As part of Washington Babylon’s release of Doug Valentine’s Life and Times of a South Vietnamese Special Police Officer we are going to feature content from worldwide archives that recall one of the most painful episodes of recent American and Asian history. This was telephone conversation between President Johnson and Barry Goldwater, who was at that time his opponent in the 1964 election, regarding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
The following is excerpted from the Pentagon Papers:
Several of the pressuring measures recommended to the White House in May or June were implemented in conjunction with or in the immediate aftermath of naval action in the Tonkin Gulf. It is this fact and the rapidity with which these measures were taken that has led critics to doubt some aspects of the public account of the Tonkin incidents. It is also this fact, together with later Administration assessments of the Tonkin Gulf experience, that give the incidents greater significance than the particular events seemed at first to warrant.
1. The First Incident
What happened in the Gulf? As noted earlier, U.S.S. MADDOX commenced the second DE SOTO Patrol on 31 July. On the prior night South Vietnamese coastal patrol forces made a midnight attack, including an amphibious “commando” raid, on Hon Me and Hon Nieu Islands, about 19° N. latitude. At the time of this attack, U.S.S. MADDOX was 120-130 miles away just heading into waters off North Vietnam. On 2 August, having reached the northernmost point on its patrol track and having headed South, the destroyer was intercepted by three North Vietnamese patrol boats. Apparently, these boats and a fleet of junks had moved into the area near the island to search for the attacking force and had mistaken Maddox for a South Vietnamese escort vessel. (Approximately eleven hours earlier, while on a northerly heading, Maddox had altered course to avoid the junk concentration shown on her radar; about six hours after that–now headed South–Maddox had altered her course to the southeast to avoid the junks a second time.) When the PT boats began their high-speed run at her, at a distance of approximately 10 miles, the destroyer was 28 miles from the coast and heading farther into international waters. Two of the boats closed to within 5,000 yards, launching one torpedo each. As they approached, Maddox fired on the boats with her 5-inch batteries and altered course to avoid the torpedoes, which were observed passing the starboard side at a distance of 100 to 200 yards. The third boat moved up abeam of the destroyer and took a direct 5-inch hit; it managed to launch a torpedo which failed to run. All three PT boats fired 50-caliber machine guns at Maddox as they made their firing runs, and a bullet fragment was recovered from the destroyer’s superstructure. The attacks occurred in mid-afternoon, and photographs were taken of the torpedo boats as they attacked.
Upon first report of the PT boats’ apparently hostile intent, four F-8E aircraft were launched from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, many miles to the south, with instructions to provide air cover but not to fire unless they or Maddox were fired upon. As Maddox continued in a southerly direction, Ticonderoga‘s aircraft attacked the two boats that had initiated the action. Both were damaged with Zuni rockets and 20mm gunfire. The third boat, struck by the destroyer’s five-inch guns. . .
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Vietnamese coastal targets–this time the Rhon River estuary and the Vinh Sonh radar installation, which were bombarded on the night of 3 August. The more controversial of the two, this incident occurred under cover of darkness and seems to have been both triggered and described largely by radar and sonar images. After the action had been joined, however, both visual sightings and intercepted North Vietnamese communications confirmed that an attack by hostile patrol craft was in progress.
At 1940 hours, 4 August 1964 (Tonkin Gulf time), while “proceeding SE. at best speed,” Task Group 72.1 (Maddox and Turner Joy) radioed “RCVD INFO indicating attack by PGM P-4 iminent.” Evidently this was based on an intercepted communication, later identified as “an intelligence source,” indicating that “North Vietnamese naval forces had been ordered to attack the patrol.” At the time, radar contacts evaluated as “probable torpedo boats” were observed about 36 miles to the northeast. Accordingly, the Task Group Commander altered course and increased speed to avoid what he evaluated as a trap. At approximately 2035 hours, while west of Hainan Island, the destroyers reported radar sightings of three unidentified aircraft and two unidentified vessels in the patrol area. On receiving the report, Ticonderoga immediately launched F-8s and A-4Ds to provide a combat air patrol over the destroyers. Within minutes, the unidentified aircraft disappeared from the radar screen, while the vessels maintained a distance of about 27 miles. Actually, surface contacts on a parallel course had been shadowing the destroyers with radar for more than three hours. ECM contacts maintained by the C. Turner Joy indicated that the radar was that carried aboard DRV patrol boats.
