Questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents have persisted for more than 40 years. But once-classified documents and tapes released in the past several years, combined with previously uncovered facts, make clear that high government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public about events that led to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
By Lieutenant Commander Pat Paterson, U.S. Navy
On 2 August 1964, North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox (DD-731) while the destroyer was in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. There is no doubting that fact. But what happened in the Gulf during the late hours of 4 August—and the consequential actions taken by U.S. officials in Washington—has been seemingly cloaked in confusion and mystery ever since that night.
Nearly 200 documents the National Security Agency (NSA) declassified and released in 2005 and 2006, however, have helped shed light on what transpired in the Gulf of Tonkin on 4 August. The papers, more than 140 of them classified top secret, include phone transcripts, oral-history interviews, signals intelligence (SIGINT) messages, and chronologies of the Tonkin events developed by Department of Defense and NSA officials. Combined with recently declassified tapes of phone calls from White House officials involved with the events and previously uncovered facts about Tonkin, these documents provide compelling evidence about the subsequent decisions that led to the full commitment of U.S. armed forces to the Vietnam War.
In early 1964, South Vietnam began conducting a covert series of U.S.-backed commando attacks and intelligence-gathering missions along the North Vietnamese coast. Codenamed Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34A, the activities were conceived and overseen by the Department of Defense, with the support of the Central Intelligence Agency, and carried out by the South Vietnamese Navy. Initial successes, however, were limited; numerous South Vietnamese raiders were captured, and OPLAN 34A units suffered heavy casualties. In July 1964, Lieutenant General William C. Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, shifted the operation’s tactics from commando attacks on land to shore bombardments using mortars, rockets, and recoilless rifles fired from South Vietnamese patrol boats.1
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, had been conducting occasional reconnaissance and SIGINT-gathering missions farther offshore in the Tonkin Gulf. Destroyers carried out these so-called Desoto patrols. After missions in December 1962 and April of the next year, patrols were scheduled for 1964 in the vicinity of OPLAN 34A raids. In fact, one of the patrols’ main missions was to gather information that would be useful to the raiders.2 A top-secret document declassified in 2005 revealed the standing orders to the Desoto patrols: “[L]ocate and identify all coastal radar transmitters, note all navigation aids along the DVR’s [Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s] coastline, and monitor the Vietnamese junk fleet for a possible connection to DRV/Viet Cong maritime supply and infiltration routes.”3
The United States was playing a dangerous game. The South Vietnamese—conducted OPLAN 34A raids and the U.S. Navy’s Desoto patrols could be perceived as collaborative efforts against North Vietnamese targets. In reality, there was no coordination between the forces conducting the operations.
Nemo me impune lacessit