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DMZ. Viewed by North Vietnamese coastal defense radars, the ships
would have appeared to be rendezvousing. The Maddox may also have
been perceived as standing guard, ready to fire at any boats seeking to
cross the DMZ in hot pursuit of the heavily armed patrol boats. It was
well known that the United States was behind virtually every South
Vietnamese raid on the North.
Throughout the day, the Maddox bobbed lazily about eight miles off
the North Vietnamese coast, just above the DMZ, an area of good signal
hunting. Sitting in front of racks of receivers in the cramped Sigint van,
which had received a new coat of gray paint a few days earlier to make it
look like a normal part of the ship, the intercept operators worked twelve
hours on and twelve hours off. One of the intercept positions was
dedicated to short-range VHP communications, picking up hand-held



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radios and the chatter between vessels off the coast. The proficiency of
the voice linguists was limited at best, but they had a tape recorder
attached to the monitoring equipment and could save the conversations
for later analysis.
Two other positions were for intercepting high-frequency Morse code
signals. Because of the vagaries of radio wave propagation, some of the
North Vietnamese high-frequency signals could be better heard in the
Philippines than right off the coast. But because the ship was mobile, it
could also pick up high-frequency signals that might escape the fixed,
land-based listening posts. Unlike some DeSoto missions, the Maddox
did not have a separate Elint van; the two Elint operators worked instead
on the ship's standard radar receivers, alongside the crew. Also in the
van was an on-line encrypted teleprinter, which could print out highly
classified messages from NSA exclusively for the Sigint-cleared
cryptologic team. This link bypassed the ship's normal communications
channels.
Unlike the job of the Oxford and the other seagoing eavesdropping
factories then being launched by NSA, the DeSoto patrols were "direct
support" missions. Part of the job of the Sigint detachment was to collect
intelligence on naval activities along the coast for later reports. But
another was to provide area commanders with current, immediate
intelligence support, including warning intelligence. On the Maddox,
those cleared to receive such reports included the ship's captain,
Commander Herbert Ogier, and also Captain John Herrick, the
commander of the Seventh Fleet's Destroyer Division 192.
The twin missions of the Maddox were, in a sense, symbiotic. The
vessel's primary purpose was to act as a seagoing provocateur”to poke
its sharp gray bow and American flag as close to the belly of North
Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its 5-inch cannons up the nose of
the Communist navy. In turn, this provocation would give the shore
batteries an excuse to turn on as many coastal defense radars, fire
control systems, and communications channels as possible, which could
then be captured by the men in the steel box and at the radar screens.
The more provocation, the more signals. The ship even occasionally
turned off all its electronic equipment in an effort to force the shore
stations to turn on additional radar”and begin chattering more”in
order to find it.
The mission was made more provocative by being timed to coincide
with the commando raids, thus creating the impression that the Maddox
was directing those missions and possibly even lobbing firepower in their
support. The exercise was dangerous at best, foolish at worst. In the
absence of information to the contrary, the Navy had assumed that North
Vietnam, unlike most U.S. targets, did not claim a twelve-mile limit.
Thus the decision was made to sail far closer to shore than on normal


248
patrols in Communist Asia despite the fact that the United States
happened to be engaged in combat with North Vietnam. In fact, North
Vietnam also claimed at least a twelve-mile limit and viewed the Maddox
as trespassing deep within its territorial waters.
On August 1, when the Maddox was about halfway up the North
Vietnamese coast, intercept operators in the van were busy
eavesdropping on the shore stations tracking the ship's progress. Upon
hearing them report the Maddox's distance and bearing they could "back-
plot" the signal to the station's location.
About 8:30 P.M. (local time) the ship approached the island of Hon
Me; the island was now within easy range of the Maddox's powerful
cannons. Although no one on board likely knew it, survivors on shore
were still cleaning up from the grave damage produced by the American-
planned South Vietnamese commando boat raid just two nights earlier. It
may be that when those on Hon Me saw the U.S. warship loom large on
the horizon in the gray twilight, the alarm went out that the shelling was
going to begin again, this time with more powerful guns.
Hours later in the Sigint van, the tenor of the messages suddenly
changed. A high-level North Vietnamese message was intercepted
indicating that a decision had been made to launch an attack later that
night. Although no targets were named, Captain Herrick was awakened
immediately and informed of the situation. The next message, however,
mentioned an "enemy" vessel and gave the Maddox's location. The
conclusion was that an order had gone out to attack the Maddox. By
then it was about 2:45 A.M. Captain Herrick ordered all personnel to go
to general quarters, increased the ship's speed, and turned away from
shore.
At about 11:30 A.M. the next day, August 2, crewmembers on the
Maddox sighted five North Vietnamese navy attack boats about ten miles
north of Hon Me. They had been sent from the port of Van Hoa, 145
miles to the north, to help defend the island from further attacks and
hunt for the enemy raiders. Nevertheless, despite the danger, the Maddox
continued its patrol, reaching the northernmost point of its planned
track at 12:15 P.M. At that point it turned south, remaining about fifteen
miles from shore. In the Sigint van, the messages intercepted had again
become routine”supply orders, pier changes, personnel movements.
Suddenly the mood in the box changed. An odd message had been
intercepted, and as it was being translated its seriousness became clear.
It was an order to attack the ship with torpedoes.
By then three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had already pulled
away from the island, waves lathering their bows like shaving foam as
they reached thirty knots. Their goal was to trap the Maddox in a pincers
move. They would pass the Maddox and then turn back, trapping the


