Release of LBJ tapes adds to Tonkin debate

AUSTIN, TEXAS — AUSTIN, Texas - Thirty-eight years ago today, network television was interrupted at 11:36 p.m. so President Lyndon B. Johnson could tell the nation that U.S. warships in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by North Vietnamese boats.

In response to what he described as "open aggression on the open seas," Johnson ordered airstrikes on North Vietnam.


The airstrikes opened the door to a war that would kill 1 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans and divide the nation.

Over the years, debate has swirled around whether American ships were actually attacked that night, or whether, as some skeptics have suggested, the Johnson administration staged or provoked an event to get congressional authority to act against North Vietnam.


Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations offer details about the incident and the U.S. response, but they don't resolve the debate. Though they indicate that the attack probably never happened, they neither prove nor disprove what occurred.

The tapes, released by the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin, include 51 phone conversations from Aug. 4 and 5, 1964, when the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred.

Two days earlier, on Aug. 2, North Vietnamese forces in Russian-made swatow gunboats had attacked the USS Maddox, a destroyer conducting reconnaissance in the gulf.

Even then, many doubted that anything really happened to the Maddox and a sister ship, the USS C. Turner Joy on Aug. 4.

Even LBJ seemed skeptical, saying in 1965: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

Regardless of that speculation, according to the tapes, the sailors aboard the Maddox thought they were under attack.

"Under attack by three PT boats. Torpedoes in the water. Engaging the enemy with my main battery," the Maddox radioed.

The destroyers fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells, and four or five depth charges, according to Navy records.


Many of the taped conversations from that night are between Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and Adm. U.S. Grant "Oley" Sharp, commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Sharp was feeding McNamara information from the field and trying to get a strike force in the air to retaliate for the alleged attack before the president went on television.

"If it's open season on these boys, which I think it is, we'll take if from there," Sharp said about noon Aug. 4.

Later, in a 1:59 p.m. conversation with Air Force Lt. Gen. David Burchinal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sharp was elusive, saying, "Many of the reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful."

But, asked Burchinal, "You're pretty sure there was a torpedo attack?"

"No doubt about that, I think," Sharp replied.


At 8:39 p.m., McNamara asked Sharp why the retaliatory strike was delayed. Bad weather, Sharp said.

Thirty minutes later, at 9:09 p.m., Sharp said the launch still was 50 minutes off.

Shortly after 11 p.m., the counterstrike was under way, and Johnson went on the air to tell the American people that the "attack" on American ships was an "outrage."

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granting war powers to the president was approved Aug. 7.