10 Misconceptions About the War in Vietnam Exposed

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The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

According to what President Lyndon Johnson told the American people, North Vietnamese gunboats attacked American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964, which led to American reprisals in the form of airstrikes. It also led to Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the eventual deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. On July 28, 1964, five days before the first incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Director of the CIA, John McCone, wrote to President Johnson that air strikes against military targets in Vietnam, including in North Vietnam, would likely not cause an escalation of communist activity in the South from the major communist powers.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 2, 1964. USS Maddox, a destroyer, was operating in the Gulf during a signals exercise when it discovered it was being followed by three North Korean patrol boats, armed with machine guns and torpedoes. According to the Johnson administration’s report of the incident to the American people, the North Vietnamese closed on Maddox and launched torpedo attacks. Maddox evaded the torpedoes and fired upon the boats in self-defense. On August 4 a second attack occurred on Maddox and USS Turner Joy, in which the Navy claimed to have sunk three North Vietnamese patrol boats after being attacked.

Documents which were declassified in 2005 indicate that in the first incident Maddox noticed the boats trailing them and Captain John Herrick, who commanded the destroyer squadron which included Maddox ordered its gun crews to fire warning shots if the boats closed to within 10,000 yards (five nautical miles). When Maddoxsubsequently fired three warning shots, they responded by attacking with torpedoes. The second incident, in which the Navy claimed to have sunk three North Vietnamese craft, never happened. The ships likely fired at ghost images from their radar. There were no North Vietnamese boats present during the incident of August 4.

The fact that Maddox had fired first was not reported to the American people and Congress. Instead it was claimed that Maddox had been deliberately attacked in international waters. Maddox was inside the territorial limit claimed by the North Vietnamese (but unrecognized by the United States). Why Maddox, and later Turner Joy, were so close to the North Vietnamese coast was not explained by the Johnson administration as it rammed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Nor was it explained until the declassification of documents many years after the war.

The American destroyers were off the coast of North Vietnam to gather intelligence in support of OPLAN 34. The plan had been taken over by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Special Operations Group from the Central Intelligence Agency on January 1, 1964. The plan included the insertion of American trained South Vietnamese commandos into North Vietnam to disrupt supply of the Viet Cong and destroy radar installations, among other things. The night before the Gulf of Tonkin incident one of these raids was launched on Hon Me Island in the Gulf of Tonkin, using American supplied attack boats manned by South Vietnamese. Maddox was gathering intelligence during the raid.

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