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ship between them and the coast, preventing its escape to the safety of
the high seas. Told of the message, Captain Herrick immediately turned
southeast toward the open ocean. The intercept had turned the tide. By
the time the PT boats arrived the Maddox was racing out to sea, leaving
them in its wake as they fired at the destroyer's stern.
On board each swift sixty-six-foot aluminum-hulled PT boat were
torpedoes packing a deadly wallop, each fitted with warheads containing
550 pounds of TNT. The three boats each launched one torpedo, but the
fast-moving Maddox was beyond reach.
After this near miss, Captain Herrick suggested that the remainder of
his Sigint mission be called off. But the general perception in the
Pentagon was that such action would set a bad precedent, since in effect
the United States would have been chased away. Herrick was ordered to
continue the patrol and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, was
provided as protection.
Shortly after the attack on the Maddox, it was clear to officials in
Washington that the principal reason for the incident was the North
Vietnamese belief that the ship was directing the commando raids. "It
seems likely that the North Vietnamese and perhaps the Chi-Coms
[Chinese Communists] have assumed that the destroyer was part of this
operation," Michael Forrestal, the State Department's Vietnam expert,
told Secretary of State Dean Rusk on August 3. "It is also possible that
Hanoi deliberately ordered the attack in retaliation for the harassment of
the islands."
Yet with the Maddox still on its DeSoto Sigint patrol, it was decided to
launch more commando raids on the day following the attack, August 3,
this despite Secretary of Defense McNamara's firm belief that the
operations were useless. Departing from My Khe, the same location as
the previous mission, the four-boat raiding party sped seventy-five miles
up the North Vietnamese coast to Cape Vinh Son and Cua Ron. There
they shelled a radar station and a security post, the first South
Vietnamese”U.S. attacks against a mainland target. In response, a
North Vietnamese patrol boat took off in hot pursuit for about forty
minutes before giving up. And once again, the government of North
Vietnam connected the raid with the still-present Maddox.
Captain Herrick was worried about how stirred up the North
Vietnamese were over the latest OPLAN 34A shelling. Early the next
morning, August 4, he cabled his superiors:


Evaluation of info from various sources indicates that the
DRV [North Vietnam] considers patrol directly involved with
34-A operations and have already indicated readiness to
treat us in that category. DRV are very sensitive about Hon


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Me. Believe this PT operating base and the cove there
presently contains numerous patrol and PT craft which have
been repositioned from northerly bases.


