They Were Shooting Flying Fish: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

by Timothy Chilman


The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

The Tonkin Resolution allowed President Lyndon Johnson to deploy military assets to Vietnam

Tonkin, Đông Kinh in Vietnamese, means “Eastern Capital.” On 10 August, 1964, the Southeast Asia (Gulf of Tonkin) Resolution was approved by the House of Representatives by 416 votes to nil after 40 minutes of debate, and the Senate by a vote of 88 to 2 after nine hours of debate. The resolution granted President Lyndon Baines Johnson the right to use military force without a declaration of war. Senators Morse and Gruening argued that the resolution was unconstitutional because the Founding Fathers allowed only Congress to initiate war.

Early in 1965, the United States deployed significant ground, air, and naval forces to South Vietnam, and the United States became embroiled in the only war it ever lost. U.S. military advisers had been present in Vietnam since the late 1950s. When Johnson took office, there were only 16,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam, but the Gulf of Tonkin resolution allowed this number to eventually increase to 550,000, who engaged in combat. The case for the Resolution was fraudulent.

In early 1964, Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, had grown concerned that the Republic of (i.e. South) Vietnam was losing its fight with the Viet Cong (in full, Viet Nam Cong San, or Communist Party of Viet Nam). The American leaders decided to place military pressure on the North Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh which directed and supported the Viet Cong. Naval forces were to be used to compel Ho Chi Ming to cease supporting the Viet Cong.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

A Tjeld class patrol boat

The navy of the Republic of Vietnam was covertly presented with several Norwegian-built fast patrol boats of the Tjeld-class. Crews were trained. Under the covert Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34-Alpha, these boats bombarded radar stations on North Vietnam’s coast and landed commandos to destroy military targets. Many missions failed due to lack of good intelligence.

Hanoi complained of the raids to the International Control Commission, which had sought since 1954 to enforce the Geneva Agreements to achieve peace in Southeast Asia and where Vietnam had been divided. The United States denied involvement. Four year later, McNamara told Congress that U.S. vessels had indeed been connected to the incursions by South Vietnamese military elements.

Washington instructed the Navy to concentrate more on the coast of North Vietnam with its long-standing Desoto patrols. These patrols used destroyers to collect signals intelligence (SIGINT) from North Vietnam, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union from a position in international waters. In August 1964, the Sumner class destroyer USS Maddox (DD 731) of the Seventh Fleet, commanded by Captain John J. Herrick, traveled along the coast of North Vietnam to the Gulf of Tonkin, taking a particular interest in radar installations. Aboard were extra electronic equipment, and specialists from the Naval Security Group and National Security Agency. Shortly before, South Vietnamese patrol boats had bombarded targets south of Maddox’s patrol area.

On August 1, a team of long-term agents was dispatched to North Vietnam, and promptly captured, which fate is thought to have befallen almost all agents. By August 1968, it was estimated that 500 of these men had been lost. That evening, as with the previous one, two groupings of CIA-inspired fighter-bombers flown by Thai soldiers-for-hire assaulted North Vietnamese border outposts. South Vietnamese patrol boats carried out clandestine raids on the islands of Hon Nieu and Hon Me, and it is probable that the North Vietnamese believed Maddox to be involved.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

A painting depicting the USS Maddox firing upon North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats

The North Vietnamese navy was unable to intercept the fast patrol boats. A destroyer, however, is rather slower. The next day, local authorities acting independently of Hanoi ordered the deployment of three Soviet-built P-4 motor torpedo boats against the Maddox, which was then within international waters but had earlier been in an area to which North Vietnam claimed ownership. The boats ignored the three warning shows that Herrick ordered to be fired, and launched torpedoes which missed their targets. Only one bullet hit, a 14.5 millimeter machine gun round from a North Vietnamese deck gun, which lodged in the ship’s superstructure. More than 280 3” and 5” shells were fired from the Maddox, and some hit the attackers.

