soc.history.war.vietnam FAQ: Tonkin Gulf Incident

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May 15, 1997, 3:00:00 AM5/15/97

Archive-Name: vietnam/tonkin-gulf
Last-modified: 1996/11/02
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Frequently Asked Questions: soc.history.war.vietnam

This FAQ was prepared by Prof. Edwin E. Moise of Clemson University,

The Tonkin Gulf Incidents of 1964

On the morning of July 31, 1964, the US Navy destroyer MADDOX (DD-731)
began a reconnaissance patrol, called a DESOTO patrol, along the coast
of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The main goal was to gather
information about the coastal defense forces.

It was expected that the North Vietnamese coastal defense forces would
be quite active, so a lot could be learned about them, because a
number of covert operations were being carried out against the North
Vietnamese coast around this time. These operations, under OPLAN
(Operations Plan) 34A, were carried out by moderate-sized vessels
(some old American PT boats with the torpedo tubes removed, and some
new Norwegian-built Nasty boats, about the size of a PT boat), based
at Danang.

Around midnight on the night of July 30-31, OPLAN 34A raiders from
Danang shelled two of North Vietnam's offshore islands, Hon Me and Hon
Ngu (a.k.a. Hon Nieu).

On the afternoon of August 2, when the MADDOX was not far from Hon Me,
three North Vietnamese torpedo boats came out from Hon Me and attacked
the MADDOX. The attack was unsuccessful, though one bullet from a
heavy machinegun on one of the torpedo boats did hit the destroyer.
This is often referred to as the "first attack."

Warning: many books have the interval between the OPLAN 34A raid on
Hon Me and the attack on the MADDOX much shorter than it actually was:
two and a half days.

The MADDOX left the Gulf of Tonkin after this incident, but came back
on August 3, accompanied by another destroyer, the TURNER JOY

There were more OPLAN 34A raids on the night of August 3-4, this time
shelling two points on the North Vietnamese mainland. The destroyers
did not participate; the raids were carried out by the boats from

Late on the afternoon of August 4, the two destroyers headed away from
the North Vietnamese coast toward the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin.
That night, they began picking up what appeared to be high-speed
vessels on their radar. They believed they were being attacked, and
opened fire. Most of the supposed attacking vessels, however,
appeared only on the radar of the TURNER JOY, not the radar of the
MADDOX. Some men on the destroyers decided later that what had
appeared on the radar had just been ghost images; others think the
radar images were genuine torpedo boats attacking them. This is often
referred to as the "second attack."

The following afternoon, aircraft from two US aircraft carriers, the
TICONDEROGA and the CONSTELLATION, carried out retaliatory airstrikes.
The targets for the most part were coastal patrol vessels of the North
Vietnamese Navy, but a major petroleum storage facility at the town of
Vinh was also hit, and in fact the destruction of this facility was
the most important accomplishment of the airstrikes.

On August 7, the US Congress passed, almost unanimously, the "Tonkin
Gulf Resolution," giving President Johnson basically a blank check to
use "all necessary measures" to deal with "aggression" in Vietnam. The
Johnson administration had been wanting to get such a resolution from
the Congress; the Tonkin Gulf incidents made a good excuse. It does
not appear, however, that the incidents had been deliberately
concocted in order to provide the excuse.

The complete text of President Johnson's message to Congress and the
Tonkin Gulf resolution is available on the world wide web at


Alvarez, Everett, Jr. and Anthony S. Pitch. Chained Eagle. New York:
Fine, 1989.
Alvarez was one of the pilots who flew air cover over the
destroyers during the Second Tonkin Gulf Incident. The following
day, during air strikes at Hon Gai, he was shot down; he was the
first pilot captured by the DRV.
Austin, Anthony. The President's War. New York: Lippincott, 1971.
A quite detailed account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, and
the internal processes by which the United States Government
dealt with them.
Bouchard, Joseph F. "Uses of Naval Force in Crises: A Theory of
Stratified Crisis Interaction." Ph.D. diss, Stanford University,
1989. 1236 pp.
When Bouchard later published this as a book, he had to cut
it to a much smaller size. Tonkin Gulf was one of the things
that got cut.
Cogar, William B., ed. New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected
Papers from the Eighth Naval History Symposium. Annapolis: Naval
Institute Press, 1989.
Contains papers on Tonkin Gulf by Edward Marolda and Edwin
Moise, and comments on them by James A. Barber, Jr.
Edwards, Steve. "Stalking the Enemy's Coast", Proceedings 118:2
February 1992. pp. 56-62.
A very unreliable account.
Galloway, John. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Rutherford: Faileigh
Dickinson University Press, 1970.
The actual text is rather short, but this volume has long
useful appendices, including the complete official transcripts
(classified material deleted) of crucial Senate committee
hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, held August 6, 1964 and
February 20, 1968. Note that some of the deleted passages have
now been released by the government (see under Congressional
Goulden, Joseph. Truth is the First Casualty. Chicago: Rand McNally,
Halpern, Samuel E., M.D. West Pac '64. Boston: Branden Press, 1975.
By the medical officer of the Maddox.
Kurland, Gerald. The Gulf of Tonkin Incidents. Charlotteville, NY:
Sam Har Press, 1975.
Moise, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War.
Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
"The 'Phantom Battle' that Led to War", U.S. News & World Report,
July 23, 1984.
A good retrospective study of the Tonkin Gulf Incidents of
August 1964, with a lot of information from interviews with
Rosenthal, Harry F., and Tom Stewart, "Tonkin Gulf" (AP dispatch),
Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1967, reprinted in Congressional
Record, February 28, 1968, p. 4582.
Schmidt, John W. The Gulf of Tonkin Debates, 1964 and 1967: A Study
in Argument. Ph.D. thesis, Speech, University of Minnesota,
1969. 290 pp.
Stockdale, Jim and Sybil. In Love and War. New York: Harper & Row,
Memoirs of a senior U.S. Navy pilot and his wife, important
for the pilot's account of the Tonkin Gulf Incidents (Stockdale
was in the air above the Maddox both August 2 and August 4, 1964,
and commanded one of the retaliatory strikes against the North
August 5), and also for the POW issue (Stockdale was a prisoner
from 1965 to 1973; his wife was a leader of the League of POW/MIA
families). A substantially expanded edition was published in
Stone, I.F. "McNamara and Tonkin Bay: The Unanswered Questions", `The
New York Review of Books, March 28, 1968, pp. 512.
Windchy, Eugene G. Tonkin Gulf. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
Wise, David. "Remember the Maddox!", Esquire, April 1968, pp. 123-
127, 56-62.

Edwin E. Moise

Copyright (c) 1996 Edwin E. Moise. Non-commercial distribution for
educational purposes permitted if document is unaltered. Any
commercial use, or storage in any commercial BBS is strictly
prohibited without written consent.

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