30-year Anniversary:Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War
Beat (7/27/94)By Norman Solomon
Thirty years ago, it all seemed very clear.
"American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers;
Move Taken to Halt New Aggression", announced a Washington Post
headline on Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times
reported: "President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and 'certain supporting facilities in North
Vietnam' after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin."
But there was no "second attack"
by North Vietnam — no "renewed attacks against American destroyers." By reporting official claims as absolute truths,
American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies
passed on by pliant mass media...leading to over 50,000 American deaths and millions of Vietnamese casualties.
official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an "unprovoked attack" against a U.S. destroyer on "routine
patrol" in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 — and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a "deliberate attack" on
a pair of U.S. ships two days later.
The truth was very different.
Rather than being on a routine patrol Aug.
2, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers — in sync with coordinated
attacks on North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force.
"The day before, two attacks on North
Vietnam...had taken place," writes scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those assaults were "part of a campaign of increasing military
pressure on the North that the United States had been pursuing since early 1964."
On the night of Aug. 4, the Pentagon
proclaimed that a second attack by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred earlier that day in the Tonkin Gulf — a report
cited by President Johnson as he went on national TV that evening to announce a momentous escalation in the war: air strikes
against North Vietnam.
But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to "retaliate" for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never
Prior to the U.S. air strikes, top officials in Washington had reason to doubt that any Aug. 4 attack by
North Vietnam had occurred. Cables from the U.S. task force commander in the Tonkin Gulf, Captain John J. Herrick, referred
to "freak weather effects," "almost total darkness" and an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own propeller beat."
of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and then
Ross Perot's vice presidential candidate. "I had the best seat in the house to watch that event," recalled Stockdale a few
years ago, "and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there.... There was nothing
there but black water and American fire power."
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson commented: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting
at whales out there."
But Johnson's deceitful speech of Aug. 4, 1964, won accolades from editorial writers. The president,
proclaimed the New York Times, "went to the American people last night with the somber facts." The Los Angeles Times urged
Americans to "face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves
escalated the hostilities."
An exhaustive new book, The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam<
, begins with a dramatic account of the Tonkin Gulf incidents. In an interview, author Tom Wells told us that American media
"described the air strikes that Johnson launched in response as merely `tit for tat' — when in reality they reflected
plans the administration had already drawn up for gradually increasing its overt military pressure against the North."
such inaccurate news coverage? Wells points to the media's "almost exclusive reliance on U.S. government officials as sources
of information" — as well as "reluctance to question official pronouncements on 'national security issues.'"
Hallin's classic book The "Uncensored War"
observes that journalists had "a great deal of information available which contradicted the official account [of Tonkin Gulf
events]; it simply wasn't used. The day before the first incident, Hanoi had protested the attacks on its territory by Laotian
aircraft and South Vietnamese gunboats."
What's more, "It was generally known...that `covert' operations against North
Vietnam, carried out by South Vietnamese forces with U.S. support and direction, had been going on for some time."
the absence of independent journalism, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — the closest thing there ever was to a declaration
of war against North Vietnam — sailed through Congress on Aug. 7. (Two courageous senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and
Ernest Gruening of Alaska, provided the only "no" votes.) The resolution authorized the president "to take all necessary measures
to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."
The rest is tragic
Nearly three decades later, during the Gulf War, columnist Sydney Schanberg warned journalists not to forget
"our unquestioning chorus of agreeability when Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident."
blamed not only the press but also "the apparent amnesia of the wider American public."
And he added: "We Americans
are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth."
one of the most controversial
and debated incidents in US history. Events started in early 1960 when the communist
government in Vietnam
began to organize forces which threatened to overtake the US backed South Vietnam
. For several years the CIA
operations to monitor the activity of the communist
government. This quickly escalate
d in to a series of rather non covert skirmishes
fought along the shores and islands surround North and South Vietnam.
