Grand Delusion: U.S. Strategy and the Tonkin Gulf Incident

By Edward J. Marolda

The new approach to warfare also called for using increasingly destructive doses of military power to influence the behavior of nations backing insurgencies in neighboring countries, without actually having to declare war against the aggressors. The U.S. national-security establishment grew comfortable with the “graduated escalation” concept. The theory made perfectly good sense, but its successful application depended on two things: an accurate assessment of the enemy’s powers of resistance, and a precise, overwhelming application of force against the target country. 

By the time of the Kennedy administration, flexible response and graduated escalation had become gospel. President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara were enamored both with The Uncertain Trumpet and General Taylor, who served as their principal military adviser. McNamara, whose tenure spanned the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in particular championed graduated escalation as his operational method for combating North Vietnam’s actions in Indochina. 

Countering the Threat in Laos

In May 1959, Ho Chi Minh decided to inaugurate an armed struggle to destroy the government of the Republic of Vietnam and bring all Vietnamese under DRV rule. Key to the success of this effort would be Hanoi’s ability to supply and reinforce Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam by means of a logistics lifeline through southern Laos that was soon called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

Even in this early period of the conflict in Indochina, American leaders considered menacing North Vietnam to affect its actions in Laos and South Vietnam. In November 1960, Admiral Harry D. Felt, responsible for all U.S. military forces in the Pacific, suggested overturning “some Communist apple carts” through clandestine actions in their rear areas. 1 In 1962 Felt observed that North Vietnam possessed “Power plants, railroads, bridges, VIP residences, and the like. . . . We should exploit this vulnerability.” 2  

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George W. Anderson suggested selective air strikes in Laos “coupled with strongest political warnings to North Vietnam that their continued use of military or subversive actions in Laos and South Vietnam” would not be tolerated. 3 He endorsed a “campaign of harassment” against North Vietnam. 

Clandestine Ops in the North

Such a harassment campaign was already in motion. Under CIA direction, motorized junks landed South Vietnamese saboteurs and intelligence agents in North Vietnam. These unlucky volunteers were ultimately, if not immediately, compromised and either killed or “turned” to become counterspies for Hanoi. 

In August 1962, General Paul D. Harkins, commander U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) proposed to Washington that Navy SEALs and logistic personnel based in Danang support a clandestine maritime operation against North Vietnam. U.S. motor torpedo boats crewed by non-Americans would sortie from that port for actions on the enemy coastline. In September, Felt readily endorsed the concept. 4

That same month, the Kennedy administration’s Special Group for counterinsurgency concurred with Harkins’ concept. But the real push came from McNamara, who ordered the Navy to purchase Norwegian-built Nasty-class patrol boats. 5  

After the assassination of President Kennedy, the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson continued to zero in on North Vietnam. Following the now well-established graduated-escalation approach, McNamara aimed to discourage Hanoi’s southern campaign through a program of increasingly painful military pressures. Based on Operation Plan 34, a document Felt directed that his staff develop in mid-1963, the CIA produced a blueprint for covert operations against the DRV. Johnson cautiously approved continued work on what was now labeled Operation Plan 34A. But McNamara had to assure the president that the proposed actions would limit any physical damage in North Vietnam, avoid an adverse international reaction, enable the U.S. government to deny involvement, and not generate retaliation. 6

McNamara now became especially enthusiastic about harassing Hanoi. On 20 December, after reviewing 34A’s proposed concept of operations, he ordered the Navy to buy more Nastys from Norway and to base them (as well as two U.S.-built boats) at Danang. The following day, McNamara told the president that the plan presented “a wide variety of . . . operations against North Vietnam from which I believe we should aim to select those that provide maximum pressure with minimum risk.” 7

On 16 January 1964, Johnson gave the go-ahead but authorized only Phase I, which entailed the least risky psychological, intelligence-gathering, and sabotage actions. The signal of resolve Washington wished to send communist leaders in Hanoi did not reach them as a result of early 34A operations. Not until the end of May were all the fast patrol boats (PTFs), finally armed and ready, deployed to Danang, and South Vietnamese sailors sufficiently trained by U.S. naval personnel for their dangerous missions to the north. 

Only on 27 May 1964 did 34A carry out its first successful mission, when the maritime force captured a North Vietnamese junk and its crew. 8 During June and July the force registered relatively more success, destroying a storage facility and a bridge and capturing more North Vietnamese junks. On the night of 30 June–1 July, a pair of PTFs landed a combat team that destroyed a reservoir pump house. 9 It is most unlikely, however, that these pinprick operations impressed Hanoi of U.S. military might. 

