Tonkin Gulf

On mid-afternoon, Tuesday, August 5, 1964, rumors began to fly around Washington DC that there had been a new, provocative attack on U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese patrol boats. This incident followed Sunday’s attack on the USS Maddox, a destroyer patrolling the waters off the coast of South Vietnam Wire stories forced President Lyndon Johnson to summon congressional leaders to the White House for a briefing.

The next day, Time Magazine reporter Neil MacNeil filed a 19-page account of the meeting with his editors. Following the president’s opening comments, the Congress members heard from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, then Secretary of State Dean Rusk followed by the CIA’s John McCone and the new chairman of the Joints Chiefs of staff, General Earle Wheeler. The president read to the congressmen the statement re read later that night to the American people. The briefing lasted from 6:45 to 8:15 p.m.

Johnson did not seek the advice of the congressional leaders, according to MacNeil—“he was merely informing them.” But the president pressed for passage of a congressional resolution endorsing the administration’s stand, eyeing each member seated around the table. “He got it—in effect at least—from all. No dissent.”

Following the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen gave an off-the-record assessment of the president to MacNeil. “Unless all signs fail, I think he’s shown a rather steady nerve. He hasn’t panicked at all. But pressure does get to him,” Dirksen said.

MacNeil closed with a brief appraisal of the politics of the episode: “The trouble is that, for him [Johnson] politically, this may lead to other unforeseeable incidents, even war, and it’s not possible to evaluate the response politically of the voters to those unknown events to come.”

Read MacNeil’s reporting at: macneil_reports_tonkin.pdf