Four F-8 Crusader jets from the USS Ticonderoga strafed the three boats, leaving one dead in the water and afire. Four North Vietnamese sailors were killed and six injured. One U.S. airplane was damaged. Maddox steamed toward the mouth of the Gulf, where friendly forces awaited.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

The USS Turner Joy

The President and his national security advisers were taken aback that Ho Chi Minh had reacted boldly instead of buckling to U.S. pressure. Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Admiral Ulysses S. G. Sharp, commander of America’s forces in the Pacific, reinforced the Maddox with the destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD 951) and instructed that intelligence-gathering missions continue.

The National Security Agency had warned that August 4 would see an attack. That afternoon, the warships reported visual and electronic indications of an attack by three or four fast craft far from shore. Torpedoes were heard but not seen.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Squadron Commander James Stockdale

Aircraft were dispatched from the Ticonderoga to assist the two destroyers. Visibility was very poor due to low cloud and thunderstorms. One of the pilots was Squadron Commander, later Vice Admiral, James Stockdale, who later found fame as a prisoner of war and then as Ross Perot’s vice-presidential pick. His book, In Love and War, was released in 1984, where he recounted that from “the best seat in the house” he could see that the U.S. ships were engaging “phantom targets.” He said no patrol boats were present, just ”black water and American fire power.” While imprisoned, Stockdale worried that his interrogators would oblige him to divulge his knowledge of the second attack’s non-existence.

In a second radio communication timed at 1:27A.M. in Washington, Captain Herrick said that after the action had been reviewed, many of the reported contacts appeared “doubtful.” Herrick put it down to “freak weather” affecting radar plus “overeager sonarmen.” He stated that there had been no visual sightings. The last line of his message suggested “complete evaluation” prior to further action. McNamara failed to inform Johnson of Herrick’s change of mind.

In 1981, together with reporter Robert Scheer, Herrick re-examined the ship’s log, which led them to conclude that the initial torpedo report was unfounded. In 1999, retired CIA engineering specialist S. Eugene Poteat wrote that he was instructed in 1964 to determine whether this report showed a genuine torpedo attack. He asked for additional details of timings and weather, but received none. He eventually concluded that no attack had occurred.

No physical evidence of an engagement was found. Nevertheless, U.S. officers and leaders allowed themselves to be convinced by incomplete intelligence that North Vietnamese boats had attacked the two ships.

Johnson addressed the nation at 11:34 P.M. on the day of the “attack”, saying that “repeated acts of violence” against U.S. forces had to be met “not only with alert defense, but… a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight.”

Days later, Johnson told an aide: “Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.” In 1965, he said, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”

Johnson’s speech was much admired by editorial writers. According to the NYT, Johnson had presented Americans with “somber facts.” At the same time, the Los Angeles Times implored its readers to appreciate that the North Vietnamese had escalated hostilities by attacking American ships in international waters.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

A-4Cs from USS Constellation one week after Operation Pierce Arrow.

In retaliation, the President commanded that an attack be launched on August 5. Under Operation Pierce Arrow, aircraft from the USS Constellation and Ticonderoga destroyed an oil repository at Vinh and sank or damaged approximately 30 North Vietnamese naval vessels, in and out of port.

The headline of the New York Times thundered that US planes had attacked North Vietnamese bases as “limited retaliation” for renewed raids by torpedo boats. The headline concluded: “Reds driven off.” The Washington Post rewarded Johnson with the headline: “American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression.” Pilot Everett Alvarez was shot down during one of these air raids to become the first American POW of the war. He remained a guest of Hanoi for eight years.

Johnson was able to appear firm yet not a warmonger, and his approval rating shot up from 42 percent to 72 percent. Less than three months later, he won his campaign for the presidency.

Different news sources such as Newsweek, Time and Life ran articles about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Time reported breathlessly: “Through the darkness, from the West and south… intruders boldly sped…” It said there had been a minimum of six attackers, which had fired on the U.S. destroyers.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Robert McNamara said the Tonkin Incident offered “unequivocal proof” of an “unprovoked attack,” the bloody liar.

