Only one part of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin is clear. North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in international waters. However, what exactly happened afterward had the world guessing.
In 2005 and 2006, the NSA declassified almost 200 documents which included phone transcripts, interviews, and signals intelligence messages. These top secret papers have explained what happened and why the U.S. entered into the Vietnam War.
Events Leading Up To The Incident
At the beginning of 1964, South Vietnam had U.S. support for several attacks and intelligence missions on the North Vietnamese coast. The mission, Operations Plan 34A, was overseen by the DOD and the CIA and executed by the South Vietnamese Navy.
When they took heavy losses, the strategy was shifted to attacks from the patrol boats. In the meantime, the U.S. Navy was doing its recon mission in the Tonkin Gulf. Destroyers were running Desoto patrols, with more scheduled for 1964.
One declassified document noted, “[L]ocate and identify all coastal radar transmitters, note all navigation aids along the DVR’s [Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s] coastline, and monitor the Vietnamese junk fleet for a possible connection to DRV/Viet Cong maritime supply and infiltration routes.”
The USS Maddox left Taiwan and headed toward her patrol station on July 28th. The Maddox had communications interception equipment.
The ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 30th when OPLAN 34A attacked Hon Me Island and Hon Ngu Island. They claimed they did not know the attacks were happening and left the area when they realized what was happening, especially when the North Vietnamese patrol boats showed up.
The Maddox went back to the area on August 1st, and its technicians intercepted intel that the North Vietnamese may attack the destroyer. Captain John J. Herrick wanted to avoid the patrol boats, so he went out to sea at first. The decision was reversed, and the destroyer ended up north of Hon Me Island.
There the North Vietnamese attacked. However, the Maddox was unharmed and back to patrol on the 4th with the Turner Joy in tow. The two ships thought they were under attack at one point but realized it was poor equipment in rough seas.
Somehow wires were crossed in Washington, and President Johnson thought the North Vietnamese had attacked again, leading to a declaration of war.