The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an advocate of "flexible response," Taylor proposed several retaliatory actions, including attacking North Vietnamese patrol craft in international waters and mining the approaches to their bases.
Despite calls for reprisals, Johnson maintained his posture of restrained resolution. Calling newsmen into his office, he read a brief statement. Without mentioning the Maddox's mission, the President announced that the patrol in the Tonkin Gulf would continue and warned that U.S. forces would destroy any attackers.
Johnson's public firmness was balanced by a private effort to keep Congress from whipping up the incident into a crisis. Behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Secretaries Rusk and McNamara and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, briefed 25 senators from the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. McNamara revealed that prior to the attack on the Maddox the South Vietnamese had fired on two offshore North Vietnamese islands. Conceding U.S. knowledge of and support for the raids, he stressed that the destroyer, engaged in a routine patrol in international waters, had been unaware of them.
After the meeting, Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters the North Vietnamese may have been "confused" by South Vietnamese naval activity in the Gulf of Tonkin. Secretary Rusk, when questioned by newsmen, said: "It remains to be seen" whether the attack was an isolated incident.
Rusk's remark reflected his innate caution as much as it did the real prospects of further conflict in the Gulf of Tonkin. A growing consensus within the government believed that the enemy had assumed the Desoto patrol was associated with the OPLAN 34A raids. Michael V. Forrestal, a special assistant to the Secretary of State and director of the interagency Vietnam Task Force, warned Rusk of the possibility that "Hanoi deliberately ordered the attack in retaliation for the harassment of the islands." Suggesting closer coordination between the two operations, Forrestal informed Rusk that "other 34A actions are scheduled for August 3-5."
Despite the risks, Johnson and his advisers had no thought of ending either the destroyer patrol or the covert raids. After a Monday-night session with the President, McNamara and Wheeler, Rusk informed Taylor about "significant additions" to the target list for covert operations: "We believe that present OPLAN 34A activities are beginning to rattle Hanoi and Maddox incident is directly related to their effort to resist these activities. We have no intention [of] yielding to pressure."
That determination would soon be put to the test. On August 4 at 8:14 a.m. Washington time, as dusk was descending on the Gulf of Tonkin halfway around the world, a secure telephone rang at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon. A brief message from the NSA warned of "imminent" North Vietnamese naval action, possibly against the Maddox and Turner Joy as they patrolled in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Before the phone call had ended, a copy of an NSA field report from South Vietnam came in over a special cable channel for sensitive information. According to intercepted North Vietnamese communications, Communist patrol boats had been given the coordinates of two "enemy" vessels and ordered to "make ready for military operations."