April 2, 2019

1964. Defense Secretary McNamara on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Bill Downs Reporting Live From the Pentagon

On August 6, 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held a press conference to discuss the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the US military action that followed. Bill Downs reported live from the Pentagon.
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 6, 1964

BILL DOWNS: The ABC Radio network brings you live from Washington, DC a news conference by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concerning the grave situation in Southeast Asia. This is Bill Downs reporting from the Pentagon.

It has been more than 36 hours since American carrier-based planes struck at Communist torpedo boat installations along the coast of North Vietnam in reprisal for the two Gulf of Tonkin attacks on US warships patrolling international waters there. Since then, there has been no further announcements of military action in the area, and some of the crisis atmosphere has been slacking off here at the Pentagon and also at the White House.

There have been charges and recrimination from the Communist propaganda broadcast stations in the Viet Cong capital of Hanoi and from Radio Beiping in Red China. The Soviet Union also has condemned the US reprisal action but in surprisingly mild manner.

Now here is Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

McNAMARA: I have four brief announcements to make, after which I'll endeavor to answer your questions.

First, there have been no further enemy attacks on our vessels operating in the Gulf of Tonkin since I spoke to you last night.

Secondly, the routine patrol of our destroyers operating in that gulf in the area shows on this map in between Hainan Island and the coast of North Vietnam has been resumed.

Thirdly, the preliminary analysis of the photo‐reconnaissance taken following our strikes yesterday tends to confirm the damage assessment which I reported to you yesterday morning. You recall that at that time I stated our aircraft striking the bases of the patrol boats at Hon Gai, Loc Chao, Phuc Loi, Quang Khe had destroyed or damaged approximately 25 of the torpedo boats.

That in addition our aircraft striking at the petroleum storage dump at Vinh in support of the patrol boats had destroyed 90 percent of that storage dump.

At Vinh is located about 10 percent of the petroleum storage capacity of North Vietnam. The additional information brought out by the photo‐reconnaissance analyses is that in addition we destroyed approximately seven of the antiaircraft installations at Vinh.

Now fourthly I've asked Admiral McDonald to award the Navy Unit Citation to the men of the ships and aircraft participating in the operation both in recognition of their bravery and also in recognition of the effectiveness of their operations.

Admiral McDonald has enthusiastically agreed with that recommendation and is taking steps to put it into effect.

And now I'll be happy to try to answer your questions. Yes?

Q. Mr. Secretary, does our government have any information from the North Vietnamese government through diplomatic channels about the possible prisoner?

A. No, we have not received any such information, but we're taking steps to endeavor to obtain his release, if he has been captured as has been alleged by them.

Q. Mr. Secretary, Radio Hanoi claims that North Vietnam shot down eight attacking US planes Wednesday and damaged three others.

A. I think this is typical of the veracity of their reports. We lost two aircraft, as I reported to you yesterday. One, an A‐4, which is a jet attack aircraft—naval aircraft—and the other an A‐1, which is a propeller driven naval aircraft, both operating off the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation. In addition, there was minor damage to two other aircraft, both of which have returned safely.


Q. Do you have any information over the last four days that would indicate the Chinese Communists made any military effort to assist or respond to assist the North Vietnamese to respond to our attacks?

A. No, I have no information that the Communist Chinese in any way assisted the North Vietnamese in their attacks on our vessels. I think it's probable that the Communist Chinese will introduce some combat aircraft into North Vietnam in support of them. As I told you before, North Vietnam does not possess any combat aircraft of its own.

Q. Mr. Secretary, you say you think it's highly probable. Does that mean that you already have an indication—

A. No. No, I have no indication of it, but I would think that that would be a likely response.

Q. Mr. Secretary, have you had any word one way or another that there has been a third incident of any kind as claimed by Radio Hanoi?

A. No, we have no indication of any third incident. There have been no attacks or hostile actions directed toward our vessels operating in the gulf. I explained to you yesterday that our routine patrol is functioning in this area, moving south.

We have two carriers—the Ticonderoga and the Constellation—in approximately this position. They in turn are escorted by destroyers. There have been no attacks or reported attacks nor attempted attacks at any of the vessels operating in that area.


Q. Have there been any incidents that you know of involving the South Vietnamese vessels and the North Vietnamese?

A. No, none that I know of, although I think that I should mention to you the South Vietnamese naval patrol activities that are carried on to prevent in the infiltration of men and materiel from the North into the South.

In the last seven months of 1961, for example, about 1,400 men were infiltrated across the 17th parallel from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. To prevent further infiltrations of that kind, the South Vietnamese with our assistance have set up a naval patrol which is very active in that area which continues to inspect and examine junks and their personnel. In one eight‐month period that I can recall they discovered 140 Viet Cong infiltrators.

