Robert F. Turner: How the Vietnam War Started

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert F. Turner has taught undergraduate and graduate seminars on the Vietnam War at the University of Virginia for many years. He wrote the 1975 book "Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development." He served twice in Vietnam as an Army officer.]

Today marks the 45th anniversary of a 1964 attack by North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats upon the American destroyer USS Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident remains shrouded by confusion and misinformation and continues to be misperceived by many as the reason America went to war in Vietnam. Today may be a useful time to set the record straight.

First, contrary to popular belief, the Aug. 2 attack definitely did occur. No less an authority than Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap -- North Vietnam's defense minister at the time -- admitted so in a 1995 meeting with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

Nor is there a scintilla of evidence that President Johnson sought to provoke North Vietnam so he could take America to war. On the contrary, Mr. Johnson's focus was on his domestic Great Society programs. His primary concern about Vietnam was that the war not be lost on his watch. Indeed, he was under considerable pressure from Congress and public opinion to respond more firmly to growing communist aggression in South Vietnam.

There remains uncertainty about why the Aug. 2 attack occurred -- Hanoi may have associated the presence of the Maddox off its coast with a series of covert CIA naval operations far to the south and involving South Vietnamese assets. If so, that clearly was not the intention of the Johnson administration or the U.S. military.

It now seems clear that reports of a second attack, on Aug. 4, 1964, were mistaken -- largely a product of "freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen," as the ship's skipper would conclude later. It also seems clear that there was a midlevel "coverup" at the National Security Agency when it was discovered that communications intercepts on Aug. 4 had been mistranslated -- which may have contributed to the confusion about a second attack.

One of the greatest myths of the Vietnam War is that America went to war because of the reported "incidents" in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964. It is true that on Aug. 7 Congress enacted a statute by a combined vote of 504-2 (99.6 percent approval) that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright, in answer to a question from another senator during the floor debate, agreed would authorize the president to "use such force as could lead into war." But the resolution noted that "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 it authorized the president "to take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force, to assist any ... protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom."

Those "protocol states" were South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- countries we had solemnly pledged to defend by treaty and that the president had been authorized to defend by an almost unanimous Congress. Yet when President Nixon sent U.S. forces across the Cambodian border in 1970 to attack North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply areas, congressional liberals and "peace" activists insisted there was no legal authority to use force in Cambodia.

It was not until May 1984 that Hanoi publicly confirmed the decision that really started the Vietnam War. A cover story in the English-language monthly Vietnam Courier detailed the "absolute secret" decision made by the Lao Dong Party on May 19, 1959 -- more than five years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and start sending tens of thousands of troops and countless tons of military equipment into South Vietnam to overthrow its government. It was to stop the communist takeover of South Vietnam by force that America went to war, just as we did in 1950 to protect South Korea...
Read entire article at Washington Times

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Arnold Shcherban - 8/7/2009

<the covert operations that had aroused the North Vietnamese were not run by the CIA>.
Not true, Mr. Moise.
Surely, not ALL those operations were run by CIA, but the major ones certainly were, such as Operation Phoenix, OPLAN 44A, etc.
Not already mentioning the largest CIA-run operation on Laotian territory.
As far as the first Maddox incident presented by Mr. Turner as the main North Vietnamese provocation, leading to the US barbaric bombing of North Vietnamese cities (killing dozen of thousands of civilians, in very "conservative" estimate), Maddox had not been the international waters, when it was attacked by NV's PT boats, and the attack (actually -defense) would be legitimate. Moreover, Maddox sustained no damage over the 20-minute encounter, while sinking one PT boat, and severely damaging two others.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/7/2009

I'm sorry, Mr. Moise, the pledge was
made in the final US declaration over
Geneva accords of 1954: <...declares with regard to the aforesaid agreements and paragraphs that (i) it will refrain from the threat or the use of force to disturb them, in accordance with Article 2 (4) of the Charter of the United Nations dealing with the obligation of members to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force; and (ii) it would view any renewal of the aggression in violation of the aforesaid agreements with grave concern and as seriously threatening international peace and security.> And further, in the same document, it expresses the US full support for free elections in Indochina: <In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek to achieve unity through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly.>

Edwin Moise - 8/7/2009

I must disagree with Robert Turner on several points.

First, it is not accurate to claim that "contrary to popular belief" there was a genuine attack on August 2, 1964, because there is no popular belief on this question. The public does not have enough awareness of particular incidents on particular dates to have opinions about them. The people who have heard of the August 2 incident are mostly aware that it was a genuine attack.

Also, the covert operations that had aroused the North Vietnamese were not run by the CIA, and were not "far to the south." They were run by a U.S. military organization, SOG, and they were right in the area where the Maddox was attacked.

SOG covert operations vessels shelled the island of Hon Me on the night of July 30/31. When the Maddox approached within gun range of Hon Me on the evening of August 1, the North Vietnamese became very disturbed, and sent torpedo boats to Hon Me. When the torpedo boats reached Hon Me on August 2, the Maddox was still loitering in the vicinity (though not quite within gun range at that time), and the torpedo boats attacked the Maddox.

Ed Moise

Edwin Moise - 8/7/2009

I am unaware of the pledge that Mr. Scherban says was made in 1960. I would be grateful if he would provide details.

Ed Moise

william e vanvugt - 8/7/2009

Exactly. I would go further and put the origins back to 1956, when the US helped the Southern regime to avoid the elections that were pledged two years before in Geneva. The notion that it all began in Tonkin is ridiculous, totally Ameri-centric, and irresponsible to teach at any university.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/5/2009

The US violating his oral pledge (made in 1960) not to interfere in Vietnam, to promote democratic elections, and reconciliation between two Vietnamese states in 1960, but in practice making great efforts to torpedo that pledge, while supporting reactinary, anti-democratic regimes on Indochina Peninsula bears main responsibility for the start of Vietnam War and its further intensification.
McNamara, as the Pentagon's records definitively show deliberately concealed the serious doubts expressed by the naval commander about second Tonkin incident from President Jonhson and Congress, thus presenting the incident as North Vietnamese agression.
It's high time to stop outrageous lies
about the "defensive" and noble character of American mission in Indochina, and permanent agressiveness of Communist
regimes, rebuffed by numerous documents and witnesses long ago.