The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
Note: This story was published by U.S. News & World Report July 23, 1984. The special report was supplemented and edited by George E. Jones, and overseen by Joe Fromm.
Just 20 years ago, the seeds were sown for today's running conflict between president Reagan and Congress over the use of U.S. military power from Central America to Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.
It began with one of the century's strangest events: A "phantom battle" in the Gulf of Tonkin that enabled President Johnson to exact from Congress the total power to go to war.
Historians have long debated that elusive incident. did the battle really occur?
Did the President know the facts and if so, did he keep them from lawmakers?
Now comes fresh insight from the magazine's reporters, who for years studied once secret documents and questioned key leaders of the Vietnam era.
On Aug. 4, 1964, daylight was fading over the Gulf of Tonkin when an urgent message reached the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy on patrol in hostile waters off Communist-ruled North Vietnam.
It was a warning: The National Security Agency's monitors had intercepted enemy messages to two North Vietnamese gunboats and one PT boat, giving them the location of the two American warships and ordering preparations for combat.
Only two days earlier, PT boats had ambushed the Maddox, inflicting trivial damage while losing one of their craft to heavy gunfire from the destroyer and carrier aircraft. What happened on the night of August 4, however, was something far different.
Within 95 minutes, the fire and thunder of naval gunnery shattered the gulf's evening calm. Its waters roiled with the frantic zigzagging of America's destroyers as they sought to escape unseen enemy vessels and torpedoes 26 in all as reported by radar and sonar crews. In pitch-black darkness, naval gunfire and missiles launched by U.S. carrier aircraft pierced the murky skies with fiery trails on their way to designated enemy targets.
Within 2 hours, it was all over. No casualties or damage were reported by the Maddox and Turner Joy. Yet that brief and mysterious encounter has generated bitter arguments among historians, and raised sensitive questions: Did enemy vessels actually attack the two destroyers or did commanders fall prey to overheated imagination in a frightening and confusing situation? If there was an enemy attack, was it unprovoked? Were key facts being withheld from the U.S. public and did President Lyndon Johnson seize on a questionable incident to expand his powers and speed America toward all-out war in Vietnam?
What the President, like his slain predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had been confronting for months was an unyielding question: Was it time for the U.S. either to abandon its ally, South Vietnam or to plunge U.S. troops into full-scale war against North Vietnam?
That dilemma had only worsened in the nine months of growing instability in South Vietnam after the overthrow and murder of its autocratic leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, and Johnson's advisers were drafting a congressional resolution giving him the freedom to go to war if he so decided.