Journalism in Action: Beverly Deepe Keever and Her Career

Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Tonkin Gulf

by Sam Mellema

The Boston Massacre, the explosion of the USS Maine, the sinking of the Lusitania, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These events sparked conflicts and pushed the United States government into various wars throughout its 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 increasing American troop commitment to Southeast Asia. 

Americans had been in South Vietnam as military advisers since 1954, but President John F. Kennedy made public announcements in the early 1960’s about his plans to decrease the number of troops in Vietnam. He believed that the South Vietnamese government was not willing to make necessary reforms to make it a sustainable government. However, 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 U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. However, behind the scenes, President Johnson believed deeply in domino theory, i.e. that if the Soviet Union was allowed to expand their territories into Vietnam, similar Communist takeovers would spread through the region. The theory assumed that Communist countries were being controlled and coordinated by the USSR and that any government becoming communist was a sign it had been taken over by the USSR.  In reality there were often deep rifts between the Communist countries, especially between the USSR and China, and the USSR had no powers beyond its borders. The theory also supposed that the only relevant conflict in world politics was communism vs. capitalism, ignoring the cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions that existed within Vietnam and in the rest of South East Asia that would help or hinder communism’s spread in certain areas.

The Tonkin Gulf Incident arose from confusion over where to draw the line between North Vietnamese 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. On August 2, 1964, The Maddox 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 U.S. severely damaged one of the North Vietnamese boats and the other two began retreating. The Maddox suffered only a few small bullet holes in the side and no casualties.

While the Tonkin Gulf Incident was the major catalyst to American involvement in Vietnam, it was overblown by the American military, who claimed they had been attacked twice, once on the 2nd and again on the 4th of August. These military reports have been called into question in the decades following the War. It is hard to point to either side as the aggressor in the confrontation, although it is clear the Americans were in the Gulf for espionage operations. Additionally, while it is likely that a small skirmish happened on the 2nd, there is no evidence there was any attack on the 4th. Even Robert McNamara, secretary of defense at the time, expressed doubt thirty years later that the North Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox had ever happened.

Whether the reports were true or not, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident gave President Johnson his excuse to ask Congress for war. Johnson lobbied Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave extreme powers to the President as Commander in Chief. The resolution allowed the President to defend any United States armed force and any American ally without an official Congressional declaration of war. Congress believed this would ensure the peace and liberty of 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 would give up these emergency powers once the conflict had been resolved.

Beverly Deepe Keever was in Saigon when the Tonkin Gulf Incident occurred. As a result, she was able to report on the  political ramifications of the Incident in the South Vietnamese capitol. Keever sent many articles to American news outlets that she worked for at the time about the Tonkin Gulf Incident, most of which are available in her collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives & Special Collections. 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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