Upping the Ante

Following the assassination in November 1963 of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the subsequent collapse of security in South Vietnam, even more U.S. leaders had called for direct military action against the North. In February 1964, Admiral Claude V. Ricketts, representing the CNO on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for air strikes on military and industrial targets throughout North Vietnam, if need be, to break Hanoi’s will. He alluded to the Lebanon and Taiwan Strait crises of 1958 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as instances where the threat of U.S. military retaliation had compelled communist leaders to back down. 10 McNamara, too, looked to the Cuban Missile Crisis as a model of how to use military force to achieve a political objective while avoiding war. 

Admiral Felt continued to back the administration’s graduated escalation program against North Vietnam. He observed: “If the pressures are applied selectively and subtly militarily, psychologically and diplomatically, I believe that the desired effect can be attained without CHICOM [Chinese communist] invasion of SEASIA.” 11

That same spring, the commander-in-chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) developed a blueprint, Operation Plan 37-64, for direct attack on North Vietnam, but it adhered closely to Washington’s emphasis on limited retaliatory measures and graduated escalation. Felt’s plan embodied “tit-for-tat” retaliatory actions in response to communist attacks in South Vietnam and a program of graduated overt military pressures against the DRV. 12

Pressuring North Vietnam in Laos

Meanwhile, communist attacks on Laotian government troops and Hanoi’s surge of troops and matériel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in early 1964 drew heightened Meanwhile, communist attacks on Laotian government troops and Hanoi’s surge of troops and matériel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in early 1964 drew heightened U.S. attention. In line with the administration’s objective of “sending Hanoi a message” without committing U.S. forces to direct attacks on North Vietnam, McNamara instructed the Navy and Air Force to initiate “Yankee Team” aerial reconnaissance missions over central and southern Laos. 13

Between 21 May and 9 June, Navy and Air Force squadrons overflew Laos. Apparently the communists were not overawed by the appearance of American planes, because on 6 June an enemy antiaircraft gun shot down an RF-8A Crusader photo-reconnaissance plane from the Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) flown by Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann. 14

Thereafter, Defense Secretary McNamara became less concerned about signaling Hanoi than losing aircraft. He was already considering a new, “minimum risk approach” in Laos. 15 McNamara ordered that most future reconnaissance missions avoid heavily defended areas and be flown above 10,000 feet, out of reach of North Vietnamese antiaircraft guns. With U.S. aircraft flying far above the heavy cloud ceiling of the typical Laotian typhoon season, there was little for the communists to see, let alone fear, of American airpower. 

Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp relieved Felt as CINCPAC on 30 June. Having served since September 1963 as commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), Sharp was well aware that the nature of the conflict had changed. He increasingly emphasized the direct employment of U.S. military power. At the same time, the new CINCPAC accepted the administration’s focus on the graduated application of force against Hanoi. 

Enter the Desoto Patrol

As CINCPACFLT in January 1964, Sharp had been involved in executing one aspect of Washington’s desire to put pressure on North Vietnam. Felt had directed him and the commander, 7th Fleet to gather intelligence on North Vietnam’s coastal defenses in support of MACV’s Operation Plan 34A. To carry out this task, CINCPAC exploited the Desoto Patrol, a program in existence since 1962 that steamed destroyers no closer than 12 miles to the Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, and North Vietnamese coastlines to capture electronic and other intelligence. In contrast to previous missions, however, now patrolling destroyers were authorized to approach as close as 4 miles to North Vietnamese islands and 8 miles to the mainland. 

Sharp did not consider North Vietnam a threat to the proposed operation since Hanoi’s “air capability for attack almost non-existent.” 16 Between 25 February and 9 March, the destroyer John R. Craig (DD-885), with a MACV officer on board, navigated along the North Vietnamese coast without incident. 17

The honeymoon soon ended as the North Vietnamese beefed up their coastal defenses, deployed troops and naval vessels to threatened areas in the south, and fought the 34A program. As North Vietnamese defenses against the 34A force hardened during July, McNamara directed that the PTF force limit the landing of saboteurs and instead use their onboard weapons to shell coastal targets. On the night of 30–31 July four PTFs shelled military targets on the islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu. Several PTFs carried out a similar shore bombardment operation on the night of 3 August.

