Edwin E. Moïse

Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. xviii, 304 pp. ISBN 0-8078-2300-7.

This is the page for the original 1996 edition. For the revised edition, very substantially improved, published in July 2019 by the U.S. Naval Institute Press,

See separate page.

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.


Preface   xi
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
      Evaluation   86
      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
Notes   257
Bibliography   289
Index   297

      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, 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 there in 2013, they were still on display, but in a less conspicuous location than before.

c.v. for Edwin E. Moïse

Revised July 7, 2021.