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Tonkin Bay: Was There a Conspiracy?

Truth Is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality

by Joseph C. Goulden
A James B. Adler Inc. Book, published in association with Rand McNally, 285 pp., $6.95

Seaman Patrick N. Park, on the night of August 4, 1964, was directing the gun-control radar of the USS Maddox. For three hours he had heard torpedo reports from the ship’s sonarman, and he had seen, two or three times, the flash of guns from a nearby destroyer, the Turner Joy, in the rainy darkness. But his radar could find no targets, “only the occasional roll of a wave as it breaks into a whitecap.” At last, just before midnight, a target: “a damned big one, right on us…about 1,500 yards off the side, a nice fat blip.” He was ordered to open fire; luckily, however, not all seamen blindly follow orders.

Just before I pushed the trigger I suddenly realized, That’s the Turner Joy…. There was a lot of yelling of “Goddamn” back and forth, with the bridge telling me to “fire before we lose contact,” and me yelling right back at them…. I finally told them, “I’m not opening fire until I know where the Turner Joy is.” The bridge got on the phone and said, “Turn on your lights, Turner Joy.” Sure enough, there she was, right in the cross hairs… 1,500 yards away. If I had fired, it would have blown it clean out of the water. In fact, I could have been shot for not squeezing the trigger. Then people started asking, “What are we shooting at…?” We all began calming down. The whole thing seemed to end then.

Goulden’s fascinating book, which has gathered much new information about the Tonkin Gulf incidents, see: the experience of Patrick Park as, with one exception, a microcosm of the entire Tonkin affair—

illustrating the confusion between illusion and reality and the inclination of man to act upon facts as he anticipates they should be, rather than what rational examination shows them to be. The exception is that Park refused to squeeze the firing key, while Washington acted on the basis of assumption, not fact—hastily, precipitously, perhaps even unnecessarily—firing at an unseen enemy lurking behind the blackness of misinformation.

Not all will accept the analogy between Washington and a confused young seaman, but this hardly lessens the importance of Goulden’s patient researches. The author of a book on AT&T and a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Goulden has made good use of his years of experience in Washington. He has not really written a “thesis” book; his method is to stick closely to official documents (above all the neglected Fulbright Committee Hearing of 1968)1 and first-hand interviews with witnesses the Committee failed to call, including Seaman Park. At times, he can be faulted for believing so much what was told him in the Pentagon. Even so, the result is devastating. It is now even more clear that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (in his words) “contains the fatal taint of deception.” The Administration had withheld much vital information in formulating the simple story of “unprovoked attack” by which that resolution was pushed through Congress.

The Maddox, according to McNamara in 1964, was on a “routine patrol in international waters.” In fact it was on an electronics intelligence (ELINT) or spy mission for the National Security Agency and CIA. One of its many intelligence requirements orders was “to stimulate Chicom-North Vietnamese electronic reaction,” i.e., to provoke the North Vietnamese into turning on their defensive radars so that the frequencies could be measured. To this end, between August 1 and 4, the Maddox repeatedly simulated attacks by moving toward the shore with its gun control radar mechanism turned on, as if it were preparing to shoot at targets. In so doing, it violated the twelve-mile limit which Pentagon officials thought North Vietnam claimed for her territorial waters.2 Far from being “routine,” this was only the third such patrol in the Tonkin Gulf in thirty-two months; and the North Vietnamese had to assess it in the context of a recent US build-up and South Vietnamese threats to carry the war north.

On July 31, just before the patrol, the South Vietnamese had for the first time used American “swift boats” to bombard the North Vietnamese coast, attacking the islands of Hon Ngu and Hon Me. McNamara had claimed that the US Navy and the Maddox were “not aware of any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any”; but the ship’s cable traffic reveals frequent references to “34-Alpha Operations,” the Navy code name for these covert attacks. On July 25 in Taiwan the Maddox had taken aboard an NSA “Communications Van” (COMVAN) with its special complement of intelligence personnel and communications technicians; and some of the COMVAN team were able to intercept and interpret North Vietnamese ship-to-shore messages. Goulden reports that they heard North Vietnamese orders to position a defensive ring of PT boats around Hon Me after the first South Vietnamese attack on the North Vietnamese islands, as well as speculations about the possible link between the Maddox and the raids.

Near Hon Me on the morning of August 2 the NSA technicians intercepted orders for PT boats to attack the Maddox. Captain Herrick aboard the Maddox cabled to his superiors in Honolulu that “continuance of patrol presents an unacceptable risk,” but was ordered to resume his itinerary. The Maddox returned to a point eleven miles from Hon Me island, and then heard a North Vietnamese order for its attack. This was the prelude for the first incident of August 2—it is clear both that a North Vietnamese attack was ordered and that the Maddox fired the first shots. A North Vietnamese patrol boat was left “dead in water,” and another probably damaged. The Maddox then withdrew, having been dented by a single machine-gun bullet.

At this point the Maddox might have broken off the patrol permanently (after all, the original orders of the Joint Chiefs had warned about the risks from the stepped-up 34-A operations). Alternatively, it might have resumed the patrol as originally planned, along the entire 600-mile coastline of the Tonkin Gulf. The President’s decision was, without bombing North Vietnam, to send “that ship back up there” together with a second destroyer, the Turner Joy; but the admirals of the Pacific command in Honolulu translated this general order into a third, much more dangerous, course of action. The destroyers were ordered to modify the original patrol plan and to spend the next two days in a single 45-mile stretch (between Navy checkpoints “Charlie” and “Delta”) around the obviously sensitive island of Hon Me which had just been shelled by the South Vietnamese.