New unidentified surface contacts 13 miles distant were reported at 2134 hours. These vessels were closing at approximately 30 knots on the beam and were evaluated as “hostile.” Six minutes later (2140) Maddox opened fire, and at 1242, by which time two of the new contacts had closed to a distance of 11 miles, aircraft from Ticonderoga‘s CAP began their attacks. Just before this, one of the PT boats launched a torpedo, which was later reported as seen passing about 300 feet off the port beam, from aft to forward, of the C. Turner Joy. A searchlight beam was observed to swing in an arc toward the C. Turner Joy by all of the destroyer’s signal bridge personnel. It was extinguished before it illuminated the ship, presumably upon detection of the approaching aircraft. Aboard the Maddox, Marine gunners saw what were believed to be cockpit lights of one or more small boats pass up the port side of the ship and down the other. After approximately an hour’s action, the destroyers reported two enemy boats sunk and no damage or casualties suffered.
In the meantime, two patrol craft from the initial surface contact had closed to join the action, and the engagement was described for higher headquarters- largely on the basis of the destroyers’ radar and sonar indications and on radio intercept information.
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Returning from this session shortly after 1500, Secretary McNamara, along with Deputy Secretary Vance, joined with the JCS to review all the evidence relating to the engagement. Included in this review was the communications intelligence information which the Secretary reported, containing North Vietnamese reports that (1) their vessels were engaging the destroyers, and (2) they had lost two craft in the fight. In the meantime, however, messages had been relayed to the Joint Staff indicating considerable confusion over the details of the attack. The DE SOTO Patrol Commander’s message, expressing doubts about earlier evidence of a large-scale torpedo attack, arrived sometime after 1330 hours. Considerably later (it was not sent to CINCPACFLT until 1447 EDT), another message arrived to the effect that while details of the action were still confusing, the commander of Task Group 72.1 was certain that the ambush was genuine. He had interviewed the personnel who sighted the boat’s cockpit lights passing near the Maddox, and he had obtained a report from the C. Turner Joy that two torpedoes were observed passing nearby. Accordingly, these reports were discussed by telephone with CINPAC, and he was instructed by Secretary McNamara to make a careful check of the evidence and ascertain whether there was any doubt concerning the occurrence of an attack. CINCPAC called the JCS at least twice more, at 1723 and again at 1807 hours, to state that he was convinced on the basis of “additional information” that the attacks had taken place. At the time of the earlier call Secretary McNamara and the JCS were discussing possible force deployments to follow any reprisals. On the occasion of the first call, the Secretary was at the White House attending the day’s second NSC meeting. Upon being informed of CINCPAC’s call, he reports:
I spoke to the Director of the Joint Staff and asked him to make certain that the Commander in Chief, Pacific was willing to state that the attack had taken place, and therefore that he was free to release the Executive Order because earlier in the afternoon I had told him that under no circumstances would retaliatory action take place until we were, to use my words, ‘damned sure that the attacks had taken place.’
At the meeting of the National Security Council, proposals to deploy certain increments of OPLAN 37-64 forces to the Western Pacific were discussed, and the order to retaliate against North Vietnamese patrol craft and their associated facilities were confirmed. Following this meeting, at 1845, the President met with 16 Congressional leaders from both parties for a period of 89 minutes. Reportedly, he described the second incident in the Gulf, explained his decisions to order reprisals, and informed the legislators of his intention to request a formal statement of Congressional support for these decisions. On the morning following the meeting, The Washington Post carried a report that none of the Congressional leaders present at the meeting had raised objections to the course of action planned. Their only question, the report stated, “had to do with how Congress could show its agreement and concern in the crisis.”
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increase pressures for an international conference or that the DRV was testing U.S. reactions to a contemplated general offensive-have lost some credibility. Subsequent events and DRV actions have appeared to lack any consistent relationship with such motives. Perhaps closer to the mark is the narrow purpose of prompt retaliation for an embarrassing and well-publicized rebuff by a much-maligned enemy. Inexperienced in modern naval operations, DRV leaders may have believed that under cover of darkness it would be possible to even the score or to provide at least a psychological victory by severely damaging a U.S. ship. Unlike the first incident, the DRV was ready (5 August) with a propaganda blast denying its own provocation and claiming the destruction of U.S. aircraft. Still, regardless of motive, there is little question but that the attack on the destroyers was deliberate. Having followed the destroyers for hours, their course was well known to the North Vietnamese naval force, and its advance units were laying ahead to make an ambushing beam attack fully 60 miles from shore.