Q. Mr. Secretary, there have been reports about considerable troop movements by US aircraft in South Vietnam to the 17th parallel. Could you give us an assessment about those?

A. We have, to the best of my knowledge, moved no South Vietnamese troops nor have we moved US troops into South Vietnam. We have, as I reported to you yesterday, moved interceptor aircraft into South Vietnam to be prepared for whatever eventuality develops.

We have in addition moved certain fighter aircraft into South Vietnam. We've moved certain fighter aircraft into Thailand. We've made reinforcements of our advance bases in the Pacific—reinforcements moved out of the United States for that purpose. We have moved certain fleet units.

I mention the attack carrier group moving from the First Fleet, which is homed in the Pacific waters off the Pacific coast out into the western Pacific.

We've also moved an antisubmarine warfare task group down into the South China Sea—this in order to provide proper protection to our carriers and destroyers operating in these waters, both in the gulf and in the waters south of Hainan Island.

Q. Mr. Secretary.

A. Yes?

Q. Could you tell us why you think that it's highly probable that the Chinese would move planes into North Vietnam?

A. As they have no combat aircraft of their own, I would assume that they would make such a request and that it would be answered.

Q. Mr. Secretary.

A. Yes?

Q. The Nationalist Chinese reported large troop movements in the mainland to the province of Yunnan. Is there any indication that there was a large-scale Communist—

A. We have no indication that there have been any substantial movements of Communist Chinese forces either land or air.

Q. In the months preceding this—

A. I'm speaking now of the recent past, the last few days. I know of no large movements of the kind you suggest for that matter during the past several months.

Q. Mr. Secretary, it has been some 48 hours now since that first attack. In studying the situation further, have you arrived at any answer to the mystery of why this was done?

A. No, I can offer no explanation. We've considered a number of alternative explanations, but it would be sheer speculation on my part to express them to you and I think it would be better not to do so.

Q. Mr. Secretary, you said that the South Vietnamese patrols which were inspecting junks were set up with United States assistance. Could you tell us what form that assistance took?

A. Yes. At the time we began the expanded program of assistance to South Vietnam in December of 1961, at which time we analyzed in some detail the extent of infiltration during the previous six months. It was on that basis that I reported to you the very extensive infiltration that took place then.

We concluded the best form of prevention would be the establishment of a junk patrol. To that end we provided the funds necessary to construct about 500 junks. These formed the four categories: command junks, which are motorized and carry a crew of about 10 men, are armed with automatic weapons, equipped with radios; motorized sailor junks, which are also armed which patrol the coasts; sailing junks which act as picket ships to carry out surveillance of particular areas, and motor junks without sails.

This force of some 500 junks was constructed in the shipyards of South Vietnam, equipped with engines in some cases supplied from this country and generally financed by the military assistance program of this country.

Q. They operate on their own?

A. They operate on their own. They are part of the South Vietnamese Navy, commanded by the South Vietnamese Navy, operating in the coastal waters inspecting suspicious incoming junks, seeking to deter and prevent the infiltration of both men and materiel from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.

Q. Mr. Secretary. Do these junks go north into North Vietnam areas?

A. They have advanced closer and closer to the 17th parallel and in some cases I think have moved beyond that in an effort to stop the infiltration closer to the point of origin.

Q. Do our naval vessels afford any cover for these operations?

A. Our naval vessels afford no cover whatsoever. Our naval personnel do not participate in the junk operations.

Q. Mr. Secretary. If the North Vietnamese are holding an American pilot, does it appear that it is Lieutenant Everett Alvarez?

A. There is some indication that if they hold one of our pilots, it is he.

Q. What are the indications that you have?

A. We believe that he bailed out of his aircraft. There was an indication from the automatic beeper attached to a parachute that he did so.

Q. What sort of status does a man like this have and what steps can be taken?

A. He's a captive of war and we would seek through mutual channels to obtain his release. Whether we're successful in doing so, I don't know, but we're bringing to bear every possible pressure to that end.

I have time for one more question, gentlemen.

Q. Mr. Secretary, you said these destroyer patrols had been resumed in the Gulf of Tonkin, broken off in—

A. It was broken off during the attack upon it in the darkness of the night before last and of course during the action of yesterday it was also broken off, but it has been resumed and will continue until completed some time later this week or early next.

Q. Mr. Secretary—

A. Thank you. One question.

Q. Are the reinforcements semi-permanent—in other words, would another additional incident in a week or two weeks, would these planes start coming down—

A. The reinforcements will stay in position as long as required.

DOWNS: The ABC radio network has brought you a news conference by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he answered Washington correspondents' questions concerning the crisis in Vietnam.

This is Bill Downs, ABC, the Pentagon.