By David K. Shipler
On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.
So the nature of Iran’s involvement is far from clear, and a close look at the Tonkin Gulf episode can be instructive, for it contained plenty of doubt at the time, including ambivalent eyewitness accounts by sailors, a misunderstood North Vietnamese communication, previous commando raids on North Vietnam, and other elements kept from the American public. Indeed, as declassified documents and recorded White House conversations have since revealed, both Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Johnson had doubts about whether the second attack had actually occurred. Several days later, Johnson said, “Hell, those damn stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
Yet the president used it to inspire Congress to approve the broad war authorization known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed by the House unanimously and with just two dissenting votes in the Senate. It’s possible that another pretext would have been found for going to war, but this one stands as the benchmark of history.
Presidents had more credibility then. Perhaps high-level lying since has had the bizarre virtue of promoting skepticism, for today it’s hard to imagine widespread acquiescence to making war against Iran. Thanks to the chronic mendacity of the Trump administration, preceded by the Bush administration’s fantasies of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” a certain distrust has become a sign of civic health.
Americans were dramatically deceived over the Tonkin Gulf. They were not fully informed that for months before the incident, the US Navy and the CIA had been supporting repeated raids by South Vietnamese commandos and patrol boats on North Vietnamese islands and coastal installations. According to a definitive history by the US Naval Institute’s Naval History Magazine, OPPLAN 34A, as it was named, conducted two attacks on islands 25 miles apart the night of July 30-31. The USS Maddox was also in the area collecting electronic intelligence on radar frequencies, navigational aids, and the like.
Days later, on Aug. 2, a real attack on the Maddox did occur. Three North Vietnamese PT boats launched several torpedoes at the Maddox, which was not hit. The boats were damaged by gunfire from the ship and US aircraft.
The attack was interpreted in Washington as a major act of aggression against American forces. But from what is now known, it appears to have been a local commander’s initiative to retaliate for the commando raids and coastal assaults. So said the head of the Institute of Military History, Gen. Nguyen Dinh Uoc, at a conference in Hanoi organized by McNamara in 1997.
In 1964, McNamara had publicly and falsely denied knowledge of any South Vietnamese raids, but privately he suspected that Tonkin Gulf was retaliation for them, as he told Johnson in a recorded call declassified in 2005. “There's no question but what that had bearing on it,” he said to the president. “On Friday night, as you probably know, we had four TP [sic] boats from [South] Vietnam, manned by [South] Vietnamese or other nationals, attack two islands, and we expended, oh, 1,000 rounds of ammunition of one kind or another against them. We probably shot up a radar station and a few other miscellaneous buildings. And following 24 hours after that with this destroyer in the same area undoubtedly led them to connect the two events.”
It was the second “attack” on Aug. 4 that clinched the narrative of North Vietnamese aggression against US forces. It never occurred, as accumulated evidence shows and as McNamara was told in November 1995 by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s wartime military commander.
Reports from the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, were contradictory and full of illusions—phantoms, as Stockdale later wrote. The night was stormy, with high seas that created false contacts on radar. Although the ships were 100 miles offshore, sailors thought they saw lights from enemy vessels passing close at hand. As the Maddox took evasive action, sonar operators probably thought they detected torpedo wakes when they were picking up propeller wash against the rudder during sharp turns.
To add to the confusion, the destroyer task force commander, Captain John Herrick, first called an attack into question, then provided contrary information. His first message said: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” A second message said that the Turner Joy’s crew had spotted two torpedoes on sonar and nearby lights visually.
Further, the National Security Agency picked up a North Vietnamese transmission: "Shot down two planes in the battle area. We sacrificed two comrades but all the rest are okay. The enemy ship could also have been damaged.” The author of the Naval History Magazine report, Lieut. Commander Pat Paterson, found that the message was about the actual attack on Aug. 2 “but had been routinely transmitted in a follow-up report during the second ‘attack.’ The North Vietnamese were oblivious to the confusion it would generate.”
In fact, however, it didn’t generate confusion. It was misinterpreted as the smoking gun by McNamara and hawkish advisers to the president. Johnson was pressed to act, and he did. Later analysis of SIGINT showed that some communications were mistranslated, bore altered time stamps, and contained information never provided to the White House. Significantly, no North Vietnamese radio transmissions were intercepted during the night of Aug. 4, a silence that should have been a red flag.
Today, Trump is being pressed on Iran by his hawkish advisers, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Gone from his administration are the restraining voices of former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who analyzed the Tonkin Gulf fiasco in his book, Dereliction of Duty, and of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
With chilling relevance to today, the historian and journalist Gareth Porter wrote on the 50th anniversary in 2014, “The deeper lesson of the Tonkin Gulf episode is how a group of senior national security officials seeks determinedly through hardball – and even illicit — tactics to advance its own war agenda, even though they knew the President of the United States was resisting it.”