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

The 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.

010101 NSA Gulf of Tonkin Paper Page 3

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.

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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