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LBJ & the Gulf of Tonkin

Summary: Although one attack happened(?), President LBJ lied to the American people about a second attack in 1964 to provide further justification to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1964, less than a year after President Lyndon Johnson took office, tensions rose in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam, between the United States and local forces who opposed the imperial imposition of America’s Cold War “containment” policies in the form of overseas military action. At the time, the United States government wanted to ensure Vietnam did not fall to their Soviet opposition and the sphere of communist influence in East Asia. To accomplish this, the government sought to start a war in Vietnam to capture the country and thereby influence the nation for American national interests.

President Johnson knew that it would be far more popular to the American public (and favorable to his approval ratings) to enter a war in response to an attack by a foreign power, as was the case with the United States’ entrance into World War II after Pearl Harbor, and the War on Terror after 9/11. So, in 1964, as shown in now-declassified intelligence, the U.S. military and the National Security Agency (NSA) mishandled, manufactured, and mistranslated details of August 2 and August 4 attacks by North Vietnamese forces on American naval ships in the Gulf of Tonkin between Vietnam and China. This created the necessary pretext for Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Johnson the permission he desired to expand America’s sphere of influence into Vietnam and subsequently the rest of Southeast Asia.

Despite Johnson relaying a clear-cut version of events in the Gulf of Tonkin to the American people, stating that North Vietnamese ships had fired first on August 2 and August 4 and sought war with America, the reality was a far different and murkier turn of events than the U.S. let on. In fact, it was U.S. naval forces who fired first on the North Vietnamese while being chased off on August 2, 1964.

Entering 1964, American ships began to travel as close as 12 miles to Asian shores to gather intelligence and perform non-aggressive patrols. This caught the attention of the North Vietnamese who began tracing American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, sometimes with torpedo boats, which was interpreted by American soldiers as a sign of military aggression.

Differing information and translations of intercepted North Vietnamese communications, coupled with delayed orders by the North Vietnamese for their ships not to engage, led American forces to believe that they were being deliberated attacked on the afternoon of August 2, 1964. As the American vessel Maddox and its captain, John J. Herrick, fled in a southeastern direction from three oncoming North Vietnamese torpedo boats, the American military personnel aboard believed they were under attack based on conflicting information that the North Vietnamese viewed them as “enemies” (translated) and had sent out orders of attack that morning. In reality, the North Vietnamese knew that such a maneuver in broad daylight would do little for them and had sent out an order some two hours prior not to attack American vessels.

Whether all North Vietnamese ships received this communication remains less clear. Nevertheless, as the North Vietnamese got closer to the Maddox, those aboard felt it appropriate to fire on the approaching vessels. The Maddox first fired three rounds of warning then began shelling the Vietnamese boats. Soon, the Ticonderoga joined the Maddox in sinking one of the ships and damaging the other two. In total, four were dead and six more were injured aboard the North Vietnamese ships. No Americans were injured in the event.

Hearing of the attack, President Lyndon Johnson merely condemned any perceived threat and stated that he would not “be provocative” and start a war. Only with deliberate and subsequent attacks by the North Vietnamese on American ships would the United States use such force. Just two days later, President Johnson would execute a bombing raid on North Vietnamese naval facilities to start America’s gruesome military involvement in the Vietnam War.

On August 4, 1964, a group of American ships, including two destroyers and the Maddox, were sailing in the Gulf of Tonkin as they began to detect suspicious spikes on their radars to the southwest. The Americans interpreted these blips as enemy targets tracking their location, so they sailed eastward away from the coastline. Shortly thereafter, the crews aboard noticed more blips, a new one to southwest and more to the northeast, which caused the soldiers to send out communications to their superiors that they suspected an attack soon. The Americans sent out an aerial patrol to the radar points but saw no boats or aircraft where they should have been. This caused some confusion, but those involved were still wary of what the radars had detected.

Within an hour, at around 2:30 p.m. local time, another ping on the radar put an enemy ship to the east of the American fleet, and quickly approaching. This further heightened the anxiety of those aboard the vessels. Abruptly, the radar showed the enemy ship now traveling quickly south, which the Americans interpreted as a military maneuver performed after firing a torpedo. This is highly unlikely, however, as the radar put the ship too far away for any torpedo to be at all accurate. Although records show no torpedoes were ever detected in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, the Americans began firing on the points on the radar in response to the perceived assault.

As they fired on their supposed attackers, the radar lit up more enemy locations, which seemed to be coming from all directions. They fired on these new targets as they appeared. Again, as American aerial support flew out to pinpoint the oncoming forces, they saw no North Vietnamese ships of any kind. This caused great confusion among American military personnel, so they ceased fire and assessed the situation.

The gun director aboard the Maddox reported he saw no targets upon whom they fired, and sonar data showed that the radar points had lit up as enemy missiles or ships whenever the two American destroyers had executed high-speed and disruptive evasive maneuvers. In essence, reflection of propeller turbulence between the two vessels, coupled with large wakes and displacements of water as they responded to a supposed missile attack, meant that American radars continued to show them that the North Vietnamese were attacking them from all sides. In reality, radars had likely picked up North Vietnamese trackers earlier that day but had now malfunctioned and were communicating large water disruptions and interference as equal in danger.

By the time those sailing the Gulf of Tonkin had realized their mistake, President Lyndon Johnson had already heard the initial reports of an attack through Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and had ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese military infrastructure on the mainland by nightfall. Before this could occur, however, Johnson learned of the confusion around the incident and ordered for it to be sorted out immediately.

Suspiciously, this is when a supposed translated report by the NSA appeared, claiming that they had intercepted communications between North Vietnamese ships mentioning the destruction of two American planes and alluding to damage to enemy ships. U.S. government officials, chiefly Robert McNamara, viewed this as concrete evidence of a post-attack report by the North Vietnamese on August 4, therefore proving the attack was real. Despite the lack of evidence, President Johnson and his advisors used the translated intelligence from the NSA to justify moving forward with the bombing of Vietnam anyways. They attacked later that night, beginning a disastrous decade of direct military involvement in Vietnam that would wreak havoc on the Asian nation and end in failure for the United States.

Sources & Further Reading

Hanyok, Robert. Cryptologic Quarterly. “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964.” February 24, 1998.

Written and researched by Jack Gassen. Posted April 2022.