|AUSTIN - Thirty-eight years ago Sunday,
network television was interrupted at 11:36 p.m. EDT so
President Lyndon B. Johnson could tell the nation that U.S.
warships in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin had been
attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats.
In response to what he described as "open aggression on the
open seas," Johnson ordered U.S. airstrikes on North Vietnam.
The airstrikes opened the door to a war that would kill 1
million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans and divide the nation
along class and generational lines.
Over the years, debate has swirled around whether U.S.
ships actually were attacked that night, or whether, as some
skeptics suggest, the Johnson administration staged or
provoked an event to get congressional authority to act
against North Vietnam.
Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations
indicate the attack probably never happened.
The tapes, released by the LBJ Library at the University of
Texas at Austin, include 51 phone conversations from Aug. 4
and 5, 1964, when the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred.
Two days earlier, on Aug. 2, North Vietnamese forces in
Russian-made "swatow" gunboats had attacked the USS Maddox, a
destroyer conducting reconnaissance in the gulf.
But from the get-go, many have doubted anything really
happened to the Maddox and a sister ship, the USS C. Turner
Joy on Aug. 4.
Even LBJ seemed skeptical, saying in 1965: "For all I know,
our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
The released tapes neither prove nor disprove what may have
happened that night, but they do indicate jittery sailors in a
tense area thought they were under attack.
"Under attack by three PT boats. Torpedoes in the water.
Engaging the enemy with my main battery," the Maddox radioed.
Indeed, the destroyers fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch
shells and four or five depth charges, according to Navy
Many of the taped conversations from that night are between
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara - who was trying to verify
something actually happened so he could brief LBJ for his TV
bulletin - and Adm. U.S. Grant "Oley" Sharp, commander of the
U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.
|Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Resolution: To Promote the Maintenance of
International Peace and Secunty in Southeast Asia
Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in
Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter
of the United Nations and of international law, have
deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval
vessels lawfully present in international waters, and
have thereby created a serious threat to international
Whereas these attacks are part of a deliberate and
systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist
regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its
neighbors and the nations joined with them in the
collective defense of their freedom; and
Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of
southeast Asia to protect their freedom and has no
territorial, military or political ambitions in that
area, but desires only that these people should be left
in peace to work out their own destinies in their own
way: Now, therefore, be it?
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives
of the United States of America in Congress assembled.
That the Congress approves and supports the
determination of the President as Commander in Chief, to
take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack
against the forces of the United States and to prevent
SEC.2. The United States regards as vital to its
national interest and to world peace the maintenance of
international peace and security in Southeast Asia.
Consonant with the Constitution of the United States
and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance
with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective
Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore,
prepared, as the President determines, 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.
SEC. 3. This resolution shall expire when the
President shall determine that the peace and security of
the area is reasonably assured by international
conditions created by action of the United Nations or
otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by
concurrent resolution of the Congress.
Sharp was feeding McNamara information from the field and
trying to get a strike force in the air to retaliate for the
alleged attack before the president went on television.
"If it's open season on these boys, which I think it is,
we'll take if from there," Sharp said about noon on Aug. 4.
Later, in a 1:59 p.m. EDT conversation with Air Force Lt.
Gen. David Burchinal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sharp was
elusive, saying, "many of the reported contacts and torpedoes
fired appear doubtful."
He blamed the reports on "overeager sonarmen" and "freak
weather effects on radar."
But, asked Burchinal: "You're pretty sure there was a
"No doubt about that, I think," Sharp replied.
At 8:39 p.m., with McNamara laying plans for LBJ to go on
TV, McNamara asked Sharp why the retaliatory strike was
Bad weather, Sharp said, and an agitated McNamara replied:
"The president has to make a statement to the people and I am
holding him back from making it."
Thirty minutes later, at 9:09, Sharp said the launch still
was 50 minutes off.
"Oh my God," McNamara said.
And about an hour before he went on television, Johnson
spoke by telephone with Barry Goldwater, his Republican
opponent in that year's presidential race.
"Like always, Americans will stick together," the Arizona
senator told LBJ.
At 11 p.m., McNamara asked Sharp, who was in Honolulu and
getting feedback from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, if
Johnson could say "at this moment air action is now in
execution" against North Vietnam.
Sharp chuckled and replied: "I don't think it would be
good, sir," noting the retaliatory strike had not yet
Shortly after 11 p.m., the counterstrike was under way and
LBJ went on the air to tell the American people the "attack"
on U.S. ships was an "outrage."
"I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a
resolution making it clear that our government is united in
its determination to take all necessary measures in support of
freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia."
But, says James Stockdale, a Navy aviator who responded to
the "attacks" on the Maddox and Turner Joy, it all was
hogwash. Stockdale later was shot down and spent eight years
in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. In 1992, he was
presidential candidate Ross Perot's running mate.
"I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and
our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets - there
were no PT boats there. There was nothing but black water and
American firepower," Stockdale wrote in his 1984 book, "In
Love and War."
Congress, however, responded to LBJ's call to arms, giving
him a veritable blank check to make war.
While the U.S. response, as the tapes seem to bear out, was
a mistake rather than a charade, there is ample evidence the
United States was a provocateur in 1964, not an innocent
The Johnson administration had approved covert land and sea
operations involving U.S. forces earlier in 1964, the
so-called Op Plan 34-A.
On Monday, Aug. 3, 1964, the day after the first Tonkin
Gulf incident where the USS Maddox actually was attacked,
Johnson, according to White House tape recordings, said:
"There have been some covert operations in that (Tonkin
Gulf) area that we have been carrying on - blowing up some
bridges and things of that kind, roads and so forth. So I
imagine (the North Vietnamese) wanted to put a stop to it."