McNamara told Congress there was “unequivocal proof” of a second “unprovoked attack” – less than 17 hours after 34-Alpha attacks on Cua Ron and Cap Vinh Son which benefited from the SIGINT the U.S. ships collected and were approved by Admiral Grant Sharp, Jr., CinCPAC in Honolulu, who was in direct contact with the White House.

In 1972, Louis Tordella, then the NSA’s deputy director, revealed that decrypted North Vietnamese damage assessments which had been regarded as “unequivocal proof,” referred to the first, actual attack, and not the second, phantom one. In 2001, the NSA found that officers had deliberately distorted key intelligence to conceal their own mistakes: translation errors went uncorrected, intercept times were altered, and intelligence was selectively cited. 40 years to the day after the supposed second attack, more documents were declassified showing that another part of McNamara’s “unequivocal proof” was an error: an NSA report described the August 2 attack as occurring on August 4.

At the time, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame was special assistant to John McNaughton, an Assistant Secretary of Defense. He said that his boss knew McNamara had lied. Congress was being lied to in order to allow war to be waged. He added: “I don’t look back on that situation with pride.”

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Senator Wayne Morse

McNamara’s account was challenged when the Resolution was debated by the Senate. Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oregon) had already christened the conflict in Vietnam “Mr. Johnson’s war.” He said the Resolution was an aggressive move, and that to suggest the United States was not implicated in South Vietnamese bombardment of two islands was “kidding the world.”

McNamara denied U.S. involvement in South Vietnamese operations, and said the DeSoto patrols did not support the 34-Alpha attacks. McNamara claimed the crew of Maddox were unaware of OPLAN 34-Alpha, but now acknowledges this to be false.

In his book, Vietnam at War, retired Lt. General Phillip Davidson, once the U.S. Army’s intelligence chief in South Vietnam, said that Captain Herrick had commented that Maddox crew-members were highly concerned that 34-Alpha activities were endangering their ship. Davidson agreed with Herrick that this could have made the crew excessively nervous. While Herrick was a combat veteran, the rest of his crew had never seen combat.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Senator Barry Goldwater favored a stronger approach to Vietnam than Johnson.

Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed for the use of armed force to assist South Vietnam. Strangely, a very similar resolution was drafted three months earlier, when Johnson ran for president on a peace ticket: “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” His opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, favored an even stronger approach to Southeast Asia. It was suggested that Goldwater could lead the United States into nuclear war.

Few who voted for the resolution knew the second attack was doubtful, that Maddox was engaged in an intelligence mission, or that Maddox’s operations and the 34-Alpha attacks were connected.

In 1977, former Under-Secretary of State George Ball said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that: “Many of the people associated with the war…were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing.” He said the primary purpose of the Desoto Patrols was to provoke North Vietnam, whose response would in turn allow the United States to take stronger action.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Vo Nguyen Giap

In 1995, McNamara visited Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese military commander of the time. Giap acknowledged the August 2 attack on the Maddox, but said “absolutely nothing” occurred on August 4. McNamara agreed. Giap suggested the Desoto patrols were intended to provoke his country and provide an excuse to escalate the war. He is far from alone in this supposition.

In a book released in 1995, it was admitted by McNamara that perhaps the United States had provoked a response from the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin but that this was done innocently and that Johnson’s administration did not deliberately deceive Congress.

In 1971, Senator Morse said that if the information then available had been around when the Resolution was debated, “the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of Committee. And, if it had, it would never have passed…”

In one of their more recent official histories, the North Vietnamese take responsibility for the first attack on Maddox, but not a second, calling it a fabrication to justify airstrikes. An older history claims responsibility for the second attack, but also claims that the North Vietnamese navy sank 353 U.S. naval vessels. This navy possessed around 60 torpedoes.

