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.

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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.

Bromley Smith



Whereas warships of the Communist regime in North Viet-Nam have committed a series of unprovoked armed attacks in international waters against naval units of the United States;

Whereas these attacks are a part of a continuous, deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression and subversion carried on against free nations, and particularly against the peoples of Southeast Asia, by the Communist regime in North Viet-Nam;

Whereas such Communist aggression and subversion constitutes a serious threat to international peace and security and is inconsistent with the purposes and principles of the United Nations;

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Whereas the Communist regime in North Viet-Nam has flouted its obligations under the Geneva Accords of 1954 and has engaged in aggression against the independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Viet-Nam by carrying out a systematic plan for the subversion of the Government of the Republic of Viet-Nam, by furnishing direction, training, personnel and arms for the conduct of guerrilla warfare within the Republic of Viet-Nam and by the ruthless use of terror against the peaceful population of that country;

Whereas in violation of its undertakings in the Geneva Agreements of 1962 the Communist regime in North Viet-Nam has engaged in aggression against the independence and territorial integrity of Laos by maintaining forces on Laotian territory, by the use of that territory for the infiltration of arms and equipment into the Republic of Viet-Nam, and by providing direction, men and equipment for persistent armed attacks against the Government of National Union of the Kingdom of Laos;

Whereas at the request of the Government of the Republic of Viet-Nam, the United States is assisting the people of that country to maintain their independence and political integrity with no territorial, military or political ambitions of its own, but solely to assure that the peoples of Southeast Asia will be left in peace by their neighbors to work out their 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 United States will not tolerate unprovoked and illegal armed attacks on its forces, that it will take such measures as may be necessary to prevent such attacks and otherwise to protect its forces and that the maintenance of international peace and security in Southeast Asia, including the preservation of the political independence and territorial integrity of the nations of Southeast Asia, is required by the national interest of the United States;

Sec. 2. To this end, the Congress supports the determination of the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States:

to respond instantly with the use of appropriate force to repel any unprovoked attack against the armed forces of the United States and to take such other steps as may be necessary to protect these forces and
upon request from any nation in Southeast Asia, to take, consistently with the Charter of the United Nations, all measures including the use of armed force to assist that nation in the defense of its political independence and territorial integrity against aggression or subversion.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Meetings, Vol. 3, Tab 20. Top Secret; Sensitive; For the President Only. Drafted by Bromley Smith.
  2. See Document 276.
  3. Not found.
  4. Not printed.
  5. See Document 286.
  6. Top Secret. There is no indication on the source text of the drafter.