In 1971, nearly 50 years ago, The New York Times published a series of articles based on a study classified as “top secret” by the federal government. The study, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, commonly referred to as the Pentagon Papers, is a history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam 1945 to 1967. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned the Vietnam Study Task Force in June 1967 for the purpose of writing an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War.” He neglected to inform President Lyndon Johnson about the study.
On August 2, 1964, a U.S. Navy destroyer, the Maddox, was patrolling the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam when it reported being attacked by North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats; the Maddox fired shells and launched torpedoes in response. Two days later, on August 4, both the Maddox and the destroyer Turner Joy reported being under attack, again by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The U.S. Naval Communication Center in the Philippine questioned whether any second attack had actually occurred. In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese Naval vessels present August 4. The report stated, “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night. ... In truth, Hanoi’s navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of their boats damaged on August 2.” (In 1965, Johnson commented privately, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”)