Gulf of Tonkin Incident

From Ohio History Central

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in 1964, was a major turning point in United States military involvement in Vietnam.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred in August 1964. North Vietnamese warships purportedly attacked United States warships, the U.S.S. Maddox and the U.S.S. C. Turner Joy, on two separate occasions in the Gulf of Tonkin, a body of water neighboring modern-day Vietnam. President Lyndon Baines Johnson claimed that the United States did nothing to provoke these two attacks and that North Vietnam was the aggressor. Subsequent reports show that the United States actually provoked these attacks by supporting South Vietnamese commandos operating in North Vietnam and by using U.S. warships to identify North Vietnamese radar stations along the coastline of North Vietnam. There remains no doubt that the North Vietnamese attacked the U.S.S. Maddox in the first incident, which occurred on August 2, 1964, although it does appear that the United States provoked this attack.

The second attack, which took place on August 4, 1964, continues to be the subject of debate. There are witnesses who say the attack took place, and those who said it did not. Because it took place during the night, the details are uncertain. Operational commanders on the two ships in the Gulf of Tonkin that night were convinced an attack did take place. Eyewitness evidence from highly trained, experienced sailors, marines, and commanders reveals radar detection of torpedo boats, searchlights from a North Vietnamese boat, thick black smoke from the target, and lights from boats moving at high speeds. A detailed investigation and testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations included a ranking North Vietnamese commander who reported he participated in the attack and stated that it did take place. However, the National Security Agency (NSA) chose to declassify more than 140 top-secret documents and oral history interviews and concluded that there was no second attack on U.S. ships in Tonkin by the North Vietnamese torpedo boats. This was based on historian Robert Hanyok’s research and analysis citing no concrete signal intelligence evidence of an attack. There was no naval command-and-control communications or target-radar emissions as there had been in the August 2nd attack. He said there was only confused and conflicting testimony of the men on board and the equipment involved in the incident. Over the years, interviews have taken place to clarify the events related to the incidents.

Because of President Johnson's claims, the United States Congress issued the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This proclamation authorized Johnson to retaliate for the alleged attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin. The resolution allowed the president "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." In essence, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution permitted Johnson to increase the United States' involvement in North and South Vietnam. Before Johnson became president, approximately sixteen thousand Americans were acting as advisors to the South Vietnamese military. Historians debate whether or not these soldiers were simply acting as advisors or were actually waging war against South Vietnamese revolutionaries and their North Vietnamese allies. Nevertheless, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident Johnson increased the number of American troops serving in South Vietnam to more than 500,000. These men and women were clearly engaged in actual fighting.

The United States' escalation in the Vietnam War had a tremendous impact on Ohioans. Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans were members of the armed forces during the Vietnam War, although not all of these men and women served in North or South Vietnam. Of the Ohioans serving in the military, 2,997 of them died in Vietnam, while another twenty thousand suffered wounds. Beallsville, Ohio, lost more people per capita in the Vietnam War than any other community in the United States. Other Ohioans actively protested the war, especially once the federal government eliminated college deferments and it became common knowledge that the United States military was also bombing countries neighboring Vietnam. The most famous protest occurred at Kent State University, where the Ohio National Guard killed four people, but other protests erupted at college campuses across Ohio and the rest of the nation as well.

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