The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
Taking On the Enemy
Even before messages began to flow in from the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson was outraged by the impending action. Two days earlier, he had exercised restraint in the U.S. response to the attack on the Maddox. Now, he shared the view of military advisers that tougher action was necessary. House Majority Leader Carl Albert (D-Okla.), who was in the Oval Office that morning, overheard Johnson's orders to the Pentagon: "I not only want retaliation, I want to go all the way into the shore establishments that support these PT boats and bomb them out of existence."
The President also decided the time was ripe for a congressional resolution. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy suggested that perhaps they should not move so quickly on such an important decision. But Johnson's mind was made up, according to Bundy: "It became very clear that he was in no mood for discussion."
At 11:06 a.m., McNamara phoned the President to confirm the sea battle they had anticipated. "Flash" messages from the Tonkin Gulf indicated that the two destroyers were under continuous torpedo attack. As reports of a fantastic nighttime naval engagement streamed into the capital, Johnson and his closest advisers refined their military and political plans over lunch at the White House.
It was a little after 2 p.m. when doubts as to whether there had been an attack first surfaced in Washington. After the Tonkin Gulf action had ceased, Captain Herrick, as commodore of the destroyer patrol, suggested that "freak weather effects" and "overeager sonarmen" might have accounted for the improbable number of reported radar contacts and torpedoes. He also admitted there had been "no actual visual sightings" by the Maddox and recommended a "complete evaluation before any further action."
Herrick's doubts about the attack did little to slow the retaliatory juggernaut. McNamara announced to the Joint Chiefs the President's agreement with their recommendation to bomb five patrol-boat bases and an oil complex in North Vietnam. In addition, Johnson wanted the air strikes timed for 7 p.m., Washington time, when he would make a televised announcement of his decision to institute retaliatory measures against North Vietnam.
Meantime, Defense Secretary McNamara impatiently awaited situation reports from the Gulf of Tonkin. Because of the warships' lack of automatic encrypting transmitters, each outgoing classified message had to be manually encoded, so McNamara breached military principles of chain of command by trying to establish direct voice contact with the patrol. Though technically possible, the request offended Vice Adm. Roy L. Johnson, commander of the Seventh Fleet, who flatly replied that it could not be arranged. "I did stretch the truth a bit," he later admitted.
While the Joint Chiefs prepared the "strike execute" order, McNamara sought confirmation of the attack.
At 4:08 p.m., he queried Admiral Sharp in Honolulu about the latest reports from the destroyers. According to a Pentagon chronology, feisty, 58-year-old "Oley" Sharp reported that the latest message from the destroyers "indicates a little doubt on just exactly what went on." Was there a possibility that no attack occurred? McNamara asked. "Yes," Sharp replied, "I would say that there is a slight possibility." Noting there was still time to determine the attack's authenticity, McNamara ordered Sharp to "get the pilots briefed, get the planes armed, get everything ready to go."