Gulf of Tonkin (1964)
On July 31, 1964, a U.S. backed military boat launched an attack against the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. The USS Maddox headed to the area shortly after. As it headed deeper into the Gulf on August 2, three Soviet-built torpedo boats under the control of the North Vietnamese approached the USS Maddox. The ship claimed it fired warning shots at the torpedo boats in order to deter the vessels, however, the Soviet-built ships continued to approach the U.S. destroyer. With air support, the Maddox and an F-8 Crusader jet fired and damaged all three North Vietnamese vessel.
After this first encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin, a second U.S. naval asset was sent to support the Maddox in case of further conflict. U.S. backed raids against North Vietnamese took place again the following day as the USS Turner Joy, a destroyer, entered the Gulf of Tonkin. On August 4, both U.S. ships reported they were being ambushed. They reported that continuous torpedoes were being fired upon them, totaling 22 in all. There was no damage to the U.S. naval destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin and multiple reports indicated that human error accounted for the incorrect reading in enemy torpedo launches. Others claim that President Johnson knew this attack never occurred but used the incident as a means to get militarily involved in Vietnam .
President Johnson later told his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, “we concluded maybe they hadn’t fired [at us] at all.” Nevertheless, the President ordered a retaliatory attack against North Vietnam. Until this point, the United States had not played a publicly direct military role in the Vietnam conflict. With the political call for action after the Gulf of Tonkin attack, Johnson went to Congress and convinced them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This gave the President the authority to play a direct military role in Southeast Asia, which eventually led to all out American involvement in the region.
Gulf of Oman (2019)
On June 13, 2019, the oil tanker Front Altair made a distress call reporting they were under attack in the Gulf of Oman. Nearly 30 minutes later, a second oil tanker in the gulf, the Kokuka Courageous reported being hit by an external projectile causing damage, flooding, and fires. The United States released multiple videos which depicted a naval craft near one of the oil tankers just prior to the distress calls. U.S. officials claim that the video and other Iranian activity in the area provides proof that Iran conducted the attack against the oil tankers.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the attack by Iran was an attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz and stop the flow of oil to the world market. Leaders throughout the world voiced restraint and requested that more intelligence be shared before blame is directed at the Iranian government. Tensions between the United States and Iran continue to escalate. On June 17, the United Nations Security Council held a private discussion on the latest information regarding the attacks on the oil tankers but declined to make any public announcements.
Similarities in the Gulf Attacks
Both the Tonkin and Oman Incidents have important similarities. During the Vietnam conflict in Southeast Asia, the United States wanted to defeat communism, but President Johnson also wanted to show the American people he was tough on Communism as an election was nearing. Similarly, President Trump and his administration have expressed their disapproval of Iran's behavior over the previous years. The Iran Nuclear Deal being one of the biggest obstacles challenging the two nations relationship. In short, both Presidents had/have reasons to act strongly against their perceived enemies.
Another similarity between the two is the evidence, which does not immediately indicate who was responsible for the attack. In the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the evidence was very limited and later determined unfounded. In the Gulf of Oman incident, the key piece of evidence is a fast attack boat observed near the oil tanker. At the time of this report, there is no definitive proof that the fast attack boat was directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG).
Differences in the Gulf Attacks
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident proved to be an absent attack. The reported attack on August 4, never occurred and there was no damage to any U.S. vessel. In the Gulf of Oman attack, the proof of damage to maritime vessels was well established. There is a definitive suspect who is responsible for the attack against the oil tankers. The reason this is important is because we know there was a group who were motivated, capable, and directed to conduct an attack.
The second important distinction between the two attacks is that the Tonkin incident was an alleged attack against a U.S. vessel, and the Oman incident was an attack against privately owned oil tankers. This is significant because it changes the severity by a substantial measure.
It is far less likely that a major conflict will breakout over sabotaging a private naval vessel than it would be if it were a military asset. The last key difference between the two incidents involves the historical context between the two events. In 1964, the United States was already invested and motivated to help South Vietnamese in their fight against the North. The United States government wanted to find a way to take a more direct military role in the Vietnam war. Although the United States and Iranian relationship is tense, it does not immediately appear that the Trump administration is looking for a reason or excuse to take military action against Iran.
The Gulf of Tonkin Gulf of Oman Incidents are very different in terms of pretexts for war. Although it is not clear how much President Johnson knew about the false attack, we do know the United States was committed to defeating the spread of communism. Not allowing North Vietnam to take control of South Vietnam was a focus for the Johnson administration. Regardless, it is clear that his administration would not shy away from military involvement in order to achieve their goal to defeat communism. For this reason, escalating tensions had a huge impact on influencing and justifying military action in the region.
Conversely, whether Iran actually committed the sabotage attacks on the two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman does not change the pretext for war. After the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and military involvement in Libya and Syria, the 2019 climate does not favor fast and retaliatory military action without just cause. Had these vessels in the Strait of Hormuz been U.S. military assets, this assessment might have a different conclusion. But in this scenario, it is likely that the Trump administration will use diplomacy to ensure their allies in the region that they will keep the Strait of
Hormuz free for maritime commerce. They may also increase their surveillance, reconnaissance, and military readiness in the region. As we have already observed, the U.S. will also condemn these Iranian escalations and try to deter them from future aggression.
At the time of this publication Iran has admitted to shooting down a U.S. unmanned aircraft which it claimed was in Iranian airspace. This comes just a week after the attack on the oil tankers in the region, further ratcheting up tensions. Trump tweeted, “On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in international waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when i asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it.”
Iran might be purposefully increasing tensions in the area. With their economy struggling due to U.S. sanctions, and pressure from other nations to keep them in the Joint Cooperation Plan Of Action (JCPOA) - more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal - the Iranian regime might be looking to negotiate sanctions from a place of perceived strength. This strategy will look familiar to those who study North Korea’s tactics in negotiation. The continued intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear testing by North Korea has been a common method to influence the international community to trade tensions for sanction relief.
Even as tensions continue to rise between Iran and the U.S, it will still take a significant crisis or loss of U.S. life before war is likely. Anything less than this, will more likely result in minor retaliatory measures that send a deterrence message to the IRCG.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) Historical Analysis Team believes evaluating past incidents is an important tool for predicting future outcomes. CTG continues to monitor and record activities, archiving incidents and assessing significant threats to national security. CTG Teams are committed to tracking trends and assessing a variety of worldwide events, both historically and currently. To get more information about CTG’s services please contact us here.
1. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 50 Years Ago, A&E Television Network, August 2014 https://www.history.com/news/the-gulf-of-tonkin-incident-50-years-ago
2. What really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, Public Radio International, September 2017 https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-14/what-really-happened-gulf-tonkin-1964
3. New Tapes Indicate Johnson Doubted Attack in Tonkin Gulf, New York Times, November 2001 https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/06/us/new-tapes-indicate-johnson-doubted-attack-in-tonkin-gulf.html
4. Gulf of Oman tankers attacked, Cable News Network, June 2019 https://www.cnn.com/middleeast/live-news/gulf-of-oman-incident-latest-intl/index.html
5. President Donald Trump’s Official Twitter Account, June 21, 2019 https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1142055388965212161