The Gulf of Tonkin Incident Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the defeat of the French colonial forces in 1954, the United States became the guarantor of security for the pro-Western government of South Vietnam, which was threatened not only by the government and army of communist North Vietnam, but by pro-communist guerilla fighters among their own people. In August 1964, two American destroyers, USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy, were conducting intelligence-gathering operations off the coast of North Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, when they were reportedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Though he claimed the American ships were in international waters rather than being close to the North Vietnamese coast, and though he was aware that the evidence for the attacks being unprovoked was dubious, President Lyndon B. Johnson wasted no time in presenting a resolution to Congress seeking to defend American interests in the region by any means the president deemed necessary and proper.

Summary Overview

After the defeat of the French colonial forces in 1954, the United States became the guarantor of security for the pro-Western government of South Vietnam, which was threatened not only by the government and army of communist North Vietnam, but by pro-communist guerilla fighters among their own people. In August 1964, two American destroyers, USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy, were conducting intelligence-gathering operations off the coast of North Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, when they were reportedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Though he claimed the American ships were in international waters rather than being close to the North Vietnamese coast, and though he was aware that the evidence for the attacks being unprovoked was dubious, President Lyndon B. Johnson wasted no time in presenting a resolution to Congress seeking to defend American interests in the region by any means the president deemed necessary and proper.

Defining Moment

After their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French colonial army left Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese nationalist and communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared an independent Vietnam. However, the peace conference held at Geneva, Switzerland, divided the country into two halves, with Ho Chi Minh's nationalists in the north and a corrupt, but pro-Western, government under President Ngo Dinh Diem in the south, with elections to reunify the country scheduled for 1956. Diem, however, refused to hold the elections, establishing a dictatorship in South Vietnam. The ensuing years saw the rapid growth of the Viet Cong: nationalists living in the south, but supportive of a unified Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh's leadership. By 1960, the Viet Cong had the official support of the government and armed forces of North Vietnam.

Diem's popularity among his own people (who were overwhelmingly Buddhist, while Diem was Catholic) faded during the early 1960s, and when a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in Saigon in June 1963, many South Vietnamese turned against him. A coup d'état, supported by the CIA, overthrew Diem on November 1, 1963, and he was assassinated the next day. With the upheaval in South Vietnam and the continued growth of the Viet Cong with material support from North Vietnam, the US government was more committed than ever to preventing the North Vietnamese from unifying the country under communist rule. As this was in the midst of the Cold War, American policy was heavily influenced by the so-called Domino Theory, which stated that if one country were to be allowed to fall to communism it would only lead to more and more communist uprisings throughout the region.

During the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy began to increase American aid to South Vietnam, sending large amounts of military hardware and, beginning in 1961, American military advisors. By the end of 1962, the number of military advisors had increased to 12,000, and American helicopter crews began flying missions in the country. By the time of Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, about 16,700 American military advisors were in South Vietnam, though he remained opposed to direct American involvement in combat operations.

By the summer of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who advocated a more proactive American role in protecting the independence of South Vietnam, was increasing American military presence both in South Vietnam and in the waters off the coast of both North and South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese military had proven no more able to stabilize the country than had Diem, and Johnson was convinced that only the American military and American intelligence efforts would be able to prevent the North Vietnamese from taking over.

Author Biography

President Lyndon B. Johnson and the vast majority of the members of the United States Congress shared a common vision of the world order in some of the tensest years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Every conflict was viewed in the context of the geopolitical struggle between the superpowers, and Vietnam is perhaps the greatest example of this. Rather than seeing it as a fight between Vietnamese nationalists and French colonizers or pro-Western Vietnamese, the American government as a whole viewed the conflict as a simple matter of communism vs. anti-communism. Any actions taken by the United States in Vietnam were taken to prevent not only Vietnam from becoming a communist nation, and thus, a Soviet puppet state, but also to prevent all of Southeast Asia from falling to a series of communist uprisings.

Historical Document

President Johnson's Address to the Public

August 4, 1964

My fellow Americans:

As President and Commander in Chief, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.

The initial attack on the destroyer Maddox, on August 2, was repeated today by a number of hostile vessels attacking two U.S. destroyers with torpedoes. The destroyers and supporting aircraft acted at once on the orders I gave after the initial act of aggression. We believe at least two of the attacking boats were sunk. There were no U.S. losses.

