The Gulf of Tonkin

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August 2, 1964. It marked the beginning of the U.S involvement in South East Asia. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was presented as the justification for the large-scale involvement in Vietnam. On that fateful August day, the destroyer USS Maddox engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats; two days later the Maddox and a second destroyer, USS Turner Joy reported a second torpedo engagement from North Vietnamese vessels.

In response, the Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian government considered to be jeopardized by “communist aggression.” The resolution included the authorities to commit of US forces without a declaration of war and to use them without consulting the US Senate. The above photo [USN NH 956 11] taken on Maddox during the first attack was produced for the congressional hearings for the resolution.

In fact, the second incident was a false alarm. The sonarmen on two destroyers apparently reported some other sound (possibly ship’s own propeller beat) as a ‘torpedo attack’. Just a few days after the incident, Johnson commented privately: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” Nonetheless, it didn’t prevent Johnson from escalating in Vietnam. Riding high on public’s rally effect, Johnson would handily win over his Republican challenger, hardliner Barry Goldwater in November. All because of a mishandled signal beep.

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