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Context of 'August 4, 1964: Disputed Gulf of Tonkin Incident Allegedly Occurs'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event August 4, 1964: Disputed Gulf of Tonkin Incident Allegedly Occurs. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

South Vietnamese gun boats attack the North Vietnamese island of Hon Me as part of operation OPLAN 34A. Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon official working under US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, will later describe 34A as a “100 percent US operations, utilizing some South Vietnamese personnel along with… foreign mercenary crews, totally planned and controlled by the US, through MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam], CIA and CINCPAC [Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet]; some people in the GVN [Government of (South) Vietnam] had very limited knowledge of the operations, but no hand in planning or managing them.” [Ellsberg, 2003 Sources: Daniel Ellsberg]

Entity Tags: Daniel Ellsberg

Timeline Tags: US-Vietnam (1947-2001)

The USS Maddox is gathering intelligence off the coast of North Vietnam. [Pilger, 1986, pp. 148; Herring, 1986, pp. 119; Media Beat, 7/27/1994] When a group of North Vietnamese torpedo boats come within range of the vessel there is a brief, but tense, exchange of fire. The USS Maddox fires on the boats, which respond with torpedoes. The torpedo boats are quickly driven away when aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga come to the assistance of the Maddox. The US government and the press will report that the torpedo boats had launched an “unprovoked attack” against the Maddox while it was on a “routine patrol.” [Herring, 1986, pp. 119; Media Beat, 7/27/1994] When reports of the incident are received in Washington, the Maddox is ordered to continue is operations close to North Vietnamese shores. Another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy, is sent to support it. [Herring, 1986, pp. 120]

Timeline Tags: US-Vietnam (1947-2001)

Two days after an engagement with North Vietnamese torpedo boats (see August 2, 1964), Captain John J. Herrick of the USS Maddox sees two “mysterious dots” on his radar screen. He determines they are torpedo boats and sends an emergency cable to headquarters in Honolulu reporting that the ship is under attack. Honolulu quickly passes the report on to Washington. [Pilger, 1986, pp. 195] President Johnson meets with his advisers and decides that the US must respond. “We cannot sit still as a nation and let them attack us on the high seas and get away with it,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara says. [Herring, 1986, pp. 121] A few hours later, a cable arrives from Captain Herrick, which reads: “Freak weather effects on radar and over eager sonar men . . . No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” A little later, Herrick cables that though it was “a confusing picture,” he did believe that there had been an attack. [In 1985, Herrick will reveal that this judgment had been based on “intercepted North Vietnamese communications” which he had not seen.] Half an hour later, the White House receives a third cable from Herrick, in which the captain says he is now uncertain what had happened. But this last report is ignored and President Johnson announces in a televised address, “Renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.” Meanwhile, US forces in Vietnam launch “retaliatory” air strikes against five North Vietnamese patrol boats and the oil facilities at Vinh. [Pilger, 1986, pp. 196; Herring, 1986, pp. 121; Ellsberg, 2003] The American media praises the president’s speech and actions. The New York Times states the following day that Johnson had gone to “the American people… with the somber facts.” And the Los Angeles Times urges its readers to “face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities.” But time will reveal that there had been no attacks. US Navy squadron commander James Stockdale, who had been in the air at the time of the alleged attacks, will later recall: “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 there but black water and American fire power.” [Media Beat, 7/27/1994]

Entity Tags: James Stockdale, John J. Herrick, Robert McNamara

Timeline Tags: US-Vietnam (1947-2001)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Relations Committee hold closed hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin torpedo attacks (see August 2, 1964) (see August 4, 1964). Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, who had received a tip from an unnamed Pentagon insider (not Daniel Ellsberg), asks US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara if the torpedo attacks might have been a response to operation OPLAN 34A which had conducted attacks on the North Vietnamese island of Hon Me on July 31 (see July 31, 1964). The Senator raises the possibility that the North Vietnamese may have thought the ship was supporting OPLAN 34A’s attacks. Morse suggests that McNamara should inquire as to the exact location of the Maddox on those days and what its true mission was. McNamara responds: “First, our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…. The Maddox was operating in international waters, was carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times. I did not have knowledge at the time of the attack on the island. There is no connection between this patrol and any action of South Vietnam.” [New York Times, 6/13/1971; Herring, 1986, pp. 122; Ellsberg, 2003]

Entity Tags: Wayne Morse, Robert McNamara, US Congress

Timeline Tags: US-Vietnam (1947-2001)

In response to alleged “unprovoked” attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats against the USS Maddox on August 2 (see August 2, 1964) and August 4 (see August 4, 1964), Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” [US Congress, 8/7/1964; Herring, 1986, pp. 122-123] It sails though the House unanimously and in the Senate it meets only the slightest resistance with two dissenting votes. [Herring, 1986, pp. 122-123] When Daniel Ellsberg leaks the Pentagon Papers seven years later, it is revealed that the resolution had been drafted 2 months earlier, well before the alleged incident. [Pilger, 1986, pp. 196]

Entity Tags: Daniel Ellsberg, US Congress

Timeline Tags: US-Vietnam (1947-2001)

One day after the alleged “unprovoked” attacks on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese torpedo boats (see August 2, 1964), the vessel’s captain, John J. Herrick, reports to Washington: “Evaluation of info from various sources indicates DRV considers [my] patrol directly involved with 34-A ops (see July 31, 1964) DRV considers US ships present as enemies because of these ops and have already indicated their readiness to treat us in that category.” [Ellsberg, 2003]

Entity Tags: John J. Herrick

Timeline Tags: US-Vietnam (1947-2001)

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