Almost half a century after the event, researchers, historians and government officials are still trying to unravel the circumstances that triggered the Vietnam War. Did the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberately orchestrate the Tonkin Gulf incident? Was there a conspiracy to dupe Congress, lead the country into war and thereby ensure Johnson’s re-election?
At the beginning of 1964, President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, were worried that South Vietnam, America’s ally, was losing its fight against Communist Viet Cong guerrillas. Operation 34A was launched. This was a highly classified U.S. special operations programme conducting covert reconnaissance missions along the coast of North Vietnam.
On the night of 30 July, U.S. patrol boats shelled North Vietnamese radio transmitters located on a couple of offshore islands. In retaliation, during the afternoon of 2 August, three torpedo boats conducted an “unprovoked attack” on the American destroyer, USS Maddox, approximately 30 miles off the North Vietnam coast. The Maddox was undamaged and there were no U.S. Navy casualties. The Americans claimed that one of the attacking vessels had been sunk and the others damaged by U.S. air support from the carrier USS Ticonderoga. On the night of 3 August, U.S. vessels shelled targets on the mainland of North Vietnam. Meanwhile the Maddox had been joined by the USS Turner Joy. The following night, the Maddox reported that both ships were under attack by unknown vessels, assumed to be North Vietnamese. Intercepted North Vietnamese radio communications were cited as strong evidence for the attack, despite Captain John J. Herrick, the senior officer on board the Maddox, saying he “could not be certain what had or had not happened.”
It is claimed that McNamara knowingly and deliberately misled Congress and the American public about this second attack. Despite Herrick’s reservations, McNamara told Congress there was “unequivocal proof” of the second “unprovoked attack” on U.S. ships. Within hours, President Johnson won approval for the Southeast Asia Resolution (better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) giving him unprecedented authority to conduct military actions in Southeast Asia without a declaration of war. The rest, as they say, is history.
North Vietnamese General Giap believed that the Operation 34A (DESOTO) patrols had been sent into the Gulf to provoke North Vietnam into escalating hostilities. Evidence emerging throughout the subsequent decades appears to support this view.
Robert Hanyok, a National Security Agency historian, proved that NSA officers deliberately distorted critical intelligence during the episode. His analysis was kept classified until 2005.
Many other researchers have concluded that there was no second attack, but they, like Hanyok, have accepted that the misinterpretation of the radio intercepts was initially an honest mistake. Hanyok’s research is believed to show that mid-level agency officials discovered the error straight away but covered it up and doctored documents to make it appear there was evidence of an attack.