The reality of a North Vietnamese attack on 4 August has been corroborated by both visual and technical evidence. That it may have been deliberately provoked by the United States is belied to a considerable degree by circumstantial evidence. Operating restrictions for the DE SOTO Patrol were made more stringent following the first attack. The 11 n.m., rather than 8 n.m., off-shore patrolling track indicates an intention to avoid–not provoke–further contact. On 4 February the rules of engagement were modified to restrict “hot pursuit” by the U.S. ships to no closer than 11 n.m. from the North Vietnamese coast; aircraft were to pursue no closer than 3 n.m. Given the first attack, the President’s augmentation of the partol force was a normal precaution, particularly since both Ticonderoga and C. Turner Joy were already deployed in the immediate vicinity as supporting elements. Moreover, since the augmentation was coupled with a clear statement of intent to continue the patrols and a firm warning to the DRV that repetition would bring dire consequences, their addition to the patrol could be expected to serve more as a deterrent than a provocation.
The often alleged “poised” condition of the U.S. reprisal forces was anything but extraordinary. U.S.S. Constellation was well out of the immediate operating area as the patrol was resumed on 3 August. In fact, one reason for delaying the launching of retaliatory air strikes (nearly 1100 hours, S August-Tonkin Gulf time) was to permit Constellation to approach within reasonable range of the targets. Target lists from which to make appropriate selections were already available as a result of routine contingency planning accomplished in June and July. In preparation for the resumed DE SOTO Patrol of 3-5 August, the patrol track was moved farther north to make clearer the separation between it and the 34-A operations. The ways in which the events of the second Tonkin Gulf incident came about give little indication of a deliberate provocation to provide opportunity for reprisals.
2. Broadening the Impact
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bomber squadrons have been transferred from the United States into advance bases in the Pacific. Fifthly, an antisubmarine task force group has been moved into the South China Sea.
It is significant, relative to the broader purpose of the deployments, that few of these additional units were removed from the Western Pacific when the immediate crisis subsided. In late September the fourth attack aircraft carrier was authorized to resume its normal station in the Eastern Pacific as soon as the regularly assigned carried completed repairs. The other forces remained in the vicinity of their August deployment.
Other actions taken by the Administration in the wake of Tonkin Gulf were intended to communicate to various audiences the depth and sincerity of the U.S. commitment. On the evening of 4 August, in conjunction with his testing of Congressional opinion regarding reprisal action, President Johnson disclosed his intention to request a resolution in support of U.S. Southeast Asian policy. This he did through a formal message to both houses on 5 August. Concurrently, identical draft resolutions, the language of which had been prepared by executive agencies, were introduced in the Senate by J. William Fuibright (D., Ark.) and in the House by Thomas E. Morgan (D., Pa.) and co-sponsored by bipartisan leadership. Discussed in committee on 6 August, in response to testimony by leading Administration officials, the resolution was passed the following day–by votes of 88 to 2 in the Senate and 416 to 0 in the House.
Despite the nearly unanimous votes of support for the Resolution, Congressional opinions varied as to the policy implications and the meaning of such support. The central belief seemed to be that the occasion necessitated demonstrating the nation’s unity and collective will in support of the President’s action and affirming U.S. determination to oppose further aggression. However, beyond that theme, there was a considerable variety of opinion. For example, in the House, expressions of support varied from Congressman Laird’s argument, that while the retaliation in the Gulf was appropriate such actions still left a policy to be developed with respect to the land war in Southeast Asia, to the more reticent viewpoint of Congressman Alger. The latter characterized his support as being primarily for purposes of showing unity and expressed concern over the danger of being dragged into war by “other nations seeking our help.” Several spokesmen stressed that the Resolution did not constitute a declaration of war, did not abdicate Congressional responsibility for determining national policy commitments, and did not give the President carte blanche to involve the nation in a major Asian war.
