When Devil’s Advocacy Fails… Bad Things Happen, a short story, by Thomas Docheri
When Devil’s Advocacy Fails… Bad Things Happen is a work of historical fiction – a melodramatic rendering of the Gulf of Tonkin incident as seen through the eyes of two American intelligence officers, one of whom has access to secret radio messages between naval units, both ashore and afloat, of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Such messages are known as COMINT (communications intelligence), and were intercepted by NSA listening posts in the region during the incident. As such, the story depends for factual information – dates, times, chronologies, the names of real participants and the text (including typos) of those messages relevant to the story – from a number of sources. I wish to acknowledge them here. Two that stand out are: Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, Edwin E. Moïse, 1996, The University of North Carolina Press; and Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964, Robert J. Hanyok, Cryptologic Quarterly, published by the Center for Cryptologic History, NSA, 1998.
This document, approved for release by NSA on 11-03-2005, pursuant to FOIA Case # 43933, was originally classified TOP SECRET. Both Moïse and Hanyok do an excellent job of organizing and making sense of the NSA intercepts, which can be examined, those that have been released and/or have not been redacted, at the NSA’s public website.
Moïse’s book also benefits from interviews he conducted in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1989. Learn more in the note at the end of the story…
Background to the Tonkin Gulf incident
On 4 August 1964 naval forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam attacked two U.S. Navy destroyers, Maddox and C. Turner Joy, while on routine patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin. The American response to that event was to send sixty-four air-attack sorties from two aircraft carriers to bomb targets in the DRV. This air strike was not the beginning of the American air war against the DRV, just the opening salvo. The near round-the-clock U.S. bombing of the DRV would not begin until February of the following year, and then in response to the Viet Cong attack against a U.S. base near Pleiku. The rationale the U.S. used to justify using air power against the DRV after August 1964 was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution approved by the U.S. Congress and signed by the president. That resolution was a direct outcome of what came to be known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Two American aircraft were lost over North Vietnam the night of 4-5 August 1964. Lieutenant (jg) Richard Sather, of Pomona, California died when his A-1 Skyraider crashed into the sea. Lieutenant (jg) Everett Alvarez, Jr., of San Jose, California bailed out of his A-4 Skyhawk when it was hit by flak over Hon Gay, and was taken prisoner. Alvarez would have the distinction of being the longest held American POW of the Indochina War.
What the principal decision makers in Washington – Secretary of State Dean Rusk, national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Earle G. Wheeler, the crisis manager Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and President Lyndon B. Johnson – were calling the first Tonkin Gulf incident occurred on 2 August 1964, in mid-afternoon, in broad daylight, in international waters twenty or so miles off the coast of North Vietnam. To the outside world an attack on a Navy destroyer seemed incomprehensible; a doomed and bizarre aberration perpetrated by some over-zealous local commander, and so they informed the world’s press. But they knew otherwise. They knew otherwise because elements of the South Vietnamese military, recruited (including mercenaries from a number of countries), trained and equipped by American “advisors” were executing covert military operations authorized by OPLAN 34A-64. The Pentagon authored, White House approved OPLAN was a series of graduated military actions designed to convince the DRV to cease and desist its attempts to foment insurrection in Laos and South Vietnam.
In reality the 34A raids were never very effective – more annoying than crippling to the DRV. Nevertheless, they were determined to defend against them and very quickly blunted whatever nuisance value they possessed, but tension over these incursions between the DRV and the U.S. quickly reached the flash point. Into this volatile mix the U.S. sent the Maddox into the gulf on what was known as a DESOTO patrol, an acronym that stands for DE Haven Special Operations off TsingtaO, named for the destroyer USS De Haven, the first ship to execute such a mission, in De Haven’s case, against the Chinese Naval Base at Tsingtao in the spring of 1962. A DESOTO patrol, typically a destroyer, embarks a special SIGINT (signals intelligence) communications van the purpose of which is to eavesdrop on a country’s electronic communications.
The DESOTO patrol’s commanding officer was aware that 34A missions were being conducted in his patrol area but not in detail, not the targets to be attacked nor the exact dates of the attacks. Many in the command structure above him, all the way up to and including the President, knew more and indeed, there is reason to believe the 34A planners welcomed the DRV’s perception the two missions were interrelated, either to divert defensive naval resources away from 34A targets or cause the activation of shore-based radars the DESOTO patrol was tasked to discover. It flies in the face of common sense that those at the highest levels of the U.S. Government, who approved both missions, would steadfastly adhere to the notion that the two events were totally unrelated: that if a 34A raid had taken place, it was a coincidence it happened near where Maddox was operating; yet they did. As Secretary McNamara told the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Maddox “… was carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times.” It seems unlikely, even naïve, the planners would assume the DRV would make such a distinction. Apparently, what no one foresaw was that the DRV might attack Maddox in retaliation for one or the collective whole of the 34A raids. It appears that this is what might have happened during the first incident.
The second incident, two days later, is as they say, a horse of another color. Indeed, as violent and dramatic as that event was, in reality, it never happened. Some believe it was a gift because it opened the door to the bombing campaign the U.S. conducted against the DRV.