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August 5, 1964 – A day with more questions than answers – On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, while performing a signals intelligence patrol as part of DESOTO operations, was approached by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats of the 135th Torpedo Squadron. Maddox fired three warning shots, and the North Vietnamese boats attacked with torpedoes and machine gun fire. Maddox expended over 280 3-inch (76 mm) and 5-inch (130 mm) shells in a sea battle. One U.S. aircraft was damaged, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, and four North Vietnamese sailors were killed, with six more wounded. There were no U.S. casualties. Maddox was “unscathed except for a single bullet hole from a Vietnamese machine gun round”.
It was originally claimed by the National Security Agency that a Second Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 4, 1964, as another sea battle, but instead, evidence was found of “Tonkin ghosts” (false radar images) and not actual North Vietnamese torpedo boats. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, the former United States Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the August 2 USS Maddox attack happened with no Defense Department response, but the August 4 Gulf of Tonkin attack never happened. In 1995, McNamara met with former Vietnam People’s Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp to ask what happened on August 4, 1964, in the second Gulf of Tonkin Incident. “Absolutely nothing”, Giáp replied. Giáp claimed that the attack had been imaginary.
The outcome of these two incidents was the passage by US Congress of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted US President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by “communist aggression”. The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.
But at the time, everything was in a state of anticipation and confusion. We weren’t quite sure what it meant, but had the sneaking suspicion it wasn’t good, whatever it was.
Here is one of those special reports, which dominated the airwaves on August 5th and continued for days after, as presented by CBS Radio News.