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The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

As a result of the Geneva Accords of 1956, the nation of Vietnam was officially partitioned along the seventeenth parallel into the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the pro-west Vietnamese government in the south. In the following years, the United States remained active in Southeast Asia, desperately laboring to contain the threat of communism by bolstering the shaky democratic regime of South Vietnam. However, troop levels and U.S. funding never reached a substantial level until the controversial Gulf on Tonkin incident in 1964 paved the way for further military involvement and the “escalation” policies that would characterize the vexatious Vietnam conflict.

On July 31, 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox, replete with extra radio equipment that could monitor the radio communications of North Vietnam, began a reconnaissance mission as part of a program called Operation Plan 34A (OPLAN 34A) in the Gulf of Tonkin, a body of water bordering the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The goal of Operation Plan 34A was to establish and improve American intelligence of North Vietnamese coastal defenses by attacking two coastal islands on the night of July 30-31 and shelling two strategic points on the Vietnamese mainland on the evening of August 3-4, thereby arousing and making more discernible the defense systems of the region. On August 1, the Maddox approached the coastal island of Hon Me, which had been shelled two nights earlier as part of OPLAN 34A, to gather intelligence. However, with the North Vietnamese defenses so excited, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats furtively left the island and unsuccessfully attacked the unsuspecting destroyer. A skirmish ensued in which three aircraft from the nearby U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Ticonderoga became involved, but the results were nebulous as the torpedo boats returned with varying degrees of damage and casualties and the United States military emerged unscathed. Misconceptions on both sides — the U.S. military believed that they had sunk a torpedo boat and the North Vietnamese military believed that they had shot down one of the American planes — further inflamed passions and blew the incident out of proportion.

On August 3, the Maddox, joined by the destroyer C. Turner Joy, resumed patrol in the Gulf. With nerves still excited from the skirmish two days earlier, the crews of both ships grew apprehensively fearful of another attack. Consequently, the C. Turner Joy began prematurely firing on phantom objects on its radar screen which had not been picked up by the Maddox, and the jittery Maddox interpreted any sound from its sonar equipment as the motors of torpedoes. Back in Washington D.C., despite there being no substantial evidence of an attack and the fact that many on board both ships were divided on the incident (several involved believed that the incident had been the result of natural disturbances in the ocean and equipment irregularities), Congress decided, upon interpreting a North Vietnamese radio message describing unidentifiable combat with the Maddox, that an attack had been made against the United States military in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Following a retaliatory air strike issued by President Johnson (Operation Pierce Arrow), Congress responded to the incident by passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7. The act greatly expanded executive power as President Johnson was authorized to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States” and maintain the peace and security in Southeast Asia that was vital to American national interest. The resolution passed with a vote of 414-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate. Although not an official declaration of war, the law was described by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach as “the functional equivalent of a declaration of war.” Despite the initial wave of enthusiastic support for the resolution, as the conflict in Vietnam continued to drag on, several senators began to have doubts about the wisdom of the act, and in 1970 the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was repealed. In 1995 Vo Nguyen Giap, the military commander of North Vietnam during the Vietnam conflict, acknowledged the attack on the Maddox on August 1-2, but denied any involvement in the “incident” on August 3, and to this day there is still no definite answer as to what happened on the night of August 3, 1964.

Research by David Casalaspi
Cosby High School
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Sources:

Butwell, Richard. “Tonkin Gulf Resolution.” Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 13 May 2008 .

“Tonkin Gulf Incidents.” American History. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 13 May 2008 .

“Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964).” American History. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 13 May 2008 .

“Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. 2005.

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