Edwin E. Moïse

Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War

Revised Edition

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
Preface      xi
Acknowledgements      xix
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
      Evaluation      98
      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
Notes      281
Bibliography      331
Index      349


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.