In August, 1964, Vietcong insurgents played havoc with the South Vietnamese Army which was supported by 23,000 US military advisors. Clearly, the Vietcong’s support came from North Vietnam.
On the night of August 4, in a thunderstorm off the coast of North Vietnam, the U.S.S. Maddox’s sonar operator detected what was thought, at that time, to be enemy fire. The Maddox fired wildly upon the suspected attackers. Aircraft from the U.S.S. Ticonderoga searched overhead, in vain, for signs of enemy ships, their wakes, and torpedoes that the Maddox’s radio operator frantically reported.
Even before the phantom Tonkin Gulf sea battle ceased, the Maddox’s captain cabled Hawaii, informing them of possible mistaken sonar readings, that there may have been no enemy contact at all.
Meanwhile, the ship’s original reports were received in Hawaii and Washington. The White House was informed and military action initiated. The Defense Department cabled back through channels, seeking confirmation of the incident.
The incident gave President Lyndon Johnson an opportunity to attack North Vietnam, and to secure Congressional authorization for a war that the USA might choose to fight.
Before the Defense Department obtained confirmation or denial of the Maddox incident, US aircraft bombed strategic North Vietnamese sites, the first American military strikes in North Vietnam. Johnson then sought and hurriedly obtained passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution by the US Senate, there being only two dissenting votes. That resolution became the sole congressional authorization ever passed for the Vietnam War. The escalation of the war, by both the USA and North Vietnam, proceeded from that point.
American leaders (and the American public) believed that by exerting a little more American firepower, the North Vietnamese soon would recognize America’s will and determination, and decide to sit down at the bargaining table and resolve the issues to our satisfaction.
Of course, history reveals that this did not happen. As American strength levels grew to more than half million troops, North Vietnam and the Vietcong fought on, suffering huge losses, confident that America would tire of the ordeal first.
Concerning this Maddox incident, the North Vietnamese leadership recognized the US government’s statements as fiction. Soon, the truth would be known in America as well. President Johnson even joked to some visitors, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” Others suggested that lightning may have been the source of the sonar soundings.
With all the power and might of the USA, Johnson was unable to prevail against the will of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese aspirations. Neither could Richard Nixon, his successor.
Let it be remembered that Johnson, in 1968, withdrew from the race for the Democrat party’s nomination for President. That was on the eve of the Wisconsin primary.
One lesson from the Tonkin Gulf experience should be instructive to all. Truth is all-pervasive; it will make itself known. America’s eagerness to obtain justification for war with North Vietnam resulted in our becoming the aggressor. The Senate and the American public thought we responded to an attack upon us, when, in reality, America was striking the first blow, a truth that many Americans may find difficult to accept, yet today.
Published previously in an earlier website, July 4, 2003