Later, an analyst at NSA received intercepts indicating that another
attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin was imminent. One of the
messages, sent from North Vietnamese naval headquarters in Haiphong
to a patrol boat, specified the location of the destroyers. Another message
included an order to prepare for military operations, using the patrol
boats and perhaps a torpedo boat if it could be made ready in time. NSA
immediately notified the Pentagon and a few minutes later, at 7:15 P.M.
(Vietnam time), informed Captain Herrick on the Maddox.
An hour after NSA's warning, the Maddox sent out emergency
messages indicating that it had picked up radar signals from three
unidentified vessels closing fast. Fighters were launched from the
Ticonderoga but thick, low-hanging clouds on the moonless night
obscured the sea and they reported that they could see no activity.
Nevertheless, over the next several hours, the two ships issued more
than twenty reports of automatic weapons fire, torpedo attacks, and
other hostile action. But in the end, no damage was sustained, and
serious questions arose as to whether any attack actually took place.
"Freak radar echoes," McNamara was told, were misinterpreted by
"young fellows" manning the sonar, who "are apt to say any noise is a
torpedo."
Nevertheless, regardless of the doubts raised by talk of "radar ghosts"
and "nervousness," in testimony before Congress McNamara spoke of
"unequivocal proof" of the new attack. That "unequivocal proof" consisted
of the highly secret NSA intercept reports sent to the Maddox on August
4 as a warning. Based largely on McNamara's claims of certainty, both
houses of Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, thus plunging
the United States officially into the open-ended quagmire known as the
Vietnam War.
But it later turned out that that "unequivocal proof" was the result of
a major blunder by NSA, and the "hard evidence" on which many people
based their votes for the war never really existed. Years later Louis
Tordella quietly admitted that the intercepts NSA used as the basis for its
August 4 warning messages to the Maddox actually referred to the first
attack, on August 2. There never were any intercepts indicating an
impending second attack on August 4. The phony NSA warning led to
McNamara's convincing testimony, which then led to the congressional
vote authorizing the Vietnam War.
"What in effect happened," said Ray S. Cline, who was CIA's deputy
director for intelligence at the time, "is that somebody from the Pentagon,


251
I suppose it was McNamara, had taken over raw Sigint and [had] shown
the President what they thought was evidence of a second attack on a
[U.S.] naval vessel. And it was just what Johnson was looking for." Cline
added, "Everybody was demanding the Sigint; they wanted it quick, they
didn't want anybody to take any time to analyze it." Finally, he said, "I
became very sure that that attack [on August 4] did not take place."
A quarter of a century earlier, confusion in Washington over Sigint
warning messages resulted in calm at Pearl Harbor when there should
have been action. Now, confusion over Sigint warning messages in
Washington led to action in the Gulf of Tonkin when there should have
been calm. In both cases a long, difficult pass was successfully
intercepted, only for the players in Washington to fumble a few feet from
the goal line.
For nearly four decades the question has been debated as to whether
the Pentagon deliberately provoked the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order
to generate popular and congressional support to launch its bloody war
in Vietnam. In 1968, under oath before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, Robert McNamara vigorously denied any such plot:


I must address the suggestion that, in some way, the
Government of the United States induced the incident on
August 4 with the intent of providing an excuse to take the
retaliatory action which we in fact took. . . .
I find it inconceivable that anyone even remotely familiar
with our society and system of Government could suspect
the existence of a conspiracy which would have included
almost, if not all, the entire chain of military command in the
Pacific, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint
Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense and his chief assistants, the
Secretary of State, and the President of the United States.


McNamara knew full well how disingenuous this was. The Joint
Chiefs of Staff had become a sewer of deceit. Only two years before the
Gulf of Tonkin incident, his Joint Chiefs had presented him with a plan
to launch a conspiracy far more grave than "inducing" the attack on the
destroyers. Operation Northwoods had called for nothing less than the
launch of a secret campaign of terrorism within the United States in
order to blame Castro and provoke a war with Cuba.
More than three years after the incident in the Gulf, about the same
time McNamara was feigning indignation before the Senate committee,
the Joint Chiefs were still thinking in terms of launching "pretext" wars.
Then the idea was to send the Sigint ship Banner, virtually unmanned,


252
off dangerous North Korean shores, not to collect intelligence but to act
as a sitting duck and provoke a violent response. Once the attack
occurred, it would serve as an excuse to launch a war.
These proposed wars would be hidden for decades from Congress and
the public under classification stamps and phony claims of national
security.
George Ball, under secretary of state when the Tonkin Gulf incident
took place, later came down on the side of the skeptics. "At the time
there's no question that many of the people who were associated with the
war," he said, "were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing. . . . The
'DeSoto' patrols, the sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was
primarily for provocation. ... I think there was a feeling that if the
destroyer got into some trouble, that it would provide the provocation we
needed." Ball had no knowledge of Operation Northwoods.
Restless from a decade of peace, out of touch with reality, the Joint
Chiefs of Staff were desperate for a war, any war. Thanks in large part to
the provocative Sigint patrols and NSA's intercept mix-up, now they had
one.

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