Fair.org | 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 â€” 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.
The 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 â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” 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 happened.
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.”
One 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 â€” 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’ â€” when in reality they reflected plans the administration had already drawn up for gradually increasing its overt military pressure against the North.”
Why such inaccurate news coverage? Wells points to the media’s “almost exclusive reliance on U.S. government officials as sources of information” â€” as well as “reluctance to question official pronouncements on ‘national security issues.'”
Daniel 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.”
In the absence of independent journalism, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution â€” the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war against North Vietnam â€” 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 history.
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.”
Schanberg 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.”
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Summary of the Tonkin Gulf Crisis of August 1964
by Edward J. Marolda, Senior Historian, Naval Historical Center
A clash between naval forces of the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) in August 1964 marked a significant turning point in the Cold War struggle for Southeast Asia. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, grew concerned in early 1964 that the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), America’s ally, was losing its fight against Communist Viet Cong guerrillas. The American leaders decided to put military pressure on Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese government in Hanoi, which directed and provided military support for the Communists in the South. Johnson, McNamara, and their advisors believed that naval forces could be used to help compel Ho Chi Minh to cease his support for the Viet Cong. The U.S. Navy armed the Republic of Vietnam Navy with Norwegian-built fast patrol boats (PTF), trained their Vietnamese crews, and maintained the vessels at Danang in northern South Vietnam. In covert operation 34A, which was designed and directed by American officials in Washington and Saigon, the PTFs bombarded radar stations on the coast of North Vietnam and landed South Vietnamese commandoes to destroy bridges and other military targets. Many of the missions, however, failed for lack of good intelligence about the enemy’s key military installations, defensive forces, and operating methods.
Consequently, Washington ordered the Navy to focus more attention on the coast of North Vietnam in its longstanding Desoto Patrol operation. The Desoto Patrol employed destroyers in intelligence-gathering missions outside the internationally recognized territorial waters and along the coasts of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. In early August of 1964, destroyer USS Maddox (DD 731), under the operational control of Captain John J. Herrick, USN, steamed along the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin gathering various types of intelligence. Shortly before, the South Vietnamese PTF force had bombarded targets further to the south of Maddox’s patrol area.
Fragments of the North Vietnamese machine gun bullet recovered from USS Maddox following the 2 August 1964 attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. (From the collection of the Curator Branch, Naval Historical Center)
North Vietnam’s leaders, who knew from their own intelligence sources about the American connection to Operation 34A, were determined not to bend to U.S. pressure. Hanoi directed its navy, which had not been able to catch the fast PTFs, to attack the slower American destroyer. On the afternoon of 2 August, the Communists dispatched three Soviet-built P-4 motor torpedo boats against Maddox. Torpedoes launched from the P-4s missed their mark. Only one round from enemy deck guns hit the destroyer; it lodged in the ship’s superstructure. The North Vietnamese naval vessels were not so fortunate. Shellfire from Maddox hit the attackers. Then F-8 Crusader jets dispatched from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA 14) strafed all three P-4s and left one boat dead in the water and on fire. The action over, Maddox steamed toward the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin and supporting naval forces. The President and his national security advisors were surprised that Ho Chi Minh had not only failed to buckle under U.S. military pressure but had reacted to it in such a bold way. Johnson, Admiral Ulysses S. G. Sharp, the commander of American military forces in the Pacific, and Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, decided that the United States could not retreat from this clear Communist challenge. They reinforced Maddox with destroyer USS Turner Joy (DD 951) and directed Captain Herrick to continue his intelligence-gathering mission off North Vietnam with the two naval vessels. On the night of 4 August, the warships reported making contact and then being attacked by several fast craft far out to sea. Officers in the naval chain of command and U.S. leaders in Washington were persuaded by interpretation of special intelligence and reports from the ships that North Vietnamese naval forces had attacked the two destroyers. More recent analysis of that data and additional information gathered on the 4 August episode now makes it clear that North Vietnamese naval forces did not attack Maddox and Turner Joy that night in the summer of 1964.
In response to the actual attack of 2 August and the suspected attack of 4 August, the President ordered Seventh Fleet carrier forces to launch retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. On 5 August, aircraft from carriers Ticonderoga and USS Constellation (CVA 64) destroyed an oil storage facility at Vinh and damaged or sank about 30 enemy naval vessels in port or along the coast. Of greater significance, on 7 August the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which enabled Johnson to employ military force as he saw fit against the Vietnamese Communists. In the first months of 1965, the President ordered the deployment to South Vietnam of major U.S. ground, air, and naval forces. Thus began a new phase in America’s long, costly Vietnam War.
Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident is the name given to two separate incidents involving naval forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the United States in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. On 2 August 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) engaged three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats, resulting in damage to the three boats. Two days later the Maddox (having been joined by the destroyer C. Turner Joy (DD-951) reported a second engagement with North Vietnamese vessels. This second report was later discovered to be in error. Together, these two incidents prompted the first large-scale involvement of U.S. armed forces in Southeast Asia.
The outcome of the incidents was the passage by Congress of the Southeast Asia Resolution (better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by “communist aggression,” including the commitment of U.S. forces without a declaration of war. The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for escalating American involvement in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
In 2005, an official NSA declassified report revealed that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese, but that there may not have been any North Vietnamese vessels present during the “engagement” of 4 August. The report stated
It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night. […] In truth, Hanoi’s navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on 2 August.