Gulf of Tonkin, 1964: Perspectives from the Lyndon Johnson and National Military Command Center Tape
by Marc Selverstone and David Coleman
In August 1964 , Congress passed the Tonkin∇ Gulf Resolution—or Southeast Asia Resolution, as it is officially known—the congressional decree that gave Johnson a broad mandate to wage war in Vietnam. Its passage was a pivotal moment in the war and arguably the tipping point for the disaster that followed. The Resolution, passed by Congress on August 7, 1964, and signed into law on August 10, capped a series of events which remain controversial.
On the night of August 4, 1964, two American destroyers, the U.S.S. Maddox and C. Turner Joy, reported that they were being attacked by North Vietnamese military units in the Gulf of Tonkin, the body of water off the coast of central and North Vietnam. These alleged incidents followed reports of a similar engagement two days earlier, on August 2, between North Vietnamese PT boats and the Maddox. Characterizing these attacks as “unprovoked,” President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam and asked Congress to sanction any further action he might take to deter Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. Believing the administration’s account of these events, legislators acted swiftly, giving Johnson a virtual “blank check” to use U.S. military force in Vietnam.
As frustratingly incomplete and often contradictory reports flowed into Washington, several high-ranking military and civilian officials were suspicious of the August 4 incident and questioned from the beginning whether the attack was real or imagined. By the time that Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 10, several senior officials—and probably the president himself—had concluded that the attack of August 4 was imagined.
August 3, 1964
As news of an attack by a North Vietnamese PT boat on the Maddox reached Washington, administration officials publicly characterized the incident as unprovoked aggression. Privately, however, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara∇ conceded that U.S. covert operations in the Gulf of Tonkin had probably provoked the North Vietnamese attack.
Facing pressure on the right for a large scale military response and from the left for disengagement, and not wanting to be forced down either path, Johnson used information to influence the political debate. To the most vocal critics on the right calling for a forceful retaliation, Johnson and his senior advisers quietly sent word that U.S. covert operations in the region had probably provoked the North Vietnamese attacks. In public, however, the administration vehemently denied such claims and went to considerable lengths to discredit them, maintaining the official line that the attacks were unprovoked.
10:20 am: " . . . these covert operations. There's no question but that had some bearing on it."LISTEN:
Robert McNamara: . . . And I think I should also, or we should also at that time, Mr. President, explain this OPLAN 34-A, these covert operations. There’s no question but what that had bearing on it. On Friday night, as you probably know, we had four TP [sic] boats from [South] Vietnam, manned by [South] Vietnamese or other nationals, attack two islands, and we expended, oh, 1,000 rounds of ammunition of one kind or another against them. We probably shot up a radar station and a few other miscellaneous buildings. And following 24 hours after that with this destroyer in that same area undoubtedly led them to connect the two events. . . .
9:46 am: "So I imagine they wanted to put a stop to it."LISTEN:
President Johnson: OK. Here’s what we did: We [were] within their 12-mile [territorial waters] limit, and that’s a matter that hasn’t been settled. But there have been some covert operations in that area that we have been carrying on—blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads and so forth. So I imagine they wanted to put a stop to it. So they come out there and fire and we respond immediately with five-inch guns from the destroyer and with planes overhead. And we cripple them up—knock one of them out and cripple the other two. And then we go right back where we were with that destroyer, and with another one and plus plenty of planes standing by. And that’s where we are now.
August 4, 1964
As real-time information flowed in to the Pentagon from the Maddox and the Turner Joy, the story became more and more confused.
Admiral U.S. Grant "Oley" Sharp, commander of the Pacific Fleet, fed reports to Washington as soon as he received them. In this phone call, Sharp briefed Air Force General David Burchinal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the latest information he was receiving.
This telephone call was recorded at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon. It was amongst a series of recordings released by the LBJ Library in June 2002.
12:22 pm: ". . . there apparently have been at least nine torpedoes in the water. . . . All missed, and apparently two of their boats have been sunk, as far as we can tell."LISTEN:
General David Burchinal: Hello?
Admiral Grant Sharp: Dave?
Unidentified: [away from the phone] At least nine.
Burchinal: Yeah [unclear]. Go ahead.
Sharp: Well, there apparently have been at least nine torpedoes in the water.
Sharp: All missed. All missed, and apparently two of their boats have been sunk, as far as we can tell.
Burchinal: Good. How many were engaged? Do you know?
Sharp: Let’s see. There must have been a total of six engaged, I think. Not sure on that yet.
Burchinal: Any aircraft?
Sharp: You mean enemy?
Sharp: No, I don’t . . . Wait a minute, now. I’m not so sure about this number of engaged.
Sharp: We’d have to check it out here.
Sharp: It may not be that high. No, no report on . . . We did have a report on bogeys [enemy aircraft] at one time, but we haven’t any confirmation of that.
Burchinal: Right. Were they sunk by gunfire or aircraft? Do you know?
Sharp: By gun, I think. [C.] Turner Joy.
