Did the U.S. provoke an attack from the North Vietnamese in the Tonkin Gulf back in 1964?
There are at least two different ways to answer this question.
In one sense, there is no doubt that the United States “provoked” the attack on the Maddox on August 2, 1964. This is clearly true if what we are asking is whether the US engaged in any actions that helped cause the attack to occur. Although the government claimed that the attack on the Maddox had been unprovoked and that the Maddox had not been doing anything aggressive, it turns out that was not true. The Maddox was supporting South Vietnamese gunboats which were attacking targets on the North Vietnamese coast. It was also gathering electronic intelligence. In this sense, the US clearly did provoke the attack in that one of its naval vessels was playing a part in an attack on North Vietnam.
On the other hand, the question of “did the US provoke the attack” seems to imply that the US might have wanted the attack to occur. For this, the evidence is much less clear. It is never possible to know what motives the navy might have had for sending the Maddox on that mission. It may well be true that the US government wanted an excuse to escalate the war since it felt the South Vietnamese were not fighting the war very well. However, there is not really any evidence to prove that the Maddox’s mission was specifically planned as a way to get the North Vietnamese to attack. One telling bit of evidence in this regard is that President Johnson did not ask for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution until after the second incident (the one involving the Turner Joy which may not actually have been an attack). It seems likely that if Johnson had deliberately provoked the attack, he would have made a big deal of it immediately and asked for the resolution right away.
We must look at North Vietnam's attack on the Maddox in the Gulf of Tokin in history's context to speculate on this question.
In this particular time period, North Vietnam was a communist country. They did not differ from any of the other communist countries that have existed throughout history in the fact that they were not content if they were not trying to broaden the scope of their jurisdiction. The U.S. was initially involved with Vietnamese affairs in their widely supported containment policy. This containment policy was not intended to spread democracy (as many neo-conservative interventionist policies do today) but rather to protect South Vietnam from the imminent threat that North Vietnam posed to them.
Obviously, North Vietnam was not a fan of the U.S. preventing them from spreading their communism to South Korea. While the Maddox was sailing on international-waters in 1964, they sunk it and greatly angered the U.S.
Perhaps North Vietnam felt that the U.S. suppressing the spread of their communism demanded a response. While the U.S. was certainly not trying to instigate a war, it can be said that they provoked North Vietnam's attack on their vessel. None the less, it can surely be said that the Gulf of Tokin incident was the catlyst which led to the U.S's greater involvement in their ultimately futile war efforts on South Vietnam's behalf in the Vietnam War--very similarly to how the German's sinking of the Lusitania was the catalyst for the U.S. joining World War I.