The Gulf of Tonkin incident took place in waters off the coast of North Vietnam fifty years ago—a naval skirmish involving a U.S. destroyer and three smaller North Vietnamese vessels. The Lyndon Johnson administration interpreted the events of early August 1964 as unprovoked communist aggression that demanded a strong response. The president ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnamese targets and went on television to address the American people, telling a fiction to justify expansion of America’s role in the war. The incident led directly to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, by which Congress provided almost unanimous support for increased intervention by U.S. armed forces in Vietnam.
What really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin—that the North Vietnamese were responding to U.S.-directed coastal raids and bombardment by South Vietnamese commandos; that there was no second attack on August 4—was shrouded at the time, and for years to come, by the so-called fog of war. The historical truth actually has become clearer with the passage of time. Thanks to the eventual declassification of documents and tapes and to persistent work by historians, the facts have been pieced together: President Johnson deceived Congress and the American people about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, claiming that the attack by the North Vietnamese was unprovoked. As a result of their misleading version of events, Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, obtained a “blank check” to prosecute a war halfway around the world in which some 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese would die.
Prior to August 1964, the U.S. military had already developed plans to attack North Vietnam if any American naval vessels were challenged. The escalation of U.S. involvement in the war might have eventually resulted from some other cause or provocation, but the way it did in fact begin was based on an official narrative that was even then known to be misleading. Some would say we need to learn our history, lest we repeat it.
Image credit: © Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum
- The Truth about Tonkin
This article provides a historical overview of the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964.
(Source: U.S. Naval Institute, August 3, 2008)
- Why We Should Remember Tonkin
This opinion piece points to the lessons learned, or not, from the history of the Tonkin Gulf incident.
(Source: Politico.com, August 3, 2014)
- Lyndon B. Johnson Videos: Gulf of Tonkin Incident
This video uses both original footage and reenactments to present insights into the incident that provoked U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam.
(Source: History.com; accessed August 5, 2014)
- Gulf of Tonkin, 1964: Perspectives from the Lyndon Johnson and National Military Command Center Tape
Listen to actual audio tapes from the White House archives of conversations concerning the Gulf of Tonkin incident as it happened.
(Source: Miller Center; accessed August 5, 2014)