Action in the Tonkin Gulf

On 31 July, the Maddox , steaming on a northwesterly course along a predesignated track, began her patrol of North Vietnam’s coastal waters. In the early hours of 2 August, personnel in a signals-intelligence van on board the ship picked up communications that North Vietnamese fast attack vessels were heading their way. Soon afterward, Captain Herrick sent out to higher authorities a “flash” (highest priority) message stating “contemplate serious reaction my movements . . . . Received info indicating possible hostile action.” 18 In the early afternoon of 2 August, lookouts and radars in the destroyer picked up concentrations of naval vessels close to shore. About this time North Vietnamese authorities ordered the division to execute a torpedo attack on the enemy. 

Even as the Maddox headed east and then southeast to move away from the threat, a trio of Soviet-made P-4 torpedo boats closed with the ship on an intersecting course. At 1540H (Hotel time zone, 12 hours ahead of Washington time) Herrick sent out a flash message to higher headquarters stating that the ship was “being approached by high speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack. Intend to open fire if necessary self defense.” 19 At 1608H the Maddox opened fire with her deck guns, and when the enemy boats got within effective range they launched torpedoes at the destroyer and fired on her with their onboard weapons. The torpedoes missed, but one round from a North Vietnamese gun put a hole in the destroyer’s superstructure. 

Even as the surface action ended and the Maddox retired to the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin, four Ticonderoga (CVA-14) F-8 Crusader attack planes arrived overhead and immediately pounced on the P-4s. Fire from the American aircraft damaged the three boats, but they all eventually made it back to the North Vietnamese coast. 

Understanding that one of Washington’s highest priorities in the summer of 1964 was to increase military pressure on North Vietnam, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, CINCPACFLT, wasted little time debating the Navy’s next moves. Shortly after the 2 August action, the admiral ordered Herrick back to the coast, emphasizing that “in view [of] Maddox incident consider it in our best interest that we assert freedom of the seas and resume Gulf of Tonkin patrol earliest.” 20 Moorer not only reinforced the Maddox with the Forest Sherman –class destroyer Turner Joy (DD-951) but directed the pair to resume their patrol where the North Vietnamese had concentrated their naval forces; the area was now a virtual hornet’s nest. 

U.S. Misconceptions

Moorer and Sharp believed that the attack on the Maddox provided the administration with a golden opportunity to convince North Vietnam that it risked war with the military might of the United States. The naval leaders were confident that even if the North Vietnamese had sent several vessels from their minuscule navy against the Maddox , the leaders in Hanoi were unlikely to start a major conflict and would back down in the face of American power rather than continue to challenge it.  

Indeed, the overwhelming consensus among American civilian and military leaders before the 2 August attack was that North Vietnam had neither the will nor the capacity to fight U.S. regular forces in open combat. Earlier in 1964, Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze opined that “in the case of North Vietnam with her exposed position to the combined assault of U.S. air and naval power, there is little that she could do to put the outcome of a military conflict in doubt. In other words, the balance of combat power would favor the United States so greatly that regardless of what North Vietnam did we would prevail in a comparably short period of time.” 21 Admiral Moorer later observed that early in the war “there was nothing up there [military power in the DRV]. We could have bombed with impunity any place and never lost an airplane, one or two maybe.” 22 Another flag officer remembered overhearing McNamara exclaim: “This is a different kind of war. . . . We can win this little war with both hands tied behind our back.” 23 Biographer Edward Drea has aptly concluded that McNamara “ like everyone else [italics added for emphasis] . . . underestimated the North Vietnamese resilience and tenacity.” 24

President Johnson’s reaction was one of surprise that rather than buckle under to increasing military pressure Hanoi had come out fighting. The commander in chief thought a rogue shore command or boat commander might have precipitated the attack on the Maddox . Since early 1964 the administration had launched covert sabotage, naval bombardment, and intrusive surveillance operations against North Vietnam, but Johnson later contended that the Desoto Patrol was not meant to be “provocative” and that Hanoi had carried out an “unprovoked” attack on the United States. 25

These were strong, if inaccurate, words, but Johnson’s actions after 2 August proved decidedly less forceful. His civilian and military advisers had convinced him that North Vietnam, which he later referred to as this “third-rate, piss-ant country,” would never stand up to the United States. When Hanoi called his bluff, he was not prepared to follow through with actions that might defeat North Vietnam but potentially lead to war with China or even the Soviet Union. 