Later that same day, LBJ, who ironically was about to ask
Humphrey to be his running mate in the '64 election,
complained to their mutual friend, James Rowe: "Our friend
Hubert is just destroying himself with his big mouth," LBJ
said, noting the Minnesota liberal told the media after an
intelligence briefing that U.S. boats were running covert
operations in the gulf - "exactly what we have been doing."
Two months before the Tonkin Gulf incident, Undersecretary
of State George Ball, a member of Johnson's inner circle and a
member of a committee that oversaw the 34-A operations, had
drafted, but not submitted, a congressional resolution
endorsing "all measures, including the commitment of force,"
to defend South Vietnam and Laos, should their governments
seek help - in effect, the language in the subsequent Tonkin
In a May 24 meeting, the National Security Council
suggested the best time to submit such a resolution was after
Congress had passed the landmark 1964 civil rights bill, which
occurred in July.
Ball later said, according to McNamara in his 1995 mea
culpa, "In Retrospect," that "many of the people who were
associated with the war ..... were looking for any excuse to
initiate bombing. ....."
However, another close LBJ aide, William Bundy, according
to the same source, said the Tonkin Gulf incident was not
While the reasons for it either were unclear or false, the
Tonkin Gulf Resolution cleared Congress on Aug. 7, 1964 -
414-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate.
History has seemed to coalesce around the belief that the
second Tonkin Gulf incident, on Aug. 4, was a mistake, but not
It was not a "put-up job," claims Professor Edwin Moise, a
Vietnam War expert at Clemson University.
As the LBJ Library tapes indicate, the Navy was not ready
to launch a retaliatory strike Aug. 4 against North Vietnam,
but it would have been if the event had been staged, Moise
Professor David Crockett, a presidential scholar at Trinity
University, calls the incident an accident, but says the
greater problem was that Congress "rolled over" and gave LBJ
what he wanted: "a virtual blank check to make war."
The irony, Crockett notes, is that LBJ painted Goldwater as
a warmonger in the '64 campaign. A powerful but notorious LBJ
TV ad featured a little girl picking daisies followed by the
detonation of a nuclear bomb.
"LBJ campaigned that he wouldn't send American boys to die
in Asian wars," says Crockett, who is only a year older than
the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, "but he was actually doing it" by
pushing the resolution through Congress.
Jerry Paull*, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam vet, has
For six months in 1965, he ferried South Vietnamese forces
on Norwegian-made PT boats into North Vietnam to conduct
raids, kidnaps and psychological operations such as dropping
Although he was a U.S. Marine, Paull says he wore civilian
clothes on the missions - in violation of a 1954 Geneva
convention - and the PT boats, called "nasties," were painted
black and had no markings.
"I have heard and read," Paull says, "that at the time of
the Gulf of Tonkin incident that it is suspected that the
North Vietnamese mistook the U.S. destroyers for the nasties,
and that the whole Gulf of Tonkin incident was a mistake on
the North Vietnamese's part."
Paull would later turn against the war, but, he reminds
younger Americans, the mid-'60s was an era of idealism, when
America's No. 1 foreign policy thrust was to stop the spread
"War was what I had trained for and what I wanted to do for
my country," he recalls.
"At that time, there was a common saying in the Marine
Corps: 'It's not much of a war, but it's the only war we
A year later, though, while waiting at an air strip at Chu
Lai to head into the field, a newsman asked Paull if he'd
noticed a change in attitude among the Marines between 1965
"I said, 'Yes, the idea of being carried home on a shield
was not as glorious as it had been in 1965. Death is final.'."
"The hard realities of war were realized."
Bob Blackburn, a former college professor who had to give
up teaching because of Vietnam-induced post traumatic stress
disorder, served two tours with the Marines in Vietnam and
fought in another turning point in the war, the 1968 Tet
The North Texas resident says he was bitter toward Johnson
then, but now simply refers to LBJ as a "tragic figure" who
got himself into a situation he couldn't politic his way out
"He could never realize why (North Vietnamese leader) Ho
Chi Minh wasn't like a Republican senator who could be bought.
He'd have built a TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) for (Ho) if
he'd just quit fighting," says Blackburn, who has a doctorate
in American political history with an emphasis on Vietnam.
George Christian, who was LBJ's press secretary from 1966
to 1969 and wrote LBJ's resignation speech in 1968, confirms
"There was never a better legislative president," Christian
recalls. "He was a master at working the system and he made
honest efforts to try to reach an honest end to the war.
".' Why can't Ho Chi Minh see that?'." Christian recalls
Johnson often lamenting.
Vietnam had a "corrosive" effect on the president,
Christian says, but it wasn't the main reason LBJ resigned.
"It was his health; he was worried about having a stroke
and being incapacitated.
"I thought the country was ungovernable," Christian says
now. "I wanted him to go home. Mrs. Johnson wanted him to go
home. He wanted to go home."
A lot of Americans never came home, and those who did often
weren't welcomed home as conquering heroes, as their fathers
and grandfathers had been.
Still, coming home whole was no less joyous.
Blackburn, for example, was picked up by a helicopter in
the field in Vietnam on May 2, 1968, and was discharged from
the Corps 12 days later at El Toro Naval Air Station, Calif.
He used the money he saved in Vietnam to buy himself a
sports car, and as he drove away from the base, en route back
home to Texas, Blackburn removed his uniform and, piece by
piece, threw it into the wind from his convertible.
"There wasn't a sign between El Toro and Needles that
didn't have a piece of my clothing on it," he says.