Tonkin Gulf


The Boston Massacre, the explosion of the USS Maine, the sinking of the Lusitania, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These events sparked conflicts that rallied United States forces into various fights throughout history. The Tonkin Gulf Incident truly kicked off major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. President Johnson used this skirmish between American and North Vietnamese sailors to justify his request to greatly increase American troop commitment to Southeast Asia. Named for the incident that inspired it, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution recognized that the President was the Commander in Chief and as such, he had the authority to defend any United States armed force and any American ally. President Johnson utilized this resolution to send more American troops to Vietnam to protect South Vietnam’s freedom and liberty from the looming threat of the Communist North. But what caused this incident? How did both sides portray the incident? And what did Beverly Deepe Keever do and how did she react?

President John F. Kennedy made public announcements about his plans to decrease the number of troops in Vietnam, but, on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office and became President that day. President Johnson seemed as though he planned to follow Kennedy’s original plan of decreasing US presence in Southeast Asia that, however, changed on August 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox while patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin a few miles away from the North Vietnamese coast.

The confusion arose over where to draw the line between North Vietnamese claim and international waters. The American Navy believed North Vietnam’s claim could be up to 3 miles off the coast and after that began international waters. The North Vietnamese, however, claimed a 12 mile perimeter, the standard among Communist governments at that time. An American destroyer, the USS Maddox, had orders to patrol the Tonkin Gulf to gather information on North Vietnamese coastal infrastructure and hopefully catch a glimpse of military movement and positioning. The Maddox soon spotted 3 small North Vietnamese boats approaching and recognized them quickly as torpedo boats. Wanting to avoid a conflict, the crew of The Maddox fired a “warning shot” of a live round over the North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Instead of the expected retreat, the North Vietnamese engaged in fire and began shooting back at The Maddox. After a brief firefight, the US severely damaged one of the North Vietnamese boats and sent them all retreating. The Maddox suffered only a few small bullet holes in the side and no casualties. Ironically, the cannon fire from the ship broke windows and slightly ruptured the ear drums of some of the sailors, causing more damage than the North Vietnamese themselves. Even more ironically, Robert McNamara, secretary of defense at the time, expressed doubt thirty years later that the North Vietnamese attack on the USS Madox had ever happened.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident finally gave President Johnson his reason to ask Congress for war. Johnson lobbied Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave extreme powers to the Commander in Chief to wage war without an official Congressional declaration. This would ideally ensure the peace and liberty for all American allies around the world from the looming threat of Communism. Congress almost unanimously passed the resolution with only two dissenting votes, giving the President the power to wage war with the expectation that he will give up these emergency powers once the conflict had been resolved.

Beverly Deepe Keever was in Saigon when the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred. As a result, she got a first-hand account of the political ramifications of the incident in the area that it occurred. Keever sent back many written articles to her various news outlets that she worked for at the time, most of which are available in her collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections in Love Library. Also available in her collection are several newspapers and English and Vietnamese transcriptions of Vietnamese radio broadcasts including several from North Vietnam’s Radio Hanoi that discuss the incident.

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