The Escalation of the Vietnam Conflict: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident Explained

The Gulf of Tonkin incident broadly refers to two separate incidents. The first, on 2 August 1964, saw the destroyer USS Maddox engage three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

A battle ensued, during which the USS Maddox and four USN F-8 Crusader jet fighter bombers strafed the torpedo boats. All three boats were damaged and four Vietnamese sailors were killed, with six wounded. There were no US casualties.

The second, another sea battle, allegedly occurred on 4 August 1964. On that evening, destroyers patrolling the gulf received radar, sonar and radio signals that were interpreted as indicating a NV attack.

Maddox-Tonkin

What Happened?

Despite reports of US ships sinking two NV torpedo boats, no wreckage was ever found, and various conflicting reports, alongside the freakishly bad weather, indicate that the sea battle never took place.

This was recognized at the time. One cable read:

The first boat to close the Maddox probably launched a torpedo at the Maddox which was heard but not seen. All subsequent Maddox torpedo reports are doubtful in that it is suspected that sonarman was hearing the ship’s own propeller beat.

Outcome

Within thirty minutes of the second attack, President Lyndon Johnson was resolved on retaliatory action. After reassuring the Soviet Union that his war in Vietnam would not be expansionist, he gave the address below, on 5 August 1964.

Johnson detailed the supposed attack, and then sought approval for undertaking a military response.

At the time, his speech was interpreted variously as assertive and fair, and as unfairly casting the NV as the aggressor.

However, crucially, there were no overt indications of all-out war. His subsequent public announcements were similarly muted, and there existed a wide disconnect between this stance and his actions – behind the scenes Johnson was preparing for a sustained conflict.

Some members of Congress were not fooled. Senator Wayne Morse sought to corral an outcry in Congress, but could not gather sufficient numbers. He persevered, maintaining that Johnson’s actions were ‘acts of war rather than acts of defence.’

Subsequently, of course, he was vindicated. The US was to become embroiled in a bloody, prolonged and ultimately failed war.

Legacy

It was clear that, even immediately after the second ‘attack’, there were strong doubts as to its veracity. History has only served to reinforce those doubts.

The sense that these events were a false pretext for war has subsequently grown stronger.

It is certainly true that many government advisors were militating toward a conflict in Vietnam before the alleged events to place, as illustrated by the transcripts of War Council meetings, which show a very small, anti-war minority being side-lined by the hawks.

Johnson’s reputation as President was heavily tarnished by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and its repercussions have echoed down the years, most notably in accusations that George Bush committed the USA to an illegal war in Iraq.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.