The performance of commanders and crews in this engagement is in the highest tradition of the United States Navy. But repeated acts of violence against the Armed Forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Viet-Nam which have been used in these hostile operations.

In the larger sense this new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in southeast Asia. Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Viet-Nam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.

The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Viet-Nam will be redoubled by this outrage. Yet our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting. We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risks of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.

I have instructed the Secretary of State to make this position totally clear to friends and to adversaries and, indeed, to all. I have instructed Ambassador Stevenson to raise this matter immediately and urgently before the Security Council of the United Nations. Finally, I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in southeast Asia.

I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago I was able to reach Senator Goldwater and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

It is a solemn responsibility to have to order even limited military action by forces whose overall strength is as vast and as awesome as those of the United States of America, but it is my considered conviction, shared throughout your Government, that firmness in the right is indispensable today for peace; that firmness will always be measured. Its mission is peace.

* * *

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

August 7, 1964

Joint Resolution

To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.

Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United Stated naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and

Whereas these attackers are part of deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom; and

Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protest their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace to work out their destinies in their own way: Now, therefore be it

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

Document Analysis

On August 2, 1962, the USS Maddox, an American naval destroyer, was reportedly attacked with torpedoes by a number of small North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. A second encounter, including the Maddox and a second American destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, was reported two days later. On the date of the second attack President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television to inform the American public of the incidents and to recommend immediate reprisals, including a bombing campaign to be carried out by the Air Force.

Behind the actions in the Gulf of Tonkin, however, was a determination reached by the Johnson administration by August 1964 that the only way to prevent a North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam was direct American military action. American surveillance, such as that being carried out in North Vietnamese waters by ships like the Maddox and Turner Joy, revealed large amounts of supplies and personnel flowing from the north to the south. However, when the incidents on August 2 and August 4 were reported to the American public, no mention was made of this or the fact that the actions did not take place in international waters. As it turned out, the attack on the Turner Joy may have never taken place at all.

Johnson's response to the attacks was to inform the American public and immediately call for Congress to authorize the use of force to defend American military installations in Southeast Asia. This led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which passed House of Representatives unanimously and the Senate with only two opposing votes.

Rather than viewing the conflict in Vietnam as an internal civil war, the resolution put the actions in stark, Cold War terms, declaring that “these attackers are part of deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom”. It authorized President Johnson “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” Johnson's television address had the desired effect, at least for the time being, in that it gave the American people and the Congress a tangible reason to support American military involvement in Vietnam.

Essential Themes

The joint resolution that Congress passed on August 7, 1964, declared that the North Vietnamese had “deliberately and repeatedly attacked United Stated naval vessels lawfully present in international waters”, which was based on the information that the Johnson administration had provided. The resolution was for the express purpose of promoting and maintaining “international peace and security in southeast Asia,” but had the effect of acting as a de facto declaration of war against North Vietnam. Congress did not see it that way, as they expected that the president, as commander-in-chief, would have to ask Congress for any additional expansion of the conflict. Johnson, however, repeatedly used the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as justification for expanding American military involvement in what became the Vietnam War, stating that he the resolution was “like grandma's night shirt—it covered everything.”

Though neither Johnson nor Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were sure of the veracity of the reports of the second attack, Johnson did not hesitate to use the attack to drum up support for expanded American involvement in Vietnam. The Maddox, which carried electronic spy equipment, had not been in international waters as Johnson claimed, but was collecting intelligence close to the coast of North Vietnam. Though stories of the Gulf of Tonkin crisis being manufactured for political reasons increasingly gained traction as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, evidence supporting the allegations gradually accumulated.

However, by that time, the war was on. Retaliatory air strikes began immediately, and American forces bombed the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply line carrying materials from North Vietnam to Viet Cong guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam. In March 1965, the United States commenced Operation Rolling Thunder, a three-year-long massive strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnamese targets in order to reduce North Vietnam's ability to support the insurgency in the south. Also in March 1965, the first American combat troops arrived to defend the Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam, beginning an escalation that would see over a half million American troops in the region at its height.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. New York: Holt, 1999.
  • MacLear, Michael. Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War. Toronto: Methuen, 1981. Print.
  • Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. Print.
  • Siff, Ezra Y. Why the Senate Slept: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Beginning of America's Vietnam War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. Print.
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