The Only War We've Got

The Tonkin Gulf Incidents of 1964

[From the Frequently Asked Questions of the now-defunct newsgroup soc.history.war.vietnam. This FAQ was prepared by Prof. Edwin E. Moise of Clemson University. -- Daniel Ford]

On the morning of July 31, 1964, the US Navy destroyer MADDOX (DD-731) began a reconnaissance patrol, called a DESOTO patrol, along the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The main goal was to gather information about the coastal defense forces.

It was expected that the North Vietnamese coastal defense forces would be quite active, so a lot could be learned about them, because a number of covert operations were being carried out against the North Vietnamese coast around this time. These operations, under OPLAN (Operations Plan) 34A, were carried out by moderate-sized vessels (some old American PT boats with the torpedo tubes removed, and some new Norwegian-built Nasty boats, about the size of a PT boat), based at Danang.

Around midnight on the night of July 30-31, OPLAN 34A raiders from Danang shelled two of North Vietnam's offshore islands, Hon Me and Hon Ngu (a.k.a. Hon Nieu).

On the afternoon of August 2, when the MADDOX was not far from Hon Me, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats came out from Hon Me and attacked the MADDOX. The attack was unsuccessful, though one bullet from a heavy machinegun on one of the torpedo boats did hit the destroyer. This is often referred to as the "first attack."

Warning: many books have the interval between the OPLAN 34A raid on Hon Me and the attack on the MADDOX much shorter than it actually was: two and a half days.

The MADDOX left the Gulf of Tonkin after this incident, but came back on August 3, accompanied by another destroyer, the TURNER JOY (DD-951).

There were more OPLAN 34A raids on the night of August 3-4, this time shelling two points on the North Vietnamese mainland. The destroyers did not participate; the raids were carried out by the boats from Danang.

Late on the afternoon of August 4, the two destroyers headed away from the North Vietnamese coast toward the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin. That night, they began picking up what appeared to be high-speed vessels on their radar. They believed they were being attacked, and opened fire. Most of the supposed attacking vessels, however, appeared only on the radar of the TURNER JOY, not the radar of the MADDOX. Some men on the destroyers decided later that what had appeared on the radar had just been ghost images; others think the radar images were genuine torpedo boats attacking them. This is often referred to as the "second attack."

The following afternoon, aircraft from two US aircraft carriers, the TICONDEROGA and the CONSTELLATION, carried out retaliatory airstrikes. The targets for the most part were coastal patrol vessels of the North Vietnamese Navy, but a major petroleum storage facility at the town of Vinh was also hit, and in fact the destruction of this facility was the most important accomplishment of the airstrikes.

On August 7, the US Congress passed, almost unanimously, the "Tonkin Gulf Resolution," giving President Johnson basically a blank check to use "all necessary measures" to deal with "aggression" in Vietnam. The Johnson administration had been wanting to get such a resolution from the Congress; the Tonkin Gulf incidents made a good excuse. It does not appear, however, that the incidents had been deliberately concocted in order to provide the excuse.

Incident at Muc Wa

Bibliography: Everett Alvarez, Jr. and Anthony S. Pitch, Chained Eagle (New York: Fine, 1989). Alvarez was one of the pilots who flew air cover over the destroyers during the Second Tonkin Gulf Incident. The following day, during air strikes at Hon Gai, he was shot down; he was the first pilot captured by the DRV. Anthony Austin, The President's War (New York: Lippincott, 1971). A quite detailed account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, and the internal processes by which the United States Government dealt with them.

Joseph F. Bouchard, "Uses of Naval Force in Crises: A Theory of Stratified Crisis Interaction." Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1989. 1236 pp. (When Bouchard later published this as a book, he had to cut it to a much smaller size. Tonkin Gulf was one of the things that got cut.)

William B. Cogar, ed., New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Eighth Naval History Symposium. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989. Contains papers on Tonkin Gulf by Edward Marolda and Edwin Moise, and comments on them by James A. Barber, Jr.

Steve Edwards, "Stalking the Enemy's Coast", Proceedings 118:2 (February 1992), pp. 56-62. A very unreliable account.

John Galloway, The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970). The actual text is rather short, but this volume has long useful appendices, including the complete official transcripts (classified material deleted) of crucial Senate committee hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, held August 6, 1964 and February 20, 1968. Note that some of the deleted passages have now been released by the government.

Joseph Goulden, Truth is the First Casualty. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969.

Samuel E. Halpern, M.D., West Pac '64 (Boston: Branden Press, 1975). By a medical officer who was aboard the Maddox.

Gerald Kurland, The Gulf of Tonkin Incidents. Charlotteville, NY: Sam Har Press, 1975.

Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996; Naval Institute Press 2019.

Sen. Thurston B. Morton, "Only the G.O.P. can Get Us out of Vietnam", Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1968, pp. 10-12.

"The 'Phantom Battle' that Led to War", U.S. News & World Report, July 23, 1984. A good retrospective study of the Tonkin Gulf Incidents of August 1964, with a lot of information from interviews with participants.

Harry F. Rosenthal and Tom Stewart, "Tonkin Gulf" (AP dispatch), Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1967, reprinted in Congressional Record, February 28, 1968, p. 4582.

John W. Schmidt, The Gulf of Tonkin Debates, 1964 and 1967: A Study in Argument. Ph.D. thesis, Speech, University of Minnesota, 1969. 290 pp.

Jim and Sybil Stockdale, In Love and War. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Revised and expanded edition: Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1990. Memoirs of a senior U.S. Navy pilot and his wife, important for the pilot's account of the Tonkin Gulf Incidents (Stockdale was in the air above the Maddox both August 2 and August 4, 1964, and commanded one of the retaliatory strikes against the North August 5), and also for the POW issue (Stockdale was a prisoner from 1965 to 1973; his wife was a leader of the League of POW/MIA families). A substantially expanded edition was published in 1990(?).

Susan B. Sweeney, "Oral History and the Tonkin Gulf Incident: Interviews about the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War," International Journal of Oral History, 7:3 (November 1986), pp. 211-16.

I.F. Stone, "McNamara and Tonkin Bay: The Unanswered Questions", The New York Review of Books, March 28, 1968, pp. 5-12.

Eugene G. Windchy, Tonkin Gulf. New York: Doubleday, 1971. The best of the early books on the topic.

David Wise, "Remember the Maddox!", Esquire, April 1968, pp. 123-127, 56-62.

Copyright © 1997 Edwin E. Moise. Non-commercial distribution for educational purposes permitted if document is unaltered. Any commercial use, or storage in any commercial BBS is strictly prohibited without written consent.

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