Washington authorized Sharp and Moorer to resume the Desoto Patrol but with the understanding that the destroyers would approach no closer than 12 nautical miles to North Vietnam and stay well clear of the other U.S.-directed operation, the 34A program. 26 Sharp weighed in on the Washington-driven directive that prevented the destroyers from chasing attacking enemy naval vessels into waters close to shore. CINCPAC asserted: “A United States ship has been attacked on the high seas off North Vietnam. The Maddox quite properly repulsed the attackers. . . . Now, our friends and enemies alike will await what additional moves the United States will take. [The JCS directives] appear to be a retreat at a time when aggressive measures are necessary.” 27 The logic of the argument did not persuade Defense Secretary McNamara; accordingly, the JCS informed its Pacific commanders that the destroyers could not enter North Vietnamese waters, even in hot pursuit. 

‘Attack’ and Retaliation

 On 4 August, the Maddox and Turner Joy continued the patrol, coming no closer than 16 miles to the North Vietnamese littoral, and that night retired to a steaming area far out in the middle of the gulf. At 2040H Herrick received information from naval intelligence that he believed indicated an “attack by PGM[gunboat]/P-4 imminent.” 28 At 2239H the Turner Joy opened up on one contact, and for the next several hours both ships fired on reported contacts and dropped depth charges to ward off suspected trailing vessels. Well before daylight the two destroyers had left northern waters and joined the other ships of the 7th Fleet at the mouth of the gulf. 

Following lunch at the White House on 4 August, however, President Johnson agreed with the consensus of his civilian and military advisers that the events on the night of 4 August in the gulf, following the brazen torpedo attack against the Maddox two days earlier, demanded retaliation against North Vietnam. The president gave the order to execute a one-time retaliatory strike. 

As preparations went forward for Operation Pierce Arrow, doubts surfaced about what had actually happened out in the gulf on the night of 4 August. Herrick communicated to Moorer: “review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear [doubtful]. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports.” 29

When queried by the Joint Staff about Herrick’s doubts, Sharp responded that a new message from the task-group commander related that he was “certain that original ambush was bonafide.” McNamara decided that preparations for the planned strike would continue but told Sharp that “we obviously don’t want to do it (the strike) unless we are damned sure what happened.” 30

The National Security Agency provided Sharp with what was then considered “smoking gun” information that finally convinced not only Sharp but almost everyone else connected with the Tonkin Gulf incident that North Vietnamese naval vessels had attacked the Maddox and Turner Joy on the night of 4 August. At 1725 EDT CINCPAC informed McNamara that, based on intelligence and reports from the ships, he was convinced an attack had taken place. Apparently having been unwilling to wait to be “damned sure,” McNamara had already given the execute order for Operation Pierce Arrow. 31 It is now well established, however, that North Vietnam did not carry out an attack on the two ships on 4 August. On 5 August, planes from two carriers destroyed the fuel storage site at Vinh and sank or damaged 33 vessels of the North Vietnamese navy. Two days later, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the White House wide latitude to use military force in Southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war.

While bombing was supposed to convey American resolve for the long haul in the contest for supremacy in Indochina, Johnson announced to the world that this was a one-time retaliatory mission only. He later told a number of congressmen that the Chinese had to understand that “the retaliation was aimed only at North Vietnam, not Red China, and that the objective was limited.” 32

Final Analysis

The U.S. strategy in 1964 of coercing Hanoi to end its campaign against South Vietnam failed to achieve that goal. Worse, it revealed the false premise shared by President Johnson and his civilian and military advisers that North Vietnam had neither the will nor the capacity to make war against the United States. The torpedo and gunfire attack by North Vietnamese navy PT boats on the Maddox made clear that Ho Chi Minh’s government was more than ever determined, despite U.S. opposition, to continue its fight against the government of the Republic of Vietnam. 

Moreover, U.S. execution of the pressure campaign revealed the basic flaw in the Johnson administration’s graduated-escalation approach to military operations. Fearful of Chinese or Soviet intervention, Johnson and McNamara undercut their own chosen path by limiting the application of force, imposing tight restrictions on operations, and micromanaging the campaign from afar. But U.S. military leaders must share the blame for endorsing and even championing this strategic approach and attempting to fine-tune operations that were clearly failing to deliver intended objectives. They expressed as much mistaken confidence as Johnson and McNamara that under pressure Hanoi would give up the quest for a unified Vietnam. 

