Historical Thinking Matters: Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Practicum Reflection

Working through history instead of just reading secondary sources and thinking about it was truly rewarding and probably one of the most enjoyable things historians do.  This exercise was extremely helpful about thinking through the controversy over the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.  As the readings mentioned it is completely different when one is working with primary source documents rather than just reading the preinterpreted story line in a history textbook.  One realizes the complexity of history because one can see people have different perspectives and access to different information.  It was also fascinating to see how much primary source material is available online with almost instantaneous access .  This does support the notion that teachers should be using this type of learning style more because it is so much easier and quicker to get access to primary source material compared to the past.  I do realize that high school and undergraduate history teachers probably have a hard enough time teaching the basic events of history.  However, I do think this exercise is worthwhile.  In addition, an improvement I might make to this exercise is to have the students look for primary source material themselves instead of giving them a preset group of documents.  I found choosing the documents was one of the hardest parts of this exercise.  Students will definitely need to be skilled at not only analyzing documents but finding the most relevant sources if they advance in their history careers.


Historical Thinking Matters: Module

Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions passed on August 7, 1964 in response to naval battle between Vietnamese armed forces and the American Naval Shipp the USS Maddox on August 2-4. The attack on the USS Maddox gave President LBJ authorization to install regular forces in Vietnam escalating US involvement in the war. Who was to blame for these hostilities?

Document 1: Tonking Gulf Resolution

Joint Resolution

To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.

-Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and

-Whereas theses attacks are part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom; and

-Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protect their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these peoples should be left in peace to work out their own destinies in their own way: Now, therefore, be it

-Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Section 2 The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom

Section 3 this resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

Approved August 10, 1964 Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_Resolution , assessed 11-26-2012


  • What else was going on during this time period? How does this relate to the United States tension with Communist North Vietnam?
  • What is the date of this message compared to the Tonkin gulf incident? Is this enough time to fully understand the event?


  • Who made this document?
  • What is the motivation for creating this document?


  • Can you tell who the audience is for this message?
  • Does the references to the United Nations resolutions give you a clue


Document #2: Col Ralph Steakley, USAF; Chronology of Events Relating to DESOTO Patrol Incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin on 2 and 4 August 1964; 10 Aug 1964, Assessed 11-26-2012, http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/declass/gulf_of_tonkin/index.shtml









  • Source: Is this a reliable source?
  • Close reading: does this say that the North Vietnamese actually attacked the US ships on august 4?


Document #3 REDS DRIVEN OFF: Two Torpedo Vessels Believed Sunk in Gulf of Tonkin …By ARNOLD H. LUBASCH Special to The New York Times New York Times (1923-Current file); Aug 5, 1964;

NYT article

Chronology: What date was this story compared to the actual events?

Close Reading? What is the general tone of this article with words like “Red Driven Off”?


Document #4:



  • Who is questioning Robert McNamara’s chronology of events? What motivations might they have for attacking McNamra?
  • What setting is this dialogue taking place?


  • What year is this?
  • What is the signifigance of having a investigation years after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.



Based on the primary sources above, who do you think is responsible for the Tonkin Gulf incidents?  Are the events clearcut or are there ambiguity between the texts?  Is one group clearly totally to blame or does each side deserve at least some of the blame? What effect did these incidence have on other events including US involvement in the Vietnam War?  Do these have any impact on how the Tonkin Gulf Incidents were investigated and reported on?


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