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The Gulf of Tonkin incident is more likely to be invoked these days in reference to accusations of some sort of modern conspiracy or “false flag” incident than referencing the historical facts. It was the impetus for the escalation of the Vietnam war but, with our modern eye, we doubt the wisdom of that decision.

It is generally agreed that the “multiple attacks” cited by Johnson in obtaining the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not an accurate representation of what truly happened. Evidence available now would seem to prove that it was bad intelligence which caused the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy to respond to a perceived second attack. The Government of Vietnam’s position, well after the end of the war, was that the August 2nd battle did occur, but there was no attack on August 4th. Even still, this remains uncertain. The battle occurred at night and combat was directed by radar. Despite the modern understanding of the August 4th incident, there were witnesses on the Turner Joy who have sworn to have seen, with their own eyes, evidence of U.S. hits on North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

Taking for granted that the August 4th fight never occurred, there are more questions that arise. At this point, while there may be people out their who know the actual truth, it is unlikely that it will ever become settled in the public record. We know that, even at the time, Johnson was aware of uncertainties in the information as he made his announcement to the nation. There were several Senators, during the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, who had grave doubts about the accuracy of the information they were acting upon. In the end, though, the Resolution passed the House unanimously and the Senate with only two dissenting votes. It is likely, however, that decisions to brush aside the uncertainty were made in a good-faith belief that we were responding correctly and waffling would only get in the way of the necessary decisive action.

We know, however, that even as Johnson ordered retaliation, analysts had become convinced that the electronic evidence of an attack was in error. So how far up the chain of command did this knowledge go? While the positive evidence of the attack was acted on immediately, evidence to the contrary was held for further analysis. Was this merely a Cover-Your-Ass move from the intelligence community? Or was it a political decision somewhere in the chain of command to commit to an escalation, whether the facts warranted it or not?

If you believe the government, in this case, was not just wrong, but evil, the conspiracies go on from there. Think about it. The second incident occurred two days after U.S. warships were fired upon and then withdrawn. After moving the ships to safety, those same ships were sent back into the now-hostile waters. Now we are told that another shooting incident has occurred (when it clearly didn’t) and it is that announcement which leads to major policy changes. Might it not be possible that the plan all along was to fake the second incident for political reasons?

We can go on. With the original, August 2nd, incident, the North Vietnamese stuck to two claims. First of all, that the Maddox was on a hostile mission, supporting South Vietnamese black ops on Northern territory and was therefore the aggressor from the beginning. Second, that the torpedo boats did not initiate the attack. Set aside the conflicting logic of the two claims (“I did not kill my wife, sir, but If I had, it would have been in self defense”), their claims are not so far fetched. Contrary to the Johnson administration’s position at the time, we now know the Maddox was on a mission of electronics surveillance (DESOTO). The North Vietnamese General Giap believed the DESOTO patrols were initiated with the intent of provoking a military response and there were, indeed, people within the U.S. administration had considered doing just that. The timing suggests that Maddox was probably not directly supporting the commando raid on a North Vietnamese island, to which a North Vietnamese military response was occurring. But even this is not certain and it would be impossible for the North to tell the difference either way.

As to the second claim, about who actually shot first – that also remains forever controversial. The Maddox responded to approaching torpedo boats by firing warning shots. So could the torpedo boats have interpreted warning shots as an attack, from which they merely tried to defend themselves? Again, if you’re all the way down the rabbit hole, maybe one of those warning shots struck home before the North Vietnamese started shooting. Maybe it was never meant to be a warning shot in the first place?

Less is More

When looking at the Cuban Missile Crisis I expressed surprise that nobody modeled an escalation between the U.S. quarantine warships and a Soviet vessel (perhaps with support) trying to pass through the blockade. While maybe not making for the best “game,” it seems like the kind of historical what-if many would love to explore with CMANO. With the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, someone did just that.


Communist torpedo boats have been shadowing Maddox for a day now. Intercepted communications indicate that they are preparing to attack. And there they are.

This scenario is about as simple as you can get. The player commands a single ship (although other friendly assets are nearby) and has enough firepower to annihilate the enemy with one punch of the F1 key. The instructions for conduct of the scenario require that the player return to station, south of the Gulf of Tonkin. The player is reminded that he may engage the North Vietnamese only in self-defense.


The orders say that I may engage only in defense. But what level of provocation can actually be considered aggression? How close is too close?

What is left for a game is a few brief minutes of tension. If you intend to experience that for yourself, go play the game before you read about it, because I’m going to give away the punch line (if I haven’t already).

The torpedo boats are faster than the Maddox, so any kind of reaction or evasive action won’t change the course of history. I watched as the torpedo boats approached within a few hundred meters wondering if such provocation should be considered an attack or not. In the screenshot above, I paused the game and mulled over knocking the enemy back a bit.

This exposes a shortcoming of this game engine for this scenario and, in fact, nearly any game engine for any similar situation. The real-life skipper ordered warning shots at this point. I really wanted to do the same but “shots over the bow” are not supported in CMANO. In fact, I can’t imagine anything outside of the Roll Playing Game genre (or an occasional one-off RPG-like element within a strategy game) where a non-lethal show of force might make a difference in the outcome. Computer AIs don’t respond to psychological motivators and can’t really consider the politics and implications of their actions upon the global stage.

In the end, I did not shoot. Especially knowing what really happened, I wasn’t going to be blamed personally for starting the Vietnam War for the U.S. because a boat motored too close to me. I unpaused the game and within a minute or so the commies fired something (I only saw the damage, not what did it) at me. I ordered my crew to take on all three approaching torpedo boats, which were sunk within another minute or two. The victory screen gave me a major victory.

Again, not a fun game per se, but I’m really glad someone out there takes the time to model these little bits of history. Maybe I learned something today.