Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Gulf_of_Tonkin_IncidentThe first and second Gulf of Tonkin incidents, on August 2 and August 4, 1964, provided the legal basis for the Viet Nam war, yet neither was the “unprovoked aggression” that the Johnson administration portrayed them to be. The first post in this series had an audio clip from a phone conversation in which President Johnson clearly states that the first North Vietnamese attack was an attempt on their part to stop covert, CIA-sponsored attacks on North Vietnam that were “blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads, and so forth” – hardly unprovoked aggression. This second post in the series uses unimpeachable sources to show that the second Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened. A formerly top secret NSA history of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents says precisely that:

Two startling findings emerged from the new research. First, it is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night [August 4]. … In truth, Hanoi’s navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on 2 August. [emphasis added]

Page 3 of that history, with the above excerpt highlighted, is reproduced below and is worth reading in its entirety, as is the complete NSA history. Gulf of Tonkin


Adm. James Stockdale, who was overhead in a jet fighter sent to provide air cover for the Maddox and Turner Joy corroborates that this second attack never occurred:

I had the best seat in the house from which to detect boats – if there were any … but no wakes or dark shapes other than those of the destroyers were ever visible to me.

There something wrong out here. Those destroyers are talking about hits, but where are the metal to metal sparks? And the boat wakes – where are they? And boat gun flashes? The day before yesterday [August 2, 1964, the date of the first incident], I saw all those signs of small-boat combat in broad daylight! Any of those telltale indicators would stand out like beacons in this black hole we’re operating in. [It was night time.]

Stockdale then describes how he was awakened the next morning to take part in “reprisal” air strikes against North Vietnam for their non-existent attack on the Maddox and Turner Joy:

After what seemed like a very short night, I felt myself being shaken. … “Who are you?” I asked.

“I’m the junior officer of the deck, sir. The captain sent me down to wake you. We just got a message from Washington telling us to prepare to launch strikes against the beach, sir. … Please get up, sir; your target is Washington’s priority number one.”

“What’s the idea of the strikes?”

“Reprisal, sir.”

“Reprisal for what?”

“For last night’s attack on the destroyers, sir.”

… I felt like I had been doused with ice water. How do I get in touch with the president? He’s going off half-cocked.

Adm. Stockdale goes on to describe how the American media added to the war fever by portraying the non-existent incident as a spine-tingling sea battle:

During the week or two following these three days of August 1964 … I had time to digest … the periodicals which came in the daily mail deliveries from the Philippines. The news-magazine stories of “the great sea battle of the night of August 4, 1964,” were read with interest. … [and] the August 17 issue of Newsweek had this to say:

“At 9:30 P.M. the Maddox reported that enemy craft, identified as Soviet-built 50 and 100 ton PT boats, were closing in. By 9:52, both destroyers were under continuous torpedo attack. … The U.S. ships blazed out salvo after salvo of shells. Torpedoes whipped by, some only 100 feet from the destroyers’ beams. A PT boat burst into flames and sank. More U.S. jets swooped in, diving, strafing, flattening out at 500 feet, climbing, turning 90 degrees at 8,000 feet, and diving again … The battle was won. Now it was time for American might to strike back.”

… The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed both House and Senate on August 7 on the coattails of the “second” Tonkin Gulf incident, the fiasco of August 4. … a Harris poll showed that LBJ’s national popularity rating jumped fourteen percentage points. [In the November election, LBJ ran against Republican hawk Barry Goldwater, and felt the need to show that he, too, could stand up to perceived communist aggression.]

Incorrect US government claims of unprovoked North Vietnamese aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin created a drum beat to war which led to the deaths of over 58,000 Americans and approximately 2,000,000 Vietnamese. Yet the unimpeachable sources cited in these first two posts prove that those claims were at best mischaracterizations, and at worst outright lies. A future installment in this series will highlight how our involvement in Vietnam heightened the risk of a nuclear war. Thus, avoiding needless wars not only saves blood, treasure, and national honor. It also reduces nuclear risk. Other installments will highlight other wars or near wars that were based on governmental misinformation. In light of that history isn’t it time we started asking more questions before joining the march to war? That question is of direct current relevance because Senate Resolution 65 – a kind of “Iran War Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” – is currently under review. That resolution will be covered in more detail in the next post in this series. Stay tuned!

Martin Hellman

Reference and Note Adm. Stockdale’s quotes are from: Jim and Sybil Stockdale, In Love and War, Harper and Row, New York, 1984, pages 19-20, 24-25, 33-36. It should be noted that Adm. Stockdale, rather than thinking that Vietnam was a needless war, saw it as inevitable and necessary to stop communist aggression. His concern was that we had gone to war under false pretenses which, if discovered, would aid the anti-war movement and the North Vietnamese propaganda effort. After he was shot down in September 1965, his greatest fear during his long captivity was that the North Vietnamese would recognize that he had been flying air cover on the second, non-existent Gulf of Tonkin incident, would torture the truth out of him, and use it to hurt the American war effort. Throughout the book, he and his wife argue that the solution was to unleash America’s air power without reservation, even if it risked bringing Russia and/or China into the war – as happened with China during the Korean War. So we’re already seeing some of the connection between wars like in Vietnam and nuclear risk.

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3 Responses to “Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident”

  1. will rogers April 29, 2013 at 3:44 AM #

    Sir; How interesting that both great men and countries, always need to rationalize the need to go to war, but for what ! Does anybody ever win a war ! History shows that the so call winners, are the real losers over history. Be very careful when you justify your decision and then declare war, rather than using some common sense, by sitting down with all parties concerned, and restore peace, even it may bruise your “Big Ego” !

