Twenty years ago, on the blackest of nights in the Gulf of Tonkin, when the moon died and dense fog, angry seas, electrical storms and luminescent ocean microorganisms conspired to play tricks with a sailor's mind, America went to war.
A murky incident--a purported attack on U.S. vessels by North Vietnam--led President Lyndon B. Johnson to order the bombing of North Vietnam, to obtain a congressional resolution approving the Americanization of the war in Southeast Asia and eventually to station half a million U.S. troops in Vietnam.
However, a reconstruction of those events, based on once-secret government cables and formerly classified eyewitness accounts, indicates that the attack never occurred.
The confusion began the night of Aug. 4, 1964, high on the bridge of the Maddox, an aging destroyer outfitted as a spy ship. Unable to see objects a few feet into the blustery dark, dependent on electronic information gleaned from radar, sonar and intercepted enemy communications, Capt. John J. Herrick--a 44-year-old veteran of two wars--concluded that the mysterious dots on his radar screen were North Vietnamese PT boats bent on attacking his two-ship flotilla.
Herrick, commodore of the 7th Fleet's Destroyer Division 192, radioed an emergency call to Pacific naval headquarters in Honolulu that would soon be read to the President, who was eating breakfast in the White House 12 time zones away. Johnson was furious.
Two days before, the Maddox had fired first on three North Vietnamese PT boats that had closed to within 10 miles of the Maddox in what Herrick believed was an imminent attack. Now, there had apparently been a second incident, and for the next 14 hours, the President's men would plan a retaliatory air strike.
Johnson--in the midst of an election campaign--insisted that decisive action be taken soon enough for him to announce it on television that night, even as his staff frantically tried to determine whether an attack had indeed occurred.
In order to meet that deadline, Johnson would overrule the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet and announce the bombing of North Vietnam before some of the U.S. pilots had even arrived over their targets.
Not So Clear in Gulf
In the daylight of Washington it was all very clear and simple--but not so clear back in the darkened gulf.
From its inception, the purpose of Herrick's mission--which had been conceived in the White House and directed by the President's national security adviser--was largely secret, even to him. It had begun a week earlier, when the Maddox was re-equipped as an intelligence-gathering ship and sent to obtain information on Hanoi's radar and communications, as well as to make a show of force close to the North Vietnamese coast.
Simultaneously, South Vietnamese navy personnel, trained by the United States and using U.S.-supplied boats, had begun conducting secret raids on targets in North Vietnam.
Unknown to Herrick, one such attack had begun the night of July 30, immediately before he began sailing along the North Vietnamese coast. The North Vietnamese PT boats that closed on the Maddox on Aug. 2 were probably retaliating for that assault.
Then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk conceded as much in a classified cable to Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, the following night. The "Maddox incident is directly related to (North Vietnam's) efforts to resist these activities," Rusk said.
On Aug. 3, the day after that first Gulf of Tonkin episode, Herrick requested that his patrol be ended because he thought the mission made the Maddox vulnerable. He was turned down by Adm. Ulysses Grant Sharp Jr., commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, who felt this might call into question U.S. "resolve to assert our legitimate rights in these international waters."
Sharp recently said that he had obtained permission from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to strengthen Herrick's patrol by placing a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, under his command.
Radio monitoring--which was the purpose of Herrick's mission--was conducted by a communications box that had been placed between the Maddox's smokestacks. Intelligence experts stood watch inside the box, intercepting and translating North Vietnamese communications. Occasionally, the officer in charge of monitoring these communications would pop out with messages about what he thought the North Vietnamese were doing.
On the night of Aug. 3, another U.S.-directed South Vietnamese commando raid was launched and, according to communications monitored by the Maddox, the North Vietnamese confused that mission with Herrick's patrol.
Early on the evening of Aug. 4, the intelligence officer reported to Herrick that the radio communications indicated an imminent attack on the Maddox and her sister ship.
Warning to Washington
Herrick passed the warning on to Washington. It was 9 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, when the message was handed to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.