The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was originally presented as a pair of battles initiated by North Vietnamese gunboats without provocation against two U.S. destroyers, that took place in August of 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin. Accounts and details regarding the incident remain unreconciled; the official account is countered by claims that the attack was mere political stagecraft.
On July 31, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) began a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin. The official purpose of the mission was to obtain information about North Vietnamese coastal defense forces. Other similar U.S. ships were involved in supporting South Vietnamese commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast during the same period.
On August 2, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, mistaking the Maddox for a South Vietnamese vessel, launched a torpedo and machine gun attack on it. Responding immediately to the attack, the Maddox, with the help of air support from the nearby carrier Ticonderoga, destroyed one of the attacking boats and damaged the other two. The Maddox, suffering only superficial damage by a single machine gun bullet, retired to South Vietnamese waters where she was joined by the C. Turner Joy.
On August 4, a new DESOTO patrol to North Vietnam coast was launched by Maddox and the C. Turner Joy. The latter got radar signals that they believed to be another attack by the North Vietnamese. For some two hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of torpedoes. It is highly unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were actually in the area during this gunfight. Captain John J. Herrick even admitted that it was nothing more than an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own propeller beat." Also in 1995, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief of North Vietnamese forces at the time, disavowed any involvement with the August 4 incident, though he did confirm the August 2 attack.
According to the official description, increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War came in 1964, with a program of covert South Vietnamese operations, designed to impose "progressively escalating pressure" upon the North, and initiated on a small and essentially ineffective scale in February. The active U.S. role in the few covert operations that were carried out was limited essentially to planning, equipping, and training of the South Vietnamese forces involved, but U.S. responsibility for the launching and conduct of these activities was unequivocal and carried with it an implicit symbolic and psychological intensification of the U.S. commitment.
Noam Chomsky, among others, disputes the above sequence of events, contending that active military US involvement actually began as early as 1961 (with operations beginning in 1962) and that the August 4 incident was in fact a fabrication, crafted by the Johnson administration so the U.S. could claim, for the benefit of the American public, that the North Vietnamese bore full guilt for starting open hostilities. Though information obtained well after the fact indicates that there was actually no North Vietnamese attack that night, U.S. authorities say they were convinced at the time that an attack had taken place, and reacted by sending planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation to hit North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and fuel facilities.
Regarding claims that the attacks on the US were unprovoked, veterans of US Navy SEAL teams say that US-trained South Vietnamese commandos were active in the area on the days of the attacks. Deployed from Da Nang in Norwegian-built fast patrol boats, the Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia, LDNN, (soldiers that fight under the sea), made attacks in the Gulf area on both of the nights in question.
On July 31, LDNN in "Nastys" (the name commandos give to the fast attack boats) attacked a radio transmitter on the island of Hon Nieu. On Aug. 3, they used an 88mm mortar to attack a radar site at Cape Vinh Son. The North Vietnamese responded by attacking hostile ships visible in the area. While US officials were less than honest about the full extent of hostilities that led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, critical claims that a naval commander fired weapons solely to create an international incident tend to overlook circumstances and opportunistic responses that suggest a less intentional motivation.
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.