Whether or not the North Vietnamese shot at U.S. destroyers, this incident was utilized by the administration to strategically initiate the public into a war that was in its fifth year of secret and illegal support of the South Vietnamese military. The incident would likely have been just another secret occurrence in that covert operation if the Administration had not been seeking a method of gaining public support for a war that was being escalated and could not be covert much longer.
The U.S. certainly initiated the incident by violating North Vietnamese territorial waters, drawing a defensive response that was called the first “attack”. The second attack did not occur. It was manufactured and then fed to the media as a compelling story of U.S. victims, and our ruthless Cold-War adversaries in North Vietnam. The public was not informed of our five-year secret war in Southeast Asia until the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. In recent years the incident has been recast as incompetence, intelligence failure, and poor inter-agency communication. Sound familiar?
Daniel Ellsberg, who was on duty in the Pentagon that night receiving messages from the ship, reports that the ships were on a secret mission, codenamed DeSoto Patrols, inside North Vietnamese territorial waters. Their purpose was to provoke the North Vietnamese into turning on their coastal defense radar so they could be plotted. This constitutes an act of war by the United States against North Vietnam. 1
Squadron commander James Stockdale was one of the U.S. pilots flying overhead August 4th In the 1990’s Stockdale stated: “[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.” 1
In 1995, retired Vietnamese General Nguyen Giap meeting with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, categorically denied that Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American destroyers. A taped conversation was released in 2001 of a meeting several weeks after passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, revealing that Robert McNamara expressed doubts to President Johnson that the attack had even occurred. 1