The Tonkin Gulf Crisis 1964 ranks with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as events that David Kaiser of the U.S. Naval War College refers to as "controversies in American political history that dwarf all others (Ford, 1997)."
There is evidence that President Lyndon Johnson deliberately lied about the incidents leading to the Vietnam War to ensure that plans for war were supported. However, many opponents of this claim say that this is not so. According to Sedgwick Tourison in the book Secret Army, Secret War and Dr. Edwin Moise's Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, evidence that Johnson's administration was deceitful is becoming clearer than it was (Ford, 1997).
Today, Tonkin Gulf researchers are still examining the evidence to determine whether or not Johnson's administration intentionally instigated the first attack on Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin (Ford, 1997). It is still not entirely clear whether or not Hanoi actually launched a second attack on Maddox, either. Researchers are investigating the facts to determine whether or not Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara deliberately lied to the U.S. Congress to gain support for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which sealed Johnson's re-election and led the United States into the Vietnam War.
However, details regarding the former South Vietnamese special operation forces, which were part of an American covert intelligence effort known as Operation Plan 34A, are now available, now that formerly-classified documents and disclosures by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military intelligence officials have been released (Ford, 1997).
When Hanoi changed its reunification strategy to one of armed conflict in 1960, the Communists started to develop an organized regular force opposing the Saigon regime in South Vietnam, which was an American ally (Ford, 1997). In 1961, in an attempt to stop the Communist Vietnamese government in Hanoi, the CIA developed a joint sea-land covert special operation with the South Vietnamese government to stop Hanoi from carrying on infiltration activities.
This covert special operation conducted airborne, maritime and overland agent-insertion operations. The South Vietnamese attempted to gather intelligence, gain support, develop bases of resistance and perform psychological operations behind enemy lines. The maritime operation started as an infiltration operation but would not remain as one for long, as the covert attacks were unsuccessful. According to McNamara, "It accomplished virtually nothing (Ford, 1997)."
Still, the U.S. was not prepared to back down. According to Tourison, by January 1964, McNamara had assumed responsibility for the operation from the CIA, and it became known as 34 Alpha (Ford, 1997). "DeSoto patrols were U.S. naval intelligence collection operations using specially equipped vessels to gather electronic signals intelligence from shore -- and island-based noncommunications emitters in North Vietnam. By August 2, 1964, the Communist Vietnamese had determined that the DeSoto vessels were offshore support for a 34-Alpha operation that had struck their installations at Hon Me and Hon Ngu some 48 hours earlier. In retaliation, the North Vietnamese then conducted an "unprovoked attack" on Maddox, which was approximately 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. During the battle that ensued, one North Vietnamese patrol boat was severely damaged by Maddox, and two others were attacked and chased off by U.S. air support from the carrier USS Ticonderoga."
On August 4, 1964, Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy supposedly reported a second attack. The National Security Agency (NSA) had already given a warning that an attack on Maddox could be approaching (Ford, 1997). An hour after that warning, Maddox reported that she had established radar contact with three or four unidentified vessels coming towards her at high speed. Ticonderoga launched aircraft to assist Maddox and C. Turner Joy.
Low clouds and thunderstorms supposedly made visibility difficult for the aircraft, and the pilots were unable to confirm the presence of any North Vietnamese attackers. Over the next several hours, the ships called in several "torpedo attacks, the visual sighting of torpedo wakes, searchlight illumination, automatic-weapons fire, and radar and sonar contact (Ford, 1997)."
Senior officers on board said that the circumstances, including darkness, stormy seas and nervous, inexperienced crewmen, called for a "thorough investigation," although McNamara told Congress there was "unequivocal proof" of the second "unprovoked attack" on U.S. ships (Ford, 1997). Without a thorough investigation and solely on the base of McNamara's statements and Johnson's recommendations, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
McNamara's statements were fully supported by the Johnson administration. However, many others challenged his statement. At a joint executive session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee regarding the resolution, Senator Wayne Morse, who referred to the conflict as "McNamara's War," stated: "I am unalterably opposed to this course of action which, in my judgment, is an aggressive course of action on the part of the United States. I think you are kidding the world if you try to give the impression that when the South Vietnamese naval boats bombarded two islands a short distance off the coast of North Vietnam we were not implicated (Ford, 1997)."
McNamara firmly denied U.S. naval involvement in the South Vietnamese-run operations, stating that the DeSoto operations were neither support nor cover for 34-Alpha raids. According to Tourison (Ford, 1997), "The MarOps (maritime operations) were not CIA-supported South Vietnamese operations that the United States had no control over as former Secretary of Defense McNamara claimed. These operations were under U.S. control, not South Vietnamese."
According to McNamara at the time of the incident, the Maddox crew did not have knowledge of the 34-Alpha raids. McNamara has since acknowledged that this claim was false, but denies knowing this at the time. The crew knew of the 34-Alpha operations and were worried that the 34-Alpha operations were putting their ship in danger. Many say that this incident made the crew nervous, therefore making them unreliable sources regarding the second attack in the Tonkin Gulf.
When the Senate approved Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Senators Morse and Ernest Gruening opposed the resolution. However, Congress voted 4160 in support. Morse stated, "I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake (Ford, 1997)."
The events surrounding the resolution show a tremendous flaw in the U.S. decision-making system at the time. Government leaders misrepresented the situation to U.S. policy-makers without properly analyzing the data. Unfortunately, the consequences were grave and actually led to complete U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Evidence shows that the decoded message on which the NSA's August 4 warning to Maddox had been based actually referred to the original attack on August 2, rather than the second attack. In addition, the "unequivocal proof" of the second attack was really just decrypted North Vietnamese damage assessments of the first attack but were presented to U.S. decision-makers as the alleged second attack. According to a U.S. News and World Report study, former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Ray S. Cline clearly exposed this series of mistakes in 1984 (Ford, 1997).
Given the enormous pressure surrounding the situation, the fact that some decision-makers were confused by messages suggesting two attacks is understandable. However, their rash actions resulted in grave consequences. In his 1999 book, Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, McNamara tallied up the human cost of the Vietnam War (Ford, 1997): "It is estimated that something on the order of 3.8 million Vietnamese (North and South, military and civilian) were killed. The United States lost 58,000. Had the United States lost in proportion to its population the same percentage as Vietnam, 27 million Americans would have died. "
Today, in the U.S., the Vietnam War and the Tonkin Gulf Incident are topics of great controversy and debate. Even McNamara (Ford, 1997), in his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara admits that the U.S. "may have provoked a North Vietnamese response in the Tonkin Gulf," but claims that it was an innocent mistake. He still says, "Charges of a cloak of deception surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incident are unfounded. The idea that the Johnson administration deliberately deceived Congress is fake."
Many others disagree with McNamara's statement. Daniel Ellsberg, the former Johnson administration member who allowed the press to gain access to the Pentagon Papers to the press, addressed the question of whether the Johnson administration deceived Congress (Ford, 1997): "Did McNamara lie to Congress in 1964? I can answer that question. Yes, he did lie, and I knew it at the time. I was working for John McNaughton....I was his special assistant. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He knew McNamara had lied. McNamara knew he had lied. He is still lying. [Former Secretary of State Dean] Rusk and McNamara testified to Congress...prior to their vote....Congress was being lied into...what was to be used as a formal declaration of war. I knew that....I don't look back…