278. Summary Notes of the 538th Meeting of the National Security Council1
Gulf of Tonkin Attack
Secretary McNamara: The North Vietnamese PT boats have continued their attacks on the two U.S. destroyers in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. No enemy aircraft was involved. Our efforts to learn the exact situation and protect the Patrol have been complicated by a very low ceiling. One of the two destroyers was fired on by automatic weapons and was lit up by search lights.
Secretary Rusk: An immediate and direct reaction by us is necessary. The unprovoked attack on the high seas is an act of war for all practical purposes. We have been trying to get a signal to Hanoi and Peking. Our response to this attack may be that signal. We are informing NATO, SEATO, and the UN. As an indication of Hanoi’s intentions, this second attack was a more serious decision for the North Vietnamese than the decision to make the first attack.
Secretary McNamara: We have agreed to air strikes on two bases in the north of North Vietnam and two base complexes in the south of North Vietnam. A fifth target has been deleted because it is close to Communist China. In addition, any North Vietnamese PT boats and Swatows found off Vietnam outside the three-mile limit will be attacked as part of an armed reconnaissance program. (The execute order as actually set is attached-JCS 7720.)2
CIA Director McCone: The proposed U.S. reprisals will result in a sharp North Vietnamese military reaction, but such actions would not represent a deliberate decision to provoke or accept a major escalation of the Vietnamese war. (The text of Mr. McCone’s estimate of probable North Vietnamese and Chinese Communist reactions to our reprisal is attached.)3
The President: Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?
Director McCone: No. The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their off-shore islands. They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations. The attack is a signal to us that the North Vietnamese have the will and determination to continue the war. They are raising the ante.[Page 612]
The President: Are we going to react to their shooting at our ships over 40 miles from their shores? If yes, we should do more than merely return the fire of the attacking ships. If this is so, then the question involves no more than the number of North Vietnamese targets to be attacked.
Secretary McNamara: Our intelligence officers report that a Chinese Communist air regiment is moving to North Vietnam.
USIA Director Rowan: Do we know for a fact that the North Vietnamese provocation took place? Can we nail down exactly what happened? We must be prepared to be accused of fabricating the incident.
Secretary McNamara: We will know definitely in the morning. As of now, only highly classified information nails down the incident. This information we cannot use and must rely on other reports we will be receiving.
Secretary Rusk: We should ask the Congressional leaders whether we should seek a Congressional resolution. (The draft resolution read by Secretary Rusk is attached.) This short and clear draft is similar to the Mid-East resolution.
Secretary McNamara: In addition to the air strikes, we plan to send major U.S. reinforcements into the area. These include ships, men and planes. (A detailed listing of these forces is attached.)4
A draft statement for the President was revised.5 It is to be made public by the President as soon as the U.S. attack planes are over target.