Similar expressions were voiced in the senior chamber. For example, Senator Nelson sought assurances that the resolution would not tend to commit the United States further than . .
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addition to repeating points made earlier, Seaborn’s second message conveyed the U.S. Government’s uncertainty over DRV intentions in the 4 August attack and explained that subsequent U.S. deployments of additional airpower to South Vietnam and Thailand were “precautionary.” In addition, the new message stressed: (1) that the Tonkin Gulf events demonstrated that “U.S. public and official patience” was wearing thin; (2) that the Congressional Resolution reaffirmed U.S. determination “to continue to oppose firmly, by all necessary means, DRV efforts to subvert and conquer South Vietnam and Laos”; and (3) that “if the DRV persists in its present course, it can expect to suffer the consequences.”
Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the provocation handed the U.S. Government in the Tonkin Gulf, the Administration was able to carry out most of the actions recommended by its principal officials early in the summer. By the same token, it was reducing the number of unused measures short of direct military action that had been conceived as available for exerting effective pressure on the DRV. In effect, as it made its commitments in Southeast Asia clearer it also deepened them, and in the process it denied itself access to some of the uncommitting options which it had perceived earlier as offering policy flexibility. Meanwhile, other events were also having the effect of denying options which had been considered useful alternatives to strikes against the North.
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over Southeast Asia and the likelihood that back-corridor discussions of the Vietnamese problem would be an almost inevitable by-product. In time such a procedure might be useful, but for the balance of 1964 it was to be avoided in order to promote GVN stability and encourage a more vigorous GVN war effort.
The pressure for a Geneva-type conference had been building ever since the resumption of fighting in Laos in May. The chief protagonist in the quest for negotiations was France, who first proposed reconvening the 14-Nation Conference to deal with the crisis on 20 May. What made French policy so dangerous to U.S. interests, however, was that its interest in a Geneva solution applied to Vietnam as well. On 12 June, DeGaulle publicly repeated his neutralization theme for all Indo-China and called for an end to all foreign intervention there; on 23 July he proposed reconvening the 1954 Geneva Conference to deal with the problems of Vietnam.
The Soviet Union’s return to the 14-Nation formula in July (it had endorsed the original French proposal before indicating willingness to support the 6-Nation approach) indicated solidarity in the communist camp. The call was endorsed by North Vietnam on the following day. Communist China first announced support for a 14-Nation Conference (on Laos) on 9 June, repeating this through notes to the co-chairman calling on the 13th for an “emergency meeting.” On 2 August, the Chinese urged the USSR not to carry out its threat to abandon its co-chairman role, apparently viewing such a development as jeopardizing the possibilities for a Geneva settlement.
Great Britain also urged the Russians to stay on, and during the last days of July it attempted to make arrangements in Moscow to convene a 14-Nation assembly on Laos. The negotiations failed because Britain insisted on Souvanna’s prerequisite that the communists withdraw from positions taken in May and was unable to gain Soviet acquiescence. However, U.S. leaders were aware that Britain’s support on this point could not be counted on indefinitely in the face of increasing pressure in the direction of Geneva.
In the meantime, however, Laotian military efforts to counter the communist threat to key routes and control points west of the Plaine des Jarres were showing great success. As a result of a counteroffensive (Operation Triangle), government forces gained control of a considerable amount of territory that gave promise of assuring access between the two capitals (Vientiane and Luang Prabang) for the first time in three years.
In effect, the government’s newly won control of territory and communication routes in central Laos created a new and more favorable balance of power in that country, which in the perceptions of the administration should not be jeopardized.
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firmness in the event negotiating pressure should become compelling.
Reactions to this tentative policy change were unfavorable. It was seen as likely to have a demoralizing impact on the GVN. It was also seen as possibly eroding the impression of strong U.S. resolve, which the reprisal air strikes were believed to have created. For example, Ambassador Taylor cabled:
. . . rush to conference table would serve to confirm to CHICOMS that U.S. retaliation for destroyer attacks was transient phenomenon and that firm CHICOM response in form of commitment to defend NVN has given U.S. “paper tiger” second thoughts. . .