One of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War was that the Tonkin Gulf incident did not prompt U.S. civilian and military leaders to reassess the wisdom of their overall strategic assumptions. The Johnson and later Nixon administrations continued to hope that they would find the magic formula—just the right amount of military force—that would compel Hanoi to give in but not trigger intervention by China or the Soviet Union. It proved to be a chimera. 

1. Msg, CP of 2 November 1960. Unless otherwise specified, documents are held in the Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC. The following works served as the main sources for this article: Edward J. Marolda and Oscar P. Fitzgerald, From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959–1965 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1986); Robert McNamara, In Retrospect (New York: Vantage, 1996); U.S.G. Sharp, Strategy for Defeat (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1978); Robert Hanyok, “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and Flying Fish,” Cryptological Quarterly , Winter 2000/Spring 200; Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); CINCPACFLT 102036Z Sep 64, “COMINT Support for Gulf of Tonkin Operations” from Digital National Security Archives (retrieved on 6 April 2013). 

2. Msg, CP 250501Z April 1962. 

3. MSG, CNO to SECNAV 12 June 1962. 

4. Msg, CP 040745Z September 1962. 

5. Memo, SECDEF to SECNAV, of 12 October 1962. 

6. Msg, CP 182345Z November 1963. 

7. Memo, McNamara to President, 21 December 1963 in Gareth Porter, ed., Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions , vol. 2 (Stanfordville, NY: Early M. Coleman Enterprises, 1979), 232. 

8. Msg, COMUSMACV 031115Z June 1964; MACSOG 041100Z; Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Command History, 1964, Annex A. 

9. Ibid., IV–2; msg, MACSOG 081215Z July 1964. 

10. Memo, CNO to JCS, CNOM 59-64 of 24 February 1964. 

11. Msg, CP 250022Z February 1964. 

12. Marolda and Fitzgerald, From Military Assistance to Combat , 373 n16. 

13. CINCPAC, Command History, 1964, 269; msg, CNO 171439Z May 1964; memo, OP-60 to CNO, ser BM000584-64 of 18 May. 

14. “Klusmann Debriefing Report,” encl. in ltr, COMNAVAIRPAC, ser 36/0150 of 12 February 1965; msgs, CTG77.4 061415Z Jun 1964; CHINFO 301548Z Jun 1964. 

15. Memo, SECNAV Aide to CNO, of 9 June 1964. 

16. Memo, Office of the Judge Advocate General to SECNAV, of 1 February 1968. 

17. Msgs, CP 010022Z February 1964; 010308Z; ADMIN CPFLT 120142Z; 120143Z; COM7FLT 140200Z; 291015Z; 051132Z; Fitzwater, JRC (JCS), memo for record, of 13 August 1964. 

18. Msg, CTU72.1.2 011954Z August 1964. 

19. Msg, CTG 77.5 021008Z August 1964. See also Maddox , Action Report, ser 003 of 24 August; Maddox , Patrol Report, ser 002 of 24 August; Maddox , Deck Log, 1–31 August. 

20. Msg, CPFLT 021104Z August 1964. 

21. Memo, SECNAV to SECDEF encl. in memo, OP-60 to SECNAV, ser 000493P60 of 12 June 1964. 

22. Thomas Moorer, The Reminiscences of Admiral Thomas Hinman Moorer, USN (Ret.) , vol. 2 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1982), 763. 

23. David McDonald, The Reminiscences of Admiral David Lamar McDonald, U.S. Navy (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1976), 361.

24. Edward Drea, McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965–1969 (Washington, DC: OSD Historical Office, 2011), 535. 

25. Lyndon Johnson, Vantage Point (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1971), 113. 

26. Msg, JCS 021725Z August 1964; “Statement by the President Upon Instructing the Navy to Take Retaliatory Action in the Gulf of Tonkin, August 3, 1964,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Lyndon Johnson: 1963–64 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1965), bk. 2, 926–27. 

27. Msg, CP 032353Z August 1964. 

28. Msg, CTG72.1 041240Z August 1964. 

29. Msg, CTG72.1 041727Z August 1964. 

30. Joint Staff, JCS, Tonkin Gulf Composite Diary. See also Outline Chronology of Washington Actions, tab B; JCS, History , pt. 1, 11–22. 

31. Joint Staff, JCS, Outline Chronology of Washington Actions, tab B; Sharp, USNI Interview, 230, 250–51; Sharp, 44; Johnson, 115; JCS, History , pt. 1, 11–22.

32. Johnson, Vantage Point , 117.



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