. . .
Edit. Discussion of positioning aircraft in support.
. . .
Burchinal: Are they still exchanging fire?
Sharp: I’ve been so busy doing other things I haven’t looked at the last–whether they’re still shooting each other or not.
Unclear background comment.
Sharp: Huh? I can’t . . . I don’t see that they have. Here’s another one now I just got, let me see. [Reading report and summarizing] Well, the Maddox says she’s evaded about ten torpedoes. [chuckles] Two craft are sunk. No casualties to us and they got some ADs and A-4Ds on the scene. But they’re having trouble with illumination. The Turner Joy, or one of the two, was given star shell illumination for the planes. As far as we can tell there are only three [North Vietnamese] boats, but that doesn’t count up to that many torpedoes, I don’t think.
Sharp: Sounds to me like there are more boats than just three. Well, that’s about the size of it, Dave.
August 6, 1964
Having spent the morning on the Hill testifying to Congressional committees, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara updated President Johnson on Congressional support for the Tonkin Resolution. Despite a few dissenting voices on both sides of the aisle, McNamara reported that Congressional support for the Resolution was strong.
12:46 pm: " . . . a blank check authorization for further action . . . "LISTEN:
Robert McNamara: . . . But on the whole I think the hearings were very satisfactory. There was just near-unanimous support for not only for everything you’ve done—there was unanimous support for that—but near unanimous support for everything you may do in the future. And generally a blank-check authorization for further action . . .
Election-year politics complicated the administration's response. While criticism from the likes of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater∇ was expected, Johnson was forced to contend with a renegade voice much closer to the White House.
While President Johnson, Robert McNamara, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk∇ were all trying to convince Congress and the American public that the North Vietnamese attacks were unprovoked, Johnson's running mate in the upcoming presidential election, Hubert Humphrey, broke with the administration line and revealed the classified, covert role that the U.S. Navy had been playing to support South Vietnamese sabotage raids against North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.
12:46 pm: "...our friend Hubert [Humphrey] is just destroying himself with his big mouth."LISTEN:
President Johnson: I don’t know…uh, I don’t know how to get this message over, but this boy–our friend Hubert [Humphrey]–is just destroying himself with his big mouth.
James Rowe: Is he talking again?
President Johnson: Yeah, all the time and never . . . He just can’t stop it. He’s just got hydrophobia [as in the later stages of rabies], and every responsible person gets frightened when they see him. He hasn’t missed any program, or he just . . . He’s just like a wild man when he kind of sees this thing in the distance. And what he ought to do is be a very retiring, and very sober, and very judicious and . . . uh . . . fellow.
President Johnson: Now, yesterday morning he went on the TV and looks like he’s gotten by with it, but he said everybody in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every person in town that’s handling the war plans, it just scared them to death because he just blabbed everything that he had heard in a briefing, just like it was his personal knowledge.
President Johnson: And almost—He wanted to claim credit for it. They said, for instance, “How would you account for these PT boat attack[s] on our destroyer when we are innocently out there in the gulf 60 miles from shore?” And McNamara said that was a very difficult thing to explain the reasoning of these people. It may be that they wanted to try to scare us out of the area, but that he couldn’t . . . he couldn’t explain Communist thinking on a good many matters. [Rowe assents.] Rusk said substantially the same thing. Humphrey said, “Well, we have been carrying on some operations in that area, and we’ve been having some covert operations where we have been going in and knocking out roads and petroleum things, and so forth.”
Rowe: Good Lord.
President Johnson: And that is exactly what we have been doing. But the damned fool got it up, and now he’s got [Oregon Senator Wayne] Morse talking about it, who wasn’t in on the briefing. And it’s just . . . You just got to understand that you can’t talk about war plans, you just can’t talk about it.
Rowe: That’s [unclear].
President Johnson: Now this morning—
Rowe: Got a whole carrier out there, [unclear] the war.
President Johnson: This morning, a fellow called me very upset–one of the highest officials in the government-and said, “Have you talked to Humphrey about a communication from Khrushchev?” I said “No, I haven’t seen Humphrey. Haven’t seen anybody around Humphrey. Haven’t talked to my wife. Haven’t talked to a human being.” Well, Humphrey has discussed the details of communications with Khrushchev that somebody must have let him know about, and with a correspondent for NBC!”
Rowe: Oh my.
President Johnson: It’s the one thing that could make Khrushchev drop a bomb on us. And he just ought to keep his God damned big mouth shut on foreign affairs at least until election is over.
Rowe: It’ll be done.
President Johnson: And just say that this has just got people running wild and they’re running in every moment to me, and for him not to be speculating on why the Communists would be doing something.
Rowe: Yeah. . . .
- Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
- Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)
- Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001)
- Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995)
- David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge: Belknap, 2000)
- NPR Morning Edition's program on these tapes, including an interview with PRP Editorial Advisory Board member Robert Dallek.
- John Prados, "The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 40 Years Later," National Security Archive