The NSA delayed release of histories, chronologies, SIGINT reports, and interviews relating to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, fearing that uncomfortable comparisons would be made to the flawed intelligence employed to justify war in Iraq, when they went and did it all again.


“The Gulf of Tonkin.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>
“30-Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War.” Rohan Academic. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>
“Chronology of American war in Vietnam.” BBC. 30 April 2000. 20 May 2011. <>
“Congress Backs President on Southeast Asia Moves; Khanh Sets State of Siege.” New York Times. n.d. 20 May 2011.
“Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” Gulf of Tonkin Incident. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>

“Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” Ohio History Central. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>
“Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. n.d. 20 May 2011.<>
“Gulf of Tonkin.” Gulf of Tonkin. n.d. 20 May 2011.
“LBJ Tapes on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” The National Security Archive. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>
“New Light on Gulf of Tonkin.” University of Houston. n.d. 20 May 2011.
“Robert J. Hanyok: His NSC study on Tonkin Gulf Deception.” George Mason University. 31 October 2005. 20 May 2011.<>
“The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 40 Years Later.“ The National Security Archive. 4 August 2004. 20 May 2011. <>
“Tonkin Gulf Crisis, August 1964” Naval Historical Center. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>
“Tonkin Gulf Intelligence ‘Skewed’ According to Official History and Intercepts.“ The National Security Archive. 1 December 2005. 20 May 2011. <>
“Vietnam War – LBJ – Period: 1960s.” Digital History. n.d. 20 May 2011. <>
Davis, Kenneth C. “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: a Somber History Lesson.” The Huffington Post. 7 August 2009. 20 May 2011. <>


2 thoughts on “They Were Shooting Flying Fish: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

  1. Jim Treanor 03/23/2012, 4:29 pm:

    Nope. I was in Turner Joy’s CIC on 4 August, and what came at us weren’t phantoms, seagulls, flying fish, or any of the other phenomena that most of the history books suggest. Contrary to the article’s report, there were in fact topside visual sightings from the bridge, the signal bridge, the deck alongside the forward weapons director, and the aft weapons director of various artifacts of an attack, including a P-4 silhouette and a torpedo wake.

    Captain Herrick’s comments have been ripped from their context, as he emphasized in at least one message that an attack had taken place and later thanked Turner Joy’s skipper for “saving my ass out there.”

    The ability of then-Commander Stockdale to see anything was in serious question. He came within a hairs breadth of blowing our fantail off when he almost launched either a Sidewinder or Zuni at us, in part because he refused to accept shipboard air control. Subsequent nighttime aircraft-vs-PT exercises with Nasty boats out of Danang revealed that pilots frequently couldn’t see the PT’s even when they were vectored directly on top of them by shipboard air control. And former CNO, an F8 pilot himself, has said that the Crusader’s cockpit design would it made it difficult at best for Stockdale to have seen anything on that moonless, occasionally squally night.

    NSA historian Robert Hanyok’s analysis is flawed, in part because he accepted the erroneous agency assessment of 3 September 1964 that 4 August was characterized by the virtual “absence of North Vietnamese tracking”–an assessment which ignores the fact that we had substantial ECM acquisitions of North Vietnamese radar directed at us, in some cases from one or more Swatow patrol boats that day.

    One of the problems with the accounts which have polluted the history books, including the Moise book which is held up as the “standard reference,” is that they’ve either ignored, given short shrift to, or distorted eyewitness evidence. In some instances, the authors flat-out don’t know what they’re talking about.

    If you’re interested in a more detailed analysis of the problems the “reference” histories present, I’ve posted one at my website (, with links to html or pdf versions.

  2. Jim Treanor 03/23/2012, 7:17 pm:

    Two corrections to my initial post:

    “And former CNO, an F8 pilot…” should read “And former CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward, an F8 pilot…”

    “…the Crusader’s cockpit design would it made…” should read “…the Crusader’s cockpit design would have made…”

    Apologies for the flubs.