In January 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
took over the project which became known as OP 34 Alpha. More covert agent
s were sent to Vietnam, most of whom ended up MIA
(estimated over 500 men). McNamara also sent out several patrol vessels
which were fitted with equipment to intercept communication
s from North Vietnam.
On August 2, 1964, all of this came out into the open with a North Vietnamese attack on USS Maddox
(Destroyer Class, DD-731) commanded by Captain John J. Herrick
which was stationed about 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese believed this ship was in place for
the support of an attack against military
installations at Hon Me
and Hon Ngu
several days earlier. One Vietnamese patrol boat
was destroyed and several more were damaged and driven off by US support aircraft
. Records indicate that one machine gun
round hit the Maddox, causing almost no damage. This first attack was designated as an un-provoked attack by US Military
On August 4, 1964, USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy
returned to the area to resume patrols, a short 17 hours after raid
s of military installations at Cap Vinh Son
and Cua Ron
. Both ships reported a second attack
by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Maddox reported radar contact with several high speed patrol boats, and later reported
over 20 torpedo
attacks and automatic weapons fire. The area was filled with low clouds and thunderstorm
s, leading to very poor visibility. Crew members reported conflicting stories about what they heard and saw, and both US ships
received no damage.
An investigation was soon launched by Congress
to determine if an actual event took place. McNamara reported that there was definite proof of a second, un-provoked attack.
This led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
which was the closest thing to a Declaration of War
that would happen during the entire Vietnam War
. McNamara also claimed that the ships standing by were not supporting the raids, and the crew had no knowledge of military
actions in North Vietnam. He later admitted this was not true
, and that the crew of the Maddox were fully aware of the raids and were concerned for their welfare
in the event of a retaliation.
In 1972, Deputy Director of the NSA Louis Tordella
revealed that McNamara's proof of a second attack was a decoded message which contained North Vietnamese assessment
s of the damage from the first attack, not the second attack. In his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
, McNamara admits that the US may have provoked the second attack which ultimately began the war
, though he claims it was due to an innocent mistake in reading the decoded message, and not an intentional plan to pull North
Vietnam into a war. He claimed that he had never lied to Congress or the American people and that he acted in behalf
of what he felt was right. During a later visit to Vietnam, McNamara confirmed
that indeed, nothing had happened on the night of August 4 to his knowledge.
Later on at a conference in Washington
DC, Daniel Ellsberg
(former advisor to during the war) said:
"Did McNamara lie to Congress in 1964? I can answer that question. Yes, he
did lie, and I knew it at the time. I was working for John McNaughton
....I was his special assistant. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He knew McNamara
had lied. McNamara knew he had lied. He is still lying. (Former Secretary of State Dean) Rusk and McNamara testified to Congress...prior
to their vote....Congress was being lied into...what was to be used as a formal declaration of war. I knew that....I don't
look back on that situation with pride."
Ellsberg also revealed:
What I did not reveal in the Summer of 64...was
to manipulate the public into a war and to win an election
...which had the exact horrible consequences the founders of this country envisioned when they ruled out, they thought as
best they could, that an Executive Branch
could secretly decide the decisions of war and peace
, without public debate or vote of Congress....Senator Morse, one of the two people who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution
told me in 1971, '...had you given us all that information...seven years earlier, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would
never have gotten out of Committee
. And, if it had, it would never have passed....' But there was a time in my life later...knowing the consequences of all
these policies...when I did say to myself that I'm never going to lie again with the justification
that someone has told me I have to....I've never been sorry I've stopped doing that."
The exact occurrence of events
and motivations will probably never be know, but the effect was clear. McNamara summed it up:
"The fundamental issue
of Tonkin Gulf
involves not deception, but rather, misuse of power bestowed by the resolution
. The language of the resolution plainly granted the powers the President
subsequently used and Congress understood the breadth of those powers....But no doubt exists that Congress did not intend
to authorize, without further, full consultation, the expansion of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 16,000 to 550,000 men, initiating
large scale combat
operations with the risk of an expanded war with China
and the Soviet Union
, and extending U.S. involvement in Vietnam for many years to come."