Gulf of Tonkin – the debate continues

November 28, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

My current involvement in our Vietnam Voices project (see last week’s newsletter) has provoked discussions among some of my good friends about the incident cited most often as the spark for the American escalation of forces in that country in 1964 and 1965 — the attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin.

It was initially reported that there were two attacks on U.S. ships in the area, the first on the evening of August 2, 1964, and another two days later. These attacks were characterized at the time as unprovoked. The facts surrounding these incidents were obscure and were shrouded for more than 40 years by the government, but in 2005 and 2006 documents were declassified that shed a lot of light on the incidents. They do not paint a pretty picture of what President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told the American public, as opposed to what they knew to be true.

A 2008 article in Naval History journal by Lt. Cmdr. Pat Patterson lays out a more complete picture of what really happened during those fateful days:

Combined with recently declassified tapes of phone calls from White House officials involved with the events and previously uncovered facts about Tonkin, these documents provide compelling evidence about the subsequent decisions that led to the full commitment of U.S. armed forces to the Vietnam War. Source: The Truth About Tonkin | Naval History Magazine – February 2008 Volume 22, Number 1

All of the evidence is that the first attack, the one on August 2, occurred. The second one, that of August 4, did not. Yet Lyndon Johnson went on national television when the evidence was still murky at best and announced that two unprovoked attacks had occurred in the Tonkin Gulf and that he was ordering retaliatory strikes because of it.

He also asked Congress for an authorization to build up military forces in the area, and Congress quickly — and nearly unanimously — complied. It wasn’t a declaration of war, but it might as well have been.

Why was the U.S. so quick to respond and so forceful in that response?

Hindsight has provided us with an abundance of plausible reasons with legitimate evidence for many of them. To my mind, however, the overwhelming reason resides in one word: politics.

Lyndon Johnson was in the midst of an election campaign against Republican Barry Goldwater, who was pounding him daily about being “soft” on communism. Johnson needed to blunt that criticism — or thought he did. The Gulf of Tonkin incidents gave him the opportunity, and despite its lethal implications, he took it.

He was aided by Robert McNamara who manipulated the evidence to justify the action.

Now, 50 years later, we’re still debating the whole thing.

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