  2. Jim Treanor June 1, 2013 at 4:22 PM #

    Having been in USS Turner Joy’s Combat Information Center on 4 August 1964, I’d suggest that there are two problems with the article. The first is the reliance on NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok’s conclusion that the signals intelligence (SIGINT) “proves” that there was no attack on the USS Maddox and Turner Joy that night. One of the problems with the NSA history is that it relies in part on a 3 September 1964 NSA assessment stating that there was “a virtual absence of [North Vietnamese] trackings” of the two U.S. destroyers on 3 and 4 August. That doesn’t square with our electronic countermeasures intercepts of North Vietnamese coastal and shipborne search radar emissions on both days, including emissions emanating from at least Swatow-class patrol boat that was shadowing us on 4 August. Nor does it make sense that the North Vietnamese would have lost interest in knowing where we were following their 2 August combat engagement with Maddox. Finally, following declassification of the NSA history in 2005, the Agency’s Director of Policy and Records felt compelled to issue a January 2006 memo that stated in part: “Nevertheless, while Mr. Hanyok’s analysis of the available COMINT [communications intelligence] evidence is convincing on its own, the COMINT does not prove that an attack did or did not occur. Unlike the 2 August COMINT where an actual attack message was intercepted, circumstantial evidence and the absence of a 4 August COMINT attack message cannot conclusively prove there was not an attack.” That’s hardly an affirmation of the indisputability of SIGINT “evidence.”

    As for then-Commander James Stockdale’s assertion that “he had the best seat in the house” on what was a moonless, occasionally squally night, it was doubtful that he could even see Turner Joy at times, as he had to be waved off a missile-firing run that he was about to make on the destroyer itself, in part a consequence of his refusal to accept shipboard air control that night. Moreover, post-incident US Navy nighttime exercises conducted off of Danang that pitted shipboard-controlled aircraft against US PTF’s demonstrated that the aircraft pilots failed to sight the PTF’s a high percentage of the time even when vectored directly on top of them.

    Where historians have gone wrong on the events of that night is in (1) uncritically accepting the testimony of then-Commander Stockdale, (2) in assuming that the SIGINT intercepts are complete and tell the whole story, and (3) in cherry-picking the DeSoto Patrol Task Group Commander’s message traffic to make it appear that he doubted everything that he had reported up the chain of command(which is not the case, as a thorough review of his post-incident actions and after-action reports indicates).

    What the historians (and the commentators who’ve followed their lead) have neglected, ignored, or given short shrift to is the visual evidence reported by topside personnel aboard the destroyers. Turner Joy personnel at four different topside locations saw several credible indications of a PT attack–including automatic weapons fire directed their way, a searchlight (originating at well off Maddox’s bearing), black smoke rising from a target that had been taken under fire, a PT silhouette, and a torpedo wake (the latter seen by four personnel from three shipboard locations).

    Also ignored has been the wholly independent investigation initiated by Commander, Seventh Fleet. The lead investigator, qualified as both a torpedo-characteristic-experienced submarine officer and a lawyer picky about evidence, also had prior experience with the sometimes-quirky atmospherics of the Tonkin Gulf and the tricks they played on radar. He entered the investigation a skeptic. After reviewing the pertinent records and interviewing eyewitnesses, he concluded that an attack had occurred–and that what personnel had described as a torpedo wake was just that.

    Whatever the Administration chose to do with whatever information it had, thought it had, or wished it had should not distort what actually happened in the Tonkin Gulf that night. We were attacked. Period.

  3. Martin Hellman June 1, 2013 at 6:12 PM #


    Thank you both for your service to our nation, and for your efforts to present another perspective on the Gulf of Tonkin incidents.

    First, I should note that all sources – however well intentioned – are open to error. For example, Prof. Edwin Moise (author of Tonkin Gulf And the Escalation of the Vietnam War) posted a comment on Part 3 of this series, noting that the NSA history is wrong in claiming that the Johnson administration never reported that the Maddox had fired three warning shots prior to the North Vietnamese PT boats attacking on 2 AUG (the first incident). It’s worth reading his full comment to see how this error crept in as a result of how the administration slanted its testimony.

    Based on all the evidence I’ve seen – and I was aware of your critique of Prof. Moise’s book, which goes into more detail than your comment – I still believe that the second incident never happened. But I could be wrong.

    Even if I am wrong and the second incident did happen, that doesn’t change two critical facts which prove that the Vietnam War was needless:

    1. Our government repeatedly and knowingly mischaracterized these incidents as unprovoked communist aggression, in order to build public support for going to war. (See Part 1 for particularly damning evidence of that.) They may have done so in the belief it was necessary for the good of the nation, but it doesn’t change what they did. Plus, they were wrong – see point #2 immediately below.

    2. A key assumption underlying the rationale for going to war – the domino theory – was proved false when Vietnam was unified under the communists, yet all Asia (much less much of the world) did not fall to communism. Quite the reverse.

    My goal in writing this series is not to assess blame. Rather, my goal is to highlight how our nation has repeatedly been duped (or duped itself) into going to war under false pretenses, at a horrendous cost in lives, treasure, and honor – and thereby to stop the cycle. If the Vietnam War can become Exhibit A in the need to question government claims of unprovoked aggression, self-defense, etc. then the lives lost in that war will save countless future soldiers, sailors, and civilians from avoidable horror.


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