On August 3 Captain Herrick suggested termination of the patrol altogether, and Admiral Johnson (Seventh Fleet Commander) reported his intention to end it on the evening of August 4. (In this case the disputed second incident would never have arisen.) The on-scene commanders were however overruled by a second cable from Admiral Sharp, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), in Honolulu, which restricted the ships even more closely to the Hon Me area. Sharp specified that “the above patrol will…(b) possibly draw NVN PGMS [North Vietnamese patrol boats] to northward away from area of 34-A Ops.”

Sharp, in other words, hoped the destroyers might serve as decoys and distract North Vietnam’s small fleet of PT boats, leaving unimpeded the 34-A Operations to the south. (McNamara claimed that “every possible effort was made to keep these two operations separate,” and this may hold true for the efforts of Washington and the ship commanders, but not for Honolulu’s pre-occupation with Hon Me.3 ) After listening to further intercepts of the North Vietnamese radio (which in a strict sense he may not have been authorized to do), Captain Herrick aboard the Maddox spelled out more clearly in a cable to Honolulu the dangers of the Hon Me area:

A. Evaluation of info from various sources indicates that DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam, i.e., North Vietnam] considers patrol directly involved with 34-A ops. DRV considers United States ships present as enemies…and have already indicated readiness to treat us in that category.

B. DRV are very sensitive about Hon Me. Believe this is PT operating base, and the cove there presently contains numerous patrol and PT craft which have been repositioned from northerly bases.

Meanwhile the South Vietnamese had already (at 12:30 A.M. August 4) conducted a second series of 34-A raids some seventy miles southwest of the destroyers. McNamara admitted in 1968 that he was not informed of these second raids until after he and the President authorized the air strikes against North Vietnam. Nevertheless the facts were known to “some senior commanders above the level of the commanders of the task force”—a line of command consisting of Admirals Johnson, Moorer, and Sharp. Goulden asks why this essential information did not reach McNamara, who consulted Admiral Sharp about the air strikes by telephone.

Despite the raids, and the mounting nervousness on both sides, the daylight hours of August 4 were uneventful. The night was pitch dark from a cover of black storm clouds, and the sea and atmospheric conditions (as McNamara conceded) were such as to cause both radar and sonar to function erratically. It was in these murky circumstances that the alleged second incident (or “unprovoked attack”) took place. Unexplained radar blips at 36 miles northeast and an intercepted enemy message caused Captain Herrick to fear an imminent ambush at 7:40 P.M.; two hours later (if we accept a problematic Pentagon chronology), US ships opened fire at fresh radar contacts moving in from the west and south. A “torpedo wake” was then seen from aboard the Turner Joy (or more specifically a track in the fluorescent water that in the words of a viewer “wasn’t no porpoise”). In the course of this dark evening, there were also isolated reports of a column of smoke, a searchlight, gun flashes, cockpit lights, and a silhouetted boat. But most of these reports came from the Turner Joy, whose crew had never been under fire before and did most of the shooting.^4

In 1964 McNamara told the Fulbright Committee how the ships then reported “that they were under continuous torpedo attack.” His account did not bother to mention a later cable from Herrick saying that “all subsequent Maddox torpedo reports [after the first] are doubtful in that it is suspected that sonarman was hearing ship’s own propeller beat.” (For some reason this cable from Herrick took three or more hours to reach Washington, arriving nineteen minutes after the planes had been launched against North Vietnam.) Soon after the Turner Joy cabled that its sonar had received no indications of torpedo noises, “even that which passed down side.” A reverse paradox occurred with the fire-control radars. The Turner Joy radar fixed on several targets. The Maddox nearby locked on only one; and that, as we have seen, was the Turner Joy. 5

There are other grounds for doubting the reality of the alleged August 4 attack. No radar or electronic activity was ever detected from the alleged attackers, raising doubts that they could have tracked the destroyers on such a dark night. The North Vietnamese promptly disclaimed any role in the second incident, while identifying certain South Vietnamese craft which they claimed had slipped out that evening from Danang. (Their denial was later sustained by an important and cooperative North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war, the second-in-command of the PT squadron in question, who supplied much other useful information to his American interrogators.)

  1. 1

    US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, The Gulf of Tonkin, the 1964 Incidents, 90th Cong.; 2nd Sess. Cited hereafter as Hearing.

  2. 2

    Against McNamara’s professed ignorance of any formal claim before September 1964, Goulden cites Deputy Secretary Cyrus Vance’s statement on August 8, 1964 (“I think that they do claim a 12-mile limit”), and a Navy Intelligence message of May, 1963. According to The New York Times (Aug. 11, 1964, p. 15) the Ticonderoga‘s Task Force Commander Rear Admiral Robert B. Moore “indicated that the destroyer might have been two or three miles inside the 12-mile limit set by Hanoi for international waters.”

    McNamara told the Committee that the Maddox could simulate an attack on the coast by turning on special transmitters, but the Pentagon later said the ship carried passive equipment and could only listen.

  3. 3

    As evidence for his proposition, McNamara cited two cables from Adm. Johnson envisaging withdrawal, while he overlooked the cables from CINCPAC which promptly overruled them. (Hearing, pp. 31-32).

  4. 5

    Goulden learned this story from Seaman Park, whose name was somehow omitted from an allegedly complete list of Maddox crewmen supplied by the Pentagon.

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