In Vietnam sudden backdown from previously strongly held U.S. position on [Plaine des Jarres] withdrawal prior to conference on Laos would have potentially disastrous effect. Morale and will to fight and particular willingness to push ahead with arduous pacification task . . . would be undermined by what would look like evidence that U.S. seeking to take advantage of any slight improvement in non-Communist position as excuse for extricating itself from Indo-China via [conference] route. . . .
Under circumstances, we see very little hope that results of such a conference would be advantageous to us. Moreover, prospects of limiting it to consideration of only Laotian problem appear at this time juncture to be dimmer than ever. . .
2. Concern Over Tonkin Reprisal Signals
Contained in Ambassador Taylor’s views was yet another of the Administration’s reflections on the impact of the Tonkin Gulf incidents. Officials developed mixed feelings regarding the effect of the Tonkin reprisals for signaling firm U.S. commitments in Southeast Asia. On one hand, it was conceded that the reprisals and the actions which accompanied them represented the most forceful expression of U.S. resolve to date. Improvements were perceived in South Vietnamese morale, and the combination of force and restraint demonstrated was believed effective in interrupting communist momentum and forcing a reassessment of U.S. intentions. On the other hand, they reflected concern that these effects might not last and that the larger aspects of U.S. determination might still be unclear.
Several officials and agencies indicated that our actions in the Tonkin Gulf represented only one step along a continually demanding route for the United States. They expressed relief that if a persuasive impression of firmness were to be created relative to the general security of Southeast Asia, [words illegible]
It should be remembered that our retaliatory action in Gulf of Tonkin is in effect an isolated U.S.-DRV incident. Although this has relation . . . to [the] larger problem of DRV aggression by subversion in Viet-Nam and Laos, we have not (repeat not) yet come to grips in a forceful way with DRV over the issue of this larger and much more complex problem.
Later, he decribed a need for subsequent actions that would convey to Hanoi that “the operational rules with respect to the DRV are changing.” Assistant Secretary of State Bundy believed that Hanoi and Peking had probably been convinced only “that we will act strongly where U.S. force units are directly involved . . . [that] in other respects the communist side may not be so persuaded that we are prepared to take stronger action He saw the need for a continuous “combination of military pressure and some form of communication” to cause Hanoi to accept the idea of “getting out” of South Vietnam and Laos. CINCPAC stated that “what we have not done and must do is make plain to Hanoi and Peiping the cost of pursuing their current objectives and impeding ours. . . . Our actions of August 5 have created a momentum which can lead to the attainment of our objectives in S.E. Asia. . . . It is most important that we not lose this momentum.” The JCS urged actions to “sustain the U.S. advantage [recently] gained,” and later cautioned: “Failure to resume and maintain a program of pressure through military actions . . . could signal a lack of resolve.”
What these advisors had in mind by way of actions varied somewhat but only in the extent to which they were willing to go in the immediate future. Bundy stressed that policy commitments must be such that U.S. and GVN hands could be kept free for military actions against DRV infiltration routes in Laos. Ambassador Taylor, CINCPAC and the JCS urged prompt air and ground operations across the Laotian border to interrupt the current (though modest) southward flow of men and supplies. Both Taylor and CINCPAC indicated the necessity of building up our “readiness posture” to undertake stronger actions-through additional deployments of forces and logistical support elements and strengthening of the GVN political base.
The mood and attitudes reflected in these viewpoints were concrete and dramatic expressions of the increased U.S. commitment stemming from the Tonkin Gulf incidents. They were candidly summed up by CINCPAC in his statement:
. . . pressures against the other side once instituted should not be relaxed by any actions or lack of them which would destroy the benefits of the rewarding steps previously taken.
Increasingly voiced by officials from many quarters of the Administration and from the professional agencies were arguments which said, in effect, now that we have gone [words missing] go no further;
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destruction of specific targets by aerial bombardment or naval gunfire. They could be supported by such non-destructive military actions as aerial reconnaissance, harassment of civil aviation and maritime commerce, mock air attacks, and timely concentrations of U.S. or allied forces at sea or near land borders. Following a line of reasoning prevalent in the Government during the early 60’s, Rostow observed that a target government might well reduce its insurgency supporting role in the face of such pressures because of the communists’ proverbial “tactical flexibility.”
The thesis was subjected to a rather thorough analysis in OSD/ISA and coordinated with the Department of State. The nature of this review will be discussed on later pages and in a different context.