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soc.history.war.vietnam FAQ: Tonkin Gulf Incident

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Archive-Name: vietnam/tonkin-gulf
Last-modified: 1997/06/07
Posting-Frequency: monthly (1st)

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This FAQ was prepared by Prof. Edwin E. Moise of Clemson

The Tonkin Gulf Incidents of 1964

On the morning of July 31, 1964, the US Navy destroyer
began a reconnaissance patrol, called a DESOTO patrol, along
the coast
of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.  The main goal was
to gather
information about the coastal defense forces.

It was expected that the North Vietnamese coastal defense
forces would
be quite active, so a lot could be learned about them,
because a
number of covert operations were being carried out against
the North
Vietnamese coast around this time.  These operations, under
(Operations Plan) 34A, were carried out by moderate-sized
(some old American PT boats with the torpedo tubes removed,
and some
new Norwegian-built Nasty boats, about the size of a PT
boat), based
at Danang.

Around midnight on the night of July 30-31, OPLAN 34A
raiders from
Danang shelled two of North Vietnam's offshore islands, Hon
Me and Hon
Ngu (a.k.a. Hon Nieu).

On the afternoon of August 2, when the MADDOX was not far
from Hon Me,
three North Vietnamese torpedo boats came out from Hon Me
and attacked
the MADDOX.  The attack was unsuccessful, though one bullet
from a
heavy machinegun on one of the torpedo boats did hit the
This is often referred to as the "first attack."

Warning: many books have the interval between the OPLAN 34A
raid on
Hon Me and the attack on the MADDOX much shorter than it
actually was:
two and a half days.

The MADDOX left the Gulf of Tonkin after this incident, but
came back
on August 3, accompanied by another destroyer, the TURNER

There were more OPLAN 34A raids on the night of August 3-4,
this time
shelling two points on the North Vietnamese mainland. The
did not participate; the raids were carried out by the boats

Late on the afternoon of August 4, the two destroyers headed
away from
the North Vietnamese coast toward the middle of the Gulf of
That night, they began picking up what appeared to be
vessels on their radar.  They believed they were being
attacked, and
opened fire.  Most of the supposed attacking vessels,
appeared only on the radar of the TURNER JOY, not the radar
of the
MADDOX.  Some men on the destroyers decided later that what
appeared on the radar had just been ghost images; others
think the
radar images were genuine torpedo boats attacking them. This
is often
referred to as the "second attack."

The following afternoon, aircraft from two US aircraft
carriers, the
TICONDEROGA and the CONSTELLATION, carried out retaliatory
The targets for the most part were coastal patrol vessels of
the North
Vietnamese Navy, but a major petroleum storage facility at
the town of
Vinh was also hit, and in fact the destruction of this
facility was
the most important accomplishment of the airstrikes.

On August 7, the US Congress passed, almost unanimously, the
Gulf Resolution," giving President Johnson basically a blank
check to
use "all necessary measures" to deal with "aggression" in
Vietnam. The
Johnson administration had been wanting to get such a
resolution from
the Congress; the Tonkin Gulf incidents made a good excuse.
It does
not appear, however, that the incidents had been
concocted in order to provide the excuse.


Everett Alvarez, Jr. and Anthony S. Pitch, Chained Eagle
(New York:
     Fine, 1989). Alvarez was one of the pilots who flew air
     over the destroyers during the Second Tonkin Gulf
Incident.  The
     following day, during air strikes at Hon Gai, he was
shot down;
     he was the first pilot captured by the DRV.

Anthony Austin, The President's War (New York: Lippincott,
1971). A
     quite detailed account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents,
and the
     internal processes by which the United States
Government dealt
     with them.

Joseph F. Bouchard, "Uses of Naval Force in Crises: A Theory
     Stratified Crisis Interaction."  Ph.D. dissertation,
     University, 1989.  1236 pp. (When Bouchard later
published this
     as a book, he had to cut it to a much smaller size.
Tonkin Gulf
     was one of the things that got cut.) 

William B. Cogar, ed., New Interpretations in Naval History:
     Papers from the Eighth Naval History Symposium.
Annapolis: Naval
     Institute Press, 1989.  Contains papers on Tonkin Gulf
by Edward
     Marolda and Edwin Moise, and comments on them by James
A. Barber,

Steve Edwards, "Stalking the Enemy's Coast", Proceedings
     (February 1992), pp. 56-62.  A very unreliable account.

John Galloway, The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Rutherford:
     Dickinson University Press, 1970).  The actual text is
     short, but this volume has long useful appendices,
including the
     complete official transcripts (classified material
deleted) of
     crucial Senate committee hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin
     incidents, held August 6, 1964 and February 20, 1968.
Note that
     some of the deleted passages have now been released by

Joseph Goulden, Truth is the First Casualty. Chicago: Rand

Samuel E. Halpern, M.D., West Pac '64 (Boston: Branden
Press, 1975).
     By a medical officer who was aboard the Maddox.

Gerald Kurland, The Gulf of Tonkin Incidents.
Charlotteville, NY: Sam
     Har Press, 1975. 

Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the
Vietnam War.
     Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. 

Sen. Thurston B. Morton, "Only the G.O.P. can Get Us out of
     Saturday Evening Post,  April 6, 1968, pp. 10-12.  

"The 'Phantom Battle' that Led to War", U.S. News & World
Report, July
     23, 1984. A good retrospective  study of the Tonkin
     Incidents of August 1964, with a lot of information
     interviews with participants. 

Harry F. Rosenthal and Tom Stewart, "Tonkin Gulf" (AP
     Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1967, reprinted in
     Record, February 28, 1968, p. 4582. 

John W. Schmidt, The Gulf of Tonkin Debates, 1964 and 1967:
A Study in
     Argument.  Ph.D. thesis, Speech, University of
Minnesota, 1969.
     290 pp. 

Jim and Sybil Stockdale, In Love and War.  New York: Harper
& Row,
     1984.  Revised and expanded edition: Annapolis: U.S.
     Institute, 1990. Memoirs of a senior U.S. Navy pilot
and his
     wife, important for the pilot's account  of the Tonkin
     Incidents (Stockdale was in the air above the Maddox
both August
     2 and August 4, 1964, and commanded one of the
     strikes against the North August 5), and also for the
POW issue
     (Stockdale was a prisoner from 1965 to 1973; his wife
was a
     leader of the League of POW/MIA families). A
     expanded edition was published in 1990(?). 

Susan B. Sweeney, "Oral History and the Tonkin Gulf
     Interviews about the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War,"
     Journal of Oral History, 7:3 (November 1986), pp.

I.F. Stone, "McNamara and Tonkin Bay: The Unanswered
Questions", The
     New York Review of Books, March 28, 1968, pp. 5-12.

Eugene G. Windchy, Tonkin Gulf. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
The best of
     the early books on the topic.

David Wise, "Remember the Maddox!", Esquire, April 1968, pp.

Edwin E. Moise

Copyright (c) 1997 Edwin E. Moise.  Non-commercial
distribution for
educational purposes permitted if document is unaltered.
commercial use, or storage in any commercial BBS is strictly
prohibited without written consent.

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