Perhaps one of the most controversial and debated incidents in US history. Events started in early 1960 when the communist government in Vietnam began to organize forces which threatened to overtake the US backed South Vietnam. For several years the CIA conducted covert operations to monitor the activity of the communist government. This quickly escalated in to a series of rather non-covert skirmishes fought along the shores and islands surrounding North and South Vietnam.
In January 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara took over the project, which then became known as OP 34 Alpha. More covert agents were sent to Vietnam, most of whom ended up MIA (estimated over 500 men). McNamara also sent out several patrol vessels which were fitted with equipment to intercept communications from North Vietnam.
On August 2, 1964, all of this came out into the open with a North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox (Destroyer Class, DD-731) commanded by Captain John J. Herrick which was stationed about 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese believed this ship was in place for the support of an attack against military installations at Hon Me and Hon Ngu several days earlier. One Vietnamese patrol boat was destroyed and several more were damaged and driven off by US support aircraft. Records indicate that one machine gun round hit the Maddox, causing almost no damage. This first attack was designated as an un-provoked attack by US Military Officials.
On August 4, 1964, USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy returned to the area to resume patrols, a short 17 hours after raids of military installations at Cap Vinh Son and Cua Ron. Both ships reported a second attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Maddox reported radar contact with several high speed patrol boats, and later reported over 20 torpedo attacks and automatic weapons fire. The area was filled with low clouds and thunderstorms, leading to very poor visibility. Crew members reported conflicting stories about what they heard and saw, and both US ships received no damage.
An investigation was soon launched by Congress to determine if an actual event took place. McNamara reported that there was definite proof of a second, un-provoked attack. This led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which was the closest thing to a Declaration of War that would happen during the entire Vietnam War. McNamara also claimed that the ships standing by were not supporting the raids, and the crew had no knowledge of military actions in North Vietnam. He later admitted this was not true, and that the crew of the Maddox were fully aware of the raids and were concerned for their welfare in the event of a retaliation.
In 1972, Deputy Director of the NSA Louis Tordella revealed that McNamara's proof of a second attack was a decoded message which contained North Vietnamese assessments of the damage from the first attack, not the second attack. In his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara admits that the US may have provoked the second attack which ultimately began the war, though he claims it was due to an innocent mistake in reading the decoded message, and not an intentional plan to pull North Vietnam into a war. He claimed that he had never lied to Congress or the American people and that he acted in behalf of what he felt was right. During a later visit to Vietnam, McNamara confirmed that indeed, nothing had happened on the night of August 4 to his knowledge.
Later on at a conference in Washington DC, Daniel Ellsberg (former advisor to during the war) said:
"Did McNamara lie to Congress in 1964? I can answer that question. Yes, he did lie, and I knew it at the time. I was working for John McNaughton... I was his special assistant. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He knew McNamara had lied. McNamara knew he had lied. He is still lying. (Former Secretary of State Dean) Rusk and McNamara testified to Congress... prior to their vote... Congress was being lied into.. what was to be used as a formal declaration of war. I knew that.... I don't look back on that situation with pride."
Ellsberg also revealed:
"What I did not reveal in the summer of '64... was a conspiracy to manipulate the public into a war and to win an election through fraud... which had the exact horrible consequences the founders of this country envisioned when they ruled out, they thought as best they could, that an Executive Branch could secretly decide the decisions of war and peace, without public debate or vote of Congress... Senator Morse, one of the two people who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution told me in 1971, '...had you given us all that information... seven years earlier, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of Committee. And, if it had, it would never have passed...' But there was a time in my life later... knowing the consequences of all these policies... when I did say to myself that I'm never going to lie again with the justification that someone has told me I have to... I've never been sorry I've stopped doing that."
The exact occurrence of events and motivations will probably never be know, but the effect was clear. McNamara summed it up:
"The fundamental issue of Tonkin Gulf involves not deception, but rather, misuse of power bestowed by the resolution. The language of the resolution plainly granted the powers the President subsequently used and Congress understood the breadth of those powers... But no doubt exists that Congress did not intend to authorize, without further, full consultation, the expansion of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 16,000 to 550,000 men, initiating large scale combat operations with the risk of an expanded war with China and the Soviet Union, and extending U.S. involvement in Vietnam for many years to come."