Few people like it when our nation’s foreign policy is predicated on deception or outright lies. Such situations take on an even more serious dimension when falsehoods are used as a predicate for military action.
The revelation that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” hidden in Iraq didn’t inspire confidence in our national leaders during the lead up to war with that nation. Neither did events 50 years ago this week in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam.
In a major turning point for U.S. involvement in the region, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara attempted to pressure Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese government by providing military support for his opposition in the South. This support occurred in two ways: First, there was “Operation 34A,” in which South Vietnamese soldiers outfitted with U.S. Navy “swift boats” launched commando attacks on North Vietnamese positions. Operation 34 A was of limited success largely due to poor intelligence about the North Vietnamese defenses.
Accordingly, U.S. leadership decided to focus more on the coast of North Vietnam with its Desoto Patrol operation. The Desoto Patrol employed destroyers sailing in international waters performing intelligence-gathering. In early August 1964, the destroyer, USS Maddox (DD 731), under the operational control of Captain John J. Herrick, cruised along the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. Shortly before the Maddox entered the area, South Vietnamese 34A forces hit targets just south of the vessel’s patrol zone.
On August 2, Hanoi sent three Soviet-built P-4 motor torpedo boats to attack the Maddox. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Only one round from the Communists’ deck guns hit the destroyer — lodging in the ship’s superstructure.
The Maddox responded as did F-8 Crusader jets dispatched from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga. In the end, all three North Vietnamese boats were damaged, with one dead in the water and on fire.
Johnson and his advisers were apparently surprised at Hanoi’s resistance and perceived temerity. Johnson, along with top military leaders, decided the United States could not retreat from this clear Communist challenge. They reinforced Maddox with destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD 951) and directed Herrick to continue his intelligence-gathering mission off North Vietnam.
Two days later on August 4, U.S. warships reported a second attack from the North Vietnamese, this time by several fast craft far out to sea. Officers in the naval chain of command and U.S. leaders in Washington were persuaded by interpretations of special intelligence reports that North Vietnamese naval forces had attacked the two destroyers.
As the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command now concludes: “More recent analysis of that data and additional information gathered on the 4 August episode now makes it clear that North Vietnamese naval forces did not attack Maddox and Turner Joy that night in the summer of 1964.”
In response to the actual attack of August 2 and the fictitious attack of 4 August, Johnson ordered the Seventh Fleet to launch retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam.
More importantly, on August 7, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving Johnson the freedom to employ military force as he saw fit. In early 1965, Johnson ordered a major deployment of U.S. forces to South Vietnam, thus beginning a long sorry chapter in American history.