them.
The most important new material in the revised edition comes from documents released by the National Security Agency in 2005 and 2006. These documents show that signals intelligence (SIGINT) did not give the Americans nearly as good an understanding of enemy actions as one might have expected. The Americans had not been listening to North Vietnamese Navy communications long enough to have learned a lot about the North Vietnamese Navy. They could intercept and decode North Vietnamese messages, but their ability to understand those messages, and put them in context, was surprisingly limited.
Abbreviations Used in the Text xvii
Chapter 1: Covert Operations 1
Covert Pressures on the North 2
OPLAN 34A 4
The United States, the RVN, and OPLAN 34A 6
Maritime Forces Based at Danang 8
Increasing the Tempo of Attacks 19
Chapter 2: Thoughts of Escalation 22
Proposals for Overt Attacks on the North 22
The Defense Budget 30
The Cost of a Real War 32
Instead of a Real War: The Psychology of Escalation 33
Public Threats 37
Saigon Calls for Attacks on the North 38
The Laotian Alternative 43
Talking to Different Audiences 44
The Question of PAVN Infiltration 45
The DRV, China, and the Soviet Union 47
Chapter 3: The DeSoto Patrol 50
The Comvan 52
The Immediate Background to the August Incidents 55
A Note on Course and Time Information 63
The DeSoto Patrol Begins 65
The Destroyer Approaches Hon Me 68
Chapter 4: The First Incident, August 2 73
Air Attack on the PT Boats 82
DRV Accounts of the Incident 91
Chapter 5: The DeSoto Patrol Resumes 94
The August 3 Raid 97
Were the Destroyers Set Up? 99
Chapter 6: The Second Incident, August 4 106
Tonkin Spook 106
Toward the August 4 Incident 109
An Imminent Threat 112
Skunk "U" 121
The Action Begins: Skunks "V" and "V-1" 123
Spurious Continuities Between Skunks, "N" to "V-1" 127
The Apparent Incident Continues 129
Chapter 7: The Evidence from the Destroyers 143
The Search for Consistency 145
The Radar Evidence 155
Radar and Gunnery 157
Detection of North Vietnamese Radar 163
The Torpedo Reports and the Sonar Evidence 165
Other Visual Sightings on the Destroyers 179
The Report of Automatic Weapons Fire 183
The Problem of Excited Witnesses 184
Chapter 8: Evidence from Other Sources 186
The Testimony of the Pilots 186
Captured DRV Naval Personnel 194
Communications Intercepts 197
Daylight Searches 201
DRV Public Statements 202
Summing Up 203
Chapter 9: Retaliation 208
Observing from Afar 209
Pierce Arrow: The Decision 210
The Pierce Arrow Airstrikes 214
Defending Against the American Airstrikes 221
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution 225
Denying Provocation 228
Press Coverage: The Facts of August 4 229
Press Coverage: North Vietnamese Motives 230
Press Coverage: Shades of John Wayne 233
Press Coverage: Overall Attitudes and Patterns 234
Soviet and Chinese Reactions 236
Vietnamese Actions: The American Interpretation 239
Hidden Doubts 241
Chapter 10: Toward Further Escalation 244
U.S. Planning Continues 244
U.S. Operations Continue 247
The Consequences of Tonkin Gulf in Vietnam 250
Consequences in the United States: The Phantom Streetcar 253
p. 45, line 39: "Third Plenum" should be "Ninth Plenum"
p. 96, line 23: "Sonarman Second Class Richard Bacino" should be "Signalman Second Class Richard Bacino"
p. 98, line 38: "muzzle blast" should be "backblast"
p. 197, last four sentences: This story of how a crucial German signal was misinterpreted by the British just before the Battle of Jutland, in 1916, was long accepted in the history of that battle. A recent study by Jason Hines, "Sins of Omission and Commission: A Reassessment of the Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Jutland," Journal of Military History, October 2008, pp. 1127-29, argues that this story is untrue. I do not find Hines' argument fully convincing, but I take it seriously enough so I would not, today, simply present the traditional story as accepted fact.
My photographs of torpedo tubes from a North Vietnamese PT boat, of the unit that was involved in the first Tonkin Gulf Incident. These photos were conspicuously displayed at a museum in Hanoi when I photographed them in 1989. I was told some years later that they were no longer there. But when I went again in 2013, they were again on display, though in a less conspicuous location than before.
c.v. for Edwin E. Moïse
Revised February 4, 2019.