The USS Maddox was on alert on the evening of August 4, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two nights earlier North Vietnamese patrol boats had attacked it without warning. The Maddox had driven them off without suffering any damage itself. Now amidst driving rain and rough seas, it came under fire once again—or more accurately, its crew thought the ship had come under attack again. The reported attack would lead Congress three days later to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing direct U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The incident would also eventually raise troubling questions about whether President Lyndon Johnson had deliberately misled the American public into the Vietnam War.
The Maddox was in the Gulf of Tonkin to collect signals intelligence on North Vietnam. On the evening of July 30–31, South Vietnamese commandos attacked two North Vietnamese islands near where the Maddox was patrolling in international waters. The South Vietnamese attacks were part of Operation Plan (OPLAN) 34A. Conceived by the U.S. military and carried out by the South Vietnamese Navy, OPLAN 34A was designed to harass the government of Ho Chi Minh and create opportunities to learn about North Vietnam’s military readiness and operations.
By August 4, the Maddox had been joined by a second destroyer, the USS C. Turner Joy. Ironically and perhaps significantly, the radar systems on both ships weren’t fully working. At 8:40 p.m., the Maddox reported that unidentified ships were approaching:
Over the next three hours, the two ships repeatedly maneuvered at high speeds to evade perceived enemy boat attacks. The destroyers reported automatic-weapons fire; more than 20 torpedo attacks; sightings of torpedo wakes, enemy cockpit lights, and searchlight illumination; and numerous radar and surface contacts. By the time the destroyers broke off their "counterattack," they had fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells, and four or five depth charges.
Even as the “battle” was underway, the Maddox’s captain, John J. Herrick began to doubt his ship was under attack. The enemy vessels would appear on sonar, vanish, and then materialize in a different position, suggesting either that the equipment was malfunctioning or that the sonar operators were misreading the signals they were receiving. An F8 Crusader from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga flew overhead for ninety minutes and failed to locate any North Vietnamese ships. The plane’s pilot, Commander James B. Stockdale, later wrote: “I had the best seat in the house to watch” and I saw “no boats, no boat wakes, no boat gunfire, no torpedo wakes—nothing but black sea and American firepower.”
(Stockdale was shot down a year later over Hanoi. He returned to the United States in 1973, and he eventually retired from the navy with the rank of vice admiral. In 1992, he ran as vice president on Ross Perot’s third-party ticket. His opening line at the 1992 vice presidential debate—“Who Am I? Why I Am Here?—constitutes one of the most memorable moments in debate history.)
At 1:27 a.m. on August 5, Captain Herrick sent an urgent message to Pacific Command in Honolulu retracting his earlier claim that the Maddox and C. Turner Joy had been attacked:
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.
Ninety minutes later, however, Herrick sent another urgent message retracting his retraction:
Certain that original ambush was bonafide. Details of action following present a confusing picture. Have interviewed witnesses who made positive visual sightings of cockpit lights or similar passing near Maddox. Several reported torpedoes were probably boats themselves which were observed to make several close passes on Maddox. Own ship screw noises on rudders may have accounted for some. At present cannot even estimate number of boats involved. Turner Joy reports two torpedoes passed near her.
Back in Washington, DC, which was twelve hours behind Vietnam, Defense Department officials scrambled to make sense of the conflicting reports they were receiving from the field. The clincher seems to have come with arrival of an intelligence intercept in which one of the North Vietnamese patrol boats reported the results of the attack to higher officials.
President Johnson learned of the attack at a National Security Council meeting that had been called to discuss the situation in Cyprus. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident was not the only momentous news Johnson received that day. A little after 8 p.m. he was told that the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists who had been missing since June, had been found near Philadelphia, Mississippi.) Johnson spent much of the day consulting with his advisors and conferring with congressional leaders. One of those he called was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his Republican opponent in the upcoming presidential election.
At 11:30 p.m. Washington time, Johnson went on national television to tell the American public about the attack and that he had ordered air strikes “against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.” Commander Stockdale led the retaliatory strike. It was the first overt attack by U.S. forces against North Vietnam. (U.S. military advisers had been directing South Vietnamese attacks for years.) Although the mission succeeded—thirty-three of thirty-five targeted North Vietnamese vessels were destroyed, one American pilot was killed. Another pilot, Lt. Everett Alvarez was shot down and captured, making him the first American naval aviator to become a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Less than seventy-two hours after Johnson’s late night speech to the nation, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Johnson had what he took to be Congress’s firm backing if he chose to intervene more substantially in Vietnam. And eventually he did.
Half a century later the evidence suggests that Commander Stockdale was right in his assessment of the events on the night of August 4, 1964: the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy were shooting at phantoms. The decisive intelligence intercept that showed a North Vietnamese confirming the attack actually came from the fighting on August 2.
The related question of what Johnson and his advisers knew about the attack and when they knew it is less clear cut. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara clearly misrepresented the facts in his Senate testimony on August 6 and at a press conference later that day when he denied knowing of any actions by the South Vietnamese navy that might have provoked the North Vietnamese. Not only did McNamara know all the details about OPLAN 34A, he had already told Johnson that “there’s no question but that had some bearing on the attacks” on the Maddox.
Whether Johnson believed at the time Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that the crew of the Maddox had imagined the second attack is impossible to say. The president might have knowingly lied to the public, as his harshest critics insist, because a retaliatory strike gave him a way to rebut Senator Goldwater’s charges that he had been “soft” on North Vietnam. Or Johnson might have genuinely believed at first that the attack had occurred.
If the latter is the case, Johnson quickly came to doubt what he had said publicly. Shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, he told Under Secretary of State George W. Ball: “Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.” But Johnson never shared his doubts about the events on the night of August 4 with the American public.
Would the United States have avoided the Vietnam War if Johnson had doubted from the start that there had been a second attack on the Maddox? In all likelihood, no. The United States and North Vietnam were on a collision course in 1964 because South Vietnam was faltering under pressure from the north and Washington was bent on keeping Saigon from falling. If the Gulf of Tonkin incident had not occurred, some other confrontation with North Vietnam probably would have provided the trigger for U.S. intervention. As it was, the first U.S. combat troops—3,500 U.S. Marines—weren’t dispatched to South Vietnam for another six months, and even then they arrived only as attacks on two U.S. bases in February 1965 in and near Pleiku, South Vietnam killed thirty-one Americans.