Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, July 2019. xxiv, 362 pp. ISBN 1682474240.
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 remained firm in that belief, while others later decided that what had appeared on radar screens as torpedo boats had actually been false images generated by weather conditions, birds, or American aircraft. 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, North Vietnamese communications intercepted by the United States and released by NSA in 2005 and 2006, interrogation of North Vietnamese torpedo boat personnel captured in 1966, 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. The original edition of this book, published in 1996, was the first study to combine both these sorts of evidence. It was also the first American study to make significant use of Vietnamese sources. These told little about August 4, since no Vietnamese were anywhere near the two destroyers during the supposed incident that night, but they did 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.
List of Illustrations ix
Abbreviations Used in the Text xxi
Chapter 1: Covert Operations 1
Covert Pressures on the North 2
OPLAN 34A 4
The United States, the RVN, and OPLAN 34A 7
Maritime Forces Based at Danang 9
Increasing the Tempo of Attacks 18
Chapter 2: Thoughts of Escalation 22
Proposals for Overt Attacks on the North 22
The Defense Budget 31
The Cost of a Real War 33
Instead of a Real War: The Psychology of Escalation 35
Public Threats 38
Saigon Calls for Attacks on the North 40
The Laotian Alternative 45
Talking to Different Audiences 47
The Question of PAVN Infiltration 49
The DRV, China, and the Soviet Union 51
Chapter 3: The Desoto Patrol 55
The Comvan 57
The Immediate Background to the August Incidents 61
The People's Navy 68
A Note on Course and Time Information 71
The Desoto Patrol Begins 73
The Maddox Approaches Hon Me 79
Chapter 4: The First Incident, August 2 82
The Attack Order 82
The View from the Maddox 85
Air Attack on the PT Boats 93
DRV Accounts of the Incident 104
Chapter 5: The Desoto Patrol Resumes 107
The August 3 Raid 112
Were the Destroyers Set Up? 114
Chapter 6: The Second Incident, August 4 122
Tonkin Spook 122
Toward the August 4 Incident 126
An Imminent Threat 128
Skunk U 137
The Action Begins: Skunks V and V-1 139
Spurious Continuities Between Skunks, N to V-1 144
The Apparent Incident Continues 146
Chapter 7: The Evidence from the Destroyers 159
The Search for Consistency 162
The Radar Evidence 167
Radar and Gunnery 170
Detection of North Vietnamese Radar 174
The Torpedo Reports and the Sonar Evidence 176
Other Visual Sightings on the Destroyers 186
The Report of Automatic Weapons Fire 190
The Problem of Excited Witnesses 192
Chapter 8: The Evidence from Other Sources 194
The Testimony of the Pilots 194
Captured DRV Naval Personnel 202
Communications Intercepts 204
Daylight Searches 212
DRV Public Statements 213
Summing Up 215
Chapter 9: Retaliation 219
Observing from Afar 220
Pierce Arrow: The Decision 222
The Pierce Arrow Airstrikes 226
Defending Against the American Airstrikes 236
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution 241
Press Coverage: The Facts of August 4 244
Press Coverage: North Vietnamese Motives 246
Press Coverage: Shades of John Wayne 249
Press Coverage: Overall Attitudes and Patterns 250
Chinese and Soviet Reactions 252
Vietnamese Actions: The American Interpretation 256
Hidden Doubts 258
Chapter 10: Toward Further Escalation 261
U.S. Planning Continues 261
U.S. Operations Continue 266
The Consequences of Tonkin Gulf in Vietnam 269
Consequences in the United States: The Phantom Streetcar 273
Abbreviations Used in the Notes and Bibliography 277
p. 14, line 8: "landings" should be "landing parties"
p. 191, 6th line from bottom: "attributing to the muzzle flashes" should be "attributing the muzzle flashes"
p. 209, last line: "Gen. David Burchinal" should be "Lt. Gen. David Burchinal"
p. 351, line 12: "Doan Ba Khanh, 68, 95-97 . . ." should be "Doan Ba Khanh, 69, 95-97 . . ."
p. 351, line 15: "Drachnik, Joseph, 175" should be "Drachnik, Joseph, 17, 51"
My photographs of torpedo tubes from a North Vietnamese torpedo boat, of the unit that was involved in the first Tonkin Gulf Incident, the genuine attack on USS Maddox on the afternoon of August 2, 1964. They were conspicuously displayed in the People's Army museum in Hanoi when I photographed them in 1989. When I went back in 2013, they were still on display, but in a less conspicuous location.
c.v. for Edwin E. Moïse
Revised March 16, 2021.